Tuesday, April 19

Manifest Tales #12 “Visitors at Midnight”

 

Joshua felt the rage only seconds before his office door splintered inward. Before he could react Agony was on him, slamming him into the window behind him. “Why me?!” he screamed slamming Joshua again. “Why did you pick me? Why?” Agony didn’t give him an opportunity to answer, slamming him one more time, but with less force. Joshua could only watch as the rage turned to sorrow, anger giving way to tears. Agony slumped, sliding to Joshua’s side, going to his knees. With his head rested on the glass he gave a weak punch to the ground and whispered nearly inaudible again, “Why me?”

The near silence stretched, the only sound the soft sobbing of the large man. Joshua could see him trying to rebuild himself, trying to regain his composure, slowly clawing back from the brink. Finally he spoke again, this time flatly, “They came in the night. They killed all the men first. All except me. Although I wasn’t really a man yet, barely 13. But they knew what I was, so they spared me. Instead they made me watch. Torture and rape aren’t strong enough words for what they did. Then they were gone, and I was alone, surrounded by the death they left behind.” Agony let out a shiver and a sigh and stood, “I couldn’t stop them then, and I couldn’t stop them tonight, but I will make them pay.” He turned his head to Joshua, face filled with thoughts of revenge, “I will make them pay.” Agony turned and left, reforming the door behind him, leaving Joshua to question whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. Or whether it even mattered in the aftermath of the horror the Vendot had left behind.



ii 

The lightning flashed theatrically as Rand looked out the warehouse window, the strobe making his reflection dance in the glass. Perfect, it was all going perfect. Distribution was in full effect. By tomorrow Stardust would be in almost every home in Vegas. Soon the city would be his. The lightning flashed again, and when the darkness returned his reflection wasn’t alone. Behind him, sitting on some boxes was a woman idly twirling a small knife in her hand. Rand spun and froze in fear as recognition took him.

The voice that came wasn’t from the woman, but instead floated on the shadows like a living thing, “You’re pretty proud of yourself aren’t you Rand?” A man formed from the darkness and stepped forward, hands clasped behind his back. He moved like a teacher ready to scold a wayward pupil.

Rand’s face went stark white, “Ashton, I--” A slight movement from the woman cut off his words.

“Excuses already Rand?” the man asked as he walked towards a shelf holding containers of the product. Ashton picked up one of the jars of purple crystals and examined it. “Stardust,” he said with a small chuckle, shaking his head. He returned the jar and turned back toward Rand, hands clasped again behind his back, “An interesting idea, but he believes you lack vision.”

“But I--” The knife was suddenly in his throat, words and his scream cut off by the blade shredding his vocal cords. Just as suddenly Ashton was in front of him, eyes burning with black fire.

“If you wish to question his beliefs I suggest you wait and do it in person.” Ashton wretched the knife from Rand’s throat and handed it back to the dark mistress behind him.

When Rand’s neck and vocal cords reformed he managed to ask raggedly, “He’s--he’s coming here?”

Ashton leaned in so their faces were inches apart. The lightning flashed theatrically, “Yes, yes he is.”



iii 

She approached the castle on her steed. In the tower window her raven haired vixen waited to be saved. She battled through the guards, ascended the spiral stairs, burst through the iron door and was in her arms. Tash’s cell phone ringing shattered the dream. Groggily she rolled and fumbled for the phone, “Hello?”

“Agent Tash? It’s Bradford in holding. She keeps asking for you. Jacob okayed a visit, but it has to be now.” Tash was up and out the door in seconds. She hadn’t been allowed to see Lilly since she brought her in, but every night since, it seemed, she dreamt about her.

Tash always felt that the holding center in Sage headquarters resembled something closer to a hospital then a detention center, but the security left no doubts about its purpose. She wasn’t sure why they were taking such measures with the girl, but Tash trusted Sasha and Jacob’s judgment.

Agent Bradford led Tash to the small grey room. Inside was not much more than a small bed and a dresser. Lilly sat on the bed, bent over, head in her hands. When Tash entered she looked up. Relief washed over her as she rushed forward, throwing herself into Tash’s arms. “Oh thank god you’re here. You have to help me!”

Tash did her best to stay composed with a moment so similar to her dreams. She led the frantic girl back to the bed and sat with her, still holding her. “Calm down, what’s wrong?”

Lilly calmed enough to get out, “I’ve got to get out of here. They’ll find me here. I got to get out of here.”

Tash wasn’t sure what she would have said because the door opened and Jacob and Sasha entered the room. She quickly stood to attention.

Sasha looked Tash up and down briefly before turning to Jacob, “Get them up to speed and loaded up. We need to get moving.” She turned abruptly and left.

It happened so fast Tash didn’t know what to make of it. Unable to contain her confusion she asked, “What’s going on sir?”

“That’s what we’re going to find out. There’s been some heavy activity in Las Vegas and word is something major’s about to go down. We’re going to check it out. Since our mystery guest here was found in the area, we thought she should come along. Since you brought her in, I thought you should come too. You in?”

Tash stood a little straighter, “Of course sir.”

“Good. Get your shit together and meet in hanger 2 in 10 minutes.” Jacob leaned to peer at Lilly behind Tash, “We’re going on a little trip. Sasha thinks you know more than you’ve told us, and she’s rarely wrong. For your sake I hope she is.”

When Jacob left Tash turned to Lilly. Her raven haired vixen looked ashen. Tash moved so she was standing just in front of her. She wanted to reach out and touch that hair, but she held back. “Hey, it’s a start. At least you’re getting out of here.” Lilly just let out a small sob. Tash did reach out then, but only to lift her face so she could look in her eyes, “It’s going to be okay. I’ll protect you. I promise.”

Lilly smiled at that and stood, body pressed intimately close to Tash’s. “Okay,” she whispered, “I trust you.” She moved around Tash to head through the door, “My knight in shining armor.”

End

Monday, April 18

Manifest Tales #11 "Into the Den"

…a tale of Blood and Agony 
 
i
The crowd jostled and flowed to the noise blaring from the stage at the Dead Zone. Agony thought for sure his ears must be bleeding. Whatever music it was, it was not his style. Still, he stayed. Slo had been able to gather some intel and came up with a name: Tric. Word was he was peddling some new drug to the norms in the area. Scarce word since most wouldn’t talk about it. A big bull’s-eye that had Vendot written all over it. Agony scanned the crowd looking for the dirty tweaker depicted in Slo’s file footage. According to his sources, this was where he hung out most nights, but then who didn’t? It seemed to Agony that all roads led back to the Dead Zone at one point or another. 

He spotted Tric sitting with a group in the concession area, gaze glancing them briefly as he continued to the bar nonchalantly. Recon wasn’t really his thing, but looking natural and blending in was. An impressive task when you considered the size of the man, but he managed. He ordered a beer and took up a stool at the bar that, when turned, put Tric and his entourage directly between Agony and the stage. From this vantage point he could watch the group while seeming to be watching the show, though looking like he was enjoying it was a challenge. 

Sitting with Tric were four other men. Directly to his left was what Agony could only describe as a reject from a bad mob movie. Not the old classics when the mob had style, but the more modern variety of grease ball. Next to him was a different kind of grease ball, one with actual grease. The small man looked like he’d just crawled from underneath a car and had the stains on his cover-all to prove it. His eyes twitched this way and that and Agony got the impression he was not happy to be at the table. His eyes seemed to be caught in a tug of war of looking at the two men on the other side of Tric and trying not to look at them. Agony could see why. 

The two men on the right of Tric oozed pure menace. Not at anyone in particular, but more of a broad generalization of hate to most everyone around them. The smaller of the two looked fresh from a neo-Nazi rally whereas the other looked like he should be outside bench pressing pick-up trucks. It was rare that Agony came across guys bigger than him, but there he was, chair straining to hold him. Of all of them it was the skinhead that seemed to have more than two brain cells to rub together. His eyes pierced through the crowed with a deadly awareness. It was he that first noticed Agony at the bar. He could see from his peripherals that he was watching him and it was an effort not to break cover and meet that icy glare. 

He nudged the mountain of muscle next to him, knocking him out of what appeared to be a sulking session, but the big guy only looked briefly, before shrugging and returning to his own thoughts. Not surprising to Agony it was the goodfella wanna-be who rose to the bait first. Agony couldn’t hear the conversation, but he could imagine how it was going: “He ain’t so big. I could take em.” “Yea sure you could.” “Watch, I’ll put that fucker on his ass.” Perfect, Agony thought. He downed his beer, set it on the bar and headed off toward the bathrooms. Sure enough, the goombah got up to follow. 

As they reached the bathroom area, he tried to make his move, swinging to hit Agony in the back, but, of course, he was ready. With a quick motion he spun and trapped his arm, turning the man and twisting the arm back at a painful angle. Agony said nothing as he struggled, muffled cries of pain escaping his shocked expression. Instead he simply pushed the man toward the emergency exit, opened the door and pushed him out into the alley, closing him out in the cold all by himself. 

With the determination of the best of bar room brawlers Agony made a bee-line for Tric’s table. Ignoring the other men he set his sights on the cold stare of the one he decided was the ring leader. Placing his large hands on the table he leaned in and he said with his own brand of menace, “You wanna try that shit yourself?” 

The muscle-bound sulker stood to confront Agony, but a hand from the other stopped him in mid motion. With a sly smile that attempted to be harmless but failed, he responded, “I’m afraid Greco’s a bit of a hot head. I do apologize. Let me buy you a beer to make up for it.” He signaled to the bar and nodded for Agony to sit. Feigning contemplation for a moment, Agony roughly pulled out an empty chair and sat. “I’m Rand,” he stated, then slapped the tweaker on his back, “this is Tric. And this is Broc.” The behemoth just growled at the mention of his name. “You’ll have to forgive him. He was bitch-slapped by a knight in shining armor earlier. It’s put him in a foul mood.” Agony was acutely aware that Rand had purposefully left the mechanic out of the introductions, and though he was curious he resisted inquiring about him. 

Agony’s beer arrived and the two fell quickly into their performances. It would be hard to tell from an outside perspective who was playing who; Rand with his diatribe on the inferiority of norms or Agony nodding and agreeing at the right moments. In the end it was Agony who got what he came for. After several more drinks and a disappearance from Tric and his un-named companion, Rand reached into his pocket and pulled out a small card. “Listen, we got get out of here, but if you’re looking for some side work, I may have an opportunity for you.” He slid the card to Agony despite the look of disgust on Broc’s face. “Be at this address tomorrow night and we’ll talk more.” Rand gestured to Broc and the two got up and left. 

Once he was alone Agony looked at the card. On one side was an address as Rand promised, and on the other was two ‘V’s, one inverted over the other; the symbol of a Vendot initiate. 

ii 

The address on the card was located somewhere in the middle of a warehouse complex southwest of the Las Vegas Strip. As Agony got closer to his destination, he noticed the streets around him were strangely desolate. Even being at night, there should have been some signs of life, but it was like driving through a ghost town. When he made one of his final turns he was shocked to see a solitary police car blocking his path. The lights on the car came on as he approached and an officer stepped out. Agony slowed his truck to a stop just shy of the cop car and rolled down his window. The officer leaned in, flashlight shinning into Agony’s face, “Invitation?” He could tell that the officer was a norm, but the blank stare he gave let Agony know that he wasn’t exactly acting on his own. He showed the be-spelled officer the card Rand had given him and was promptly waved through. 

As he crossed the point where the cop car was parked a strange sensation went through him. The shadows increased and for a moment it was pitch black. When he emerged from the inky shroud, the world before him had gone to hell. The buildings surrounding him were much as they were on the other side, but the scene played out around them was not. Where before an empty street was now alive with activity. Fires burned in trashcans or demolished cars, all surrounded by leather clad thugs and biker types; all laughing and drinking. Some fighting. Most of the throng were adepts, but intermingled were a few norms, though these appeared to be in some sort of servitude; dressed in rags, eyes downcast, jumping to commands. 

The path in front of him was so blocked with debris and revelry that it was impossible to drive through it, so he parked his truck and continued on foot. Agony could feel the eyes on him as he made his way to the address on the card, still a block or so away, but none tried to impede him. As he got deeper into the den, the horrors increased. He heard screams from darkened alleys and saw brutality played out on the norm slaves in the hollowed out warehouses. Though it was hard to place, he often thought he saw demonic faces forming in the dark corners of the street, but only through his peripherals. If he tried to look directly, they disappeared. 

When he finally reached the address, he found that it wasn’t a building, but an open lot. The area was covered in dead grass punctuated by more of the villains he’d encountered previously. Here and there were more burning trashcans, adding to the hellish motif. The crowd meandered around as if they were waiting for a concert or some other show to begin, and sure enough, on the far end of the lot was a dais. Agony would be hard-pressed to call it a stage. It was closer to a large alter; a raised platform with a stone slab acting as table of some sort in the middle. Torches flickered light across blood and darker fluids stained on the giant stone. 

Rand’s voice caught his attention. “Agony,” he called as he made his way through the crowd smiling like a kid at Christmas. “You made it!” Rand clapped an arm on his shoulder, “And just in time.” He led him through the throng, up to the front of the dais. Rand left him there and ascended to the stage. As soon as he did the crowd quieted, attention turned to Rand. “Vendot, the shadows welcome you!” A dark cheer rose from the adepts surrounding Agony. Rand raised his arms, quieting them once again. “We’ve gathered here tonight for a very special unveiling. Many of you here have heard of what we’ve come to see; the power of Stardust. And many of you were skeptical of that power.” Rand paced like a preacher addressing his flock, his power demanding attention and a small amount of worship. “Even as some of you have witnessed already the willingness to please of our subjects, some still doubt. I invite you now to step forward and doubt no more!” The crowd cheered again, though Agony thought most weren’t really sure why. It dawned on him then that most of the adepts around him were of a low lineage, barely powerful enough to even count as adepts. The cheering grew louder, drawing his attention back to the dais. 

A middle-aged man was led out onto the stage. He looked normal enough and was in fact a norm. He was wearing a standard issue white color uniform; a dark brown suit of the off the rack variety. The man was escorted to one side of the stone table, confusion and fear playing on his face. “This is Mr. Brennon,” Rand explained. “Mr. Brennon here has been using Stardust for, how long now?” 

“2 days,” he responded weakly. 

“2 days!” exclaimed Rand. “And how long since your last fix?” 

“3 hours.” 

“3 hours,” Rand repeated again. “Would you like more, Mr. Brennon?” 

The man’s expression changed, joy taking over, “Yes, yes please!” 

“And what would you be willing to do for that fix, Mr. Brennon?” 

The man hesitated for only a moment, biting his lower lip in thought, “Anything, anything you want.” 

“Anything?” Rand asked in a dark whisper that still managed to carry, sending a shiver down Agony’s spine. 

“Yes sir, anything.” 

Rand smiled that devious smile, “Let’s test that, shall we.” As if on command, Broc appeared on the other side of the dais. In front of him he led a small girl, no older than 12 or 13. Her hands were tied behind her and there was a blindfold over her eyes. “Mr. Brennon,” Rand continued, “who is this girl?” 

Mr. Brennon froze, eye’s wide. “My…my daughter,” he finally managed to get out. 

Rand moved behind the man so he was speaking into his ear, softly, intimately, “And what is your daughter’s name?” 

“Cecilia, her name is Cecilia.” 

“And is she precious to you?” 

“Yes, of course. She’s my angel.” A sarcastic ‘awe’ went through the crowd followed by the cackle of evil. 

From behind Mr. Brennon, Rand raised one hand to silence the group again, “And what would you allow Broc here to do to your daughter for another hit of Stardust, Mr. Brennon?” 

Mr. Brennon’s eyes went wide again, dark thoughts streaming through his mind. Agony could see the struggle, but in the end, the man lost. “Anything,” the man whispered. 

Rand smiled widely. “Anything!” he exclaimed followed by renewed cheers from his congregation. The chill down Agony’s spine turned to ice. He had an idea of what was coming. He tried to swallow his fear and despair. He couldn’t stop it. There were too many of them. If he tried they would all die and he knew it. He could only watch. 

As if he’d read Agony’s mind, Rand whispered to Mr. Brennon, this time so softly only those in the very front could hear, “I want you to watch Mr. Brennon. I want you to stand and watch and make no move from this spot. Understood?” The man just nodded. Rand signaled to Broc, and the real show began. 

Broc gave his own smile, though not sly at all. It was pure venom. He removed the blindfold, bent low and whispered something into her ear. Whatever it was, the girl’s eyes went wide, her face paling. She screamed and called for her daddy, but Mr. Brennon didn’t move, didn’t say ‘everything will be alright.’ He just stood and watched like he was told. Broc lifted the girl and set her down hard on her back atop the stone alter. Agony took a half step forward despite himself. He fought down the urge to rush the stage, to do something. But he knew that would only get him killed, and the girl would be no better off. All he could do was hope no one had noticed his slip. 

When he looked back to the alter he saw Broc bent over the girl, again whispering something into her ear as she cried, but his eyes were watching Agony. He noticed, shit. As their eyes locked Agony cursed himself, knowing now that whatever happened would probably be worse because of him. Agony felt his entire being ice over. The look he gave Broc would have given the grim reaper pause, but Broc just laughed and licked the girl’s face. He was too stupid to understand. Too stupid to know that whatever happened next, he was dead. Agony would see to it. That realization allowed him to stand steady. Agony knew he couldn’t save her, but he’d repay Broc in kind. Assuming of course he made it through the night alive. If Broc told Rand what he saw he might not, but Agony was pretty sure he was too stupid for that too. 

Broc made an abrupt movement, standing straight. Agony heard more than saw the girl’s jeans and underwear being ripped away. She screamed again and again, calling for her father to save her, but still he just stood there, the need for the drug overpowering the need to protect his child. Another tear and the girl’s shirt was gone. Agony wanted to look away, but he couldn’t. Not out of any kind of sick fascination, but simply because if she had to endure it the least he could do was not turn away. Not run from the horror he couldn’t save her from. Not try to spare him the scar. No, he had to watch. Had to let the images burn him so deep that his fury would be a thing of mass; palpable, living. A thing the Vendot would regret letting loose. 

Realizing her father couldn’t or wouldn’t help her, the girl tried to fight back, but with her hands still tied she couldn’t accomplish much. She kicked and writhed trying to delay the inevitable. Broc just laughed. He wrapped his large hands around her neck and began choking her and soon all her fighting transferred from not being raped to trying to breathe. When her legs stopped kicking, he released her neck. The girl gasped for breath and he entered her. The scream she would have given was stolen by her still gasping. All she could do was cry silently as Broc’s girth tore in and out of her. When she could breathe again, if only partly through the pain of the penetration, she tried to fight again, but this time Broc just hit her; a backhand across the face that came away with blood and teeth. Then she gave up. Cecilia ceased to be a person in that moment. Agony could see it in her eyes. See the light of hope leave as she resigned herself to the torture. She stopped crying, stopped struggling. Then she just stopped. He must have ripped something vital because blood flowed freely where Broc had violated her. In mere moments, she was gone. 

Agony felt sorrow like a wave crash into him but the crowd roared with excitement, surging forward, pressing bodies together. Agony went limp, using the crowd to keep from falling. When he looked over at Mr. Brennon, he was standing expressionless. He hadn’t moved, hadn’t even shed a tear. Hadn’t done anything at all until Rand handed the small packet of Stardust to him. Then he brightened and thanked Rand for his generosity. 

End

Saturday, April 16

Manifest Tales #10 “Hollow” *NEW*

Brandon sat in the cafeteria surrounded by people, all alone. His friends talked and laughed around him, but he felt so apart from them he couldn't join in. Ever since Halloween his life had taken a strange turn to worse from the inside of the greatest gift he could've ever imagined. The rose tinted irony kept him in a sort of humorous melancholy, locked between elation and total despair. 

At first everything seemed perfect. After Agent Hamilton ("Call me Ham.") and his steely partner left that faithful night, he thought the world was made for him, and in a way it was. It just never occurred to Brandon what that really meant. 

Everything came easy. He only had to focus for a second and he could have anything he wanted. And not just material things. Even the way people treated him seemed to be affected by his thoughts. Despite Ham's warnings that manipulating regular people was against Sage guidelines, he found it was nearly impossible not to. Most of the time, it wasn't even intentional. Just a stray thought that, "Hey, this person should be nicer to me," and poof, poor on the sugar. 

Yea, at first it was great, but soon the artificial nature of his relationships started becoming more obvious. Or at the very least, more confusing. Was that girl looking at him because she liked him or because he wanted her to look? What about his friends? Did they hang on his every word because he was interesting or because his voice demanded attention, literally? His parents, too, suddenly seemed so much more agreeable. Isolation began to close in on him. He couldn't live like this much longer and he knew it. 

He made the decision then, sitting in the lunch room watching a world he wasn't part of anymore, that he had to seek out others like him: 'adepts' as Agent Ham called them. He could feel them sometimes, a weight that occasionally pressed at the bubble of his world before disappearing, but other than the Sage representatives that wonderful night, Brandon hadn't seen another of his kind. 

Agent Ham had tried to warn him that something like this would happen; that living with norms (again, his word) was problematic at best, but Brandon wasn't really listening, too caught up in the moment to care. But now he wished he had. He had no idea how to find others like him. 

Still, he was determined, and as he walked home from school later that afternoon, he contemplated the problem. He became aware of that somewhat familiar feeling of something pressing against his bubble, but it subsided when he tried to focus on it. As his thoughts drifted back to the problem at hand he felt the sensation again, but again it vanished when he tried to grasp at it. Then a light bulb illuminated above his mind. 

Instead of focusing on the feeling, he focused on the question. This was actually a lot different then what he had been doing; thinking through the problem for possible solutions, weighing the possibilities. No, this was much different. It wasn't even really thinking in a traditional sense. He simply focused on wanting to meet people like him, on being understood...on belonging. The feeling at the border of his world returned, but instead of pushing in on it, it tugged at him. He had the sensation of something trying to guide him, as if the force could and had taken him by the hand. 

He let the feeling lead him for a while before stopping suddenly, a different feeling tugging at him as he passed his house. He stood at the edge of the walkway leading to his front door and was overcome with the feeling that he'd never see it again. At least not as the person he was when he left for school that morning. Or more to the truth, not the same person who's only desire, so short a time ago, was to pull off a wonderful haunted house. He watched the activity of normal life flicker against the blinds of the front room window and thought about going in to say goodbye. But those halls were hollow to him now, and with a heavy sigh, he decided against it. They wouldn't understand anyway, and by the grace of his new ability, they wouldn't even notice he was gone. 

He walked for a while more, again following the tug of the sensation, and before long he realized he had traveled further than time and space would have seemed to allow. He didn’t dwell on it though, merely noting it, another peculiar part of being what he was. He had traveled all the way from the pseudo-posh community of Summerland to the far side of the Strip in less time than it used to take him to drive to school, a miraculous event that seemed mundane to him now. In the preceding week he'd all but abandoned his lonely orange VW Bug, finding that he arrived where he wanted to be with far less effort by following the whim of his wondering thoughts. 

Now they brought him to the edge of a seemingly abandoned shopping center. Bordered up windows were the punctuation marks on the nearly desolate road he walked along. Passing a road sign he saw he was on Maryland Parkway...Maryland Parkway? He stopped abruptly, really looking at his surroundings for the first time. The abandoned shopping center next to him seemed normal enough, but everything else seemed all wrong. 

Maryland Parkway was a major street, and based on his relative location to the Stratosphere he knew he should have been sharing the road with a full line of afternoon drivers, but there wasn't a car in sight. Across the street was another shopping center, and while not boarded up, it looked to be eerily abandoned, as if it had been evacuated or just hadn't opened yet, despite it being two in the afternoon. 

He continued walking, trying to ignore the new feeling creeping up his spine, when he caught the glint of sun reflecting off a car. He could see it parked on the edge of what he assumed would be another abandoned lot, but as he approached he saw that the car wasn't alone. Groups of people meandered in front of a large building. The dull red letters of the unlit sign read: The Dead Zone. The tugging sensation flared and Brandon knew he had arrived at his destination. 

As he stepped through the large double doors of the establishment he saw that the activity in the parking lot was misleading. The inside was nearly empty. Twenty of thirty people loitered in various places in the large open space that seemed to dominate the interior. There were tables and chairs strewn about in a chaotic pattern and most of the patrons were sitting around these; that or skulking about the video games and pool tables Brandon could see off to his left. The realization that nearly everyone he saw was an adept came rushing in as the doors swung closed. 

All eyes turned on him and he felt the brush of their curiosity against his bubble. The sensation lasted only a moment though, before they turned back to their own worlds as if nothing had happened. Brandon sheepishly made his way to a table that he felt was secluded enough for him to feel comfortable, but not so much so that he seemed antisocial. 

The sensation that guided him there had faded, but he didn’t give it much thought. He assumed this was the final destination and it was up to him to make a contact, though he still didn’t really know how. Approaching new people had never been his forte, and this prospect was at least twice as daunting besides. 

As he scanned the small crowd, doing his best to seem open and approachable, he caught the eye of someone staring back at him with a strange grin. He was average sized, thin but toned, and was sporting what looked to be a freshly shaved head. The uneven grin and piercing eyes sat atop a plain white tee parenthesized between red suspenders that protruded from somewhere below the table line. It gave him the look of an extra from American History X or Romper Stomper. A chill crept up his spine as the man rose and walked casually toward him. 

He came to the table, spun a chair to sit in it reversed, and said in a tone that somehow carried friendship and danger at the same time, “You must be new.” He didn’t say new to what, but Brandon had an idea what he meant. “Looks like you could use a friend.” The chill up his spine went arctic. 

A voice floated in from behind Brandon, “He sure could, but not you Rand.” Brandon turned to see another man approaching, taking interest in the scene. He was shorter than the one he called Rand. Fatter too, but he carried the bulk well. He had short blonde hair and a full yet unkempt beard that made an attempt at giving him a rough look, but his face dispelled that instantly. Brandon couldn’t decide immediately what it was about the look of him that did it, but he seemed to exude friendship and charisma. His smile perched in between laughter and a genuine joy at encountering whoever it was he was looking at. He came to a stop just behind Brandon’s shoulder, like a body guard or close friend trying to show support. “I think you should go now Rand. This little one's not worth the effort.” Rand sneered at him, but he got up and walked away. A tension released from Brandon as his new companion stepped around to where Rand was, turned the chair back, and sat down. “I’m Jayme,” he said joyfully, extending his hand to shake. 

Brandon took it gladly and replied, “Brandon. Thanks for getting rid of that guy. He gives me the wigs.” 

Jayme chuckled, “Yea, he does that.” He studied Brandon a bit and then said in a caring tone, “You’re having a hard time with it huh?” 

Surprise and confusion filled Brandon’s eyes, but he played dumb, not wanting to sound stupid, “What do you mean?” 

Jayme smiled brightly making Brandon feel a little stupid for being embarrassed. “What’s it been? 2…3 weeks tops? Family life starting to strain? Friends don’t feel like friends anymore?” 

Shocked, Brandon replied, “Yea. Yea, that’s it exactly. How did you know?” 

Jayme just shrugged. “Seems to me like you have a choice to make then.” 

“Yea? What’s that?” 

“Well, you could either play along and choose a side. . .” Jayme said cryptically. 

“What do you mean, choose a side?” 

“Ya know: right or wrong, good or evil, light or dark…Shine or Shade.” 

Brandon didn’t much like the sound of that. He wasn’t sure he even knew the difference between right and wrong these days. “Or?” 

“Or…you could come with us. We’ll gladly take you. We take all shapes and sizes.” Another smile and Brandon felt that sensation tug at him again, but this time he knew with complete certainty that it came from Jayme. 

“It was you,” Brandon said, only half trying to make it sound like an accusation. Jayme beamed. “But, who are you? Who’s us?” 

“They call us freaks, outcasts, circus people…carnival kids seems to be the most popular these days, but that’s not really who we are.” 

“Then what?” Brandon asked again. 

A warmth seemed to stretch out from Jayme’s core. Brandon felt safe and accepted inside its influence. “Why, we’re family, of course. Come with me. I’ll show you.” 

Brandon stood and followed him off into the club and for the first time since Halloween he felt normal again; like he belonged in the world. He didn’t know what was coming next, but he felt like he had finally found his place in the strange new world he was now a part of. 

End 

**This story is dedicated to the loving memory of Jayme Locascio. We still think of you, all the time.
Much Love!**

Friday, April 15

Manifest Tales #9 "Marie"

The hooves of Fane’s stallion fell silently on the rooftops of the abandoned buildings surrounding the Dead Zone. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the girl, sitting surrounded by the strange vagrants, eyes distant, clutching a blue doll, featureless except for its button eyes and yarn mouth. The meandering masses seemed to draw warmth from her presence despite the fact that she didn’t acknowledge them Or anything, as far as Fane could tell from their brief encounter, her only communication a small silver bracelet with the name ‘Marie’ engraved on it. Now he searched her out again at the behest of Joshua, but so far he’d had no luck.

He had searched the area where he first saw her, but to no avail. He felt she was close though, as if he could feel her calling to him from the dark. A ridiculous notion, he thought. Why would she call to him? Had she even noticed him there before? He judged her to be no older than maybe 10, but the look in her eyes held something older. Something forged by suffering. How quick such things could age us.

So now he broadened his search, galloping from the rooftops in hopes of spying her wondering down one of the lonely alleys, perhaps searching for him as he did her. “Get a grip, Fane,” he scolded himself to the open air. He stopped briefly, straining to hear signs of life from the empty buildings below. Somewhere in the distance he heard glass shatter and a wave of urgency and need nearly knocked him from his horse. Directing his mount, he leapt from the roof to the alley below and sped toward the sound, but as he approached where he thought it originated, the feeling subsided. “Nerves. Must be nerves.”

He continued on the ground, slowly, searching for the source of the noise. Nerves or no nerves, it was the first clue he’d been given and it was better than nothing. He moved along remnants of businesses long dead, their shells corroding, glass windows caked with dust where they weren’t already cracked or vacant. As he rounded a corner he thought he caught movement through one of the plate glass memorials. As he approached he heard a deep and threatening voice boom from inside, “So you’re the little bitch that’s been setting them free.” Fane strained to see through the murky glass. There she was, inside the cavernous abandoned waste, being backed into a corner by large mass of muscle and menace, “Guess we’ll have to do something about that.” Fane only saw the hulk start to grab the girl before he was crashing through the window, galloping hard to save her.

As the shards cleared from his vision he saw the surprise and anger on the man’s face, piercing with eyes of pure black. He had the girl by the neck in one giant hand as she grasped at his arm trying to stop him. Fane saw part of her shirt ripped and fury overtook him. He charged at the figure, causing him drop the girl in order to dive out of the way. 

Before he could recover, Fane turned, unsheathed his sword and planted it into his chest, pinning him to the ground. Darkness like blood flowed from the the wound and from his eyes and mouth. He let out a scream that reverberated through the shadows with mass. Waves of terror and despair flooded into the hollow shell of the room. Fane felt almost as if he could see it rising like dark water. The girl was looking around frantically like she could also see it, but before it could overtake them the sword grew bright, giving off light like the sun to beat back the darkness. The brute screamed again, but this time in his own terror. Not waiting to see if he’d recover, Fane quickly swept up the girl and fled.

He rode to outrun the devil with the girl clutching him with one arm and the strange doll with the other. When it seemed he’d gone far enough he stopped and eased himself and the girl to the ground. He held her as she shivered; eyes more distant now then they had been before. “Are you alright?” he asked, though he didn’t expect an answer. “It’s okay. Everything’s alright now. We’ll take care of you.” He smoothed back her hair and looked into her broken eyes, “I’ll take care of you.”

End

Thursday, April 14

Manifest Tales #8 "And then there was a Rose..."

The view outside his window hadn’t changed but the apprehension inside him continued to grow. It seemed to Joshua that all he’d done recently was wait. Wait for the right moment, the right vision, the right path. Now he was waiting again. This time for a meeting he wasn’t sure he wanted to have, a feeling that was becoming all too familiar.


The call from Slo so soon was unexpected, but what he said was even more so, “He wants to meet you.”

“But I thought Agony didn’t like authority,” he replied hopefully.
  
“He says he’ll make an exception this time. Seems like maybe he’s heard of you.”

So he waited. Waited to see what Agony had heard. Waited to see why he was so interested in meeting Joshua. He figured it couldn’t be good, but he was confident he’d read the patterns right. Agony was the right guy. He needed him. So he waited.

The report from Fane had done little to distract his thoughts, but the girl he mentioned did interest him. Something about her seemed to fit into the pattern too, but how, he wasn’t sure yet. He supposed again he’d just have to wait for Fane to bring her. He let out a heavy sigh and returned to his desk. Perhaps work could keep his nerves at bay.

The buzz of the intercom nearly knocked him out of his chair. He realized he’d been straining, waiting to hear the indication that they were here, so when it finally struck, it hit him like electricity. Renee ushered the men in with a look of concern at the intimidating Agony. A nod from Joshua as he rose from his desk seemed to put her at ease as she retreated, closing the door behind her.

He approached Slo, shaking his hand, but Agony didn’t even acknowledge him, instead taking in the office d├ęcor. “Nice digs,” he said, more to the air then to Joshua.

“Thanks. Please, have a seat.” Joshua returned to his desk as Slo sat. Agony continued his casual investigation a few more moments before seeming to decide he was satisfied, taking the seat next to Slo.

“So you’re the famous Joshua Williams.” Not a question, but a statement, his attention and scrutiny finally falling on Joshua.

Joshua fought the urge to squirm under his gaze, “That’s interesting coming from you. I wasn’t aware I was famous.”

“In certain circles. You’d be amazed how far word can travel.”

“And what word is that?” Joshua leaned back; fingers arched together much like Slo had done upon their first meeting.

Agony shrugged, his demeanor beginning to shift into a friendlier persona, “Depends who you talk to.”

“Rumors and speculation travel far too I suppose.”

“Exactly. So I figured better to go to the source.” Agony’s eyes focused intently letting Joshua know that despite the bravado he was expecting answers and if he didn’t like the ones he got, there could be trouble.

“Fair enough. So why don’t you tell me what you’ve heard and we can set the record straight.”

“Well let’s see. The most common one is that you’re raising an army of some sort. To what end depends who’s saying it. Some say to battle the Vendot. Others say it’s to take over Sage or maybe start a competitor.” Agony leaned forward, forearms resting on his legs, hands grasped together.

Instinctively Joshua followed suit, using his desk instead for support. “Interesting. What do you think?”

“I think you certainly have the resources.” He shrugged again, “Of all, those are the least crazy.”

“It gets better?”

Agony chuckled, “A bit. Some say you’re some kind of messiah here to usher in a new age or possibly a demon bent on destroying it. Or that you’re thousands of years old and have some hidden knowledge or power beyond the rest of us. Other variations weave in and out, but that’s the gist.” With that he leaned back, crossed his arms and waited, watching Joshua.

Joshua sighed, stood and walked back to the window behind him, “The view hasn’t changed…” he mumbled, wondering to himself how much he could tell Agony. He turned his head and really looked at Agony for the first time. He was large, intimidating, not the kind of guy you’d want to meet in an alley. But under it was shrewdness rarely seen. Intelligence burned behind his eyes, melting away Joshua’s doubt. Everything, he had to tell him everything.

He turned and leaned against the glass, hands clasped behind him, “How much do you know about where we come from? Why we can do the things we do?”

“Just the pre-recorded Sage spiel; some mystical energy they call the Shine lets us see the Spirit Web which allows us to manifest reality, yada, yada, blah.”

“Right, but what you don’t know is where the Shine comes from. Our world, our reality, is actually part of a binary dimension; two worlds intertwined, destinies interlocked. In our sister reality the Shine is as abundant as oxygen, and like oxygen in our world, just as necessary. Through a gateway between the worlds, the Shine once flowed freely into ours.”

“Another world, huh? I’ve been to just about every corner of this planet and I’ve never seen any other world.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to have, but we’re getting to that.” Joshua pushed away from the glass, returning to his chair, “Legend has it that when both worlds were created, the other world was a land of chaos. Unlike our world it wasn’t supported by a Spirit Web. The Shine was all, and the only stabilizing factor was the whim of those who inhabited it, but as most primitive creatures do, they fought and battled, all trying to be the dominant force. Things continued this way for countless eons, until the rise of man.

“When the first cavemen peaked out of their caves to marvel at the sun, so did our ancestors rise out of the Shine. Man, as well as these early adepts, evolved in thought and socialization, but continued to war and vie for power. Then around the dawn of human civilization, one adept was born unlike the rest. His power was greater than any before him. Not so much that he could dominate all, but enough that the others heeded his words. He saw that the chaos in their world was tearing it apart, and while he watched it sink into the abyss, this world was thriving.”

Agony rolled his eyes, boredom playing plainly on his face, “This is all fascinating, but could we get to the point?”

Joshua straightened, demeanor turning stern as his presence filled the room. Slo, who to this point had been almost invisible, stirred slightly, unable to fully resist. “You came here for answers, and I’m giving them to you. If I’m boring you, perhaps we should call it a night.”

Agony raised his hands in front of him as if to show he was unarmed and harmless, “Sorry, sorry. Please, continue.”

Joshua settled back, lowering the tension in the room but still dominating its environment, “As I was saying, this adept saw our world thrive and also saw why; the Spirit Web. It bound our reality together, gave us purpose and direction; a framework to build upon. The other world was not so lucky. Its structure and environment was constantly changing; shifting sometimes moment by moment. Drawing together his closest allies, he devised a way to give his people a stable foundation. Together they created a kind of government called the Garden of the Rose, with him as the sovereign Rose and his allies the Body of Thorns. For two thousand years they successfully maintained a base reality, and peace and prosperity flourished.

“But all things have their opposite, the Shine being no different. Hidden away in the dark was the Shade; a force of destruction and evil. A young adept named Vorlok became obsessed with the Shade. Its power and influence corrupted him and led him into a campaign against the Rose and his Thorns. He named himself the Black Winged Rose, and gathered his own followers, calling them the Vendot.”

Agony straightened, interest now taking over, “The Vendot? As in the Vendot?”

“Not exactly, but yes.” Joshua continued, “Chaos engulfed the other world once again. War spanning thousands of years broke out. In the end, the Rose knew he would lose. Vorlok was too powerful. So he and his Thorns devised the only plan they had left; they’d run. Flee to our realm and slam the gateway closed behind them.”

“Turn tail and run. Always a good plan,” Agony’s sarcasm was not lost on anyone.
  
“You might not think that way if you ever came face to face with the full power of the Shade. It’s not that it’s more powerful than the Shine, per say, but its power is rooted in destruction and death. The Shine, as a rule, is not. They were simply unprepared for what was unleashed.”

“Right, whatever you say. So they ran and I’m guessing joined their inept cousins here?”

“Yes. Or as many as survived. Unfortunately, the Rose and many of the Thorns didn’t make it, dying defending their people as they fled. Leadership fell to a Thorn named Saige.”

“Saige? Like ‘Sage’ Saige?”

Joshua shook his head, “He was the inspiration for our friendly neighborhood adept police, but no. The Sage of today has little in common with Saige the man, but then again, they have different challenges. Saige’s priority was to integrate his people into our world. With the gateway between the worlds closed, he knew eventually the Shine in our world would dissipate, leaving them nearly as inept, as you put it, as the rest of mankind.”

Slo broke his silence, “But the Shine’s all over, right? So that means the gateway’s open?” Joshua and Agony both looked at Slo as if he'd sprouted a second head. “What? I’m sorry, didn’t realize this was a private conversation.”

Joshua recovered, nodding, “Yes, or more likely the doorway is cracked. If it was all the way open Vorlok would make his presence known.

Agony turned back to Joshua, “You mean he’s still alive? Even after all this time?”

“Sure, why not? You should know from experience actually killing an adept is a difficult task. How do you kill something that can be anything? Someone who can bend and change their reality? The only real way to end an adept is to remove him from reality. Or deprive him of the Shine. No, it’s more likely Vorlok is alive and well, and more powerful than ever before.”

“Enter the Vendot,” Slo said in a half snicker.

Joshua nodded, “That’s what I think. I’m not sure how exactly, but I think Vorlok has found a way to spread his influence into our world. In theory he can’t escape until the gateway’s fully opened, but a crack…maybe he found a way to get something through. Honestly I don’t know, but the Vendot are out in force and the gateway is opening, proof by the presence of the Shine.”

Agony considered the information, “Okay, so that brings us up to date, but you still didn’t answer any of my questions.”

Joshua smiled, “True I haven’t. But we’re not quite up to date yet. Before they started their mass migration, the Rose and his Thorns knew there was a chance some of them wouldn’t make it, so they devised a way to pass the power of the Rose down through the generations. One Thorn was charged with protecting the line, keeping its existence secret from all others, watching and waiting for the Shine to return and the Rose to be reborn.” Joshua could see the thought form on Agony’s face, “No, I’m not the Thorn, and I’m not the Rose either. So that answers two of your questions.”

“That it does. But then who? Or better yet, how do you know all this if it was supposed to be a secret?”

“The answer to both of those questions is the same: my father. He was the one sent to watch over the line of the Rose and he’s the one who told me what I’ve told you.”

“But if he was here how did he survive without the Shine?”

“It’s not unheard of, though rare. The Shine never fully disappeared. There were places where the last remnants pooled. We would recognize them today as places of spiritual significance or mysterious origin. Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and others; some well known, others not.”

“Okay, say I buy it, if your pops knows where the Rose is, what’s the problem?”

“That is the problem,” Joshua leaned back, eyes going out of focus as he accessed painful memories long buried, “He died. A long time ago.” A shiver went through him as he pushed the pain back into the abyss of the past. “He taught me what he could, but never revealed the location of the Rose. So to answer another of your questions, I am raising an army. Kind of anyway. We search for the Rose and any evidence of our forgotten past. We try to uphold the ways of the Rose and his Thorns, striving towards cooperation and prosperity to all. I admit I’m a poor substitute, my knowledge being limited, but we have to start somewhere. In the end I believe the Rose is our only chance in stopping Vorlok and restoring us to our true birthright.”

“Fair enough. But now the million dollar question: why do you need me?”

This was the real question. The one Joshua dreaded answering the most. It was something he’d never told anyone, because if the wrong people found out, everything could be lost. He hesitated involuntarily, willing himself to pull the words out. He thought for a moment perhaps this too was part of his father’s design; preventing him from giving away too much.

“My father left a kind of coded message behind. A puzzle that once solved will reveal the location of the Rose. The next clue is the Vendot; or rather something they’re up to. I need you because no one on my team could even get close to them. I need someone who can, someone like you.”

Agony thought for a moment then abruptly slapped his hands down on the arms of his chair, stood and said, “Well alright.” With that he turned and headed for the door.

Joshua called after him, “You’ll help us then?”

Agony stopped just before the exit and said, again more to the air then to Joshua, in a tone filled with its own pain, “I don’t know that I believe in any great and powerful Rose who can save us. But I believe in the evil of Vendot. And you’re wrong; I have seen the power of the Shade face to face.” With that he was gone, leaving Joshua with a mixed feeling of getting what he wanted but not sure the price of pain in Agony’s voice was really worth it.

End

Wednesday, April 13

Manifest Tales #7 “FLI and the Illusion Generator"

…a tale of Blood and Agony

i

Excitement coursed through him, anticipation dominating his thought.  Soon, soon he’d be here.  Agent Ham was true to his word and as a direct result Agony was on his way up.  G-Wiz had seen him get on the elevator through the security cameras.  Now he wasn’t sure what to do.  His body was trying to tell him to run, to retreat into his room, but his mind wanted to stay.  Morbid curiosity he supposed, but he had to meet him.  Had to know what a man with his background was like.  After all, he could handle himself pretty well if it came to it.  At least enough to get to his room, and there he would be safe.  Resolved to stay, he tried to appear natural; lounged in his chair, legs over the arm, system controller in hand, virtual combat blazing across the TV screen and through the speakers. 

When the door finally opened he froze.  He didn’t mean to, he just reacted.  A deer in headlights, he watched as Agony entered.  He was immediately struck by the size of the man.  Towering, it was a wonder he got through the door without ducking.  And muscle.  Not that grotesque body-builder bulk, but lean, hard girth.  Solid mass like a Mack truck.  He moved with a nonchalant swagger, as if he’d just returned from some errand instead of walking in for the first time.  Within a moment Agony’s long strides had him directly in front of G-Wiz.  Wide eyed, he couldn’t help but stare.

Agony gave him a curious look; mocking, but in a way, friendly.  It was a look that said he’d seen this reaction before and was a little amused by it.  He seemed to consider the kid briefly; eyebrow’s rising, “Ri-ight.”  His demeanor shifted as he turned toward the large TV screen, pointing at the cyber fighters still waging their epic battle, “So, what game you playing?” 

The question caught G-Wiz off guard.  This wasn’t at all what he’d expected.  Agony turned his head with a questioning glance, willing the dumbfounded G-Wiz to snap out of it.  A micron of composure returned to him.  “Technically none,” he managed to say as he began to remember the controller in his hand.  He tuned back to the screen, and instantly felt more confident, now in his element, “I’m testing environments for the fight club.”

Agony watched as the kid performed impressive and complicated combat maneuvers inside a virtual environment that looked almost real.  He glanced over at him, “You’re doing what now?”

“Testing environments.  It’s my Illusion Generator.  It lets us—“

“Wiz,” Slo’s voice interrupting him.  He appeared out of nowhere, but G-Wiz was used to it.  No one ever saw Slo unless he wanted them to.  “You gonna introduce me to your friend?”

The kid could tell Agony hadn’t seen him coming.  His appearance had either scared or impressed him because he wasn’t friendly or curious anymore.  Now he was cautious, watching Slo carefully.  “Agony, this is Slo.  Slo, Agony.”  Agony took his eyes off Slo long enough only to give him a questioning scowl.  G-Wiz shrugged, “I saw your file.”

“Wiz.”  Slo said the name mildly, but G-Wiz could feel the warning in it.

“What?”  It hadn’t occurred to him that the information was secret.

“What kind of name is Slo?”  Agony interrupted, attention back on him.

“What kind of name is Agony?” Slo responded now returning the favor, attention locked on the larger man.

“Hell, what kind of name is G-Wiz” him attempting to break the tension.  The two men broke their stare to give him a disapproving look.  “I’m not helping am I?”  G-Wiz turned in his chair, sitting in it properly for the first time and tried to appear invisible as he mashed slowly at his controller buttons.

Agony and Slo turned back, eyes locked, each measuring the other with a fierce intensity.  Slo broke the expanding silence first, “What do you say Wiz, shall we show Agony what the Illusion Generator is in person?”

The kid turned slowly, looking to see if Slo was serious.  Agony seemed to understand the implications though.  He spoke before G-Wiz could reply, “You gonna show me personally, Slo?” 

“That’s the idea.”

Like everything, Slo spilled the words like they were no big deal, but G-Wiz knew otherwise.  He was picking a fight with Agony.  Didn’t seem like a good idea to him, but then again he wasn’t the one getting in the ring, so who was he to bitch? 

ii

Even on a Saturday afternoon the Dead Zone was alive with activity, though it was of a different sort.  As the three moved toward the arena entrance they had to weave in and out of tables now occupying half the concert floor.  The stage was empty but music still pumped through the speakers, driven by the old style jukebox in the corner.  The crowd, as it often was, was a blend of adepts and norms, and nearly all of their eyes followed the trio on their march, as if they could feel the implied tension.  Slo and Agony ignored the stares, focused on their goal, but G-Wiz nodded and waved at people he knew.

They crossed through the arena doors unabated.  As G-Wiz closed them behind him he could hear the noise of conversation rise beyond the heavy frame.  “So much for being subtle.”

“I didn’t know we were trying to be,” Agony said, not focused on G-Wiz, but instead studying what appeared to be nothing more then a normal wrestling ring.  His attention lifted and settled on the strange projector like device nestled nearly hidden in the rafters above the ring.  He nodded, indicating the units nesting place, “What’s that?”

Slo stepped forward, glancing at the centerpiece to G-Wiz’s Illusion Generator.  “Why couldn’t it just be lighting equipment?” Slo’s words were more a test then a question.  Agony turned his head and just looked at him.  Slo couldn’t help but smile slightly.  The look said he would have to be crazy to think Agony would buy that.  He turned to G-Wiz, still by the door no doubt trying not to get caught in the crossfire, “Show him.”

Despite himself, G-Wiz was giddy at the words.  He found immense pleasure in showing off his creations, and when dealing with them he felt more confident, strong.  He pushed away from his diminished stance and strode to the edge of the ring.  He remained gravely aware of Agony’s intense scrutiny as he activated a hidden console and began loading the OS for his Illusion Generator.

Agony stepped forward, looking inquisitively over G-Wiz’s shoulder as unfamiliar lines of code blurred across the small screen.  “What’s that?”

G-Wiz hesitated for a second, casting a questioning glance to Slo.  Slo gave a brief nod, sending renewed waves of elation through him.  “This is my FLI OS.  It runs the Illusion Generator.”

“Fly?”

“No, FLI.  F-L-I.  Fabricated Life-like Intelligence.”

“Oh, like AI?”

G-Wiz shook his head, a disappointed sigh escaping his lips, “No, no.  Not at all.  AI is…well you’ve seen the movies.  Man gives computer a brain.  Computer becomes self-aware.  Computer kills everyone.  This isn’t like that.  FLI has no real cognizant ability.  Instead it’s programmed with pre-designed responses to nearly every possible situation.”

Agony took a step back far enough for G-Wiz to see his quizzical expression, “What? How could you possibly be able to predict every possible situation?”

G-Wiz just smiled, “If I told you that everyone would have one.”

Agony looked to Slo.  He spread his hands deflecting the insinuation, “Don’t look at me.  He won’t tell me either.”

Agony seemed to accept the answer and turned back to the kid.  “Okay, so then what’s the Illusion Generator?  I mean I can guess part of it.  It projects images into the ring right?”

“Um, yes and no.  It creates a duel environment, so completely realistic you won’t be able to tell the difference.”  The scrolling code stopped, the system beeping to let G-Wiz know it was fully booted and ready to go.  He tapped a few keys and the screen changed.  He scooted over a bit and motioned for Agony to come closer as he explained; “On the inside of the ring we project one of nearly 1000 environments.”  The screen flashed a slide show with varying vistas.  “Each one perfectly real, functioning and reacting just like the real world.  It even feels real.”  He clicked another key and two figures appeared on the screen.  They immediately engaged and began filling the view with an epic battle much like the one Agony had watched the kid perform at the Rooms. 

Agony straightened and regarded the kid with a look of wonderment, “Impressive.”

G-Wiz tapped another key and the screen changed again.  The figures were still present, but now they were in just the ring.  And instead of the large-scale onslaught they were just wrestling.  Excitedly and rather competently, but still just regular old wrestling. “On the outside we project a regular wrestling match.  Its outcome and direction is determined by the FLI system based on what’s going on inside.  So, a devastating blow might translate into a power bomb or something.”  He clicked again and the images began to blur, blending into the real battle waging behind it.  “Adepts can see in, past the illusion, but norms can’t.  That means we can have all-out, full-scale adept brawls right in front of the ignorant public.”  He smiled, standing straight, arms crossed like a proud schoolboy.  He turned to see if Slo was as impressed with his lesson as Agony seemed to be, only to find his undivided attention was firmly on Agony.  G-Wiz tapped a few more keys and the console folded and slid back out of view.  He tried to shrink as he backed out of the place he least wanted to be, the crossfire.

When G-Wiz cleared Slo motioned to the small set of steps leading to the ring, “After you.”

iii

For a moment there was nothing but white.  Agony stood lost in a void of light.  Then Slo appeared before him.  Without taking his eyes off Agony he said into the void, “Wiz, load the street.”  The world began to shift around Agony.  The distance between him and Slo stretched as a street appeared between them.  On either side of the street buildings and cars manifested.  Within seconds he was standing on one end of what appeared to be a regular city street with Slo on the other end.

He judged the distances to be about 100 yards give or take.  Behind Slo was a building signifying the end of the fight zone.  A quick glance behind showed the same behind him.  Agony was struck by the reality of it.  Just as G-Wiz had said, the setting seemed real.  Except of course that the street was isolated with no roads crossing it.  To the sides through the buildings he could see a large brick wall; another boundary he supposed.  From across the distance he could see a sly smile play on Slo’s face as he slowly backed up and disappeared into the building behind him.

He felt the shot cutting through the air seconds before he heard the crack of the rifle.  Agony quickly sidestepped and dove behind a nearby car.  Another shot screamed through the windshield and out through a side window, shattering both.  He cautioned a glance in the direction he thought the shot had come from; there, in the 3rd floor window of a building just down and to his left, a pale figure silhouetted the frame.  It resembled Slo, but Agony knew it wasn’t him exactly.  Location and physical presence could be fuzzy sometimes.

Cautiously Agony moved along the right side of the car, making his way to the shattered side window.  Another shot rang out, but it hit somewhere nearer to where he was.  Good, he didn’t see me move.  Reaching through the bullet opened window, Agony tore a piece of upholstery from the car’s front seat.  Sitting now against the car in what he figured for the moment was a safe spot, he tore the cloth into one long strip.   He moved back toward the gas cap, removed it and started feeding his makeshift fuse into the tank.  He lit the other end with his Zippo and moved back to the open window.  With a hope and a prayer he quickly reached into the car, shifted it to neutral and began pushing it toward the building.  Shots rained down on the car as it moved, but Agony’s position was covered.  He knew in reality what he was doing was probably impossible, but that’s what he loved most about being an adept.  It didn’t matter so much what was real, only what you wanted to be real.

With one final shove he sent the car careening on its own momentum toward the building.  Agony rolled to his right as flame struck gasoline sending a spectacular explosion of smoke and fire into Slo’s shadow-sniper’s hideout.  He wasn’t so sure the impromptu bomb would actually take out the sniper, but that wasn’t really the point.  Now hidden in the cover a smoke Agony sped across the street, through an alley to the back of the side buildings.

The alley was fairly typical of what he expected to see, except for the towering brick wall to his right, but along the buildings were an array of fire escapes, cardboard boxes and dumpsters.  Great place for an ambush, he thought, and almost as if he manifested it himself, his thought came true.  From behind a nearby dumpster another shadow version of Slo rolled out with an M-16 trained on Agony’s position.  As the muzzle flash burst a hail of bullets, Agony stepped left, using a fire escape as shoddy cover.  Next to him on the wall he saw a ‘No Parking’ sign; Perfect.  With one fluid motion he ripped the sign off the wall and sent it sailing through the air at his pseudo-opponent.  The spray of blood and the humorous way the head flew into the air was probably a bit much, but he enjoyed the theatrics of it.  He didn’t have much time to enjoy the scene before a door he hadn’t noticed opened next to him.

The first thing he saw was the knife, but hand-to-hand was more his specialty.  He locked the arm attached to the blade and swung yet another Slo Soldier out into the alley, slamming him hard against the towering brick wall.  The knife went flying as Agony brought up his knee, driving the figure’s midsection into the wall yet again.  As he doubled over from the strike, Agony, still holding the arm, twisted him down and around so he was kneeling with Agony behind him.  A quick twist of the neck and the figure went still.

As fun as this all was, Agony could tell neither man was gaining ground.  Slo could sit in that building at the end of the street all day, sending wave after wave of hit men and nothing would be accomplished.  He had to get to that building; he had to get to the real Slo.  Slo must have noticed too, because as Agony continued down the side alley, no more shadow-puppets attacked.

Still on alert Agony peered around the corner of the last building.  He could see that the wall continued, forming a rectangle of brick around their playground.  The building Slo had entered was only one story, so the threat of another sniper was small, but there didn’t appear to be a side entrance.  The only way in was the double glass doors at the front.  Not the easiest thing to sneak through, but then Agony wasn’t much for stealth in general. 

He moved along the front of Slo’s stronghold and inched his way to the doors.  Trying to stay as covered as possible, Agony looked through into the building into what appeared to be a reception area.  The lights were off, but he didn’t sense any movement directly on the other side.  He figured the door would be locked, but to his amazement it wasn’t, as he opened the doors and went in.

The room was typical of many office front desks; a large desk along the opposite wall, chairs and small tables aligned along the other walls and throughout the open floor.  To the right of the desk was a door, the only one he could see.  As he approached the door he saw a small device bridging the gap between door and doorframe.  A bomb?  Really?  Agony sighed to himself and inspected the devise.  All and all it was a pretty impressive set up, but he still made short work defusing it.  He appreciated its presence though, as it meant there wasn’t likely to be anyone too close on the other side.  Of course not knowing what was on the other side still made going through risky, but what choice did he have?

He cracked the door enough to peer through.  Laid out beyond the door was a maze of cubicles.  Great, a call center.  He pushed through and rolled to the nearest partition.  A barrage of pistol fire bit into the door swinging automatically closed behind him. He hadn’t actually seen Slo, but he knew it was him this time.  Agony could tell by the repetitive blasts that Slo was using two handguns, firing them alternately like they do in the movies.  He stayed low and moved along the cubicle walls trying to find a path to the back of the room where the shots were coming from.  

As he came to an open cubicle he heard something clang onto the desk and fall to the floor: a grenade.  Quickly and almost without thought, Agony grabbed a paper clip, bent it out straight and inserted it in like a pin.  Again he was struck by the lunacy of the move.   He slipped the now diffused grenade into his pocket and tried to keep moving, but Slo was doing a good job of keeping him pinned down.  When a bullet grazed his arm, Agony decided he’d had enough.

In one fluid motion he stood, grabbed a nearby monitor and lobbed in the direction of the gun fire.  He saw Slo duck the flying screen as he began making his way over and through the cubical maze.  As he moved, Agony continued with a barrage of office equipment, throwing anything that wasn’t bolted down; chairs, keyboards, monitors, a stress ball.  Anything and everything to keep Slo from getting any more shots off.  

As he got closer to his goal, he couldn’t help but notice the stoic calm that Slo possessed.  Even as he ducked and dodged the onslaught, his expression never changed.  He gave no hint of frustration or concern.  He simply avoided the projectiles, moving in an attempt to regain the high ground.  Even as Agony made his final leap, tackling Slo to the ground, his face never betrayed him.

Everything seemed to change in an instant.  What was before almost a friendly exchange turned into an all out brawl.  The two crashed into each other with force enough to shatter the windows around them.  Each landed devastating blows to the other as their dance continued across the floor.  Agony was pouring everything he had into the fight and still Slo matched him, still eerily calm as if this were just another day at the beach.  But he could feel him weakening; feel his resolve start to slip.  He just hoped it was enough.

He left nothing behind now, trying to capitalize on his opening, funneling all his focus into subduing the other man.  But his rally didn’t last.  It wasn’t so much that Slo rebounded as he began to lose his own resolve.  He felt Slo’s will crash into him repeatedly, parallel to the blows he produced, and felt himself slip.  Felt Slo gain the advantage.  Felt it all begin to slip away.  

For a moment there was nothing but white.  Agony stood lost in a void of light.  Then Slo appeared before him, panting and out of steam.  He stood, hands on his knees trying to relearn how to breathe.  Agony was on the ground, leaning against a cubicle partition, but he couldn’t remember how he got there.  Slo’s head slowly rose as the men’s eyes met.  Agony could almost feel Slo’s apprehension, but his face still seemed at home.  With a burst of energy the forces of nature charged at each other again.  What was left didn’t even have windows to shatter. 

As the two titans continued, all semblance of G-Wiz’s reality began to melt away; reduced to rubble and ash.  Agony was beyond exhaustion, operating off pure nerve.  He couldn’t imagine Slo had much left either, but still they fought.  When the piercing sound cut through his mind he thought it was over for sure this time.  He was almost relived as he clutched at his ears, trying to keep his brain from leaking out.  He saw Slo too now on his knees in much the same manner.  He only had a second to wonder what was happening before it all disappeared.

When his vision finally cleared he was kneeling in the wrestling ring across from Slo. G-Wiz was franticly clicking away at his ringside console, an expression of pure terror plainly playing across his face.  Slo stirred and tried to speak, but his voice didn’t seem to be working at that moment.  Agony could relate.  He was pretty sure he couldn’t scream even if he was stabbed with a hot poker.  Slo managed to clear his throat enough to get out in a rasp, “Wiz…what happened?”

The kid looked up from his console with an expression of pure shock as if the dead had just spoken, but the shock quickly faded under waves of relief.  “Holy shit, I thought I lost you.”

Slo tried to regain composure as he used the ring’s ropes to help him to his feet.  “What happened,” he repeated.

“You guys crashed the system.”

“What?”  Slo nearly collapsed again with surprise, “How the hell did we do that?”

Mimicking Slo’s ascent, Agony pulled himself to his own feet, “See, I told you there was no way to predict everything.”

G-Wiz gave Agony a quizzical glance, “Well, yea, I guess.  I just never imagined that happening.”

“Never imagined what happening?” Slo asked.

“A tie.”

Slo and Agony turned to each other, both now with shocked expressions, the first indication Agony had seen that Slo could be shocked.  Agony watched as Slo’s eyes became bright and shiny and he could imagine his looked much the same.  G-Wiz could do nothing but stare, mouth hung open, as both men burst into laughter.
   

End