A Matter of F. A. C. T.

By Robert Moriyama




Al Majius looked at the mattresses covering the walls of the basement storage room and sighed. "Janine always said Iíd wind up in a padded room, and sure enough, here I am."

"Are you sure youíre ready for this, Al?" Githros asked. The normally flea-sized demon had increased his size and mass to sumo-wrestler proportions to test his masterís (or, as Githros preferred to think of it, his partnerís) defenses. A pile of assorted blunt objects ranging from small stones through major appliances stood ready for use as missiles; the only question was whether Al felt up to the challenge again after several painful failures only a few days before.

Six months had passed since Al had inadvertently triggered the powerful spell that had raised Aaron Morgenstern from his tomb with the magical power of seven times seven souls. In his one encounter with the mad demigod since that time, Morgenstern had nearly incinerated him "to send a message to the so-called Masters"; Al had only survived long enough to escape thanks to Githrosís heroic intervention.

Now Al was trying to learn combat magic, in the hope that it would allow him to at least hold his own when Morgenstern decided to try again. He had mastered an assortment of spells and had primed them to be triggered by a simple word or gesture, although they were likely to be momentary annoyances at best against a revenant of Morgensternís power.

His defensive spells still needed a lot of work, mainly because different threats required different responses. He had to be able to protect himself from elemental attacks: heat, cold, wind, water, lightning, and combinations of these. He had to be prepared to counter curses and transformative magic (the old turn-íem-into-a-frog gag, as Githros put it). And he had to be able to block solid missiles Ė Morgenstern could throw anything up to the size of a small house at him.

It was this last form of defense that had been giving him problems.

The strongest defensive spell Al had been able to find in the Morgenstern grimoires and the College library raised a magical fortress around the caster (although it was more like an armored broom closet, at Alís skill level), giving protection from attacks from all sides. But it forced the user to stand still, preventing the use of apportation spells to escape. Since Morgenstern would be able to overwhelm any defense Al could raise, given time, this would have to be a temporary tactic.

The next level of defense raised a wall that could withstand the force of an avalanche. This allowed Al to move and dodge and prepare escape spells, but provided only limited coverage on one side. Githros had demonstrated this by lobbing a few of the smaller objects over the wall

and giving Al bruises that were now turning a lovely shade of yellowish green in spite of Alís self-healing spells.

The weakest, but most mobile and versatile defensive spell created a shield whose effectiveness depended on the speed and coordination of the wizard who wielded it. Testing that one had earned Al an assortment of contusions and scrapes on his legs, as Githros had gleefully tagged him with several chunks of concrete by bouncing them off the floor below the lower limit of the spellís effective range.

"Iím as ready as I can be," Al said at last. "Try not to hit me in the head if I screw up again."

Githros picked up a small rock and threw it at Al at a respectable speed.

Al dropped into a crouch and hissed "magen". The rock caromed off the faintly-visible oval of magical force that grew from Alís right hand.

"Not bad," Githros said. "Your reflexes and timing are getting better." The demon picked up a flat slab of granite the size of a dinner plate and threw it like a discus.

Al held his position, and the granite disc bounced away into the corner of the room, raising a cloud of dust from the padding Githros had installed.

"Ow, dammit, that one hurt!" Al protested.

"Shouldíve dodged instead of sitting still, Al," Githros said. "Remember, with that spell, your arm absorbs some of the shock."

Without pausing, Githros hefted a piece of scrap metal that looked like the remains of a kitchen sink.

"Incoming!" he said, and sent it screaming toward Al.

"Ushsharna!" Al yelped. The shimmering oval of magical energy vanished as a wall of brighter light snapped into being with a miniature thunderclap of displaced air. The old sink struck the wall with a sizzling clang and rebounded in the direction from which it had come.

Githros caught the hunk of metal easily, and immediately tossed it back in an upward arc that carried it neatly through the gap between the ceiling and the top of Alís magical wall.

Al was ready for this tactic, and vanished as the sink came crashing down. He reappeared behind Githros, and said "shelach" as he made a slashing motion at his familiarís head.

A glowing blade of energy struck the demon behind one pointed ear, shearing through the scaly grey skin and sending most of the ear flying across the room.

"Oh, crap, Githros, Iím sorry," Al sputtered. "I misjudged the distance Ė "

Githros turned, his eyes literally blazing. "No problem, Master," the demon said. "I live to serve, Master Ö"

Al had seen Githros in almost every emotional state that a demon could achieve. This was the first time he had seen him angry, and he found himself extremely glad that Githros was bound by unbreakable oaths not to do him harm. Then on the other hand, he had been able to clock Al with various heavy objects as long as he was testing Alís defenses Ė

"Mibtsar," Al said, and his undersized but still solid fortress shimmered into being.

Githros slashed at Alís head with a sharp-taloned hand like the paw of a hairless grizzly bear. The demonís claws struck sparks as they slid over the magical ramparts, but Al remained untouched.

The flames in Githrosís eyes guttered and died, and the demon shook his head in confusion. "What did I just do? Are you all right, boss?"

"I think you tried to kill me," Al said. "I accidentally hit you with my sword spell, and you kinda lost it."

"Ow," Githros said, exploring the bloody stub of his ear. "Thatís gonna take days to grow back, you know. And some of your blood for fuel. But I donít understand how I could even try to kill you, Al. The binding spell you used when you first summoned me was an oldie, but it was foolproof."

Al shrugged. "I donít really understand it either, Githros. I should be able to do anything to you, torture you, maim you, make you watch womenís sports Ė "

"I heard that, Al," Jeanine Majius said. "But Iím going to let it go this time."

Al cringed. "I can explain the mess," he said. "After what happened with Morgenstern, weíve been working on my combat skills, and we needed a training room."

Jeanine massaged her temples with well-manicured hands. "Githros told me about that. At least you put padding on the walls before you started throwing Ė is that a kitchen sink?"

"I thought youíd be in Chicago until Wednesday," Al said, pouncing on the chance to change the subject. "Did the conference end early?"

Jeanine shook her head. "I got an urgent call from Irene," she said.

"Irene?"

"My cousin Irene, lives outside town? Youíve met her at least a dozen times, Al."

"I remember her," Githros said. "Cute, though not as cute as Jeanine."

Jeanine smiled. "Sweet of you to say so. Are you planning on bleeding on the floor much longer? Itís really hard to get demon blood out of concrete, especially that much demon blood."

Githros took the hint, shrank down to flea-size, and took refuge in his usual den in Alís left ear. "Iíll need a little of your blood later to help me heal," he whispered.

Al sketched an arcane symbol in the air, and the puddle of Githrosís blood (and the severed ear) vanished.

"Youíre getting better at that," Jeanine said.

"Thanks. Iíve been working at it pretty hard, even after the College bumped my rating up."

"How are you with F.A.C.T. sufferers?"

Al blinked several times. "Fast Anthropo-Canine Transformation sufferers? Werewolves?"

"They prefer to stick with the acronym," Jeanine said. "Werewolf, loup garou, all those old labels carry so much superstitious baggage, and we understand now that the whole changing-into-a-ravening-beast thing is a disease."

"Well, technically, itís a curse," Al said. "A contagious curse, sure, but a curse nonetheless."

"Whatever it is," Jeanine said, "Irene called to tell me that my cousin Bill has caught it."

"Uh oh," Githros said.

"Shut up, Githros," Al said automatically. "How bad is it? I mean, that telethon we watched last month said that some people just have to shave more often Ė all over their bodies Ė for a few days every month. Others get a craving for steak tartare and blood sausage. Itís pretty rare for anybody to go the whole fangs-and-claws route, and even then, it just means they have to sleep in silver-welded cages Ö"

"Itís bad, Al," Jeanine said.

Al was stunned to realize that there were tears in Jeanineís eyes. She had always been tough and resilient; she had to be to have stayed with Al through all the lean years of their marriage and his slow (and messy) progress in magic. She had worked at jobs she hated to support them both until Al had finally started earning enough for her to finish her Business degree; now she was running a small import-export firm dealing in magical objects and textiles from other realms. But in almost ten years of marriage, through countless disappointments and disasters, Al had never seen her cry.

"What is it, Jeanine?" Al asked, moving to take her in his arms.

"Billyís gone completely feral," Jeanine said. "He was injured during the last full moon, and somehow heís stuck now, stuck in animal form Ė and heís dangerous, full of rage at everyone and everything."

"There are specialists at the College," Al said. "I can ask them for help Ė they seem to be trying to keep me happy because they expect me to help them with Morgenstern."

"I grew up with Billy," Jeanine said. "He was like a big brother to me. When I was an awkward, homely little girl, he always made me feel special, and nobody Ė not even kids twice his size Ė ever picked on me twice."

Al tried to imagine Jeanine as awkward and homely, and failed. Heíd been in love with her from the first time heíd seen her in the lunchroom at Cagliostro Public School; sheíd always been beautiful to him, through freckles, acne, braces, and some truly bizarre hairstyles. Still, he knew that being Homecoming Queen through most of high school had failed to convince her that her looks were anything more than adequate. That, he suspected, was why she had taken the time to get to know him, in spite of his own average (or below average) appearance.

"You havenít heard the worst part," Jeanine said.

"Brace yourself, Al," Githros said. "If full-time feral isnít the worst part, then itís gonna be a doozer."

"Heís loose, Al," Jeanine said. "Billy escaped, and heís killed animals and hurt people since then. If someone doesnít capture him soon, help him get himself under control, theyíre going to kill him."

"Weíll find him," Al said. "Githros and I will find him, and Iíll figure out how to get him unstuck."

"Whatís that, Al? I couldnít quite hear you," Githros said. "I seem to be having problems with my ear."

"Shut up, Githros," Al said. "And start digging up everything you can find about were Ė er, F.A.C.T. sufferers."

***

"The Woods" were not Alís favorite place. Heíd failed all the merit badge tests that had anything to do with camping, orienteering, or outdoor survival during his mercifully brief membership in the Wizard Scouts. Mosquitoes and the nastier sorts of blood-sucking pixies always seemed to home in on him before anyone else; roots rose up to trip him, thorn bushes wrapped themselves around his legs, and poison ivy sprouted anywhere he sat down. But his scrying spells had indicated that Billy was there, deep in the old-growth forest around Mount Crowley, so into the woods Al and Githros had to go.

They appeared in a small clearing a few hundred yards from the last place Al had been able to detect Billyís presence, with Githros already at his sumo-wrestler size. Al took a couple of steps back, and Githros grew to fill the space, ending up at twice Alís height and ten times his weight.

"Think thisíll be big enough to handle Cousin Billy?" Githros asked.

"Maybe," Al said. "Strength-wise, anyway. But heíll be fast, too. I know youíre fast when youíre small Ė how fast are you at that size?"

Githros frowned, not a pretty sight at any size, but downright scary on a face the size of a large pumpkin. "I dunno. Faster than you, but werewolves move like their tails are on fire."

"Damn," Al said, slapping at a sudden stinging sensation on his neck. "The bugs and pixies are onto me already." He looked down, and shook his head.

"What are the odds that an apportation from thirty miles away would land you in the middle of a patch of poison ivy? I think trees and bushes and anything not covered in asphalt and concrete must hate me."

"Iím glad Iím immune to poisons," Githros said. "Also most viruses Ė viri? Ė and germs."

Al froze, staring into a pair of green-glowing eyes half-hidden by Githrosís enormous body.

"How about F.A.C.T. curses? Are you immune to those?"

Githros spun, and he was faster than Al by a wide margin, but not fast enough to catch the snarling mass of fur and fangs that had launched itself at Alís throat.

Fortunately, Al was ready.

"Mibtsar!" he said, and Billyís fangs caromed off the shimmering fortress spell.

Billy dropped to the ground, shaking his head in pain and confusion. Saliva (loaded with F.A.C.T. sprites and contagious as hell) flew from his dripping fangs and landed sizzling on the ground.

Then he was up and running, trying to escape from this thing-that-canít-be-bitten and its very large, very strange-smelling pack mate.

"Malkodeth," Al said, extending his hand toward Billy and then closing it into a fist. A cloud of blue-green light wrapped itself around the fleeing lycanthropeís legs and brought him crashing to the forest floor.

Githros moved in, pinning the struggling wolf-man down with one phone-book sized hand.

"I got him, Al."

Al dissolved his fortress spell and walked carefully toward Githros and Billy, avoiding the still-smoking spots where Billyís saliva had struck the ground, and especially avoiding Billyís fangs.

"Youíre sure youíve got a good grip? I have to drop the trap spell to apport us home."

"I got him, but heís chewing on my arm, and itís really starting to bug me. Hurry up and letís get him in the cage before I have to squish him."

Al sighed. Githros knew that Janine would have both their hides if any harm came to Billy, but demons were not good at factoring consequences into their decisions. If they were, they wouldnít be so susceptible to summonings and binding spells.

"Shamat," Al said, and the blue-green cloud faded away.

Billyís legs threshed wildly as the lycanthrope felt the dissolution of the restraining spell, but Githros leaned in to use his weight to pin the furry whirlwind to the ground. Billy chuffed as the pressure forced the air from his lungs, and whimpered in distress.

"Careful. You crack his ribs, and Janineíll crack mine."

"Yeah, yeah. Heís still chewing on my arm, Al."

Al cast an apportation spell that carried the trio from the forest directly into a silver-reinforced cage that Al had had constructed in his garage. With Githros at his current size, this turned out to be a very tight fit.

"Canít Ė breathe," Al complained.

"Trap spell, do the trap spell," Githros said. "Then I can shrink down and give us some room."

"Malkodeth," Al said, squirming to thread one hand through Githrosís contorted limbs to point at Billyís legs. The blue-green cloud appeared and covered Billyís furry body like a sequined shroud.

Githros shrank back to sumo-wrestler size, and he and Al backed out of the cage, keeping one eye on Billyís jaws.

"He seems to have settled down a bit," Al said.

"Probably because we did kinda squish him a little when we were packed in that cage together," Githros said. "Look, I think heís perking up."

Billy snarled, writhing and snapping in a futile attempt to bite through whatever was holding him down.

"I donít know if Iíd call that perking," Al said, "but at least he seems to be all right. For somebody stuck as a psychotic werewolf, that is."

"Do you think the cage will hold him if you take the trap spell off?"

Al shrugged. "It should. Itís a little more robust than the one Janine said he broke out of. Anyway, that spell isnít supposed to be a long-term thing."

Githros closed the cage door, locking it and then wrapping silver chains around the hinges and the latch for good measure.

"Shamat," Al said.

"Aaarrrrrr!" Billy said. The lycanthrope rose to his feet (all four of them), and stalked toward Al with ears tight against his head and fangs exposed in a murderous snarl.

"I get the feeling heís kinda pissed at us, Al," Githros said.

"Youíre sure youíre immune to F.A.C.T. curses?" Al asked, surveying the grisly collection of bite marks on the demonís arms.

"The werewolf deal works on flesh and blood and bone," Githros said. "Demons are made of Ė other things."

"You were bleeding when I, er, accidentally nicked your ear," Al said.

"Not exactly," Githros replied. "I mean, that stuff looks like blood, but it doesnít even serve the same purpose as blood does in you meatbags."

"Meatbags, huh?"

"Well, thatís pretty much how Billy there is thinking of you. Now, he knows that I donít taste all that good, so he probably wouldnít eat me even if he had the chance."

Janine walked in, gasping when she saw that the cage had an occupant. She ran toward the cage door and would have reached in to touch Billyís head if Githros had not pulled her away.

"Janine, are you crazy? He could have bitten you!" Al said, his heart doing flamenco routines in his chest.

"But Al, itís Billy! He wouldnít hurt me!"

Al shook his head. "He doesnít know you, Janine. You said it, heís gone completely feral."

"Look at him, Al," Githros said. "She may be right."

Al turned to look at Billy.

The werewolf had stopped snarling. He raised his muzzle into the air, sniffing to catch the scents that the breeze from the open door was carrying toward him. Then he lowered himself to the floor of the cage, and extended one paw through the bars of the cage, whimpering.

"He does know her," Githros said. "Iíd say Iíll be damned, but that would be redundant."

Githros let go of Janineís arm. She knelt beside the cage and began to stroke Billyís extended paw.

"So, here we are," Al said. "Cousin Billy seems to have calmed down with Janine here; all I have to do is find out why heís stuck in furry mode so he can go home and call his lawyer."

"His lawyer?" Janine asked. "Why would he need to call his lawyer?"

"Lawsuits. Liability claims," Githros said. "You said he killed animals, injured people Ė no biting, though, right? íCause the settlement if he infected somebody else would be pretty steep."

Billyís head sank lower and his whimpering increased.

"Boy, even a feral F.A.C.T. sufferer cringes when he hears the word Ďlawsuití," Al said. "Donít worry too much, Billy. Iíve been through more than a few myself, and you can usually settle for a lot less than the initial demands."

"Especially if you donít have any money for them to take," Githros said.

Al opened a toolbox near the garage door and rummaged through it until he found what he was looking for: a wand with a loop at one end, resembling a hand mirror with the glass removed.

"Havenít used this in a while, but the activating spell still feels okay."

He crossed the room and stood beside the cage, where he had a clear view of Billyís supine form from the tips of his extended front paws to the end of his tail. Then he began a careful survey of Billyís body, peering through the loop as if it was a magnifying glass.

When viewed through the wand, Billy seemed to have two distinct ghostly forms, one canine and one human, both lying prone with forelimbs / arms outstretched. This doubling of the aura was pretty much normal for a lycanthrope, as was the slightly more solid appearance of the currently-dominant lupine form. What was not normal was a swirling vortex of red-gold energy centered on Billyís left shoulder.

"Heís been shot," Al said. "Thereís something in his left shoulder."

Janine sobbed. "The hunters must have done it. You probably found him just in time!"

Al muttered a cantrip that made the image larger. "Itís not a fresh wound," he said. "It looks like this happened days ago, maybe longer."

"Thatís when he went wild," Janine said.

Al returned to the toolbox and retrieved a second wand. This one had a horseshoe shaped tip with the letter ĎNí on one side and the letter ĎSí on the other. He moved to stand beside Janine and carefully extended the wand through the bars of the cage door to bring the tip as close to Billyís shoulder as he could.

Billy raised his head as if contemplating taking a bite out of Alís arm, but subsided when Janine squeezed his paw.

Al closed his eyes and focused his will on the foreign object in Billyís back. Billy yelped in pain as the thing that Al suspected had scrambled the normal F.A.C.T. cycle tore its way through muscle, skin, and fur and attached itself to the wand.

Billy howled and pulled away from Janine. His body convulsed and became momentarily indistinct, then flickered as if oscillating between human and lupine forms.

"This is not normal, Al," Githros said.

"Must be because he was stuck in wolf form for so long," Al said. "If he doesnít settle down, Iím going to have to try something Ė "

But with one last spasm of transformative energy, Billy went limp and collapsed into a heap of sweating, naked human flesh. After a few seconds, he raised his head and said weakly, "Hi, Janine. Hi Ė Al? And hi, whatever you are. Are those my toothmarks in your arm?"

Janine shrieked in delight. "Billy! Youíre all right!" She tore the silver chains from the cage door, pulled the door open (and nearly off its hinges), and dove headfirst into the cage to embrace her cousin.

"This cage was more robust than the one Billy escaped from, huh, Al?" Githros said. "Janine nearly tore it apart."

"Shut up, Githros," Al said. "I better get some clothes for Billy."

***

Some time later, with Billy on his way home, Al examined the object that he had extracted from Billyís shoulder.

"Some of it is silver, some of it isnít," Al said. "It was made to use on a werewolf, but it wasnít meant to kill."

"So it was meant to make him go crazy?" Janine asked.

Al nodded. "The shape of it is familiar. Itís an old hex sign, something that blends old European magic with Native American stuff."

Janine shuddered. "I canít believe that someone would hate Billy enough to do something like that to him. It would have been a death sentence if you hadnít Ė "

"Maybe the target wasnít specifically Billy," Al said. "There are hate groups that believe that the only way to deal with F.A.C.T. is to kill everybody that catches it."

"What if they try again?" Janine asked.

Al sighed. "I gave Billy an amulet that should give him some protection from this kind of hex. But whoever did this could get around that with a little work. In the meantime, other F.A.C.T. people could be in danger of the same kind of attack. Iíve put in calls to the police and to the College, and Iíll be taking this thing in to see if they can trace it."

Janine was very quiet.

"Are you all right?" Al asked. "I donít think you need to worry about Billy now. That wound in his shoulder closed up as soon as I pulled this dart-thing out of him."

"Morgenstern," she said. "Could he be behind this?"

Al laughed. "The Morningstar? Resort to tricks like this? He could level a skyscraper with a dirty look. No, Iím pretty sure it wasnít him."

"But he does want you, want to hurt you," Janine said.

"Yeah. He considers his debt to me to have been paid when he gave me his stash of books," Al said. "And you have to admit, theyíve made a big difference in our lives. Iím getting a lot more contracts, and pulling in a lot more money."

"And youíve grown," Janine said.

"Level Four to a provisional Level Seven in one jump," Al said.

Janine smiled. "I meant youíve grown up," she said. "Youíre more sure of yourself, youíre not afraid Ė "

"Except of Morgenstern," Al said. "He scares everybody, including the most powerful Masters of the College."

"Iím tired, Al," Janine said. "Letís go to bed."

Al looked at his watch. "Itís only eight oíclock," he said. Then he caught the look in Janineís eyes, and grinned.

"Bed. Sounds really inviting, and I never turn down a good invitation."

Al followed Janine up the stairs to bed.

Meanwhile, in a place that was directly connected to Alís left ear, but was much, much larger, Githros continued to search his library for an explanation of how he had managed to attack Al after the accident that had severed his ear. (The new ear was still a little smaller than it should be, and was a bit crooked to boot.)

Suddenly, he clapped his hands and laughed. "Iíll be damned again!" he said. "Al is my partner now!"

THE END

Robert Moriyama is a systems analyst who somehow wound up in Airport Planning at Torontoís main airport. He has been writing sporadically for most of his life (with readership limited to family and friends) but has placed stories in various webzines over the past several years, including Dementia (now Demensions), Titan (now defunct), and Aphelion. His most recent Aphelion appearance was A Matter of Degrees (April, 2003).

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Robert Moriyama

Robert Moriyama is a systems analyst who somehow wound up in Airport Planning at Torontoís main airport. He has been writing sporadically for most of his life (with readership limited to family and friends) but has placed stories in various webzines over the past several years, including Dementia (now Demensions), Titan (now defunct), and Aphelion. His most recent Aphelion appearance was The Acheron Inquiry in March, 2003.

E-mail: mailto:bmoriyam@pathcom.com

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