by C. D. Lee
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"The wisest sovereigns err like private men,
And royal hand has sometimes laid the sword
Of chivalry upon a worthless shoulder,
Which better had been branded by the hangman."
- Sir Walter Scott
(Click on image for larger version)
Oh, yes, I knew that name, and by knowing it I also knew the man behind his newly-acquired face and form.
D'Epee had been one of Archimage's knights! Although taken aback, I was, fortunately, not rendered stupid. Not only did I recognized his name, I also guessed his game plan. How dumb did he think I was? It didn't take special genius to know that a hostile S.O.B. like "Grimoire" wanted my real name to use against me as a power word -- just like Boneyard had used Archimage's secret name to such devastating effect.
"My name's Sharon Trask," I replied. "Pleased to meet you."
There is a real Sharon Trask, by the way, a lady cop who'd come by to pick up the pieces after one of Mantra's earliest battles. The meeting had been brief, but she'd made a big impression on me and ever since I'd been using her handle in a pinch.
Grimoire was leaning over me, enjoying the view, I supposed. "Sharon is a lovely name," he remarked, "for what I suspect must be an exceptionally lovely woman."
I just snorted derisively. "Listen, D'Epee, why did you interfere? I was contracting some personal business with Strauss and none of it concerns you." I considered him for a moment. "Or does it? Where do you come in?"
"I came in right behind you," he retorted. "Sorry about the sap stick, but you seem able to detect magic."
That was true; I could smell his kind of sorcery a mile off; the miasma of necromancy always hangs around its user like the essence of rotten egg. Not all dark sorcerers are evil, of course, Yrial of the Strangers being the single exception I know of -- but a necromancer has a lot going against him. He doesn't share life-energy like I do; he takes it like a robber. It's killing with his own hands, or by means of magic, that makes him strong. Only by undergoing careful character-training from childhood can a black magician avoid turning into a death-junkie who craves murder for a fix.
"My head's still splitting," I complained. "You won't make many friends with that kind of an introduction."
"Whether we become friends or not depends upon how cooperative you are."
I raised my chin defiantly. "Friends like you and Strauss?"
"It works for me," he grinned.
I was liking this guy less and less. What did he want? The D'Epee I'd known would never have tied up a woman for no good reason -- and he wasn't stupid enough to pick a purposeless fight with a top-flight magic-user. Or did he have a purpose? I clearly wasn't seeing the whole picture.
"What you were saying about an alternate universe was very interesting," he prompted.
My lips tightened into a mirthless smile. "I think you'll find I'm interesting in a lot of ways."
He nodded. "I can tell you've got guts, Babe -- playing around with me this way."
I tossed my head. "Careful, Opera Cape -- you're losing your urbane pretensions."
That retort wiped the snigger off his map, as I'd intended it to. "What do you know about Boneyard?" he demanded.
"I know what it was like to have him for an enemy," I replied.
"You said you killed him?"
"So? Is he a friend of yours?"
"How did you do it?"
"I cut off his head."
"Between his chin and his collar bone."
D'Epee wasn't amused. He stepped forward threateningly, his hand clenching into a fist.
"On the Godwheel," I clarified hastily, guessing that this corrupt version of D'Epee had a hair-trigger temper and a willingness to use that fist instructionally.
Apparently, this lout's education had been limited. "It's the world where Boneyard's kingdom was located," I explained with feigned casualness. "What, you've never been there?"
"I haven't had the pleasure."
"It's no pleasure, believe me."
Grimoire rested back on his heels and folded his arms, wondering, I supposed, whether I was on the level.
"If you knew Boneyard, did you also know Archimage?" he asked.
I hesitated. A rat like D'Epee might have been Archimage's betrayer in this dimension, like Thanasi had been back where I came from. That was a possibility that I didn't like to think about, but couldn't totally discount.
"I knew him," I said, thinking quickly. Fifteen hundred years has taught me to keep my lies simple. "He brought me into his little unit after deciding he needed some magical help. I didn't get to do much before Boneyard captured him and killed all his knights."
Grimoire's mouth pursed with surprise. He realized, probably, that he must be a dead man back on my world. "How did you get that mask?" he suddenly demanded.
"I'm sure our mutual friend here has already filled you in on all the particulars," I said nodding towards Strauss, who had been quietly observing our conversation.
"What does it do for you?"
Red flag! Information is power and I'd given up plenty already. "I feel lucky when I wear it," I hedged.
"Maybe your luck's just run out." In a blink, he grabbed for my face.
I instinctively flinched, but I knew I didn't have much to worry about. My mask is held to my face by magic and couldn't be removed by such a casual attempt. A number of people have tried to pull it off, but only one ever succeeded -- Boneyard.
Now Grimoire made two! I felt a cool draft on my perspiring cheeks and saw my most valuable piece of property clutched in the mitts of what might be the most dangerous man alive. D'Epee held it up to the light, turning it from side to side, and when satisfied that it wouldn't bite him he shifted his glance back to me. "As I suspected, you are very beautiful."
I tried not to let my alarm show. That mask amplified my natural magical talents; if I had to confront Grimoire without it, I'd be working at a serious disadvantage. "And as I suspected, you're a common thief!" I snarled.
He shook his head. "I'm a man with a plan. You've admitted that you stole this thing in the first place, so now you've got no right to complain."
Pretty clearly, I'd talked too much to Strauss. I reminded myself to be less gregarious in the future -- if I still had a future. "I bet Edgar went running to you first thing after he saw me wearing his precious mask," I accused.
"Strauss always looks out for my interests," the sorcerer replied, pushing my mask into his underling's hands. "Put this on," he commanded.
The black marketeer's queasy look told me that whatever tied him to the necromancer's apron strings, it couldn't have been amity or shared goals. Reluctantly, Strauss did as ordered and, detecting no immediate ill effects, tried a simple spell -- the levitation of a pencil from the adjacent desk. It rose, if shakily, then dropped.
I shook my head sympathetically; that parlor trick was the flashiest thing Strauss was up to without outside magic to back him up. "I don't feel any different from before," the tired novice wheezed.
Grimoire glowered my way. "What does it do?!"
"It covers my face," I shrugged.
"I'll cover your face!" he barked, lashing out. My jaw felt half-dislocated from the blow and my left ear was ringing like the First National alarm bell.
Grimoire snatched the mask back from Strauss and donned it himself. It didn't do a thing for him aesthetically, but when he aimed his right hand my way, like I do when I'm channeling magic, I started to choke. The ex-knight had created another mystic band -- one which he was making constrict around my throat!
They'd hanged me for murder back in 1841; my neck hadn't broken and so I'd strangled slowly, like I was doing now. At least back then I knew I could depend on Archimage to bring me back; that was a luxury I didn't have anymore. My next death would be my last, and it looked like Grimoire was looking to be the one to deliver it. Evie's and Gus' faces flashed before my mind's eye. . . .
Suddenly, the pressure let go. My captors allowed me a few moments to cough and gasp. Then, with tears streaming, I lifted my glance and blinked groggily.
"What does it do?" Grimoire demanded again. "If Boneyard wanted it, it must do something!"
As I'd expected, his spell hadn't been augmented by the mask but, even so, I had to be more careful; the bastard carried plenty of punch on his own. Since being cocky had almost gotten me garroted, I switched tactics, seeking to come across like an intimidated woman -- a mortifying act, alas, but one which I hoped would lower his guard.
"It -- it focuses -- amplifies my magic," I rasped. "Archimage designed it for a woman; I don't think it could ever work for a man."
"Then why did Boneyard want it?"
"When he stole the mask a while back he gave it to one of his wives," I said, looking at him pleadingly. "L-Look, this isn't my world. I just want to go home to my kids! Why are you keeping me here?"
The lizard didn't appear much moved by a mother's sorrow. "I need power to destroy Boneyard before he destroys me," he stated coldly. "If I can't get it one way, I'll get it another."
"What about Archimage?" I panted. "Is he still alive here?"
Grimoire tossed his hand dismissively. "What if he is? Archimage was always self-serving. He only gave me these powers so I could rescue him -- but I didn't see anything in it for me. I like having power and being on my own -- and I especially like spending the old goat's money. Having him suddenly came waltzing back into my life would only complicate matters. He'd know I'd double-crossed him -- and having one enemy as strong as Boneyard is more than enough."
So in addition to his bad temperment, D'Epee had turned greedy as well. Charming. He'd seemed to have picked up a lot of bad traits in a relatively short while. As for seizing the wizard's fortune, that wouldn't have been difficult. Archimage's whole financial empire had been controlled by one John Dalmas -- a overweight, near-retirement investment lawyer who knew next to nothing about the mysterious billionaire for whom he worked; a little magical torture would have shown the attorney who was boss. I suppose I could have pulled off the same trick myself, except that filthy lucre had never seemed important to me before, and in those early days all I'd wanted was to liberate Archimage so I could get out of this female body.
"Archimage always shied away from creating sorcerer-allies after that experiment with the Knights Templar," the warlock suddenly reminisced. "He never trusted wizards; it's strange that he'd bring you in -- unless he was gambling that he could dominate a weak-willed woman."
I was insulted, but it was the kind of insult that told me I was pulling off the helpless-female act. Now I just had to keep him talking. If knowledge was power, it felt good having some of it sidle my way for a change.
"What should I do with you?" Grimoire asked himself out loud.
"Let me go!" I exclaimed. "What do you want anyway?" I'd managed to formulate a couple of theories regarding that unpleasant subject, none of which were particularly appealing.
"If you were willing to serve Archimage, there's no reason why you shouldn't serve me," he suggested.
Fat chance! Fortunately, I had the sense to keep the invective to myself.
Finding my silence annoying, my captor suddenly commenced stroking my face with his fingers. For a moment, I wondered if he wasn't just making a crude pass at me -- it wouldn't have been the first time -- but in mere seconds I realized that I was being rendered weak and breathless, as if undergoing a beating.
"I could kill you for a quick fix," the death-junkie confided, "but if I'm careful I can bleed your magic off a little at a time and add it to mine. Cooperate and maybe I'll leave you just enough life-force to stay alive. You're a beautiful item, after all, and you might be put to other uses." His eyes dropped down leeringly. "That's a sexy outfit, by the way. . . ."
Wonderful. Another lecherous admirer to add to the list. "I bet...you say that...to all the girls," I gasped. Unlike before, my defiance was merely met with a knowing (albeit sinister) smile.
Still, cooperation or no, the crumb intended to drain me -- just like Boneyard had drained Archimage, like Necromantra had tried to drain Eden and Evie. If subjected to the process for weeks or months, my powers would burn out and I'd be left an ordinary woman -- lost on a strange world without home, family, or identity, entirely in the power of a cussed-mean warlock with a libidinous personality. Of course, it was more likely that one day he'd eventually get too greedy during one of our little sessions, push things just a little too hard, and I'd end up dead.
I couldn't let that happen -- especially the last part!
"Wait! I can help you against Boneyard!" I declared breathlessly.
Grimoire took his hands away. "How?"
"I've been to the Godwheel several times. I know my way around," I said, catching my breath. Then, locking eyes with my captor, I added, "I've even been inside Boneyard's castle."
His sneering tone warned me he wasn't buying my spiel wholesale. "Not even Archimage dared to challenge Boneyard on his home ground."
Grimoire was right about that, and ever since I'd defeated Boneyard I've been wondering whether Archimage hadn't actually been a coward. Sure, Boneyard's stronghold was dangerous and well-guarded -- no one knows that better than I -- but I was only a half-trained amateur when I'd bitten the bullet and gone into the lion's den. The necromancer's hold on his kingdom turned out to be a lot weaker than anyone might have guessed; I'd soon found powerful allies and, after a couple weeks of maneuvering and sporadic skirmishing, we'd managed to sneak into his capital and put the old parasite to rout.
Why hadn't Archimage done the same -- and a lot sooner? Maybe he couldn't. It suddenly seemed more significant that none of Boneyard's other enemies had lifted a finger to help my former mentor while he was imprisoned. In fact, no one seemed to have given a damn about what happened to Archimage. Could he have been so hated in his own country that no one seriously considered him an acceptable alternative to Boneyard? That seemed inconceivable, but what did I know? Though I'd served the inscrutable wizard for over fifteen hundred years, his secret story, as well as the private inner workings of his mind, were still a total mystery to me.
"You simply went there and killed him?" Grimoire asked skeptically.
I shook my head. "Hardly. I went there and persuaded some of his enemies to work with me. We moved against his capital from outside while starting a revolt from within. The next time I ran into him, he was alone and friendless, but still cantankerous. I put up with his double-dealing as long as I could, then separated his head from his neck at the first excuse he presented."
"You freed Archimage in your dimension?"
"No, Archimage was killed during the fighting." This was a lie, but a necessary one. If I told Grimoire that I'd been killing super-wizards left and right he'd murder me in an instant, just to protect himself.
"You could be a woman after my own heart," he said. "A woman too valuable to kill." He paused for a moment. "Or possibly too dangerous to let live."
I flashed him what I hoped was a seductive smile. "Is dangerous always bad?"
"Not always bad," he admitted with a hint of regret, "but around me it's nearly always fatal."
Grimoire then touched my face again -- and the rising stink of his sorcery took my breath away.
"No!" I cried as darkness filled the room. . . .
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