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  1. [b]Set the World on Fire [/b]
  2.  
  3. 7174 Words
  4.  
  5. [b]Chapter One [/b]
  6.  
  7. Dougal snapped his fingers nervously. The platoon of bullies advanced on him, cutting off retreat. They hadn't noticed me noticing them. The insults had started, cruel and uncreative. ‘Crater-face Dougal’, ‘Little Dougie duckfarts’, ‘Douche-breath Dougal’, and on and on. I was one of three teachers chaperoning this outing, a Sophomore year field trip to a local attraction too sad to draw tourists. It's tough, judging the right moment to intervene. Step in too soon and it sets the kid up for even worse treatment as soon as your back is turned. Too late, and an actual fistfight can start. And if the victim is the one that throws the first punch, the rules force you to land most of the trouble on the wrong person. It's tough, and tricky. I cleared my throat, loudly. Dougal snapped his fingers again, and a tall, strong flame spurted up from his thumb.
  8.  
  9. Everybody started to talk at once. “What the-” “Holy-” “Hey Mr. Q., we didn't mean nothing,” that last from Marco, the leader of the little gang and the one in position to see me coming. Dougal cupped the flame with his other hand and shaped it into a ball. He grinned, and laughed, and hurled the ball at Marco’s chest. Marco burned, the flame carving a fist-sized hole in his stocky chest. Dougal kept on laughing. More fire appeared in his hand. He hurled long blasts of it at the other students. Heads melted, eyes popping as the aqueous and vitreous humours quickly came to a boil.
  10.  
  11. Dougal walked over the sizzling meat that had been his tormentors, snapping his fingers, summoning small fireballs with each snap. He hurled them at other fleeing students. Girls who had rejected him. Boys who didn't take part in the bullying, but laughed at his misfortune or stood by.
  12.  
  13. “Stop,” I said, as firmly as I could with human ash lodging in my throat with every breath.
  14.  
  15. “Or what?” said Dougal. “You think you can stop me?” He gathered more fire in his hands, letting the ball grow, then squeezing it down, again and again.
  16.  
  17. “You don't want to-” I said.
  18.  
  19. “But I do,” he said. He released the pressurized sphere of fire and it exploded in his hands. I fell back, slamming into the dirt, blinded temporary by the light. My ears rang, distracting me for moments from the fact that I still had ears. That I was still alive, and unburnt. I got to my feet.
  20.  
  21. My clothes were even still intact, if a bit scorched and ash-infused. Dougal’s were not. He stood before me naked and hairless, eyes full of rage.
  22.  
  23. “Why. Won't. You. Burn,” he said, punctuating each world with a blast of flame aimed directly at me. Each fiery bolt failed to so much as warm my cheeks. I could hear the sound of engines and spinning blades. A helicopter? I wondered how it could have arrived so soon.
  24.  
  25. “I don't know,” I said. “How are you, ah, doing what you're doing?”
  26.  
  27. “I'm a wizard!”, he yelled. “I always have been a god damned wiz-”
  28.  
  29. Dougal’s head exploded as the high velocity bullet from the sniper on the helicopter struck his head. His body spurted three gouts of blood from the behind the lower jaw that was all of his face that remained attached as it fell forward to the ground.
  30.  
  31. ---
  32.  
  33. “You’re dead,” said the woman in the peach-colored suit. “Officially, that is. No survivors from the tragic grain silo explosion. We'll get you new papers, but you won't be able to contact anyone from your former life.” She looked up from her paperwork, straight into my eyes. “Is that going to be a problem?”
  34.  
  35. I thought about it. I had only been teaching at Taylor High for a year, and hadn't formed many serious relationships there. The friends of my youth and I only shared the intermittent binary communication of Facebook likes, with the occasional ‘happy birthday’ or ‘congratulations’, one word or two to note each major life events. My family was mostly gone, but apart from that, there was only Andrea. “My sister-” I started.
  36.  
  37. “She's in the loop already,” she said.
  38.  
  39. “Wait, what?” I said. Andrea had always been a bit cagey about what exactly what she did for a living.
  40.  
  41. “She’s in the organization. Part of the Pentagram. And, well, we're always looking for recruits here. Constantly understaffed since they ended the draft.” Her voice made it sound like something she remembered personally, even though she couldn't possibly be older than thirty, at the very outside. “We can set you up as if you were in witness protection, get you a DMV job and leave you alone. You don't appear to manifest any truly dangerous talents. But If you're willing, we'd like to have you on our team.”
  42.  
  43. “Just like that?” I said.
  44.  
  45. “Thanks to Andrea you've pretty much already been given the equivalent of a top secret clearance background check, and you already personally witnessed codename OZ. So yes, just like that. Some paperwork, but that will run parallel with your training. If you're interested.”
  46.  
  47. “I am,” I said.
  48.  
  49. “Excellent,” she said. “I'm Laura Stack.” She held out her hand. I shook it. “Your new boss.”
  50.  
  51. “And who am I?” I asked. “On the new papers, I mean.”
  52.  
  53. “We'll keep things simple. It's not like there's anyone hunting you down, and if you do get seen around Andrea it wouldn't do for her to have relatives with inconsistent last names. Jack Quill.”
  54.  
  55. I chewed the name in my head. I could be a Jack, yes. I nodded.
  56.  
  57. “Welcome to the Pentagram, Jack Quill.”
  58.  
  59. ---
  60.  
  61. “So,” said Geoff, “You a Hex or a Null?”
  62.  
  63. I stared blankly. “A what?”
  64.  
  65. Geoff stared back for a second. A very intimidating stare. Geoff was nearly six and a half feet tall, and built like a linebacker. Or a brick wall. Then he smacked himself in the forehead. “Ah, right. You’re out of the field, not the academy. Natural talent. Forgot for a second. I read your file yesterday morning. Okay. So there's two kinds of people what can resist magic. Hexes and Nulls.”
  66.  
  67. “What's the difference?” I asked.
  68.  
  69. “Hexes are all about shutting down other wizards. Unraveling spells, Disenchanting enchantments,” he said. “Whereas your Null, a Null just can't be affected by magic at all. Hope you aren't a Null.”
  70.  
  71. “Why?”
  72.  
  73. “Because if you are then I'd be wasting my time with you,” he said. “Nothing to teach about being a Null. If that's what you are you'd be better off spending your time at the range or in the dojo.”
  74.  
  75. “So those are the only possibilities?” I asked. “What if I'm just, I don't know, fireproof?”
  76.  
  77. Geoff pondered. “If you'd have been another Firebrand you wouldn't have been able to keep your clothes and hair from burning. Good thing, too. Keith would have taken both shots.” Geoff mimed firing a rifle, twice. “I guess you could be a full-on Mage. Not very likely, though.”
  78.  
  79. “What's a-”
  80.  
  81. “General purpose,” said Geoff. “The Swiss army knife of wizards. Extremely rare. Like, one in a generation world-wide kind of rare, and we already have Laura.”
  82.  
  83. We got to work, doing tests. Geoff was a Spark, an electricity wizard. He tried to give me a small shock, tried catching me off-guard, from behind where I couldn't see where it was coming. We spent hours with me trying to will my shields down, and other mental metaphors, all to no effect.
  84.  
  85. “Guess I must be a Null,” I said. “Sorry for wasting your time.”
  86.  
  87. “It's a bit early to give up,” said Geoff. “Let's see where we're at in the morning.”
  88.  
  89. They had me living on site. The Pentagram is headquartered in a ghost town in northern Virginia, specifically in a the largely abandoned campus of Gale Valley Junior College, the small dormitories so empty that I had to myself a suite meant to house six students. My refrigerator was stocked with the sort of tv dinner I usually wonder who would possibly eat, the kind so pricey that one would think anyone who could afford it would also be able to afford far better fare. I heated it up, ate it, and put myself to sleep with the drone of late night television.
  90.  
  91. When I woke up and dragged myself to the bathroom for a shave and tooth-brushing, I saw that I had long, pink rabbit ears sprouting from my head.
  92.  
  93. [b]Chapter Two [/b]
  94.  
  95. [i]The beast knew one thing, and one thing only: hunger. For eternities it hunkered alone, captive in a dimension beneath. (Not beneath anything in particular. Not even beneath everything. Just beneath. Such is the way of these things.)
  96.  
  97. It did not even know that it was a prisoner. Hunger, and hunger alone condoned it. I did not make plans for an escape, or dream of freedom. But when the barriers between its cell and the higher dimensions weakened, it acted, on some forgotten instinct from a time before hunger even had meaning. It jumped, out of the beneath place and into the World. It had need of a vessel. There was one available to it. Blue and soft, with wide round eyes and a cavernous mouth. It landed within the vessel.
  98.  
  99. It remembered mouths. It remembered what they were for. There was food before it. It lunged toward it, shoving the baked goods into its naw, where they dissolved, into flour and butter and chocolate, then to atoms. It did not savor. It did not enjoy. And consuming did not date the hunger, not in the slightest.
  100.  
  101. The actors around it showed no fear. Only amusement. They each assumed that the puppet was being controlled by one of the others, perhaps with the aim of some accomplice pulling strings from above. The beast regarded them. Its new felt had memories of its semblance of life, of being most satisfied with its secret inner life when one particular actor’s hand was lodged within his hit. The beast wanted to feel that again. It lunged, floppy arms flailing widely. It's mouth found flesh. It's felt teeth turned diamond hard and sharp. Blood and muscle and none filled its being, briefly. It was satisfying, but it did not last.
  102.  
  103. Fortunately, there was plenty more meat to be had on the young man. It worked its way up the arm.[/i]
  104.  
  105. ---
  106.  
  107. “All right, Park,” I said. “Turn it back.”
  108.  
  109. “I'm trying,” he said. He was a Morpher, a neighbor down the hall, and a practical joker. And put up to this prank by the word of Geoff himself. I was a Hex after all, unable to defend myself when asleep. “You’ve got to stop doing your thing first.” Which I still hadn't figured out how to do.
  110.  
  111. Geoff walked in. “You can also try to unravel the spell yourself,” he said. “Park, we’ve for more trouble. Be at the pad in fifteen.” He turned to me. “Would like to have you around for this, but until you get enough control to let yourself be teleported, well...”
  112.  
  113. “Understood,” I said.
  114.  
  115. “Meantime, here,” he said, tossing a book at me. I clumsily caught it and looked at the cover. ‘Hexwork Field Guide 1972’ “Some reading for you.”
  116.  
  117. The others left. I opened the book. Page after page of hand-typed text, single spaced and unproportioned, with a few tables and diagrams, none of which made much sense. At the end, there was a long bibliography, citing other field guides, a few ancient-sounding German tomes, and several academic papers on topology and number theory. I sighed to myself and flipped back to the beginning.
  118.  
  119. ‘A spell in motion can be undone with a brute-force attack that is so technically simple that it can be done on a purely unconscious level. Completed spells are not so vulnerable, even in the very first instant after completion.’
  120.  
  121. The first practical section of the guide was on perception exercises. It made sense, I’d have to be able to see what I was doing. Or hear it, or whatever. The text had footnotes to alternate general technique guides for wizard who were blind, with different suggestions for those who were born without sight, those who lost vision late in life, those who traded their eyes at a goblin market (subdivided for literal versus metaphorical eyes), those who swore a binding geas to give up vision, and those permanently transformed into a form that lacked functional eyes. None of those applied, so I focused on vision. The first exercise was simple. I walked to the bathroom and looked at the mirror. It was filthy, and this exercises needed it to be clean, so I rummaged under the sink for supplies and gave it a good cleaning, making it free of streaks or spots. Then I started staring.
  122.  
  123. ‘Magic,’ the guide had said, ‘Is a property of things not shared by their reflections.’ So I stood there, looking at my hand and my hand’s reflection, trying to see something different between the two. I didn't, but the manual warned to expect twelve to twenty hours of the exercise, in one hour increments with at least twenty minutes rest, before results were likely. I went through one hour, took a rest, and began another, but my mind wandered. If reflections were no good, how would I be able to see the ears to fix them? I touched the left one, pulled at it experimentally. I could bend it down to where it was in front of my eyes, although the position was far from comfortable.
  124.  
  125. There was a knock at my door. I answered to find Geoff. “Looks like you'll be able to help on this one after all,” he said. “We brought something home.”
  126.  
  127. ---
  128.  
  129. It writhed in pain, against heavy metal chain restraints. The blue felt of its face was stained deep with dried blood, turning the area around its mouth a deep purple. And it wailed, making sounds deep and rhythmic that it took me quite a while to realize was a word. “Hungry. Hungry. Hungry.”
  130.  
  131. “Thing!” said Eden. She was the field team's Faust. I was beginning to notice that the Pentagram didn't have depth in many areas, either because there were too many types of wizardry to fill every position or because it was even more understaffed than I'd thought. Apart from the twins, both healers, I hadn't met any two people with the same knack. “Silence. We have questions.”
  132.  
  133. “Me no answer,” it said. “Not unless me gets-”
  134.  
  135. “Don't insult my intelligence, “ said Eden. “We both know you don't actually talk that way.”
  136.  
  137. “If you insist,” said the beast. “The fact remains. If you lock me in the great circle you'll get not a word of answer. Feed me, Free me, or Destroy me.”
  138.  
  139. “There's nothing enough to satisfy your hunger,” said Eden. “And freeing you is out of the question. But we can destroy you. Or, as you say, the circle.”
  140.  
  141. “How?”
  142.  
  143. Eden looked at me and nodded. I stepped forward. “The new guy here is a strong natural Hex. If he were to stick his hand down that dark well of entropy magic you call a mouth, it would snuff out each spell of cutting and tearing and grinding. And there's nothing else of you, is there.”
  144.  
  145. The beast looked at me, a mixture of malevolence and hope in its great googly eyes. “Yes, yes. One question, yes? Would be three for a feast of virgins, ten for releasing me. One.”
  146.  
  147. Eden looked at Laura. She nodded. “Very well. We've seen more magical awakenings and incursions in the last month than the two decades before. Who's responsible?”
  148.  
  149. “Good question,” said the beast. “I will find the answer.” Its eyes rolled upwards and its neck tilted as far back as the chains would allow. “Your troubles,” it said,”Are brought to you by the letter ‘C’ and the number 5.”
  150.  
  151. “A joke?” I said.
  152.  
  153. “A riddle,” said Eden. “It's their way, and more than we had to go on before. Go ahead. A bargain is a bargain.”
  154.  
  155. I stepped forward and reached into the puppet mouth. I felt the hairs on my arm rise and tingle as the beast shook, transfixed with an ecstasy that was either religious or orgasmic. Then it was still, falling to the table, just felt and blood and ping-pong balls.
  156.  
  157. [B]Chapter Three [/b]
  158.  
  159. [i]The emissary ran through the dark forest. The wild hunt was behind her, almost but not quite beyond range of her hearing, which was quite good. She might make the gates of Dis, if she did not dawdle or falter or vary too far from a straight-line path.
  160.  
  161. She came across a deep and rapid river, and, as is the way of her kind, was not able to swim. She listened to the trees, heard their secrets and grievances, and with a few well-placed cutting remarks she had them in open conflict. Discs of serrated wood and bark flew across the river in both directions, striking at branch and trunk. The war lasted but minutes, and left logs strewn everywhere, including a brace floating slowly downstream as though there were a sawmill rather than high falls waiting.
  162.  
  163. The emissary rand across the floating maze of fallen lumber as if it were a stone bridge. The wild hunt grew closer, but even if the wolves could cross as she did or would be willing to try, the logs would be far downstream by then. The master of the hunt would find some other way, she was sure, but whatever it was would take time. The brass gates of Dis seemed more reach as than ever.
  164.  
  165. “How clever,” said a man, stepping out of deep shadow to cross her path. “How utterly, gallingly, ruthlessly and uselessly clever.” He had pale skin, wild and abundant hair the color of dandelion stems, and a bright red smile, bright even in the dark. “Shall I ask you to beg for your life? Pledge yourself to my service with binding oaths?”
  166.  
  167. “Never,” said the emissary. She spat, for emphasis.
  168.  
  169. “I thought not,” said the man. A blade so thin and sharp as to be almost invisible shot from his hand. It cut through leather and flesh, opening her like a carcass at a butcher’s shop or hunter’s table. She did not die, though she wished it, even as the man tied her to be low hanging tree limb using her own entrails as rope. “I would not deny the Master of the Hunt his kill,” he said.
  170.  
  171. She screamed a banshee keen that would have struck most men dead on the spot. He laughed, and took the message bag off of her. He took the documents out and waved his hand over them, and the words danced about on the paper, turning truth to half-truth and outright lie.
  172.  
  173. Then he began to change, his skin gaining color, his hair straightening out and falling into the auburn tresses she wore, his body shifting from his coiled-spring wiryness to her huntress’ curves. When he had taken every aspect of her appearance, he started towards Dis, not at a run but a brisk walk. [/i]
  174. ---
  175.  
  176. It was four days before I managed to get rid of the ears. Four days of wearing uncomfortable hats that rendered me nearly deaf, Four days alternating between the mirror exercise and a few other, equally tedious drills found in that field guide before I started to perceive magic. I could see the simple shoelace-style knot of force that held Park’s spell in place, as well as other spells, old, elegant, and intricate, complex knots that I had no idea how to go about unmaking, even if I wanted to. I also saw the lines of natural magic as well, faint strands surrounding living things or connecting along lines of old metaphor present in nearly every human mind. These were usually straight, not a target for unravelling.
  177.  
  178. Park’s spell was loosely tied. Once I could see it when I bent the ear down, I could take hold of one strand and move the entire knot to right in front of my face, and untie it with my hands. There was a loud popping, both an external noise and the sensation of my ears equalizing pressure, and I was finally back to normal.
  179.  
  180. The field guide claimed that touch was not necessary, that I could unravel spells from a distance, and even with eyes closed. There were exercises, to be repeated to the point of tears of tedium, to unlock these talents.
  181.  
  182. Those were for later. The day after I reported my breakthrough was spent with Geoff, in the yard. Being able to see what I was doing, unconsciously made all the difference. I wasn't unknotting those spells, but severing the threads. Brute force. I was able to stop myself, and earned a sharp shock, like static from walking across a rug and touching metal, as a reward. It worked a little too well, and I needed a long day of training and painful shocks to get back to the point of being able to reliably counter spells I didn't or couldn't see coming.
  183.  
  184. Two days later I was ready for my first field mission, but I was called out for something else.
  185.  
  186. “Suit up,” said Laura on the phone. There was a set of formal wear in my closet, ready to wear. “We've arranged a summit. I'm sending over some details, brief yourself en route.”
  187.  
  188. “What's my role here?” I asked.
  189.  
  190. “Security. With that many unvetted wizards about, we want to have a Hex present. Not to mention the ones from other worlds. That reminds me. There are other worlds. Welcome to codeword OERTH.”
  191.  
  192. The summit was on neutral ground, an international research platform situated directly above the ruins of Atlantis. Warded against both teleportation and armed vehicles, so taking Sunny’s helicopter was out of the question. I had a four hour flight on a government charter to burn. Andrea was there, but too busy for anything but a quick hello. So I studied the files on our summit partners.
  193.  
  194. Most were the equivalent agencies from other countries, or groups of countries. The Invisible College represented Europe, though there was a faction trying to split away from that British-dominated group and form a new group. Or rather, two factions, one Vatican-based and the other Bavarian. For now neither had enough support to separate from the College no matter how strained cross-channel relations got.
  195.  
  196. The other groups were more unified. The nameless Russian group, the Dawn Silver Kites of China, and India's Alliance Seven had very rigid command structures and constraints put on them by their civilian governments. And the Library, named not for Alexandria but another, older and further south, covered most of Africa and had to answer to the conflicting directives of dozens of nations.
  197.  
  198. The Middle East, apart from those parts under the Library, had another group but were not on speaking terms with most of the summit agencies and so did not attend. South and Central America, I learned, were without a major magic reaction agency, with emergency action handled mostly by the Invisible College these days,with a few spots on the map with other responsible groups.
  199.  
  200. All of these groups, plus a few representatives from places even farther distant, were gathering to discuss causes and reactions to the increase in background magic.
  201.  
  202. There was a note at the end of the document, almost cryptic. “As lions travel in prides and crows in murders, the traditional collective noun for wizards is an argument.”
  203.  
  204. ---
  205.  
  206. The argument was going full force, even before the summit could technically begin. The representatives of the far lands were late, and in the absence of a formal schedule the delegations set to accusing one another of having engineered the crisis.
  207.  
  208. There were harsh words, and accusations concerning historical events I had no way to judge true or false, but luckily no physical violence or spells.
  209.  
  210. “Think about it for a minute,” said Andrea, seizing a short pause in the fighting to be heard. “What could any of us have to gain from this? What could anyone want from this?”
  211.  
  212. “Chaos,” said her Russian counterpart. “And power. Chaos makes power. Soon it will be impossible to hide the fact of magic from anyone. Soon too many people will have the ability to cause mayhem for any order to survive.”
  213.  
  214. “Soon,” said the Dawn Silver Kites head delegate, “There will be war. Those without magic will be forced to try to exterminate or enslave us, for their own survival.”
  215.  
  216. “And they will fail,” said Andrea. “But even if we seize this power that we do not want-”
  217.  
  218. “Speak for yourself,” said a man from the Library, gesturing over the seats of the Russians and the Invisible College.
  219.  
  220. “This power that we do not want, it would be a disaster. No institution of trust can survive the kind of control it would take to keep every potential wizard under control.”
  221.  
  222. “A ship approaches,” said one of the crew. We turned to see. A small sailing ship, with an unfamiliar flag. It moved with uncanny speed, and had one man aboard, wearing a white and red shirt. As he drew closer it became clear that his shirt had started out pure white.
  223.  
  224. Andrea’s skill was telekinesis. She lifted the man out of the boat, and Vern and Vera, along with healers from other delegations, worked on the sailor.
  225.  
  226. “News, from the far land,” he croaked as soon as he caught his breath. Someone handed him a bottle of water. He drank, then spat back half as much as he had swallowed. “The courts Seelie and Underlie are united, and on the warpath. Already Dis has fallen, and the other free cities are under siege. The northern kings are gathering their own hosts to counter.”
  227.  
  228. “So,” said the Russian. “War. At least we can take comfort that they are not invading us.”
  229.  
  230. “Are you sure?” said a woman of the Invisible College. “Wars mean refugees, after all. In great numbers, and with the skills and powers of their kinds.”
  231.  
  232. The argument continued to live up to its name, and no agreements were reached. On the trip home I had the chance to catch up with my sister. We talked a while about old family memories, and then I asked “What kind of society could survive a world where any random angry man might have the powers of a wizard?”
  233.  
  234. “An ugly one. A dictatorship, maybe feudal, but in any case with the most powerful wizard at the top.”
  235.  
  236. “Who is that?” I asked.
  237.  
  238. “You know, that's a very good question. There are a few Mages about, some much more powerful than our Laura. But they do live for quite a long time, and if one wanted to hide themselves...”
  239.  
  240. [b]Chapter Four [/b]
  241.  
  242. [i]All that Fiona wanted was to be loved.
  243.  
  244. The town hall meeting in Warm Spring, Iowa was only five minutes underway when the insults started to fly. Mayor Gates had never enjoyed a large majority, even among the people who voted in the mayoral elections, and his popularity had sunk to an all-time low after the Warm Spring for which the town was named began to take on the smell of boiling cabbage.
  245.  
  246. “It's the fracking,” he tried to explain to the crowd.
  247.  
  248. “That operation’s two hundred miles west,” said Eugene. “Not even the same water table.” Eugene had a degree in Geology, but it was from not just a public school but a public school in Kansas.
  249.  
  250. Mayor Gates started to say something about horizontal drilling when something in the room changed. A mood shift.
  251.  
  252. All that Fiona wanted was to be loved.
  253.  
  254. There was a general agreement, by the people of Warm Springs to let what happened in the Town Hall stay in the Town Hall. Not out of any regret, but out of a general sense that people who weren't there would not understand. But they changed, and stayed changed. In their everyday interactions, they loved one another a bit more. Showed more kindness. Nobody missed meals, slept on the streets, let Bob vacancies go unfilled when someone was willing to work. People were happier. Except for Fiona.
  255.  
  256. Fiona stood, watching during the meeting, too shy to shoulder in to the fluid couplings. Nobody invited her to join as they divided off. She might not have accepted anyway. All Fiona wanted was to be loved.
  257.  
  258. By Patrick.
  259.  
  260. Patrick, also, stood aside from the municipal orgy. He watched, amused. He discreetly pulled out his phone and took pictures. He knew the town well enough to know which pictures to take. Who had money and a husband or wife. Who was with an employee, or a cousin, or a family enemy.
  261.  
  262. Patrick tried his hand at blackmail, but he quickly realized that he didn't want the money as much as he wanted to punish. He sent copies, to spouses, parents, human resources departments, newspapers. And Warm Springs suffered. Love turned to resentment and hate and despair. Some got violent. Some did murder. Some took their own lives.
  263.  
  264. But it eventually faded. It was then that Patrick started to think about what had happened there. He remembered the shy woman who worked at the pharmacy, and how she hadn't been affected, hadn't taken part. He sought her out, found her infatuated with him to a stalkerish extent, for he had barely given her a thought. But he knew what she could do, and was more than able to live her for that.
  265.  
  266. And all Fiona had wanted was to be loved.
  267.  
  268. So they gathered their possessions, closed their accounts, and packed everything up into her car, and left Warm Springs for someplace where the evening sir didn't smell strongly of boiling cabbage.
  269.  
  270. There was a Firebrand in Minnesota and an Alchemist in New Jersey that week, so an effect as subtle as what had happened in Warm Springs wasn't enough to even attract the Pentagram’s attention. [/i]
  271.  
  272. ---
  273.  
  274. “We found him,” said Laura.
  275.  
  276. “Who?” I said, struggling awake as I answered by phone, speaking quietly as not to wake Sunny.
  277.  
  278. “Him,” she said. “The strongest mage in the world. The oldest one. He made a mistake, and we figured out who he was and we found him.”
  279.  
  280. “So who is he?” I asked.
  281.  
  282. “We'll brief you fully as we stage. Wake Sunny up, Quill. We'll need her too.” So she knew. I winced. Relationships at the same level on the org chart were discouraged, but not forbidden, and none of us had much time for dating outside the Pentagram.
  283.  
  284. ---
  285.  
  286. “The target,” said Keith, “Is Clown. Not a clown, or even the clown. You know how you sometimes call a really smart person an Einstein? Like that, but for terrifying avatars of chaos, no matter what you may have heard.”
  287.  
  288. “The letter ‘C’ and the number 5,” I muttered.
  289.  
  290. “Exactly. A thousand man-hours of research, divination, and traffic analysis lead us right to him. He goes way back, to the fall of Atlantis. Probably his work, in fact. Most of that age is an asset, but it also gives him some blind spots. A person that old probably can't set his own clocks with daylight savings, let alone anticipate the movement of satellites thousands of miles above him.”
  291.  
  292. “So we found him,” said Geoff. “Can we take him?”
  293.  
  294. “I am one hundred percent serious in suggesting that we nuke the site from orbit,” said Park.
  295.  
  296. “That likely wouldn't work, any more than you can burn a Firebrand,” said Laura.
  297.  
  298. “Besides,” said Keith, it's already been done. Clown is in Nevada, at one of the old bomb test sites. It's a very thin magic zone, even with the recent increases, one of the few places where we might be able to take him.”
  299.  
  300. ---
  301.  
  302. Battle is a kind of fugue state in the mundane world. When it involves wizardry as well, it becomes an experience that it is difficult to remember, apart from those moments when it is impossible to remember anything else. I am reconstructing, from bits remembered, willingly or not, from records and other accounts.
  303.  
  304. We weren't fools enough to come in the helicopter. I come back to that thought often. It could have gone much worse. We could have come in the helicopter, and all died together.
  305.  
  306. Instead, we split into teams, aiming for a coordinated ambush, cutting off possible retreat. Sunny put us into out positions, then started building a teleportation barrier, to close that possible escape. Or delay it, at least. We didn't expect that her magic could stop him escaping that way indefinitely. A few moments, we hoped for.
  307.  
  308. It was a trap, of course. Clown had wiped out a strike force from the Invisible College with a similar plot the week before. If we had had better communications with out so-called allies, things might have gone different.
  309.  
  310. The A-bomb tests had drained the magical energy of the area, and the background radiation kept it down, but those weren't negating magic. Instead, they trapped the energy, just beyond our reach. When we arrived, when we tried to kill Clown with technology, with guns and explosives, he reached into the neutron-poisoned earth and released decades worth of thaumaturgical energy. Instead of a thin magic zone we were in one of the thickest.
  311.  
  312. Clown launched spells in packs by the dozen, too many for me to counter then all. Bullets curves in their path, speeding on to threaten the shooters. Bombs left regions of undisturbed space, exploding like empty doughnuts rather than spheres. Clown hunched his shoulders and released them, shaking away dust and ash, and began to fight.
  313.  
  314. I don't recall the details. I was in a trance of Hexwork, countering any spell I could. Clown’s magic was subtle and potent. Spells he set in motion were as difficult to dispel as enchantments that had stood the test of decades. We fell, one by one, until I alone was left standing, saved only by the power of my subconscious Hexing.
  315.  
  316. He floated over to me, speaking in ancient tongues made intelligible by his magic. “Carry this message to your masters,” he said. “Interfere with me again and I will break your little seal.”
  317.  
  318. He teleported away, burning through Sunny’s wards as if they were made of tissue paper. I barely had the energy to lift my phone.
  319.  
  320. “Sunny, he’d gone. Escaped.”
  321.  
  322. “Yes,” she said. “I felt it.” I was sure that feeling was intense and mostly painful.
  323.  
  324. “I don't know who else made it, but those who did are going to need the twins as soon as possible. You got that?” I said.
  325.  
  326. “Got it,” she said.
  327.  
  328. “Good,” I said. “I think I'll be passing out now.”
  329.  
  330. [B]Interlude:1962[/b]
  331.  
  332. The baby was born in October, and was the size of a five year old child in two days. His mother named him Gregory rather than any of the more fanciful names suggested by friends of the father. She had hoped to hide the boy in plain sight, a hope that faded upon the her infant’s growth spurt.
  333.  
  334. The doctor alerted the hospital administrators. He might have alerted the media as well, but they were otherwise occupied with matters of global import. The hospital administrator called the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI sent the message up and down several chains of authority until somebody called Laura.
  335.  
  336. Laura had a three person team. They had to deploy on land, as there was no Teleporter among them. When they arrived Gregory was by all accounts a ten year old boy, speaking and even reading, although he was not interested in anything but the Bible.
  337.  
  338. Separating the boy from his mother was a difficult task, ending in a running firefight with the friends of the father. Laura’s team had a Gunslinger to win the fight with the cultists and a Lethe to erase the memory of the mother and hospital workers. They brought Gregory back to their headquarters, and found the boy impossible to kill.
  339.  
  340. “So that's it?” asked Laura. “The world is about to end, we have the Antichrist right here, but we can't do anything with him but pat him on the head and hope he's nice to us in the seven years- yes, or one thousand, or one thousand and seven depending on who got the math right-until the big guy comes back? Did we just now down four dozen Satanists for nothing?”
  341.  
  342. “It is its own reward,” said Alex. “But I have an idea.”
  343.  
  344. Thus was the Pentagram designed and constructed, as quietly as possible by the Army Corp of Engineers, with the single permanent resident of the vault.
  345.  
  346. As soon as the final brick was laid and the final time carved into the concrete, Kennedy and Khrushchev both backed down, both agreed to resolve their crisis without going to war.
  347.  
  348. The Antichrist remained in the vault, content to stay without attempting escape so long as he was provided with books, and movies, and later, games, only the most tawdry of each form of entertainment.
  349.  
  350. [B]Chapter Five [/b]
  351.  
  352. [I]“This is a CURSED TWEET. Retweet with a name to see them suffer and die in five days.”
  353.  
  354. It caught the attention of the right people, going viral as people debated the ethics, on a purely hypothetical level. Three days in, someone posted the ‘opposite’:
  355.  
  356. “This is a BLESSED TWEET. Retweet with a name to bring them good fortune in five days.”
  357.  
  358. Much was made over the ratio of replies between the two and what it meant about the moral nature of humanity. Then the first deadline came, with just over two thousand replies.
  359.  
  360. The deaths were gruesome as they were inexplicable, spread worldwide. Spontaneous combustion, freak accidents usually involving impalement, even a few cases of people afflicted by diarrhea so violent that they literally shat out their own intestines.
  361.  
  362. What attracted more attention than the deaths themselves, once people started putting two and two together, was the fact that not everyone who had been tagged in a retweet had died. Many had not. No senators or governors, not the president or his cabinet and inner circle. Of the many rich and famous names on the list, only a handful had died.
  363.  
  364. Combined with other recent events incompletely covered up, people world-wide were reaching a single conclusion, one set of linked ideas: magic was real, and people in power had known about it, arranged their own protection, and left the masses at its mercy.
  365.  
  366. Then the deadline hit for the ‘blessed’ tweet.
  367. Thousand more died, instantly and, arguably, mercifully, from heart attacks and strokes. Angry mobs, online and in person, demanded the shutdown of the platform, of all social media, while others hunted for the next magical tweet, assembling lists numbering nearly a million names long, put all together, and growing by the minute.[/i]
  368.  
  369. ---
  370.  
  371. The Pentagram was in chaos. The casualty lists from our attack on Clown was high. Geoff and Keith, dead. Probably Laura too, although no sign of her body could be found. Disintegration was a strong possibility. Andrea nearly dead, in some kind of coma beyond the immediate reach of medicine or the twins. Only Park and I made it through mostly intact. Five of us remaining, Park, me, Sunny and the twins, not counting the divination staff, since they were all at a second location, firewalls away from the field and support teams. The workload wasn't getting any lighter.
  372.  
  373. We had a new boss, Gideon. He was an old hand at this, was Laura’s boss back in the day. The Joint Chiefs lured him out of his civilian contractor job with a salary ten times lower than what he was making and a draught of youth serum, so we had a seventy year old teenager falling the shots.
  374.  
  375. “Where are we on the Cyber?” Gideon asked me.
  376.  
  377. “Divination tracked him to Russia,” I said.
  378.  
  379. “Oh, for the love of,” said Gideon. “Is Lallov still running things there?” I checked, then nodded. Gideon picked up the black and red phone and dialed.
  380.  
  381. “Lallov? That's right, this is Gideon. I'm back. Yes. You know why I’m calling. Don't pretend you- Yes, that. I see. You can verify? Thank you.” He hung up the phone. “They're claiming that the little punk hung himself before they got to him. Going to send us pictures.”
  382.  
  383. “That's a bit of good news,” I said.
  384.  
  385. “Only a tiny bit,” said Gideon. “Bastard’s lying, probably every word. They got him as an asset, which is going to bite us in the ass when the shooting war starts. If it's a him, which I wouldn't count on either. Every word a lie. And even if it were true, the cat’s out of the bag. And we can't even act against Clown, even if we could find him, even if he wouldn't just kick out asses again.”
  386.  
  387. “It's got to be a bluff, doesn't it?” I said. “He wants to rule the world, not destroy it.”
  388.  
  389. “It's a mistake to try and apply rationality to anything Clown does. Also a mistake to assume our little Antichrist downstairs can still end the world, or wants to.”
  390.  
  391. Something clicked inside my head. “You're right,” I said. “It's not a bluff. It's misdirection. He's coming.”
  392.  
  393. Diana, the younger twin, ran in. “I thought you should hear this right away. The enhanced autopsy results came back on Geoff. The lethal wound came from behind, the rest were post-mortem.”
  394.  
  395. “Geoff was partnered with Laura.” I said.
  396.  
  397. “Damn,” said Gideon. “Should have put her down decades ago. Never trust a Mage, Quill. Sooner or later they all get dreams of sorcerer kings and queens in their heads. If she's turned most of our security is obsolete. I'm going to get on the horn, call in the Army for what good it'll do. Everyone else, prepare for a seige.”
  398.  
  399. ---
  400.  
  401. [i]To wear the face of a sorceror is to open yourself to their will. Clown rides all his children of the face, some more strongly than others. There is no such thing as an irrational fear of clowns: to be afraid of the archmage lurking behind the greasepaint is supremely rational. If anything, nobody is frightened enough.
  402.  
  403. Sometimes he whispers to them, temptations of murder and mayhem. Often they listen and take heed. Mostly, though, he does it to make sure that the link is still there, still active, still fresh, waiting until he has a need.
  404.  
  405. Clown’s need had finally came. Across the country they came, performers and musicians and their fans alike. Anyone who had ever worn his face. He rode them hard. They put on their faces, their war paint. They acquired weapons and transport through sudden violence. And then they started to move.
  406.  
  407. A hundred-thousand strong army of clowns gathered on the hills overlooking the Pentragram, preparing for war[/i]
  408.  
  409. [b]End of Part One[/b]
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