AUTHORíS NOTE: Materia Magica contains a list of major characters and a recap of the previous adventures in this series.
Al Majius sighed in relief as the newscast ended with no mention of any new attacks by Aaron Morgenstern. After Morgenstern's destruction of a school and etching of Al's name into the adjacent parking lot, Al had been inundated by crystal- and phone-calls from every media outlet in the state asking what his connection was to the undead super-wizard. The Conlegium Magistris had supplied screening spells to filter out most of these calls, but Al suspected that the spells also blocked legitimate calls seeking to hire Majius Magical Services.
On the other hand, it could be that prospective clients had decided that hiring a company that had an enemy like Morgenstern was a risky idea... Either way, watching the news in the boardroom was the most productive thing he'd done around the office in weeks.
The images in the big-crystal set dissolved into pearlescent clouds and then reshaped themselves into a familiar face.
"Sorry to interrupt you, Albert," Magister Sciavone said.
Al shrugged. "Business hasn't exactly been booming for the last couple of weeks," he said. "I'm beginning to think that if any of those newsvultures is willing to pay to hear the whole sordid story, I should take the offer."
"Oh, dear. I've had tenure for the last century or two, so it's been a long time since I've had to worry about such things," Sciavone said. "I may have some good news, however, since your troubles will presumably vanish once the Morgenstern problem has been solved ..."
"You've found something we can use against him?"
"We believe so, yes. If you could come to the College -- to the lab where you met Albert Prufrock --"
Al grunted. "Please tell me you didn't bring him back. We barely got rid of him before half the Magisters died of mana starvation."
Sciavone laughed. "Oh, no, no, no. We may be old dogs, but even we can learn from our mistakes. But our new discovery is based on knowledge gained from that regrettable episode."
"What, did you find someone who is sceptical about magic, but not as sceptical as Prufrock?"
"You'll see. Please, come to the College."
Al sighed. "I'll get Githros --"
Sciavone cleared his throat. "Actually, it might be better if you came without him."
Al didn't like the sound of that, but said, "Okay, Magister. I'm apporting over right --"
But he wasn't in the lab he had been aiming for. He was in the College, all right; in fact, he was in one of the corridors he and Githros had walked through when Sciavone had called for help with the Prufrock problem.
"Damn. I haven't missed my destination like this in a long time," Al said. "Good thing I wasn't thinking about Morgenstern ..."
A few minutes later, he arrived at the laboratory where the Magisters had conjured Albert Prufrock, the ultimate Unbeliever, from a world without magic.
As he entered the room, he yawned. "Wow. I feel a little woozy."
"You might want to step over here with me, Albert," Magister Sciavone said. The old Master was standing to one side of the door, behind what looked like a very tall, very narrow aquarium: parallel sheets of glass with water in between, sealed on all sides by more glass.
Shaking his head, Al did as Sciavone had suggested. As soon as he stepped into the narrow space behind the aquarium, he felt his energy returning.
"Oh, no," he said. "You did bring him back, or somebody from his world. Somebody who drains mana just by existing."
Sciavone smiled. "No, Albert, I told you we were not that foolish. We didn't conjure someone from Prufrock's world. We conjured something -- or rather some things."
Al peered through the glass and saw a jumbled pile of small objects, some regular in shape, some obviously chips or scraps from larger objects. Wood, metal, plastic, even bits of cloth --
"I don't get it," he said. "How can that junkpile have the same effect as Prufrock? I thought it was his Unbelief in magic that made him so dangerous here."
"It was," Sciavone said. "Just as our minds and spirits channel and manipulate mana to affect reality, his mind suppressed the flow of mana in an active way. But we reasoned that if his world truly had no magic, or very little, the ambient levels of mana must be very low."
"I still don't get it," Al said.
"This is one of the things you missed by not attending the classes here," Sciavone said. "The underlying theory of magic states simply that Talented individuals are able to access and direct the magical energy -- mana -- that imbues all of creation. Use of magic in turn actually stimulates the flow of more mana from untapped regions -- so the supply of magical energy, while finite in any particular corner of the cosmos, is practically inexhaustible."
"So the level of mana tends to even itself out, flowing from areas with an abundance to areas with a lack -- like heat," Al said.
"Correct," Sciavone said. "Now suppose you took an object from a cosmos where -- God knows how -- mana has been exhausted, or never existed in the first place -- and brought it into a universe like ours."
"Mana would flow towards it," Al said. "If the difference in levels is high enough, the object would suck the magical energy out of everything around it."
"Everything and everyone," Sciavone said. "We call the objects from Prufrock's world mana sinks. Unshielded and at close range, a few of these can be as debilitating to a magic-dependent individual as Prufrock was."
"Which is why Githros wasn't invited to this show-and-tell session," Al said.
"Yes," Sciavone said, grinning. "I understand he was quite upset about losing some of his demonic appurtenances due to Prufrock's influence."
"You wouldn't think a demon would be vain -- but Githros is," Al said. "He complained less about losing a piece of his ear than he did about losing a few of those horns on his face."
"We discovered that water and glass reduce the flow of mana toward a mana sink," Sciavone said. "This water-filled shield protects us quite well, although we would still feel weakened if we remained here too long."
"That's why I couldn't 'port directly here!" Al said. "With a lot of the ambient mana drained, my spell ran out of gas short of the target."
"We are working on encapsulating some of the objects in water-filled glass spheres, so a wizard can handle them without harm," Sciavone said. "In the meantime, I have had a sample sent by messenger to your office -- in a jar of water -- and yes, I have made sure that Githros knows to stay well away from it."
"Heh. He would be seriously annoyed if he ended up any pinker and smoother than he did a couple of weeks ago."
"We are also running tests to determine the potential of mana sinks as defenses against magical attack," Sciavone said. "An amulet containing a mana sink might well render its wearer immune to most spells."
"Not much good to a wizard, though," Al said. "From what I felt just coming into this room, I wouldn't be able to work magic near one of those things, either."
Sciavone sighed. "Yes, that is a problem. But we shall all work toward finding a solution."
Al nodded. "Guess I'll have to take a little walk before I can 'port home," he said. "Just as well. Janine keeps telling me I'm a candidate for heart trouble."
"I will contact you again when we have more news," Sciavone said.
"Take your best shot, Al," Janine said. "Come on, hotshot, show me what you've got." She glared a challenge at her husband, her chest thrust forward and her hands on her hips in a classic comic book hero pose. Her form-fitting workout garb and flowing chestnut hair reinforced the comic book image, but the battered exercise equipment and scuffed padding on the walls of the Majius Magical Services practice room lowered the drama quotient of the scene back to near-zero.
Al looked the love of his life straight in the eye and grinned. "It's that kind of talk that put me in the hospital seven -- no, eight times -- showing off for you, back in high school."
"Nostalgia later, magic now," Janine said. "Come on, Al, I got my magic whosis ready to take anything you can throw at me!" She held out her right hand and opened it, displaying an odd-shaped lump of scrap metal -- the sample mana sink that Sciavone had sent a few days before.
"That 'whosis' isn't magic -- it's anti-magic." It took considerable effort to keep his eyes from drifting down to her breasts, distractingly perky in spite of the passage of time and that lust-killing device, the modern sports bra.
"Technicalities, technicalities," Janine grumbled. "Come on, stop looking at my boobs. Picture me as a bald, annoying, low-rent wizard in a cheap robe. Even better, picture that guy with a really bright green aura and a huge ego."
"I'd rather picture you in sleazy lingerie," Al said, "but okay: you're Aaron Morgenstern and a generic Baldy assassin magically combined into one distractingly sexy package."
Janine rolled her eyes. "Al, if you don't do your level best to blast me in the next five seconds, you can forget about unwrapping that package anytime soon."
Wincing, Al said, "All right! All right! I'll do it -- I'm just afraid that this gimmick won't work, and I'll really hurt you."
"We both saw the tests the Masters ran," Janine said. "They threw everything they had at that poor rabbit, and aside from having the pellets scared out of her, she was fine."
"You're no rabbit, Janine -- although you'd look good in one of those 'bunny' outfits," Al said with a leer. "Anyway, how do we know these things don't have a limit on how much they can absorb?"
Janine's face turned pale. "Never thought of that," she admitted. "Maybe I should ask them for a fresh one --"
Then she shook her head. "The hell with it. With my luck, if I let go of this mana sink, Morgenstern will show up and blast us both to kingdom come -- and gone."
"Just in case, let's start with something not too dangerous," Al said. He made a complicated gesture with one hand, as if rolling an imaginary coin across his knuckles. "Dormi!"
"Whatever that was, I didn't feel a thing," Janine said.
"Walachian sleep spell," Al explained. "They used to use it to keep the rest of the household out of the way while they were -- um, visiting -- somebody."
Janine stuck her tongue out. "I suppose if it had worked, when I woke up my neck would be covered in hickies."
"Well, when I use vampire magic, I do get the urge to nibble --"
"Maybe later," Janine said. "Stop screwing around and try something serious. Morgenstern -- hell, even the Baldies -- won't be trying to put you down for a nap."
"Except maybe a dirt nap," Al said.
"Promises, promises --"
Janine shrieked and ducked as a torrent of flames erupted from a point a few meters in front of her. To Al's dismay, the fire that he had aimed over her head arced downward and enveloped her in a cocoon woven of heat and light.
For a moment, Al feared that the mana sink had failed. He shouted the general nullifying spell, "Shamat!"
"Nice try, Al," Janine said, rising to her feet. The dwindling flames still curled around her limbs, threaded their way through her hair -- but clearly were doing no harm.
"You damn near gave me a heart attack, I'll give you that," Janine said. "But the fire -- looks impressive, but it's not even warm."
"I gave you a heart attack?" Al said. "I thought I'd killed you. The fire was supposed to go over your head and scare you, but when you ducked, it followed you."
Janine raised one carefully-shaped eyebrow, crossed her arms, and tilted her head to one side. "It wasn't supposed to do that?"
"Oh, hell, no," Al said. "I don't trust those things that far. I think the mana drain actually pulled the spell toward it."
"Oh, good. I was wearing a lightning rod without a ground wire."
"Am I interrupting something?" Githros asked. The demon walked into the room, making the floor shake with every step. Ever since his close encounter with Prufrock had temporarily diminished his size and strength, he had tended to overcompensate by spending most of his time even larger than his now-usual two meter height.
"We were testing one of those mana sink doohickeys the Masters conjured," Al said.
Githros backpedalled toward the door. "Yikes! Those things are like poison to me. I just got the last of my horns and spikes back to a respectable size and got that disgusting pink tinge out of my hide --"
"Sorry, Githros," Janine said. "I guess we should have put up a sign or something. Anyway, I think we proved the point -- these things can protect a mere mortal from some pretty nasty stuff. And if wizards and our resident demon can't handle them, it just means that when we meet the Big M, it'll be mere mortals like me that will have to use them against him."
"What do you mean, when 'we' meet the Big M?" Al asked. "If -- and I emphasize if -- the Masters and I can corner him, it'll be too dangerous for anybody who isn't a powerful wizard to be there."
"Why? With one of these, I have better defences against magical attacks than you do."
Al reached into his hip pocket and pulled out a plastic pocket comb. With a gesture, he set it floating in the air between Janine and himself.
"Okay, my hair's a little messy," Janine said. "I can take a hint. But --"
Al flicked his fingers and the comb shot through the air and struck Janine on the hand.
"Ow! What did you do that for?"
"The mana sinks absorb magical energy," Al said. "But if Morgenstern -- or, for that matter, a Baldy -- just uses magic to throw something at you -- a rock, or in Morgenstern's case, a building -- it won't be magic that will kill you. It'll be good old fashioned mass and inertia."
"I don't care," Janine said. "You are not facing that wacko without me."
"You can't do a shield spell or a fortress spell, and I can't put one on you while you're carrying a mana sink," Al said. "And any item I enchant in advance -- a wand, a protective spell or magical amulet -- will quickly lose its strength if a sink is nearby."
"Make me fast," Janine said.
Al blinked. "What? You hardly eat anything as it is."
"Make me faster. Believe me, I've done my share of running, ducking, and diving since the Baldies started hunting Billy, and I'm already pretty hard to hit. If you can put some kind of speed spell on me -- just before things get nasty -- it may be enough to keep me from getting hit by one of those buildings you figure might be flying around."
"The spell will start to decay as soon as it's cast -- or as soon as you pick up a mana sink. Come to think of it, you'd probably have to put the sink aside for me to put a spell on you at all --"
"If the fight lasts more than a few minutes, we'll probably be dead anyway," Githros said cheerfully. "We have to take Morgenstern down fast -- if he has time to use some of the stuff he knows that nobody else does, we're screwed."
"Thanks, Mr. Sunshine, that makes me feel much better," Al said.
"It can work, Al," Janine said. "Billy can help, too -- even if a mana sink neutralizes the extra speed and strength he gets from The Wild, he's always been at least as fast on his feet as I am."
"Hmm. If Billy carried a sink all the time, it would probably prevent him from Changing into wolfen form at all. Say, these things could be hot sellers among F.A.C.T. sufferers -- keep a mana sink on your person around the full moon, and no more embarrassing fangs and fur."
"Hey! I'm in charge of the business side of this outfit, and Githros does the Research and Development," Janine said.
"No, that's all right," Githros said. "You and Al can handle anything to do with one of those mana-sucking knickknacks without me."
Al scratched his head. "So -- a speed spell for anyone who insists on facing Morgenstern and carrying a mana sink. Githros, see what you can find. And Janine -- how are you with a slingshot?"
Back at the College, Sciavone escorted Al to a second lab, some distance from the one where Al had seen the collection of unshielded mana sinks. In this room, instead of a tall, thin aquarium set up near the door as a shield, there was a much larger tank near the center of the room.
The ancient Magister pushed back the right sleeve of his robe and reached into the aquarium. After some fumbling, he withdrew a glass ball the size of a plum. The ball itself was also filled with water, and Al was able to make out a bit of scrap wood floating inside.
"As you can see, I now am able to hold this object from Prufrock's world without immediate ill effect," Sciavone said. "I can feel a certain drain upon my strength, as the efficacy of my life-sustaining magic is dampened, but it is only a fraction of the effect of the same mana sink without the insulating qualities of the glass and its liquid contents."
"This kind of technical talk gives me a headache," Al said. "I have to really thank you for granting me my degree based on practical experience and skills, because I suck at formal exams."
Sciavone shook his head. "Ah, Albert, I'm afraid that you will have to take exams to achieve full Magister status. My ability to bypass the formalities has reached its limits."
"On the bright side, if Morgenstern kills me, I'd like to think the College would grant me at least honorary Magister status without the exams and dissertation," Al said, but he winked to forestall another lecture on believing in himself.
"If Morgenstern kills you, the world will be his to rule or destroy," Sciavone said. Then he winked, and said, "But as you would put it, hey, no pressure."
"'Hey, no pressure'? I think you've been spending too much time around me, Magister," Al said.
Sciavone grinned, his pale, almost translucent skin crinkling into countless creases and folds.
"On the contrary, Albert -- you remind me of myself when I was much, much younger. There are a few Magisters here older than I am -- a very few -- but most are less than half my age. Even so, we all behave as the world would expect of such eminent, dignified, learned practitioners of the magical arts."
"Meaning what?" Al asked.
"We act old," Sciavone said. "We rely too much on our collective centuries of experience, and consider ourselves to be infallibly wise. In a way, the College is as arrogant and overconfident collectively as Morgenstern is as an individual -- hence our near-fatal error in summoning Albert Prufrock into our midst."
"I suppose that means that I act young -- relatively speaking," Al said.
Sciavone nodded. "You are unsure of yourself -- sometimes to a fault -- and so more cautious. But you are willing and able to learn new things and adapt to new circumstances. This, combined with the remarkable way your skill and power have grown, makes you our best hope to challenge Morgenstern."
Al walked slowly toward the aquarium, rolled up his right shirtsleeve, and picked out one of the glass balls.
"You don't believe Magister Blackstone's theory?"
"That your indirect connection with Morgenstern's resurrection gives you a measure of power -- or at least resistance to his power? Not entirely," Sciavone said. "I believe that it could explain part of your ability to escape his first attempt on your life -- but I also believe that your own powers could have been sufficient in themselves. Morgenstern had met you before, remember -- and considered you to be only a 'little wizard'. But by your second meeting, you had grown much stronger than he knew."
Al frowned, weighing the glass ball in his hand. A thin glass sphere the size of a golf ball, with water and a sliver of metal no bigger than a sewing needle inside, it could not have massed more than a fraction of a kilogram, but it seemed as heavy as a ball of lead ten times as big.
"It's the mana drain," Sciavone said. "Even though you do not depend on magic to sustain your body, you perceive a reduction in the flow of mana as a reduction in your physical strength. The glass and water localize the effect, so you feel it most in the hand and arm closest to the mana sink."
"That's what I figured," Al said, although he had been wondering if the glass was thicker and heavier than it looked.
"I have arranged for delivery of several dozen of the mana sink spheres to your offices and your home," Sciavone said. "It is extremely difficult to apport them or to carry them while apporting, as one might expect; any spell cast in close proximity to even one of the spheres is weakened, often to the point where it fails completely."
Al put the sphere back into the aquarium, noting that he felt an immediate increase in energy when he released it. Sciavone did likewise with the sample he had been holding, and Al saw some of the lines on the old Magister's face fade as his flesh seemed to grow firmer and color returned to his cheeks.
"Ah, that feels much better," Sciavone said. "One can only imagine the effect if we were somehow able to shower our friend Morgenstern with mana sinks."
"Might slow him down, weaken him a little," Al said. "But I don't think mana sinks alone can beat him. I was still able to channel enough mana to send Prufrock home with him sucking the magic out of the room; Morgenstern will be able to do a lot more than that even if we bury him in these things."
"But you will take them and use them when the time comes?" Sciavone asked.
"Yeah, that's me, Mr. Young and Open to New Things," Al said. "I have Janine and Billy practicing with slingshots -- I was planning to have 'em take potshots at Morgenstern with naked mana sinks, since the mana drain doesn't weaken them. These encapsulated sinks will be better; they may be able to use amulets or wands at least briefly while holding them."
Sciavone raised one eyebrow. "Slingshots?"
Al shrugged. "Worked for David. Anyway, these are the kind you can use for hunting small game. Janine put a piece of scrap metal clean through a refrigerator door at thirty paces."
Sciavone smiled. "Excellent! The spheres are thin and relatively fragile. If one strikes an object -- or a person -- with that much force, it will shatter, and the mana sink inside will be exposed."
"That, and it will sting like a sonuvagun," Al said. "The nice, smooth, regular spheres will probably allow Janine and Billy to be more accurate, too -- Janine wasn't aiming for the fridge when she hit it. Of course, the mana sink is free to move around inside its container, so I guess they could be kinda wobbly in flight in spite of the symmetrical shape ..."
Al was able to apport back to the office, although he found that he still had to exit from the lab on foot before he could make the spell work. Githros met him in the corridor, looking extremely annoyed.
"Look at my face, Al," the demon said. "Notice anything unusual?"
"Githros, your face always looks unusual," Al said. "And you're usually proud of the fact. Give me a hint."
The demon bared his teeth in frustration. "The horns, Al, count the horns!"
Al leaned closer, squinting. "Twenty-three, twenty-four -- ah, hell, how many are there supposed to be? And which pointy things count as spikes instead of horns?"
"This morning, I had twenty-eight horns on my face -- some of them just barely back to their pre-Prufrock size -- and sixteen assorted spines, spikes and ridges. Now I have a lousy twenty-two and twelve."
"You're looking a little pink, there, too," Al said.
"Aaargh. Don't remind me."
"What happened?" Al asked. "Did you wander into the practice room while Janine and Billy were slinging that mana sink around?"
"No," Githros growled. "Janine did put up a sign, and she's been considerate enough to make sure that she warns me when she takes that sample you got from the College out of the practice room."
"Then how -- oh, crap. You signed for a delivery, didn't you?"
"Yes, Githros, your underappreciated, underpaid partner, answered the door and signed for a package. I even gave the courier a nice tip."
"'Buy low, sell high?'"
"No, 'Change your underwear immediately, and try not to panic the next time you see a demon.' And a couple of bucks."
"'Change your underwear'? The courier didn't really, um, react that way, did he?"
"According to my nose, he did," Githros said. "Anyway, I felt a little odd when I took the package, but the label said it came from the College, so I figured it had to be okay."
"Uh oh ..."
"Then I opened the package," Githros said. "I thought somebody sent us a box full of paperweights -- souvenir snow-globes or something -- as a gag. But there wasn't any snow or miniature buildings or anything in the ones I could see through the wrapping --"
"Double uh oh ..."
"So I tore open the bubble wrap with my trusty number two talon, and picked up one of the glass balls."
Al winced. "Do you still have a trusty number two talon?"
"I hope to have one again someday," Githros said. "Along with all the other stuff I lost before I dropped the ball back in the box and got my scaly ass out of there."
"I guess I should have called when Magister Sciavone told me about the deliveries," Al said. "But I was coming straight here anyway, and you never answered the door before, because of --"
"The underwear problem?"
"Well, I was going to say 'the public relations issue', but 'the underwear problem' certainly gets the point across."
"I'll recover -- again," Githros said. "But this kind of thing is really embarrassing."
"Sorry, sorry, sorry," Al said. "Once the Morgenstern thing has been settled, I promise we won't have any more magic-draining stuff around."
"Hah. We'll be lucky if we have us around. Morgenstern may settle our thing instead of us settling his."
"I thought you guys were trying to bolster my confidence," Al said.
"I don't bolster very well when my hard-earned pointy things get erased."
Al suppressed a grin. "We could try to conjure you some of those pills," he said.
"Pills? What pills?"
"The ones that older guys swear by --"
"This better not be going where I think it's going," Githros warned.
"When they have trouble getting horny."
"Aaargh. It'll be a long time before you get any bolstering from me, pal."
"So -- where are the, uh, paperweights? And where are our intrepid slingshot experts?"
Githros snorted. "The paperweights are on the desk in the front office where I left them. Billy and Janine aren't here -- they said they were going out to practice where they wouldn't ruin any more furniture or office equipment."
Al frowned. "I don't know where that would be -- I think people would complain if you started beaning them in a public place."
"The house, dummy," Githros said. "More precisely, the basement, with the padded walls."
"What, are you afraid they'll make a mess?"
"A wand! Janine or Billy just used one of the wands at the house!" Al said.
"Baldies? They can handle Baldies --"
Al shook his head. "Not Baldies. Something bigger, something worse. That's two wands fired -- three --"
"It can't be him," Githros said. "The spells the College Masters did to hide us from him --"
"Spells fail, Githros," Al said. "Or they can be broken by someone with enough power and skill. I have to get to the house, now. Call the College, tell them to get as many Masters to the house as they can."
"What are you talking about? I'm coming with you --"
"Paperweights, pal," Al said. "There's another box of paperweights there. And you're already weak."
Githros cursed, which was a serious thing for a demon -- his curses had measurable effects. A loud crash sounded from the front office, and Al felt a wave of weakness pass over him.
"The paperweights in the office -- your curse must have knocked the box off the desk and broken them," Al said. "Get the hell out of here and call the College!"
"Al -- I don't know if I can --"
Al looked back at Githros and staggered back in shock. The demon was shrinking visibly, already down to less than a meter in height. His skin was turning pink and smooth --
Al reached down, picked up the now-helpless demon like the infant he now resembled, and started to run. He crashed through the fire exit, half-ran / half-fell down six flights of stairs, slalomed through a half-dozen startled people in the lobby and out into the street. Still feeling the influence of the dozen or more mana sinks, he dashed across the street and kept running, trying to put as much distance between the office and Githros as he could.
"Al, stop running," Githros said. "Far enough, we're far enough away --"
Al stumbled to a halt, barely managing to let Githros fall to the ground before he collapsed himself.
"Blood, take some of my blood," he wheezed. "Get some of your strength back."
"No time, Al," Githros said. "And you don't have the mana to spare. I'll be all right -- but you have to help Janine and Billy!"
Al tried to apport, but only succeeded in making himself dizzy. "Drained," he said. "Not enough juice left to -- oh, gods, another wand fired! Janine --"
"They're still fighting," Githros said. "But you have to get there as fast as you can."
"How? I can't --"
"Speed spell," Githros said. "Shouldn't take as much power as 'porting. Repeat after me -- se graubi repede, repede, repede!"
"Se graubi repede, repede, repede!" Al said,
And. The. World. Around. Him. Stopped.
Githros seemed to be frozen in place, his mouth still closing after his last speech. A pigeon hung suspended a meter from the window ledge it had been approaching when Al began the spell.
"S'working," Al slurred. Then he stood and ran.
Billy discharged the last of his blasting wands, aiming at the center of the blinding green glow that hovered just below the ceiling of the mattress-padded basement room. The pulse of magical energy met the green light of Morgenstern's aura and was absorbed like a raindrop in the ocean.
He could feel his skin baking, beginning to sting from exposure to the terrible power that had once burned Githros almost to whatever demons used for bones. Janine was no better off -- he could see her skin reddening, her hair and clothing starting to singe even as she drew another wand from the pouch at her waist.
"Screw this!" Billy said. He took the leather pouch that hung around his neck in one hand and squeezed hard enough to make the silver-chased dart inside punch through. Then he drove the exposed point into his shoulder.
Billy howled, his bones and muscles twisting and reforming, his skin crawling as coarse fur sprouted over every inch of his body. He wriggled and tore free of his clothes, and then leaped, hurling his still-Changing form at Morgenstern, jaws open wide to rend and tear anything they could reach.
The air was like heavy syrup, seeming to fight Al's efforts to pick up speed. Within the first few meters, his jacket and shirt had disintegrated; his other clothing and shoes lasted only a few strides beyond that.
Naked, barefoot, Al covered the dozen kilometers between the Majius Magical Services offices and his home before the first shreds of his clothing touched the ground. His feet were bleeding, his skin felt seared, but he was there, and his absorption of mana had been accelerated along with everything else: he felt strong, as strong as he had ever been.
"Let me be strong enough," Al hissed. He slammed through the side door of the house, blasting it into splinters with a gesture, and slid to a halt in a world of blinding green light.
From the open door to the basement, the glow of Morgenstern's aura shone like desert sunlight through a green diamond. Al saw the package from the College on the kitchen table, tore it open and snatched up a mana sink in each hand, then dove headfirst down the stairs.
Billy was down, his body frozen halfway through the Change, half-wolf, half-human. Blood covered most of his torso, black in the verdant glare, and Al knew that it had to be Billy's blood, not Morgenstern's.
Janine was on her knees, her face red and peeling, wisps of smoke spiralling from her clothes and hair, her hands trying to bring together a wand and an amplifier gem to blast Morgenstern, the monster / god / thing that Al had helped to create. It was like fighting a hurricane with cotton balls, and she knew it, but she was trying, trying to hold on.
Al howled in rage and despair and threw himself at Morgenstern's hovering form, bringing the glass-enclosed mana sinks up and into his adversary's face at the speed of a rifle bullet.
The spheres shattered against Morgenstern's aura, and Al felt time returning to normal as the exposed mana sinks nullified his speed spell. The mana sinks punched through Morgenstern's defenses and splinters of glass and mana-draining metal and wood pierced the undead flesh.
The demi-god screamed at pain that seemed to explode out of nowhere. His aura flickered and dimmed and he dropped to the floor, barely able to remain on his feet.
Al fell, his strength spent and his stores of mana drained again. His desperate attack had weakened Morgenstern, but Al himself was helpless to flee or fight when -- there was no 'if' about it -- Morgenstern recovered.
Janine shrieked as she saw Al's naked and bleeding form, her hands faltering before they could bring the blasting wand and amplifier gem together. "Al! How did you get here?"
Al groaned, barely able to move. Even if the mana sinks weren't soaking up most of the magical energy in the area, he suspected that every muscle and joint in his body had been strained during his run. Through eyes still dazzled by Morgenstern's aura, Al tried to see what damage he had done with his attack.
"My face! You have injured my face!"
"I know that voice," Al croaked. "Aaron, you sound different. Less -- god-like, somehow."
"I will destroy you for this, little wizard. I -- my magic, what has happened to my magic?"
"Shorted out your battery," Al said. "Little surprise from the College."
But Morgenstern's aura flickered to life again, only a fraction as bright as before, and Al knew that as he had feared, the undead wizard was too strong for mana sinks alone to defeat him.
Morgenstern tore the glass and pulverized remains of the mana sink objects from his flesh with a snarl. "I do not need my full might to deal with you and your pathetic companions," he said.
But then he paused, looking at Billy's still-motionless form, at Al's bloodied feet, at the burns that covered every inch of Janine's exposed skin.
"Lick your wounds, little wizard," Morgenstern said. "Save your wolfen friend, if you can. You surprised me today -- you are stronger than I would ever have believed, and brave, if a fool can be brave. For that -- I will let you live for now."
Morgenstern levitated from the floor, his aura brightening as he drew further away from the remains of the mana sinks. "You will face me again, when you have regained your strength," he said. "And on that day, you will learn again that your power and the power of the College Masters are like the lights of fireflies, while I, I am the Sun."
"Blow it out your ear, you big green lightbulb," Al muttered.
But Morgenstern had already departed, passing through the ceiling like a ghost.
"Al, are you all right?"
"Hell, no," Al said. "I'm naked, my feet are hamburger, my hands are cut to pieces, and every part of my body feels like its been used as a floorboard in a tap dance school for Very Large People. But I'll live. Is Billy --?"
"Came out of nowhere," Billy said. The exposed mana sinks had returned him to fully human form by draining the Wild magic from his body, and revived him in the process. "Right through the ceiling -- you saw. Had the box of those mana sink balls upstairs, but couldn't get to them."
"He's hurt, Al, hurt bad," Janine said. "He Changed, tried to attack Morgenstern directly, but that aura just blew him back against the wall. Even with the padding --"
"I can't use magic down here," Al said. "The mana sinks I hit Morgenstern with are still working. Go -- go upstairs, phone for help, or use the crystal --"
Janine climbed to her feet, moving stiffly due to the debilitating pain of the seared skin on her legs and arms. She hauled herself up the stairs, one riser at a time, stifling all but a barely audible hiss of anguish as her blistered flesh brushed against the wall. After a few moments, Al heard her speaking to Sciavone, summoning help from the College.
Al closed his eyes, tallying the results of this first real skirmish with Morgenstern. Janine was all right, aside from superficial burns; Billy was hurt more seriously, probably with internal injuries. But healers from the College could restore them, and Al, to health again. Githros -- Githros had been severely weakened, but a steady diet of Al's re-energized blood and a chance to bathe in the ambient mana field would bring him back, too.
They had faced Morgenstern and lived, if only because the undead wizard's ego demanded a cleaner victory. But Morgenstern would return, now knowing that his prey had grown stronger, and when he did, Al would need every trick and every ally he had to survive ...
URL: Materia Magica
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