Masks 18: Part 17

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Rodford Edmiston

Part Seventeen

Once again, I was the outsider protecting magical types as they worked on something so esoteric they couldn't adequately describe it to me. I had thought I would be left out of this stage - Fen had even told me after Oak Island that my part was over - but multiple factors had conspired to change that situation. Not least of them the location they had picked. It turned out that Fen hadn't known who now owned the land where they wanted to perform their spell.

"This is the first time I have been on these grounds," I announced, looking around. The grass was already tall and the lot as a whole starting to look wild. There were even some saplings rising enthusiastically towards the sky. "Unlike my other recent firsts, I could have gone the rest of my hopefully long life without breaking that streak."

I had only seen this property from the outside, before now. Most recently from the top of a nearby hill, late at night. At least this time we had a nice, sunny day for the work. That didn't change the fact that my empathy was going crazy, telling me many bad things about my surroundings.

The land where the "Local Gozer Worship Center" had stood had been taken over by first the feds, then the state, then the city. None of them actually wanted it. It had been declared a hazmat site, even though tests showed no chemical or nuclear contamination. People who worked on the reclamation kept getting sick, though. This reaction was declared psychosomatic, even by the magical types called in to investigate. Though I suspect they meant something different by that term.

"I thought you'd be interested in visiting here," said Dr. Piano, puzzled. "After all, it was through your machinations that Gaunt's plans were derailed and the location of his supposed triumph wrecked."

"Don't say that out loud!" I said, cringing. "It wasn't anything like that direct! I just let a few people know that Gaunt had bought this property and I didn't know what he planned to do with it."

Though that alone had been enough to mobilize a number of magical types in the region - many of whom normally would cross busy streets to avoid each other - to cooperate on Gaunt's downfall.

"My apologies," said Piano, with a slight bow of his head.

"Besides that possibly inaccurate assessment," said Fen, giving a toothy grin (with those fangs of hers, it's hard for her to grin any other way), "being someone already aware of the situation who is not themselves a mage of any type means you're ideally suited to defend the rest of us as we work."

"You folks do tend to get distracted," I noted.

"Beyond that," said Sharma, "there is the potential of purely mystical attack or possibly backlash. Things which would not affect an insensitive such as yourself."

Well, that was comforting. Maybe.

Those of us present - mages and their mundane guardians - began hauling equipment from the odd assortment of vehicles we had used to travel here. Prime among that was a plain, wooden box, which was only handled by Fen. Something the mystics treated as a great treasure. Some of the boxes were promptly opened, but not that one. Clothing, braziers, stands for those and much other equipment was pulled out and arranged. At least I knew we had proper permission to be here, and to perform this rite. All I had to do was stop at the office of the real estate agent who handled things for me locally to get the key.

The property now belonged to me. It had sort-of belonged to me before I traded those documents to Gaunt; though that was possession only in the sense that I had information which could be used to bring question to the legitimacy of the Wold claim to ownership. The Wold family - which had lost the property first to Gaunt then to the Feds - had tried repeatedly to get it back, but so far had been unsuccessful. That was due less to any effort on my part than to them still reeling from the loss of the previous patriarch and the top two contenders for that position before Louis Carstairs took over. Only for him to be killed and then revealed as one of the Five Great Powers. All those losses of leadership had left both the family and the business conglomerate disorganized, and missing important information. They also found themselves owing debts - monetary and other - which Carstairs had taken on as part of the Five's unsuccessful bid for world control. Then their main building and the land it was on had been acquired by Gaunt through mechanisms legal, financial and mystical - causing further confusion and loss of information - only to be imploded into another dimension within weeks. Not long after that, many of the Wold family's other properties - and individual members - had been adversely affected by the war. Even that huge, wealthy, influential tribe was having trouble regaining their former position in the world after all that.

While they hadn't actually given up trying to get this particular location back, they were currently focusing on keeping some of their other properties which were under various, immediate threats. I figured by the time they turned their attention back to this land they were very likely to figure "Eh, it's not worth it." Especially considering what was about to take place here. That family had a history of avoiding conflict with powerful mages, and there were thirteen here, apparently doing my bidding. Something completely unplanned by me. Sometimes you just get lucky.

I had purchased the land - from the city of San Francisco, at a bargain price - mainly to keep it out of the hands of anyone who might misuse it. Including the Wolds. The location was still a "magical nexus" (whatever that meant). At the time I hadn't expected that my ownership would make access for this operation ridiculously easy. Since it was also suitable in other ways - not least due to having been used for whatever it was Gaunt tried to do - this must be the place.

In fact, from what the mystics were able to explain, Gaunt's activities were what pushed things over the edge, magically. He had apparently created some sort of portal to bring in extradimensional allies or perhaps mercenaries. That alone would have opened the floodgates for magic in the world. The mystics who had foiled this had inverted the portal, actually driving all the magic in that building - along with the building - the other way. (They claimed they hadn't intended that operation to be so thorough. I tend to believe them.) That loss of magic just wasn't enough to stop what had already been triggered. Something they needed a while to realize.

The thirteen members of the magical community present for the operation wandered around the fresh sod which had been carefully laid over the fill which had been brought in to replace the hole left by the removal of the building. They muttered to themselves and each other, in several languages, none of which were currently in use by non-mages. I looked at the other guards - all non-magical but either empowered in some way or very skilled - and we collectively shrugged.

As if choreographed, when Noon - local, not by the clock -approached the mystics - of three genders and four species - placed that box we had retrieved from Oak Island in a carefully chosen location and moved to form a perfect circle around it. I had been told earlier that this was as close to the center of the disturbance as they could get without a major excavation... which fortunately was not necessary. The location they chose wasn't exactly in the middle of the former building's footprint, but close. The actual site had likely been in a deep subbasement. Perhaps even in a well dug beneath that. At least, that's what I had gathered from the mystics and their assistants in the planning sessions for this event.

There was a secure fence around the property. The city had hoped to turn it into a park, but that plan had fallen through due to the "psychosomatic" effect. So they fenced it in. I got the fence as part of the deal. However, the fence only impeded access, not the view. Our activities had gathered spectators around that fence, people watching us. Many of them had cameras of various sorts. Some were professional news folk.

"I don't like this," I muttered, as I glanced at the gawkers. "I don't like it for what we're doing. I don't like it on a personal level."

"Don't worry," said Carl, one of the other protectors. "The whizzes put up a distortion field. Cameras and such will just see blurs."

"They should have put up a MYOB field," said Sally, another one.

I nodded, wishing I'd thought to suggest both of those things. Oh, well; live and learn. If I survived.

"I just noticed," I said, quietly, as the mages worked. I gestured at their circle. "There's six males, six females, and Mer."

"A perfect balance," agreed Sally, nodding.

I'd met her a couple of times before. She was a gorgeous, mid-level physical super - a soft brick in the parlance of masks - who hired herself out as a bodyguard. She normally did celebrity security, but was currently working for a dumpy-looking man I'd never heard of before today, but whom the other mages seemed to respect. I definitely found her attractive, but before this our encounters had been too brief - and too involved with business - for me to pursue anything further. Maybe this time would be different. From what my empathy was telling me, I thought she might feel the same. Or she might just be admiring the body I was wearing. Though similar to my base form, it was physically augmented as much as my powers could manage. Which meant I currently looked rather more striking even than usual.

Of course, right now we both needed to keep our minds on business.

We were all armed. I don't know about the others - well, some were carrying obvious non-firearm weapons, semi-legally - but I had a licensed handgun, concealed. My still nearly new 10mm. Plus a light sword Fen had loaned me, after determining that my occasional practice of various forms of blade fighting included such long weapons. It was presumably enchanted in one or more ways.

Dutch was also there, similarly armed. He was the only one of the guards whom I knew more than casually. I glanced over at him.

"Do you think there actually will be a need for us?"

"Probably not. But it's better to have us and not need us..."

He didn't finish the well-worn but appropriate quote, instead simply giving an expressive shrug.

Don't ask me what the mages did. Oh, I can describe some of the actual actions they performed. Sometimes they chanted. Sometimes they sang. Sometimes they danced. A few of them drew diagrams. On the ground and even on each other. But what they actually did remains a mystery. At least to me.

Some of the spectators left. More arrived. The number seemed about constant as the procedure continued. At least we hadn't attracted the attention of the authorities. So far. I was almost lulled into a fugue state, but knew I needed to stay alert. I literally shook myself, and began focusing. I started to think that maybe they would finish with no interruptions... except that they kept going on and on.

I was just starting to wonder if we guardians should take staggered restroom breaks when the attack finally came. Naturally, it was rather unexpected in method if not in occurrence. Their approach was blocked from our view by the onlookers around the fence. Our first indication that something was wrong was a disturbance in that crowd. Boldly, the attackers approached the main gate, the crowd parting uncertainly but quickly from their path.

The scene was so surreal that if all of us bodyguards hadn't all had plenty of experience with the surreal we might have doubted our own eyes. Figures in dark red robes approached in an angled formation, one man in the lead, six spreading out on each side behind him. That's right; another group of thirteen. Though this one didn't look as diverse as ours. They were all chanting in an almost musical fashion, but it sounded horrible.

"The Devil's Chords," said musician Dutch, ominously, "but they're not Jimi Hendrix."

When they reached the gate they simply kept walking, passing through the chain link and galvanized tube steel as if it weren't there. Only, once the thirteen of them passed through we could see that now much of the gate wasn't there.

I drew my 10mm, but hesitated. So far nothing they had done counted as an attack; only property damage and trespassing. A quick look around showed no other attackers, but I couldn't see the entire property from here. Our mages didn't even seem to notice the strangers coming straight for us. The guardians on the other side of them didn't seem to have noticed the intruders yet, either.

"There is a protective shell around them," said one of the other guardians. "Magical attacks - even from melee weapons - will be of greatly reduced effect. Purely physical attacks will be reduced somewhat but if potent enough should get through."

I nodded; I'd made the right choice going for the gun. Still, though, I could not legally shoot. If they simply kept walking my only choice was to stand firmly in their way and see what happened.

Maybe they didn't know that. Maybe they did but didn't care. All I know is that that the chanting suddenly rose in volume and speed, and the leader drew a sword from under his robes. He held it tip up, edge towards us. Specifically, towards me.

I had positioned myself just past the part of the curved driveway where the walk in front of the building which had formerly stood here now ended in fresh sod. Naturally, that sword seemed like it was meant for me, personally. I shivered, but stood my ground. However, not everyone on my side did.

Sally to my left and Carl to my right moved from their positions, out and then forward, swords of two different types in their hands. They moved ahead on either side of me, turning us into a receptive wedge of three to meet their approaching wedge of thirteen. They did not attack, but readied their weapons. The strangers did not change pace, but their chanting suddenly was punctuated with a shout. Sally and Carl were hurled away. I fired on the leader.

I saw the bullet slow and almost stop, its passage causing their magical protection to come partially into view. The jacketed hollowpoint smacked the leader squarely in the forehead. Not hard enough to kill or even seriously injure, but it rocked him, shaking his hood back. Now I had a clear view of his face, including the rapidly rising welt I had just caused. He was very, very angry with me.

I fired again, and again, and again, quickly, now, aiming for center of mass. Sally and Carl were back on their feet and charging. I heard more shooting, from Dutch's direction. None of the bullets did more than hurt them, but we were shooting quickly and each bullet wore away at that mystical barrier.

My slide locked back. I dropped the empty magazine and reloaded. Sally and Carl swung their blades and rebounded. Carl dropped his sword and drew a small automatic, probably a .380. Sally scowled and swung harder. Her strength was greater than human, and the blade obviously stronger than normal weapon steel. She was hurled back again, but her attack caused the second in line on her side to flinch, as that blade came uncomfortably close to her target before rebounding. The chanting of the intruders sounded desperate, now, but their pace was the same. The lead man - and that sword - was nearly within reach. I rapid fired, the bullets slowing less each time, hurting the man more.

Dutch had recharged his .357 with a speed loader. Between him, Carl and me with our guns and Sally with her strength and sword, something broke, almost like a giant balloon popping. They didn't last long after that.

* * *

Alvin Montgomery was incensed.

"You have nothing on me!" Montgomery yelled at the detective interviewing him. "I don't have any pornography of any kind in the cloud! I certainly don't have any child pornography anywhere! I'm not a pervert and I'm not stupid!"

A sudden chill came over him as he thought of something.

"Unless you planted some..."

They had come to his office, arrested him and hauled him away, right in front of everybody. That was bad enough; however, once he got to the station he learned that they were trying to get a warrant for his house! They took his keys during the booking. This meant that based on what someone - they wouldn't say who - had said, claiming he had placed child pornography online, once they got the warrant they could enter his house, invading his privacy, with ease! Naturally, passwords were needed to access anything on his computers normally, but with physical access to his equipment...!

"Let's stay on topic, please," said the detective, making a mental note to recommend a psychological evaluation. "You had some pretty impressive security on the material in your accounts."

Montgomery bit back on his outrage and decided to change tactics. He'd present them with the very image of a wrongly accused innocent citizen, someone who would cooperate with the police in a reasonable manner, in spite of his honest outrage.

"Well, yes," he said, obviously still irritated but sounding reasonable. "Any responsible person does, these days."

"Except you used security software from your job with the federal government for your online data storage accounts."

"Yes. On my home computers, too. When I saw how well it worked I decided to use it for all my personal stuff."

"Mr. Montgomery, these software packages and applications are not available for private use."

"Oh, I got it through my employee discount," said Montgomery, blandly.

Hallover looked him in the eye.

"There's no such thing. So, either you stole this from your work or somehow illegally obtained it from the supplier. So, even if the tip was wrong, we can hold you until we find out where you got this."

Montgomery scowled. This was trivial.

"I can't talk about that," he said quietly. "You can ask my boss about the use of office security software for people who occasionally work from home."

Hallover nodded. That actually sounded reasonable. Though he'd definitely have someone check with the man's boss as to whether that could be legally done, and whether it had been done in this case.

"So, when do I get out of here?" said Montgomery, hotly. "I have a lot to do."

"That's not up to me."

"Not up to you?! You're the one interrogating me!"

"I just report what I uncover. The District Attorney's Office makes the decisions."

"Another mindless drone," said Montgomery, tone scathing.

"I think we're done, here."

He called the guard, and the fuming Montgomery was taken back to his cell.
* * *
We stood there, panting, for a moment, looking at the fallen attackers. Most were still alive, some moaning in pain. The leader looked like an old piece of chicory root. He was even smoking, his sword a rusted wreck.

I quickly glanced around. Our mages were still busy, paying us no attention. There were no other signs of attack. I relaxed a bit, and switched to a fresh magazine.

Sally and Carl looked the worse for wear, especially Carl. However, they resumed their positions. We waited, standing guard. Eventually, we heard sirens in the distance. Bizarrely, most of the onlookers were still there, clustered around the fence, except for the main gate. I worried that police or even EMTs might try to interrupt the ceremony taking place behind me. However, shortly before I saw the first LEO approach the fence a glow from behind me began casting a strange shadow on the ground in front of me. I had no desire to look and see what was causing it.

When the cops did get there they took one look and backed away. Smart. I wished I could have joined them. A strange tension began making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Then all of my hair, like a classroom demonstration of static electricity. I held my ground. Then, slowly, about twenty minutes after the attack had been thwarted, the sensations and eerie light effects faded.

"There," said Dr. Piano. "Not so bad as we feared. Quite neat and quick, in fact."

I could have shot him.

"Where did they come from?" asked Sharma.

I finally glanced back. Everything looked exactly as it had before they started - though things definitely felt better. The box was again closed. I felt irritated I hadn't even gotten a glimpse of what was inside. Then decided maybe that was for the best.

The mages were all now registering the fact that we had been attacked, and the attackers felled.

"Any of you know these folks?" I asked, gesturing at the fallen, robed figures.

"Those are Myrenic Cultists!" gasped one of them, the pudgy guy Sally was there with. "They were wiped out!"

"Someone must have found some of their tomes," said Piano, ominously. "I always felt there were a few missing."

"Is it okay for me to let the cops and paramedics in?"

"Eh?" said Piano. He looked up and finally noticed the folks at the gate. "Oh; yes. Definitely. This area is now clear."

"Very clear," said Fen, beaming.

All of them looked insufferably pleased with themselves.

* * *

As it turned out, the DA's Office forwarded the case to the State Attorney General. Who called in the FBI. Who got a warrant to have Montgomery's computers seized. Over the next few days, as more and more suspicious activities on his part were uncovered, Montgomery was moved first to a state penitentiary, then to a high-security federal prison.

As Montgomery sat in his new cell, it dawned on him that in his desire for anonymity he had avoided applying any protections for his civilian ID through his authority as the Secret Keeper. Which meant that unless they gave him online access so he could send word that "Alvin Montgomery" was to be exonerated and protected from further investigation, he would be treated like any ordinary person in prison.

The psychological evaluations were the worst. At first he pretended to be an ordinary federal office worker caught up in a mistake. However, the psychiatrist had quickly determined he was concealing something. Gradually, she - Of course it was a woman! - had weaseled out of him that he was influential in behind-the-scenes politics. Then used that to declare him a paranoid with delusions of grandeur! Wasn't that just like a woman?! Let her in a bit, and she'd use the shared confidences to sabotage you!

Since that revelation he had completely refused to cooperate. Just let him get online, then he'd show them. Only, they had uncovered enough from what they had deciphered on his computer to now consider him a national security risk; they were not about to let him anywhere near a computer or even a cell phone with Internet access. He tried telling them he was protecting the nation, but they wouldn't listen! Meanwhile, he'd been forced to use a landline to contact an attorney. So far that man hadn't been much help.

So he waited, fuming.

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