The Fifth Age

by D'Artagnon

Chapter 4

The Perfect Fourth

As lunchtime came and went, I contemplated my battle, alone. A variety of thoughts passed through my head. Were my family in danger now because of what I could do, of what could be looking to smack me around at home. The thought of my dorky little brother wandering into a fight I was having with some supernatural beast, wiping out his little painted wooden lightsaber practice thing for his YMCA sponsored "alternate fencing" class gave me shudders. No matter what skills the instructor there might impart to those kids, there's no chance in hell any of them would even be a match for that kobold.

But that is another story.

So yes, I got scared. And not the heat of a battle fear, either. That kind of crap was a different level. The kind of scared I got now was cold, dark. The fear of "what if…."

Around 1 PM, Meryl came downstairs. Loose T-shirt with the Motley Crue "Dr. Feelgood" tour logo almost faded off the chest, pair of loose boxers this time, the fly unbuttoned and flexing open with each step down the stairs his only clothing, although his hands were loaded. The box he held was heavy, made of oak held in place by leather strips and bronze rivets. Easily half his height, he dragged the end in his arms behind, while affecting a levitation on the back end so it sort of followed him around in the air.

With an exasperated sigh, he heaved it about and landed the case onto the coffee table, nearly landing it on what I hoped was an empty pizza box. He sat back on the couch, wiping his hand across his forehead in recognition of his own effort. "Hey, Meryl. You need help with that heavy thing? Gee whiz, thanks, Marc. That'd be swell of you," he said, laying in the sarcasm as heavy as cream cheese on a bagel.

"Okay, I'll bite. What's in the box, shorty?"

"You needed some examples of Foci, and a better understanding of the other tools a Mage uses in the field. So I brought all of my usuals down. Had to go into the attic to get it."

"I hate to think if you keep your attic as messy as your living room…"

"Yeah, yeah, shut up. Open the case." I looked at him to see what his mood was, only to find he had one hand going up one leg of his undies, manipulating. I looked away and examined the case.

Why did he need to keep baiting me like that? He'd told me to observe closely, but was it just because he liked other people watching him do sexual stuff? And his physical age was a thing for me. He was, or at least looked to be, younger than my little brother. Yet it was like he kept trying to get me… trying to make me feel…

Nope, don't want to go there. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

The case seemed to be key locked, with the key sticking out of the locking mechanism, but clearly meant to be removed. It was an old timey looking key, some kind of animal head sculpted in wire above a round shaft. I touched it and pulled my hand back suddenly. I felt a tingle go up my arm, with the feel of Forces and Prime about it. He'd trapped the case!

"What you just felt was an alarm ward going off. If I hadn't disabled the load, it would have uncorked a bolt of prime and a blast of flame. Enough of both to cook a warhorse in its own sauce."

"Uh, thanks for the warning?" I asked, clearly not happy.

"I wanted you to feel that, so you can figure out how I did it, and learn to search for it before you just lay hands on any ole thing."

"What lesson is wards?"

"Tomorrow. Because you will need them to get past the security in Boston."

"Great, grand, lov-el-ly," I said, mimicking his "I'm better than you, Colonist," voice. He bounced off the couch and stood beside me pointing to the front of the box.

"Notice how the key head is shaped like a lion's head. It only goes in like that, the jaw up, towards the lid. Turn the key left twice, right once, no more than a quarter turn either time. It is not the turning that unlocks the case, it's that it feels someone of suitable Mage energy."

"Extra security?"

"Well, that. And I was sort of bored when I built it. Needed to make it overly complicated but also easy to get into. You never know when you'll need what's in there to uncork on someone."

"I shudder to think. So, that's it. Two left, one right?"

"Yes, and pull the key out after you unlock it. I want it to imprint on you."


"What is this, the fuckin' internet? Yes, Imprint," he said impatiently. "If something happens to me, this stuff needs to pass to someone who can use it without accidentally cracking open the planet."


"Yeah, so get to opening it."

Two left, one right, pull. I took the key and dropped it securely into my pocket, feeling it tingle as its weight settled on my leg. I lifted the lid, which was a lot heavier than I anticipated. As I opened it, the case seemed to move, shift, grow, expand. It had been the size of a suitcase, but now, as I pulled the lid up, it forced itself off the table, suddenly being as big as an armoire. It opened up like a sideways clamshell.

Inside, hung a set of bronze shoulder pauldrons. Yeah, I had to look up the spelling of that. The pauldrons covered what would have been the shoulders and neck of whoever wore them, with a cloak descending from it a deep red color. And while that was what first caught my attention it was just one of many fascinating objects inside that box.

There were swords from different European and Asian cultures. Small daggers, a Viking shield and a Roman Scutum and a Spartan great shield in there, along with spears from each of those cultures. There were objects that looked Greek, Egyptian, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and some that were from cultures I couldn't identify right off. Some looked surprisingly like very ornate revolvers from some overly produced old Western movie, polished to a brilliant finish. Some looked like highly decorative martial arts weapons from a ninja movie.

Then there were some that I couldn't identify either their use or value. A simple clay pot with a lid sealed with red wax, like on a cheese wheel. And one weird thing that looked like a gold plated handle, like for some old hand crank or something. It really seemed out of place among the other objects. He also had a jar full of what appeared to be wadded up paper, marbles and jacks, like what girls played with when TV was new. And there was a thing that looked like a cross between a tool box and a Rubix's Cube.

And, yes there was a box that had a smoky glass top but through the haze, you could clearly see a collections of wands. I went to go touch the wand case only to have his infernal shortness reach up and slap my hand away. "Not today," he said, simply. I could see beside the wand case was a single glass case with a diagonally cut top. Inside stood a single wooden dowel, with a small bit of silky white cloth inside. 'Must be for the Stone,' I thought.

"Whoa! You used to use all of these?"

"When you live backwards through time, you tend to pick up some pretty sweet gear," he smiled, bragging. "And I didn't wear them all at once. Different cultures respond to different artifacts in different ways. My armor, though, that's pretty much standard." He reached out and touched the cloth of the cloak, patting it like his favorite pet. "Hello old friend," he whispered.

He seemed to shake himself out of the moment and looked around to me. "For now, I want you to mostly look," and he turned to the right wing of the case, pulling open the top of a chest of drawers set into the corner of the armoire, "in here." As he pulled open the draw, a swirl of light popped up in twisting brilliants, in ways that movie special effects departments would be envious of.

Inside the drawer, when the lightshow became tolerable enough to look at directly, were… things. Each one had its own case or display, as if to give them each their own space. Some were objects of jewelry, and old objects at that. Egyptian snake armlet with eyes of lapis lazuli. One thing I thought was some kind of belly dancing get up turns out to be a thin leather belt decorated with a feather motif with a lot of straps hanging from it, trailing gold and silver wires bunched in tassles, festooned along the strap length with what looked like coins, rings, semiprecious stones and long ornately carved beads.

"Your fashion sense has improved," I commented wryly, indicating the belt. "That would definitely stand out. I hope that's not all you would wear."

"Oh, that." He smiled and spoke very quickly in a language I didn't understand.

"Was that Arabic?"

"Close. Coptic. The language of the ancient Egyptians. That is an overskirt. Mostly worn when I was working."

"Must have made a heck of a noise when you walked. How did you keep them from tangling up."

"It wasn't easy. But, it was a status symbol as well as a practical magical device. You see, these help gather ambient magic as you move. The tassels would sweep up the energy as it lifted out of the Earth."

"So, tassels actually do that?"

"Once upon a time, magic was once as prevalent in some places on this little world as water. And many of the same physical rules about magic work with water as well. It flows, it gathers. It can turn bad." At the face I made he rolled his eyes and explained. "It can fall into stagnant patterns and can cause effects unexpected or detrimental to other patterns."

"Ah. Bad," I agreed. "I'm not going to have to wear a get up like this as a foci, am I?"

"Don't knock it til you try it," Meryl grinned. "I bet you'd look rather fetching in just an overskirt. But, no. The amount of energy you could potentially gain from wearing that much tassel these days is not sufficient to the trouble of it. Just not worth hassle."

"So the tassel isn't worth the hassle? I asked, grinning, letting my New England accent dig into the words.

"Cheeky Colonist!" he barked back. "The energy is still down in the Earth, but it is in a more cold state. And while it resonates within you and me and few others, the power is not being called on enough to surge and fill common folk as it once did. Even in the time of the Egyptians, it was fading. Nowadays, it is more practical to just stick energy in things to save it for later. Like electrical batteries. We call such things Tas. And there are many different types of Tas. We'll get into that later. Right now you need something to help your aim, not to reload your gun."

"Should I carry more than one foci with me?"

"A very good question. I would say that you should carry as many as you feel comfortable with and can wield without it interrupting other patterns you choose to keep around you."

"Which explains why so many of these are things you'd wear."

"Oh?" Meryl asked. "Let's see what you've figured out. Explain."

"Well, we are hiding in plain sight. So our tools, for lack of a better word, should be things that blend into the culture, are things that others will accept as normal. Right?"

"So far. Go on."

"So, physical foci should be things that are, easy to carry, don't alert suspicion, allow us to work easily and are practical for what they do. Like if the foci were dancing, some kind of music would be good, so a playlist on my phone for my ear buds would work."

"I see nothing wrong with that."

"Even though cell phones are tech and not magic?"

"Marc, magic and tech aren't mutual exclusives. They are different ways of manipulating nature. One is just better understood and more easily manipulated. You will find that it's more just a difference of which tools work better for different jobs. You don't need a hammer to spread butter, but you could."

"Or a magic wand?"

"Greatly depends on what that wand is designed to do. It could be a magical tool unto itself or it could simply be a foci that helps you aim."

"Okay, so a lot of foci here, from what I see, are basically three things. Mostly clothing, jewelry or weapons."

"Keen eye," he smiled, turning his face partly away from me, slyly.

I inhaled and considered my next words carefully. "So, it is in the making of the object that the patter is laid into it. The materials matter to a degree, but it is how you impose the flow of energy into the pattern that creates the effect."

"Teach it and preach it!"

"So, it is the construction and understanding of setting the pattern into the object that makes it magical."

Meryl clapped slowly, his face beaming. "There's hope for you yet. Which means?"

"So that means I need to make something magical to keep on me, as well as figure out a foci. Something to help fight, help hide. Something simple."

"I will say this," he offered after a small silence. "You are not wrong. And I admire the thought you put behind this. A foci should be your first priority. But I think you are on to the right track in creating a magical device of your own."

I looked at the tassels on the overskirt belt. "Can the thing I build be more than one thing?"

"You can build as many as you want."

"I mean, more than one function in one… thing?"

"There are ways," the little freak said, with his infuriating irony. "Give it more thought." He snapped his fingers and the box closed itself up. "Keep that key with you. Non-Awakened folk wont be able to see it for its true shape, which you can use to tell who is and isn't magical."

"Enchantments on top of enchantments," I nodded. "Wont you need a key for it?"

"One of my rules about building multi-dimensional space warping secret boxes to hide my super powerful shit… Always have more than one way to open the box." He pointed towards the box then towards the stairs, whistling. "Alright you, back to your spot!"

And no word off a lie… the box lifted on its own, and bounded down the hallway and up the stairs like a cocker spaniel promised a treat. If the box had had a tail, the damn thing would be wagging, happily. Meryl turned back to look up at me smugly. "And always build it to your own style."

"This is gonna take a lot of thought," I said.

"Good thing you've started doing that. So you have ideas about foci and or magical devices?"

"Maybe. I think I need to research what materials work best within which Spheres."

"Now that is a capital idea," he said and held out his hand. I thought he wanted me to slap five, and got the weirdest raised eyebrow look when I did. Somewhere upstairs an object hit the ground and I realized he was summoning something. He held out his hand again, but turned partly away from me. A book sailed into the room and planted itself in Meryl's tiny paw.

"It's okay, I don't blame you," he cooed to the book. Looking up at me, he presented the book. "You may use this while you are here. You may copy from it. If you are smart, you will copy all of it, exactly as it is. Today. And read it. This volume was my first primer on how to create magical artifacts. It has everything that I knew during my training. Materials, techniques, simple fixes. Patterns. All of it."

"Whoa! How long ago was this?"

"Wiseass!" he snapped. "It was my first decade as a Mage, under my first master. I translated all my old scrolls into that book in the early days of Christinity, after they went about burning libraries."

"So this is in a language I can read?"

"Talk to the book about the language, not me."


"Its one of my books. It will decide if it wants you to know what's written inside or not."

"Is it okay if I take pics with my phone?"

He shook the book in my direction, bouncing it with each word. "Ask. The. Book."

I accepted the book and was surprised at how heavy it was. I had to snatch my arm to keep from dropping it. "A lot of ink in there?"

"Old magical things will always have properties you don't expect. And that's some weighty material in that book. Treat it with respect. The knowledge in there is older than this continent."

"Really? Wow!" Which brought up another question for me. "So, who was you're old master?"

"You worry about what's in that book. We can talk about my pedigree later." He sighed at that. I got the feeling that some memory was fighting to take precedence in his head. But, ever the diligent task master, he resumed his part of the student-teacher relationship. "It will help you immensely."

He turned and held out his hand, his game controller floating to meet it. And with that, he was too busy for me. Which meant I was excused to begin my reading of the book.

Many hours later, I closed the book, laying a green ribbon across the last section I had read. I'd put about a fifth of the book into my head, many charts and lists and diagrams into my phone's camera roll. I made it a point to thank the book, and got the strange feeling that it giggled appreciatively. My eyes ached, but I had taken many notes. I got the feeling the book liked me, but wasn't going to let me cut corners.

Much like Meryl himself. The notion that this wasn't just his book, but an echo of his younger self flittered across my mind. As if it was the impression of his own magnificent personality stamped into the pages and ink of the book itself. Yeah, and there was a lot of ink in there. A lot of ink. Enough ink that I decided to not just trust my normal infallible memory.

But the stuff in there…, some of it was interesting and unexpected. Some was weird and I had to remember it was from an entire other age of humanity. It seemed so alien. Even more of it was macabre. Just gross and disgusting. I mean, it was talking about using parts of animals, harvested in particularly gruesome ways (often while the creature was still alive, at least for a short while).

And yet, it gave me ideas. Something to give me a bit of a magical edge if I got in a fight again. Tiredly, I sketched out what I intended, making a list of what I'd need to get started. It wasn't going to be terribly expensive, but it was going to require a lot of time.

I also realized what I needed for a foci. I would have to go old school. My trouble was Forces. I was good at gathering the energy to fuel the pattern, but my aim needed help. And what I needed for a foci would be useful for many other Spheres as well. In short, I needed a wand.

As I returned the book to Meryl, all packed up to go home, I broached the subject about the wand. I had read in his book that it needed to be something that I choose, something from a material dear to my birth and something that fit my personality. I almost expected him to say something like "the wand chooses the wizard." But instead he said that as a foci, it need only be something I'm comfortable with. The special materials aspect would only be an issue for specific magical effects.

"Unless it is a power source or something with a specific purpose, the point of a foci is to give you a focus. To relax you so you can concentrate, be more precise." He burped loudly, scratching his butt. "It's all in your head."

I slung my pack over my back and bid him goodnight. However, the little shit held up his hand, looking at me with a stern expression set on his little boy's face. "What, you tired or something?"

"Yeah, I've been in the book for 5 hours. My Mom is gonna freak if I'm late for dinner."

"Just pick a room upstairs and get some sleep. I've got a time delay going on outside the walls. What seems like ten hours out there is like 10 days in here. You aren't leaving these walls until you have a foci ready and you build something to protect yourself beyond them."

"But I'll need materials."

"I think I might have most of just about anything you need, or know where to get it. Besides, kobolds are single hunters, but they live in warrens. So there's a good chance more than one may be hunting in this area."


"Not now. You need sleep. I need pizza. Go get some rest and we'll talk about what you need and go foraging in my workshop."

So long story short, I picked a room at the top of the stairs. Didn't care about the décor, just picked one with a bed that didn't have stuff all over, and plopped down to sleep. It had been a weird start to my day, but sleep was entirely necessary. After nearly becoming a kobold's juice box, then almost getting fried by a trapped box holding Meryl's dangerous toys, then exploring the world of mystical building materials… it had been a heck of a day. It didn't take me long to drop into sleep. I didn't even take off my sneakers, just dropped my pack beside the bed and sacked out.

I awoke to the sound of something in the house. I say something, because I know Meryl wouldn't trash his own place. Oh sure, he's a bona fide slob, but even he doesn't go crashing about breaking stuff, hurling heavy objects onto the stone floors of the old converted church. Although, it really upset me that I didn't hear him returning fire, screaming curses in hundreds of languages about someone messing up his place.

I mean, if someone could silence his mouth, then they might have just plain silenced Meryl. The permanent way.

That scared me and pissed me off at the same time. I rolled out of bed and crept into the hallway, glad that I hadn't taken my shoes off. I took a deep breath and focused my mind. I amplified my physical senses and reached my far senses down into the lower part of the house.

Well, at least it wasn't a kobold.

The thing was easily the size of a bear. And not one of the little ones that occasionally you see on the news. You know, going for a swim in a family pool in some Maine suburb. Not the ones that knock over trash barrels looking for something to nom, like giant raccoons. No, this was something out of a nightmare. It was huge. And while it was all muscle and bone and just massive sized, that's about where the bear comparison ends.

The head looked like something out of a undersea movie. Squid, octopus, kraken, whatever you want to call it, the head was massive, kind of pointed backwards, and had a ring of tentacles around where the mouth should be. It was lashing about, using its tentacles and its huge front paws and a set of long spikes protruding from over its heavy, bony head. The kitchen, which was already a wreck, to be honest, was getting trashed.

Meryl's hand lifted into mine, a silent request for mental communication. I was glad he wasn't hurt. Even more glad he was there and had the wits to keep quiet.

What you are seeing is a murgal. A semi aquatic creature from a parallel dimension; a creature often used as a war mount by the minions of elder gods long gone from this realm. A paralyzing poison drips from the tentacles. Razor sharp beak where the tentacles meet. Wickedly strong, very tough. Able to scale walls. And a lot more agile than they look.

I really don't like where this is going, I thought back.

Me either. But they are brutes. Very dumb, easily trainable, but not very creative. Still, dangerous predators.

So what is a murgal doing in your home?

She must have busted out of her pen again. I really need to get around to fixing that.

A pet?

No. No. More of a research project. I turned and looked down at him, a look of horror on my face. He looked up, innocently. What, it's some powerful poison. I need to know.

Riiiight. So what do we do with HER?

Madeline can be a rough murgal to deal with, but I still have research to do. I'd rather not destroy her just yet. Maybe you could lead her back to her pen.

Okay, there's so much about that which I have issues with, not the least of which is calling that beast Madeline. I don't know where the pen is.

It's in the stables, out back. There's a carriage house. The right door opens to the garage, the left door opens to the bestiary. Her's will be the only stall open, likely broken out.

So why don't you do it?

He let go of my hand and crossed his arms over his narrow chest. I got the message pretty quickly. Master says, student does.

"Madeline, huh?" I whispered, taking a deep breath.

"Yeah. Named after my fifth wife. Started out sweet, rapidly became a life-draining, raving bitch."

"What happened to her?" I said, my far senses still watching the murgal go through the pantry intent on destroying the place. I was amazed at how many sugary cereals Meryl had, and how many the murgal sent flying.

"Black plague, Aquitaine province of France." He said it so matter of factly, so flat and emotionless, that I knew it was far more deeply hurtful remembering than he wanted to let on.

"Oh. I'm sorry."

"She can take a few zaps. But do try to take her without harming her, or getting yourself maimed in the process."

He was talking about the Madeline in the kitchen, making a huge mess of a bag of flour, white billowy clouds of the powder swinging around the tentacles. I nodded. "And what will you do?"

"I got to pinch a log like you wouldn't believe," he grinned.

"Ugh. I did not need to know that."

"Sometimes when you ask a good question, you get a weird answer. Hurry up and get her situated. I'll clean up the kitchen after I wipe."

"Wash your hands this time," I said, heading down stairs. Madeline… I'll never look at that book or movie the same way ever again, both for the murgal awaiting me, or the idea of Meryl's wife and how painfully she must have died. Black plague. I'd done a report on it for world history in sixth grade. Thanks to the internet, I'd gone down a rabbit hole of more detailed information on that subject than any 11-year-old ever should. Truly horrifying.

So pretty much this was a test. Not just of my abilities but of my resourcefulness. Having never seen her pen, I couldn't just use Correspondence to drop Madeline there. Attacking the creature with fire seemed counter intuitive. It might provoke her to run amok, get out of the house and grounds and then who knows what may happen. Certainly would be really bad if she does something that makes the evening news.

My far senses showed me that Madeline was munching sloppily on a mix of cereals, rice, and whatever else made up what Meryl was about to poop out. My immediate thought was to use that. If she's hungry, maybe she will follow food. And if she just follows food and doesn't see me, so much the better. I didn't know how tame she might be, or if she might get hungry for lean teen on the hoof. Besides, Meryl said she dripped poison from her face. I wasn't ready to be nose to nose with anything that dripped paralyzing toxin like mucus.

I slipped down the stairs and tried to move silently. It wasn't easy. Like I said, Meryl is a slob and the carpet had stuff. Not like wall to wall, but there were things that probably were intended to get in the trash bin, but the kid wasn't gifted enough athletically to hit drill three pointers with candy wrappers. He's kinda lazy, too. Fortunately enough, no sounds I might have made were louder than the beasts own grunting, munching and breathing sounds.

My foot sank. Into something warm… and wet. And f-f-f-fragrant. Yeah, let's call it fragrant. I withheld the gasp, which was probably good. I didn't want to inhale more than that whiff! But it was deep… and clingy. I was going to have to burn those shoes after this. Or just Correspondence them directly to the sun. Which is a lot easier to do than it sounds. I looked down and saw that the stuff… let's just call it stuff… was a pale tan color that blended in almost perfectly with the color of the kitchen ceramic tiles. The low lighting in the kitchen made the camouflage compete.

Madeline didn't look up. Didn't even stop her grazing. I took that moment to remove my foot from the thick, pungent, clingy, gross, post digestion murgal stuff. I looked around the kitchen floor to make sure that there weren't any more mounds about. I intended to keep my balance despite the gooey crap covering my shoes up past my ankles. Bad enough I could feel it squishing around the openings of my shoes, soaking into the socks.

My hand reached out and rested on the nearest kitchen countertop, which had a project laid out on it. Soldering set, tools, some kind of electrical device in mid production. Looks like Meryl had been cobbling together something from some of his many toys. At heart, he was a tinkerer. From this half crouched position, I found myself looking at the weird back end of the murgal. Twin, side by side tails seemed to mark where the mess on my left foot originated. I am glad that they hung down close enough that I couldn't see what lay between their stubby, finned trailings, but clearly there were two.

And then something under my hand moved, shifted and dropped off the countertop, onto the floor. Something heavy, metallic, hollow. And it echoed as it bounced.

Madeline noticed. Her squid-like face turned so that one of her eyes focused on me. You have to picture it. I'm have crouched, leaning on the countertop, alien beast crap on my foot up to my knee, looking at the hind end of that beast who is now looking at me with the glare of and angry lion whose lunch has just been interrupted. Suddenly I felt like I wasn't the only one in the house who needed to "pitch a log."

"Hey, big girl," I said, as if talking to a neighbor's unruly dog. A low rumbling sounds passed from the murgal, ending in a sickeningly wet sounding chuff with enough vocal power to it that the tentacles pulsed. "Bet you're hungry." Madeline's mouth parts twitched and spun as if a cow chewing her cud. Yet still that eye remained focused on me. Her body shifted, as if to keep a better view of me. Or perhaps just keeping her twin-tailed back end pointed at me.

She growled. Loud. An ululating sound that was deep, throaty, and seemed to be a lot wetter than any throat born on dry land should. My hand on the countertop grasped the first thing it came into contact with and brought it to my side. I didn't know what tool I'd gotten my cold, stiff fingers around, but I felt better with it in my grasp. Any weapon might make the difference between me continuing to love sushi, or becoming sushi.

One massive paw shifted, lifted, turned and thumped the ground, shifting her body weight more. She was positioning to protect her feeding area. She looked like she was going to move on me. My breathing became tight. Like my chest was heaving but not wildly, not ragged. Part of Meryl's training had been to focus on my breathing to stay in control of my emotions, my thinking. To not panic in a crisis.

Meryl's other training came to mind. Consider carefully. Rely on magic, but let your sorcery fit the situation. So I put my mind through the situation and pared down to what Sphere or Spheres I should use.

Madeline might be a monster, but she was a living creature, composed of matter, had some sort of animating spirit and mind. So those were the primary Spheres I could use: Life, Matter, Spirit and Mind. I immediately dismissed Spirit. I didn't know enough about murgals to understand what Spirit applications might work. I might try to use Mind to dominate her, perhaps make animal level suggestions. Anything to get her heading out the door without a ruckus. Maybe I could trick her sense of smell that something yummy is out in the stables, using a combination of Mind and Life.

A plan began to form to do just that, getting her to find food back in someplace that was her home. She quickly dissuaded me from that, however. She spun about, much quicker and tighter than I would have thought possible given her bulk. Her breath fell upon me, her mouth parts opening wide with that rippling roar. She still stood over ten feet away, but the heat and stink of her washed over me. I stepped back, my coated foot sort of sticking in place. I raised the tool I'd grabbed up from Meryl's electrical project and held it out, brandishing it. And when I saw what I'd picked up, I almost dropped it, feeling it was useless.

I'd picked up, as a defensive weapon, a telescoping magnetic wand. The sort of thing that you'd use to pick up machine screws from the floor if you'd dropped them into some narrow, tight space. Not even a pointed one. Collapsed, it was no bigger than a gel pen, with a magnet mounted in the tip smaller than a penny. I was so screwed.

Madeine charged. More like she bounded twice at me, prepared to chomp my face off. No time for anything complicated or elegant. I needed to go into brute force. Which meant I got to use one of my favorite rotes, Sky Claw, a combination of Forces to manipulate gravity and Mind to just telekinetically shove something around. Brute force.

On her second bound, I flicked the magnetic wand, partly extending it, and focused my mind. Madeline carried on past me, coasting on her own momentum as my rote cancelled gravity's hold on her bulk. It took a moments effort to arrest her flight and guide her bulky butt back through the wide open kitchen door, out onto the checkerboard. I cancelled the effect as she landed, roughly and on her side. It gave me a moment to get outside. She gathered herself slowly, a bit dizzy, I think. Gravity going crazy messes with your insides, so I'm sure she wasn't feeling steady. I looked at the magnet on a stick in my hand, realizing that the Sky Claw rote was super easy. Perhaps the wand had acted like a foci. How very Harry Potterish!

Her strained breathing and grunting reminded me that Madeline was still outside of her protective enclosure. I still had work to do. But we were outside now, and she was a bit winded, recovering. So I had time to weave the spell of my original idea: convince the murgal to get back in her pen on her own. I reached into her mind, using Mind, and was overwhelmed by the impressions it left me with.

We are all constructs of our reality. Or rather, of the perceptions we have of reality. It forms how we think, act, respond to stimulus, even how our bodies develop, no matter what DNA says. The proteins may have power of what we might be, but it is how that physical, chemical, and spiritual potential reacts, interacts and finds equilibrium in the environment that gives us structure, movement, and yes, even defines our outlook. Dumb animals and cartoon characters exemplify this. Eeyore may be gloomy, but he's a pleasant sort, just resigned to his condition.

I'm getting away from the story. So, I contacted her mind and for a moment I wasn't Marc. I was suddenly Madeline. Which isn't to say that her mind dominated me. Far from it. I might not be a genius, but Madeline has all the mental acuity of a gerbil. Just add in the brute force of a pissed off bison (that's an American Buffalo, for you non "colonist" types). What overwhelmed me for a moment was trying to interpret reality through her senses while still living with my own personal life experiences.

First of all, her color vision was radically different. Muted, yet it seemed to spark in the green and red areas of the spectrum, as if someone had cranked up the tint on my grandfather's old Magnavox CRT style TV screen. The big glass type that seemed to curve backwards into the cabinet at the corners of the screen. And her vision was warped, with only a small area of overlap in the front for depth perception, but a much wider side view. She could almost see behind, if her big ass body wasn't stuck behind her. Madeline seemed to have a very keen sense of smell and hearing, by comparison. I got the feeling that most of her skin acted as her ears.

The weirdest thing was the magnetic sensor feelings my body tried to process. There are snakes that have pits below their eyes that are actually highly sophisticated heat sensors. Some birds and bugs have bits of metal imbedded in their skulls, some in their brains, that allow them to navigate based on magnetic properties of the Earth itself. Many sea creatures rely on echo location from sound to figure their way around. Bats, too. Still other sea creatures can generate and sense magnetic and electrical fields.

Murgals apparently can hunt based on magnetic resonance. The long horns over the eyes seem to be magnetic sensors, because I felt my eyebrows lift and fan out, as if reaching into the air to pick up subtle vibrations. Just moving that tiny magnet on a stick made the horns react to track it. And made my eyebrows feel like a mosquito was moving on them. Really freaky weird.

But I got more than just her sensory impressions. I got a full sense of her body, all parts of it. Being biologically male, there was a strangeness to it that is hard to describe. The tentacles from the mouth made my lips feel oddly distended, as did the sense of gills fluttering liquidly. Plus there was the whole quadruped thing, the feeling overly warm, and like there wasn't enough pressure on my body to deal with as well. Being in open air just seemed to irritate the crap out of her. She wanted to eat, go back into deep water and sleep. Poor Madeline was one unhappy murgal.

I considered how I could use these insights. She didn't really want to fight. She just wanted to be comfortable. Despite her alien nature, Madeline was really a creature of simple needs. Getting her out of the house was more than half the job. Just convincing her to get back in her pen was the other half. If the stables were anything like everything else in Meryl's private paradise, the food and water needs for the murgal should be in her pen already. All I had to do was get her to go there.

I created an intense hunger in her, and plucked a memory of something delicious to her rarified tastes to stir her appetite. She regained her feet, looked at me oddly, then shuffled past towards the carriage house. The door to the stable side was open, looked like it had taken a little damage. Nothing I couldn't repair with a judicious use of Forces and Matter. I pushed the hunger and memory together in her vacant mind, and watched as Madeline strode back into the stables. Her pen looked like any horse stable I'd seen on TV or movies, at least from the outside. Within, however…

Okay, so I didn't step into the pen with her, but I was still linked to her mind, feeding her impressions and focusing on the need to feed. So when she passed through the open entrance to her stall, the part of me that was still me felt the Correspondence gateway. Madeline just felt like she was diving into the deeper parts of the sea. Her mood immediately improved. So did mine. I released my grip on the murgal's mind and slid the door closed over the entrance to her pen, latching it closed. At least as closed as it can be while still broken. I guess that would be up to me as well.

I turned to leave, happy that I had accomplished Meryl's task, using magic when I ran into what I thought had to be another escapee from the stables. I mean where else would you expect to find a unicorn at a magician's home but his private stables.

The pictures of these majestic creatures dreamt up in human fancy do not do them justice. The mare before me was at least four feet taller than me, a tawny golden brown color to her coat, luminous and almost glittering strands of purest chestnut brown for her mane and tail, and the long fur that enshrouded the socks of her hooves, well, except for the left rear sock, which was white. The one eye that regarded me was huge, a soulful aquamarine color, and seemed to be examining me like a doctor that was not pleased with me for some lack of hygiene.

The horn was mostly pearly, iridescent, at least four feet long, and seemed to be double spiraled. I had no doubt that anyone speared on that would be in a world of hurt. Nothing about this creature bespoke of a dainty or girly nature, other than it was clearly a female of the species. This wasn't some light-weight fantasy beast. This was a being used to chasing the wind, catching it, and then racing past it, wild and free. Grace and power and speed. Truly awesome.

For the record, I clearly remember saying "whoa!" softly. I mean, this being positively radiated magical energy. I don't know how I didn't notice it on the way into the stables. I mean, this was an athlete equine. Horses this big would be called Clydesdales. The kind of animals that used to draw fire wagons in the old, pre automobile days.

I took a step towards the unicorn mare and she turned her head, to put both of her eyes on me. She didn't move otherwise. I reached out a hand towards her long, horsey face and was about to touch her when I saw Meryl walk into view, peering past the unicorn to where I stood while he was still just at the entranceway of the stables.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Marc," he warned. "Keep calm, let her determine if she wants to get closer to you. She's just curious, but no need to antagonize her."

"Does she bite?" I asked, keeping my hand up, but drawing it back a bit.

"Not sure, but with the horn she really doesn't need to."

"Oh, so she's not exactly tame yet?"

"Uh, that's a unicorn, Marcus. They go where they want to. I have never tried to tame one of those because they can't be tamed."

"She's not one of yours?" I asked, wondering why a creature like this wasn't part of his collection.

"Those are bygones, kiddo. Ancient. Perhaps this world was their homeland once, but that was before we apes learned to make fire a dangerous friend. They are all turned to pure spirit form now. They can travel the cosmos at will, slip into the Umbra with uncanny speed and I believe they have the ability to teleport."

"Whoa!" I breathed out. Her gaze shifted to be between Meryl and myself. On a whim, I focused my mind on Spirit Sphere and the energy flowing from the unicorn was dazzling. Not blinding, and none of that girly, pastel rainbow stuff. Just a soft glow of pure light. I felt no animosity, no anger, just a sense of calm, inquisitiveness and… joy.

"Yes," Meryl said, keeping his voice almost reverent. "They are truly powerful, and while not the same as our way of thinking, vastly intelligent. Wondrous beings."

The unicorn seemed to giggle, although with a horsey flavor. And… there was a musical sort of tone with it. No wonder there are such stories of enchantment about these beings. The creature walked out of the stable, passing close to Meryl, nuzzling his hair. For his part, my mentor stood perfectly still, but smiled to her. She whinnied again, glanced back at me and then let out a long, bright note, as if from a flute, mixed with a shimmer of light. Her mane shook as the note grew in power and volume. And as the note hit its loudest, the unicorn flicked her head, the horn pointing in my direction.

In that moment, a spark of some kind flew out my way. Reflexively, I caught the spark, even as the light from the unicorn faded, along with the pure tone. And in that instant, she was gone.

The spark landed in my palm and slithered, attaching itself around my left wrist. It spun as it touched me, flinging pearlescent light, a coolness tightening around my wrist. The light faded, and the feeling of raw Quintessence pulsed in my mind. I was too stunned to make a sound, but I could hear Meryl calling my name in high pitched alarm. The energy folded around me, rose up and crashed through me, penetrated deeply.

I didn't feel the ground rise up to cradle my back and head, abruptly. I've never fallen over backwards completely stiff through the legs like that before. Well, perhaps once, in recent memory. I do remember both Meryl and Madeline looking down over me, before Meryl looked up to her and physically pushed her back into her enclosure. Which I'm grateful for, because Madeline is a drooler. Shortly after that, my lights went out.

I woke to the sounds of an argument in harsh whispers. I was in the bed I'd napped in earlier, distinctly feeling that I'd been stripped down to my underwear. At least they'd left me that dignity. I felt weird. Like the position I was laid out in made me feel like I was the damsel in some Disney movie. The duvet was pulled up to my underarms, with my arms on top, laying beside me. Felt like I was some little kid, tucked in for the night.

I reached a hand up to feel my face. My forehead was awash in heat. And then I remembered the spark, the feeling of coolness around my wrist. I looked down and saw what had become of that glowing bit of Quintessence that the unicorn had spun my way. And if it wasn't my own eyes, I probably would have thought I was crazy at what I saw.

It was made of something like spun glass, cool and smooth to the touch, yet somehow woven like a three strand hemp bracelet. And it moved like woven instead of solid material, too. The strands weren't melted together, still separate, and flat, about half an inch wide. At its widest, the bracelet was maybe two inches across. There was a sort of "mother of pearl" look to the glass. It felt lots lighter than that much glass should have. Loose enough to allow motion yet close enough to my skin that it wasn't' going to slip off. There was a protrusion where the two ends sort of met and swirled into a spike that lay along the thick part of my thumb in my palm. I closed my fist over the spike, and my fingers curled up just over it. The spiraled spike was maybe an inch and a half long, maybe a bit more.

I tried to pull it past my hand, but nope. Wasn't happening. No wiggle room. The material was flexible, as I said, but it was far from giving up its perch. Seems, like Ben Ten, I was stuck with this. But was this beautiful, enchanting bit of magic going to make my life a constant chase by supernatural forces and aliens, like Ben Tennison's Omnitrex, or was this going to be something to make my life easier? Either way, I foresaw a lot of long sleeve shirts in my future. I mean, how the hell was I going to hide this from my Mom, much less anyone at work. "Oh here you go, one cheeseburger and fries. Oh this, oh a unicorn gave it to me. Yeah, dunno where I can find one."

The hushed whispers from down the stairs raised briefly.

"He's not ready, Meryl," a familiar voice said, the tone contemplative. Almost pleading.

"Yet. He will be. I know what I'm doing, Joseph. He's still raw, still getting a feel for thinking on his feet. But he will be ready. He has to be."

I slid out of bed and pulled my shirt over my head, wiggling my arms in. The new bracelet snagged on the sleeve briefly. I padded on socked feet to the top of the stairs. Eavesdropping. I knew that Meryl would know if I used farsenses.

"Be reasonable. Monkeywrenching the MFA, just the two of you? And you can't even step on the front steps without them knowing you're there. If the kid goes in alone, he'll be crushed. And now this… this complicates things. If our enemies can kill your grandson's parents, they are more powerful than you anticipated."

"Don't you think I know that?" my master said, obviously in motion from the way his voice echoed. "I need the stone. Soon. You know why." Meryl's shrill voice seemed out of place. Gone was the sense of control, of restraint. That arrogant confidence. Gone.

The two seemed to be silent, yet moving, and moving things around. I surmised that they were cleaning up the kitchen. And then it sank in. Someone had been killed. Someone with magical capability at least of the same type as Meryl and me. And I figured out that the other speaker was the werewolf guy who dumped me here the night I was opened to my true potential.

"So what will we do?" Joseph asked, sighing loudly.

"Ann and Denis would have taken precautions. They know about… " and the name was obscured by the sound of somethings clanking about in the kitchen trash barrel. "So they would have found a way to protect him."

"They have. A guardian was recently named."

"Someone you know?" Meryl asked, apparently getting a head motion as answer, for the werewolf said nothing aloud. "Someone you trust?"

"Someone I'd trust with my own boys. The four were together when they found the wreckage."

"Very well. He will be at least cared for. He is safer there than if I bring myself into his circle." The fridge door opened and closed before I heard Meryl speak again. "How did it happen?"

"My investigation says they were attacked while on the road. Someone was hurling powerful cantrips, dark gifts and mage effects, even firearms. The car… rolled into a granite outcrop. Whatever hit them, did it hard. There is evidence that they fought back. And that whoever attacked them was able to travel in the Umbra."

"Bloody savages. But that's all the evidence I need. Your little council of various supernaturals is going to be needed. Soon."

"Wow," Joseph said. "No emotion for the death of your daughter?"

I could almost feel the air temperature downstairs drop twenty degrees. That evil little boy stare could freeze sunlight when he got in a cold mood. The lack of anything but breathing sounds down there was proof enough that the werewolf was getting the stink eye from Meryl.

"Boy," he said, that powerful arrogance dripping icicles. "When you've lived as long as I have, lost as many of your own children as I have, you will find that the shock of grief isn't something you share when there is still crisis to deal with. My loss will be something I'll deal with when I'm sure more of us aren't about to die as well."

"I'm just worried. I have six young ones under my charge. Plus the whole mess that happened in Lafayette Square last week." I shuddered, remembering the terrorist shootout that happened about ten days back.

"I am quite surprised that the old Nazi survived this long, let alone what his human alchemy experiment did to him. He was too smart to be that damn blinded by his own pride and arrogance. Dangerous combination. He finally got what was coming to him. I only wish I'd known he was still in the area."

"Two of my young ones are in contact with that experiment. Your grandson one of them."

A long pause ensued. I could almost see the little emotional terrorist I called my teacher stroking his tiny chin as if he had long, gray beard hairs entangled below his pouty lips. "I see. Mitch's boy among that group as well?"


"Good," Meryl said with finality. "Mitch is good people. The under generation will need that guidance when the flames come."

"You turning doom prophet in your old age?"

"I was a doom prophet when your father was blaming his teen masturbation on fleas," the juvenile ancient one grumbled.

Joseph's chuckle was subtle, but cheerful, lightening the mood between them. I imagined that they took a moment between themselves to gather their thoughts, likely drinking something. It just seemed to be that kind of mood.

"So, you really think the kid is ready for Boston?"

"He either is, or he isn't. He's a strong student, if a bit headstrong. And that repeating everything I say as a question got old fast."

"Repeating everything you say as a question?" the werewolf returned.

"Fuck, I knew you were going to do that. Wiseass!" Meryl snapped. "But considering he was raised in the mundane, modern age and he's had to relearn what reality is, I am not dissatisfied with his progress."

"Well, you are the master. You understand his potential better than anyone."

"But I'm still going to call in that favor. If things go south, I'd like you to be available to pull our fat out of the fire."

"So… what is your plan?"

"Getting in will be the easy part. It is dealing with what's inside where things get dicey. The strings of entangling magics in there are complicated and chaotic. Disturbing one may trigger all manner of other things. Best option is to get in without using magic, get the stone clean, and get out without using magic as well. As soon as he's off the grounds, co-locate away."

"Okay, sounds like stuff we would do. How difficult will it be once he's inside?"

"There are magical artifacts from at least six different traditions, and over thirty magically adept cultures, many of whom didn't like each other when they were active. That kind of animosity does not go down easy. The sword room alone has blades from Japan, China, Mongolia, Greece, Rome, Egypt, Assyria, Norse, Indus Valley, Germany, France, England and most especially Spain. That's a lot of hate."

"Ooof! So he needs to avoid the ancient weapons collection?"

"It would be wise. And while Marc is a wiseass, he's not stupid. Just hard headed at times." The hiss of bottles opening punctuated the silence. I could almost hear them drinking, and as a result, I got thirsty. Well at the least I felt my own thirst more acutely.

"The key will be penetrating the building itself. I imagine you don't want to go the route of having Marc traverse the heating ducts."

"Funny you should say that. I've included plans for the ducts in case he needs to use them to get out. But no, going in like that is not smart. The security there alone is too severe. And lethal. Plus, as skinny as he his, Marc's a growing boy. He's too tall to maneuver in there with any kind of comfort or ability to respond to threats."

"Following water in sounds bad as well."

"You know what that area of town is called. The back bay fens. Which refers to how that part of Boston used to be swampy estuary. It's all filled in now, and some of the most valuable rea estate attached to the city. But you are right, the plumbing, electrical and data pathways into the building are heavily secured. We wont find a path in through there."

"And I imagine simply smashing in a window or breaking through a lock is out of the question?"

"I taught him to sense for lock traps, but that does not mean he's ready to pop one safely. And we don't have time to figure out how to deal with electronic key pads. The movies make it look simple but it's not the same with our honored friends involved." The way Meryl said "honored" let me know he was not a fan of those operating the museum. His sarcasm was practically a brick dropped though the word.

"Well, you can't simply teleport in. Even going in through the Umbra has it'd dangers. The moment you try to use magic to get in, all the defenses will be on you, not to mention whatever things get smacked around and activated while inside. And those walls…"

"Yeah, those walls. Not to mention the Egyptian stuff in the place we are going to. I walked in there with a school field trip class three years ago and got a migraine. I touched the stele and the magic backlash gave me a bloody nose. I passed out. Damn this child's body."

"Yeah. Sorry about that. I understand there's a staff in there from my people. Something that really belongs back in its rightful place. Would help with a certain problem my people have with some local leeches. But if it's been entangled as well, there's no telling what the angry spirit in that staff may be capable of."

"I will make a deal with you. Once we get the stone out, we let the craziness simmer down for a bit, then we will see about securing the Staff of Horus for you. Would love to see that blood sucking corpse magnet's face when his curse against your kind rebounds on him. Fuckin' vampires think they own this world. If they only knew how close they were to true power, and why they'll never gain it much less wield it."

Vampires?! My mind boggled for a moment, but after all the other crazy shit I'd learned about since my Awakening, I really should have just assumed that they were a real thing. After all my nearly immortal mage teacher was having a discussion in the kitchen with a werewolf after a creature tried to use me as a juice box and a horror wrecked the kitchen looking for raisin bran. And you thought your life was nuts.

"Okay. I think I can sell that deal among my folks to back you up. Especially if I push the idea that it is the Magi version of a coming of age ritual. But that still begs the question. How are you going to get him past their security and magical defenses?"

I could almost hear Meryl grin. Then something slapped on the countertop. Sounded maybe paper or cardboard in nature.

"That?!" the werewolf exclaimed. Again, I could almost hear Meryl nod his head like he drew the queen to fill his inside royal flush. "Oh that's brilliant. I like how you're thinking. And if that's done right…"

"Yes, I can be in the building with Marc without touching the ground and setting off the alarms. He'll have support inside, and if necessary I can blast us out."

"Which you'd much rather not do," Joseph pointed out.

"Ex-actly!" and this time I did hear the clink of plastic drink bottles. "Why fight their defenses? Just let them drag us in."

"The kid is not going to like it."

"Good. All the more reason to get it done the first time, and do it right."

"He was visited by Unicorn?" the werewolf said, changing the direction of the conversation.

"A unicorn," Meryl said, making a point of the "A" in that statement. "Not sure if it is THE unicorn, but definitely one. And she gifted him."

"There's a lot of that going on lately. A good sign in a way. But if the spirits are taking more of a hand in things…"

"Yeah, I know. I know." Meryl sighed. "He is ready, Joey. Even if he's not, he has to be. I'm running out of time. They've found me. Without that stone, I will be powerless to stop them."

"Then, my friend, may the spirits smile upon you."

"And upon you as well. I will call you when we are going in."

"We'll be ready. Thanks for the water."

"Anytime, Ofendi," Meryl said with great formality. And then there was a feeling of Spirit sphere energies and the werewolf's presence was gone. I was going to slip quietly back to my bed, but almost tripped over a chilled bottle of water.

Meaning that they knew I was overhearing the whole conversation.

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