The world, all creation, shifted sharply and suddenly. It rotated on some unfathomable axis, straining connections, breaking bonds here-to-fore unshakable. In a wood-cabin, lit by coals in the fireplace and dozens of half melted candles, a tired magician sat wearily, resting his elbows on his knees and struggling to get his breath. Spread out on the floor around him were the hidden secrets of the human body, arranged in patterns and formula. It had taken three days and a dozen attempts to get it all to come together. With each mistake he’d learned, though his frustration had mounted, level with his knowledge… if it hadn’t worked this time he’d have had to hunt down another sacrifice and he might have missed his window.
Perversely he recalled something a friend used to say, it’ll be alright on the night. The pressure mounts and suddenly, a moment of clarity descends… he could have practiced for months, depopulated half of North America, and still he wouldn’t have been able to complete the spell until the penultimate moment. Still, fifteen people and three days was a small price to pay, for all his weariness he was elated! It would be at least another two months before he could make his next move, more than enough time for him to recover, check his progress on the indicators and prepare.
Before dawn, he burned the cabin. There was no cleaning up. The old man who owned it would return a few days later from an interstate fishing trip, to discover that vandals had soaked the place in petrol and lit it up. His insurance would cover it, and he would go on about his life.
The magician knew that the changes he had wrought wouldn’t become obvious for weeks, long enough for his absence to be forgotten. In his mind it all served as proof that he was on the right course. The screaming had been upsetting, off-putting, but at least it was done.
“So… you’re going to be working with the weirdo’s, huh?” The woman walked slightly ahead of them, her heels clacking loudly on the floor.
“Ma’am?” Jeff asked.
“You know, the weirdo’s. You don’t buy all this ‘magic’ whoohaa do you?” She wriggled her fingers in the air and looked at them over her shoulder.
“That’s what’s in the reports.” Jeff said.
“Riiiiight, and reports never lie.” Brendan muttered.
“You’re a disgrace. Your hair is too long, you’ve got at least two tattoo’s that violate regulations and I haven’t seen you salute once.”
“Will you relax, you’re so stiff people are going to think your mummy startches your underwear.” Brendan laughed and the woman escorting them covered her smile with the back of her hand.
“Well, ah” she coughed to cover her chuckle and gestured to the foyer. “Your escort should be here by now. Good luck.”
Jeff gave her a crisp salute, turned sharply on his heel, and walked out into the more natural light of the foyer. With an amused smirk, Brendan gave the woman a far sloppier wave and a wink. “Do you believe in magic?” He asked.
“That depends…” She smiled up at him.
“Oh?” Brendan leaned down so their faces were quite close together. “What on?”
She laughed and backed away holding up one hand to keep him from following. “If you ever come back, maybe I’ll tell you.”
“Tease,” he grinned and saluted again. “Well, once more into the breach and all that crap.”
Out in the foyer, Jeff tapped his left foot and his eyes darted left and right, scanning for their escort. “He’s late.”
“How do you know it’s a ‘he’?” Brendan asked, and waggled his eyebrows.
“Will you grow up.”
“No, no, no, laddy, don’t go doin’ that. Wont last a month.” Jeff coughed uncomfortably when he realised that the man who’d spoken was four foot eight, with unkempt brown hair, and teeth that seemed to be trying to escape from his mouth. “I’m Mike, I’ll be showing you to HQ, getting your paperwork squared away and coming up with the perfect hazing process to both horrify and embarrass you. So, be nice to me, try not to stare at the muzzle, and I accept bribes in the from of hard liquer, chocolate and sexual favours.. though ah… neither of you are really doing it for me so scratch that one, yeah?”
Brendan held out his hand and Mike shook it. “Private Brendan Malone,” he said.
“Nice to meet you.”
“This is Private Jeff Raz, don’t bother being friendly with him, he’s a tight ass.”
“Good to know,” Mike grinned.”
“Sir.” Jeff greeted him with another salute.
“Frosty, ain’t ya? Alright, let’s go then.” The little man turned and led them through the great double doors and out into the sunlight. “Bit ostentatious for a military building isn’t it?”
“Why, what does HQ look like?” Brendan asked.
Mike laughed. “You have to understand… until a few months ago HQ was on the complete down low. We’re ah, we’re still trying to work out exactly how all this shit fits together.”
“You mean magic?” Jeff asked. He looked Mike up and down with a barely concealed sneer.
“No, no we know how that works. It’s you guys we’ve got to try to figure out now.” Mike stood on the curb in front of the ornately columned office building that housed, among other things, the newly formed metaphysical liaison office. A white Toyota Terago pulled up and Mike held the door open. “In you pop.”
“White, huh? That’s unusual.” Brendan said and he climbed in.
“You know what everyone looks for when they think they might be being followed? Black suburban’s. FBI, CIA, bunch of unimaginative fuckers. Bog standard white family vehicle. Never been detected on a tail.” Mike said proudly as he settled himself into his seat.
Brendan took up the entire back seat, he stretched his arms out along the back of the seat and watched with an amused grin as Jeff tried to simultaneously squeeze himself into the corner as far from their strange looking guide as possible, and do up his seat belt.
“Twitchy, isn’t he?” Mike asked.
“He just doesn’t know what to do with himself outside of the chain of command. He’ll loosen up, just gotta get the starch out of his panties.”
“IF you don’t mind!” Jeff snapped.
“Oh, I don’t mind at all,” Mike laughed. “You ain’t workin’ for uncle Sam here little darlin’.”
“So… magic…?” Brendan asked after a long pause.
“Yeah, about that. Not really my area, I’m more of a, ah, physical guy.” He held out his knuckly hands and flexed his fingers. “I wouldn’t worry too much, we still do plenty of regular crap. You know, fighting, running, some shooting.”
“Shooting?” Jeff asked. “Who the hell would you be shooting at?”
Mike laughed. “Same as you, ‘threats both foreign and domestic’. It’s a mad world, no matter which circles you run in.”
“So you’re not going to teach us how to make shit catch fire with out eyes?” Brendan asked.
“Ah, no. No one actually does that. Look, just wait, we’re almost there and then you can grill the bosses to your hearts content. I’m just a grunt and this this is above my pay grade.”
“There’s a pay grade? What grade are we in?” Brendan asked.
“You and me are in ‘useful and weird’ – twitchy here is in ‘grunt’.”
Jeff snorted, then turned to look at Mike. “Wait. Why is he different to me?”
Brendan’s face darkened and he glared hard at Mike while the little man looked right back at him blithely unconcerned. “Peace, brother. All will be revealed.”
They sat in silence for the rest of the trip, as the city gave way to suburbia. Eventually the Terago turned into a warehouse district filled with unmarked squat, square buildings made from concrete and corrugated iron. At the end of a cul-de-sac, they turned into a small car park and the driver killed the engine.
“Alright, everyone out.” Mike undid his belt and and hauled the side door open. “Grab your gear and hold for me, you’ll need me to get through security today, we’ll set you up with access later this afternoon.”
Jeff jumped out in an orderly fashion, while Brendan half tripped over his own feet, and lumbered from the vehicle like a bear. The huge man hauled his duffel over his shoulder and looked around. “This is your HQ? It looks like an abandoned auto-shop.”
“I think it might have been originally. Maybe. Who knows. It’s entirely possible the entire district was built just to hide this innocuous looking pile of rubble. I wouldn’t put anything past them.” Mike pointed to a small door in the side of the building and they fell in step behind him.
“Who exactly is ‘they’?” Jeff asked.
“How the hell should I know?” He rapped sharply on the door with his over-large knuckles, the peep-hole popped open and a palm print reader slid forward. Mike pressed his sweaty hand against it, it flashed green, and the door slid open.
“Swanky.” Brendan grinned and had to duck his head to fit through the slightly undersized doorway.
“I know, right!” Mike bounced on the balls of his feet while the others moved past him into the dim hallway. Once they were clear he pushed the door shut and said clearly, “Clear. Secure.”
“Is that a security measure?” Jeff asked.
“Voice rec. Say the wrong thing, or say nothing, door still locks but silent alarm goes off. The basement gophers alert the security team, hell rains down on unsuspecting bad guys. Neat huh?”
Jeff nodded slowly and Mike ushered them deeper into the building. The whole place seemed to be constructed of pre-fabricated concrete blocks in uniformly drab, unadorned grey. They came to another set of doors and Miked pushed them open with aplomb. “Welcome home.”
The room the entered was massive and round, with walls lined with wood panelling. Full sized tree’s in massive pots were spaced around the outside, with large tubs of smaller plants organised in formations throughout the room. Above them was a mezzanine that seemed to have some kind of food court on it.
“Whatever you do, don’t touch the flowers. Beloved gets real twitchy when you touch her flowers.” Mike said, and pointed to the ponds of lilies in the centre of the room.
“Yeah… that didn’t sound questionable at all…” mumbled Brendan. “This is the least military looking HQ I’ve ever seen.”
“What ever gave you the idea this was a military operation?” Mike asked.
“Well you’ve got military liaisons, don’t you?” Jeff said.
“So does Hollywood. We’re not military, Raz, so get that out of your head right now.”
“Mike! Front and centre! You’re late!” A woman’s voice cracked from the mezzanine above them.
“Not military huh?” Brendan said under his breath.
Mike shot him an amused look and snapped to attention as his CO came down the stairs towards them. She had long dark hair in a plait that hung down her back, and a round, pleasant face. “I’m overcome with remorse my most august mistress!” Mike gushed as she approached. “How can I ever make it up to you?” He snatched up her hand and kissed the back of it noisily.
Unable to help herself, Andrea laughed and yanked her hand back from his grip. “Get off me, you fawning monkey.” The tiny man continued to grovel and profess in contrition until he’d wrapped his arms around her waist and was theatrically sobbing into her plain black jumpsuit. Andrea put her hands in the air in surrender. “Alright, alright, you’re forgiven. Now off with you.” She smiled sheepishly and offered Jeff her hand. “Andrea Williams, I’m a team leader here. Your team leader, actually.”
“Private Jeff Raz, Ma’am.” Jeff said.
“Right, ah, no one around here is really free with those ‘privates’ so, ah, cool it, huh Jeff?”
“Brendan Malone – my unit used to call me Bren-gun.” He held out his hand and she shook it.
“Nice to meet you. Now, Jeff, your paperwork still needs to be finalised, you were a bit of a last minute addition, so Mike’s going to take you to administration and they’ll get you squared away. Bren, you can come with me, we need to go grab Rosie.” She gestured towards one of the many doors that lined the walls.
As Brendan walked past Mike he hissed, “who’s ‘Rosie’?”
“Basement lurker,” Mike hissed back and then crossed himself.
“I saw that. Cut it out!” Andy admonished him without turning around.
The hallways Andy led him down looked exactly the same as the one through which they’d entered. She glanced up at him a few times out of the corner of her eye, and Brendan found himself trying to guess what she was thinking. “You’re ridiculously tall, you know.” She said finally.
“It’s been said.” He said shortly. “Is ah…. is anyone ever going to actually address the elephant in the room here?”
“Do you mean the magic elephant… or the elephant that got you specifically requested for this assignment…?” She asked quietly as they stopped before a plain white door on which someone had posted a printed cartoon of a troll.
“… I have no idea why I’d have been ‘requested’, but I notice that no one really wants to talk about what’s really going on here.”
“What do you think is going on here, Brendan?” She asked.
“I have no idea, but I’m not buying this ‘magic’ crap.”
“OK… you don’t have to if you don’t want to.” She put her hand on the door to open in and Brendan put his palm flat against the wood to stop her.
“You’re not going to give me anything?”
“What exactly is it you expect? You want me to turn you into a frog? I’m sorry but I’ve never met anyone who could do that. You want some kind of demonstration, you’ll have to wait. We don’t expect you to run around blind, you’ll get the proof you need, but I can’t conjure crap out of nothing and I can’t give you the reassurances you’re after right now.” She shook her head and looked up at him seriously. “I know things can’t have been easy for you. I know you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop here… but I think you also know there’s more to the universe than what they hold to be true. You’ve always known…” When she pulled at the door handle, he dropped his hand and allowed her to pass him into the gloom.
Inside was dark and uncomfortably cool. There were no lights, but a jumbled tower of computers cobbled together in the centre of the room gave of an eerie blue light which cast shifting shadows over the floor.
“You should stop bringing people down here, Andy.” Someone said from the darkness on the other side of the computer tower. “It’s unkind.”
“Then you should turn up for briefings like a normal person.” She retorted.
A handsome young man in a dress shirt and pants moved into the light where they could see him. He had slightly scruffy dark hair and serious eyes.
“Brendan, this is my brother, Vincent Rosenthral. He’s our resident genius.”
Brendan held out a hand distractedly, and when Vincent took hit and their eyes met, his blood curdled. Something was wrong. He vaguely heard the young man say “pleased to meet you” over the sound of his own blood rushing. After a few moments, Vincent gave a small, knowing smile, and took his hand back. “It’s alright, happens to everyone. She’s a sadistic bitch for bringing you down here.”
“Sorry. Sorry I don’t ah, I don’t really know what…”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not you, it’s me.” Vincent grinned, and something about the sight sent a shiver through Brendan, and the intense urge to back away.
“Come on Rosie, time to surface again.” Andy put her arm around Vincent’s shoulders and let her head flop so her forehead rested against his temple. “We’ve got inductions to do, and like it or not you’re part of this team.”
“My liking it or not isn’t the problem.”
“Man-up brother.” She head butted him gently.
On their way back to the main assembly area, Andy linked her arm with Vincent and they walked in companionable silence, while Brendan watched them carefully. He couldn’t put his finger on exactly what it was about the young man that made his blood run cold, but whatever it was, he didn’t seem to be getting used to it at all.
“Oh look, troll’s up from under the bridge.” A slender man with gravity defying scruffy black hair said under his breath as they walked in.
“Stow it Shove.” Andy barked, “Mike, Garynt wants to see Brendan. Take him up will you?”
“Don’t worry about him Vince,” a willowy woman with wild white hair and elfin features was saying as Brendan left.
“You felt it right?” Mike asked as they walked.
“With Vincent, you felt it, when you met him right?” Mike pressed. “The cold. That empty feeling…”
“What was it?”
“He’s empty.” Mike said in hushed tones. “He doesn’t have a soul…”
“What? What the hell does that mean?”
“He’s empty!” Mike said again.
They’d reached a polished wooden doorway and Mike gestured for silence as he knocked. When the door opened, Brendan still had a puzzled look on his face and when his eyes fell on the elderly man sitting behind the desk he had absolutely no idea what to think.
Garynt Williams was robust looking, with broad shoulders and bright blue eyes. The generous silver in his hair and close cropped beard suggested age, but it was impossible to determine how old he really was. He wore a simple suit and tie in navy blue which a crisp white shirt.
“Ahh, Mr Malone, come in, come in. Mike, no problems?” He asked.
“Oh, you know, piles of bureaucratic crap, but luckily I’m an effective shit-shoveller.”
Garynt shook his head and chuckled. “You know I really shouldn’t let you get away with that…”
“But I’m just so damn cute, sir?”
“I wont always be the one in charge here you know…” the old man warned.
“I call bullshit, sir. You’re too obstinate to die. Besides, someone has to make sure Andrea never has any gentleman callers.”
“On your bike, you filthy ape!” Garynt laughed again. “Tell Andrea I’ll be done with him soon.”