A Mirror For Mantra

by C. D. Lee

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Chapter Eight

The Trojan Horse

"Maiden, whose sorrows wail the Living Dead,
Whose eyes shall commune with the Dead Alive,
Maiden, attend! Beneath my foot lies hid
The Word, the Law, the Path which thou dost strive
To find, and canst not find."
- Sir Walter Scott


Strauss talking to Mantra
(Click on image for larger version)

I was floating toward a fog-bound and uncertain shore under a sun which beat fiercely against my half-closed lids. I flung an arm over my face and clung stubbornly to the fraying bliss of uninterrupted sleep, but it was too late. I opened my eyes with regret and blinked away the blur.

Talk about rude awakenings!

The oppressing "sun" was only an incandescent bulb hung overhead, and the room around me was just a windowless cubicle with a blanket for a bed, a chair, and a plastic pail for sanitation. The apple-green door was shut and, I assumed, locked.

Slowly, my hand crawled to my face. My mask was missing, naturally, but I still had my cloak and armor -- along with the precious gold ring worn on my cingulum. Still too bleary to rise, I settled back into my hard bed, eyes closed, trying to sort things out. Luckily for me, Grimoire had apparently assumed that my remaining accouterments were only for show and so hadn't stripped me. Had the Bad Luck Kid finally gotten a break?

Or perhaps the better question: what next?

The first duty of every prisoner is to escape, I knew. But escaping would be infernally hard from a supine position, so I gave a sigh and tried to stand.

Easier said than done. My legs felt so rubbery that I had to slump against the wall for support. I bleated a cry of surprise; the mere touch of the drywall had stung my flesh as if it were electrically charged. What the--?

Magical static, I realized belatedly. This was no ordinary imprisonment.

I clicked on my wizard-sight to see what specialties D'Epee had concocted for my benefit. The walls, floor, and ceiling had been covered by a hexahedral mesh -- a sort of magical cage-lining to keep a sorcerer locked up. But how accomplished a mage was Grimoire? To test my prison's sturdiness I tried teleporting myself "over the hills and very far away," but the effort only tired me out.

This was getting me nowhere fast. Worse, the foiled attempt had depleted my energies far more than a successful teleportation usually does. Though I'd known that the necromancer had mystically drained me, I didn't know exactly how long my recovery would take.

What a mess! I didn't grudge D'Epee his right to slay Boneyard, nor even his desire to get along the best he could -- with or without Archimage's money. Instead, my animosity was based on two inescapable facts. First, his motivations were wrong-headed. I had fought Boneyard for revenge, sure, but also to protect the world. I suppose I had that much in common with Archimage, at least...I had often disagreed with his methods, but at least his goals were honorable. Grimoire only wanted power and saw Boneyard as a personal threat -- not only to that power, but also to his life.

Which brought me to my second inescapable fact. Grimoire was a louse, and somebody needed to take him down a peg. I wouldn't have liked to condemn any knight of Archimage to Boneyard's tender mercies -- except Thanasi, maybe -- but I didn't take too kindly to being ambushed, robbed, and locked up. After what he'd put me through, I certainly wasn't above wanting to balance the scales a little.

To be fair, I knew what D'Epee must have gone through over the last couple years. Archimage and the knights had been like family -- my father and brothers -- and then in a flash I'd lost everything: my purpose, my goals, my direction -- even my -, well, there's no use beating that old horse to death. Let's just say that I'd lost more than I'd ever thought possible. The predictable routine I'd known had been torn away abruptly and replaced with unfamiliarity and daily crisis. I too had experienced the forlorn rootlessness of every sole survivor. But then, why shouldn't I be lonely? Wasn't that the life I had chosen for myself? By design I had left no tracks while marching and counter-marching through the hourglass sands of medieval and modern history. No one outside our close-knit military order had even known that Lukasz existed. Aside from my departed comrades, there was no one left to care whether I lived or died.

And I mean no one! Even John Dalmas didn't know me -- not my face, not my name, both of which had been constantly changing when I knew him; in fact, the investment lawyer had never even met the mysterious "Mr. Archimedes," the "billionaire recluse" for whom he'd labored exclusively all his adult life.

Cut off, abandoned, dazed by my reversal of fortune, I can hardly remember the details of those first few days following the capture of Archimage; pure instinct must have carried me along and saved me from disaster. I had simply moved into Eden Blake's home and assumed her identity, hoping that in some vague future time I could put my old life back together.

It must have been the same for D'Epee -- except for one big difference: My last incarnation had shocked me from my toes up to my hair roots and directed all my efforts toward helping Archimage get free. I'd have done almost anything, just so long as it meant getting a new male body. But Grimoire wouldn't have been traumatized in the same way; he would have reconciled himself to being a man with magical powers in a relatively short time.

In fact, the transition probably would have come too easily. D'Epee wouldn't have gained any new perspectives from his experience; he wouldn't have had any reason to draw the covers up over his head and think things out carefully. Instead, I supposed, circumstances would have predisposed him to carry on along old patterns.

Still, that didn't explain everything. The old patterns we knights of Archimage followed hadn't been criminal, hadn't been greedy, hadn't been murderous; although God knows we all killed our share in battle, not to mention taking thousands of other people's identities, which was basically the same as killing them. I still wonder sometimes...have those lost souls forgiven me? Whether they have or not, I know that I still haven't entirely forgiven myself.

A clumping noise outside my cell snapped me out of my reverie. Staggering to the door, I put my ear to the panel and strained to make out any details. I could make out footsteps -- like some pacing guard on picket duty -- and occasional snatches of low-toned conversation when some buddy of his passed by.

I've escaped from a slew of dungeons in my day, but I knew I would have to play it especially smart with these jailers, who were doubtless going to be on the alert for wizard-type tricks. I needed a new ploy fast.

Or maybe all I needed was an old ploy with some new trappings.

Inspired, I stripped off my blue mantle and draped it over the back of the chair. Then, in a loud, confident voice, I recited a snippet of newly-coined doggerel:

"Hear me, mighty Hecate, and foil my foe;

"Take me from here to where I'd go!"

Okay, it wasn't great poetry, but it got across the idea that I was wide-awake and trying to escape. Any blatant escape attempt was guaranteed to bring prison guards running.

I waited a few seconds until a key rattled, then sprang into the folds of my magical cloak. For an instant I hung in weightless suspension before summoning up enough energy to drift back toward the exit, hovering close enough to it to hear the shouts coming from the room outside.

"Hey, she's gone! Get Strauss!"

A minute or so later I heard Strauss, who sounded none too pleased. "What happened?!"

"You're the wizard," some thick-voiced thug rumbled, "you tell us!"

"Maybe I'm a wizard, but your boss cast the spell," Strauss growled back. "He thought it would hold her, but it didn't." He paused a beat, then exclaimed: "Look, she left her cloak behind!"

Not a cloak, Straussy-boy, I thought, but a Trojan Horse.

When the accusatory muttering died away I heard more clumping, followed by a slamming door, and then complete silence. I hoped they hadn't locked the door again, since that would have ruined the whole point of my ruse. I decided to poke my head outside and have a look.

I did -- and Strauss and I almost touched noses!

"Yii!" he yelled, dropping the mantle. I shot free of its billows and bowled him over on his back. Then, before the wizard could either shout for help or toss me away with his superior strength, I stunned him with a magical charge.

As my adversary writhed stupefied, I threw a quick glance over my shoulder; we were in Strauss' main office -- alone, fortunately. I scrambled to my feet, re-donned my cloak, and stood over my newly-won prisoner, anxious to move on to Step Two of my plan.

I knew that a shock that mild wouldn't subdue a grown man for very long, so I conjured a magical gag for my captive's mouth and then levitated him to the nearby swivel chair. By the time I'd finished, Strauss was showing signs of life. He looked up at me in alarm.

"Easy, Strauss, I won't hurt you if I don't have to. I only need to ask you a few questions. If I remove the gag do you promise not to yell?" I didn't bother to threaten him; he already knew what an angry sorcerer could do if double-crossed.

He appeared to think my offer over for a few seconds, then nodded.

I removed his gag roughly, just to emphasize who was in charge. "Where's my mask?!" I demanded.

He just looked at me, dazed.

I was getting impatient. "Come on, Edgar, I haven't got all day!"

"G-Grimoire has it!" he finally admitted.

"So where is your boss?"

"Not here. He's got a place in San Francisco," he explained. "I've never been there."

"When will he be back?"

"I don't know. I was just supposed to keep you locked up."

"Well, you blew it!" I taunted. "How does Grimoire deal with people who screw up?"

His face went pale as he turned away. "I don't want to think about it!"

I'd already guessed that Strauss hated and feared Grimoire -- and that was all to the good. "What exactly is your relationship to D'Epee?"

His teeth bared. "No relationship! He crashed in here more than a year ago and started throwing me around -- just like you're doing. He said I'd have to work for him if I wanted to live."

Plausible enough; so far Grimoire had not impressed me as a subtle operator. "What, precisely, do you do for him?"

"Odd jobs -- but mostly he wants access to my collection -- and to my smuggling network for getting new things. He wants whatever will enhance his warlock abilities. He's power-mad, always expecting some kind of an attack from that Boneyard character." Though still edgy, Strauss seemed to relax a little as he opened up. He'd obviously been wanting to talk his woes out with someone who, if not especially sympathetic, at least disliked Grimoire as much as he did.

I still needed more information and so opened up a little myself, in order to steer him in the right direction. "I knew a version of D'Epee back home, but he was nothing like this Grimoire, I said. "What do you know about your guy?"

Strauss rested back in his chair and drew a few deep breaths before answering. "Not much, except what a couple of his so-called 'knights' let out."

Knights?

"How many knights? Twelve?"

He nodded.

It all figured. Archimage had had twelve knights and Grimoire, consciously or unconsciously, was trying to be another Archimage -- with a little Boneyard thrown in. I was reminded of the adage, "We become what we most hate."

"They're a bad bunch," Strauss rambled on. "Two of them were in prison with Torelli; the rest are ex-mercenaries, ex-Green Berets, cocaine-gang enforcers -- hard-cases every one."

I'd missed something. "Torelli? Prison?"

"Yes! The so-called D'Epee is actually a Syndicate soldier named Jack Torelli. He was cooling his heels in state prison for murder and extortion when he suddenly developed magic powers and used them to escape."

This was news! Did the sordid origins of Grimoire's body have something to do with D'Epee's bizarre personality change? For all I could tell, Archimage was always scrupulous with the receptacles he selected for us. He must have been following some criteria which he never explained, because his choices sometimes made no logical sense. For instance, why would he ever have chosen an insurance salesman over a more obvious fighter-type, such as a marine drill sergeant? Why were so many of his choices family men instead of loners whom no one would have missed? Was he taking care to find us shells that were psychologically compatible? Could the wrong choice of bodies bring about personality problems? Did a criminal brain give rise to a criminal soul?

Suddenly it occurred to me that being placed in a bad body might explain Thanasi's sudden change from loyal knight to homicidal paranoid. If that were the case, I could almost feel sorry for my former friend. Of course, that didn't mean that I wouldn't kill him on sight, providing he wasn't already dead. Whatever his motives, he had hurt me too much -- betrayed me too much, just as he had betrayed Archimage and our fellow knights. He had used me -- used Eden! -- and then when it suited his purposes, he took her away from me...and her children. Death was too good for that Judas.

"What kind of monkey does Grimoire have on his back?!" I snarled. "He sure acted like a son of a bitch with me!"

"He was a perfect gentleman with you," Strauss jeered. "His magic feeds off death. If he doesn't have any special use for a person, he kills him. Thanks to you, he'll probably revert to type the next time he gets his hands on me."

I stared him down coldly. "What do you expect, the way you operate? In fact, here's some free advice, Strauss: give up magic. It's always going involve you with people tougher than you are. You'd be better off changing your name and starting a new life in Buenos Aires!"

Strauss drew his lips back in scorn. "You're not as smart as I thought, Mantra. Once Grimoire has sampled a person's aura, he can find him anywhere he goes. That means he'll soon be on your heels, too." He paused to let that sink in, then added, "If you don't kill him, he'll kill you!"

"I can handle myself, pal, but you'd better start making nice-nice to me if you want my help."

His resigned glance met my hard stare. "Sure, I'll help -- if you're willing to kill D'Epee!"

I shook my head, rejecting the condition without even thinking it over. "Kill him? Why should I? This is none of my business -- this isn't even my world. All I want is my mask and a ticket home."

Even as I delivered that burnished piece of brilliance, I knew better; Grimoire was very much my business.

"You'll have to fight for your mask if you want it back. Watch out for that pendant of his," Strauss warned. "It's one he stole from me. The ancient Tibetan lamas used it to concentrate their power, the same way that those old-style magic wands did."

And the same as my mask does, I thought.

I smiled bitingly at Strauss. "Why are you being so helpful all of a sudden?"

"You made a big deal about not wanting to hurt anybody. I figure you must be better than Grimoire."

Yeah, well, maybe.

Or maybe not.

Suddenly I heard footsteps in the hall -- one of Grimoire's goons, I supposed. The door sounded. Any further business with Strauss had to wait; I dodged away and escaped through the window, without bothering to open it first.

Outside, it was already full night, but I possessed means to trace my stolen mask through rain, snow, and dark of night -- unless, of course, Grimoire had taken the trouble to hide it magically. But why should he? As far as he knew, the "bimbo" in the metal swimsuit was locked safely away. What worried me was the fact that my power was still sub-par -- and if D'Epee got me back into his clutches I'd probably find out that vampirization is crueler the second time around.

But I hated the idea of fighting D'Epee to the death, even if winning was a sure bet -- and it definitely wasn't. If I managed to subdued him, what then? I had an idea how to handle a knight of Archimage, but didn't care for the prospect one bit.

It would be like fighting dirty. . . .

 

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