by C. D. Lee
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"We, who soar thy sphere above,
Know not aught of hate or love;
As will or wisdom rules thy mood,
My gifts to evil turn or good."
- Sir Walter Scott
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My early-morning flight to the Conjuror's Club caused quite a stir among the pedestrians below. Well, why not? They'd never seen this particular ultra before. Thinking along such lines, it occurred to me that if I left this world as I planned to, Mantra would remain unknown to it. Not liking that prospect, I swooped down to give the folks a better look. Then, using air-magic to make my cloak billow like a movie sorceress', I yelled, "What's the matter? Hasn't anyone around here ever seen Mantra before?"
"She calls herself 'Mantra,'" someone said.
"What are you, Mantra!?" a kid yelled up at me.
"What do you think I am?" I shouted over the noisy flutter of my cape. "I'm an ultra! I'm just here for a visit and I can't stay long, so does anybody have a camera?"
Feeling cheered up about being "on the record," I went along my way, but people continued to point and shout, so I finally summoned up a fog bank to give myself a little privacy. Just before I slipped through the roof the Conjuror's Club, I remembered to dissipate the mist, lest it cause street accidents.
One's manners may be called into question if he drops into an occupied office like a ghost by way of the ceiling. My unexpected entry frightened someone and I saw the back of a bald head running for the hall. Too bad, I thought; if the guy doesn't like magic he had certainly chosen the wrong employer! Anyway, whoever the clerk was, he was bound to tell his boss about the haunting; so I made myself at home, striking an imperious, condescending pose to await my anticipated interview.
As expected, E.S. soon came creeping up the stairs, looking like an anxiety-ridden Daniel Boone stalking a bear. "Hello, Strauss!" I belted. "Sorry I frightened your clerk. Anyway, I told you that I'd be back."
Pausing at the door, he looked me over in the old familiar way. I swear that if I didn't need this Godwheel armor so much, Mantra would fly around in coveralls!
"Mantra. . . ?" he purled.
"You got the name right," I said archly, throwing the flaps of my cloak over my gams to keep his eyeballs from scorching. "Listen, Strauss, I need your help."
The bargain-basement wizard just stood akimbo, cocky-like, trying to show he wasn't scared of me. Well, I didn't believe that for one second!
"You keep coming here asking for help," he grumbled, "but I don't know you, and I don't want to know you. I sell stage magicians' supplies; that's all."
I shook my head. "Some businessman, Edgar! You're a two-bit sorcerer dealing in illegal antiquities -- both the mystical and non-mystical kind. -- The trouble is, you don't always have the smarts to tell one from the other."
"You've done your homework, lady," Strauss scowled, "but what's this help you keep talking about? Who are you? Where do you come from?"
"I'm not a lady, and I'm not even from this world. I came here by accident. I want to go home."
"You're an E.T?"
"No! I'm from a parallel world -- a different reality separated from this one by a dimensional barrier. You must have come across the concept in books and movies. Think of me as sort of a wizard from Oz."
"If you're from Oz, click your ruby slippers together and got lost."
Patiently ignoring his sarcasm, I asked, "Did you ever meet a man named Warstrike?"
"The ultra? Can't say that I have," Strauss answered cautiously. "He's a gun-for-hire, isn't he?"
"Something like that. Back in my world you met Warstrike and he got something from you. What you gave him then is the item I need now -- a charm to help a person cross over into another universe."
This should have been a pretty heady concept, but, all in all, Strauss was taking it calmly. A little too calmly, maybe. How much did the man know about the way the universe operated? "You say we know each other on this parallel world of yours?" he asked.
I nodded. "We're like two peas in a pod."
"That's pretty close!"
Stiffening, I shot back: "Not that close, Buddy! -- Don't get any ideas."
Strauss wiped the hopeful smirk off his face. "What about that mask?"
"What about it? This one was never yours; it comes from my world. I saved it from the agents of a wizard called Boneyard -- the same people to stole it from you, I'll bet."
"If you're not a thief, why didn't you give it back to its owner -- me?"
"The person who really owned this mask intended it for me," I informed him. "It can only serve a real wizard -- which you should already know. When you had it, you were only trying to sell it for money."
"A man has to make a living," he said smugly.
I shrugged. "A man doesn't live by greenbacks alone. -- Listen, Strauss, let's stop beating around the bush. I told you what I want; can you help me or can't you?"
"What's in it for me?"
I shook my head. "I can't pay a lot, but we can trade service for service. I'm not going to kill anybody, or help you in any sort of underhanded chicanery -- but, short of that, we can cut some sort of deal."
He scratched the back of his neck. "You've just ruled out a lot of possibilities. -- You don't actually work for Boneyard, then?"
I gave a short laugh. "You're looking at the m -- the woman who killed him!"
My boast wasn't exactly true, of course. Two ultras, Feline and Rune, had put the finishing touches on a job I'd only started. It still frustrated me that I wasn't the one to finish off my old enemy. I'd run the bastard through the heart with my Sword of Fangs and cut off his ugly head, but he still refused to give up the ghost. It finally took the dynamic duo I've already mentioned to settle the issue by reducing the skull to mash.
"Boneyard is dead in your world?" Strauss asked with evident surprise.
I suddenly sensed a strong magical aura. "What the hell do you know about Boneyard? I smell sorcery! What are you up to?"
Just as suddenly, the mana level plummeted to a mere trace, leaving me to wonder whether I was suffering from a case of nerves.
"Boneyard is just a name to me," Strauss assured me quickly. "Maybe I can help you -- Mantra; I do have a relic like the one you're talking about, but it's a valuable collector's item."
"Chalk your charity down to philanthropy," I suggested.
My jibe didn't sit well; Strauss always had been a cheapskate. "Oh, yeah? What if I told you, 'Get lost?'" he flung back.
"You can tell me, Edgar, but you won't like the Mr. Congeniality prize it'll win you."
I was playing Strauss carefully, trying to keep him guessing about my nature and my intentions, implying a potential for great power and violence. In fact, I was powerful, as far as ultras-types go, and could also be damned violent. -- Notch, an old adversary of mine, could have testified to that, before I left him lying dismembered in his blood. Strauss needn't know that I preferred to make pain a tool of last resort these days; I owed it to Eden not to use her powers to spread wrack and ruin unnecessarily -- and hands that spread strawberry jam shouldn't have blood on them.
"How powerful are you, anyway?" my host asked frankly.
"More powerful than you," I asserted with a toss of my head. "Would you care for a demonstration? I can't say that it won't hurt, but it'll definitely be impressive." Though I lack either the voice or the build for browbeating in the grand style, I do come across as kind of scary with my cowl worn up -- and, besides, there's always something slightly unreal and intimidating about a beautiful woman.
"This is bald-faced extortion!"
"We can make this easy or we can make this hard, Edgar, but the bottom line is this: I want to go home and, so far, I haven't been able to. I've got family back there. I've got kids. It's the place I belong. And, like I said, I'm willing to do something in exchange for your help -- just so long as it doesn't take a lot of time, is too sleazy, or hurts somebody."
He regarded me quizzically. "One never thinks of an ultra as a parent. You're the first I've ever heard of."
"It's hard to juggle two careers," I sighed, "sometimes I wonder why I bother." Then I straightened to my full five-foot-nine height to show that I was serious. "-- Now, enough of this chit chat! If I didn't know better, I'd think you were stalling. Did you tell baldy-boy to call the police?"
"No! Of course not!"
I said nothing, but started to stare him down, trying to make him think that I could read minds; he started to squirm.
"All right, you win!" Strauss exclaimed. "I just want to be rid of you! There's a safe in a room two doors to the left where I keep my most precious artifacts. I'll take you there."
"If you're going to take me there, why draw a road map?" I asked impatiently.
"Follow me," he said, showing his nervousness in the slow, jumpy way in which he turned.
I followed Strauss into the hall; he looked neither to the left nor the right and seemed as tight as a drum skin. Had I really scared him that much? Was he expecting me to blast him from behind? Nervous men make me nervous, too; you never know what fool thing they're going to try. I readied my defensive magic, just in case.
Strauss unlocked a thickly-varnished door, the solid-oak kind that only older buildings still have. When he stepped inside and turned on the light I saw over his shoulder what looked like a records-storage room with a lot of fireproof boxes and file-holders lined up along sturdy racks. It looked decidedly old-fashioned compared to Aladdin's high-tech offices, but Strauss was an antiquarian who disliked computers and other modern conveniences. I felt the same way -- so naturally I'd wound up earning my daily bread slaving before a CRT!
Still not looking back, the wizard shifted toward a turn-of-the-century floor safe and I thought we'd arrived at the denouement -- when suddenly a red light flashed inside the dark dome of my skull . . . !
I woke up slumped in an old leather-upholstered armchair, my bruised head beating like tympanum. When I tried to rub my scalp I found I couldn't raise my hands; my elbows were pinioned to my flanks and my wrists were firmly fixed behind me. I glanced down, expecting strapping tape or whatnot, but there was nothing to see -- not until my wizard-sight kicked in to reveal a reddish coil of energy trussing me up like a quail for sale.
Feet shuffled in the gloom; I had to blink several times before my vision cleared enough to pick out Strauss' sneaky shape. No surprise to find him looming over me -- but a second figure lowered just behind my old pal. I couldn't see him for the blur, but at first I assumed he was one of Strauss' employees.
The sorcerer had had someone blackjack me! I'd thought he'd been talking and acting funny at the end -- only I hadn't realize how funny! Damn! I had taken both Strauss' smarts and his meanness for granted. Well, the double-crosser was out of luck if he supposed that any paltry spell of his making could hold Mantra for very long!
I concentrated on nullifying the coil, but my mana felt sapped, suppressed. Looking up in consternation, I found I could better make out the features of the second man -- light of build, swarthy, and in his late thirties. His dark, mustachioed face had a mean cast to it. Also, and more oddly, I sensed something out-of-date about him.
When the stranger stepped closer I saw that he was wearing a formal suit with a short opera cape, looking like a stage magician who started out to be a Balkan vampire but then changed his mind. A pendant dangled over a lacy shirt front, jiggling too much for me to see it clearly, but its decoration resembled a camera shutter of 1930's vintage.
But what really bothered me was the way black magic hung around him like B.O! I'd fallen into a trap, I realized; this unsavory pair wanted something from me, and now were ready to take it by force. On his own, Strauss didn't have the wherewithal to make me a prisoner -- but this second sorcerer just might. I couldn't help but remember that Boneyard was probably still alive in this reality; my captor might well be one of his agents.
"Who's your friend?" I asked Strauss, my mouth tasting like a bag of cotton balls.
"He's called Grimoire," the black marketeer replied respectfully -- too respectfully, in fact. Good manners in a bad man told me that Strauss was afraid of this bozo, whoever he was -- And that meant that "Grimoire" must be the one calling the shots.
"Is that Monsieur Grimoire?" I asked sourly.
Opera Cape shot me a tax-man-type smile. "Well, yes, I was born in -- Gaul," he said, using the old-fashioned term for France, "but am not of the Latin race." He seemed to be choosing his words carefully, as if aiming to mislead, while yet being too arrogant to actually lie. Nowadays, men with that sort of attitude were usually elected president!
"Why did you slug me?" I demanded. "-- And don't tell me you're just Strauss' bodyguard!"
"By no means," he admitted. "In fact, Mr. Strauss assists me."
"You mean he's your flunky?"
He shrugged, accepting my terminology. Grimoire didn't mind insulting an underling to his face -- which made him a pompous S.O.B., no doubt.
"'Grimoire' means 'magic book,'" I said cheekily. "What's your real name?" I was pushing, but I've been around long enough to know that a brash, confident show usually helps more than it hurts in a touchy situation.
"And a 'mantra' is a magical chant," he returned pointedly. "What's your real name?"
"I asked first."
He shrugged again. "I don't mind sharing a little intelligence with a beautiful lady."
"Careful, sport, you might not have enough to go around."
Grimoire scowled briefly, but then nodded with false bonhomie, as if appreciating good repartee. "My proper name," he said, "is Damien D'Epee."
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