Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The magic came back. It went unnoticed for a while. Then a couple of bane magic covens got nasty surprises. Apprehension turned to fear as authority figures came up with increasingly implausible explanations.
‘Magewinter’ is the term everyone uses: a word that conceals more horror than the survivors care to recall. Afterwards, the superpowers allied. Frantic experimentation and desperate conscription combined with some questionable black projects from all sides to form the Magister Army – a dedicated force with the best in modern technology and rediscovered sorcerous might.
Just in time. A starving shepherd named Fusman prayed over some ancient scrolls he’d found in a cave. Desperately pleading for salvation, he accidentally raised a jinn by the name of Emeyt. After making Fusman immortal, Emeyt set about turning the Middle East into his techno-magical empire.
The Magister Army went in to deliver Operation Ascent. Full-colour footage of the operation was to be captured by the drones accompanying the army.
Two days later, those drones recorded the army melting like wax. Emeyt and the few kin he’d summoned had been practicing magic for millennia. The Magister Army had only been at it for eight months.
Meanwhile, Fusman sought to undo his mistake. Eventually, his quest brought him to the man who recruited me. Tonight, a year later, is Samhain. My mission is to stop Emeyt by any means necessary. I have been told – off the record – that if human sacrifices are needed, Bournemouth can stand to lose a few.
I take a wand made from the antenna of a tank used in Desert Storm, wrap it in a braid of ivy, stripped CAT5 cable, and my hair. On the makeshift altar in front of me rests a ruby, a chalice full of rum, an old iPod, a piece of cloth from Fusman’s turban, and a small screen with a real time feed showing Emeyt flying across the Sahara.
“Don’t we need a protective circle or something?”
I turn my head and grin at the Corporal.
“Didn’t they tell you? If this goes bad, there’s nothing on Earth that’ll save us.”
“Best leave you to it, then.” She steps back.
Squaddies. You just can’t shake ‘em. Right. Time to do chaos mages – and my mother – proud.
“I’d say something powerful, but the words are just for show. And thus: Cernunnos, I ask your forbearance. Ogun! I need the loa of the deep woods, he who knows the tech and the lore.”
The forest about me goes still. The iPod plays Greensleeves, then bursts into flames. I can’t help but laugh.
A voice from behind: “What would you of me, wyld witch?”
“The means to defeat the one named Emeyt.”
A heavily muscled arm reaches over my shoulder and retrieves the chalice.
“He’s of the old power. To defeat him would be to end the magic.”
“Tolerable. What cost your intervention?”
“Let not one more tree be cut down. You may take old branches and what time provides, but no more.”
“You know that edict will be broken.”
“Only to start. Oathbreakers pay in blood, even with low magic. You know the law. Spread the word.”
“Will the magic be lost?”
“Back to being low magic, thence to wait once more. The spiral goes ever on. Our time will come again.”
“Then, by my will, I accept your terms, and bid thee farewell.”
“Formality, so polite. It is d-”
The empty chalice lands on my foot. The screen shows empty desert.
“Had anyone made plans for how we handle the transition back to being without magic?”
I grin at the Corporal: “Oops.”
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
We smash through the door barely a minute after Abernacke entered. It’s an empty corridor. The air is about twenty degrees below ambient and the floor is gloss black.
“Goo?” Felps is wary.
I nanoscan the floor, finally a chance to use the expensive add-on to my left cyber-eye: “It’s cold stone. Seamlessly fused, but only polished rock.”
“Monofil?” Tashta is more practical.
A zoom-pan reveals no molecular wire waiting for us. I shake my head, then fight the wave of nausea induced by not normalising my left vision-field first.
“So where the frack is Abernacke?”
A very good question. The door at the opposite end of the corridor opens. The suit standing in it looks unremarkable. Which means nothing these days. He could be a cybered-up slice and dice man, but he’s outside our scanner range.
“Mister Abernacke is no longer your problem. Kindly depart.”
“Frackoff.” Felps is always confrontational. And greedy.
The suit folds his arms in a way that tells me that he’s done this and watched the results before.
“This hall has some, – ahem – effects you cannot defeat. But you are welcome to take what you like from the installation above.”
Tashta flicks me a wide-eyed glance; we’d both seen the Levitt-MacLachlan cyber-integration and calibration rig. It’s the stellar peak of cyberpsychosis treatment. Anywhere we unpack it we could set ourselves up for life.
“We came for Abernacke, Mister Suit. We’ll take him before we go, and take you apart if you try and stop us.” Felps gestures to include us in his threat.
Tashta and I exchange glances again. There are some scary rumours spreading about execs in deep shelters and what they could have waiting for unwanted guests.
“Felps, that’s a good offer. Let’s take it.” Tashta is speaking but I wholly agree.
“Frack that, frack him and frack you. Stay here while I go and get Abernacke, but you’re only getting ten percent if you do.”
Tashta looks at me and I nod: “Ten percent is good for both of us, Felps.”
With a muttered curse, Felps sprints down the corridor.
She looks at me: “Bad mojo, Rex.”
I’m about to say something when Felps screams: a full-on, girl-in-a-slasher-flick wail of terror. We look. Tashta screams as well. I can’t get my body out of terrified paralysis long enough to manage anything that useful.
There are creatures coming out of the walls, floor and ceiling! Well, out of the places where one meets another. The nearest one of them has its jagged fangs in a no-skin-just-muscles grip on Felps’ calf. I watch ropes of muscle bunch in the creature’s neck and jaw, then I hear Felps’ titanium-laced tibia snap.
Three skinless horrors with patches of ragged bluish fur, burning yellow eyes and black talons on all four feet emerge into the corridor, one of them standing on the ceiling! They move like Dobermans and are the size of Great Danes.
“Are we done?” The tone of the voice from the end of the corridor is conversational.
Tashta punches my arm, hard. Bodily control returns.
I have to shout over Felps’ screams: “Definitely. Sorry to bother you.”
The suit nods and shuts his door. Seeing that the two horrors not involved in dragging Felps into the floor are ambling our way, I slam ours as well.
“Rex. We retired to open a cyber-treatment salon. We did not quit because skinless hellhounds dragged our team’s enforcer into the ground like solid is an optional thing for them.”
I nod to Tashta and we scarper.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
Words fall like hawks. I know someone is going to die. As the Cantor finishes his brief condemnation, I see her move like a broken mannequin; a ballerina of sudden and grace. There’s a falsetto gurgle that bubbles into a dying sigh. She’s quick tonight; a minor offender. The crowd shivers as she steps back into their world, the sheen of her dermis reflecting candlelight in the way her eyes should.
She moves past me. I decide tonight is the night.
“You move well for a Thorn. Who tutored you in humanity?”
I find myself lifted from the ground by a slim arm that logic dictates should barely be able lift a babe. Her gaze sweeps the room before swinging to me.
“I am self-taught, Sorcerer Masson.”
The Cantor has noticed the disturbance and is heading our way, a trio of Watchmen in his wake. His rapid pace slows and his self-importance seeps away as he falls under our loaded regard. With an upturn of his hands, he spins away, gesturing for his men to follow. They look relieved.
I watch the throng milling about.
“Shall we go quietly or with presence?”
Good question. With a simple neural select, I enable my gate and place my offhand on her shoulder – her throat hold precluding the usual placement at the base of the spine.
I slip us through the gate with an ease I’ll pay for tomorrow. To the masses we leave, the Thorn and the Technomancer simply vanish. To us, we drift a few paces to land in my quarters at Highcrag. While my ‘droids frantically rush about, I turn to the matter at hand.
I croak: “Could you possibly put me down please, Theresa?”
She smiles and sets me down.
“My apologies, father.”
I stop what I intended and place all the droids into hibernation, erasing that sentence from their memories as I do so.
“All of us do, to a greater or lesser extent. Those who can live with that are those who join the Thorns. The others end themselves.”
A detail comes clear.
“The ‘training incidents’?”
“What do you remember?”
“That mother killed me and you ended her before I finished falling.”
I swallow. Penny’s descent into homicidal rage had been inevitable. The sudden onset of that deterioration caught me by surprise. It cost me my child, or so I’d thought.
“Everything, I think. The final part of coming back involves confronting the Death Guard – the stored consciousness of every Thorn that ever fell. It left my memory a bit jumbled up.”
Mind to mind versus over two hundred puissant killers?
“That must have been hard.”
“In truth, most are simply happy for someone new to talk with. I think I’m the only one who stays in touch, though.”
“You can talk with the Death Guard?”
“All Thorns and ’mancers can. It’s not publicised. We’ve done the Union Gold’s dirty work for centuries, after all.”
“What of you knowing me?”
“Let’s not publicise that, either. Besides, the Death Guard like tales of intrigue in exchange for their secrets.”
“How do we do this?”
“Come up with a project that requires you visit Stormcrag regularly. I’ll always be your guardian.”
“We continue seeking the truths of the Union Rose Uprising. We’re family again. Do we need anything else?”
I shake my head.
“Shall I call transport?”
“I’ve already signalled for one.”
“Can I get a hug my from daughter before she leaves for work?”
She laughs and wraps her arms around me.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
Unearthly music accompanies their shifting ranks through the trees. I watch as they somersault over bushes and vault between branches before landing to resume their rhythmic approach. Their movements pull the low mist into fantastical shapes about them.
Canmer, my intelligence officer, swears.
“They dance the Nehardin! Commander Thorne-Regnault, witness this. There will be none left before this day ends. They intend to make us rue the day we came to this planet with this, their last stand.”
I’ve stood proud as Groume Knights in their powered armour lay waste to everything that opposes them on a battlefield. I’ve even seen them take on Shrifari, but those were regulars. These are Sturmclann: the legendary Shrifari special forces. Their youngest has been fighting for over a thousand years. Their oldest have been worshipped as divinities by fur-clad savages on planets further afield than man has yet reached.
They pick up speed and their bodies blur, shimmers of dazzling colour disguising their moves. As the first beams cut at them, it’s clear the distortion masks their positions, too. In a roiling wave of fractured colours, the Sturmclann unhesitatingly engage an enemy that outnumbers them a thousand to one.
They dance. They kill. They only draw recognisable weapons when my men mass to block progress of their Nehardin. Then they reveal a new dance, one of laser and blade, of deathdust and acid. Even when our screaming, bloodied ranks still that dance, their rent flesh spews blood that smokes as it sears the ground.
Such havoc will hopefully never be seen again. Worst of it all, they’re beautiful. Their forms are the epitome of martial grace, their deaths each a thing worthy of a glory hymn. I count myself a soldier, but their implacable will makes me feel as raw as the day I first stood upon a drill field.
As each one falls, the grey mist thickens, like it’s a living thing, anchoring itself on elfin corpses against the sun’s dismissal.
Finally, as the sun sinks to touch the horizon, the last of them is beaten down. There is a roar from our ranks. Our casualties are many, but Groume is victorious once again. Sturmcala is ours! But, after the victory cry, I see comrades look about at the devastation. As far as the eye can see, field and forest are littered in bodies partially hidden by the mist which mercifully softens the horrific spectacle.
From my vantage point, I see a lone figure step from the farthest treeline. A female in Sturmclann colours, hair in disarray, cheeks and brow marked with blue runes.
“Reap now the crop you have sown!”
Her voice carries. Heads turn. Guns come up. I see her drop a sparkling device.
With an earth-shaking detonation, the mist ignites. I find myself flying like a broken bird amidst fiery clouds of blazing debris. I don’t remember landing, only being desperate to escape the heat. I come round frantically trying to dig myself under the scorched dirt. What had been pristine armour is mere seconds from failure. Those who’d been fighting all day wouldn’t have the reserves I had. Of Canmer, there is no trace.
All around, the horizon burns. The darkening sky is streaked with smoke. Broken, twisted things make ominous silhouettes against the distant fires. Off to my left, someone is screaming. I reroute power to life support and sensors.
The screaming Knight and I are the only survivors. Over half a million dead! So be it. Sturmcala shall become a war grave. An uninhabited, terrible epitaph to implacable vengeance and the passing of a race.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The fist aimed at my head connects. I hear his knuckles break. Before he can scream, I chop him across the throat and toss him off the walkway. His landing will raise some alarms, but it’s twenty floors down and I’m about to get everyone’s attention anyway.
Completing my approach without any more guardsmen pouncing on me, I find the reinforced door is secured with multiple access controls. If I had the time, I could open it without leaving a mark. As I don’t, I slap a five-kilo pack of explosive against the centre of it, then leap backwards. My line swings me high and clear. The explosion tears the door and wall apart. I watch the walkway slowly twist as it falls.
I swing back in. With no time to hang about, I release the line, draw weapons, and charge. The first salvo from the guardsmen ricochets off my breastplate. The second staggers me a little because it hits point blank. They don’t get a third. I’m going to have a lot of bruises tomorrow, but I’d rather pay for painkillers than a coffin.
Kicking through the offices, I can hear panicked screams as the personnel flee. A guardsman with rank markers aims a portable missile launcher at me. I shoot him in the shoulder. As he falls, he fires. The missile goes away from me. The screams get louder, the missile explodes; silence. Another cluster of dead good reasons why you shouldn’t play with missiles indoors.
I leap over and grab the ranker before he can stagger away.
“Where’s the battery vault?”
He looks at me like I’m speaking Nictarban. I shove my gun barrel into his groin.
“Battery vault or I’ll shoot your favourite hobby off.”
“Go left. Corridor. Second right. Blue door.”
“Thanks.” I shoot him in the head. Since leaving the military, I’ve worked hard to override my ‘kill everything’ combat settings – finding that knocking people out using excessive force is an acceptable alternative – but today I can’t leave witnesses.
It’s a very big blue door. Inside, there are rows and rows of slots filled with vintage batteries of every conceivable shape and size. Must have been a nightmare to keep your kit going before global standardisation.
“Good afternoon. Do you know the designation of the power source you seek?”
I stare at the glowing panel. Actually, it makes sense there’d be a curator program.
“Recognised. Searching. One moment.”
Gives me time to reload.
“We have three. One is eighty percent effective, the other two sixty.”
“I’ll take all three. Sponsor certificate CSL75005.”
Whoever that is, I’m sure they can afford it.
“Recognised. They will arrive in a moment. Thank you for your patronage.”
After uploading persona scrubbers to eliminate any digital traces of me, I listen to armed response teams storming the building as I exit via the bulk waste chute, passive stealth mode keeping me undetected while being undetectable itself.
It takes me a while to get home, but I’m sure I wasn’t followed. After shedding my gear, I make tea, repair the synthetic part of my face, then carefully place two of the batteries in my improvised equivalent of a battery vault.
Slotting the third battery home, I press the activation button and wait. There’s always this trepidation. Maybe this is when my hundred-year-old companion fails to boot.
Green bars flash. It plays a cheerful tune and rises smoothly on legs carefully rebuilt from scavenged parts.
I wipe a tear away. My best-ever present is back. Hey, mum. Your cyborg son’s got his robot cat running again.