Al Majius sketched a circle in the air over his head with his general-purpose wand, and a cylinder of utter darkness closed around him.
Billy Taylor laughed. "Damn, Al, a frightened octopus ainít got nothing on you! Are you still in there?"
"Frankly, Billy, I canít tell where the hell I am," Al replied. "I canít see out of this stuff any better than you can see in."
Billy picked up an oversized flashlight with a half-dozen size-D dry cells and turned it on. "Can you see this?"
"Can I see what? Have you got the flashlight turned on?"
Next, Billy turned on a spotlight rented from the local theater. He aimed the beam at Alís head, or where he estimated Alís head should be.
"How about this? I have the spotlight aimed right at your face -- at least I think I do."
"Nothing," Al said. "Itís still dark enough in here to change ISO 5000 film."
"Handy if you ever get stuck in a cheap hotel room with a neon sign outside," Billy said. "But you said it might help you against Morgenstern?"
"Anula," Al said, and the darkness dissipated. "The first time he tried to make an example out of me -- Cajun-style blackened wizard -- he just cranked up the power on that showy green aura of his. Githros was on the crispy side of well-done before I managed to apport out of there. Iím hoping that a blackout field like this might block the effect for a second or two. My other defensive spells are mainly for blocking solid stuff."
Githros emerged from Alís ear and grew to his meet-the-public size of two meters. "Hey, Iím in favor of anything that saves me from getting my delicate skin fried again."
Al snorted. "Your skin is about as delicate as dragon scales. But I know getting burned by Morgenstern wasnít exactly fun for you."
Billy shook his head. "I still canít believe that Morgenstern nearly killed you with his aura ..."
"The magical energy of fifty souls packs a lot of candlepower," Githros said. "You donít need to get fancy when you can throw that much magic around."
"I, on the other hand, will need to get as fancy as I can if I want to survive another meeting with the Morningstar," Al said.
Janine Majius entered the training room carrying an armload of rosewood wands. "The shipment from Erkad just came in," she said. "When you have time, will you charge them up? I want to distribute them around the office so thereís always one handy in case of unwanted visitors."
Al laughed. "In case of bald assassins, break glass?"
Janine rolled her eyes. "Glassed-in cabinets would be too slow. Iím gonna hide them in potted plants, desk drawers, pencil holders -- get with the program, your wizardliness."
"Wanna see something neat?" Billy said. "Al picked up another Walachian spell. Do the blackout trick, Al."
"Your spellbound audience awaits, Al," Janine said, smiling . "Come on, dazzle me the way you used to do back in high school."
"First of all, any magician that has to spellbind his audience must be pretty boring," Al said. "If the act is that bad, the guy should take up tap-dancing. Second, I used to dazzle you in high school by screwing up in spectacular ways, usually involving a trip to the Emergency Ward."
Janine smiled. "Yes. I think itís nice that some things never change."
"Hey, Al hasnít been to the Emergency Ward in years," Githros said. "Who needs stitches when you have me?"
"Thanks for that confidence-boosting endorsement, Githros," Al said. "As long as Iím doing this, get over here -- I might as well see if I can make the dark-field cover both of us."
"One gorgeous magicianís assistant, entering stage right," Githros said. "Sorry Iím not wearing my sequined tights and fishnet stockings."
Al suppressed a shudder. "Great. Now Iím going to have that image stuck in my head."
The demon positioned himself beside Al and curtsied with remarkable grace -- for a two-meter tall, horn-and-spike-covered monster.
Al sighed. "Letís just get this over with," he said. Waving his wand over his head, he visualized the darkness of an unlit coal mine and said "Se întuneca!"
A cylinder of utter blackness more than twice the diameter of the one Al had conjured before closed around Al and Githros, leaving Billy and Janine staring at -- or into -- a shadow so deep that it seemed to extend away into infinity. A moment later, the blackness vanished.
Al and Githros were gone.
"What the hell? Where did they go?" Janine said. "Did this happen before?"
Billy shook his head. He sniffed the air, wrinkling his nose as he caught a familiar scent that should not have been there.
"I smell Baldy robes," he said.
"Gee, I wasnít expecting thunderous applause, but you could at least say something, Janine," Al complained. "I mean, Iíve mastered a new spell with much less bloodshed and property damage than usual."
"Tough room," Githros said.
"Respect. Never had it, never will," Al said. "Anula!"
The dark-field vanished, but it was still a lot darker than it should have been.
"Oh, crap," Al said. "This isnít Morgensternís little playhouse again, is it?"
"Morgenstern is the least of your worries."
A robed figure emerged from the shadows, holding a wand that was notable for the amplifier gems embedded along its length. Al winced; a single amplifier gem turned a simple blasting wand from a blunt instrument into a flamethrower in terms of damage potential. The six gems Al could see on the outstretched wand were small, but they made the robed manís wand into a proverbial Weapon of Mass Destruction.
"You might want to be careful with that thing," Al said. "If it goes off, I think property values around here will take a major hit."
Githros shrank to flea-size so quickly that in the dim light, it looked like he had vanished.
"Your servant abandons you," the robed man said. "How little your allies value your life!"
Al felt Githros running up his leg and skittering up his body under his clothes. It took considerable effort to keep from squirming, laughing, or both.
"Yeah, whatever," Al said. "Listen, do you guys all use the same scriptwriter? Because if you do, you should fire him. The guy has spent way too much time watching old movie serials."
The robed man moved closer, pushing back his hood so that his face and well-coiffed head were revealed.
"Hey, youíre not bald," Al said. "You must be one of the inner circle types that knows what the whole anti-werewolf and anti-vampire thing is really about. We put one of your buddies away over in Rumania. Zamboni -- Zamboozle -- I forget his name. So which one of the high imperial goombahs are you?"
"My name is not important," the robed man said.
"Nice to meet you, Not," Al said. "Can I call you Not, or do you prefer Mr. Important?"
Al was pleased to see the robed manís grip on the gem-studded wand tighten. A grip that tight tended to cramp the muscles; the man would be a little slower to shift his aim if Al moved suddenly.
"You have been using Walachian magic," the man hissed. "Wasting the power of The Wild!"
"What, the turning-to-mist thing? I wouldnít call it a waste -- theyíd have had to bury me in a soup tureen if I hadnít used it."
"That, and conjuring shadows," the robed man said. "You did not realize that cloaking yourself in darkness made you vulnerable to us."
Al groaned. "Your shadow gate trick! It never occurred to me that just any shadow would do -- or that you could pull someone through a gate from the other side. Huh. Iíll have to make a note of that."
The robed manís knuckles were white with tension and his arm was trembling. "You have made your last note! Your interference with our plans is at an end!"
"Whatever," Al said, yawning. "You know, that thing you said about Morgenstern being the least of my worries? Thatís just silly. I mean, heís practically a god. He doesnít need any gimmicky wand to make stuff blow up real good -- all he has to do is think nasty thoughts, and kaboom. You guys -- the bald idiots who still believe in the Conservation of Hair thing, and you loons who want to harness The Wild -- youíre just a nuisance."
"A nuisance that will end your life," snarled the robed man. He took a breath, and Al knew that he was going to trigger the gem-boosted wand.
Githros launched himself from Alís shoulder, ballooning to his two-meter size as he fell. One massive hand closed on the robed manís wand arm, forcing it up so that the wand was aimed at the ceiling. Al focused his will on the wand itself and hissed "Mibtsar!"
"If I must, I will die with you," the robed man said. He triggered his wand, not noticing the globe of shimmering energy that surrounded it.
It was like being inside the worldís brightest light bulb. It was like staring into the sun through a magnifying lens. The fortress spell Al had wrapped around the wand confined all the energy of the blast into a space the size of a basketball, and most of it emerged as light and a brief but scorching pulse of heat.
Githros smothered the smoldering bits of Alís clothing and Not Importantís robes with his free hand while still holding the latterís arm in the other. Wisps of smoke were rising from the demonís own hide, but the damage appeared to be superficial.
"That dark-field thing would have been really nice just now," Githros said. "I mean, that wasnít as bad as Morgensternís aura trick, but you have to admit, it stung."
"Sorry," Al said. "I did the fortress spell first so the whole building wouldnít get flattened, but Smokey there got wand-happy before I could try for a blackout. Iím gonna have to see if I can combine them, because youíre right, that really hurt."
"My hand hurts," the robed man whimpered.
Al and Githros exchanged looks of disbelief. Apparently Not Important hadnít realized the implications of what Al had done.
"Um, no, Iím pretty sure it doesnít," Githros said. "Take a look."
The robed man looked at the space where his wrist and hand should have been visible above Githrosís fist.
"My hand is gone!" he wailed.
"For someone who was willing to die as long as he could take us with him, youíre really kind of a wimp," Githros said. Then he frowned, causing the robed man to cringe even more.
Githros extended one finger and rubbed it gently through the robed manís hair. The hair crumbled to ashes and floated gently to the floor.
"What do you know, Al? Heís a Baldy after all."
The robed man started to sob.
"Oh, crap," Al said. "Is my hair fried too?" He ran his fingers through his hair -- thinning at the best of times -- and groaned as some of it ended up as smears of soot on his fingers.
Githros leaned in for a closer look. "Looks like the roots are mostly okay," he said. "But Iíd soak my head in conditioner tonight if I were you."
The Countess Lamia emerged from the shadows of Majius Magical Servicesís training room like a black-clad ghost. Billy had to fight the urge to growl as he felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle and his ears twitched. The wolf in him made him somewhat territorial, and automatically wary when another predator came too close.
"This is where it happened," Lamia said. "I can feel traces of Wild magic here -- from a darkness spell, you said."
"Thatís right, Countess," Billy said. "Al was demonstrating a blackout spell he got from one of the books you gave him -- heíd just done it a minute or so before, with no problems. But this time, when the darkness faded out, he and Githros were just gone."
"He would not have simply apported away, as a joke?"
Janine shook her head. "If it was a joke, heíd have come back by now. Something happened to them, something Al wasnít expecting."
Lamia nodded, then fell silent. With her eyes closed, she extended her hands and let her fingers sweep slowly through the air where Al and Githros had stood before their disappearance.
"Not just a darkness spell," she said. "A -- I think you call it a shadow-gate was used here."
"But Al doesnít know how to use shadow-gates," Janine protested. "Surely he couldnít have conjured one by accident!"
"No," Lamia said. "But someone skilled in their use could have reached through the darkness gathered in this place and pulled him through."
"The Baldies!" Billy snarled. "They must have gotten tired of sending their goons in here to get their asses kicked, and snatched Al and Githros into an ambush."
Lamia raised one perfectly-arched eyebrow. "Baldies?"
"Theyíre -- dupes, I guess youíd call them," Janine explained. "They believe that F.A.C.T. sufferers like Billy, here, take up more than their share of the universeís finite supply of -- um -- hair. But their leaders are really trying to capture more of The Wild by eliminating both Walachians and F.A.C.T. sufferers. The man who tried to start a war between your people and the, um, human Rumanians was one of them."
Lamia sighed. "It is hard to believe that such fools could master traveling through shadows. The Wild is no more finite than -- hair; eliminating those whose nature partakes of it would make it no easier for others to use."
"Anyway, is there anything you can do to find Al?" Janine asked. "I havenít been able to reach him on his crystal, and even the College Masters havenít been able to trace him."
"I believe I can track him -- this shadow-gate was used only hours ago, and its energies have not fully dissipated. Wait here."
Lamia traced a rectangle in the air, murmuring words similar but not identical to Alís incantation. Blackness filled the space until it looked remarkably like a doorway leading into a very large, very dark room. Then she stepped into the shadow, her black clothing blending into the darkness like a black pearl sinking into a pool of ink.
Only moments later, she returned, this time accompanied by Al, Githros, and a third man, all looking distinctly scorched.
"Hi, Janine," Al said. "Did you miss me?"
Janine crossed the room in three strides, kissed Al so hard that his knees buckled, then smacked him on the top of his head.
"You big jerk! Where have you been?"
Lamia conjured another shadow-gate and departed, a faint smile on her perfect lips.
"Ow," Al said. "Itís not like getting kidnapped was my idea. Not Important, here, snatched us using my dark-field as a shadow-gate."
"Lamia figured that out once she had a chance to -- I donít know what the magical equivalent is, but Ďsniff aroundí is how Iíd describe it," Billy said.
"The thing of it was, even after weíd beaten our buddy Not -- hmm, maybe we should call him Lefty, now -- we couldnít get out," Al said. "The place he took us to is protected by layer after layer of protective and inhibiting spells. The doors were sealed, my crystal didnít work, and regular apportation spells were blocked. Githros was in the process of persuading him to shadow-gate us home when Lamia came to the rescue."
Githros grinned, showing even more fangs than usual. The one-handed robed man made a sound reminiscent of a gerbil sneezing and fainted.
"Lefty kept doing that for some reason," Githros said. "It kinda slowed down the whole persuasion process."
"Can I help?" Billy asked. "Give me a second to get out of my clothes and into my fur coat, and I bet I can make him a lot more talkative."
Al shook his head. "Sorry, boys. I think Mr. Lefty von Not Important has a date with the College Masters and the police, if we can figure out who has jurisdiction. Damn -- we should have asked Lamia if she knew where that place was. Presumably kidnapping is a crime both here and there, wherever there is."
"I never get to have any fun," Billy said. "And no, seeing the looks on Baldy goonsí faces when their weapons slide off Alís protective spells doesnít count. Now Janine, she gets to have fun with them."
"I know," Al said. "Iíve seen the broken furniture. Anyway, Iíd better apport our little friend here to the College before anybody yields to the temptation to use him for a chew toy."
Al muttered a quick spell and vanished along with Githros and their still-unconscious prisoner, leaving Billy and Janine alone again.
"Can I use the blasting wand next time, Janine?" Billy asked. "I think I deserve a turn or two, since itís my hide the Baldies are after. And it should be soon, ícause theyíre going to run out of gullible goons sooner or later."
Janine smiled and handed a wand to her cousin. "Here, go crazy. But any furniture you break, you clean up."
"Sure, whatever," Billy said. "Here, Baldy, Baldy, Baldy ..."
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, Titan, and Aphelion. His most recent Aphelion appearances were A Matter of Time , A Matter of Taste and Matters of State.
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