And the things that we fear are a weapon to be held against us.
— Ian Rush
Fifteen minutes can turn your entire world upside down. You get this on good authority.
I made this trip just to see what Agency informant, Father Nosceti wanted to tell me about the recent threat levied by the Night Train. The very fact he asked for me made me suspect he was involved.
Instead I found myself in a life and death struggle against an old vampiric enemy trying to finish something he started fifteen years ago. The situation escalated out of control. Names were called, geases were made, apologies were not.
After I got the vampire incident under some measure of control, the illusion was shattered by hearing a new sound followed immediately by screaming, gunfire and weirdly echoing car alarms whose wails were distorted by a dense and supernatural fog.
Now you know everything I know. Feel informed? Nope? Good, then we are all in agreement…
Ten seconds ago, there was the sound like a bomb had just been dropped in front of the church.
“What the hell was that?”
Nosceti waved and his guards split up, two went into the inner office and the other two took up station next to him. “Follow me. We’re leaving through the back.”
Given the screams I heard downstairs, intermixed with a liberal amount of machine gun fire, this seemed like a sound strategy. Manny was getting his color and I helped him to his feet.
Albrecht peeled off the scraps of what was left of his shirt and put on his jacket over his pale marbled flesh. His arteries and veins showed through his opalescent skin and he pulsed with infernal power. Power stolen from my friend.
“How many men did you have stationed downstairs?”
“You didn’t Look?, Nosceti’s answer was tinted with sarcasm.
“I was trying to be polite.” I replied. Manny stood up, nodded and I let him go.
“There were at least fifteen.” Nosceti followed his men and Albrecht brought up the rear behind Manny. I took point because I figured Manny would still be pulling himself together. He would be safest between Albrecht and I.
“Were these your best men?” Albrecht whispered as we descended a stairwell heading toward the rear of the church.
“Some of them, why do you ask?”
“Because there are a fewer of them now than there were ten minutes ago.” The vampire’s comment was dry as if he were giving a weather report.
We picked up our pace as we descended into an underground tunnel.
“Do you plan to tell me what this is all about? The short version that gets me information before I get killed by a ravaging horror.”
“I worked for some people who had it in their mind to use the Night Train as a means of smuggling… items along its route. So they inserted some people undercover in an effort to infiltrate the Train and try to become a member of the Riders, the permanent members of the Train’s staff.”
“None of them came back, did they?” I already knew this story. The Agency had tried it too. Anyone who was inserted with the goal of becoming a Rider never returned. Their memories were wiped and they forget they ever knew a life outside the Train.
The tunnel was longer than I thought and we could hear the fight in the distance growing louder.
“So we did the next best thing. We found out how the Train moved the way it did and tried to replicate it. But there was a key component missing. Teleportation is an unreliable magic and no one has managed to ever make it work well enough to commercialize it. Anytime we used the teleport markings we copied from the train, the caster died.”
Rats passed us on the way through the tunnel, only increasing my desire to get above ground to get the lay of the land.
Nosceti continued, “The circles worked, the product was moved. But no one was willing to die to cast a single spell to move something the size of a loaf of bread. The feedback from the spell simply fried the mage.”
Again, not news. The Agency eventually found a way around these limitations but we didn’t share that information. Even our method had some risks… “So what did you do? Because I sense what you did next is how you ended up in this situation, isn’t it?”
“Yes, we decided what was missing was the power source that allowed the train to move between dimensions. So we stole it. It wasn’t protected or even hidden on the train. We weren’t sure how to use it and we didn’t know what it did, completely, but we stole it and went underground. It cost us fifty of our best magicians to determine how it worked but it did. For a while.”
“What happened, then?”
The secret passage lead into the far end of the church’s parking lot. In case the place was ever rousted Nosceti could exit the church and look as if he wasn’t even on the property. Now over a hundred feet from the building in an open parking lot, we could hear voices from the side of the structure. People ran and screamed in horror. We didn’t see anything, at first. Some of them fell over clutching their throats and after a few moments, fell still, contorted in apparent agony. The rest of the story was going to have to wait for a second.
“Manny, tell me what you see.” He took a deep breath before lifting his eyepatch and looking around.
“There is a miasma rolling away from whatever it is that’s making short work of the Father’s men. I think it was a side effect of its arrival. It appears to be fading away.” He folded his eyepatch back down.
Since he lost the eye all those years ago, I had a replacement made that would allow him to see sources of magic.
“Do you hear that ?” Now that we were outside, it was easier to make out something besides the pop of gunfire. I looked around and noticed some of the trees near the front of the church were whipping around wildly, while the trees at the back were barely moving. It was a tightly localized wind. Something reminiscent of a tornado. Living in the Midwest, this was a sound you became familiar with and after you saw your first tornado up close, you never forgot it. Before I could try to figure out where it was, the rest of the church exploded.
Whatever had been tearing its way through the church had reached the rear of the church and made short work of what was left. The collapse of the main structure fell away behind the creature, adding to the dust in the air. The side walls of the church were still partially intact and provided a bit of cover for the remaining shooters.
Nosceti’s men leapt out of the subterranean tunnel and ran to their armored car. One opened the door, the other gathered a larger firearm from the trunk. The second pair picked Nosceti up and ran with him between them.
Once the dust cleared, it was a storm elemental that stood in the rubble of the church. Imagine if someone had given a storm the shape of a man and made it twenty feet tall. A cloud of windswept debris was caught in its aura and it hurled this debris at Nosceti’s men trying to buy their boss time to escape with their lives. Two were speared through the chests and pinned against cars like rag dolls.
“Fire in the hole!” was shouted by two men as they ran back along the side of the church trying to put some distance between them and their target before firing their grenade launcher.
They managed to get their round off before the creature gestured and lightning struck them both. They turned from live men to dead ones. The scent of burnt flesh wafted acridly through the windswept air. The grenade struck the elemental and exploded within its confines, igniting debris within it for a second. Then the light of the burning material went out. But the elemental’s form became looser, and less cohesive. Poor bastards had managed to damage it.
The roar it released as a response to being injured was unbearable.
Mix a steam whistle, an imploding building and a the roar of the Number 6 Express train at two feet from your nose and you have a sample of what this thing sounded like while it screamed.
Then it roared again and this time it had words. “GIVE IT TO ME!”
At our distance, we could barely stand it. You could feel it like it was inside of you, a sound that wanted to liquify your organs. People who were closer than we were, just dissolved into piles of pulpy flesh. It was horrible. Nosceti didn’t pay enough for that.
I reached into the car and grabbed the good Father. His flunky standing outside moved toward me and I ignited the lightning spear tip on my cane given to me by Magistar Tracy. He decided to stay out of this particular conversation.
“What did you take? And where did you take it? And you better tell me, because I am of a mind to step out of the way and let it have you.”
“They didn’t tell me where they took it. All they told me was it was more important than we knew.” Nosceti was becoming unglued, the presence of this storm elemental was screwing with his magical affinity.
He was untrained. His power more an aspect of his natural charisma, he lacked the discipline required to use it with sorcerous intent. A being like this elemental would resonate with his power and terrify him since it exposed him to the pure energy of the Eye of Knowledge. Such an unshielded exposure could warp his psyche.
“What did they call it? Those mystics you hired must have had some idea what they were dealing with. They wouldn’t have bothered otherwise. Spit it out.”
“YOU!” The storm turned in our direction, evidently something about Nosceti stood out to its mystical senses. The shout in our direction caused the security guard with the rifle to flee toward the fence and as he tried to climb it, there was a spontaneous electrical discharge and he fell away to the ground. This thing was starting to bleed electricity into all nearby metals.
Nosceti was screaming to be heard over the noise. “They called it ‘Indra’s Vajra’, that’s all I know. I have to go, I have to get out of here!” Nosceti pushed me away as the driver peeled out of the lot. Leaving Manny, Albrecht and I standing there. Unbeknownst to Nosceti, his untimely getaway might have just saved our lives.
“Cover your ears, I shouted to them.” The elemental seemed more upset than ever as the car pulled away. It had barely begun to move before turning toward the fleeing limousine. I turned the air before us into a dense medium slowing it just enough to prevent the sound from moving as cleanly, buffering the entity’s shout. I imagined the air molecules refusing to move to carry the sound.
“GIVE IT TO ME!” A wave of sonic energy ripped from the creature causing the ground in front of the creature to shred and rip like a pinata at a hungry kid’s party. The wave struck Nosceti’s car and tore it apart, shattering glass, fracturing metal and presumably shearing flesh and bone.
My hands shook with the force of the halted vibrations. I flexed and shook them to relieve the cramp from holding the air still.
As the scraps of Nosceti’s car slid to a halt, the elemental began emitting discharges of electrical energy. It was breaking down, becoming unstable. The electrical discharges were shooting out in every direction striking everything taller than a blade of grass.
“On your bellies. And stay there. I mean it. That’s enough electricity to kill even you, Albrecht.”
There was an old sedan next to me. Didn’t know the owner and I’m certain they wouldn’t approve but if we survived this, I would buy them a new car.
Extending the lightning blade from my cane, I sliced off the back end of the car straight through to the rear tire. Yes, I could have been more elegant, but I was pressed for time. Ten seconds was about all I had. Three good slices and the car tire fell off the axle and landed on it’s side. I stood up on the tire and prepared to channel more electricity than I had ever imagined.
A good lightning bolt from a storm had about a million volts of electricity. A storm elemental might not put out the same level of energy as a good storm but I had already seen it was capable of frying anyone caught by its powers. All I had on my side was the fact the creature was dissipating so its energy would be less than it’s peak performance.
I am not a mage. Not in the classic sense. Magistar Tracy was a mage. Someone who had dedicated a significant portion of their study to the manipulation of elemental energies.
Me? I’m a hack. I knew something about elemental energies, I could create simple ones, I could manipulate minor representations, turn a campfire into a bonfire, turn a match into a blowtorch, but these were parlor tricks compared to what most magi could do. If we had a mage here, he would be able to catch that lightning, play with it, make it sing an aria and throw it back with something extra.
As a hack, I could manipulate electricity, turn lights on and off, start a car without a key, run a computer for a minute without a power source, I could even act like a taser with just two fingers. As a hack, I could catch that lightning, channel it though my body, and redirect it back to the source. With some preparation or a circle or a sigil, I could do a bit more but that took time and preparation of which were in short supply.
All I could hope was it didn’t kill me before I was able to redirect its energy.
My cane did its job. With the lightning spear still extended, and using the magical principle of contagion, like attracts like, the lightning was drawn to me. It caught the discharge high in the sky away from Manny and Albrecht. The tire acted as an insulator to prevent me from grounding out.
Then the discharge traveled though my spell-charged body and out through my right hand, riding my cursed marks back to the target. I could see the surprise on its face as the redirected energy disrupted its elemental form. As it passed through me, I changed its nature, sort of converting it from AC to DC. Now it was a weapon against itself.
It shrieked and with a gust of wind, expired.
I was about to cheer, when my chest felt as if an elephant was standing on it. Heart attack. Not the good kind that comes on slowly. This is the other one. The one that arrives like a mugger in a dark alley with a bat and no remorse.
My breath seized up in my chest and I didn’t remember anything after that.
When I woke up, Manny was leaning over me, on his knees, dripping sweat into my blinking eyes. “Tell me you weren’t just kissing me.” I asked with every breath being agony.
“When I’m saving your life, its called mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. You were down for nearly fifteen minutes. I was about to call it.”
Albrecht stood over me looking down, decidedly unhappy. “You were dead, Engram, for quite some time, but your loyal lapdog wouldn’t leave you. Even when it was apparent you were too far gone.”
“If you thought I was dead, why didn’t you just leave?” I already suspected the answer, I was just curious to see if he would be honest about it.
“The geas would not allow it.” He was all but sulking when he said it.
“The same geas that didn’t let you kill Manny while I was ‘dead’ either.”
“Indeed. The same.”
“So you knew I wasn’t past saving otherwise you would have killed Manny and rifled my dead body for loose change.” The vampire pretended not to hear me.
The elemental’s wind had died down and with the loss of the wind, the fog returned, thicker than ever. Emergency vehicles were everywhere. Their existence confirmed the fact I was still among the living because I was very annoyed by flashing lights. The shrouding fog didn’t help, making them brighter and more annoying.
Manny stood me up and looked into my eyes with a flashlight. I resisted the urge to smack his hand away. Manny had been a corpsman during his time in the military, a fact I tried to appreciate from time to time.
“Pupils are responsive. You’ll make it. You might want to see someone about that ticker though.”
“Next time you get the urge to kiss all over me, you will be taking me out for more than pizza.”
“Whatever, boss.” Manny shook his head and smiled.
I took out my phone to check the time and found it little more than an electrically fried brick. “Any idea of what time it is?”
That’s when I felt it. There was a tingling, an invasive feeling, the feeling you get when your parents are looking through your sock drawer for your secret porn stash. I felt exposed and resisted the urge to cover my privates as I looked around for the source of the telepathic invasion. Then I realized it wasn’t a human mind, this was something vast, something whose mind was clearly as far beyond human intelligence as humans were above cockroaches.
The problem with telepathy is it’s a two way street, you can’t look without being seen. What I saw for a few seconds, took my breath away, then the message came through and I realized who was talking. It was the Night Train.
“Clifford Engram, you are late.”
So much for making a good impression.