For the tenth time, Magister Alistair Blackstone raised his wand.
Al Majius thought that the Combat Magic Master looked like a Musketeer preparing to thrash an enemy of the Queen. In spite of his shoulder-length silver-grey hair, Blackstone was as lithe as any Olympic fencer, with a paradoxical combination of coiled-spring tension and liquid relaxation that gave him dazzling speed. Blackstone's mind was equally agile, able to select spells from a repertoire of thousands and cast them in rapid succession.
As if reading Al's thoughts, Blackstone said sharply, "En garde, Mr. Majius."
For the tenth time, Al Majius braced himself and wove a shield of glowing magical energy with a few deft flicks of his own general-purpose wand.
"I'm ready -- I think," Al said.
Blackstone nodded and launched a series of attacks, flicking lightning bolts, glowing plasma spheres, and obscure curses at Al with the speed and grace that had earned him victory in countless duels.
Al parried the physical threats with his shield and managed to blunt most of the curses with counterspells, but felt a severe itching between his shoulder blades that made it nearly impossible to concentrate. A nuisance curse, the kind of thing that student wizards used as practical jokes, had slipped through his defenses -- again.
Surrendering, Al raised his hands and said, "Touché." Then he used the tip of his wand to scratch his back, sighing in relief.
Blackstone shook his head. "Albert, Albert, Albert, you must learn to ignore minor distractions like that. The Morningstar -- our former friend, Morgenstern -- will not pause to allow you to tend to a little thing like an itch."
Al grimaced. "Trust me, Magister Blackstone, it wasn't a little thing. I guess it's been a long time since you've been on the receiving end of that one."
Blackstone grinned. "Learning to keep my guard up in spite of itches, rashes, and -- one memorable season -- induced orgasms -- was the first step on the path that led me here. But I was luckier than you are -- my life didn't depend on winning every duel back then."
"Luckier than I am?" Al said. "Sometimes I think everybody is. I mean, nobody else has a demigod trying to make an example out of them, plus nutbar wizards trying to kill his wife's favorite werewolf cousin, plus a wise-ass familiar-who-isn't-a-familiar-any-more -- at least not all at the same time."
"On the other hand, you have a wife who is beautiful, brave, and much better at the business side of things than you are, powerful allies, and access to grimoires full of spells known only to a few --"
"Too bad Morgenstern is one of the few," Al said. "I'm not likely to surprise him with any spell that I find in books he probably memorized while he was still had training wheels on his wand."
Blackstone sighed. "This is a large part of your problem, Albert. You have a negative attitude about your own abilities and potential."
"Hey, I've come a long way," Al said. "I know that. I've done things that I never imagined I could do. But I still screw up. And I'm no match for Morgenstern, if only because nobody is."
"It is true," Blackstone said slowly, "that no living wizard can match Morgenstern for sheer power. His absorption of the mana-channelling potential of forty-nine of his underlings gave him the ability to wield truly godlike energies. And he was a wizard of great skill when he was alive ..."
Al frowned. "What do you mean, 'when he was alive'? He isn't exactly a novice now."
"He has become arrogant, lazy, too dependent on brute force," Blackstone said. "Remember how he first tried to harm you. For all his knowledge, he simply amplified his aura to the point where it would have consumed you if you had not escaped."
"I'm still not sure how I managed that," Al said. "He had me paralyzed -- I couldn't move or speak, and I hadn't mastered spellcasting by thought alone. But for some reason, his hold on me slipped --"
Blackstone laughed. "'For some reason', you say. The Magisters have been arguing about that point for months, now. There are several theories -- mine is not the most popular, but it is the only one I am authorized to reveal to you."
"How nice of the College to hold out on me in my time of need," Al said.
"Think back to the day that Morgenstern rose from his tomb," Blackstone said. "What triggered the event, so many years after his first death?"
"I did a routine Summoning," Al said, "calling up a recently-departed hubby so he could answer a few questions. Everything went fine -- or seemed to. It wasn't until I got home that I found out that things had gotten a lot more complicated after I left."
"Morgenstern's forty-nine underlings rose to fulfil the bargain they had made," Blackstone said. "To pay for power granted to them by Morgenstern during their lives with their very souls. So, in a sense, you raised Morgenstern that day."
Al blinked. "I what-ed who?"
"Indirectly, you Summoned Morgenstern to return from the dead," Blackstone said. "Your magic is at the center of what he has become; his power, his very existence, all rests on a foundation you built."
"Boy, it's amazing he hasn't fallen down by now, if that's true," Al said. "You should ask my wife about how my occasional home repair jobs turn out."
Blackstone snapped his fingers, knocking Al off his feet with a sudden gust of gale-force wind.
"When you Summon a spirit -- or perform a resurrection spell -- what happens?" Blackstone said. "And no more self-deprecating jokes, please."
"They appear, or sit up; I ask questions, or my client does, and they answer. Usually, the spell decays with time, and they return to their former condition."
"What if they don't want to answer?"
Al shrugged. "I don't know -- it never happens. I mean, they can't tell you something they don't know, or perform physical tasks that would be impossible for their body's condition, but they pretty much do what they're asked to do."
"You have power over them, to some degree," Blackstone said.
Al tilted his head to one side and made a face. "You're saying that I raised Morgenstern -- sort of -- so I have power over him?"
"According to your theory, that is."
Blackstone grunted. "Yes, according to my theory. And because of the indirect nature of the link between your magic and his resurrection, you presumably have less power than you would over someone you had deliberately and explicitly raised. But still --"
"His magic might not work on me -- at least not as well as it would on anyone else," Al said.
"Hence your miraculous escape," Blackstone said.
"Wonderful," Al said. "So it will take him a little more effort to vaporize me than it would for him to vaporize another wizard."
"Faith, Albert, you must learn to have faith in your own potential," Blackstone said. "You have an edge -- probably a small one, but one that he will not expect. You have learned, and are continuing to learn, magic from traditions that are unknown to him. And your own power -- you may not have realized this, but in terms of mana-channelling capacity, you are stronger than most of the Magisters."
"That's -- I don't understand how --"
"Practice, practice, practice," Blackstone said. "The threat of Morgenstern's revenge, the other complications in your life, your recent success in the magical services business, all have led you to use your abilities more often and to stretch them to a far greater extent than most wizards. Even these practice duels -- few wizards bother with such things at all. You've given me the best workout I've had in decades."
"I'm really stronger than most of the Magisters?"
"Strength isn't everything, Albert," Blackstone said. "For which we should all be grateful, since Morgenstern would have killed us all by now if it was. Now -- back to work."
For the eleventh time, Magister Blackstone raised his wand. "En garde, Mr. Majius."
For the eleventh time, Al Majius braced himself and wove a shield of glowing magical energy with a few deft flicks of his own wand ...
A minor spell healed most of Al's bruises, but could not repair the battering his ego had taken every time Blackstone had smashed or snaked his way through Al's defenses. Considering that the Dueling Master had chided Al for lacking confidence in himself -- or more precisely, for lacking faith in his own abilities -- it seemed ironic that Blackstone had done such a thorough job of demonstrating how porous Al's protective spells could be.
Still, Blackstone had congratulated him at the end of the session. "Your dueling skills aren't a match for mine -- of course -- but I tell you again, you could defeat all but a few of the College Masters. You can stand up to Morgenstern when the time comes, if you understand that fact."
Githros was in the boardroom of Majius Magical Services, comfortably ensconced in his magically-reinforced chair when Al apported in. The demon looked up, gestured toward the 150-centimeter high-definition crystal ball near the head of the table, and said, "Better take a look at this, Al."
Al watched as a newsmage conjured images of a school -- or what was left of a school. One corner of the building was simply gone; other parts were scorched, or worse.
"Morgenstern," Githros said. "He was nice about it, though -- he gave them a whole hour's warning to evacuate."
"Why destroy a school? Why destroy anything?" Al asked. "He's like a kid stepping on anthills because he's bored, and because he can."
"Watch this next bit," Githros said.
Shaking his head, Al returned his attention to the crystal. The newsmage gestured, and the image of the blasted school rotated until they were looking straight down at the remains of its roof. Then the image shrank as the viewpoint rose higher, and Al groaned as he saw the words burned into the lawn, parking lot, and cars that happened to be in the way.
"Bring Majius to Me. Great," Al said. "I guess he thought the Mount Tresmegistus thing wasn't getting enough attention."
"It really bugs him that we got away from him," Githros said. "Kinda goes against his whole 'I'm omnipotent' riff."
Al grunted. "Yeah, we got away from him. How come he never mentions you?"
Githros grinned, exposing teeth that looked even longer and sharper than usual. "I was just your bound servant back then," he said. "Not my fault you got away from him."
"I should take out an ad explaining that you did what you did of your own free will," Al said. "If you hadn't provided a little shade, I wouldn't have lived long enough to apport us out of there."
"I don't know if the Big M reads the paper," Githros said. "That aura of his is probably pretty hard on anything that burns easily."
"Like balding, middle-aged wizards," Al said.
Githros rolled his eyes. "You know Magister Blackstone actually came here and told us what he thought your problem was? I see what he means now."
"What, the lack of faith thing?"
"Yeah, the lack of faith thing," Githros said. "You used to be an inept, low-rent, lousy excuse for a wizard ..."
"Gee, thanks --"
"I said used to be," Githros said. "The word Downstairs is that you're not someone to be taken lightly anymore. That means that most demons will try pretty hard to stay out of your way."
Al blinked. "Really? Demons are afraid of me?"
"Most demons," Githros said. "There are a few of the big boys -- girls -- whatevers -- that could and would squish you just as fast as Morgenstern would like to do. But still, you have a reputation now. If you were a gunfighter, you'd have morons riding into town to challenge you all the time."
Al sighed. "A reputation is one thing. Winning -- hell, surviving another run-in with the Big M is something else."
"Geez. Let me prove my point, here," Githros said. He extended one claw and scratched a series of arcane symbols on the tabletop.
"Githros, Janine loves that table," Al protested.
"She loved the one before that, too, but that didn't keep her from blowing it to pieces when a Baldy tried to hide behind it," Githros muttered. "Quiet, this next part's complicated."
"Hey, I recognize that layout," Al said. "That's a nexus for summoning a major power. But you haven't closed the circle to contain --"
The table -- a nice slab of mahogany, until Githros used it as a drawing surface -- collapsed under the weight of something that hurt Al just by existing. It wasn't entirely there, so it was impossible to focus on it; it radiated heat and a stench that made Al's stomach contract into something the size of a golf ball and try to hide behind his spine.
"Githros, what did you do?"
"Al, Samael. Samael, this is Al Majius. You've heard of him, I think."
Samael cringed, or seemed to. The out-of-focus shape shrank about a dozen dress sizes and slid away from Al until it collided with a credenza, which was magically transformed into a pile of expensive toothpicks.
"Uh, sorry about that, Master Majius," Samael rumbled. "Didn't mean to be rude, or anything. Just got snatched here when I was a little busy."
Al managed to keep his jaw from hitting the floor -- literally, he felt dizzy enough to fall on his face -- and said, with as much dignity as he could conjure up, "That's all right, Samael. Our mutual friend, Githros, thought we should meet."
"Er, honored, really," Samael said. It looked like he -- it? -- was bobbing his head up and down in a sort of spastic attempt at bowing. Assuming that Samael had a head, that is.
"The Morningstar has been making noise about wanting to see Al," Githros said. "Have you heard anything in your circle about plans to -- convince Al to go to him?"
"What? Convince? No! We would never -- "
"That's enough, Githros," Al said. "Samael, thank you for coming. You have leave to depart."
Samael vanished, leaving Al to rub his eyes and squint until he could focus on something more solid than the just-departed demon.
"See what I mean?" Githros asked. "Samael is a heavy hitter -- heavier than I used to be, for sure, and maybe still stronger than I am even now. And you scare the crap out of him."
Al shifted his feet experimentally, then said, "The feeling wasn't quite mutual, but it was close."
"So -- faith," Githros said. "You have to learn to have faith in yourself, in your skills and your sheer power and in magic itself."
Al laughed. "Come on, Githros. I've believed in magic since the first time I had a flying dream and woke up on the roof."
"But deep down, you still think magic is unreliable," Githros said. "In particular, you think your magic is unreliable."
"You said it yourself, not that long ago," Al said. "Magic is chaos, unpredictable."
Githros sighed, expelling a blast of air heavily scented with -- beef blood? Sometimes it was hard to tell, but lately Githros's snack of choice had been beef blood -- no mana in it, but easy to come by.
"The results can be unreliable, especially for a schlemiel cum schmuck of a wizard like the old Al Majius," the demon said. "But you're long past the point where nothing happens when you try a spell, and I'd give pretty long odds against anything you try going too far wrong."
"Faith," Al said. "Not having it could make me hesitate, I guess."
"More than that," Githros said. "When you do magic, you're imposing your will on the universe, bending rules to make the impossible happen. If your will is weak, if you doubt, it has a measurable effect on your chances of success."
"Morgenstern, on the other hand, has no doubts at all about anything," Al said.
"Except you," Githros said. "He can't figure out how you were able to slip out from under his paralysis spell."
"Magister Blackstone has a theory about that. Because my Summoning spell woke up Morgenstern's flunkies, and their 'gift' of their souls and mana woke him up --"
"Indirectly, you Summoned him," Githros said. "Hot damn. I guess the connection isn't strong enough to let you order him around -- but it might screw up anything he tries to do to you. He may be the closest thing to a god -- a jerk-off, flat-out insane god, that is -- in this world of yours, but of all the wizards in the world, you might be able to stop him."
"But hey, no pressure," Al said.
"Unless he decides not to give time to evacuate the next building he nukes," Githros said. "Then the whole world will be waiting for you to do something."
"Or waiting to do something to me," Al said.
The image emanating from the big crystal ball flared red, and a simulacrum of Magister Sciavone appeared. "Albert! Come to the College immediately! You are needed!"
"Oh, crap," Al said. "Is it him? Is it Morgenstern?"
Sciavone shook his head. "No. It is -- something else, but your power may be enough to let us deal with it. We were attempting to --"
Al frowned as Sciavone's voice faded out and his image dimmed and shrank to a barely-visible point of light at the center of the crystal.
"Not Morgenstern -- that's a relief," Githros said.
But Al was not comforted by Sciavone's words. Anything that could cause trouble for the College Masters, one of the most powerful and skilful gatherings of wizards in the world, was worthy of respect -- and maybe worthy of fear.
Al checked his pockets, verifying that he had his general-purpose wand and a good assortment of protective amulets in place. "Let's go, Githros. Don't bother shrinking -- we might need muscle right away."
With a flick of his fingers, Al flipped them from the boardroom to the College.
"Seems quiet enough," Githros said. "Of course, you said the dueling room doesn't get used much these days."
Al raised a finger to his lips. "Hush. Pardon the cliché, but it's too quiet. At this time of day, we should be hearing chatter and noise from the labs next door."
"If you say so," Githros said. "Could you tell where Sciavone was when he called?"
"It was dark," Al said. "Most places in the College are pretty well-lit, except labs when they're practising spells that require shadows. And the light-spells are all self-powered and self-renewing, so it wasn't any conventional power failure that put the Magister in the dark."
"The lights are fine here," Githros said. "If Sciavone was in the dark because of the problem he wanted you to help with, the whatever-it-is must only affect a limited area."
"Then I guess we'll have to go looking for someplace where the lights aren't fine," Al said.
They left the dueling room and began to wander through the corridors of the College, with Githros on the alert for anything that piqued his demonic senses.
"This is one of those bigger-on-the-inside-than-the-outside places, isn't it?" Githros said. "Some of these hallways are longer than the whole freakin' campus."
Al shrugged. "Sure. Parts of the building extend into other dimensions. Saves a hell of a lot in property taxes --"
Githros grunted. "My point is, it could take days to cover even half this place. It doesn't help that it's literally like a labyrinth."
"What makes you say that?" Al asked. "The corridors are laid out in a regular grid, and I don't recall seeing any cul-de-sacs."
"That crap in the corner is actual crap, of the minotaur variety," Githros said.
"Hmm. We must be near the Classics Department."
"Oy. If Sciavone was in urgent trouble, he's gonna be dead by the time we find him."
Al nodded. "Good point. Let me try something."
After a minute or so of digging through one of the pockets lining his jacket, Al produced a tiny figurine in the shape of a bloodhound. He touched the tip of his wand to its nose and said, "Sciavone. Seek." Then he deposited the figurine on the floor and stepped back.
The miniature hound shivered, shook its head, and paced in a circle for a moment, its nose held close to the floor.
"Great," Githros said. "Just like a real dog -- it's chasing its own tail."
But the hound raised its head, yipped once, and then galloped away down the corridor at remarkable speed.
"Considering its legs are about a millimeter long, the little sucker's pretty fast," Githros said. "Come on, Al, we're gonna lose him."
"Not to worry, Githros," Al said. "He leaves a trail you should be able to follow."
Githros knelt near the spot where Al had released the mini-hound, peering closely at the floor. He sniffed the air, shook his head, and said, "I can follow the trail, all right, but I am not cleaning it up."
"What were you expecting, bread crumbs?"
They set out in the direction the mini-hound had taken, turning left and right at intersections where Githros's nose told him that the magical canine had changed directions. Within minutes, they caught sight of an area where the College's light-spells were failing or had been completely extinguished.
"This must be the place," Githros said. "Good thing, too, because there can't be much left of your micro-mutt after the amount of crap he's left behind."
Al tried kindling a light spell of his own, but the hovering spark that resulted only illuminated an area of a few square meters.
"This is not good, Githros," Al said. "This spell should cast enough light to read fine print with the spark on the far side of a large room. It's like something is affecting the flow of mana, dampening magic in here."
Githros said nothing, but Al thought that the demon looked odd.
"Say, is it just the light, or are you getting smaller?"
Githros shook his head. "I don't feel so good, Al. I feel -- weak."
Al brought the spark closer to the demon, and was shocked by what he saw. "Pal, you are smaller, by a good fifty kilos. And your skin --"
"What is it, Al? Is it bad?"
"It's -- pink," Al said. "And smoother than usual. I think some of your horns or spikes or whatever you call them are actually gone."
Githros moaned. "Whatever is happening here, it's killing me. If you're right about something messing up the flow of mana, I have to get out of here. Mana -- magic -- is something you channel and use, but it's what I am."
Al put his hand on Githros's shoulder, in a place where he'd normally find spikes sharp enough to draw blood. He pushed Githros back down the corridor, away from the growing darkness. "Fall back until you can feel your strength returning. Then wait for me. I'll take it from here."
"Al, come with me," Githros said. "You could be helpless in there if your magic fails."
Al shook his head. "I have to go in. If the College Masters get taken out, I'll be the only one left to try to keep Morgenstern in check. And faith or no faith, I am not ready to handle that alone. Besides, with all that combat magic practice, I'm in better shape than I have been in years."
"Which ain't saying much," Githros said. "Al, please --"
"Shut up, Githros. Take care of Janine if -- screw it, I can handle this, whatever it is."
Al turned and walked deeper into the darkness, exerting more and more of his will to keep his light spell lit and in motion. What was it Blackstone had said?
In terms of mana-channelling capacity, you are stronger than most of the Magisters.
But am I that much stronger? he wondered. Can I handle something that the Masters who were available when whatever happened happened couldn't?
He heard an unfamiliar voice ahead. It wasn't a demon voice -- but then it couldn't be, as no demon could function in a place where even minor magic like a light spell took fierce concentration.
"I demand to see whoever is in charge of this ridiculous charade!"
Al moved quickly toward the speaker, keeping the spark of his light spell just ahead and to his right. He drew his general-purpose wand, although he wasn't sure that he could do much with it.
"Ah, at last, someone not dressed in a ridiculous costume. You there, are you in charge of this circus?"
Al came to a stop, blinking in surprise. The great menace that had nearly killed Githros, and had literally brought a dozen Masters to their knees -- he could see Blackstone, Sciavone, and many others huddled on the floor at the fringes of the area covered by his light spell -- was a middling tall, balding, middle-aged man dressed in well-cut but otherwise ordinary street clothes.
"I'm Al Majius. I'm not in charge here -- but the ones who are in charge called me in to help with this situation."
The stranger sniffed, his patrician features tightening as if he had detected a bad odor, but was too polite to say so.
"I am Alfred James Prufrock, as you probably know. I have been abducted before by various frauds who wished to convince me of the reality of some -- paranormal -- foolishness, and have dealt with the perpetrators most harshly. I warn you that I retain some of the best lawyers in the state, and they are more than capable of suing your little theater of the absurd out of existence."
Al said nothing. He had no idea what to say in response to Prufrock's speech. The way the English-sounding gentleman had said "paranormal" suggested that he did not believe in magic, which was ridiculous in itself. Magic was a part of everyday life; even those without Talent (like Janine) regularly relied on magic-powered devices and services. Nobody, no matter how sheltered a life they led, could be ignorant of the reality of magic.
Unless they came from somewhere else.
"Magister Sciavone," Al said. "Did you -- did the Masters conjure this man here from another realm?"
Sciavone nodded. He looked old -- he was old, in fact, but he used magic to maintain his body and energy. Without that support, all the decades -- centuries? -- of his life were settling over him like a leaden shroud. This Prufrock's interference with magic might kill him, too.
"A weapon," Sciavone said. "A weapon to use against Morgenstern. Someone whose very presence would weaken him."
"Excuse me," Prufrock said. "I am standing right here, and it is very rude to speak of me as if I were not."
"Faith -- belief -- affects magic," Al said slowly. "And Mr. Prufrock --"
"He doesn't believe in magic," Sciavone said. "He doesn't just doubt, he denies that it is possible."
"Of course magic is impossible," Prufrock said coldly. "Whatever trickery you people have used to snatch me from my home and bring me here -- drugs, no doubt -- you will never convince me that there is any magic involved."
Al felt dizzy. His light spell flickered and dropped half a meter until it was hovering at waist height.
That he could do magic at all in Prufrock's presence confirmed Blackstone's assertion that Al was strong, stronger than even the Masters now lying in heaps around Prufrock's Bally loafers. But what could he do? The longer he spent in Prufrock's presence, the weaker he felt.
"Say these words," Sciavone said. "Mitteo te ad origo."
"High school Latin," Prufrock said. "Bad high school Latin. I remain unimpressed. My lawyers -- and I -- are Latin scholars of a much higher caliber."
"Mitteo te ad origo," Al said.
Nothing happened. Al tried to raise his wand to provide a conduit for his will, a focus for the flow of mana that he could feel draining away, but his arm felt weak and numb. He was still a young -- well, youngish -- man; he didn't depend on magic to live. But somehow, Prufrock's influence seemed to press on him like one of those lead aprons dental assistants throw on you before they take an x-ray. Al was so accustomed to magic, to feeling the energy flow through him and around him, that its near-absence left him feeling empty.
"Mitteo te ad origo," Al said again. He barely recognized his voice; it sounded like the voice of an asthmatic centenarian, a wheeze, a whisper.
"Say it and believe," Sciavone said. Al looked at his mentor and gasped in horror. The Magister's face, always gaunt, now resembled that of one of those Incan mummies, so dessicated that the lips were little more than parchment stretched tight over the teeth. But this mummy was still fighting to live. "Believe in yourself. Believe in magic."
"My faith against his unbelief? Oh, yeah, this'll work," Al hissed. But he took a deep breath, closed his eyes and his mind against Prufrock's nattering, and remembered: Samael, cowering at the mention of his name; Blackstone, congratulating him on his progress and his power; the ghosts of a hundred children, laid to rest at last ...
Magic works, he told himself. My magic works.
"Mitteo te ad origo," Al said.
"I demand that you allow me to speak to my lawyers, immedia --"
The lights brightened, and the Masters began to climb back to their feet. Sciavone's face was already returning to normal, although there were lines around the mouth that hadn't been there before.
Prufrock was gone.
"So you're a hero at the College," Janine said. "Saved them from their mistake."
"Sort of," Al said. "I don't know if I'd call what they did a mistake, though. That Prufrock guy might very well be a powerful weapon against Morgenstern."
Janine made a face. "Kinda like using a nuclear weapon in your own backyard," she said. "He'd weaken Morgenstern's magic, but just about kill any other magic users in his area. And it would take someone pretty powerful to get rid of him afterwards."
Al struck a pose, placing his hands on his hips and sucking in his stomach. "That's me -- Pretty Powerful Man."
Janine tickled him and he collapsed into a ball, yelping, "Is this any way to treat a hero?"
She pursued him, tickling him again every time he tried to straighten up. "If the Masters could see you now --"
Finally, Al scuttled into the corner of the room and raised a shield that stopped Janine from reaching him.
"Cheater," she said.
"Are we done? Can I get up now?"
"Yeah. The rules say I can only humiliate you for ten minutes a day, and I don't want to use up my whole quota at once."
Al climbed to his feet, but kept his shields in place. "What rules would those be?"
"The Wizard's Wives' Code of Conduct," Janine said. "They cover it at the College -- but of course, you got your degree based on Life Experience instead of attending classes, so I guess you missed that."
Al sighed. "Careful. That might count toward your ten minutes."
Janine smiled. "Seriously, I'm proud of you. C'mere, you medium-sized lug."
Al dropped his shields and stepped into a warm embrace that more than made up for the torture of a few minutes earlier.
"I love you, Janine."
"I love you too, Al. Now -- what exactly happened to the table and the credenza in the boardroom?"
Robert Moriyama is an Aphelion regular, with umpteen entries in the "Materia Magica" series featuring Al Majius and Githros appearing in this 'zine over the past few years. (All the stories have the word "Matter" or "Matters" in the title ...) He is also participating in Jeff Williams's Nightwatch project, with the first tale, "Dragon's Egg", in the June 2004 edition.
A synopsis of the "Materia Magica" series (which he intends to update one of these days) can be found at http://www.pathcom.com/~bmoriyam/Materia%20Magica.htmE-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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