by “URN My Power”
The baying of the hounds carried an otherworldly chill up the spines of those who heard it. There was a subtle, indefinable wrongness in it that said that the creatures making the noise were not normal hounds. Ahead of them, another creature looking very much like a fox ran for her life at an average speed of somewhat over 160 kilometers per hour. The lips of the hounds were still stained with the blood of her mother, whose pieces they had left behind without swallowing anything, and their unholy, red-glowing eyes focused laser-like on their next intended quarry. Behind the hounds, four subtly wrong-looking creatures in imitation of humans rode on ferociously-growling ATVs, which had pursued the fox-like being and her mother across a continent and a half without pause.
Coming to a road, the fox changed, its appearance now that of a nude, teenage, human girl with a fox’s ears and tail. She crouched low, coiling powerful muscles, and sprang to the top of a truck’s trailer. The hounds were still on her tail. She reverted to fox form and looked back, watching the unholy eyes bobbing up and down in the darkness. The driver, seeing those hellish eyes, accelerated. The fox-girl braced herself against the speed change, glad to see her pursuers beginning to recede into the distance. They sped up fiendishly. The fox-girl hooked her paws around a corner in the trailer as the driver increased his own speed, thankfully beyond what the hounds could achieve. She hunched down to reduce drag for whatever good that would do. When she could no longer see the eyes, she slid behind the roof fairing attachment and out of the wind. There, she allowed herself to rest and grieve. There was still such a long way to go before she got to Spain.
Camber August Lobo looked up at the adults surrounding his bassinet with big, blue eyes. He certainly had a healthy set of lungs, as he’d proven when the doctor had given him the traditional slap on the behind. He’d been born a couple of hours too late to actually have an August birthday (in which case, he would have shared a birthday with his cousin Akiko, whose party had been interrupted by Amelie’s water breaking), but Charlie hadn’t chosen his son’s middle name for chronological reasons.
Nearby, Hato slept the sleep of the deeply ensorcelled. She would awaken when she was fully recovered, or if there was danger. An attempt on Charlie’s life by members of Hato’s own former clan had necessitated a trip to Japan to convince them, one way or another, that she wasn’t being held against her will. Her will had simply been altered, but they didn’t need to know that. She’d come home, jetlagged and tired, just in time to assign herself guard duty outside the delivery room, then Charlie and Amelie’s hospital room. Seeing her condition, Charlie had had no choice but to dip into his sorcerous training and put her out for some much-needed rest.
Chelsea Smithe sat nearby with her litter in two twin strollers. One contained the single male, Felix, and one of his sisters, Hepzibah. The other contained two more daughters, Catherine and Katrina. Annemarie had seen to it that the doctors hadn’t seen the young ones’ feline characteristics—furry cat-ears on top of their heads and twitchy little furry tails coming from their backsides. The cat-woman’s friends from the dorm were almost always in evidence—though Charlie suspected it was at least partially due to the fact that the dorm’s air conditioner was broken. Chelsea Smith visited most frequently of all, but then, September was no fit month for pregnant woman. Smithe was quick to point out that she’d managed with the addition of a fur coat—of course, her fur was thin and fine enough that it didn’t hold in much heat.
Camber made a gurgling noise that was answered by Felix, which soon set all the little ones off, much to the amusement of the adults. Akiko laughed as well, though whether she actually thought the noises were funny or was just laughing because everyone else was could not be determined.
That presence was back. Charlie had sensed it off and on for the past month and a half. Three floors down, standing on a lamp post dressed in clothing that looked like he’d mugged Piccolo and dyed everything black, a man with a penumbra of dark magic about him stood with his arms crossed over his chest, glaring at the hospital window as if by his very hatred he could smite Charlie from the earth. Whoever this guy was, he presented a threat Charlie wasn’t going to countenance. He reached into his duffel bag and pulled out a life-sized plastic Japanese hornet. Amelie had made a golem of it a month ago. Since it didn’t need to change sizes, it would last longer than army men or action figures. He activated it and sent it out the window to bug the turban-wearing pole-cat outside.
“Bad man?” Akiko asked softly. The watcher was desperately trying to stave off the golem’s attack. The golem, for its part, followed its program to perfection, dodging each defensive move as if it could read its opponent’s mind, stinging or biting when the opportunity presented itself, until the dark man disappeared through a portal of his own making. The golem returned, and Charlie deactivated it to save energy.
“It may be too much to hope he takes the hint, but I’d say I’ve given him something to think about.” he muttered.
It was late the next day when Hato awoke, stretching languidly. With all five of the children pronounced healthy enough, Charlie checked Amelie out, and Annemarie, in her pose as lesbian life-partner, did the same for Chelsea. The Sunfire and a rented Caravan each made their way to the separate addresses of the parents. The guy in the black Piccolo outfit was back, surrounded by an aura of brooding anger. Charlie sent the hornet after him again, this time outfitted with a small medallion engraved with the symbol on Charlie’s back, just in case the man was ready with a spell. His father looked suspiciously at the man, but Charlie hurried everyone into the apartment and activated the strongest of his wards. Claudia was on the couch, looking like she was in need of assistance in getting up. Steve hadn’t had the excuse of childbirth to get out of class.
“You’d think I was having twins.” she grunted as the Harolds helped her up. Amelie put the baby in the crib, which was in the apartment’s bedroom. The golem bumped its head a few times against the window, and Charlie let it in and deactivated it. He slipped through the wardrobe in the bedroom and handed the golem off to Sanna. Since there was still energy in it, Sanna would be able to read what it had seen. This guy, whoever he was, worried Charlie, and he wanted the opinion of a more experienced magic-user. He grabbed a onesie from a package in the new nursery and brought it back to the apartment. Amelie was feeding Camber when he got back. Akiko became an eager assistant when it came time to change diapers. Still, Charlie was glad for the generous support network awaiting him just a closet away.
The hounds were practically nipping at her heels as the fox-girl dove through the wards around the Spanish manor. Since the hounds were definitely hostile, the wards stopped them like transparent titanium. Finding an open window, she jumped inside, and was immediately immobilized by a spell to stop uninvited intruders. Her body automatically reverted to its fox-girl form, revealing her magical nature. Helpless, she hoped someone here released her before the hounds—or their handlers—found a way through the outer wards. An old man came out, peering at her, though she couldn’t see him very well because of the position her eyes had been frozen in. The old man peered out the window at the hounds and immediately slammed the window shut so hard that the fox-girl was afraid the glass would break.
“You poor dear!” the old man said. He disappeared through a closet door and returned a few moments later by a young man of the Atlantean royal lines. The girl was lifted, stiff as a statue, and carried into a sorcerer’s workroom. Four additional wards were placed around her, and she was left alone, the men discussing strategy as the well-warded door closed.
Hannity, Clement and Sanna walked out the front door, Clement taking point. A pack of hounds sniffed around the edge of the wards, baying in frustration. A few moments later, four creatures vaguely resembling humans on ATVs arrived.
“Give up the princess and your deaths will be quick and painless.” one of the creatures said. Clement drew his sword. Sanna cast a spell which forced the creatures to return to their true forms. The hounds turned into something like a cross between a viper and a mangy greyhound, with teeth like spilled knife drawers. The creatures that had been disguised as humans became something like the hounds, only worse. Each of them stood on four taloned feet, with at least two arms up higher on the body. The smallest of this set had two, one had a pair in the process of bifurcating, starting with a single pair of shoulders but splitting into two at the elbow. Each of these creatures had a full suit of armored scales, a ridge of spikes down the back and a mane of scaly hairs. The vehicles transformed as well, turning into the misnamed “black tigers” that could only be tamed by the most ruthless, patient and powerful dark archmages. They were felines with terrible power, covered from head to toe in black hide like Kevlar. The red stripes along their backs and legs were, in fact, whip scars.
“Leave this place or die.” Clement said. One of the faux-men pointed a crossbow at the wards, which shattered when the bolt struck them. “I’ll take that as a ‘no.’”
Charlie saw Amelie stiffen while feeding the baby. She glanced toward the bedroom, but there was nothing that Charlie could see. He slipped through the wardrobe, and immediately heard the sounds of battle outside. Sanna and Hannity loudly shouted spells, while Clement simply roared a battle-cry as the raw force of the Sword of the Blood unleashed destruction on whoever else was out there. Cautiously, Charlie approached the front door. If someone or something had broken Amelie’s wards, that could have alerted her to trouble from anywhere.
“It’s heading for the house!” Sanna exclaimed, and the door exploded as some kind of fang-faced snake-dog burst through it. The inner wards crackled on the creature’s body, but if it noticed, it gave no indication. Charlie grabbed an axe off the wall. The snake-dog hissed and tried to bite him. He bounced the blade of the axe off its head, and when it tried to bite him again, he jammed the weapon into its mouth vertically. It shook its head trying to dislodge the axe. The handle snapped, and the monster spit out the pieces. It pounced, and Charlie rolled, mumbling a teleportation spell under his breath. He grabbed the creature from below just as he was finishing it. There was a sickening lurch as they shifted from one place to another, and then they were airborne. The mansion was a tiny thing far below, like a Monopoly house, dwarfed by the clash of magical fighting below. Charlie shifted back to the living room, bouncing off of his couch and landing hard on the floor. It took him precious time to regain his breath—time in which the monster crashed through the roof and almost landed on Charlie.
“Great, now it’s mad.” Charlie wheezed, wishing he’d thought to go somewhere other than straight up. He rolled to the side as the monster tried to slash him with its front claws, and those claws turned the couch into a sliced loaf of wood and stuffing. It pounced again, and Charlie rolled beneath it, avoiding a backwards kick and a tail-lashing through sheer luck. The creature screeched in frustration.
“Silence! I keel you!” Akiko’s voice piped from the closet. Charlie ran to her, hoping to get her through the closet and break the spell before the monster arrived. Akiko screamed as the monster pounced on them. Charlie’s right hand came up as the thing was coming down.
“NO!” he shouted. Power flowed throuch Charlie’s body, pouring out through the Mark in his hand like the thrust of a Saturn V rocket. The force of it pressed Charlie against the closet door, and he could hear the wood cracking behind him. Holy crap! he thought. The creature was blown through the roof, making another hole. Exhausted, Charlie collapsed face-first to the floor.
“Booyah!” in Akiko’s energetic little voice was the last thing he heard before consciousness abandoned him.
Charlie woke up feeling weak as a kitten. The master bedroom was crowded. His entire family, and his entire harem, and many of his friends, were all gathered around the bed. The children were being soothed in corners where possible. His father noticed that he was awake and let out a cry of joy.
“Who let Akiko watch Jeff Dunham?” Charlie asked. His older brother’s eyes widened, and this head sank between his shoulders.
“We’ll discuss that later.” Kumoko hissed in her husband’s ear, not quietly enough for Charlie to miss.
“What happened, son?” his father asked. “Akiko brought us through the wardrobe when you fell down and she couldn’t get you to wake up. She was scared.”
“Something got into the house. I tried to protect her, and then this power came out of my hand and blew the thing away.”
“And better for it.” Hannity said. “Soulhounds are nasty, tenacious creatures who will chase their quarry to the ends of creation, across the barriers between planes, until they’ve run it down. The only way to be safe from them is to destroy them. The one you fought was a larva.”
“That was a larva?!“ Charlie asked, sitting up. A sudden wave of dizziness let him know that that was not a good idea. He slumped back onto the pillows. Amelie put her arms around him.
“Considering your level of training, it’s a wonder you survived.” Hannity went on.
“You’re not helping.” Amelie said.
“That’s not my job.” Hannity responded wryly. “I think it’s the Mark of Atlantis in your palm that saved you. You said the power came from your hand, yes? Was it the hand with the Mark?” Charlie nodded. “The Mark isn’t well understood anymore. Maybe in ancient times it was thought of as too obvious to waste paper on. We do know, however, that it somehow is linked with the Crystal of Atlantis—only the Crystal can bestow it or take it away.”
“The Crystal...or what’s left of it...is in that box.” Charlie said, pointing to a little box on the dresser. Ina opened it and picked up the thong, but the Crystal shard fell back into the box. Picking up the shard itself, she brought it to the bedside and gave it to Charlie. He instantly felt his energy returning. “Well, that feels better.” he said.
“It’s bigger than it was before.” Ina remarked. “It must have broken the thong by expanding too much.” Charlie held the shard in his hand. It was three times the size it had been before. No wonder the thing had broken its thong. There was, however, no sign that it had been assimilating matter from its local environment.
“I suppose we could ask our guest what she knows about the Mark,” Hannity suggested, “since she also bears one.”
“She does?” Charlie asked. He threw back the covers and got out of bed, against his family’s protests. He was feeling better already, and there was no dizziness this time. Carrying the shard with him, he followed Hannity to the work room, where the naked fox-girl was still immobilized by the house wards. Charlie helped Amelie restore their guest’s ability to move. Sure enough, a birthmark in the shape of the Mark of Atlantis decorated her forehead. The girl stretched and seated herself demurely.
“It’s hard to believe I’m actually here.” she said. “There were times when I didn’t think I’d make it.”
“What’s your name?” Charlie asked.
“Loosely translated, it’s Troublemaker-Who-Sets-the-Midwife-On-Fire.” the girl responded. “That was her own fault, though, for grabbing me by the tail instead of the feet.” Charlie laughed. He brushed her hair out of her eyes. When his skin touched hers, there was a shock. Her face blanked as the Mark on his hand and the one on her forehead both glowed. When the glowing stopped, the birthmark was the same silver color as the Mark on Charlie’s palm. Expression returned to the girl’s face, and she looked up at Charlie. Wow. she thought quietly.
Wait, am I hearing her thoughts? Charlie thought. Both of their eyes widened as they stared at each other.
Holy crap! they both thought together.
“What happened?” Sanna asked, looking at each of them in turn.
“All I did was touch her, and now all of a sudden I can hear her thoughts.” Charlie said.
“And I can hear yours.” the fox-girl said.
“This bears further research.” Hannity muttered.
“The library scrolls should still be in my backpack.” Charlie said.
“A few scrolls stuffed in a backpack?” his father asked. “What makes you think this is mentioned in one of those?”
“Pocket dimensions, Dad.” Charlie replied gently. “That backpack makes the TARDIS look like a clown car.”
“So how many scrolls are in there?” his father asked.
“As many as could be copied by a small army of scribes and priests in eight weeks.” Charlie responded. It soon became apparent that the link was not an equal partnership. Though each knew the thoughts and feelings of the other, whatever Charlie wanted, Troublemaker-Who-Sets-the-Midwife-On-Fire was compelled to provide, as best she could.
I really need to think up a nickname for you. he thought at her.
Whatever you want to call me. she responded. She was presently wearing an oversized T-shirt with Faye Valentine on the front, and serving orange juice. I know this servant thing isn’t much like me, but it feels right, somehow.
“What can you tell me about this Mark, other than the fact that you have a matching one on your forehead?” he asked aloud. “What does it do?”
“It’s not so much what it does, as what it allows you to do.” she said. “Most wizards or sorcerers can tap into energy around them, and are strongest when there’s a lot, like in a forest full of life or at the edge of a volcano. Someone with the Mark, though, can tap into the power behind the Crystal.”
“You mean, I can tap the Crystal’s power?” Charlie asked—although tapping into the forces of nature around him was a lesson he hadn’t gotten to yet.
“The Crystal’s just a conduit. It’s been growing recently because it’s easier to get a lot of energy through a really big conduit. You can tap the Power from anywhere as long as there’s a conduit in the same dimensional plane. You can control that Power, and anything created by it.”
“Were you created by the Power?” Charlie asked.
“I’m not sure. My people may have been, long ago.” she responded. “There are a lot of stories about the Mark.”
“Do tell.” Charlie said, handing her his glass so she could keep her throat moist.
“You have failed.” said a soft, female voice from the shadows.
“Mistress, please, let me try again!” cried the dark man in the black Piccolo outfit.
“Silence, Todesfall!” the woman said angrily, her head snapping up. Her cowl fell away, revealing a face like an ivory doll framed by a floor-length mane of straight, white hair. Her crimson eyes flashed at her hapless underling. “You failed to kill the Princess, and now our enemy may be learning the powers of his Mark. Further, you failed to kill HIM and HIS CHILDREN. You were thwarted by a mere GOLEM!”
“Mistress, please!” Todesfall pleaded.
“You’ll beg louder than that before I’m done with you.” the woman said quietly. Black fire sprouted from Todesfall’s body. The white woman in the black cloak watched, as did all of her underlings. Todesfall’s screams ceased to have meaning after a while. Merely animal noises of mindless agony. Still the burning continued, until there was nothing left to burn. The ashes blew away on a breeze of the woman’s making, swirling past the underlings’ noses and making them sneeze before departing the lair entirely. A cruel smile played over the woman’s lips. “Choose among yourselves who will be next to try their luck. I must concoct an even worse punishment for the next person to fail me.” So saying, she vanished into darkness.
“Well, any ideas?” one of the females asked.
“Toady was a tard.” one of the males remarked. “About the only thing he was good at was memorizing spells. This Charlie Lobo is just a beginner.”
“A beginner who may be able to tap into Powers beyond our ability to counter.”
“Let him tap all the power he wants, it won’t do him any good.” the male speaker responded, holding up a box and opening it. A medallion gleamed darkly in what little light there was in the room. “This little beauty was forged from the same meteorite as those three swords we gave the Catholic Church all those years ago.”
“You mean, it was cast from the leftover slag.” the female retorted.
“It doesn’t matter. The effect is the same, and this little thing is easier to hide than a big, bulky broadsword.”
“Fine, just remember that the Mistress won’t give you the chance to go to Plan B.”
“Who needs a Plan B?” the speaker retorted, closing the box to contain the jamming effect, and disappearing from the room.
“We’d better pick who goes next after him.” the female speaker said. “He’s far too sure of himself.”
“Why don’t you go next, Venna? You haven’t run a mission yourself in nearly one hundred twenty-three years.” one of the other females said. Venna pulled her hood back, revealing skin like dark chocolate framed by hair like a black velvet curtain. “I hope your powers don’t atrophy with such long disuse.”
“There’s a difference between running missions for the Order M’rdread and serving one’s own interests. Like eliminating potential rivals.” Venna said to her critic. “Be careful, Sheena. I may just let slip to the Mistress some of your mumblings from two nights ago.”
“You wouldn’t!” Sheena gasped, her own cowl flapping loudly as it was removed. Venna smiled malevolently.
“Don’t step out of line, Sheena. If anything unfortunate happens to me...” She let that hang in the air, looking significantly at the blonde woman and several others in the group.
“I’ll go next.” Sheena said. Venna smiled. Yes, the punishment for failure would be infinitely preferable to the punishment for treason.
“Alone at last, huh, pet?” Charlie asked, kissing Hato on one soft cheek. He had waited until she had finished taking care of her katanas, and the children were all asleep—for now, at least. “How’re you feeling?”
“Much better, now that I’m rested.” she said. “I should have realized I would be less than useless to you, as exhausted as I was. Something still troubles me, though.”
“Oh?” he asked, seating himself in a nearby chair so she could kneel at his side.
“The ninjas who came to rescue me were acting normally, but when I got back home, the rest of the clan...or the ones I found, anyway...were...someone had done something to them.”
“Done something?” Charlie asked. Hato looked up at him.
“There was no mind in their actions, no skill behind their movements. Up close, I saw that their eyes were completely white. I sliced the head off of a former classmate, and his body kept coming at me.”
“Damn.” Charlie muttered, seeing the face of King Sade leering at him from the distant past. “You had to cut them into little, tiny pieces, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” Hato said. “I did not like doing it. It was an ignoble end for people I had trained with.”
“What you did was a kindness, Hato-chan.” Charlie said, kissing her lips. “Wherever their true selves were, it was nowhere near their bodies. I didn’t know them, but I doubt they would want their bodies used in that way.”
“No, Master.” Hato said. “Domo arigato, Charlie-sama. I admit I felt very guilty.” Charlie drew her up to her feet and led her from the little dojo. Sanna knelt in the wreck of the parlor and living room, a powerful ward-circle surrounding her, facing the gaping doorway. Across her lap was a saber with a gilded hilt, and a staff of white yew. He led Hato to the bedroom and closed the door behind them. He kissed her, undressing her slowly, caressing each part of her body as it was unveiled. He closed her eyes with his fingers, and she obediently kept them closed. He tied a robe belt over her eyes, and fastened a pair of Amelie’s padded handcuffs on her hands. Hato shivered as she was gently placed in the bed, and her feet were shackled to the foot posts. She moaned, knowing what—and who—was to come. She opened her mouth as soon as the ball gag brushed her face. Charlie’s finger brushed her clit, and she exploded in ecstasy, her back arching further than anyone else he knew could manage.
“Good girl.” he whispered in her ear. She moaned in answer, her body radiating sexual heat. He made sure she could hear his clothes coming off, and she shivered each time an item hit the floor. She felt him climb into bed and straddle her. His fingers traced up and down her labia, gathering her moisture and using it to write his name on her breasts, the R nestled comfortably in the valley between them. He returned his fingers to her steaming center, writing his name, one letter at a time, on her clit until she exploded again. Then, he began teasing her with his cock, making her whimper around the gag. “I own you.” he whispered in her ear. She moaned and nodded. “You like that?” She nodded again, shivering. “Show me how much.” He shoved his cock in her, and she bit down on the gag, her vaginal walls squeezing on him as she rode out another orgasm. Charlie knew what Hato liked. He knew what each of his women liked—at least, the ones that had been with him long enough.
He was aware of Troublemaker-Who-Sets-the-Midwife-On-Fire in another room, responding to his desire. As he thrust into Hato, the fox-girl masturbated, lost in Charlie’s lust. Hato was lost as well, lost in pleasure. She came again, and Charlie let himself erupt inside her for the extra little bit of joy it gave her to know she had indeed pleased him, before she passed out. He unbound her unconscious body and carried her to a fainting couch where a sleeping bag and a body pillow had been placed for just such a situation. He covered her with a throw blanket, then summoned Troublemaker. She burst into the bedroom, eyes hazy with mating frenzy. She threw the shirt she wore aside, leaving her naked again, and pounced, pinning Charlie against the bed as she kissed him with fiery passion. Charlie rolled over, suckling her breasts, perky and soft and silky-smooth.
“Master...” she moaned, the Mark on her forehead glowing brightly. He slid into her more gently than he had with Hato. She winced as her hymen broke, but her cries were those of passion. Her inexperienced body nevertheless learned quickly, hips moving with his thrusts to shove him deeper into her. She scratched his back as she climaxed. He pulled out and turned her over. Obligingly, she presented her ass for him and he re-entered her hot snatch from behind. Her tail wrapped around his waist, and she tried to keep him inside her, but he fucked her with all of his length, and she lost the capacity to do more than surrender and enjoy the ride. One more orgasm, another, another and another rocked her before Charlie bathed her insides with its first dose of semen. Like Hato before her, she lost consciousness, her body still shivering with after-shocks. She shivered as he pulled out of her. He curled up at the foot of the bed and went to sleep.
“What a miserable place this is.” the dark-clad man remarked, striding into the sanctuary. Helmut Wolfgang, once a Cardinal, now a deacon of little consequence, glared. Who did this...person...think he was, coming into God’s house in heathen dress?
“Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad without those shrouds of darkness you drape about yourself.” Wolfgang said.
“Speaking of darkness, Herr Wolfgang, why don’t we discuss a mutual enemy somewhere private?” the man said. Wolfgang, eyes narrowed, led the man to his cell by way of the kitchen, picking up four knives and putting three of them in the wooden block where the sharp ones were stored, keeping the fourth concealed in his sleeve.
“Which enemy in particular do we have in common, stranger?” he asked.
“Several, actually. Charlie Lobo, his wife, Amelie, and their son, to name but a few. Remember them?” the stranger responded. Irrational, sinful wrath welled up in Wolfgang. He kept his knife hidden in one sleeve of his deacon’s robes with a monumental effort of self-control.
“How can I forget?” he demanded.
“I know that you were unable to stop him from disposing of your blessed sword, which protected righteous men, such as your ancestor, against the depredations of black magic.” the stranger said. “I have something which I believe will interest you.” Despite the warning voice in the back of his mind, he looked at the stranger as he pulled out a metallic box. The box opened, and a little medallion the same color as the lost sword gleamed in the light from the candles.
“What is that?”
“You recall that the Church once had three swords for slaying witches? All three were made from metal found in a blessed meteorite sent by the Lord. From the left-over metal, this medallion was cast as a protection for the head of the Church, but it was lost in the chaos following the fall of the Roman Empire...until recently.”
“Shouldn’t you give it to the Pope, then?”
“He does not share your passion for this particular aspect of the Lord’s work, Herr Wolfgang.” the stranger said. He grasped the deacon’s hand and pressed the medallion into it. He bowed and left. Wolfgang followed him, to see how he left. The man climbed into a muddy four-wheel-drive truck that didn’t sound too good when he started it up.
How utterly...normal. Wolfgang thought to himself, turning back to the church. The vehicle drove away, and Wolfgang looked up at the stained-glass depiction of Jesus on the cross, then down at the medallion in his hand, back and forth between the two.
After a sufficient distance from the church had been traversed, the truck changed shape, becoming a black horse with bull horns, a scorpion tail and bat wings. Its rider ordered it skyward, and it flapped its wings, powering into the air and snorting flame as it did. They disappeared in a sphere of darkness.
Lita swallowed hard as she approached the apartments. She was dressed in denim from her shoulders to the tops of her snakeskin boots. He had so many women already. Was there really room for one more? She’d made a little money for herself portraying a Minoan bull-dancer for a History Channel documentary, and had tried the rodeo circuit, hoping to build a life for herself.
But there was something missing in that life, a lack she felt keenly whenever she awoke alone—and it seemed she always did, no matter who she went to bed with. The door opened after four knocks, just as she was about to give up. Charlie was there. His smile was genuinely glad and welcoming, and she folded herself gratefully into his arms.
“What a wonderful surprise, Lita!” he said, squeezing her. “We’ve missed you!”
“You have?” Lita asked.
“Well, Scheris and I missed you.” Charlie responded. He kissed her, and she melted into him. “How are you?”
“Much better now.” she said. “The History Channel filmed me in slow motion. It was fun to watch, even though I couldn’t see my face most of the time. The rodeo was fun, if somewhat barbaric in places, but...well...I...was lonely.”
“Well, you came to the right place.” he said, scooping her up and carrying her through the wardrobe. He stepped oddly, and when she looked, she found broken timbers and boards, some with nails poking out. There were holes in the ceiling covered with tarps in an attempt to keep the rain out.
“What happened?” she asked, shocked.
“We had some uninvited guests over who decided to get rowdy. I had to give one of them the heave-ho, but Clement, Sanna and Hannity took care of the rest.” Charlie responded lightly. He set her on her feet and escorted her into the nursery, and introduced her to the little ones. Lita looked down at the one named Camber, and felt a deep longing beyond loneliness. She looked to Charlie for permission before reaching down to caress the infant’s soft cheek. Gently, he picked the baby up, showing her how to hold him, and put him in her arms. She sank slowly into a chair, as deeply enthralled as if the baby had cast the same spell that had bounced back against Amelie so long ago now. Camber yawned toothlessly and grabbed a handful of Lita’s hair. Amelie came in when the baby began to fuss, trying to get his mouth onto Lita’s clothed breast.
“Don’t worry, baby, Mommy’s here.” Amelie said, recovering the little one and offering him a nipple. Lita’s own nipples dimpled the front of her shirt. Charlie led her to the bedroom, and Lita sent her clothes flying. She moaned with need as Charlie lined up his cock at her entrance. She welcomed him enthusiastically, her hips moving instinctively with him to maximize her pleasure. Then, she was having an orgasm, a long, slow, rolling one, like a lava flow. Her eyes squeezed shut so hard that tears leaked from between the lids. Another one, more intense than the last, then a third. She lost count and simply enjoyed the ride, unwilling for it to stop. Each orgasm was more intense than the last.
When she awoke, it was a slow unfolding of her mind and body, the gradual return of awareness that she had come to associate with good sex—sex with Charlie. Charlie was asleep next to her. Scheris and Ina were nearby as well, blissed-out and placid. Lita smiled, pangs of loneliness receding into the past. Pangs of a different sort forced her from the bed, before the growling of her stomach could awaken the others. She found a robe and put it on, padding carefully to the kitchen to start breakfast. Rifling through her duffel, she found some casual jeans and a blouse, her boots and some socks. She grabbed the last pair of clean panties from her bag and debated the use of a bra. Deciding that a nice cleavage would make her more pleasing, she grabbed one of the push-up type and changed in the downstairs bathroom while the butter was heating. She bound her hair behind her head in a simple tail before emerging. Scrambled eggs were simple enough. She wrote her name at the bottom of the chore roster, below a set of Atlantean glyphs that translated to Troublemaker-Who-Sets-the-Midwife-On-Fire. She sighed happily and buttered slices of bread, sprinkling cinnamon and sugar onto them and putting them in the oven to toast.
“Mmm, smells delicious!” Scheris said sleepily, coming down the servants’ staircase. “No need to risk your feet in the living room, Lita.” she added, hugging her. She noticed Lita’s name on the roster and squealed happily. “You’re staying? That’s wonderful!”
“I had fun out there, but it wasn’t home. This...this is.”
Scheris hugged her again, then set herself to slicing oranges and juicing them. Lita cooked the eggs and got the toast out before it could burn. Called out by the smell of food, the rest of the household came down, each welcoming Lita back in her own way. Lita was touched that they all remembered her. Even Claudia. Charlie arrived last, hugging her. Then there was barely-ordered confusion in the kitchen as everyone gathered plates and silverware. The only new person was a fox-girl with a copy of the Mark of Atlantis on her forehead. The fox-girl shook hands briefly with Lita before eagerly accepting a plate.
When breakfast was over with, Charlie ordered everyone dressed in outside attire, since they would be having workmen over to fix the damage. Lita watched as everyone put their chairs back, noticing for the first time that though she had only arrived yesterday and hadn’t gotten another chair, there were exactly the right number of chairs around the table. Was someone missing?
Kamilah flushed the toilet and rinsed her mouth out. This morning nausea was getting in the way of serving her Master. She hoped she wasn’t sick. She made sure she hadn’t gotten anything on her dress and put on her apron. What was she supposed to do today? She went down to the kitchen to check the roster.
“Kamilah, there you are!” Master said.
“Sorry, Master, I didn’t mean to be late.” she said, sinking to her knees and hanging her head.
“Something wrong, pet?” he asked, lifting her chin to make her look up at him.
“I threw up.” she admitted. He put his hand on her forehead.
“You’re not feverish.” he said. “Stand up.”
“Yes, Master.” she said, glad to have a direct command to obey. He gave her something for her nausea, which settled her stomach even though it tasted foul. He opened his mouth to say something, but then stared at her stomach. He put his hand there.
“Okay, I know what’s going on now.” he said, and put his arms around her.
“Am I sick, Master?” Kamilah asked.
“No, dear, you’re pregnant.” he told her, adding a kiss on her right temple. “There’s some tea left from when Hilda was going through her morning sickness. You keep that by your bed and the coffee pot with the timer.”
“I obey, Master.” Kamilah responded.
“I know, sweetie, and you do a good job. Let’s see, you’re on garden duty today. I know I can count on you, so I’ll have you show Lita how it’s done. Go change and I’ll have her meet you at the back door.”
“Yes, Master.” Kamilah said, and Master kissed her. Pleasure rippled through her like waves on a pond when a stone was thrown in. Master was pleased with her. She went back to her little room and changed into her gardening clothes. She put her hand on her belly. Master’s child had not yet begun to swell her. He was pleased with her. She thought of the pleasure on his face as he held the other children. Yes, this was a good service to perform for her Owner. She had to be careful to do it right, however. She could not harm Master’s child. Well, her garden work was light enough. Master did the heavy stuff himself, or had one of the other males do it.
She hurried into her gardening clothes. All this wool-gathering wasn’t getting her work done! She would have to ask Master to punish her later.
Charlie lifted one end of the broken beam, using a touch of magic to make the load lighter without letting it blow away in the stiff wind coming out of the south. Steve had the other end. They carried it through the wreckage of the doorway, passing Clement and Paxton at the bottom of the porch.
Kamilah was pregnant. Charlie had hoped to avoid that. She was neither formerly evil nor voluntarily enslaved and, like Sanna, he hoped to free her someday, and wasn’t sure how her former self would like him knocking her up. He’d used most of his self-control to keep the girl from catching any hint that her pregnancy was anything less than a joy to him. There was no telling what a devoted slave like her would do if she thought he didn’t want her baby, but a list of possibilities had begun to grow in his mind, none of them good. He and Steve threw their beam on the growing pile outside, next to a furrow Clement had plowed with the Sword of the Blood. It had gouged across the road and narrowly missed the home of their neighbor across the street, a Spanish aristocrat with some clout in the capital. He’d put boards over the gap and signs warning motorists to slow down.
“Hola, neighbor.” a female voice remarked behind him. Charlie turned to find seven Spanish angels standing at the edge of the property, all short skirts or shorts, low-cut tops, long hair and big eyes that were almost as alluring as their shapely chests. “Wild party?”
“Uh...uninvited guests made a mess while I was out.” he said.
“Our papi had vandal trouble some time ago. They salted the lawn. We had have the whole place dug out and re-sodded.” said the oldest of the women. She handed Charlie a laminated card, making sure to brush his hand with her own. The skin was smooth, and her nails were well-manicured. Charlie sensed a tingle from her that had nothing to do with her well-played sensuality.
“I’ll be sure to pass this along to my wife.” Charlie said, pocketing the card. Four of the girls pouted prettily.
“Let us know if there’s anything else we can do to help.” she said. Charlie led Steve back to the house. The women waved alluringly before returning to their own house.
“What, you’re not gonna introduce me?” Steve asked.
“Those pretty young things know enough about sorcery to hide their potential from other sorcerers—like me.” Charlie said. “Physical contact ruins the camouflage, though.”
“Damn. Trouble never looked so good.” Steve said.
“Remind me to show you that article about pitcher plants later.” he said. He handed the card to Amelie, asking her to check it for anything magical.
“I’m glad you’re taking this seriously, Master.” Amelie said.
Helmut Wolfgang landed in Spain carrying a passport under an assumed name. He put the medallion in the change tray before going through the metal detector and made sure to reclaim it from the customs officer. He rented a car and drove for an hour, driving slowly past the target house. There was work going on, renovations or repairs or something. With so many people around, there was no way he was going to get in without being observed. Well, he could wait. Opportunity would present itself sooner or later.
“It’s a transport key.” Amelie said. “Like the one we gave to the Chelseas.”
“Where does it go?” Charlie asked.
“I’m afraid it’s too subtle, Master. We won’t figure that out until we get there.”
“I want you to stay here with the children, Amelie.” Charlie said. “I’ll take Sanna, Hato, Trouble and Clement with me.”
“Yes, Master.” Amelie responded, though it was obvious that she wasn’t happy about being left behind. He kissed her to soften the hurt. He knew she understood why she had to stay behind, and he made up his mind to make it up to her later. He picked up the card and gathered his team. Clement was cleaning his Sword when he got Charlie’s message, but he was quickly finished, and they assembled in one of the unoccupied rooms. Charlie, Amelie and Hannity warded the room in case someone tried to get into the house that way while they were wherever they were going. Charlie inserted the card in the door as if jimmying it open, then opened the door.
The other side opened onto a stand of bamboo, with a narrow path leading through it. Trouble’s tail bristled as she scented the air. “Dark magic.” she mouthed silently. Clement drew his Sword.
“I know this place.” Hato said. “I trained here.” They proceeded forward cautiously, homing in on the sound of female sobbing. “Shiko?”
“Hato-sensei?“ a voice responded, husky from crying. Charlie peeked out into the clearing and found pieces of ninjas all over the place, and a lone ninja-girl kneeling in the center...making preparations to kill herself? Hato strode closer to the girl, speaking to her in Japanese. A hand crawled spider-like across the clearing toward them. Charlie stepped on it. It was still trying to move, but then, he expected as much.
“Let me.” Clement said, and Charlie stepped off of the hand. Clement stabbed it, and the Sword of the Blood glowed brightly. The hand was vaporized.
“That’s handy.” Charlie remarked. Clement groaned.
“Master, she speaks no English, but her name is Shiko. She was my student before I accepted the contract on your life.” Hato said.
“The spellcaster is here.” Trouble said.
“Tattletale!” a voice said in the darkness. A man dressed in a similar fashion to the one from the hospital appeared. “I’m rather insulted that this ninja-child would rather die than become my puppet.”
“Point in her favor, as far as I’m concerned, darkmage.” Charlie responded.
“Oh, well. She served a purpose after all. Who would have thought you’d come here after her?”
“I’ve wondered the same myself, but since I’m here, suppose you tell me about the guy who was shadowing me until recently. Don’t tell me it’s just a coincidence you have the same bad fashion sense.”
“Todesfall failed to destroy you and the Princess, so he was destroyed by our Mistress. I am his replacement. You may call me Kreig, for what little time you have left. But first...” Charlie recognized the spell Kreig began to cast—one more bit of deja-vu from Atlantis. As the flashy-and-cool-looking death spell was launched, Charlie jumped in front of Shiko. The spell bounced off Charlie’s chest, but the dark mage swatted it away rather than allow it to be his own undoing. “Shame on you, making me waste energy like that. Perhaps a threat you can’t bounce back will be a suitable punishment.” He disappeared. Charlie and Trouble moved closer to Shiko, on opposite sides.
“He’s gone, I think.” Sanna said. “We should leave, Master.”
“Hato, tell Shiko to come with us.” Charlie said. Hato spoke to Shiko in Japanese, and the girl moved away with them, back to the door. Shiko looked around in confusion when she saw where the door led. Hato gently reassured her. Charlie closed the door, and when he opened it again, it was just a closet. The card disappeared. “A one-time deal, eh?” Charlie murmured.
“Todesfall and Kreig. Yes, I know of them, Iset.” Ali Myrdhynn said. “If Todesfall is truly dead, that is all to the good.”
“The image I got from Charlie’s golem was wearing the same clothes as Kreig.” Sanna said.
“The Fell Order, M’rdread.” Ali Myrdhynn said. Sanna shivered.
“I’d hoped it was only copycats, sir.”
“I’m sorry to deprive you of that hope, my dear. You should also know that ex-Cardinal Wolfgang is no longer at his African mission, and we cannot find him with magic.”
“But Wizardsbane was disposed of in the Marianis Trench and we know exactly where the other two swords are!” Sanna protested.
“Yes, which means he has found or been given another way to protect himself. It would seem to validate the rumors...”
“Rumors, sir?” Sanna asked.
“The three swords of the Church’s hate were forged from a meteorite that fell one day. There’s a lake there now, long filled in with rain water. At the time, however, the impact site was accessible to anyone with thick enough boots to brave the heat. The Church hauled the chunk of metal in, forging it into the weapons we know of from the Inquisition. Rumor had it that just enough material was left over to forge a medallion for the Pope to wear as a safeguard against any magical attack, but it never made it into Papal hands.”
“The Fell have it?”
“Now Wolfgang has it. Since he has been defeated before, it may present an opportunity to take it into our hands.” He handed Sanna a box. “This should enable you to travel with the medallion without harm.”
“Well, it works with anti-teleportation crystals and other such jamming artifacts.” Ali Myrdhynn said, with an unusually sheepish smile. Sanna found that unnerving. She bowed respectfully and left. Artus and Brutus Myrdhynn watched her go with regret.
“I miss standing with her in the Circle.” Artus admitted.
“As do I.” Ali responded. “However, we all know that her will is subverted to Charlie’s service, until such time as he is skilled enough to unmake her bindings—and depending on whether or not he is still of a mind to do so when that time comes.”
“Tashi Myrdhynn usually knew what he was about.” Brutus said slowly.
“Yes, but other influences have entered the picture since then.”
“Which is why we are here, isn’t it, sir?” a female voice asked. Seven figures added their presence to the room. “Charlie’s neighbor now fully believes we are her daughters, and only someone who knows what to look for can...”
“Mercedes Myrdhynn, you were invited to this meeting. Your sisters were not. Unless you have come to tender your resignation from the Inner Circle...” Six females disappeared before Ali Myrdhynn finished his sentence.
“Apologies, Ali Myrdhynn.” Mercedes said. “It won’t happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t, Mercedes.” Ali Myrdhynn said. “Does Charlie suspect you?”
“He knows I’m sorcerous and clever, but not how much.” Mercedes said. “I had my sisters block most of my potential before I touched him. I was barely as strong as his wife when I made the card key and gave it to him.”
“Might we not provoke him into the very behavior we’re preparing for with all this secrecy and spying?” another female voice asked. Lights appeared over the remaining three members of the Circle. Only the places of Iset and Tashi Myrdhynn stood empty, lonely white lights in the dark.
“Huiliang Myrdhynn, your question is noted.” Ali Myrdhynn responded. “We are not infallible—and he is young, with all the good and bad that comes with that.”
“His housemate, Steve, has commented to me that Charlie’s alcohol consumption is a bare shadow of what it was before.” Artus commented.
“That’s all to the good.” said a male on the other side of Huiliang, near Ali. “Would that his housemate showed the same maturity.”
“I’m still not convinced.” said the remaining male, his voice like an idling truck. He had a scar around his neck from when he had survived a hanging in his youth. Fortunately, his neck hadn’t broken, and he’d been able to channel his righteous indignation into the magical flame in time.
“I vote we extend Charlie our trust, especially if we hope for him to join this Circle one day.” Artus said.
“I second.” Brutus added. The ensuing vote put four in favor of trust, two against and Ali Myrdhynn abstaining, as there was no tie to be broken. A soft ticking sound went unnoticed—that of claws on the floor. Troublemaker-Who-Sets-the-Midwife-On-Fire found the place where Iset Myrdhynn had cast her portal and jumped through, even though it was closed. The passage wasn’t easy; the portal wasn’t as fresh as she usually liked, the rent in space-time already mostly healed. She made it, however, and returned to her human size and shape.
She walked naked through the house. Her element was fire, so minor changes in temperature didn’t bother her, and the workmen were all gone, having installed skylights where the holes had been in the roof and replaced the door. She went into the study. Charlie had fallen asleep with a scroll in his lap. She put the scroll aside, moved him into a more comfortable position on the couch, took off his shoes and covered him, before curling up next to the couch and going to sleep herself.
Shiko awoke from her sleep to find Hato asleep next to her, one arm draped over her. The gesture was more protective than she was used to from her sensei. She moved, and Hato woke, stretching once before leading the girl out to the yard. There, she was more her old self, pushing Shiko to the ends of her skills and beyond. Shiko learned quickly, applying the lessons to the exercise. Hato commented on what she had managed to learn on her own, and that buoyed the girl through the rigorous session.
They returned to the house and washed up. The household was just rising for its morning routine as they finished. The man Hato called “Master” was in the nursery. She had been afraid he would use his kijutsu to turn her into one of his adoring love-slaves, but he had only used it to teach her English. The minds of the Atlantean women were still their own, and the kitsune had another bond entirely.
“Ohayo, Shiko-chan!“ the fox-girl chimed. She looked older and was wearing clothes, but her ears, tail and forehead-mark were still visible.
“What?” Shiko asked, looking the young woman up and down.
“It’s been eight hundred years since the last time I was in a human school, so I’m going to have a look around when Charlie goes to class. If I’m going to do that, I need to look older than I usually do.”
“Right, college-girl good, jailbait bad.” Shiko said dryly. The kitsune stuck her tongue out at her. “Can you not hide your tail?”
“Uh, no.” she admitted. “For that, I need Charlie’s invisibility spell.”
“You should take a look around as well, Shiko.” Hato suggested. “Familiarize yourself with the lay of the land.”
“As you wish, sensei.” Shiko said. Hato led her upstairs and picked out some clothes for her to wear, fashionable but with places for her to conceal weapons. Annemarie gave her a purse with the same pocket-dimension spell as Charlie’s backpack, into which the young ninja immediately placed her swords and a set of ninja attire.
The kitsune was wearing a cute cap over her ears and forehead when they returned, and her tail was now invisible as she helped Charlie lug a bulky computer tower through the closet-gate leading to the American apartment.
“Why is he taking that?” Shiko asked.
“He had a take-home assignment.” Hato responded. “He was supposed to discover all the malware on that system and remove it without losing the legitimate data. It counts as a major exam.” Shiko let the matter slide, and the two ninjas crossed the closet gate. Hato slipped out through the kitchen window, disappearing into the leaves of a nearby tree. Shiko emulated her teacher, checking for any possible danger to their charge. They followed at a discreet distance, maintaining unobtrusive surveillance until Charlie reached his class. Hato stationed herself nearby and sent Shiko to recon. Trouble went a separate direction, and Shiko didn’t see her again until noon, when their paths crossed at the cafeteria, which was actually more of a poorly-equipped convenience store attached to the bookstore. Shiko and Hato seated themselves in booths from which each of the entrances were visible, and each had a cup of terrible instant noodles. Trouble let Shiko know she was heading home, having seen what she’d come to see.
Energy arced around Helmut Wolfgang as the witches’ wards tried to prevent his entry. He flipped up the mat and unlocked the front door with the spare key, then strode in as if he owned the place. More wards crackled around the protective barrier projected by the medallion as he went to the kitchen and grabbed the largest knife he could find. The cry of an infant drew him upstairs. In a tastefully-appointed nursery, the witch Amelie was changing the diaper of a healthy-looking baby boy. Helmut moved quickly, snatching the infant from her surprised grasp as she picked him up.
“Your witchery won’t work on me, O’Fae.” he snarled, holding the knife near the baby’s throat. “My medallion is made of the same metal as the sword you and your master stole from us.”
“Please, don’t hurt him!” she squeaked, her face blanching whiter than the store-bought diaper around the baby’s pelvis.
“If you wish the whelp unharmed, you’d better do exactly as I say. Now, come. I want the home-field advantage when Charlie and I face each other again.” To his satisfaction, she obeyed meekly, tears leaking down her cheeks as she did. He made her drive the car to the airport, and they boarded a Church-owned plane. He had the perfect place in mind for their rematch.
Trouble crouched down instinctively as a stranger led Amelie downstairs, holding a knife on the wailing hostage in his arms. She returned to her fox-form, stepping out of the neck-hole of her shirt. Her tail was still invisible, but she didn’t care. It still worked for its natural purpose. She slipped out the door behind the man and his captives. When he made Amelie open the car door for him and walk around to the driver’s side, Trouble slipped inside, curling up in the floorboard behind the man. Her tail became visible again, and she felt something trying to force her back to her true form. The effect dissipated when she crawled behind the back seat, so she guessed that whatever effect the man had was limited in range.
Charlie’s fright and anger burned and chilled the back of her mind simultaneously, and she had to fight to keep herself from growling. She would be no good if she got caught. Amelie drove carefully, since the kidnapper wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, nor was Charlie’s son. Trouble slipped out when the car was parked and jumped into a plane with them. The man—Charlie knew his name to be Helmut Wolfgang—forced Amelie to soak a rag in chloroform, hold it to her face and breathe deeply. He took the knife from the baby to make sure Amelie was unconscious.
Why do I have so much trouble with Aryans named Helmut? Charlie’s voice asked. Trouble’s lips curled back from her teeth, but she relentlessly suppressed the growl that threatened to give her away. The pilot asked about the passengers, but Helmut told him to mind his own business and get them to Berlin.
Master, he’s taking us to Berlin! Trouble thought at him.
Stay hidden and try to keep track of where they go when they leave the plane. he commanded. She felt hate burning in her breast, and wondered if it was hers or his. She didn’t much care for hostage-takers, especially ones who took children hostage.
Charlie paced like a caged tiger while he tried to come up with a plan. The Chelseas were both in the nursery with shotguns in case someone else came for the remaining children.
“That’s not helping.” Paxton said. “You’re only going to tire yourself.” Charlie glared at him, but bit off a nasty retort, shaking his head in recognition of the fact that Paxton wasn’t a deserving target for his wrath.
“Charlie-sama, we know he’s going to Berlin. Should we not travel there as well?” Hato asked.
“We need to wait for Clement.” Charlie said. “I want his sword in on this.”
“Here I am.” Clement said, following Scheris into the manor. “I’m sorry. I know this isn’t easy for you.”
“To think I spared his life when he fell into the ocean last time we met.” Charlie growled.
“Where is Sanna?” Clement asked when he took note of who was absent.
“I sent her to my parents’ in case Wolfgang’s just a distraction.”
“What about your brother’s family?”
“There are two Myrdhynns watching over them.” Charlie replied, his tone softening somewhat. There was a knock at the door, and Annemarie answered it, dragging the caller inside, where he quickly found himself being held at gunpoint, sword-point and staring into a swirling fireball that floated over Charlie’s hand. The man was dressed in the garb of a Catholic Cardinal.
“Easy! I’m on your side!” the man said, holding up his hands in entreaty. “I came to warn you that ex-Cardinal Wolfgang had left his mission retreat.”
“A little late.” Charlie said, dousing his fire. “Do you have any idea where he’d go in Berlin?” The Cardinal was helped to his feet.
“His most likely destination is a house half an hour’s drive east of the city—a house owned by his family, which he used to visit frequently when he was on Church business in the area. My name’s Justin, by the way.” Charlie shook the Cardinal’s hand with a visible effort.
“Paxton, I want you and your sons to hold down the fort here. Scheris, Kamilah, Ina, Lita, pick a weapon and back them up. The rest of us are going to kick some ass and take some names.”
“Master!” Kamilah called, running to Charlie’s side. She kissed him soundly, in an unprecedented show of self-initiative. He held her close, grateful for her calming action.
“Thanks, Kamilah, I needed that.” he said. She beamed happily at him, then returned to her place. “Come on, Cardinal, you’re driving.”
The former Cardinal held Amelie at knife-point while she nursed her baby, but she was grateful for even this much. She hummed as soothingly as she could so Camber wouldn’t fuss and piss their captor off. That was all she could do. Wolfgang had jammed a ball gag in her mouth while she had been out, and made her wear boxing gloves to keep her from making any magical gestures. Wolfgang took Camber away and put him in a crib as soon as he let go of Amelie’s nipple. She put her shirt back in order and allowed herself to be handcuffed again.
“Mmph!” she grunted as he fastened the cuffs to tightly.
“Quiet, wench!” the Aryan snarled, his eye boring into hers as the knife pressed against her neck. Amelie sniffled once and let him move her about. “The child’s young enough, there may be hope for his soul. He will have to be raised in a proper household—not one that subscribes to the conspiracy theory that King James ordered a word in the Bible mistranslated so he could persecute Wiccans. Preposterous. The Lord would have smitten him at once had he even entertained the notion! He can defend His Word!”
Amelie was too frightened to point out, even if she could around her gag, that a God who could protect His book didn’t need ecclesiastical hit men to kill heretics or anyone else He wanted dead.
“You, on the other hand...your mind is polluted with forbidden knowledge of magic-working, as is your husband. You’ll both have to go to the stake.”
“Herr Wolfgang,” a voice said over an intercom, “a woman in black is cutting the security cameras out of the trees near the house.”
“Ah, yes, the ninja. Activate the flood lights and deploy the machine-gunners.”
“Jawohl, Herr Wolfgang.” the voice said.
“I’ve called in every favor that’s ever been owed to my family for this. You, your husband and everyone who serves either of you will be at the Gates of Judgment before too long.”
Hato and Shiko were not blinded by the flood-lights as their “host” had hoped. Both were wearing infrared goggles, rendering the world in Technicolor based on the heat given off. The machine-gunners’ rounds missed thanks to Annemarie’s protective spells, and no one could tell how many ninjas were really moving about the house. They kept well clear of the parlor, which jutted out from the front of the house, with good reason. Clement annihilated the wall containing the front door with a sideways blast from the Sword of the Blood. Armed men streamed out like fire ants from a kicked mound. Hato approached the rear door with a small group, and Charlie approached a servants’ door by the kitchen with Annemarie. Shiko joined them, knowing her sensei would never forgive her if she allowed harm to come to “Charlie-sama.”
More armed men appeared, and Shiko charged to the fore, her swords flashing as she wove a web of Japanese steel and flying blood. Their foes fell to the floor in pieces, and Charlie directed the group upstairs. Shiko slashed open the door Charlie indicated, and they kicked aside the pieces.
“Die!” Wolfgang snarled, opening fire with a drug-gang-grade automatic. The rescuers dove aside as he emptied his clip. Wolfgang turned toward a crib in the corner, but found it empty, and even Shiko only caught a glimpse of scarlet tail disappearing out another door with the receding sounds of crying baby accompanying it.
“You’ve violated far more commandments than you’ve enforced, Wolfgang.” Charlie said. “And a smart man wouldn’t have made me regret saving your soggy ass.” Wolfgang pointed the gun toward Amelie, but Shiko struck his arm with a shuriken. “Get Amelie out of here.” Charlie commanded. Annemarie and Shiko obeyed, undoing her bonds and taking her out the same exit Trouble had used.
“With your ninja gone, boy, you’re dead.” Wolfgang said, grabbing a rapier from beside the fireplace. “Even left-handed, I can run you through, and your magic won’t help you while I have th...”
Charlie moved too quickly for Wolfgang to respond, rushing in and delivering a full-force right-handed punch to the ex-Cardinal’s nose. Tears ran in Wolfgang’s eyes, and Charlie took advantage of the opportunity to use a move his father had taught him from his days as a prison guard. Wolfgang’s wrist snapped satisfyingly, and its owner screamed. He screamed all the louder when Charlie drove his knee into the older man’s groin. The gold chain holding the medallion in place snapped as Charlie yanked it from his foe’s chest and slipped it into his pocket. He picked up the rapier and pressed the tip against his enemy’s jugular.
“You talk too much, old man.” Charlie said.
“Go ahead, kill me.” Wolfgang grunted.
“Yes, go ahead, kill him.” another voice added. Charlie turned to find the Fell darkmage standing next to the empty crib. “He failed, he deserves to die.”
“I hoped I’d get a shot at you, Kreig.” Charlie said. He fished out the medallion with his left hand. “You gave him this?” The mage nodded. “Sorry, Wolfgang, you’ve been Punk’d by the Order M’rdread. They’re dark mages whose magic power is bought with suffering. These guys make the Sith look like Mr. Rogers.”
“My thanks for the compliment.” the mage said with a courtly bow.
“You’ll be wanting this back, I think.” Charlie said, tossing the medallion into the air. Kreig pulled out an open box, holding it up to catch the medallion so it couldn’t block his magic. Charlie threw the rapier, which knocked the box out of his opponent’s hand. The medallion landed at Kreig’s feet, blocking all magic nearby. Charlie gave his foe a right hook, staggering him. He kicked up the medallion again so it fell into Kreig’s boot. He got a fist in the gut for his trouble, but came back with a head butt to the mage’s nose. The darkmage tried to choke Charlie, who responded by bringing his fists up between the mage’s arms and pushing out to break the grip. Blood and teeth went flying as Charlie threw another shoulder-backed punch. Kreig rolled in an attempt to recover, but Charlie threw a chair at him. The chair fell into the fire, knocking several iron implements into it. The upholstery caught fire as Wolfgang crawled away on his elbows and knees. The mage tackled Charlie, who allowed himself to fall to his back, rolled with the inertia, and shoved his foe with his feet so he flew onto a table, getting stabbed by Wolfgang’s dagger-like letter opener. The wound wasn’t deep, and the mage grabbed the weapon and charged. Charlie rolled out of the way, grabbing a poker from the fire. He slashed viciously with the hook, gouging a long slash in the enemy’s right arm, forcing him to drop his weapon, then slashed again straight across the mage’s eyes. Kreig screamed. Charlie grabbed the heaviest thing he could get his hands on—a paperweight with a black scorpion inside—and bashed his foe over the head, knocking him out.
“Charlie-sama! We have Wolfgang!” Hato called.
“I’ve got Kreig!” Charlie called back, fishing the medallion from his foe’s boot and putting it in the box. He kicked this toward Hato, who grabbed it. Charlie hefted the dark mage to his shoulder and carried him quickly downstairs as the rest of the room caught fire.
Venna and Sheena looked on with interest as Kreig writhed in agony. Charlie had taken him to a place where two lay-lines intersected, binding a spell of regeneration to the lines so that it would always have a power source. Other magicks kept him alive no matter how he was injured, and prevented it from even occurring to anyone nearby to free him. A vulture swooped down, pecking out one of his eyes, which immediately began to grow back.
“So, our enemy does have a vengeful streak.” the voice of the Mistress said. The other women turned and bowed to her.
“He was awfully nice to Wolfgang, leaving him to the Church’s discipline again.”
“He was defrocked, excommunicated and turned over to American secular justice, with Amelie as star witness and a jury not-so-subtly stacked with young mothers, his family’s home was burned down, and Charlie’s father had a talk with the warden about Wolfgang’s cellmate assignment.”
“I would have banished him to my current favorite hell-dimension.” Sheena remarked. “But that’s just me.”
“Whatever, I’m saved the trouble of punishing that failure.” the Mistress said. “I believe that makes it your turn, Sheena.” Sheena gulped.
“Yes, Mistress.” she squeaked.
“If Sheena fails, it falls to you, Venna.” the Mistress added. “No mistakes.”
“No, Mistress Albina.” the two said, bowing low. Kreig screamed as a scavenger grabbed his balls in its teeth.
“Here’s the medallion, Ali Myrdhynn.” Sanna said, placing the two boxes in the center of the Circle, currently occupied only by members she knew. The head Archmage picked the boxes up, opening them both and picking the medallion from the Fell’s box.
“Why is it smashed?” he asked, holding up the mangled remains.
“Oh, uh, Charlie wanted to test a new defensive measure.” she said. “Anyone trying to get into his house by jamming his wards is going to get a most unpleasant surprise.” Ali Myrdhynn nodded.
“How is he?”
“Still sleeping in the nursery, when one of us isn’t soothing him or when he isn’t busy studying.”
“Don’t be surprised if you feel as if you’re being watched.” Ali Myrdhynn said, returning the medallion to its box. “The Order M’rdread has taken a personal interest in Charlie for some reason. He and his family will be kept under observation in case his luck should run out.”
“You’re not angry about what he did to that M’rdread mage?”
“I’ve done worse with less provocation, Iset Myrdhynn.” Ali Myrdhynn responded, his voice taking on an affectionate tone.
“For what weight my opinion carries in my present state, I think the Order is after him because of his link to the Crystal of Atlantis, because his strength comes from love, and because of his lineage.”
“I was wondering if you knew about that.” Ali Myrdhynn said approvingly. “Speaking of ‘your present state,’ does he know?”
“I don’t think so, though his sensitivity increases as his skills improve.” Her hand absently drifted to her stomach, though the new life inside her was much, much too small to be visible or tangible by ordinary means at present. “I think he’s recovered enough from his ordeal for me to inform him. And yes, it was deliberate on my part.”
“What of the baby who was taken?”
“Camber’s fine. Not a mark on him. None of my attempts at divination show any ill effect on his end.”
“That’s good.” Ali Myrdhynn said. “’Camber,’ hmm? To bend upward? I like it.” Sanna’s expression showed that Charlie hadn’t had the approval of Merlin’s Circle in mind when he’d chosen the name. She respectfully took her leave, returning to Charlie’s parlor, where she found Hato, her apprentice and those women who were involved with Charlie but not bound to him. She watched as Ina cast a match-magic spell on Hato’s lips. She kissed Hato deeply, moaning as the spell made her as much Charlie’s property as the ninja was. She staggered backwards, reeling from the self-referential shift.
“He does seem to inspire voluntary surrender on occasion.” Sanna muttered, a slight smile curling her lips as the other women gave themselves as well. To her surprise, Shiko joined in. “After all these centuries, it’s nice to know I can still be surprised.” She strolled up the stairs so she could be the first to give Charlie her happy news.