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Apprentice Wizards of Hope

 

Apprentice Wizards of Hope

By

Gary J. Davies

 

Published by Gary J. Davies at Shakespir

 

Apprentice Wizards of Hope

Copyright 2017 Gary J. Davies

 

Shakespir Edition License Notes

Thank you for downloading this e-book. This book is the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, scanned, or distributed for any commercial or non-commercial use without permission from the author. Quotes used in reviews are the only exception. No alteration of content is allowed. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy.

This e-book is a work of fiction created by the author and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are a production of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously. Thank you for downloading this e-book!

 

Contents

 

Foreword

Apprentice Wizards of Hope

Prologue: Eight Years Earlier

CHAPTER 1 – Homecoming

CHAPTER 2 – Desolation Glen

CHAPTER 3 – Dinner

CHAPTER 4 – Trailer Trouble

CHAPTER 5 – The Hortegas

CHAPTER 6 – Evaluations and School

CHAPTER 7 – Scheming Demons

CHAPTER 8 – Busy School Day

CHAPTER 9 – Jailed!

CHAPTER 10 – Premonition

CHAPTER 11 – Demons Attack!

CHAPTER 12 – Breakout!

CHAPTER 13 – Battle at Desolation Glen

CHAPTER 14 – Norm Invasion

CHAPTER 15 – Death at Grim Mansion

CHAPTER 16 – Breakthrough!

CHAPTER 17 – Taken!

CHAPTER 18 – Inside Grim Mansion

CHAPTER 19 – The Void

CHAPTER 20 – Peace and Promise

Story Notes

About Other Publications by this Author

 

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Foreword

Even if there is no such thing as real magic, the universe we live in is still truly miraculous, especially (from our perhaps limited human/Earth-centric viewpoint) its biological life. Scientific study has revealed much of how life persists and evolves, and how it likely arose as a result of self-organizing tendencies of matter in certain accommodating ‘Goldilocks’ environments. It increasingly appears that self-organization, life, and its evolution are all natural consequences of the physically realized system of mathematics that is our universe.

Yet science has still not adequately explained some of life’s greatest mysteries. For example what is consciousness and ‘free will’? And what is life itself? Is it all purely matter and energy following the incredibly complex system relationships (especially quantum mechanical interactions) increasingly sought by science? Is the reach of objective measurement exceeded such that in principle some knowledge is unobtainable or at least unverifiable? Or is there something transcendentally spiritual/magical to life that is somehow by its very essence beyond the grasp of science?

And if there are some sorts of elemental spiritual/magical forces in play with regard to life, are there in turn elemental anti-life ‘evil’ forces that oppose them? And if there are beings of life that embody such life forces, could there perhaps also be beings of anti-life? Beings that because they are themselves a perverse, elementally evil form of life, are compelled to oppose and destroy all other forms of life as a matter of primal instinct locked into their very structure?

The current consensus science view is that in reality there is no solid objective evidence for any of that. As layer by layer the onion is pealed back by science, it all appears to be in the math. Natural (i.e. mathematical) tendencies for order vie with natural tendencies for randomness/disorder in proportions and ways that nicely result in us and everything else without recourse to anything spiritual/paranormal. No matter how deep we dig, it’s the math turtle all the way down.

Nifty, but purely the stuff of science without a need for resorting to compellingly mysterious paranormal forces or beings, unless the need for an ultimate turtle/prime mover upon which it all rests is insisted upon to reach some sort of perhaps psychologically driven need for comprehensive philosophical or theological closure. However, one can at least imagine such things as ‘magical’ life and anti-life forces and write stories such as this one, though there is some work involved in creating the necessary self-consistent science-fantasy setting/conceptual framework.

Towards the end of this volume Story Notes are provided that identify some of the concepts and characters created to provide the conceptual framework for this story which may be of interest to readers, though there is certainly no necessity to read them prior to reading the story text itself. This actually represents far less notes than often required for a novel, but that reflects an advantage with fiction and in particular with fantasy-fiction: though everything has to ‘fit together’ plausibly, much stuff can simply be made up! Reality can be tweaked as the story proceeds! How handy!

No map is included, as the town of Hope is a gated community very near your own home, and you are no doubt at least familiar with its location already, although the name may be disguised and before reading this story you were probably not aware that it is inhabited by Wizards and other beings of power such as vampires and werewolves. Similarly, no map of the elven planet Alure is offered, nor is a roadmap to the all-encompassing Void attempted. The text of the story itself is the only path provided to those places.

Also note that there is an ‘About’ section at the end of this book which describes the other published eBooks of this author. All fourteen published products of this author’s writing hobby – mostly fantasy/sci-fi novels, novellas, and short stories – are available where this story was obtained.

I hope that you enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it!

 

****

 

 

Apprentice Wizards of Hope

 

Prologue:

Eight Years Earlier

 

“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” shrieked Sky the sprite joyfully, as she winged her way through cold thick swirling gases. There were always exciting storms occurring on Jupiter, one of her favorite gas-giant planets in this universe!

It was while looping high in Jupiter’s cold atmosphere that her sharp senses noticed unusual storm activity on distant Earth. She detected a Northern Hemisphere thunderstorm of truly outrageous proportions, though it was somewhat early in the year for Earth hurricanes. Curiosity aroused, she immediately teleported herself to Earth, though it cost her much of her stored energy reserves to do so.

The trip to Earth was well worth the trouble, for soon she was soaring through swelling, swirling black thunderstorm clouds! Many phenomena in the universe were more powerful or visually spectacular, but few featured such delightful contrasts. Countless tingling high voltage amps of burning lightening repeatedly flashed through her, while cold rain and stinging hail pummeled her sensitive blue skin, though not so violently that they threatened to tear the relatively delicate webbing of her wings, which would have been an annoying inconvenience. It was such intoxicating sensations that drove her to ecstasy, as well as the thrill of chaotic flight through gusting, buffeting winds. Such experiences reminded her of her birthplace the Great Void, though this universe was a much more ordered and safe place.

She didn’t often visit Earth, not because in recent millennia it was absolutely teeming with annoyingly ignorant yet pretentious humans, or because the elves of Alure had declared Earth to be out of bounds, but because there were usually much more spectacular energy-rich events to enjoin with elsewhere, even in the comparatively bland dimensional realm that included Earth. Sprites could traverse the Void to travel among the infinity of relatively stable and hence persistent universes but this universe was by far her favorite. It was a universe of delightful contrasts: of light and darkness as well as heat and cold, and of delicate yet stubbornly persistent complex life-forms as well as spectacularly huge cataclysmic destructive events.

Hidden within the storm she sensed a touch of magic energy that was slightly unsettling to her: Wild Magic that had escaped from the Void between universes. Normally, she would revel in the discovery of such magic, and drink it freely into herself, body and soul, for such magic sustained her, defined her: she was herself a child of the Void and the chaotic Wild Magic that often surged through it between universes. But she also sensed that this particular storm was tainted: poisoned with elemental Evil that corroded native life forms and energies, and she cautiously shut off Wild Magic absorption, lest she herself be corrupted. Even robust sprites were not totally immune to the deadly corrosive effects of Evil.

It wasn’t unheard of for Wild Magic to burst between universes and trigger disturbances such as this storm, but then it should have been a pure raw Wild Magic that she sensed. The flow of these energies didn’t feel quite right to her. It felt as if the magic was being worked by some alien force, that instead of being simply chaotic, something was subtly shaping it towards some unknown purpose. However, she concluded that the puzzling circumstance of oddly shaped Wild Magic wasn’t enough to offset the pleasurable physical aspects of the storm.

Part of the storm’s electrical and kinetic energy she absorbed, but most of it she simply allowed to sweep her further into the central swirling cluster of towering dark thunderclouds. Abruptly however, there was a sharp reduction in storm power levels, as if an impossible amount of energy had suddenly been withdrawn from the center of the storm. Rain droplets around her instantly froze into gritty bits of ice, some as large as her small fisted hand, though it was early summer on this part of Earth, and she was too low in altitude for such cold. Flight through the increasingly large and irregular shaped hail was rapidly becoming less than pleasurable. As a precaution she thickened and toughened her wings and body skin.

She considered immediately returning to Jupiter, which despite its perpetual chill had truly vast and wonderful storms, but decided not to. Something was subtly controlling this storm, and that roused her curiosity. In her experience only an extraordinarily powerful Demon born of the Void could influence Wild Magic and absorb energy in a manner such as she had witnessed here, and as far as she knew there were no Demons at all on Earth.

She didn’t often think of elfin matters, but realized that such a Demon could possibly destroy the Balance that the elves worked so hard to maintain. Though she wasn’t particularly interested in elf notions such as the Balance concept by which among other things the Demons were kept at bay in this universe, she loved elf cookies and had several elf friends, and knew that any information useful to the elves could be parleyed into sweet rewards by a clever sprite. In sum, news of a Demon on Earth could mean yummy cookies for herself!

She decided to first verify the presence of a Demon. Despite the increasingly unpleasant flying conditions she spiraled further downward, approaching ever closer to whatever was shaping and absorbing the energy.

A curious sight greeted her at ground level in the very center of the storm. Three humans, two adults and a small child, huddled together within a forest clearing as they struggled to shield themselves against the onslaught of a powerful Demon. The general location itself was strong in magic, she noticed: a natural nexus for Earth-generated Life Energy due to unusual geological features in the area.

The Demon itself stood on two legs and was roughly humanoid in shape, and was of course dominantly black in color, though there were bright red cracks and spots where rampant energy glowed from deep inside it, as though at any moment it might be blown to bits by the unearthly Evil energies that powered it from within. Though details of its irregular features were masked by intermittent cascades of rain, hail, and sleet, and by a barrage of lightning bolts that lanced out from its two huge clawed hands to strike at the humans, between flashes Sky could see that the Demon also presented a pair of horns, red glowing eyes and open, maniacally grinning mouth. Where it stood the surrounding smoldering ground was blackened and covered with hot, red-glowing, Evil-saturated grey ash.

Sky didn’t much care for Demons; probably in large measure because she had never yet met a Demon that hadn’t immediately tried to kill her. In this case she had enjoyed for a time the storm which the Demon had evidently instigated, but she didn’t like senseless destruction and carnage, which was pretty much what Demons were all about. Evil-welding Demons generally hated and killed all non-Demon life-forms that they encountered, and this Demon was apparently no exception.

She sensed that the Evil tainted desolate area surrounding the cowering humans was completely devoid of life, where minutes earlier there had doubtlessly been trees and other normal Earthly life-forms. The Demon was attracting huge quantities of Evil from the Void and pelting the forest and humans with it. Even the soil itself, which normally would be teeming with countless billions of tiny living creatures, had already been completely sterilized and corrupted with Evil.

Astonishingly, the powerful attack was somehow being thwarted by the humans. The Demon couldn’t even force its ponderous body closer than a body length from his intended victims, and the Demon blasts of glowing plasma energy were completely stopped by some sort of invisible shielding that surrounded the humans. That was very interesting! Humans were, Sky recalled, quite fragile physically and usually not capable of consciously controlling any magic at all, let along magic that could oppose an exceptionally powerful Demon from the Void!

It was at that point she realized that the battle was taking place on the outskirts of a town named Hope that was said to be inhabited by humans that showed signs of fledgling magic ability. These humans under attack must be strongly gifted with magic; that was obviously how they were protecting themselves! They were using the Life Energy of this place, drawing to themselves the strong flow of life-produced magic that flowed through the Earth in the Hope area.

She also recalled that the town of Hope was redundantly on the elves’ list of specific forbidden places to visit, in addition to Earth itself being altogether forbidden. Those were of course elf rules to be ignored by free spirited sprites.

The Demon absorbed another huge amount of energy from the storm; so much energy that Sky tumbled towards Earth as winds abruptly paused and much remaining moisture froze into fine gritty bits of sleet. As Sky flapped her wings and adjusted her weight to compensate, the protective shield of the humans was at last overcome by a massive blast of raw energy from the Demon, and the humans were instantly destroyed.

No, not quite, Sky noticed. The two poor adults had been reduced to smoldering cinders that collapsed into powdery gray ash under their own weight, but the child still appeared to be intact, though it had slumped down onto the smoking, glowing, ashen Evil ground and lay still and apparently unconscious.

The Demon’s glowing red eyes widened in surprise, and it advanced closer to the child; such that the human was almost physically within its reach. Abruptly its massive hands erupted in burning lightening that quickly surrounded the child; a blast much reduced compared to the previous one that had broken through the protective shield and incinerated the adults, but still quite deadly to any living creature. The Demon’s eyes widened again when it saw the powerful blast deflected such that it had no apparent effect on the child!

In response the Demon roared in anger, and then lifted its immense arms to absorb yet more energy from the storm. The storm may have been triggered and shaped by Wild Magic, but the creature was using simple storm energy in addition to Evil to attack the humans. This time so much energy was absorbed that Sky had to expend some of her own reserves to stay aloft. Annoyed, she watched as the Demon pushed ever closer to the child. If the small, delicate appearing child wasn’t soon reduced to ashes by energy blasts it would surely be pulverized physically by the massive black monster!

On a whim, which is what most frequently motivated any sprite, Sky shunted in and snatched the child from the reaching claws of the Demon, then flew away so quickly that the Demon could only gawk in surprise at the empty stretch of ground where the human had lain only moments earlier!

It was Sky’s taunting laughter that drew the monster’s attention to her as she struggled to gain altitude while hindered by the added weight of the child. Her momentum had been enough to sweep her and the human away from the Demon’s immediate grasp, but not enough to carry them out of sight of the monster.

Screaming with rage, the Demon let loose its blast of gathered raw energy at the escaping pair, a towering column of lightning plasma that would have destroyed elf or even Demon, but not an energy loving sprite, not when the sprite was far enough away to sufficiently reduce the effect of the blast. Instead, the sprite gratefully absorbed much of the energy that managed to strike her.

Riding the crest of the remaining blast and applying what she had absorbed from it allowed Sky to burst away from the scene, indeed it allowed her to transit straight to Alure itself! The only awkward part of the trick was to simultaneously protect the child from the Demon’s blast and bring the unconscious waif along with her. The child, though no larger than herself, was for mysterious reasons extraordinarily challenging to hold onto and transport, but with great difficulty she managed.

****

Old Soone labored in his garden, savoring the feel of rich dark soil in his wrinkled old gray elfin hands as he carefully packed it around the Tunish plant’s delicate roots. He could immediately sense vibrant life in every tiny bit of soil, as well as in the plant itself.

Life was a form and source of magic that could be subtly shaped by elves, and doing so was the essence of being an elf. And so gardening to enhance life in the world was the normal vocation of most of the elves of Alure, and helping life flourish despite the chaos that ruled much of the multiverse was every elf’s true calling.

At last he sat back on the soft ground, wrapped his thin green cloak more firmly about his shoulders to combat the lingering chill of morning, rested his tired old arms, and looked about critically at this small unspectacular corner of his gardens, which included several patches of critical life from far away worlds. This was by far his favorite garden section, though it was the least successful in terms of amount of growth and was by far the most work for him to maintain. Every individual patch of ground was strongly warded to maintain environments specific to each different world being emulated.

He critically regarded the results of his most recent labors. The tiny plant was called a Parat on the distant planet of Tunic, and had no known commercial value for the Tunic people, yet it was priceless to them. They hadn’t yet acknowledged the Parat’s vital role in the life cycle of Mordat fungus, or the vital role of Mordat fungus in maintaining the soil’s ability to support Tunic food crops, not even after he had patiently explained it all to them on several occasions.

They were a science oriented people, but hadn’t gotten around to finding out yet what Soone could directly sense: Mordat fungus and Parat plants were keystone species for the ecology of the planet of Tunic. As the Parat moved steadily towards extinction on Tunic, the Tunic people would soon face extinction themselves as a result of their stubborn environmental ignorance and carelessness, and in addition to dooming themselves would doom much of the life of their world.

Theirs was unfortunately a recurring theme in the universe: an ecosystem that eventually developed intelligent life forms became subject to their arrogance and ignorance: a panicle species could and often did make foolish choices that drove big changes in their ecosystem that resulted in ecological catastrophe.

The soil in this small recent addition to his garden, which Soone had patiently nurtured for an Earth century, was as close as he could come to that of the planet Tunic, and included as much fungal and bacterial life as had been possible to gather through several dangerous trips to Tunic by Soone and his friends over many years. The Tunic were not a friendly people, but Soone still hoped for their eventual enlightenment and deliverance from extinction.

Perhaps he could yet help save the Tunic species from themselves, if his six tiny Parat plants and the underground growth of Mordat fungus they supported survived long enough. Among the dozens of planets known by the elves to harbor abundant life the Tunic people were of course unique. Soone rather liked how they were constructed: four powerful legs, two delicate arms ending in something like hands, and a head that resembled that of an earthly spider, all protruding from a bulky shelled body the size of an Earth rhinoceros covered with colorful poisonous spines. What a beautiful creature! It would be a shame and crime against the Maker if such a nifty appearing species went extinct!

His latest garden additions had firm, healthy looking green leaves, including new growth, and his probes of their life-force showed them to be very much alive. He judged that they would likely continue to live, at least for now. At the proper time he would re-introduce them and the fungus to Tunic. With his help, perhaps life on Tunic had a chance after all!

Would Soone himself survive long enough to help save sentient Tunic life? That was impossible to know. Elves were very long lived, but Soone had already lived much longer than most. It greatly troubled Soone that the survival of the entire Tunic race apparently hinged on his own personal longevity. That was an absurd situation, and it worried the elf greatly. Billions of sentient lives and countless non-sentient lives depended on this small patch of life-forms that were alien to the elf home world Alure, and on one very old elf’s own tenuous grasp on life. That situation didn’t seem to be at all sensible.

As much as elves strove for everlasting structure and sensibility, ultimately it seemed to elude them, as it generally did for all known peoples. Sensibility seemed to always be tantalizingly just out of reach, always only a generation or two away but never quite currently reachable, even for elves.

Much as on Tunic, the status of life on Alure seemed to be increasingly threatened by its panicle species the elves. The current Elf High Council was unusually isolationist and increasingly devoid of sensibility, it seemed to Soone. They did not agree at all with Soone’s concepts of engagement with others and with the ultimate necessity for interdependence between the sentient races of the universe. Of late the Council even seemed to be abandoning long-held elven knowledge and beliefs that for many millennia had formed the center of elf culture!

Soone’s response was to work alone even harder in his beloved gardens. As long as life on Alure remained strong, he was confident that elves would endure and that in time the Council and elf culture would return to traditional wisdom. What immutably made sense in centuries past still made sense today, it had merely been forgotten for a while.

The old elf’s eyes wondered to the towering kaleidoscope of magic-enhanced life beyond this hand-worked patch, to wondrous growth unmatched anywhere else on Alure or any other known world. Not even the gardens of the nearby Grand Hall, supported by a dozen senior Wizards, matched what his own magic had helped to achieve here. Life begat magic that Soone subtly shaped here to encourage yet more life and more magic. Gigantic tree-like plants towered miles into the sky, buoyed by enormous hydrogen filled gourds. Millions of flowers bigger than elves and more colorful than any rainbow grew everywhere! Alure creatures of every shape, size, and color imaginable climbed and flew among the plant growth, exchanging nutrients and other life-essential commodities. Even shy rare creatures like dragons and pixies lived within Soone’s gardens!

As the elf watched, an entire section of forest changed from green to dark red, maximizing solar power absorption from the setting sun. These fantastic results achieved through magic and unending physical toil allowed him to live apart from most of elf society and discretely pursue a variety of activities unsanctioned but unopposed by the Elf High Council.

His activities having to do with helping other races, such as his Tunic project, required consorting with beings that were not elves and who did not necessarily support The Balance. For some reason he could not understand, lately that disturbed many elves. Somehow dealing with non-elves had become politically incorrect, an attitude now reflected in the High Council that Soone could not accept.

However, among the several million elves on Alure, Soone was one of only a hundred or so elves declared to have reached the status of Gaou, or Master Wizard. As such he was traditionally provided much latitude, though as of late the Council had been meddling and threatening more and more. Why they did so was incomprehensible to Soone. Why would any elves oppose him? He was dedicated to the long-term pursuit of life! Soone persisted by mostly ignoring the trivia of elf politics and the fleeting cultural variations that came and went over the decades and centuries. Regardless of what the Council thought or did, life was good here in his gardens.

As he did every morning he sat quietly for a time and focused on his wondrous gardens, drawing on some of its Life Energies to renew the wards that maintained the Great Balance by protecting Alure and all elf-protected worlds from the Demons and Evil of the Void. This time he was once again shocked to find the ancient protective galactic Balance Wards even further weakened!

He hated to admit it but the weakening was part of a very disturbing trend. In recent years increasing numbers of elves denied tradition and refused to contribute to the renewal of the Balance Wards! Some members of the Alure Council were even questioning the very existence of Demons and Evil! Soone personally did what he could to defend elf traditions and the Balance, but he was only one elf, and by necessity he dedicated most of his efforts to his own garden rather than to Alure politics.

As he finished with his daily spells, Soone sensed that a visitor was approaching from far above; a creature of great power but not an elf. He quickly recognized that it was Sky the sprite that approached, a fact that did not displease him. He had outlived his mate and most of his friends, and welcomed occasional visitors. He very much enjoyed the exuberance of the young sprite, and tolerated free-spirited Sky far better than did most other elves.

Besides, as a naturalist Soone was fascinated by sprites. Sprites were living contradictions: a non-biologic life form that reveled in and consumed rampant energies and even Wild Magic instead of being destroyed by it. Sprites were exceedingly powerful creatures. Too bad a sense of responsibility had evaded them almost completely; they would have made powerful allies in the unending struggle against Demons and Evil.

Looking skyward with large elf eyes, he soon sighted the sprite visually, dropping below the clouds, but also immediately noticed that Sky carried something nearly as large as herself: something that was not blue like the sprite. Knowing Sky, it was probably some tantalizing curiosity that she planned to barter for his elf cookies, though truth be known, Soone would gladly treat her to free cookies to secure her visits. Yes, he was a loner, but he was a lonely loner. Especially in recent decades he counted the young sprite as one of his closest remaining friends.

Sky landed lightly a few feet from him, and watched the elf’s face for reaction as she lay her burden gently on the ground before him, her every motion as smooth and graceful as the most elegant of dances imaginable.

“Greetings old elf,” she said cheerily. She was small even for a sprite, largely humanoid in form and only half a head taller than Soone, but very slim and elegantly graceful, even when standing on solid ground with wings somehow folded and absorbed into herself and levitation powers extinguished. Her smooth, featureless skin and long head hair were rich blue in color, and her big eyes were very elf-like: wide yellow orbs with huge grey pupils that danced with hints of blue or green when she was excited. Right now they were solid green, which suggested that the sprite was very excited about something. Cookies, probably, thought Soone.

Soone’s jaw dropped open and his own eyes widened in surprise when he studied the sprite’s burden that now lay before him, evoking a mischievous giggle from Sky. What the elf at first had thought to be merely a bundle of rags was clearly humanoid in form: it was a creature of some sort, and a live one and an air-breather at that, for he could see it move rhythmically very slightly and sense the small amounts of warmed air that it exhaled. It was likely sentient, as evidenced by the clothing that covered most of it. The exposed skin of its face and one arm was light tan with a hint of pink: almost white in color. Oddly, the skin appeared to be clean, even though parts of the clothing it wore were covered in blackened ash.

The oddest thing about it was that it was warded in some manner, for he did not directly sense it as a living creature, but merely as a neutral void in the continuum. “What creature is it that you have brought to torment me and The Balance with this time, foolish sprite?”

“A small injured creature, wise old elf, another life for you to mend. A male, I think.”

“You think? I truly doubt that. Oh!” He finally recognized what it was, and the recognition took his breath away. It couldn’t be! Not even Sky would be so foolish! “It’s an Earth human?”

“Only a very small one. A child.”

“Humans have emerging magic abilities and are among the Council’s two dozen or so strictly forbidden species of the Galaxy to contact, even you know that! Look but don’t touch is the rule! Growing sentient beings is very similar to gardening! Other than protecting their environment from Evil it is generally best to let nature take its course with an emerging species, lest weaknesses inadvertently be introduced. Evolution on Earth is relatively rapid; already it has resulted in humans that begin to control magic. They need to evolve on their own! Why did you bring this one to me?”

In reply Sky merely laughed, with laughter like the soft tinkling of dozens of tiny bells. Look but don’t touch? Elves had too many silly rules! Generally she bothered to remember them only so that she could be certain to purposely break them.

“Mischievous one, this is your twisted sense of humor at work!” Soone admonished sternly. “You likely brought the human here to cause me further grief with the elf High Council of Alure!”

“No, good elf, only to have it mended, unless it is beyond all hope.”

“Beyond hope you say?” Soone didn’t like to see any living thing suffer. It was a quirk in his psychological makeup that caused him to do things such as his Tunic project, a project that clearly broke the elf ‘look but don’t touch’ rule.

He knelt next to the child and gently placed his hand on its forehead. He had to rely solely on touch and other base senses; he still sensed nothing of its life forces and functions directly, though it obviously lived. This human was very strongly cloaked and shielded, whether self-induced or via the persistent spell of another entity, he couldn’t tell. In fact he soon realized that he wasn’t even actually touching the child’s forehead! He was touching an invisible magic shield that covered the child like a second skin! Soone pressed a little harder and the shield pushed his hand further away from the child with irresistible force!

Sky laughed! “Yes indeed, you can look at this boy but not actually touch him! Perhaps he also knows the silly elf ‘look but don’t touch’ rule! His shielding makes him slippery as a Saturn gas eel; it was very difficult to carry him! His mass and weight I could not control either, making flying and teleporting almost impossible.”

Soone shook his head in puzzlement. The human was a complete enigma. “It is weak, but lives, at least for now. As you say, if I recall correctly human anatomy basics it appears to be a male and seems to be very strongly cloaked and shielded, but clearly in some way traumatized. What did this to him?”

“Demon blasts, powerful ones. The Demon killed two other humans that I believe were the child’s parents.”

“A Demon! On Earth? Impossible! Earth is entirely elf-warded against Demons and Evil. Tell me more.”

The sprite smiled. “I would be happy to, sir elf, but I have come far across this galaxy to tell this tale, and have not eaten food for many an Alure week.”

“Fool sprite, you are an elemental creature of magic energies, not a biological being! You have no physical requirement to consume the food eaten by biological life-forms such as humans or elves! Through some arbitrary quirk of elemental physiology you do however have the ability to taste things, perhaps as part of some practical means of accomplishing chemical analysis.

“You expose your real motive for coming here sprite, but by pure chance you are in luck, for as it happens I made dozens of fresh cookies this very morning. Spare my old bones and carry the human to my cabin then, and we’ll see to mending it first, and then second we’ll hear your story, and then only at the last when you’ve earned payment we’ll see to your endlessly empty stomach.”

Grinning, Sky easily picked up the human in her strong thin arms and followed Soone to his cabin. The old elf limped slightly, but walked much faster than usual. He glanced about anxiously, half expecting to be spied upon by either a nosy Council member, or by his annoying apprentice Rog, whom the Council had inexplicably appointed recently to work with him. Clearly a Council spy, that one!

Soone feared someone unexpected would suddenly appear and discover the human, but they reached his cabin without incident. That must have been mostly the work of whatever mysterious ward protected the child, who obviously had powers, for otherwise Wizards constantly on watch to protect Alure should have surly detected the boy and taken action by now. Sky was herself by now much too frequent a visitor to raise any alarm with them.

The cabin itself was heavily warded by Soone, which would help prevent any detection of the human for now, unless Rog himself happened to show up and barge past the wards and into the cabin itself. Thus far, the only thing that Soone truly appreciated about his newly assigned apprentice was his frequent absence. In a sense it was good that the Council Hall was a mere two hour walk or a moment’s teleportation away. Young Rog spent much more time attending public High Council meetings and reading in the Library than he did here with Soone, which suited Rog’s supposed mentor perfectly.

Soone had Sky lay the young human upon his living room sofa, as the pens behind the cabin where injured animals were usually placed for rehabilitation would not be suitable for a sentient creature, and were less strongly warded. The reclining boy fit on the short sofa perfectly, which suggested that when standing he would be roughly the same height as Soone. It had been several centuries since he had seen any humans, but the elf judged the boy to be no more than six Earth years old. Of course that was still quite a significant age for a human, when it was considered how absurdly short-lived they were!

Soone next examined the child more closely, or at least he tried to. Outwardly, the human appeared to be uninjured physically, which was a very good sign. However, try as he may, the old elf could not properly probe the boy’s inner condition! The child was indeed strongly cloaked and shielded somehow. How? Was that a tinge of Wild Magic that he sensed? Impossible! Not even elves dealt in Wild Magic!

Meanwhile, Sky smelled the cookies, and in order to get at them as soon as possible, she hastily described the entire Earthly Demon incident to her host. Distracted by his efforts to treat the human, Soone took in the entire improbable story without comment. Frustrated with his inability to delicately scan his patient, he finally attempted to probe the boy with as much forceful magic as he could muster.

“What?” mumbled the boy suddenly, as he opened his eyes. “What was that? It tickled!”

“Sorry,” Soone replied, using the boy’s own language. The human fortunately spoke English, the only human language that Soone knew! Tickled? Human or elf, his powerful probing should have at least knocked the subject unconscious! Instead his attempt had merely weakened himself, such that he had to sit down on the sofa with the boy while his tired old head stopped spinning.

The boy’s eyes widened in astonishment, as he sat up and wriggled to the far end of the sofa to be further away from Soone. “You’re an elf!”

“True enough. What gave it away? The big ears or the gray skin and fewer fingers? Or perhaps my fashionable green wardrobe? And you’re a human. My name is Soone. Who are you?”

“I’m Ben King. Elves aren’t supposed to be real.”

“And humans aren’t supposed to be real here either. I can’t properly assess your condition. Are you injured, Ben King?”

“No. Why should I be . . .” His voice trailed off as fear and terror replaced astonishment. He looked around the room, searching. “Mom? Dad?” he called out. He ran about the cabin, calling for them, and then exited the cabin to do more of the same outside.

Soone could hear but not otherwise sense the boy running about outside, desperately searching for his parents as he called out their names. He tried to teleport the boy back to his cabin but failed miserably; all attempted spells to move the boy slid off him! The best he could do was to create a strong temporary masking spell completely around the boy so he wouldn’t be casually seen or heard by other elves, even though he seldom had visitors. He also masked some of the cookies from Sky to save them for the boy, for the sprite had retreated to the kitchen and was gobbling down cookies as fast as she could, which was fast indeed, for she had no need to chew them.

Finally, his eyes full of tears, the boy returned to the cabin to confront the elf. “I can’t sense them at all! I can’t sense anything anymore! What’s wrong with me? Where are Mom and Dad, please? What attacked us and where am I? And what is that blue thing?” He pointed at Sky, who had finished off all non-masked cookies in the kitchen and returned to the front room with a full round belly to stare curiously at the boy with her huge colorful eyes.

Soone shook his head sadly. “You won’t like most of my answers, young Ben King, what few that I have.”

 

****

 

 

CHAPTER 1

Homecoming

 

“Who is that?” Ann quietly asked her twin brother Mark, as the teens watched the large rental truck park in front of the house next door. “They can’t mean to move in there! That’s the King house!”

“It used to be, eight years ago. The Kings are gone forever. Get used to it, Sis.”

“Ben isn’t dead, I know he isn’t.”

“You’re the only one in Hope that believes he isn’t.”

“I’m the only one who knows he isn’t. Belief has nothing to do with it.”

Mark shrugged but did not bother to argue further. For eight years his twin sister had insisted that Ben still lived, evidence and Hope Wizard Council findings to the contrary.

True, after the powerful unnatural storm eight years earlier Ben’s body and those of his parents had never been found, but the Council logically concluded that they had all perished by means of magical misadventure. In the woods behind their home they had somehow evoked tremendous primal energies of Wild Magic that had gotten completely out of their control, killed them all, and completely obliterated their remains and the surrounding forest.

They weren’t the first and they probably wouldn’t be the last Wizards to die in such a manner. That’s why Hope existed, to protect and train Wizards and prevent such careless things from happening. Magic energies could be highly dangerous, especially Wild Magic. However, Hope training to prevent tragic magic misadventures didn’t always take. People were by nature curious, ambitious, and adventurous, sometimes to the point of getting themselves killed. The Kings were a case in point. The story of their untimely demise had become a cautionary tale that was now a part of the education of every young Hope citizen.

“Who’s that?” Ann asked again.

From the truck driver’s seat a tall, slim, dark haired, very light-skinned young looking woman emerged. She wore tight-fitting blue jeans that showed off her curves, a long sleeved black shirt, black gloves, black baseball-cap, and over-sized dark glasses, though the morning was mostly overcast and it was well over eighty degrees outside and uncomfortably humid.

“She’s not a Wizard or Norm, she’s a vamp!” Mark exclaimed.

“Well dah! Of course she is,” Ann said. “Hope is at least five percent vampire, you know that! She’s alone, but she can’t be the only one moving in. She has to get invited to enter the house.”

“That’s just Norm superstition,” said Mark. “Dad says it’s a Hope cultural norm that the Norm public at-large believes is a strict rule, but vampires don’t really have to follow it, especially if they are of the Unaligned and don’t follow normal Hope customs.”

“Well if she was Unaligned she wouldn’t have gotten that rental truck through the front gates to enter Hope, would she?” countered Ann.

The woman turned and looked directly towards the teens, smiled, and waved at them. “Good morning!” she announced loudly.

“Good morning!” Ann replied aloud in kind.

“You dummy!” Mark whispered to his sister in exasperation, as he pulled her away and towards home. “She didn’t see us or feel our presence you know; we’re cloaked so good that even Mom and Dad couldn’t detect us, at least not casually. She must have simply heard us talking quietly from thirty meters away, using her ultra-sharp vamp hearing. But you revealed yourself to her anyway, and broke the First Rule!”

“Did not!” Ann countered with whispers. “She is a vamp, we can both sense that fact, and she is obviously moving into Hope, so she’s not one of the Unaligned. So the First Rule doesn’t enter into it, does it? Anyway, we’re breaking rules already by cloaking ourselves while not being properly hidden and warded.”

“Which is why we aren’t supposed to be talking to folks!” Mark said. “She could turn us in for doing public cloaking!”

“Not if she’s Unaligned like you think she is. But she isn’t!”

“Wonderful logic, Sis. So if she’s an Unaligned outsider we broke the First Rule, but if she isn’t, she’ll report us for cloaking. Either way we’re in big trouble, and Evaluations are in only two days! What happens if we get banned from Evaluations? We could be put into classes for Norms or barred from school altogether!”

They dropped their cloaking as they stepped into their home, a large well-kept brick-faced Colonel house that reflected the high position of their parents in Hope society as Council Wizards.

“You broke rules and have news,” stated their father Red Eric, from within his study. “Come here!”

The red-headed twins exchanged knowing glances before entering their father’s favorite room. Reported to town officials or not, their father’s stern tone of voice indicated that they were already in trouble!

In the study their father, a short but massive red haired man, sat behind a large computer screen, which he turned off when his children entered. He didn’t look much like a Master Wizard, except for perhaps the flamboyant bushy red mustache. With his out-sized shoulders and arms and wild red hair he looked perhaps more like an unusually short and muscular Viking warrior.

Red Eric spun around in his chair to face them and had to force himself from smiling, he was so proud of his twins and so very happy every time he saw them! They were growing up so fast! Both were already nearly as tall as him, though that was no great feat. They were both certainly highly gifted in magic powers, particularly Ann. Someday she would be a Master Wizard, of that he was quite certain. Much more important, they were good, sensitive, honest people. However they were teenagers and starting to push against parental authority, especially Mark. “You both know the rules about performing magic openly,” he stated firmly.

Ann and Mark exchanged worried glances.

“Cloaking outside again were you?” their father asked.

Ann and Mark’s faces registered surprise. How could he know? He shouldn’t have known, but then of course, he was a Master Wizard.

“I happened to look out the window just now and didn’t see anyone but I heard your voices. Seconds later, you both came through the front door arguing. Maybe I couldn’t otherwise sense you outside but I can still use my eyesight, ears, and brains. And right now I sense that you’re so excited with news of some sort that you’re both about to burst.”

“We confess,” said Mark. “We cloaked outside.”

“I revealed myself to a stranger while cloaked,” Ann added.

“She only returned a ‘good morning’ greeting to someone who couldn’t have been an outsider anyway,” said Mark, in defense of his sister. “And cloaking outside was my idea in the first place; I talked Ann into it.”

Eric wasn’t surprised at that part of it. Mark was the usual suspect for any mischief. Nor was he surprised that Mark was trying to take most of the blame himself in defense of his sister. “Who witnessed your transgression?”

“A vamp,” said Mark.

“The vampire that’s apparently moving into the King place next door,” added Ann. “A stranger to Hope, maybe. We never saw her before.”

That news caused Eric’s red bushy eyebrows to rise. “Now that IS news. Tell me all.”

The twins excitedly told him about their brief vampire encounter.

Eric shook his head when they had finished. “I’ll have to check it out. There shouldn’t be anyone moving in; the King house isn’t set to be confiscated and auctioned off until next month, after seven full years have elapsed without occupancy.”

“Maybe it’s Ben,” said Ann.

Eric gave his daughter a quick hug. “I wish that could happen too, Pumpkin, but you know he’s gone forever.”

“People keep saying that, Daddy, but it isn’t so. He’s alive somewhere, I know it! I feel he is alive and now near, more near now than I’ve felt since the day he disappeared!”

Eric shook his head. “Don’t you worry; I’ll go see who it is. In the meantime the two of you have permission to practice all of your powers in the family rec-room downstairs. I know that’s not as exciting as doing it outside, but the basement is the strongest warded part of the house.”

“Cool,” said Mark, with a grin.

“But it’s still breaking the law,” pointed out Ann. “Only official Wizards can do magic outside of warded school practice areas; we need to pass Evaluations and be officially training as Apprentice Wizards first.”

“But we have to practice for Evaluations someplace!” argued Mark. “Since school let out for summer we haven’t had much opportunity.”

“True on all counts,” agreed their father. “Technically your practicing magic is breaking the letter of the law, but it’s being done in every household in Hope; or at least all those with kids undergoing Evaluation at the start of school. In truth not even the Council cares, as long as the practicing is discrete. You and every other kid with powers sneaks in some practice in the woods and so forth, I’ll wager, but you need someplace you can relax and focus. Relax and focus in our basement. Help each other like I’ve taught you and stay in the house, and you should do fine at Evaluations.”

“Some of us don’t really need to practice,” Ann said smugly.

Mark rolled his eyes. “And some of us aren’t naturals like you. Come on Sis, you can at least help me! I want placement as an Apprentice Wizard too! I can’t imagine being stuck in classes with all Norms.”

“Untrue!” said Ann. “Most classes will be mixed just as they were for grades one through eight, and some of our best friends are Norms!”

“That better not be bigotry that I just heard, young man,” said Eric.

Mark shrugged and headed for the basement family room, with Ann following close behind.

Meanwhile Red Eric, Master Wizard, walked outside and next door with caution. A vampire moving into the King house made no sense whatsoever. First, any vampire would know what Hope was and that an Unaligned vampire would not be tolerated. Second, the King house was still technically owned by the King’s old friend Moco the werewolf until next month, and for her to use it Moco would by custom and law have to personally grant her admittance to the house.

But that could never happen! John ‘Moco’ Richards had abandoned the house and forfeited his right to live there or anywhere in Hope when he moved away to live among the Unaligned almost seven years ago. It was nearly inconceivable that the Wolf would return. Nearly. But then again, Moco was Moco: a very strong-willed alpha male werewolf.

Eric reckoned that the vampire woman would probably be sitting in the truck, unable to enter the house since there was nobody with the keys to let her in, and needing a shady place out of the sun to stay. In that case he would politely ask her to leave. The alternative was that he would find that Moco had returned with her and he would kindly advise them both to leave. Without a full Wizard or a plausible student-Wizard in the house to sponsor them they couldn’t legally stay in Hope.

Rounding the patch of bushes and trees that had been blocking his view of the King house, Eric noticed that in addition to the truck the kids had mentioned, an old green jeep was now parked in the driveway. He recognized the jeep immediately, and therefore wasn’t surprised to next see a massive hairy man carry a huge reclining chair from the truck towards the house. The big chair, which was made of leather-covered wood that was shredded nearly to bits as if it were a tiger’s favorite scratching post, was carried with one hand, almost as though it were weightless. The Wizard recognized both the ragged chair and the rugged man.

“Red Eric!” Moco rumbled, in more joyful a tone than Eric had ever heard from the Wolf before, as he put the chair down gently and rushed to meet the Wizard with a too-firm handshake. Eric managed to augment his strength with much of his powers to save his hand from being crushed outright. “I heard you’re a Master Wizard now, and on the Council! Both you and Elizabeth! Much as I detest the Hope Council it’s great to see at least a few good people are a part of it!”

Except for a few new gray hairs among the black, the big wolf-man hadn’t changed a bit in seven years Eric noted, but then werewolves aged very slowly. “All very true. This is totally unexpected, my old friend! Very much unexpected and unprecedented, I’m afraid, if you catch my meaning.”

Eric was next going to inquire of the big man-wolf by what right he had returned, but at that moment the front door of the King house opened and two others emerged, a tall, dark haired, pasty skinned, over-dressed for summer, slim but shapely woman, obviously the attractive vampire woman mentioned by the kids, and a teenage boy. The woman was at least a century old, Eric sensed, though she looked no more than thirty. Her eyes had the vacant look of the dead, but the Wizard could empathically sense no overt hatred in her. Vampires and wolves, like Wizards, were rarely antagonistic. He wasn’t surprised to sense that she was in turn strongly probing him empathically. She was after all a vamp.

“My wife Amanda, Wizard,” said the still beaming Moco. “And you know the young man already.”

Astonishingly, Eric could read absolutely nothing of the boy except his visual appearance; obviously he was incredibly cloaked. More astonishing yet, the boy had the black hair and facial features of both Greg and Elaine King!

The boy stopped in his tracks and stared open mouthed at Eric before smiling and walking up to him to also shake his hand firmly. “Mr. Tuttle! It is so very good to see you again, sir!”

“Ben? Ben King? Is it really you? By damn it is!” He pulled the boy to him and hugged him tightly. “Ann always said that you were still alive! But how? What’s going on here?”

“Let’s you and my wife go inside and talk about it, Eric,” suggested Moco. “I’m in no particular hurry to make our return public knowledge, though that’s bound to happen pretty darn quickly in this town full of nosey telepathic Wizards. Ben can help finish the moving if he wants, or look around the old place some more. After all, it is his property. He and I filed the legal paperwork a few minutes ago at City Hall. It’s a good thing that Ben’s finger-prints were still on file! Raised a few eyebrows, we did!”

“I bet you did!” Eric shook hands with the attractive vampire and followed her and the Wolf inside, leaving Ben standing alone in front of the King house, staring at it.

Ben’s head spun as he surveyed the house. Though he and Moco had planned their return for years, the teenager was overwhelmed by the actual experience. From the perspective of a fourteen-year old the house now seemed much smaller, but it still felt more like home than anyplace he had been these last eight years. Here he had lived with his loving parents for his first six years, but very near here they had also been brutally murdered. Unbidden, his eyes formed tears that ran down his cheeks.

Ben decided that there were more important things to do right now than finish unloading the truck. Besides, a rendezvous with an old friend was scheduled to occur soon. He walked around to the back of the house and slipped into hauntingly familiar forest.

****

Half an hour later Eric had just returned to his own home when his wife arrived. Of average height and therefore merely a head taller than her husband, Elizabeth’s red hair matched that of Eric and their children. Mutually red hair was one of the many things that had drawn the couple together. She found her usually calm and subdued husband pacing in the living room, clearly very worked up over something.

“Did we win the state lottery?” she asked.

“More improbable than that by far, my love! Guess who’s coming to dinner tonight?”

“You invited dinner guests without consulting with me?” Her tone reflected more surprise and amusement than anger.

“We have new neighbors; or rather, mostly we have older old neighbors.”

“What on Earth are you talking about? Is someone we know planning to buy the King house at auction?”

“No, they already own the King place.”

Her jaw dropped open in surprise. “Moco is back? That’s illegal. When he left for all those years he abandoned any rights to be here! I don’t know how the Wolf weaseled his way past the gate keepers, but the Wizard Council will boot him out! With prejudice!”

“Not if he’s the legal guardian for a child with powers and that actually owns the house they won’t. Moco also has a vampire wife, but the biggest news by far is this: Ben King is the child.”

“Ben King? But Ben King is dead!”

“I just saw and spoke with the boy. It’s him alright; there can be no doubt about it.”

Elizabeth sat down hard, shaking her head in denial. No wonder Eric hadn’t sent this information to her telepathically; as excited as he currently was he probably would have lost concentration on focusing and coding the message and told half of Hope all of this crazy story! “And his parents?”

Eric sat next to his wife on the sofa and placed a strong arm around her. “Dead these eight years, just as the Council thought. These last seven years poor Ben has lived with Moco.”

“That’s crazy! Where have they been all this time?”

“In the West, living with the Unaligned. Moco’s brother is an important pack leader out there, you know.”

“No I didn’t.” She hadn’t been very close to the Wolf, though she had been very close to their mutual friends the Kings. She had always thought it odd that the Kings willed the house to a werewolf, though he was their close friend and part-time gardener and handyman. The Kings’ patronage had made it possible for the werewolf to live in Hope.

“The last seven years in the West, you said; but it has been eight since the incident. What about the first year? Moco was here for that year, claiming to be awaiting the return of the Kings. We all thought that was a useless gesture but was he actually hiding the boy next door for a year before he moved away?”

Eric shrugged. “Moco says he’s sworn to secrecy about where Ben was that first year, but I think he was definitely somewhere else and with someone else.”

“He has sworn secrecy to whom?” asked Elizabeth. “Not to the Council; we’d know about that.”

“He won’t say who, and I couldn’t read a thing from any of them.”

“You couldn’t? Moco always was extra hard headed, even for a werewolf, and vampires don’t generate enough of an aura to read their thoughts. But what about the boy? You should have been able to read his mind like a book. Even though such practices are generally in poor taste culturally, it’s certainly warranted by the situation.”

“The boy is strongly cloaked and shielded. I can’t get in at him at all, and I tried very hard. His blocking cloak is rock solid. I’ve never experienced such perfect cloaking, and he didn’t even seem to notice my level 4 probing. It was astonishing!”

Elizabeth’s eyebrows rose. Eric’s telepathic probing skills were unexcelled by anyone in Hope; even most adult Master Wizards couldn’t block Eric’s probing. Of course even as a small boy Ben had shown great promise in terms of magic powers. Together he, Ann, and Mark were quite a handful. “And they chose to return now after eight years? Why?”

“Because Ben’s coming of age for Wizard training and they’d also otherwise totally lose the house next month at auction. This explains why Moco has been paying taxes all these years on property he owned but couldn’t live in for all that time! Ben has been secretly living with Moco.”

“But why wait until now?”

Eric shook his head and shrugged. “I got the impression it was for the boy’s safety, but Moco wouldn’t elaborate.”

Elizabeth laughed. “For Ben’s safety? But no place on Earth is safer than Hope for children with powers; we Hope Wizards all see to that! That’s the principle reason for the existence of Hope!”

“I don’t think that Greg and Elaine King would agree that it’s very safe.”

“The Council found the incident in the woods behind their house to be a disaster of the Kings’ making.”

Red Eric shrugged his wide shoulders. “The Council also declared that Ben was dead. As you know, I never fully agreed with some of their conclusions with regard to the incident.”

Elizabeth had agreed with the majority of the findings of the Council. To assume that the Kings had somehow tampered with wild, elemental magic forces beyond their control and been accidentally killed was the only logical assumption to make. “But if it wasn’t an accident caused by them, what was it? You remember that storm! The King home and our own would have been torn from their foundations that day if they hadn’t been strongly warded! Did you ask Moco?”

“He refused to talk about it, but we better find out soon. Anything that could kill Master Wizards as powerful as the Kings isn’t something to trifle with. They did live right next to us, and now one of them has returned. Hope’s safety and our own could be in jeopardy.”

“Precisely,” Elizabeth agreed.

****

Ann quickly grew tired of proctoring her brother, who wasn’t all that interested in practicing seriously for high school Evaluations after all. She left him in the basement playing computer video games over the internet with his school buddies. Upstairs, she heard her parents talking about something rather intensely, probably some boring Council matter. Avoiding them altogether, she snuck out the back door. Vampires be damned, she would investigate the King house situation herself! She didn’t have to cloak; she could spy on the King house from the woods that mostly surrounded it.

The back- trail through the woods to the King property was still well worn even after all these years, due mostly to her. Reflecting the children’s love of trees, the path led from tree to tree like a dot-to-dot picture. That had largely been Ben and Mark’s doing, she remembered. The two boys especially liked the ‘good climbing trees’, but she and Ben both appreciated tree identification and aesthetics also.

She paused along the path to admire a huge maple tree, the site of an incident she would never forget. She wasn’t as proficient at tree climbing as Ben and her brother, but usually went along with it anyway. She vividly recalled misjudging the strength of a small limb, her shock when the soft wood broke off below her feet, and her feeling of total helpless and fright as she fell towards the ground forty feet below. Time seemed to slow down as she fell. Looking up she saw that her brother was far higher in the tree and totally oblivious to her predicament, but from nearly as high Ben was staring directly down at her calmly as she fell.

She remembered her downward motion then being gently but firmly halted, as though gravity had suddenly reversed itself, and then being sat gently down onto the ground!

All the time her eyes remained locked with Ben’s. When it was over he gave her a little smile and wink before going back to his climbing and horsing around with Mark. When she tried to thank him later he simply told her it was “no big deal.”

But it was a big deal. Ben had probably saved her life, using powers that many of the gifted didn’t develop until they were teenagers or older. Ann was herself far more gifted than most, but she doubted that even as a teenager she could duplicate what six-year old Ben had done!

Two weeks after that, the Kings all disappeared, leaving only a scene of total devastation in the woods behind their home that some of the older Wizards claimed was rank with Evil. After weeks of Wizard Council investigation, the Kings were all declared to be dead by misadventure: killed by their own recklessness. The Kings were assumed to have carelessly reckoned with Wild Magic forces that destroyed them all. The still devastated forest area was apparently under a long-lasting spell of unknown composition that was poisonous to life.

For the first few years Ann used to visit the site of the ‘accident’ almost daily, trying in vain to figure out what had happened to the Kings. Now that she was older she knew that it was extremely unlikely that she would ever find any clues that the entire Wizard Council of Hope had missed, but she still returned occasionally to mull things over again, while taking care not to actually come in contact with the poisonous area of devastation that remained.

The Kings, including even young Ben, were incredibly gifted Wizards; the theory that they had essentially accidentally killed themselves by careless tinkering with Wild Magic made no sense at all to her. In addition, she would know if Ben was dead. To the contrary, she knew with absolute certainty that he lived. How she knew that was somewhat of a mystery even to herself, but she knew it.

She didn’t know how, but she knew why. Shortly before disappearing, Ben declared to her that the two of them were inseparably linked. “You can’t ever hide from me, Ann, or I from you,” he had boasted. “I’ve set it up that way.” Exactly what he meant, she didn’t know, but after he disappeared she still had a sense that he was alive, although very far away. Ben had cast a spell on her she later suspected, though six year old youngsters weren’t supposed to be capable of setting spells.

Since earlier that morning, after she and Mark had seen the truck next door, for the first time in eight years she felt that Ben was very close. It was probably only the power of suggestion, she told herself, but why then did the feeling grow even now with every step she took towards the King property?

“Hello, Flame!” a strange adolescent male voice pronounced the nickname Ben had used for her in years past, in reference to her fiery red hair. She had been watching her step along the path, avoiding roots, fallen branches, and new growth, and hadn’t seen the speaker approaching from the direction of the King property. Suddenly there he was, not ten feet ahead of her, a strange teenage boy roughly her own age, staring at her! She should have magically sensed his approach, but she still sensed him only through the conventional senses of sight and sound. He was obviously partly cloaked. She stopped dead in her tracks, her jaw dropped and eyes bulged, but she managed not to scream.

“Sorry to startle you that way,” he added. “You are Ann, aren’t you? It’s me, Ben King! I’ve come home!”

“Ben? It can’t be!”

“Didn’t your dad tell you yet that I’m back? He invited us to dinner at your house tonight.”

He seemed twice as tall as when she had last seen him; even taller than Mark. The body was now that of a tall, slim, dark haired, muscular teen, not a six-year-old child, but there was no mistaking his face; it was larger and more angular, but definitely it was the face of Benjamin King! Besides, only Ben would think to call her ‘Flame’. “It really is you!” she concluded, as her face broke into a wide grin. “And you grew up!” She had an impulse to run to him and hug him, but her head was spinning too much; she could barely stand!

He stepped forward and held out a hand, which she shook dumbly. His hands were large, and his handshake firm, but she could sense nothing through his touch beyond the physical; nothing of the warmth they had frequently exchanged empathically as children. She felt overjoyed, but at the same time very disappointed. He was here physically, but he was not open to her like he used to be! What had happened to him? But mostly she was stunned; this was all far too improbable and weird!

“You grew up too, that’s for sure,” he noted. “Your Dad told us that you never believed that I was dead. Does that mean that you can still sense me?”

“Yes, but no. I’ve always vaguely sensed that you were still alive, but somewhere far away. Since this morning I could sense that you were someplace very nearby, but not your exact location. You seem to be partly cloaked; I mean I didn’t really feel your approach just now in terms of sensing your specific location like I do with anyone else, and I still don’t clearly sense you, except through my normal human senses, and a vague feeling that you are alive and very near. At least I can see, hear, and touch you! But mostly where you stand I sense only totally empty space.”

“Interesting. What little you do sense of me through magic is far more than anyone else can do, and I do mean anyone! That has to be due to what I set up as a spell with you before the attack. Since the attack eight years ago I seem to be partly cloaked all the time and I can’t turn it off. I didn’t mean to sneak up on you just now; I simply couldn’t sense you at all either, until I heard and saw you! Since the attack I can’t do anything magic-wise, except for self-shielding and cloaking, an ability to see through any cloaking and to sense telepathy, and the ability to sense Evil. I just sort of hoped maybe to find you or Mark back here in the woods where we used to hang out.”

Ann was shocked to hear him repeatedly use the term ‘attack’ and to hear that he couldn’t control his magic. Eight years earlier Ben was already performing magic that only a few adult Wizards were able to do after many years of training. “Mark is home playing video games. Dad hadn’t told us about you yet. Is there just you? I mean …”

“That’s OK, I can talk about it. My Mom and Dad were killed in the attack and a friendly stranger saved me by taking me far away. I’ve lived with Moco and his wife Amanda most of the time since then, out West with the Unaligned.”

“With the Unaligned!” For a Wizard so gifted, that was like a Norm being sent to Siberia. Ann couldn’t imagine living among Norms outside Hope’s protective enclave of nurturing Wizards! “OK, I remember Moco; who could forget him? And Amanda must be the vampire lady?”

“Right; Amanda told me that she sensed two cloaked people earlier, or their emotions anyway, and heard a girl say hello. She’s very good at empathic sensing, even through most cloaking. I hoped that she might have sensed you and Mark, out in the yard practicing for Evaluations by cloaking. In fact, Amanda told me telepathically that she sensed you back here someplace when she told me about the invitation to dinner.”

“You and she were correct. So OK, you’ve already explained a lot, but that still leaves yet more mysteries. Who’s the friendly stranger that saved you eight years ago? And who or what did they save you from?”

Ben shrugged. “I’m going to meet with my friendly stranger right now; want to come? She can tell you about the attack.”

It took a moment for Ann to reply. This was Ben, but Ben was now a stranger who had lived among the Unaligned. Mere association with the Unaligned would be enough to make him considered an outcast by most inhabitants of Hope. And who was the mysterious stranger that he was planning to meet? One of the Unaligned? A Rogue Wizard, perhaps? She had to find out, and she still trusted Ben, even after eight long years. “OK. Where?”

“Here in my backyard, at the site of the attack.”

 

****

 

 

CHAPTER 2

Desolation Glen

 

“We call it Desolation Glen,” said Ann, as she and Ben paused to study the bleak, lifeless forest clearing hidden deep in the woods to the rear of the King property. The roughly circular area more than a hundred feet across appeared as though it had very recently been ravaged by forest fire. Even after eight years only blackened ash remained; in it not a single living thing could be seen. The borders of the area were well defined; lush, normal forest growth immediately transitioned to dead black ash with unnatural abruptness. “The Wizard Council studied it extensively before deciding that you and your parents had gotten involved over your heads with Wild Magic energies and been destroyed by them. Also the good magic that used to flow here is gone. They blame that on your parents also.”

“Yeah, that’s what I learned that they told Moco. I suppose those were reasonable conclusions for them to reach, given their lack of information and perspective.” Standing just outside the desolation, he studied the area intently. Eight years ago this is where his parents died, and where he almost died himself.

The area of desolation reeked of hideous Evil. In a twisted way it was wonderful for him to be able to sense something so strongly, after eight years of relative blindness, but in another way it was terrible, as it reminded him that he could no longer directly sense life or other good things as he had as a child. He could only longingly remember being able to sense good things.

Worst of all, memories of his parents and their death flooded him, amplifying the sense of loss and despair that had never left him. For months he had imagined being here again at this scene of death, playing it through his mind hundreds of times. But his preparation for this moment had been totally inadequate. This wasn’t just some imagined place of his confused nightmares, this was real!

Every instinct he had told him to run and hide. This place was death itself! But he simply had to face up to this place and his memories! The Wolf and others had told him so many times.

“So the Council conclusions are reasonable but not correct?” Ann asked.

“Of course not. This place still reeks of Evil so strong that nothing can grow here. That should have strongly suggested to them what really happened. The Evil likely blocks the magic flow here also.”

“My Dad and Mom say that most members of the Council don’t believe anymore that there even is such a thing as Evil. Others say that the Evil here is responsible for many recent deaths of old people in Hope; the people who most strongly supported old Hope traditions. All of our grandparents died since you’ve been away!”

“Wow, that’s horrible!” said Ben. “My grandparents died too, according to my guardians. Not even the best Hope healers could save them!”

“The Council says it’s all coincidence.”

Ben laughed. “Don’t I wish! Your Council is dead wrong; of course Evil is real, and the Evil here is bound to have bad effects! Besides blocking good magic flow maybe it weakens people, especially old folks. The Council should get out into the world more. Cloistered here in Hope they lack perspective. At least that’s what Moco and the Unaligned say.”

“That’s what Dad says sometimes too. Mom isn’t sure what to think.”

“Your Dad is a realist. That’s why he, Moco, and my folks always got along so well.”

“So what really happened here?”

Ben exhaled a long breath before replying. “Evil happened. My folks and I frequently came here because this place is what my folks called a nexus for good magic. It has something to do with the geology. They said it was a great place to sense and learn to shape magic, especially for a youngster like me. It was a place for all life’s possibilities. It’s where I learned to do magic. My folks said I was ‘a natural’, and that coming to a place like this was like jumping into the ocean in order to learn to swim. They were always with me in case I got in too deep, but the deeper it was the more I liked it!”

“Right,” said Ann. “The whole Hope area has several such places. Hope is said to be a nexus point for Earth magic; that’s why Hope has established here in the first place. But unless you’re a Master Wizard such places can be dangerous.”

“That’s for sure,” said Ben. “My folks said that places of Earth magic sometimes attract bursts of Wild Magic. We went on our usual picnic here and we were attacked by a Demon. Our combined strength apparently wasn’t enough to shield us all and my parents were murdered. That’s essentially what I was told by my rescuer, anyway. I don’t really remember much of the incident myself. The big theory for that is traumatic shock. I seem to have forgotten quite a bit, including how to control my own magic.”

“A few years ago the Council officially declared that elemental Evil and Demons don’t exist,” said Ann.

“That’s crazy!” said Ben. He took several steps into the devastated area, where his shoes immediately sank several inches into the black ash.

“Don’t!” Ann cried out in alarm. “Come out! It will make you sick; it’s poison!” She herself had many times over the years become ill from even standing near Desolation Glen. Actually standing in it like Ben was doing was totally suicidal!

“I doubt it,” Ben said. “It isn’t poison, I wager, it’s simply dirt and ash that’s full of Evil, against which I’m very strongly shielded. It is disgusting but I’m very confident of my safety. I’m impervious to normal poisons as well. My shoes may get dirty though, until I step out.”

“Ben, even strongly shielded Council Members got very sick from very briefly being in there! Don’t you feel confused and head-achy yet?”

“Not at all! Really Ann, I’m fine; nothing harmful to me can get through my shields. I’ve prepared myself for years to do this!” In fact he felt an exhilarating sense of relief: he had faced up to this place and overcome his fears!

“Please come out of there, Ben!” she implored. She stood helpless at the very edge of the blight, reaching towards him. Ben was afraid that she’d loose her balance and fall into the Evil, which would likely kill her.

“OK,” he said, shrugging, “if it will make you feel better.” As he stepped out of the desolation and into forest, fine black ash fell from his shoes. Some of it fell onto green moss that immediately withered into dead brown sludge.

“The ash is some kind of magic assisted poison,” Ann noted. “You have to get it all off of you!”

“It is all off of me, don’t worry,” he said, as he casually examined his shoes and then showed them to Ann. The light-green sneakers were perfectly clean, not a hint of black ash was visible. “It’s Evil, probably not poison at all in the conventional sense, and my shielding totally repels it. I can strongly sense any Evil, and can sense that none of it remains on me. Not a single tiny speck. My shielding repels it away. The tiny bits of it that I brought out on my shoes will quickly be overcome by the life of the forest. This entire plot of Evil will gradually fade away within a few centuries, but not before it does much harm. There are tons of it here! Demons had to have brought it here, and they must have had nasty reasons to do that.”

“The Council report says the ash is poison strengthened by magic. They deny it is Evil though, or even the existence of such a thing as Evil. Still, despite many attempts they haven’t been able to get rid of the problem. They have managed to put a counter-spell around it to keep it from spreading though, whatever it is. That’s why they have confidence that it has nothing to do with the deaths of our old folk.”

“It’s Evil, pure and simple, I can sense it. Evil is the only thing I can sense that way anymore. Taking the long view the spell to keep it from spreading is possibly a mistake.”

“Why?” asked Ann.

“Small bits of Evil decay quickly, especially when surrounded by life such as found in forests. Left on its own all this Evil would dissipate within a few decades. Fenced in and concentrated like it is, the Evil could be around for centuries!”

“You seem to doubt the Council a lot.”

“I was raised among the Unaligned, and by others, none of them affiliated with Hope. They have a respect for Hope Wizardry, but a healthy skepticism of Hope Wizards and their politics, especially the Council.”

Ann meant to point out that her own parents were now part of the Council, and that they were both very competent Master Wizards, and that by contrast none of the Unaligned could possibly understand very much of magic, but she sensed someone rapidly approaching them. “Someone comes towards us, someone of power,” she announced.

“Relax; I can’t sense anything,” Ben said calmly. “That is to say, I sense no Evil aside from the ash. It’s probably my mysterious friend that you sense coming.”

“The one that saved you?”

“Yes. She said that she would visit me today, here where we first met.” He looked up into the clear sky, then after a bit of searching, pointed. “That’s her!”

Following his finger Ann saw what she at first thought was a solitary bird, soaring high above. She soon realized that it was falling towards them rapidly, wasn’t a bird, and was indeed the being of power that she sensed approaching. It dropped to treetop level, than gracefully circled Devastation Glen once before landing gently only a few steps from herself and Ben.

Even before landing, Ann could see that Ben’s friend was a slim humanoid but not human. The curves of its legs and body suggested that the visitor was female. She was a deep sky-blue in color with head, arms and legs similar to that of humans, but with a pair of wings that protruded from her back. But she lacked distinctive protruding nose, ears, or sexual organs! Except for long, streaming, dark blue head-hair her entire body appeared to be hairless. She glided through the air with exquisite grace, reminding Ann of the motions of sleek flying sea gulls or swimming dolphins.

After landing she stood balanced on tip-toes like a lithe, supple ballerina, regarding Ann with two deep, human-shaped greenish eyes, as her ‘wings’ simply retracted slowly into her body. She still had no visible ears, nose or nostrils, but her mouth, a lipless slit that opened in a position similar to that of humans, formed a toothless smile. Even on tip-toes she was less than four feet tall. Seen up close, subtle curving and slightness of body features suggested even more strongly to Ann that that their visitor was indeed female, and if drawings of legendary creatures in the Hope library could be relied upon, she was a sprite!

“Greetings, young Trouble-Bringer,” the newcomer told Ben cheerfully, in clear English, as he rushed forward to lift and hug her tightly.

“You are Ben’s friend Ann?” the sprite asked, after Ben had released her. The awkward hugging action, though superficially similar to the death grip of a Demon, she correctly interpreted as affection, as it was a common action she had seen occur between closely affiliated biologicals on many worlds. Perhaps they were exchanging scents or thoughts? “You are the one also known as Flame?”

“Yes,” Ann stammered, hardly believing what she was seeing. In Hope, sprites were thought to be imaginary, the legends of children’s stories!

“This is Sky the sprite,” Ben told Ann. “Eight years ago Sky rescued me here from Demon attack and took me to Alure.”

“Demon attack for real?” Ann exclaimed, shaking her head in disbelief.

“I was there,” said Ben. “Ann, I know what I saw!”

“As did I,” added Sky. “I am unfortunately very well acquainted with Demons. This was an unusually powerful one, full of great Evil that it drew and spewed here to form a place of powers for Demons.”

“Isn’t Alure where the elves of legend used to live?” Ann asked, changing the subject.

“It is where the real elves still live, young one,” the sprite said with a chuckle, before turning to Ben and jabbering something unintelligible to him for a full minute. Ben replied briefly in kind.

“Sprite language?” Ann asked, when they had finished and returned their attentions to her.

“Elf language,” explained Ben. “Sprites have no spoken language of their own. Sky didn’t mean to be impolite but though over the years visiting me she learned much English, she is hesitant to speak of my Elf friend Soone to you directly. The Elves have prohibited her communication with humans. That rule was already broken eight years ago with regard to me, but you’re another story. She doesn’t want to talk to you about elves and get Soone in trouble. On the other hand, part of Soone’s message to me is his advice to be perfectly open about him and everything else. That coincides with my thoughts on the matter, despite the Wolf’s concerns.”

“You have really gone to Alure and met with elves?” Ann asked Ben. She was having a problem keeping up with all of this. She had difficulty believing such a thing could have happened, but then again she could no longer doubt the existence of sprites. If sprites existed, maybe elves and a magical place called Alure where elves lived could also exist. And maybe even Evil Demons?

“One elf only,” Ben explained, shaking his head. “Soone had to hide me from the other elves or there would have been trouble. Anyway, Soone has once again sent me his greetings and advice via Sky. We’ve been communicating off and on that way through Sky for seven years.”

“We hope to continue the practice,” said Sky, “though there are concerns about doing so, as young Ben has suggested.”

“Elf concerns,” explained Ben. “Sprites don’t usually care about rules, but Sky and Soone are friends. Sky doesn’t want to get Soone into more trouble with the Elf Council. Friendship easily trumps rules for sprites.”

“And for some wise elves as well, young Ben,” added Sky. “The old elf sends no written message this time, but worries for you, youngling. We both worry of the dangers that your quest to Hope brings you, as well as the opportunities.”

“Hope is the safest place in the world for Ben,” protested Ann.

The sprite laughed. “You would not have said so eight years ago, young Flame, had you been at this place of death.” She gazed pointedly towards the center of Desolation Glen, before returning her focus to Ben. “And yet despite the terrible danger and memories here is where you have returned, Trouble-Bringer. The very center of this glen where the Evil is heaviest and magic flow is blocked is where your parents died and you almost died yourself. You humans expect too much of yourselves, and have the habit of doing dangerous, in many ways foolish things, despite your ridiculously fragile bodies and short life spans. Hence have I named you well, Trouble-Bringer.”

“I don’t understand,” said Ann. “Exactly what happened here eight years ago? And what did Ben come here to do what you think is dangerous?”

“His plans are his to tell, young Flame, but the greatest danger is the most obvious one. Ben’s parents were sought out and killed here by an Evil Demon that may still abide in this realm. The Evil in this place of desolation could help sustain Demons, and also weighs heavy on your little town, Earthling. Against such powerful Evil only few may prevail.”

“But Demons, even if they are real, aren’t here on Earth, and certainly not near Hope!” Ann managed to say.

The sprite laughed again. “Humans are so innocently naïve that they are amusing to talk with.” The sprite turned its dark blue eyes to Ben. “I am glad that young Ben taught me your language so that I can understand such amusing foolishness! I can offer no sage advice beyond what wise Soone has already provided you, Trouble-Bringer. Remember what the old elf told you. Most important: find yourself and your powers before you dare seek out the Demon.” The sprite looked upward, to the sky and beyond, and smiled. “A storm on Jupiter beckons to me now, young ones. Take care and live free!”

With that, the blue sprite leapt high into the air. The wings that had earlier receded into her back suddenly reappeared, and billowed full in a sudden breeze that swept among the trees, and carried her yet higher. “Eeeeee,” she cried out joyously.

“Fly free, Sky!” Ben called up loudly to the sprite, who was already a hundred meters overhead.

A moment later, as Ben and Ann watched, the small blue figure disappeared from view, causing a loud sound like a whip snapping.

“What just happened to her?” Ann asked.

“She teleported herself to Jupiter, I suppose. She prefers the feel of wind on her wings and quickly gets bored with space travel, so she teleports. Sprites are wonderers. She never stays very long in any one place, unless it’s to eat elf cookies. Elves make wonderful cookies.”

“Which reminds me: I should be getting home for brunch, Ben.”

“Me too, I suppose. Moco and Amanda will be curious.”

“What about all that I’ve learned about you? Should I keep it secret?”

Ben shrugged. “I guess not. Most folks won’t believe it anyway, I suppose, or they will be upset, but it’s bound to all come out at some point anyway.”

“I guess. My Mom and Dad are both on the Council, you know.”

“No, I didn’t. That’s great! Sure, tell them everything, if you want to. I have nothing to hide. I’ll see you and Mark at dinner?”

“Sure. I’m really glad you’re back, Ben.”

“Thanks. And I’m really glad you’re still here.” He suddenly paused awkwardly. “You really look good.” She was no longer a child, but a beautiful young woman. Over the last year or so since his voice started changing he really noticed girls, especially the pretty ones. And he had never encountered a prettier girl than Frame!

“You too,” she replied.

They walked away from each other, Ann along the path that led to her home, and Ben along the less worn path that led to his.

“Don’t fall out of any trees, Flame!” he called after her, as she passed the maple tree where she had fallen eight years earlier.

Ben fairly floated on air all the way home. He couldn’t remember ever being so happy, at least not since the Demon attack that orphaned him. Ann was still here, and she remembered and liked him, and she was wonderful, even if she was a bit naïve!

It had been strangely awkward, talking with her. He didn’t want that; he wanted them to be close friends again like they were eight years ago. What had he told her near the end? That she ‘really looked good?’ That was totally lame! He had told her a lot of things about himself though, and she had taken it all pretty well. What he hadn’t told her was what a joyous jolt it had been, just to see her again, and talk with her! She was more beautiful than he even remembered, and was still a wonderfully good person, through and through, and she still cared about him!

He was happy but at the same time disappointed. He had been terribly hurt and disappointed not to have sensed her deeply, as he had been able to do when they were small children. What had he expected? That his curse would simply melt away when he met her again? Yeah, probably; but that certainly hadn’t happened!

Did she have a boyfriend, he wondered? No. He couldn’t think about such things now. Soone and the Wolf were right, his return to Hope was a very serious and dangerous matter, and he had to stay alert and focused. There was Evil here in Hope, and possibly a Demon that wanted to kill him.

Moco and Amanda certainly took things seriously when he told them about his encounter with Ann. The Wolf was upset to learn that Ben had told Ann so much, and that he had not told her to keep it secret. “This isn’t the Unaligned lands, Cub,” growled the Wolf. “Hope is full of politics and other nonsense. There’s no telling what the Wizard elite will make of you showing up after all these years, let along what they’ll make of sprites, elves and Demons in their midst. And if that Demon is still around here you’re openly advertising that you’re back.”

“It’s not a cautious, wolf-like approach, I admit,” said Ben. “But we’ve got to tell people something, and it might as well be the truth.”

“Humans, especially Wizards, do not always value truth, but define their own truth,” said Amanda. “But what is done is done.” She grinned at Ben, showing sharp fangs. “You fancy your friend Ann, don’t you Ben?”

“Humph,” snorted Moco. “I could smell it on him a mile away. Again, try to remember that this is Hope, and that you and she are still only 14 years old. Control your budding sexual impulses for a few more years, Cub.”

“I know,” said Ben, his face reddening.

“Cub, the best way to keep your mind off females is to do something like hunting prey or unpacking suitcases and boxes,” Moco said, as he picked up a massive trunk from the living room floor and carried it effortlessly towards the master bedroom.

Ben saluted and followed the Wolf’s example by unpacking, though Amanda chose to take a nap. The last leg of their travel had been a long difficult drive in daylight for her, though most of their driving had occurred at night. “I’ll unpack my share at night during normal waking hours,” she said.

Their unpacking efforts were curtailed after Moco carried a big bag of groceries from the jeep. Moco, like Amanda, usually ate his beef burgers totally raw. The Wolf consumed several pounds of very rare burgers for lunch, while cheerfully cooking a well-done burger for Ben.

As he returned to unpacking in his old bedroom Ben found the experience extremely odd. Everything in many ways was the same, yet still also very different than what he remembered.

Years ago Moco had already re-arranged the other rooms, but Ben’s he had not touched. Now Ben had to set aside many of his childhood toys to make room for his new belongings. The toys were small and dusty, but he recognized most of them. There were books, balls, toy vehicles, and little action figures. Seeing them brought back many good memories, but they also reminded him of the deaths of his parents, and of a time when with very little thought he could cause his toys to move all about his room. He tried now to mentally move a single tiny plastic action figure. No telekinesis happened. In frustration he kicked it across the room. He had hoped that things would be different when he had returned home!

“How about helping me re-arrange the living room furniture Cub?” asked Moco from the doorway. “Use the muscles in your back for now, and forget about the chained magic in your mind.”

How long the Wolf had been quietly watching him, Ben didn’t know. Moco seemed to have a means to sense Ben’s brooding, despite the boy’s impenetrable cloaking. Soon Ben was busy helping Moco re-arrange furniture to match a floor-plan that Amanda had sketched out. The vampire had very particular ideas about furniture arrangement. She liked her favorite chairs to be away from sunny windows, for example. Moco’s only requirements were that his recliner have a good view of the TV and that there be someplace nearby to rest a beer.

Soon it was getting close to dinner time, and Amanda woke and drank some fresh calves’ blood. The vampire’s food needs were miniscule but specific. After washing up and changing clothes it was with some apprehension that the trio walked next door.

 

****

 

 

CHAPTER 3

Dinner

 

“I still can’t believe it!” said a grinning Mark, who greeted the guests at the Tuttle front door. He shook hands briefly with Moco and Amanda before giving Ben a warm, brotherly hug. “This is crazy! This whole town will go totally nuts!”

“Welcome to our home,” added Red Eric warmly, as he led the guests into the living room where Elizabeth and Ann waited to greet and seat them.

“Benjamin, Benjamin, Benjamin!” gushed Elizabeth, “and Moco and new wife Amanda also! This has all been quite a surprise to all of us!”

“More of a shock, I suspect,” said Moco.

“More so for the story that Ann’s been telling us,” added Eric. “Elves? Sprites? Demons and Evil? It’s all far too fantastic!”

“The Cub is a bit more loose-lipped than me,” growled Moco, “but I suppose it would have all come out soon anyway.”

“Nobody will believe it, is all that we’re implying,” said Elizabeth.

“People can believe what they want,” said Moco, as he shrugged his huge shoulders. “I really don’t care.”

“But it could mean trouble for you and problems for Ben,” said Elizabeth.

Moco again shrugged his massive shoulders. “Can’t be helped I suppose, but we’re all pretty thick skinned, including the Cub. You won’t believe how thick-skinned he is!” He nodded towards Ben.

And thick headed, Elizabeth thought. “Maybe if you were to publicly offer a more simple and plausible explanation, things would go smoother for you.”

“What would you suggest?” said Amanda, with a fang-showing smile.

“Perhaps that Moco spirited an injured Ben away from Hope in secret, in response to a last request by his parents,” said Elizabeth.

“That would be a lie,” stated Ben, flatly, his distaste plain. “I don’t lie, and neither does the Wolf.”

He hadn’t mentioned vampires not lying, the Tuttles noticed.

“But it’s not very far from the truth,” said Elizabeth. “Simply leave out the more fantastic parts about sprites and elves. Let more of the truth come out over time, after you’ve re-established yourselves here.”

Moco shrugged. “That might work. It’s actually closer to what I figured what we’d be doing. What do you think, Cub? It’s up to you.”

Ben shook his head. “Removing me from Hope that way could still possibly get Moco in trouble, even if it was done at the request of my folks,” said Ben. “Hope thinks that it owns all young Wizards. I won’t have that. And it might get you folks in trouble for not immediately passing on what you know to the rest of the Council. I assume that news of a Demon on Earth and possibly still in Hope will be of interest to them?”

Eric and Elizabeth exchanged glances as they exchanged brief thoughts privately. “SMART KID!” Eric remarked to Elizabeth telepathically. “THOUGH NAÏVE AND PERHAPS DELUSIONAL.”

“AND HEADSTRONG AS HELL,” added Elizabeth. “I’M IMPRESSED THAT THE WOLF DEFERRED TO HIM. I’VE NEVER SEEN MOCO DO THAT WITH ANYONE, YOU AND I OR THE COUNCIL INCLUDED.”

“I should mention that I hear all nearby telepathy,” said Ben, “though I can’t produce any.”

MESSAGE RECEIVED, BENJAMIN,” said Elizabeth. “I noticed that you and Moco wear matching magic amulets,” she said to Amanda, changing the subject. She glanced knowingly at the green gem stone that the vampire wore as a necklace and the matching one that was attached to Moco’s belt buckle.

“Yes,” said the vampire. “My family uses them to communicate with each other. Most of them are not telepathic although I am. The amulet is not telepathy but it works well enough. And it works across any distance.”

Elizabeth found herself annoyed to learn that the vampire was telepathic and also possessed magic amulets of impressive capabilities. Magic among non-Wizards was rare and frowned upon by the Wizards of Hope. “Ben has no such amulet?”

“They don’t work for him,” said Amanda. “He’s sort of a magic dead-zone, except for what he does himself subconsciously. His handicap is the essence of why we moved here to Hope.”

“Yes, even though moving to Hope will probably make things difficult for all of you,” said Red Eric. “For what it’s worth we’ll of course help as much as we can.” He looked at his wife for affirmation.

“Which might not be much,” she added, though she nodded in agreement. “We’re both Council Members but there are nine other members. We’ll try to see that you are treated fairly, of course.”

“You know that I’ll help,” added Ann. “And Mark too.”

“Sure,” Mark added, though without as much enthusiasm.

“Thanks,” said Ben. “That means a lot to us.”

“Alright, that’s all settled then,” said Elizabeth. “I don’t think we need all run out and tell all of Hope the juicy details right away, but they won’t be secrets, and Eric and I will need to report it all to the Council very soon. But right now give me about ten minutes in the kitchen and dinner will be ready.”

“Smells delicious, Elizabeth,” said Moco, sniffing the air. “Both beef and duck?”

“Best way to pacify a wolf,” Elizabeth acknowledged, as she stood up and walked towards the kitchen. “Some of it is uncooked, of course. Nice and bloody. I’ll just warm the raw meat up to body-temperature for you.”

Dinner conversation was limited to mostly small-talk, though Mark asked a lot of questions about elves and Alure. Ben downplayed and prefaced his answers with many declarations that he had been a small child and hidden away by Soone while he was in Alure, so he was by no means an expert on the world of the elves. Nevertheless, what he did know fascinated the Tuttles, including his description of Soone’s wondrous gardens. What the elves accomplished on Alure through magic far surpassed anything the Hope Wizards could begin to even imagine.

Eric and Elizabeth were particularly fascinated that the elves also ruled themselves using a council, with membership determined largely by magic capability. It sounded so similar to the Hope Council that he wondered if the elves were somehow involved long ago in setting up the Earth approach. Hope early history was a jumble of conflicting stories that included elves, but many of the details had been lost.

After dinner, the adults retired to the study to talk while Mark and Ann gave Ben a tour of the basement rec-room, which featured Mark’s prized computer gaming equipment. “Lately I game a lot over the internet with Troy Grim and Frank Marks,” Mark explained. “You remember them?”

“Vaguely,” Ben admitted. From grade-school he remembered them as pushy, unfriendly, considerably older boys; bigoted sons of Wizards that felt that they were something special. Troy especially was a mean bully. But perhaps they had changed?

“Tonight and tomorrow you can prep with Mark and me for Evaluations, Ben,” said Ann. “Evaluations are the day after tomorrow.”

“I’ve already told Troy and Frank that I’d spend this evening with them at Troy’s,” said Mark. “That was before Ben showed up, of course. You can come with me, Ben; I don’t suppose Troy would mind. They took their Evaluations three years ago and are going to give me some pointers.”

Ann rolled her eyes in exasperation.

“Thanks,” said Ben, “but I’m not worried about preparing for Evaluations and I’m still busy with unpacking. Maybe some other time.”

“Maybe it’s just as well,” said Mark. “Troy can be a little particular when it comes to people; I should probably convince him that you’re OK before showing up at his doorstep with you.”

“Whatever being ‘OK’ means for Troy,” quipped Ann.

“You know how Troy is,” Mark retorted.

“Exactly. That’s why I can’t fathom why you or anyone else wants anything to do with him.”

“Because he practically runs the school, that’s why! He runs the ‘in’ crowd for sure. Maybe you don’t want any fun or friends, but I do.”

“I’m particular about my friends, thank you, and am very happy to not count Troy Grim as one of them. Besides, most of Troy’s popularity is in his own little mind. I hear that most kids won’t have anything to do with him. Aside from Frank, only John and Fred follow him without being pushed into it out of fear. He’s bad news at Hope High School, just like he always has been. I hear that the other Apprentice Wizards have formed a secret sort of club in part as defense against Troy and his crew.”

“Troy’s not perfect, but he’s not that bad, and he’s a fact of life. Mom and Dad have to put up with his dad, and you and I have to put up with Troy.”

“I do put up with him, but I do it by as much as possible not having anything to do with him,” Ann explained. “And that goes for his creepy friends too, especially Fred Hanes. There’s something really creepy about him. I can’t read him at all. He’s somehow cloaked and maybe shielded I think, maybe as soundly as Ben is.”

Mark shook his head in exasperation. “Your pig-headedness is one of the reasons I have to be in such good graces with Troy in the first place!” He stomped out of the rec-room and up the stairs, leaving an upset looking Ann and a bemused Ben, who had listened to the growing argument from the sidelines until the Tuttle twins seemed to have forgotten about him.

“I’m sorry to have set off an argument,” Ben told Ann.

“It’s not your fault,” Ann replied. “Troy and his gang are plain no good, in my opinion, but Mark can’t seem to see that, or he doesn’t care. Troy just puts up with Mark because our parents are Council members. But he can’t hide his contempt for our whole family and everyone else.”

They started up the stairs to rejoin the grownups.

“Can I still come over tomorrow anyway, Ann?” Ben asked.

“Of course you can,” she replied, with a smile. “You’re always welcome here, Cub.”

Ben smiled. “The Wolf has always called me that. Will I have to put up with being called that from you now too?”

“Probably, unless you’d rather be called Trouble Maker.”

“Ready to trot back to the den?” Moco asked of Ben, as the two teens entered the study where the adults were congregated. “I’ll need to prowl the yard for a while in full wolf form.”

“He needs to spread his scent around the place,” explained Amanda, smiling her sharp-fanged smile. “Wolves will be wolves!”

“Just try to limit the late night howling please,” Eric requested, with a grin. “Some of us humans have to work days.”

****

“That went fairly well,” Amanda said, while walking home. The sun had set, which also cheered her up considerably. Vampires didn’t rapidly disintegrate in sunlight, but it bothered them terribly. “You know I don’t care much for Wizards, but they seemed to be really decent people, especially Red Eric.”

“All men like you, much as you like them, Love,” said Moco. “It’s in their blood and yours. Ann really likes you, Cub,” he told Ben, as he playfully mussed the boy’s long black hair with a huge hand.

“As does Red Eric,” Amanda added, “even if he is also male. I read mixed feelings from the other two. Elizabeth seemed a bit upset about my telepathy and amulets.”

“Wizards usually tend to be upset when some non-Wizards also have powers,” said Moco. “Elizabeth never was that friendly with me, but Mark is a true puzzle. That young man is conflicted about something.”

“Mark is alright,” Ben said uncertainly.

“He ran outside before you and your girl came upstairs, Cub, and he didn’t look happy,” said the Wolf.

“He has left the vicinity,” added the vampire. “I can’t sense him nearby at all, not even cloaked.” Elizabeth had excellent sensing abilities, even for a vampire, but it was only good for a few hundred meters. The aura of the Tuttle boy had faded away and been obscured by that of others. She wasn’t used to living in a town. She sensed too many people for comfort, dozens of them, all with hearts pounding yummy blood through their warm flesh! She sniffed the air. It was full of the scent of human prey, but many years ago she had sworn off eating humans, as had Moco. Here among them it was going to be a long night.

“Did you tell them about the message from Alan Dale?” Ben asked.

“To an extent,” said Moco. “I told them that I left a letter for Council at the Courthouse, that it was from Alan Dale and it was highly important. I didn’t describe its contents.”

“Dale said not to trust anyone, not even old friends,” said Ben.

“And I don’t,” said Moco. “I don’t trust the Council to even consider the letter, though if they don’t I think that Eric will honestly let us know that. I promised Alan and my brother that I’ll see that the Hope Council gets the letter and considers it. Only when Eric correctly feeds back to me what’s in the letter and also tells me that the Council has seen and considered it will we contact Alan through the amulets and affirm its successful delivery. Damn I hate politics!”

“This project of Dale’s will turn their isolated little Hope Wizard-centered world upside down,” said Amanda.

“And ours too,” said Moco. “The Council will reject Dale’s overtures, I predict. I just hope they don’t take it out on the messengers. Can you contact your daughter from this place? I can’t make out specifics, but this whole area stinks of interfering wards.”

“Your wolf-sense does you credit, my Love. The town protective wards are strong. But yes, I tried out my crystal ball and amulet this afternoon. The transmission through the Hope wards is slightly garbled, but quite satisfactory. At least it is far more dependable and secure than telephones or the internet. Until Alan’s proposed talks with the Norm Government bear fruit, using a Norm means of communication is out of the question. Could you imagine what the Government’s reaction to Demons might be? Think Army and NSA, and all Wizards arrested on suspicions of various sorts having to do with national security. Alan’s plans better work or the Wizards will go down and take us with them.”

The Wolf shook his shaggy head. “I hope that we will have a positive response from the Hope Council to convey to Alan, but I seriously doubt it.”

Amanda nodded her agreement. “Your wolf-psyche driven pessimism is likely correct, Love.”

 

****

 

 

CHAPTER 4

Trailer Trouble

 

In central Hope, Mark arrived at a huge old stone house. The building was nearly as old as Hope itself, and stood out even among the other old stately homes in this, the oldest section of Hope. Unlike the other houses on the street the Grim Mansion was totally dark. Even the light from nearby street lights seemed to wash out when it neared the stone structure.

Mark could sense that the house was very heavily warded, as was to be expected of any home occupied by Wizards. But why would someone ward against light? Besides Troy, the Grim Mansion was home to Horace Grim Junior, Troy Grim’s father the Council Chairman. Horace’s father Horace Grim Senior was also rumored to still live there, though he hadn’t been seen by non-family members for many years. Occasionally Junior referred to Horace Senior in the present tense. Mark hoped that he wouldn’t encounter either Horace; Troy was a scary enough Grim to deal with. But because of the warded cloaking, Mark couldn’t tell if anyone was inside the dark house.

He had a bad feeling about the Mansion, even though like the King backyard, this place was said to be a natural nexus for Earth magic flow, as it was built over one of the local geological features that channeled Earth Life Energies. That was supposed to be a positive thing, but perhaps the house wards blocked the Earth magic, because strangely, Mark could not detect it. Instead, he sensed nothing from the house at all. Ann had told him that according to Ben the Earth magic within Desolation Glen was blocked by Evil. Could that also be the case at the Grim Mansion? But no, that was a totally crazy thought! What would Evil be doing in the home of one of the most respected families of Hope?

But he couldn’t help feeling spooked by the old dark Grim Mansion. Despite being out of breath from running most of the way to get there, Mark instinctively wanted to immediately run away from Grim Mansion and whatever dark mysteries it hid. Instead he walked to the backyard as Troy had instructed him to do, where he immediately found Troy.

“You’re late, Squirt,” said Troy Grim. Troy stood a full head taller than Mark and was built like a football player, which of course he was: he was the high school’s quarterback. Even in the light of only half a Moon his trademark good looks and blonde hair were apparent. With him stood Frank Marks, his loud-mouth right-hand man, and two other older boys that Mark recognized as Fred Hanes and John Dwight, other disturbing members of the Hope High Football squad that hung out with Troy. Each of them outweighed Mark by at least forty pounds.

“Are you sure the Squirt is up to it?” Frank asked, with a laugh.

“Up to what?” Mark asked, puzzled. It was his understanding that Troy and Frank would simply be giving him pointers on how to pass Evaluations.

“Nothing much,” Troy said. “Just a little initiation, that’s all. If you want to hang with us you have to show you got balls, kid.”

Frank got in Mark’s face, bending down to stare at him eye-to-eye. “Well, do you have any balls, Tuttle, or do you always let your Wizard Momma and Papa protect your soft little ass?”

“I guess,” Mark said.

“You guess what?” growled Frank.

“I got-um.”

Frank laughed. “We’ll see, shrimp.”

“So OK, let’s go do it,” said Troy.

They surrounded Mark and grabbed his arms and shoulders, and pushed him along with them, to the front of the house and then to the sidewalk, where they began to walk briskly up Main Street before abruptly turning North onto Bartlet Street.

“Where are we going?” Mark asked, puzzled. As far as he knew, there were only a few scattered homes on Bartlet, separated by long stretches of forest. He had liked it better being on Main Street. Even though there was almost no traffic and there were no other pedestrians in sight, at least Main Street had streetlights. Even with a half-moon poking its light through wispy clouds, Bartlet Street was almost totally dark. Troy and his buddies seemed to like the dark.

“We’re going to visit some squatters, Tuttle,” said Troy. “Stinking Norms and their little mixy brat. Going to welcome them to Hope real proper. OK, everyone cloak.”

Everyone except Mark disappeared, though Mark could still feel them holding his arms.

“Don’t you know how to even cloak, shrimp?” Frank asked.

“But it’s not legal!” Mark complained.

The others all laughed, except for Fred. Fred never laughed or smiled. Mark didn’t know who was scarier, Frank the loud, pushy bully, Troy the nut-case leader, pushy John, or silent dead-eyed Fred.

“But it’s not legal!” whined Frank. “What a wimp!”

“You gotta cloak, kid,” said Troy, as he squeezed Mark’s arm painfully.

Mark cloaked, though in the darkness it didn’t seem to make a lot of difference.

“Better,” Troy said. “Now listen up. There’s a trailer up ahead where a couple of stupid powerless Norms just moved, along with their little bratty mixy-breed kindergartener. I figure that the slutty mother screwed an Unaligned Wizard to get herself a ticket into Hope and a nice new trailer, but we’re not going to let her get away with it. They’re on an otherwise big empty lot, with no houses nearby, so we should have no trouble from nosey neighbors.”

“It’s the first trailer of what is to become a big trailer park for these kind of families,” said Frank. ”That’s why we’re going to make sure they go back to the Unaligned where they belong, or soon there’ll be many more Norms and their bastard mixies moving in.”

That was a racist remark, Mark knew. Many racist Wizards believed that any offspring with powers must surely have at least one Wizard parent. That had been disproven many times scientifically. Most Wizards actually were born of two Norm parents. That’s why ‘missionaries’ from Hope were needed to seek out children with powers. “But no matter who the parents are, if the kid’s already showing powers, he should be living here in Hope,” he argued.

“The little half-breed bastard has no business living here with true Wizards,” said Troy. “All of us here are at least third-generation pure bloods, including you, Tuttle, or you wouldn’t be here.”

“But don’t they still have a legal right to be here?” Mark asked. He didn’t dare mention anything about moral rights.

Troy and the others stopped in their tracks. Mark could feel them around him, and even through their cloaking could feel their hostility. They could probably feel his growing fear, also. Any second, and he expected to feel a big fist slam into his face or stomach.

“That better not be what you really think, Tuttle, or you won’t make the grade with us,” Troy said.

“What I mean is, that’s what the law says; that doesn’t mean that it’s right or wrong,” said Mark. “I mean, I can see your point, but what can we do about it?” He could feel their hostility decrease somewhat.

“We can scare the buggers off, that’s what,” said Frank. “A week ago we tore down their mail box.”

“Then we broke some of the windows of their lousy trailer,” added John, “and then since they are probably idiots we wrote some nasty notes to them so that they would know what we want.”

“And we slashed some tires,” said Frank.

“And smashed some paint-balloons over their junker car and their junker trailer,” added John.

“And the dumb bastards are still here sticking it out!” Frank complained. “Can you believe it? Can’t be courage, it must be a strong case of stupid!”

Mark couldn’t believe any of it; that this sort of thing actually happened here in Hope was totally insane!

“So it’s time to step things up a notch or two,” Troy said. “Take this bag.”

Mark could feel a plastic bag being shoved into his hands. It weighed several pounds and seemed to contain something soft and squishy inside of it.

“It’s kerosene filled balloons, four of them,” said Troy, “with a touch of gasoline just to help get things started. We have to move fast before the balloons disintegrate. You just throw them against the trailer so they break and we’ll light-um off. The trailer has some wood trim and framing that should burn like crazy and a propane tank that should go off like dynamite!”

Troy and his crew laughed, except for the always sullen Fred.

Crazy was the right word for it, Mark decided! The bag suddenly felt like it weighed a ton. Kerosene and gasoline? Really? But he could smell them faintly. Yes, that’s what it was! What the hell! These guys were totally crazy!

“Quiet down now, we’re almost there,” Troy said. “The man will be expecting us; that’s what makes it such a great scam. The slob will be out with his baseball bat, looking for us, and again we’ll be invisible.”

“Throw them balloons against the trailer good and hard, or they won’t splash good,” Frank told Mark.

“And don’t get it on yourself, Squirt,” added Troy, “or you’ll go up with the trailer.”

“Go up?” Mark asked. His head was spinning too much. Nothing made any sense.

“In flames, dummy,” said Frank.

Flames? This was all crazy! They really meant to set a home on fire! With people in it!

“Quiet now, there’s the trailer,” whispered Troy, excitedly. “It’s up ahead on the right where that light is. Just smash the balloons over the trailer, kid, we’ll distract the guy and light the fire.”

“For sure,” laughed Frank.

“Get it done,” said Fred. “Or else!” Fred’s voice was deep like a croaking frog. Maybe that’s why he didn’t talk much.

Someone gave Mark a rough push towards the trailer, and he almost fell down with the delicate balloons. Then he was alone.

His first impulse was to drop the bag of balloons and run, make for home as fast as he could. But that would mean the end of any hopes of being accepted by Troy and his followers, which would mean that he and Ann would be at their mercy all year!

No, if he could just get through this one night, he and Ann would be immune from trouble. He simply had to go through with it! On the other hand, he couldn’t set a trailer on fire, especially a home with people in it! He simply couldn’t! He walked slowly towards the light, hoping for some brilliant idea to come to mind that would save both himself and the trailer.

“I hear you, you sneaking bastards,” came a man’s voice from the dark suddenly, in the direction of the light. The voice sounded both angry and frightened. A second light separated from the first and moved towards the boys. The man had a flashlight, and was walking straight towards Mark.

“Woooo,” came a voice several yards to his left, followed by laughter. Frank. Immediately the flashlight swung in that direction, but revealed only empty lawn.

“Get out of town, you mixed breed bastards,” shouted a voice, Troy’s, from his right. The flashlight swung towards Troy, but Troy was also invisible.

“Get out, Norms!” yelled John, again and again, and the chant was soon taken up by Troy, Frank, and even stoic Fred.

“Why can’t you leave us alone? What’s wrong with you boys?” the man asked, as they chanted. The man’s voice had a slight Spanish accent.

The man moved to the right, towards Troy. Maybe he had figured out that Troy was the leader, from previous nights.

“Get away from here!” the man shouted, as he moved now towards Troy’s tainting voice. In the half-moonlight Mark could see him now dimly, a squat mid-sized man of average build, probably smaller than Troy, carrying a flashlight in one hand and a baseball bat in the other.

Suddenly the man fell violently down to the ground, probably from being tripped or pushed by his invisible tormentors. He fell hard; Mark could hear him grunt. Laughter from Troy and his goons followed. It sounded to Mark like all four of the gang were moving in to surround the man now. They cursed and shouted and laughed, taunting the man unmercifully, kicking him then dodging the man’s futile return-blows.

Mark was frozen in place, his limbs weakened so much his legs nearly buckled, his heart pounding so loud it was a wonder he could hear what was happening. What should he do? What could he do?

The man started to stand up, but was immediately tripped and pushed down again and kicked by his invisible attackers. He was by now terrified, Mark could sense. The others must have sensed the man’s terror too, but instead of disgusting them it seemed to spur them on. Troy and his freaks were actually enjoying themselves! “Good one, dude,” Frank said, at one point as he laughed, after someone knocked the man down yet again.

“Move, Squirt,” Troy shouted in Mark’s direction. “Get the trailer!”

“Burn it down, dude,” Frank shouted, before laughing hysterically again. “Burn, burn, burn the scum out!”

“Do it or we’ll beat you and your uppity sister to crap!” shouted Troy. “You hear me squirt? Do it now or you and her are both dead!”

Things were happening too fast and out of control, but they also seemed to be happening in slow motion. Mark suddenly could move, but his legs seemed to be made of lead. He ran towards the trailer stiffly. In the moonlight he could see its hulking shape of the trailer; a big one, lighted at one end by a small outside yellow bulb, the kind that wasn’t supposed to draw bugs. The rest of the trailer was dark, but he could sense the young child and mother inside, and he could feel their fear!

At all costs he had to avoid getting any kerosene on the trailer. Somehow he had to get rid of the balloons before Troy and his buddies took them back from him and did the job themselves. He decided that he would slam the bag onto the ground a few feet short of the trailer. He would tell Troy that he had simply tripped in the tall grass and fallen down with them.

“No,” he heard the man shout, behind him, and further away, he heard Troy and Frank cursing. Looking back, in the dim light Mark could see the man up and running fast straight towards him. He had lost the flashlight, but still had the bat. “No!” he shouted again and again in desperation. Behind the approaching man, four small bobbing lights followed, floating in the air several feet off the ground. Troy and the others must have lit their cigarette lighters, Mark realized, to set off the kerosene! The lighters all burned far too bright: magic had to be involved! “Wooo!” one of them howled, his voice greatly magnified by magic.

Incredibly, the man was running straight for Mark, gaining on him rapidly, swinging the bat and now screaming incoherently. Mark dodged to the right, though he continued in the general direction of the trailer, which was only twenty meters further ahead. Impossibly, the man followed his dodge, bat raised to strike. How did the man know exactly where he was?

As he again glanced back to see the man almost on top of him, Mark tripped on a rough stretch of grass and fell heavily to the ground on his right side, on top of the bag of kerosene balloons. At least one of them must have burst, because Mark felt cool wetness on his arm and stomach, and could smell the unmistakable scent of kerosene and gasoline. Even in the dim light he could see the wetness as a darkness on his tan tea-shirt, and feel it cold on his skin.

See the wetness? Mark suddenly realized that he was visible! In the darkness he hadn’t noticed until now. At some point he had forgotten all about his cloaking; that’s how the man knew where he was!

The man was suddenly towering over him with the bat, holding it high and ready to swing. In pure panic Mark instinctively tossed up as a distraction whatever he held in his hands: the plastic bag, which still gushed with at least half of the kerosene and gasoline. The man swung the bat wildly and perhaps also as a defensive reflex and whacked the bag hard, which was ripped to bits, sending splashing droplets of kerosene all about in the darkness, including onto both Mark and the man!

In what seemed to Mark like super slow motion, a burning cigarette lighter spun through the air out of the darkness and landed next to him, from which flames spread in a flash to Mark, the man, and at least two of Troy’s troop.

Amid the terrified screaming that immediately followed, Mark somehow remembered one of the practice drills that Ann had put him through earlier that day, a flame-snuffing spell that at the time he had thought to be particularly boring and worthless.

There was sudden darkness as all of the flames were instantly snuffed out. Mark found himself sitting in singed, smoking grass. Part of his tea shirt was burned away, but aside from what seemed to be incredibly painful burns on one arm and his stomach, he had miraculously been spared, and the fire was out.

He and the man were alone in the dark; Mark could hear sounds of Troy, Frank, and the others retreating in the darkness, laughing.

The man hadn’t been so fortunate. In the dim light from the trailer and the moon, Mark could see him on his knees a few feet from him, holding his hands before himself as he moaned in pain. Mark could sense that both of the man’s hands were very seriously burned, along with one side of his face and much of his chest!

More of Ann’s teachings came back to him. If someone wasn’t immediately treated for a serious injury, magic healing would be impossible! Mark was exceptionally good at healing; he had healed minor injuries to himself and to Ann dozens of times. He had never faced anything like this! But he had to now!

“I can help,” he told the man, as he knelt next to him. The moaning man didn’t seem to even notice that he was there.

“Get away from him,” demanded a woman’s angry voice.

The woman, evidently the man’s wife, had come out of the trailer. She shakily held a pistol in both hands, pointed directly at Mark. Behind her stood a small frightened boy in pajamas. Even in the near darkness Mark could see the woman’s angry, accusing eyes, and those of the boy, which were mostly curious, and very penetrating.

“Oh my God, Jose!” said the woman, as she realized how badly her husband was injured. She dropped the pistol to the ground and rushed to him, crying.

“I can help him,” Mark said again.

The sobbing woman looked at him uncertainly, before turning questioningly to the small boy beside her.

“He’s OK, Mom, he put out the fire. Let him try to help Dad,” the little boy with the deep eyes said. “I hope you’re better at healing than you are at running or cloaking,” he said to Mark.

“Please?” Mark asked the woman. “Let me try?”

“Go ahead,” the woman now told Mark in return.

Mark stood behind the still kneeling man, placed his hands on his shoulders, and focused. It took a moment longer to establish a connection to the man, perhaps because it wasn’t his twin sister this time, or perhaps because it wasn’t someone who also had Wizard powers. Still, in a short time he was synched with the man’s vitals, and was supplying calming, healing strength to him. That was stage one.

The man’s pain hit Mark like a sledge hammer, as he absorbed it to himself. “Help him, or he’ll fall down from the pain,” the small boy told his mother, and Mark was soon dimly aware of her steadying arm around his shoulders. He felt dizzy from the pain, but he could still function, he had to! So much for stage two!

Stage three was next. Healing. The man’s own body was the key. Programmed into the relatively undamaged cells that remained were the keys to healing. Mark simply used what was there, and added his own body’s life-energy resources to those of Jose.

The pain should have immediately receded, but it remained; not for the man, but for Mark. He would have collapsed then, were it not for the woman on one side, the boy on the other, and his own tensed muscles. Fortunately, Mark soon wasn’t even aware of his own pain, gasping for breath, moaning in agony, and growing weakness. He was only aware of the healing that he was doing. Cell on cell, layer on layer of muscle and skin reformed on the man.

After minutes that seemed like an eternity the teenager at last reached his limit and lost consciousness.

 

****

 

 

CHAPTER 5

The Hortegas

 

“It’s about time,” Mark heard his father’s stern voice, a moment after he opened his eyes. He was in a hospital room, lying in a bed, and he felt more tired than he had ever felt in his life. Morning sun was streaming in through a window.

“Go easy on him, Eric; he is a hero,” said another voice that it took a moment for him to palace. It was Moco. The massive Wolf stood head and shoulders over and next to the Wizard. Mark could have sworn he saw the Wolf grin and wink at him as he stepped from the room.

As his father sat next to the bed Mark saw that he also looked very tired. “Good morning, Son. You had us worried, boy. Gods, don’t ever do something like that again! Healing like that is a level three-plus skill; what were you thinking? You could have died!”

“I’m sorry, Dad. How is Jose?”

“They brought Mr. Hortega here to check him out, and then released him. He’s perfectly fine. From what he and his wife told me, they have you to thank for that. You completely healed extensive second and third degree burns, Mark! I managed to heal yours.”

“There’s much more to it than that, Dad. Terrible things.”

“Of course there is. You didn’t just happen to show up at their home half-way across town. You were part of the gang attacking that man’s home, weren’t you?” It was an accusation, not so much a question.

Mark could hear the anguish in his father’s voice, and feel it. “Yes, Dad,” he managed to say, painfully.

Eric shook his head. “Why? That’s what I don’t understand. The real Mark Tuttle is the one that healed that man! Why participate in hate-filled hooliganism? Why?”

“To get in good with the kids that run the school. But I didn’t know what they were going to do last night until they shoved a bag of kerosene and gasoline filled balloons into my hands and shoved me towards that trailer with orders to splash the stuff all over it. I tried to sabotage what they were doing, but I failed miserably. People caught fire, Dad. It was horrible!”

“The fire stopped after a few seconds. Was that also you?”

“Yes, thanks to Ann teaching me how to do it.”

Eric shook his head in wonder. “I’m really proud of you, Son, and relieved that you’re OK. But I’m also very disappointed, ashamed, and angry.”

“I’m mostly ashamed, but I’m also terrified. School starts tomorrow.”

Eric nodded. “And those guys that you say run the school might not be too pleased with you?”

“I don’t know. I do know I can’t hang out with them anymore anyway, no matter what they think of me or do to me.”

“True. You can tell them for me that I forbid it, because I do. I ABSOLUTELY FORBID IT!” Eric used a magic-magnified voice.

“Thanks Dad.”

“I don’t suppose you’d care to reveal their identities to me?”

Mark had never heard his father’s voice sound so cold. “I don’t think that would be a very good idea.”

“The Hortegas say that they heard one of them threaten you and your sister. Is that true?”

“I don’t know if they really meant it,” said Mark.

“They better not have!” said Red Eric. “I have a good idea who it was. Well, their attacks on the Hortega family are over, that’s certain, and the Hortega home escaped any damage. Your Mother is there now, with the police, helping to set protective wards. If they had only reported what was happening earlier, last night’s incident could have been avoided, but the Hortegas say that they didn’t want to make trouble for anyone.”

“It’s not their fault.”

“Of course it isn’t. It’s the fault of you and your new friends.”

“Never friends, I know that now for sure.”

“The Hortegas protected you from the law. I doubt the police will even bother questioning you. But you know that your mother and I can’t let you get off so easy.”

“Sure. I figured.”

“The Hortegas are your new best friends, or at least to the extent they’ll tolerate it. I’ve already talked to the parents and they seem apprehensive but willing. You’ll spend at least eight hours a week with them every week for at least the next six months. You’re going to help with their assimilation into the Hope community. And you’re going to report on it to me and your mother each week. We’ll also get involved, as appropriate. The boy is your main assignment, and the adults are ours, but you’re going to help them all out however you can.”

“Yes sir. Can Ann and Ben be involved?”

“If they want to be, but it’s your responsibility. Ann and Ben helping won’t decrease what is expected of you. I better not hear that you’re trying to shift your burden to anyone else.”

“No sir.”

“Oh, and besides having powers far beyond his years the Hortega boy is also a genius,” said Eric.

“Right, I noticed that,” said Mark. “That’s why it might be good to have Ben involved. Rick reminds me of young Ben. And Ann is super bright also, of course.”

“Don’t underestimate yourself, Mark. You feel up to going home yet?”

“Do I ever! Is that OK with the hospital?”

“I’ve just cleared it with them. Let’s see if you can stand up.”

Mark managed to climb out of bed to stand, though he felt very weak.

“Good. Let’s go home.”

Eric grasped his son’s hand tightly, and before the boy could guess what was happening Mark found himself standing at home in the kitchen with his father. It was the first time he had ever been teleported!

“Wasn’t that illegal?” Mark asked, when he had caught his breath.

“Not if there is permission from a Council member such as myself. Besides, it’s how we got to Hope Hospital in the first place. I figured that despite blood transfusions and the healing efforts of myself and hospital staff you would be hungry. The kitchen is yours.”

“Thanks Dad.”

“No problem.”

“No, really! I mean thanks for everything. Really!”

Eric smiled. “Again, no problem.” He gave his son a long hug.

****

That afternoon Mark took Ann and Ben to meet the Hortegas: Jose, his wife Guinevere, and their son Rick. The boy was particularly nervous and apprehensive. To relax him, the teens played a game of Frisbee catch with him outside.

Rick soon asked many questions, while his parents sat nearby, taking in all that was said. “Will there be other kids like me?” Rick asked.

“Of course,” Mark told him. “About half the kids will have powers, the others will tend to be brothers and sisters that don’t. And there are some super smart kids like you too, you’ll find.”

“But everyone there will know about powers and think it perfectly natural for you to have them,” added Ann.

“Even the teachers?”

“The teachers are mostly Wizards themselves,” Ann explained,” but except for a period of about an hour each day, nobody is supposed to use any powers.”

“Why not?”

“It’s partly to help the other kids feel OK, and mostly for you to learn how to hide that you have powers from non-Hope folks. The world at large isn’t supposed to know about Wizards. Learning control over using powers is super important.”

“I already learned that years ago,” Rick said.

“Some kids haven’t,” explained Ann. “Mark and I lived all our lives in Hope, and grew up doing magic in our house and sneaking in some magic in the woods. In some ways you might have an advantage over kids raised in Hope. You’ve already had to learn how to hide what you are.”

“What about Ben?” asked Rick.

“I just moved here a couple days ago myself,” Ben explained. “I was born here, but was away from Hope for eight years. So like you folks, I’m sort of new here.”

“I didn’t know that could be done, leaving and then years later returning to Hope like that,” Jose said. “We were told that commitment to living here was a lifetime thing.”

“I’m an unusual case,” Ben explained.

“That’s for sure,” said Ann. “He’s had adventures you wouldn’t believe! Ever hear of elves? Ben lived with an elf on the elf planet!”

“Wow,” said Rick! “Could Ben tell me about elves sometime?”

“Sure, I guess so,” said Ben.

“Are your parents normal?” Guinevere asked.

“They were both Wizards, but they died when I was young. I’ve been living with friends of the family since then.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jose.

“It was a long time ago,” said Ben. “Moco and Amanda have taken good care of me, though maybe I’ve been raised a little differently than most folks.”

“Moco is a werewolf and Amanda is a vampire,” added Mark.

That brought gasps from the Hortegas, and Rick’s eyes got huge.

Ben shrugged. It was no big deal to him.

“They’re both good people,” added Ann.

“Now you really do have to tell me about it!” said Rick.

Guinevere shook her head. “They told us about werewolves and vampires, of course, but I guess it will take getting used to.”

“Good people are good people,” added Mark. “We’ll introduce you to more folks, including kids that are Rick’s age, and you’ll all do all right here, I’m sure.”

Rick was relaxed and grinning non-stop by the time it was time for his visitors to go home for supper. As they were leaving, Guinevere pulled Mark aside. “Thank you, Mark. For the first time since we came here, we feel welcome. Rick is a lot more confident already.”

“He’s super smart and talented and most important he’s a really good kid,” said Mark.

“But they aren’t all good kids, are they?” the woman asked.

“No,” admitted Mark. “Nor are the adults. Wizards are no better or worse than other folks.”

****

The three teens met again after supper in the Tuttle basement, to discuss school, which would start with Evaluations tomorrow. Mark was still worried about Troy and his gang, but Ann was more worried about Ben.

“You say that you can’t control your magic, Ben! How can you hope to pass Evaluations?”

“I can display some level four skills; that should be enough.”

“Your cloaking and protective shielding?” Ann asked. “Are they really that good?”

Ben shrugged. “Try to do something to me now.”

“You mean attack you?” Mark asked.

“Sure.”

“We don’t really know how,” Ann protested.

“It doesn’t have to be with magic,” Ben explained.

Mark shrugged, then made a fist and hit Ben’s shoulder tentatively. The blow didn’t seem to quite reach Ben; something stopped it within an inch of the shoulder. “It’s like punching a sand-bag!” he said.

“Harder, Mark,” Ben urged. “Don’t worry, you can’t hurt me. Be careful that you don’t hurt yourself though. My shielding pushes back hard against attacks.”

Mark hit his friend again, much harder. To him it was like hitting a stiff punching bag. Ben never flinched.

“Hit me with something,” said Ben. “I don’t suppose you have a sword or a gun; do you have a club or a hammer?”

“We couldn’t do that!” protested Ann. “That’s barbaric!”

“I’ll be OK,” said Ben. “I’ve been attacked by bears and werewolves and Rogue Wizards without ever even feeling it.”

“Rogue Wizards you say? How about this bat?” asked Mark. He had picked up a solid looking aluminum baseball bat.

“Sure, swing away,” said Ben, with an amused look on his face.

Ann couldn’t help screaming when she saw Mark swing the bat towards Ben’s head with all his strength.

This time Ben tried to move away from the blow, but the bat still struck his protective shield with great force. Mark rebounded from the blow as if he had been the one struck, while several bits of smoldering bat were flung about the room. Mark was left sitting on the floor holding a cleanly seared off, foot-long section of bat.

Ann instinctively raised a shield of her own, but none of the bat-bits came near her. Several fragments of bat had struck floor, walls, and ceiling with enough force to imbed themselves into ceiling tiles and wall panels.

“I’m sorry!” Ben said. “I can’t control it! Is everyone alright?”

“Yeah,” said Mark, who was just a little shook up. “I’m sure not trying that again! That was my favorite bat!”

“Likewise,” said Ann. “That was too dangerous!”

“I agree,” said Red Eric, who had suddenly teleported into their midst. “What on earth is happening here? I thought you kids were bringing the house down!” He took what was left of the bat from Mark’s hands and studied it carefully. It appeared to have been half torn/half melted away.

“Just Evaluation practice, Dad,” Mark said. “We were testing Ben’s protective shielding. Ben says it has withstood even Rogue Wizard attacks.”

“Oh really?” laughed Eric. “You’ve encountered Rogue Wizards, Ben?”

“A few. The Wolf searched them out to see if anything could be done to help me control my powers.”

Eric sobered. The boy was serious. “What were their names? Do you recall?”

“Alan Dale and Maude Phillips tried hardest to help me.”

“Wow!” Mark said.

A stunned Red Eric found his favorite basement lounge chair and sat down, hard. “You’ve actually directly encountered Alan Dale and lived to tell the tale? And you’ve met with Maude Phillips also?”

“They both seemed friendly enough. Is there something wrong?”

“Did you know that they are both fugitives? They reside atop Hope’s most-wanted list!”

“Sure. Alan seemed to be proud of that. Maude didn’t care one way or the other.”

Eric stood again and started pacing about, clearly agitated. “That sounds like them! Ben, the Council takes a very dim view of consorting with Rogue Wizards.”

“I spent a few days with Alan, and a few months with Maude, altogether,” Ben replied. “They’re good people, in my opinion. I’m not exactly sure what sort of ’consorting’ is regarded to be a problem.”

“In any case the Council is very interested in apprehending those people,” said Eric.

“Why? What have they done to you?”

Eric looked perplexed. “Done to us? Nothing, I suppose, except set a dangerous example. What if there were hundreds of Unaligned Wizards, gallivanting about without decent training and supervision? Normal folk would discover us for certain and probably try to wipe us all out. Therefore by their very existence the Rogues are a danger to all of us. That’s why when Rogues are encountered it’s every Wizard’s duty to try to apprehend them.”

“Father,” said Ann, “surely as a child Ben was in no position to capture Rogue Wizards, or to even report seeing them, as he wasn’t in Hope at the time. And he’s not even an Apprentice Wizard yet.”

“I hate to tell you this,” said Ben, “but there are hundreds of Unaligned folks with powers outside of Hope that I’ve personally met. The Wolf thinks that world-wide there are tens of thousands that the Hope missionaries haven’t discovered. Maude says there are more with every new generation. Alan says that’s why he left Hope. He’s trying to prepare for a world with more Wizards than Hope could possibly handle.”

Eric stopped pacing and shook his head as if to clear his thoughts. Could that be right? If it was, the whole concept of Hope being the sole legitimate refuge for Wizards of the World was bogus. Hope currently had over two hundred missionary type operatives out in the world, looking for emerging Wizards, but what if Dale was right and that was totally inadequate? What if something else needed to be done? Is that issue related to the secret message that Moco delivered from Dale? “You’re right, of course. Ben’s a juvenile. But mark my words, it will become an issue. Were the Rogues any help to you personally, Ben?”

“Not really. Alan recommended that I receive training in Hope, as he thought that might help me, which is something the Wolf had already figured out anyway. Maude laughed at the suggestion. She said that if she couldn’t help me, neither could anyone in Hope, and that I’d have to fix myself, starting with whatever trauma I suffered eight years ago. She tried to talk me into staying with her until I was better. The Wolf nixed that idea, because I would lose my inheritance if I didn’t return now. In any case, here we are.”

Eric shrugged his wide shoulders. “Amazing. Mind if I take a shot at it?”

“A shot at me you mean?” Ben asked, shrugging. “Go ahead.”

Red Eric glanced around the basement, then directed Ben to stand in the center of the room, and Mark and Ann to stand well behind himself. “I’ll augment house wards and protective spells first with a temporary force field spell,” he explained. “We wouldn’t want to blast to bits the house or something!”

The fascinated teens watched the Master Wizard turn slowly around, gesturing with his hands, as he wove an invisible containment field around Ben and himself. Although they couldn’t see it, Ann and Mark could sense the shielding field growing in strength enormously. There was a palpable tingle in the air, and the sense that a deep humming sound was building that though felt couldn’t quite be clearly heard. With one last thought Eric locked in the field with a spell that would last several minutes.

“OK, Ben,” said Eric, “extend your left arm to the side, and stick out your little finger. I’ll start with a weak energy blast. Relax. Even if you had no protection it still shouldn’t hurt too much.”

Ben shrugged and stuck out his finger.

Eric pointed at his target. If somehow he slipped up and harmed the boy, damage to the little finger of his left hand wouldn’t be so bad, he reasoned. A white spark of energy abruptly leapt from his hand to strike Ben’s finger, but bounced off it and to one side, only to be contained by the surrounding protective force field. Eric’s big red eyebrows rose. “OK, I’ll increase power gradually. If you tell me to stop or if I sense I’m getting through to you I’ll stop, of course.”

Eric blasted energy at Ben’s finger again and again, with ever-increasing power, until massive lightning-like blasts were engulfing Ben’s entire body, and a low rumbling sound shook the house. But still everything Eric threw at him ricocheted away, and was sent cascading about within the force-field that surrounded them. At its height, Mark and Ann couldn’t see either their father or Ben, for the containment field had become a solid ellipsoid of brilliant pulsing multi-colored light!

Abruptly the light-show and sound faded away, leaving behind only a faint singed odor. A relaxed and unaffected Ben King stood exactly as he had at the beginning, with finger extended. Red Eric also stood in his same spot, though the Wizard was breathing hard and clearly groggy and drained of energy. Ann rushed to his side to steady him as he stumbled to his lounge chair and plopped down into it heavily.

“Wow!” Mark said.

“Indeed,” agreed Eric, after catching his breath. “And all of that protection is nothing you have to even think about? It’s just always there?”

Ben shrugged. “Right. I couldn’t even feel your attack, though it appeared quite colorful. That’s my problem. I can’t turn it off; it’s with me 24-7.”

“Well, it should get your evaluation team’s attention, though it’s an unorthodox skill to begin high school with. It will be a new situation to judge though, and you never know what some folks will think of it. Mark, Ann, I think that’s enough attacking of Ben for today.”

“Sure, Dad,” agreed Mark.

“Ben, I’ll have to tell others of your encounters with the Rogues,” said Red Eric. “I have no choice, even though it could mean trouble for you and your guardians.”

Ben shrugged. “By telling others you mean the Council. I figured that you would. No problem. I have nothing to hide or be ashamed of.”

“Good,” said Eric, though now he felt more strongly than ever that Ben King had a lot to hide. Things that that deep inside himself he knew, but also possibly things that he didn’t even know that he knew.

That night, after discussing what happened with Elizabeth, Red Eric teleported to the home of his mentor and closest friend, Fredrick Kroner. Fred rose from his office chair to shake hands with Red Eric. He looked as fit as ever, despite being over seventy years old, and despite the rigors of his multiple career as Hope High School Principle, Hope School District Superintendent, and Council Member and Secretariat.

He was one of the most powerful people in Hope, as much due to his personality and political shrewdness as to his official positions and his Master Wizard capabilities. At two meters tall, he towered over stocky Eric, making him quite capable of easily reaching all of the books that surrounded them on the shelves of three walls that reached to the ceiling. As he sat again behind his big cheery-wood desk he gestured Eric into his visitor chair, while he twisted his thin gray mustache with his long, thin fingers. It was a nervous habit. Ever since Ben King’s return was reported, things were thrown a bit out of kilter. Ben was an unknown factor among dozens of other issues currently already in play. “What is so urgent that it required your teleportation here, Eric?”

“Three things. First, I’ve had another encounter with the boy.”

“Well, you are neighbors, after all,” noted Fredrick.

“As practice for Evaluations I tried to blast through his protective shielding and failed. I attacked him with everything I had and he didn’t even blink. He said that he didn’t even feel it.”

That caused the old man’s eyebrows to raise. “I see! Impressive! You’re one of the most powerful Attack Wizards in Hope! And he still claims that he can’t control his abilities?”

“He does. I was nearly exhausted at the end of it, and he didn’t seem to be burdened at all. I am convinced that if he didn’t even know that I was attacking, it would have made no difference. It was uncanny.”

“That’s all very interesting but hardly urgent,” said Fredrick. “What else?”

“I’m here to officially report to you as Council Secretariat that while Ben was among the Unaligned, Alan Dale and Maude Phillips also spoke with him and tested his shielding.”

“Now that is interesting! When and where?”

“I didn’t press him for details,” said Eric. “He and his guardians have been perfectly open with me and I want to keep it that way.”

“Fair enough. Whenever and wherever the meetings were, Alan and Maude are likely long gone by now anyway. Not that we’d be likely to send anyone else after them.”

“I doubt we’d find anyone willing to go,” Eric added. Six Hope deputy police marshals sent after Alan in the past had never returned. People sent after Maude had returned without remembering where they had been or what had happened.

“We shouldn’t approach them that way next time,” said Fredrick, “not from the standpoint of trying to bring them to our so-called justice. Personally, I’m more interested in establishing an alliance with them.”

“If you can’t beat them, join them? Align ourselves with the Unaligned? Such arguments have never gotten close to having Council approval.”

Fredrick shrugged his wide thin shoulders. “Not with Grim leading the Council, but that could change. If the King boy has talked to Alan and Maude, perhaps he could do so again, again in an unofficial capacity. If the Unaligned Wizards become interested in the notion of collaboration, maybe Council would change its own views on collaboration; or if not full collaboration, at least some sort of official truce. It could be a beginning. Hope has become out of touch with the world at large, and much too self-centered.”

Eric nodded, thinking of what Ben had said about there being thousands of Unaligned people with powers outside of Hope. “Perhaps. I see that you’re beginning to agree with me that Ben King’s return opens all sorts of possibilities.”

“Over time. It’s politically a delicate situation that we’ll need to cultivate carefully. Certain members of the Council are highly sensitive to suggestions that the status quo be tampered with.”

“That brings me to our hottest topic,” said Eric. “Are you aware of a letter being sent to Council from Alan Dale?”

“Not at all!” said Kroner, clearly stunned.

“Moco left it for the Council at the Court House office yesterday. He says it’s very important. Surely as Council Secretariat you have seen it?”

“I haven’t seen it or heard a word about it until now! Could it be sitting in an in-basket someplace?”

“Not a chance,” said Eric. “Could Horace be holding it back from the rest of us?”

“I wouldn’t put it past him. Are there other copies of the document?”

“Moco said there are many. Too many for Council to simply ignore. I’m supposed to affirm to him that the Council has considered it by telling him what’s in the letter.”

“So Moco knows what’s in it then! And maybe also his vampire companion and even the boy! The boy will be here at the school tomorrow for Evaluations, I assume.”

“Yes, he will. That should prove very interesting.”

“Let me know when his turn comes up; I’d like to observe.”

“What makes you think I’ll know?”

“I know you, Eric; you’ll surely observe your own children, and Ben is bound to go to school with them. I’d be willing to bet that they’ll even all be in the same test group.”

Eric sighed. “All true. I’ve already arranged to drive them to school together. Very well. But I have a feeling that there will be no need for me to telepathically inform you as to when Ben King takes his turn. Simply follow the crowd. After he disappeared for eight years a lot of folks will be curious, and they will have heard all sorts of outlandish rumors, some of them even true.”

“Yes, undoubtedly,” agreed Kroner.

“In the meantime my old friend, find that letter! It could reveal what the devil my childhood friend Alan Dale has been up to since he left Hope! There are rumors that he has been trying to establish a world-wide organization of the Unaligned that could threaten Hope, according to Grim!”

****

When he returned home, Eric discussed with his wife the fact that Ben King had been in contact with Alan Dale and Maude Phillips. “What if current events somehow lead to us encountering them also? Are you prepared for that?”

“I suppose I will have to be,” said Elizabeth.

“It could be a positive thing, I think,” said Eric. “Maybe it’s time for some reconciliation.”

“Or maybe not,” said Elizabeth. “But thanks for the heads-up.”

****

In the King house Ben went to bed early, but was having trouble falling asleep. It made sense to him that he be accepted into the Hope community as an Apprentice Wizard, but would the people at the school feel the same way?

He got up to get a glass of milk and discovered his two nocturnal guardians already in the kitchen, chowing down. Amanda was slurping what appeared to be a blood-popsicle, while Moco was gulping down a big raw cut chunk of beef. Even in his most human form, he was wolf.

“Worried are you, Cub?” Moco rumbled, between big bloody bites.

“Is it that obvious?”

Moco pointed to his nose, reminding the young Wizard of his heightened senses. He could smell Ben’s anxiety. “They’ll accept you. What other choice do they have?”

“I told the Tuttles about me meeting Maude and Alan. I also let Red Eric try to penetrate my shield. He failed, of course. That seemed to shake him up some, but he’s our friend. Others might not be as understanding.”

“Hah-Hah-Hah-Hah,” laughed Moco. “Of course they won’t, Cub, but why concern yourself about what others think of you?”

“It’s a human thing,” Amanda stated. “He can’t help himself. Wizards are all too human, my wolf. Our young Ben doesn’t have the wolf brazen zest for life or the wise vampire’s appreciation of sweet death.”

“Perhaps not, but I’ve learned much from both of you,” said Ben.

“You’re going to need everything you’ve learned to live here in Hope,” said the Wolf.

 

****

 

 

CHAPTER 6

Evaluations and School

 

When Ben and the Tuttles arrived at Hope High School in the Tuttle family SUV, they parked in reserve parking lot in the rear of the building, where a private space was reserved for each Council member.

“Don’t ever try to park back here without a Council parking pass, youngsters,” admonished Red Eric, “or you’ll have a flat tire or worse.”

“A spell is placed on all vehicles that have parking permission,” explained Elizabeth. “A matching spell surrounds the parking lot. Unauthorized vehicles are dealt with rudely, beginning with a flat tire and towing.”

Ben was curious about what else might happen, but was too preoccupied with the High School to ask. He had attended kindergarten and first grade in the nearby grade school, but never had reason to visit the High School. Aside from feeling very nervous about Evaluations, he was impressed by the building, which he already knew was of highly unusual construction for a school.

Compared with Hope elementary and middle schools, the building was huge. The square, four story High School structure included, he had been told by Ann, an enormous enclosed center courtyard. The Courtyard was a super-warded area where Wizardly capabilities could be exercised to their fullest without detection by the outside world. Hope elementary and middle schools were similarly warded, but the High School Courtyard and the hidden catacombs beneath it were many times larger.

The building, in addition to actually being a high school, was a front for Hope Academy, the pinnacle of the academic arm of Hope’s hidden Wizard sub-culture. The Courtyard was the place where advanced training was conducted for Wizards of all ages. Performance at Hope High School and Academy to a large extent determined status in Hope’s Wizard culture. In addition, the Hope Police Headquarters, Courthouse, Council Hall and other offices were located in one corner of the building known as the Civic Center, making the building complex the center of Hope Wizard government as well as education.

Acquiring and training young Wizards, along with concealing their existence from the rest of the world, was the fundamental reason for Hope’s existence. So important was entry and placement to the High School that the Council itself, aided by senior faculty members of the Academy and the High School, judged the Evaluations.

“Good morning, Master Eric, Master Elizabeth,” someone said with a stern voice, as Ben and the Tuttles emerged from the SUV.

Red Eric wasn’t surprised to see Horace Grim, Council Chairman, standing outside the school’s rear entranceway, watching intently as the Tuttles filed towards him. He was a big, handsome, athletic looking man in his early forties; with prematurely gray hair clipped short. Eric forced a smile. “Chairman Grim, good morning to you in return!”

Elizabeth smiled mechanically also and gave a little nod of her head, but was content to let Eric do the talking. Ben had a notion that she remained silent to avoid friction. Her green eyes went ablaze whenever she looked at the Chairman, whose views nearly always contrasted greatly with hers, according to Ann.

“I see you have brought Mark and Ann for Evaluations,” Grim noted with a grin. “How proud you both must be of them!” His voice was candy sweet. Ben took an immediate dislike to him.

“We certainly are,” agreed Eric.

“And this tall young stranger must be the alleged Ben King.”

“Yes sir,” said Ben, “but I really am Ben King.”

“Really?” asked Grim. The sarcasm his voice has plain.

“He is indeed, as Elizabeth and I have already officially attested,” added Eric calmly, still smiling.

“Yet you also reported that he controls no skills, despite his linage.”

“Yes and no. On quite another subject, have you read my message to you and spoken with Troy since last night?”

“Certainly, but the police could not confirm your alleged details. Perhaps your interpretation of Troy’s involvement in the unfortunate trailer park incident is flawed.”

Eric laughed. “I don’t think so. I found latent traces of Troy’s aura all around the Hortega trailer. But this is Evaluation Day. The focus is on the new crop of young Freshman Apprentice Wizards, not on the misconduct of the Seniors.”

“Alleged misconduct, Eric,” Grim responded.

“Of course!” said Eric agreeably, before his face turned cold. “Alleged misconduct that let it be understood will not be personally tolerated by me!”

“Of course not, Eric!” said Grim, with an empty smile.

With a nod of his head Red Eric turned and led Ben and his family filed past the Chairman and inside. “Don’t enter this door unless you’re with a Council member, or you’ll trip on the stairs,” he noted to the teens, as he held the door for them and his wife. “You’ll typically be walking to school and using the front doors with the other students.”

“What stairs?” Mark asked. “I don’t see any stairs!”

“There are none,” said Ben, who was confident that he would see through any attempt to hide them.

“Exactly,” Mark’s mother added. “If you see stairs you’ll know you’re in for trouble. Stairs would mean that you’ve been identified as an intruder and are about to be caged up for the police to take care of.” Then she spoke privately to Eric, telepathically. “HORACE IS UP TO SOMETHING,” she predicted. “I HATE THAT MAN!”

As she spoke, Grim entered the building behind them, and then disappeared with a sharp clap of noise as he teleported himself elsewhere.

“HORACE IS ALWAYS UP TO SOMETHING,” Eric agreed. “BUT I USUALLY HAVE SOME TRICKS UP MY SLEEVE TOO.”

“TRUE!” Elizabeth gave him a big smile in return.

Ben liked being around the Tuttles; they obviously all cared about each other immensely, and were better people for it, like Amanda and the Wolf, and like his parents had been. He shouldn’t be clandestinely listening into private conversations though. “I’m sorry; I should have explained before now that besides hearing all telepathic exchanges I also break any encoding. It’s something else that I can’t control. I can’t send telepathic messages but I do hear and understand them. All of them.”

“Even when encoded?” said Elizabeth. “BUT THE TALKS BETWEEN ERIC AND MYSELF ARE BOTH CLOAKED AND ENCODED TO ONLY BE HEARD BY US!”

Ben shrugged. “I’m sorry, but cloaking and secret coding both don’t matter, and I can’t control it. Just thought I’d let you know.”

“Thanks for the heads-up, Ben,” said Red Eric, with an amused chuckle.

Being met at the back door by the most powerful man in Hope was only the first hint to them that Ben would cause a stir. When they stepped through a doorway and entered a school hallway crowded with prospective students, students, and teachers, a flurry of gawking, hushed talk, and pointing ensued.

“That’s him!” Ben heard several people say excitedly. “They say he was raised by wolves,” said another. “But he doesn’t look like an elf,” said a Female voice behind him, “he looks kind of cute.” Ben glanced around to see who had said that but couldn’t tell who it was, there were so many girls staring at him, many of them smiling! They might have said it silently; in crowd situations it wasn’t easy for him to distinguish between voice and telepathy.

“You’re a hit already,” Mark told him. “Come on; let’s get in line for Evaluations.”

Ahead of them in the hallway the end of a line was continuing to form behind a couple of dozen other teens. Mark and Ann recognized most of them as ex-middle-school classmates, but they were all essentially strangers to Ben.

“We adults leave you here,” Eric told the trio. “We’ll see you inside.”

“Good luck,” added Elizabeth, as the two Master Wizards walked around the line and into the Courtyard to which it led.

“Hey! Mark, Ann!” said a small boy directly in front of them in line, as he reached out and shook their hands. “How’s it going?”

“OK, Jim. You remember Ben?”

“A little bit. That was a long time ago.”

“I remember you,” Ben said. “You’re Jim Nater. Your older sister had that cool snake collection, and you had an ant farm.”

“Hey, that’s right! Now I have the nifty snakes and my sister collects worthless boys. Is what they say about you true?”

“Probably some of it.”

“Did you really live with elves?”

Ben shrugged. Many other kids had by now realized who he was, and had crowded closer. “Just with one elf for about a year; but he was a Gaou.”

“A what?”

“A Master Wizard, in Earth terms. He was really cool. He had unbelievably huge magic forests and gardens full of alien plants over a mile tall and the craziest animals ever! I even once encountered a real dragon!”

“You believe that one and I have a bridge to sell you,” said one of the students that had gathered around them to listen. He was a big, mean looking boy, obviously an upper classman. Several of the other students that had gathered, sensing trouble, moved away as the big muscular boy stepped close to stand next to Ben.

“Believe what you wish,” Ben replied, with a shrug.

“Well, I say you made all that crap up,” continued the boy. “I say you’re a liar.” He stepped right in front of Ben, and bent down several inches to be face to be face with the smaller boy, while unceremoniously bumping Jim against the wall in the process.

“I’m not, but you’re entitled to your opinions,” said Ben, calmly. Ben suddenly realized that this fellow was one of Troy’s gang, the same bunch that had gotten Mark in trouble and terrorized the Hortegas. “Isn’t your name John Dwight? I seem to remember you. You still hanging out with Troy and Frank?”

“None of your damn business, shrimp! I’ll ask the questions!” John’s face turned red, he was so steamed.

“Ask away, but I also think that you owe Jim here an apology.”

“You stupid big-mouth twerp!” John said, as he reached out with two big hands to grab Ben by the shirt collar. His hands weren’t able to quite reach him, however; they slid off him as though he were slippery as ice. “What the hell!” he swore. “You’re shielding, aren’t you! That’s breaking the law!”

“Sorry. It’s involuntary. Be careful, I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.”

“Hurt myself, hell!” he roared. “I have powers too!” With that, he took a round-house swing at Ben’s stomach. His fist rebounded off of Ben, who never even flinched, and he was thrown back sprawling to the floor. Fortunately the other kids had fallen back far enough to not be bowled over by his sliding body.

Several kids laughed; a few applauded.

John, clearly unhappy, pulled himself up and held his crushed right hand, with obvious pain and anger.

“What’s going on here?” asked a commanding voice. A tiny gray-haired old lady strode towards the site of the scuffle from the direction of the Courtyard. “John Dwight, what a surprise. Picking on freshmen again this year?”

“I, ah, slipped and fell,” John muttered through clenched teeth.

“So I noticed. That hand is broken. Must hurt. Report to Councilman Roberts immediately in the Courtyard to get yourself fixed up and assist in the Evaluations. Tell him that I sent you to help with the testing.”

John glared at Ben hatefully before sulking off towards the Courtyard.

The stern, tiny lady next turned her attention to Ben. “I don’t believe that I know you, but judging from the red-headed Tuttle company you keep, am I right in assuming that you are the infamous Ben King?”

“Yes Ma’am, I am.”

“I am Vice-Principle Sharp. I can’t sense you at all, Mr. King. Surely you know that cloaking outside the Courtyard isn’t permitted?”

“I’m sorry; I have no control over it. I’m hoping to learn how to do that at school, Ma’am.”

“I see. And what happened just now to Mr. Dwight?”

“He accidentally sort of ran into me, I guess, and hurt himself against my shielding.”

“Your shielding?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Which I suppose is also involuntary?”

“Yes Ma’am it is. I’m sorry.”

“I see. Well, isn’t that interesting! Very interesting,” she concluded, showing the slightest hint of a smile before turning her attention to Jim. “Mr. Nater, you’re last in the current group. Report at once to the Entry Table.”

“Yes, Vice Principle,” said Jim, as he hurried off to the Courtyard entrance. During the ruckus, the entire line of freshmen in front of Jim had apparently already been admitted to the Courtyard for Evaluation.

Sharp turned back to Ben and the Tuttles. “You three hellions try to stay out of trouble,” she ordered, before marching off into the Courtyard.

“Wow, she’s a hellion herself!” said Mark.

“I’ll say,” said Ann. “But I think she likes you, Ben.”

“Really?”

“Let’s watch the Evaluations,” said Mark, as they moved forward to stand in the doorway to the Courtyard.

“Wow!” it was Ben’s turn to say, as he got his first good look at the famed Hope Courtyard. It was a huge enclosed space that consisted largely of a baseball-football-track area surrounded by bleachers full of people, next to a second open area that featured several tennis and basket-ball courts and other various sports-equipped spaces. Well-trimmed green grass covered most of the ground. High above, an enormous domed glass ceiling provided light as well as security from scrutiny from above. The huge four-story High School and Civic Center building completely surrounded the open Courtyard.

More interesting than the traditional sports equipment however, was the Evaluation event itself. Widely dispersed within the area surrounded by bleachers were ten judging tables, and around each sat several adults. Each table featured a large sign with a single identifying capital letter. In front of each stood the boy or girl being evaluated.

As Ben watched, he saw some of them fade slightly for a moment. From experience he knew that they were cloaking, but due to his own abilities he could still see them perfectly. A couple of kids floated a few feet above the ground, demonstrating telekinetic levitation abilities. Other objects of various sizes also were levitated by the test subjects. A pile of wood was set ablaze at one location, and Ben watched with interest as the flames were suddenly extinguished, also presumably by the boy being evaluated. Ben could do many such things before the attack eight years ago, now he could do none of them. “They all seem to be going through mostly the same routines,” he observed.

“It’s the standard stuff we were coached on in grade school,” explained Ann. “We learned about all twenty-seven categories of Powers.”

“Who are all the on-lookers?” Ben asked. The bleachers were half full of both adults and students: several hundred people in total.

“The adults are mostly parents and curious teachers,” said Mark.

“Plus students like Troy and his buddies that want to size up the new students,” added Ann. “It’s a day off for those not being evaluated, but a lot of upper-classmen come in for the show.”

There was a round of laughter and snickers from some of the onlookers when a boy who had been levitating ten feet above ground suddenly plummeted to the grass.

“Quiet in the stands,” admonished Vice-Principle Sharp’s voice loudly. Ben couldn’t tell if her announcement had been enhanced by magic or by conventional means, but the crowd hushed considerably. A large blonde boy still stood pointing and laughing from the bleachers.

“That’s Troy,” Mark said.

“Figures,” said Ben. “He’s grown from a small jerk into a very big one.”

The fallen boy gamely picked himself up and limped to stand before his judges’ table with head drooping. It was Jim, Ben realized. Despite his unfortunate tumble, the judges must have told him something positive, because he whooped joyfully, and bounced off to sit in the stands, obviously very happy.

Ben noticed that the other nine test subjects were also either exiting the Courtyard completely or cheerfully moving to the viewing stands to sit near Jim, leaving their bored looking judges to stand up and stretch or to walk towards the Entry Table.

“Next ten applicants report to the Entry Table,” announced Vice-Principle Sharp. She sat at a table that was near the entrance where Ben and the others stood. A large sign identified it to be the Entry Table. Four other adults sat with her, working with notebooks stuffed thick with Evaluation related information. Judges walked from each of the judging tables to turn in sheets of paper to them.

Near the Vice Principle was what looked like a large game-show apparatus: an upright spinning wheel a full two meters in diameter!

There was a bit of confusion as the kids in line determined who the next ten test subjects were, then the ten filed nervously towards the Entry Table, including Ben, Mark, and Ann.

Ann was first to stand before the table.

“Name,” barked Vice Principle Sharp, though she obviously knew who Ann was.

“Ann Marie Tuttle,” Ann answered.

“Very well. Spin the wheel so that it goes around at least twice.”

Ann pulled down on it hard enough for it to spin a dozen times.

“Professor Hart, Table A,” Sharp announced in her intercom voice, when the wheel finally stopped. In response a short rotund man stood up from distant Judging Table C and ambled towards Table A.

In the meantime the spinning wheel, which was covered with dozens of names, seemed to blur for a moment as Hart’s name disappeared. Several of the teens muttered their surprise. It made sense, Ben reasoned, to remove the chosen judge’s name from the wheel, but he didn’t know how the spell to do it was being done.

“Spin again child, we don’t have all day,” Sharp told Ann, who had been staring at the wheel, transfixed.

“Yes-um,” Ann replied, as she spun again.

“Council Member Gribbins, Table A,” Sharp announced. Gribins was a friend of her father, Ann knew.

After her three judges had been selected, Ann also walked to Table A. Mark’s judges were similarly chosen and he went to Table F. Then it was Ben’s turn.

“Benjamin Samuel King,” Ben announced. Ben pushed the wheel, and was surprised when it seemed to spin longer than expected before stopping. “Council Chairman Horace Grim, Table C,” Sharp announced, eyebrows raised.

Ben looked at Table C and saw that the stern Chairman was already sitting there!

“Very interesting,” Sharp noted, as several onlookers shook their heads. “Spin again, young man.”

This time the wheel came to an abruptly odd stop after only two rotations. “Councilman Eric Tuttle, Table C,” Sharp announced.

Ben looked towards Table C in time to catch Red Eric in the act of already sitting down. There were more murmurs from the onlookers.

“Much too interesting,” Sharp noted.

On Ben’s third spin the wheel kept going and going, though he hadn’t put much effort into spinning it. When it stopped, Ben noted that all the names on the wheel were exactly the same! They all said Vice Principle Sharp!

“Vice Principle Sharp report to Table C, and Professor Jenkins report to the Entry Table,” Sharp announced, to a chorus of astonished mutterings. Soon she and Ben were walking together to Table C. “You may be some sort of political issue for some, young man, but I’ll see to it that you get an absolutely fair Evaluation.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Ben said gratefully.

“Horace, Eric,” Sharp acknowledged the two Master Wizards, as they reached the judging table. The Vice Principle made a point of squeezing her seat between that of the two other judges. “I’ll preside,” she announced.

“No Martha,” protested Chairman Grim, “the first chosen judge is to preside, according to the rules.”

“True, Horace,” Sharp countered, “but the first chosen is also supposed to be a school faculty member. Somehow that didn’t happen until the third spin. I am the first chosen school person.”

“I am Council Chairman,” Grim retorted.

“And I am this year’s Evaluations Chairman,” Sharp replied. “As such I can have any Judge replaced. I’ve already essentially done one replacement by making myself a judge. Don’t tempt me to replace another.”

“The Evaluations Chairman can also be replaced,” Grim said coldly.

“Only by a unanimous vote of the full Council, including myself,” noted Red Eric. “That isn’t going to happen. Besides, I don’t think we want a full investigation of the selections that have already occurred, do we Chairman? We waste time. Let’s get on with it, shall we?”

Grim shrugged, but nodded his head.

“Good,” said Sharp, as she turned to Ben. “CAN YOU TELEPATH, BENJAMIN?” she asked silently.

“I can hear all telepaths but cannot send signals since I was six,” Ben replied.

“That’s one point at best,” said Grim.

“More like three,” said Eric. “He reads strongly cloaked and encoded communications. I can attest to that.”

“I’m doing the scoring,” said Sharp. “We’ll split the difference and give him two. Can you move things through telekinesis?”

“No Ma’am, not since I was six.”

“Hah!” Grim snorted. “Zero points. You’re wasting our time. He is unqualified to be an Apprentice Wizard.”

“Can you cloak, Ben?” Sharp asked.

“I partly cloak all the time, 24-7,” Ben said, “but I can’t control it.”

“He has to control it for it to count,” said Grim.

“He merely has to do it himself for it to count,” corrected Eric. “Go ahead and try to read the boy, Horace. Seeing through cloaking is one of my specialties and I couldn’t do it.”

“Maybe you simply didn’t try heard enough,” Grim said. “Very well, you two can monitor.” With that he fixed his dark stare on Ben.

Ben stared back at the Chairman calmly. He had withstood attempted probes before, by Wizards, by an elf, and probably by a Demon. He wasn’t at all worried. Seconds went by slowly, while as far as Ben could tell, nothing at all was happening, even though all the judges seemed to be focused on him. He felt somewhat uncomfortable, being stared at that way, but otherwise felt no probing. “And I can see through anyone else’s cloaking too,” he said at last, breaking the silence.

“Enough,” announced Sharp, and all three Wizards visibly relaxed.

“It has to be a permanent spell!” said Grim. “I couldn’t read anything at all of him!” He sounded both surprised and dazed.

“I detect no externally wrought spell or other form of outside interference,” said the Vice Principle. “It is as the boy says, he’s doing it himself.” With that she faded slightly for a moment, then walked around the table and approached Ben as if to shake his hand. Ben could see through her cloaking, and reached out to shake her hand in response.

“Amazing,” she muttered, as she made herself visible to the others and returned to her seat. “Young man, were you even aware of the Chairman’s probing?”

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t usually feel it when someone probes or attacks me,” Ben replied.

“Attack? You claim to shield also?” Grim asked in surprise.

“Yes sir,” Ben said.

“I see you haven’t bothered to read my reports, Horace,” said Red Eric.

“He should be attacked as a test,” said Grim.

“Chairman,” said the Vice Principle, “you’re still tired from probing. I should attack and Eric should monitor.”

“I disagree,” said the Chairman. “You are only level three in attacking, as I recall. I propose that Bruger carry out the attack.”

“That’s absurd,” said Eric. “Carl Bruger is our strongest Attack Wizard, and Ben’s only a fourteen year old boy.”

“That’s OK,” Ben said, “it won’t make any difference.”

“Who has attacked you before, Ben?” Sharp asked.

“Besides Eric several Unaligned Wizards have attacked me, and a Master Wizard elf.”

“Really?” Grim asked. “Then being attacked by a mere Hope Wizard should be a small matter to you.”

“I just don’t want to hurt anybody,” Ben responded. “They should be careful not to hurt themselves when they attack me.”

“Ha!” said Grim.

“Very well then,” said Sharp, “I’ve summoned Bruger. Eric, you and I will both monitor. Ben, come here with me.”

She walked Ben to a clear area at the center of the field, where they were met by Fred Kroner, Council Secretariat and School Superintendent and Principal. “You need my help, Martha?”

Sharp nodded. “I want you to form a containment area that protects the onlookers and the building. Bruger is attacking Ben King, monitored by myself and Eric.”

“Bruger!” muttered Kroner, astonished.

“Reporting, Vice Principle,” said a young man as big and strong looking as Moco, who had also just arrived on the scene. Unlike the dark-haired, brooding werewolf, this man was blond and cheerful looking, and looked to be in his late twenties. He wore, of all things, metallic armor, as though he had just been jousting in some sort of medieval tournament.

“Ah, Carl Bruger,” said the diminutive Sharp. “I want you to attack young Ben King, to test his shielding strength. Red Eric and I will monitor.”

“Ben King?” said the big man, as he looked down at Ben in astonishment. “You’re the famous returned-from-the-dead Ben King?”

“Yes sir I am Ben King,” Ben replied. “Though I was never dead.”

“Fantastic!” Bruger said, with a wide smile. His face sobered abruptly a few seconds later when Eric told him telepathically that the boy was an orphan. “I suggest that Sam Putt also assist in monitoring. He knows my attack technique and is the most experienced safety monitor in Hope.”

“Of course,” agreed Sharp. “Have him bring your weapons.”

“Try using your famous hammer,” said Grim.

“My attack hammer!” Bruger said in astonishment. “That’s my most destructive weapon! Well, now, that should be a crowd pleaser, and we seem to be the only game in town.”

Looking around, Ben noticed that all the other evaluations of his round had already been completed. Indeed, looking into the stands he saw Ann and Mark sitting up-front, with Moco sitting nearby! If Ben was surprised to see the normally nocturnal werewolf observing, he was even more surprised to see a slimmer figure sitting next to him, covered almost totally by her black raincoat. Amanda seldom ventured out in the daytime, but she seemed to be tolerating this brightening summer day. She even waved a black-gloved hand at him!

Shortly another big man in armor entered the stadium area and approached Table C. He was laden with weapons attached to his armor, some primitive looking, some futuristic looking. In his right hand he carried a huge hammer, in his left he carried a long spear. Strapped to his back was an immense bow and a quiver of over-sized arrows, as well as what looked like some sort of rocket launcher. At his waist was a sword in its scabbard. Finally, strapped to his left arm was a large oval-shaped metallic shield. As he got closer, it became apparent that every inch of the man’s heavily warded shield and body armor were battered and notched by blows.

“Ah, Vice Principle, and Chairman Grim and Councilmen/Principle Kroner as well!” he said jovially. “Have you academics decided at last to joust with me and the lad? Red Eric I am not surprised to see!” In one smooth motion he drove the spear into the ground, and with his now free left hand he slapped Bruger playfully on the back, causing a resounding clanking sound that reverberated throughout the Courtyard.

“No Sam, not today,” said Bruger with a laugh. “They want me to test this young lad’s shielding with my hammer, and you to help monitor.” He gestured towards Ben. “Sam, this youngster is none other than Ben King!”

“Ben King!” he said in astonishment as he sized up the teenager. “Wonders never cease! My pleasure, youngster! I remember well your folks! They were powerful Wizards and good people!” He reached out and shook hands with Ben. “But surely, you folks can’t be serious about Bruger’s hammer? Besides striking with tons of force, Carl adds to it a big plasma blast several thousands of degrees in temperature.”

“It’s OK,” said Ben. “I’ve been hit by bigger attack hammers than that.”

“Oh really?” said Bruger. “Well just in case, would you mind using Sam’s physical shield?”

Sam handed his battered metal shield to Ben, but it was so heavy that Ben had to drop it to the ground.

“Thanks, but I don’t need it,” Ben said.

“He has no strength enhancement at all along with his shielding?” asked Bruger, clearly more concerned than ever.

“None,” said Ben. “I’ve never needed any.”

“Let’s get started then,” said Sharp. “We still have at least two more rounds of applicants to evaluate after this one.”

The others stood away from Ben and Bruger. “OK, then the big man said, let’s start without the hammer.” He stepped towards Ben and gently swung a huge armor-gloved fist at his shoulder.

He expected to soundly knock Ben off his feet. He was astonished when his fist bounced off the boy harmlessly.

“Be careful you don’t hurt yourself, Sir,” implored Ben.

He swung harder next time, and was nearly knocked down by the recoil, without a reaction from Ben. “I’ll be!” he exclaimed. “He’s strongly shielded, all right! Give me the hammer, Sam.”

As Bruger retrieved the huge hammer from Sam, teens in the audience began to chant “Hammer! Hammer! Hammer!” It was the first time that Ben had taken a good look at the weapon. It appeared to be a single piece of solid steel, both handle and head. The head alone must have weighed at least fifty pounds. Sam must have been using powerful magic strength augmentation to carry it at all. Bruger carried it as if it was weightless!

With the hammer Bruger was again cautious, attempting first a gentle tap against Ben’s shoulder. It bounced off, along with two additional successively stronger blows. Each blow now came with a bright flash of lightning that shook the entire Courtyard.

Each time Ben was completely unaffected, while Bruger and his hammer were violently repelled. The crowd cheered.

“Is the kid doing all of it?” Bruger asked Sam.

“Totally,” said Sam. “It’s strong shielding all right!”

“Don’t worry;” Red Eric added. “Sam and I will protect him if needed. Swing away!”

Bruger shrugged, and then wound up to deliver a truly massive blow. Tension peaked. The crowd hushed. But then he lowered the hammer, shaking his head. “I can’t try to clobber a skinny kid with my hammer!” he complained. A few kids in the crowd booed, but Vice Principle Sharp smiled and nodded in understanding.

Ben noticed Red Eric waving at him with his little finger. “Don’t worry,” Ben said, as he held out his left arm, and extended his left little finger. “Take a swing at only my finger. But be careful nobody gets hurt.”

Bruger again lifted the immense hammer. No longer worried about seriously hurting Ben, he swung with all his might at the boy’s finger.

The thunderous explosion that followed totally engulfed both Ben and Bruger. Sam and Eric, who had been focused on protecting Ben if they had to, barely switched tactics in time to help Kroner catch bits of hammer that shot out in all directions, threatening themselves and other onlookers, as well as Bruger.

As the smoke cleared the crowd was astonished to see Ben still standing as he had before the blow, with little finger undamaged. Poor Bruger lay on the ground, holding a few inches of shattered hammer handle in his hand. Ben was relieved when with effort, the big man sat up, then arose shakily to his feet, assisted by Sam.

The Wolf was laughing so loud that Ben could hear him over the sound of the cheering crowd.

“I’ll be damned!” said Bruger.

“Have we all seen enough?” asked Red Eric of his fellow judges, when the excitement had died down. “That’s level four-plus shielding! I vote for his admittance.”

“The boy has impossible power!” said Grim, shaking his head. “I don’t see how we can allow him to live in Hope at all, much less attend school. He must be Demon possessed, or something equally dangerous.”

“You’re the one that has declared that Demons don’t exist,” said Red Eric. “Ben’s ability is totally defensive. You can’t deport someone for defending themselves!” He turned to Vice Principle Sharp. “Well, Martha? Yours is the deciding vote.”

Sharp shook her head. “I don’t know. I must confess that I share some of the same concerns as Horace.”

“Would you have me return the boy to the Unaligned then, Vice Principle?” said a deep voice that Ben knew very well. Moco strode to stand next to Ben and rest a big hairy hand on each of his shoulders. “We could pack up and be gone from Hope by tomorrow morning. Personally that would suit me just fine.”

“This is Wizard business, werewolf, not yours,” said Grim, caustically. “Why did you bring the boy back, anyway?”

“This is my business, and that makes it his, as he is my legal guardian,” said Ben. “I have powers and therefore have every right to be here. We came here because I wanted to come here. My foster father Moco brought me, even though he wasn’t sure it was a good idea. You see, he doesn’t trust most Wizards, any more than he trusts anyone else. That’s what keeps a wolf alive among the Unaligned and the Norms. But I came here to learn how to regain control of my talents as an Apprentice Wizard of Hope. Give me a chance to be one; that’s all that I ask.”

Sharp nodded in agreement. “You and the Wolf have made some excellent points, young Ben. You can’t be allowed to become an Unaligned Wizard and possibly turn Rogue. You’ll be placed in the Apprentice Wizard classes with your friends, but we’ll make up a special course of study for you, and you’ll be my special personal project. Welcome to Hope High, Ben King! Report tomorrow.” With that she marched off towards the Entry Table, anxious to get Evaluations back on schedule.

“Good to see you again, Wolf,” Sam told Moco, as he and Ben turned towards the stands, followed by Ann, Mark and Elizabeth. “Come back to the Courtyard sometime; I miss our workouts.”

“Maybe, Sam,” said the Wolf. He smiled, exposing sharp canines, though it was his most human look. “I could use a little workout myself. Maybe I could have a session with your young protégé.” He nodded towards Bruger, who was by now high in the stands, grinning and signing autographs as the Evaluations continued.

Sam shrugged. “Maybe. Bruger moved to Hope from Europe four years ago. Can you imagine growing up without even knowing anyone else with powers? He became my apprentice. The kid’s OK, he just gets a little full of himself sometimes. And he’s damn near as good at attack as me! See you around, Wolf.”

“You’re in, Ben!” said Mark, as he suddenly grabbed one of Ben’s hands to pull him towards the stands where people were still clapping and cheering.

“That was totally awesome, Cub,” a grinning Ann told Ben, as she took his other hand.

“Everyone was watching!” added Mark. “You’re famous! A legend!”

“But I didn’t get to watch you guys!” said Ben. “What happened?”

“I blew through everything, of course,” Ann replied, beaming, “but Mark was really the big hit!”

“Only because I did a couple of things you taught me,” he told his sister.

“What things?” Ben asked.

“Things that I fear might come in handy in your futures, Cubs,” said Moco, mysteriously, from behind them. “Mark put out a big fire, and he healed a kid with a badly busted up hand. Level 3-plus healing.”

“Not John Dwight!” Ben exclaimed.

“Yep, John Dwight,” Mark admitted, as they all broke into laughter. As they sat in the stands the crowd remained focused on Ben, pointing and whispering.

The crowd gradually refocused on Vice Principle Sharp, who after dealing with the final applicants stepped in front of the stands and waved her arms to get everyone’s attention. “Congratulations, new Apprentice Wizards of Hope!” her magically enhanced voice thundered! The happy crowd cheered and cheered, then noisily dispersed. Evaluations were over! School would start tomorrow!

****

The next few days after Evaluations were busy ones for the teen trio, especially for Ben. The subject matter of his classes presented no difficulty. His mostly home-schooled academic background matched up well with that of his new peers, so that he felt he would be able to meet the challenges posed by his ‘normal’ academic classes.

The social aspects of school were more challenging. Most classes contained about half ‘normal’ Norm kids and about half Apprentice Wizards like himself and the Tuttles. For the most part Ben couldn’t even tell which kids had powers and which didn’t. This suited him, as besides being home-schooled he was also used to going to schools with almost all Norms.

In part due to the popularity of Ann and Mark, but mostly because of his own notoriety and openly friendly attitude, Ben soon made many friends among both Apprentice Wizards and everyone else including Norms.

There were a few Apprentice Wizards that blatantly flaunted their status. They looked down their noses at many of the other kids, particularly the Norms, which seriously annoyed Ben. In time, when they became upper classmen, these irritating kids would likely fill the anti-social niche that Troy and his gang now currently filled. However he suspected that the loss of Troy and his crew could only be an improvement! Unfortunately after Troy graduated from High School he would probably still be around in some capacity, but at least he would no longer haunt the High School.

There were a few obvious werewolf and vampire kids, and that helped Ben feel more at home since he had been a close friend to many weres and vamps among the Unaligned, though here they were looked down on by many of the more talented Apprentice Wizards. The only good thing about all the racial tensions was that skin color and ethnic differences were mostly ignored because they were trivial by comparison. The powers that people had or didn’t have were regarded as far more important than skin color or differences in ethnic background.

Life at Hope High School was much different than living among the Unaligned, and there were Hope cultural Norms that Ben was largely ignorant of. Without Ann and Mark, cultural adjustments would have been much more of a problem for Ben. Because they all attended the same classes, the twins helped Ben with several situations, acting as an interface between Ben and others, and explaining to Ben what was expected of him.

To Mark’s relief, Troy and his buddies ignored the teen trio. Ben hardly even saw any of them, leading Ann to suggest that they feared Ben, but Mark knew them better than that. “They’ll come up with some sort of nasty scheme, I guarantee it,” he predicted.

Each day two hours of magic training was given to the Apprentice Wizards in the Courtyard. For all practical purposes Ben had no magic powers that he could control, such that nothing was expected of him. Sessions were taught by a rotating set of teachers. None of them seemed to know what to do with Ben. As a result his daily sessions at the Courtyard weren’t difficult for him, but that was the problem. He was getting nowhere.

The other Apprentice Wizards were initially a bit stand-offish with Ben on the Courtyard, particularly the ones that had witnessed his awesome Evaluation performance. They quickly realized however, that the only powers he had were defensive ones, and not under his control. They also appreciated the fact that Ben opposed Troy and his bully friends. Ben could only watch with envy the Wizardly magic efforts of his classmates while they for the most part ignored him. As a child he could do most of the things they did, and he greatly missed being able to do them now. He missed flying, cloaking, teleporting, and other abilities.

Fortunately, Ann and Mark were immensely popular, and much of that soon extended to Ben. Soon many students clustered around Ben whenever they could, asking him again and again about sprites, elves and the Unaligned. Ben was particularly happy to meet several Apprentice Wizard students representing each grade level who were part of a student alliance that protected both Apprentice Wizards and Norms from bullies such as Troy and his buddies.

“It’s good that you protect against bullies,” Ben told them, “but Demons and Evil are real and someday soon you may have to face up to them. It might take all available Wizards including Apprentices to protect Hope.” They all liked Ben and his stories, but didn’t know what to make of his insistence on the reality of Demons and Evil. Most had been told many times that Demons and Evil didn’t exist.

Under the circumstances, Ben felt that he was adapting fairly well to living in Hope. Besides, his own adjustment experiences made him particularly adept at helping young Rick Hortega adjust to the first grade class that met next door to Hope High in the elementary school. Elementary school kids were also intrigued by Ben’s past experiences, and followed him around also asking a hundred questions.

Rick Hortega astonished his older friends by immediately making an impact at the Elementary School level. A natural leader and unusually strong in Wizard powers for so young a child, he immediately sought the stronger-powered students, bonded with them, and formed an after-school club that promised to be on guard against evil including Evil. “We call ourselves Junior Apprentices,” Rick told his older friends. “If you official Apprentices ever need us, call for us and we will add our powers to yours. I have found that I can add the powers of my friends to my own.”

“Adding powers together sounds like cloistering,” said Ann. “That’s a fifth level ability and strictly forbidden.”

“But I can do it!” said Rick, shrugging his small shoulders, “and I mean no harm by it. There is no logic to banning it!”

“Wow! You remind me of Ben when he was your age,” said Ann. “Glad you’re on our side!”

“Maybe I saved Troy from you instead of the other way around,” said Mark.

“Not even close,” said Rick.

“What you can do sounds super useful to me,” said Ben, “even if it’s forbidden. It’s a prized ability among the Unaligned and elves. Keep it to yourself for now though, and we’ll carefully feel out Eric and Sharp on the subject. But if we have to face Demons I think you should just stay out of the way. There must be other things you can do to help us. Think about it. You’re smart; I’m sure you’ll come up with something useful besides going head-to-head with Demons.”

Rick took Ben to meet with his young Junior Apprentice Wizard group, where he was hailed as a hero and assailed with questions. These kids had no problem believing in Demons and Evil; perhaps because they hadn’t yet been strongly indoctrinated to the contrary. Ben promised to call on them if they were needed, though he couldn’t imagine circumstances under which he would do so.

The adult Hortegas, to the surprise of some, quickly became close friends of the Wolf and his vampire wife. Jose was a plumber and Guinevere was a hair dresser, and both were soon in great demand. The Wolf resumed doing landscaping and odd jobs around Hope, and collaborated with Jose on projects. Amanda as it turned out was also a hairdresser, and collaborated with Guinevere. There was a blue-collar attitude that they all shared that helped bring them together. Plus none of them were Wizards and all felt a little out of place in Hope.

****

After two weeks of school, Ben was becoming impatient. He was adapting well socially and academically, but he had still gotten no serious help with his problem. He had not necessarily expected such efforts to be successful, but he had expected attempts to at least occur. He was beginning to fear that Vice Principle Sharp had forgotten her pledge to give him special attention, when she finally appeared at a Courtyard session and pulled him aside to a quiet, unused grassy area.

“You’ve had sufficient time now to adjust to your surroundings Mr. King, I should think,” she stated.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Sit,” she said, and the two of them sat down in grass that was too healthy not to have been helped along by spells. “We might as well start with a review of what hasn’t worked. I understand that Rogue Wizards have already tried to solve your control problem.”

“Yes.”

“What did they do?”

Ben shrugged. “They tried different things. They bounced dozens of spells off of me, and in the end gave up and said it would be up to me to fix myself. They put me in different sorts of situations and tried to get me to shut off my shields or do other magic. They had me relax sometimes, and then other times they put me under stress. They talked to me in my sleep, and they yelled at me when I was awake. They put me in hot and cold rooms. They put me in water and snow. Nothing really bothered me much because of my shielding.”

“Did they have you stand on your head?” the Vice principle asked.

“Yes.”

“I was kidding.”

“I wasn’t. The werewolf and vampire communities had a go at me too.”

“Vampires sometimes have strong empathic and hypnotic powers, and werewolves shape shift to forms with increased strength, but what would they know of Wizard magic?” Sharp asked.

“Oh, they have a much wider assortment of skills than that, especially the vampires.”

“Really!”

“But they couldn’t help either.”

“Not surprising.”

“There was one vampire psychologist that worked hard on my problem for three years. He was convinced that the Demon attack caused traumatic shock, and that if I could remember more about the attack experience I might be OK.”

“But you can’t remember much about the incident?”

“Bits and pieces only. If Sky hadn’t happened along and seen some of it I would know and remember far less.”

“Sky? Is that the name of the sprite that you say saved you?”

“It’s the name of the sprite that DID save me.”

“And the elf’s name is Soone? That name appears in our legends of elves going back three centuries. An elf named Soone helped found the Wizard town of Hope, it is said.”

“Yes. That’s how he learned English. He tried to help me with my magic also, of course, but got no further than the others.”

“Why would you think that we could help you, if these others couldn’t?”

Ben shrugged. “What else can I try?”

“Fair enough. Well, I must say, your case is intriguing, whether or not we believe the more fantastic parts of your story. Our Wizards on watch duty did report detecting the presence of a powerful entity behind your house the day you moved back. They didn’t respond quickly enough to identify what it was. Do you know anything about that?”

“That was just a short visit by Sky.”

“Your sprite friend?”

“Yes, ma’am. That was reported to the Council through the Tuttles.”

“Interesting; I didn’t hear that part. The Council doesn’t pass on everything that they know, especially in recent years.”

“Well, I’m not hiding anything. I don’t figure that I’d get anywhere here by doing that.”

“That is a naïve but laudable viewpoint, Benjamin King. Well, now that I understand better I’ll do what I can for you.” She stood up. “I’ll first get you looked at by school staff folks that help youngsters with problems that are somewhat similar to yours, and I’ll be visiting you again myself very soon.”

“One more thing you should know about me, ma’am.”

“Yes?”

“I didn’t just come back here to get myself fixed up. I came to find the Demon.”

“The one that you say attacked you eight years ago?”

“The one that Sky saw kill my parents eight years ago.”

“I see. Are you saying that there is a Demon here in Hope somewhere?”

“I’m saying that if there is, I’ll find them.”

“If you do, then what?”

“I’ll kill it, somehow.”

“Interesting. The official Council view is that Demons don’t exist, and if they did they wouldn’t be regarded to be alive. If they do exist they haven’t been seen in Hope for over a century and have become as irrelevant as elves.”

“Humans would all be long dead if it weren’t for elves watching over us. But there was a Demon in my backyard eight years ago. Full of Evil.”

“So you say. I believe you believe that, but I’m not sure that I do.” She also didn’t share the Council’s certainty that Demons and Evil didn’t exist. That notion had been mostly pushed in Council by the Grim family, over the objections of her boss and close friend Fredrick Kroner.

Over several days Ben was interviewed repeatedly by the school psychologist, the school doctor, and the school counselor. They reported to Vice Principle Sharp that they had found no serious problem in Ben, other than his obvious lack of control over his powers, and a problem with distinguishing reality from fantasy as far as elves, Demons and Evil were concerned. He had no Norm learning disabilities; only severe disabilities with regard to learning magic.

Ben also had long sessions with Sharp about his magic skills or lack thereof. During one of those he mentioned his linkage spell with Ann. “That could be very significant,” she insisted.

“But it’s mostly blocked!” Ben retorted. “We can’t share feelings like we used to!”

“But in part it isn’t blocked. It could be a breach in your otherwise totally blocked skills that could be exploited to get back other skills. Maybe attacking you won’t break down or bypass whatever is blocking your skills, but communicating with Ann might!”

Ben doubted it. Since returning to Hope he had tried dozens of times to strengthen his link with Ann but failed.

Is this all that his return to Hope would amount to, Ben wondered? He seemed to be getting nowhere. Perhaps he would have been better off remaining with the Unaligned.

 

****

 

 

CHAPTER 7

Scheming Demons

 

In the Elf High Council, Soone was making no headway at all.

“Of course we will all miss your wonderful forests and gardens if they die, Gaou Soone, but surely you exaggerate their importance,” Council Leader Hemsope said. “And surely you exaggerate your inability to combat any problems. You are by far the most skilled among us when it comes to gardens. The Council reasserts its confidence in your ability to address any such problems.”

Soone needed their help, not their confidence. He took a deep breath and tried to re-energize himself for further argument. After days of battling plague after unnatural plague that had assailed his gardens he was near exhaustion. Only his pride had kept him from asking for Council help before this, that and a deep suspicion that the Alure Council would be of very little help. It was a suspicion now being confirmed.

The entire Council looked much older and tired than Soone recalled, as if the last few years had been decades. And their reaction to his plight was even worse than Soone expected. They offered no help at all! How could elves have such low regard for gardens? “My old friend Gaou Hemsope, if you will not send help, then will you at least visit my gardens, and provide advice to me on what may be done? As a personnel favor?”

Hemsope shook his head, an action, oddly, that was mimicked by all the other members of Council. Soone had never known the Council to so overwhelmingly agree on anything before this. “Unfortunately, matters of greater urgency occupy myself and the other Council members.”

Soone wished that he had the strength to probe them, their behavior was so incredibly odd! He hadn’t been to the Council in many years, but it was difficult for him to understand how it could have changed so much. The Council he remembered would have argued for days before making any pronouncement, and would not have been cowed by Hemsope. He had expected lively thoughtful debate, not apathy and conformity. “Our gardens are being attacked viciously by unknown enemies,” Soone again asserted. “My garden’s problem is an urgent Alure problem. A very dire emergency!”

“You are certainly adamant, Gaou Soone,” Hemsope conceded. “Very well, we will send to your gardens an official emissary to assess the situation for us.”

“You will?” Soone asked, disbelieving.

“We will. Be gone now, and let us to our other business attend.”

Clearly dismissed, Soone let himself be escorted from Council Chambers by several well-armed, muscular young elves. That was yet another change in the Council. Due to the guards, Soone had difficulty even getting into the Council Chambers! It was perhaps the most disturbing change. Council meetings used to be open to attendance by all elves; now an invitation was required. Only hasty telepathic communications directly with Hemsope had gotten Soone into the meeting at all!

After leaving Council Hall, Soone made a side trip to the nearby Grand Hall, in hopes that the sight of healthy gardens would improve his disposition.

He could sense trouble even before entering, but could scarcely give credence to what he already detected. Stepping through an ornate stone arch, his eyes quickly confirmed his worst fears. “Maker help us!” he uttered, as he sank to his knees in despair. Before him stretched dozens of acres of ailing, dying plants. Dead, rotting leaves and flower petals littered the ground and the smell of dead, rotting life filled the air. The Grand Hall Gardens were in far worse shape than his own!

“Gaou Soone!” cried out a member of the unusually small contingent of elves that attended the garden. Soone recognized the fellow; it was Hancow, an elf with considerable gardening skills. The old elf stumbled to Soone on obviously tired legs, followed by the others. Shockingly, old Hancow himself looked decades older now than he had appeared only weeks earlier when Soone last saw him! Soone also recognized Jeanine, an older Wizard from a distant rural village that occasionally visited his gardens.

“Praise be! The Council must have at last sent for him!” said another.

“Help us, wise Soone,” another one implored. A dozen Wizards, garden attendants all, gathered around Soone. They were dirty and exhausted, but smiling.

“Where are the other attendants, Hancow?” Soone asked, as with help from one of the attendants the gardener struggled to his feet. “How could this be allowed to happen?”

“But you must surely be aware that the others have gone to the fields, Gaou, to try to save the food crops!”

The news hit Soone so hard that he nearly fell down again. “What! Elf food crops have also been corrupted?”

“Of course! You didn’t know? Your apprentice Rog has been here nearly every day since it all started two weeks ago! We have all been working night and day since then, here and in the fields.”

Soone’s head was spinning. Two weeks? That was even before his own gardens began to fail! Why hadn’t Rog told him? Why hadn’t somebody else told him? Why hadn’t the Council asked for his aid? “What has the Council done?”

“Nothing, until now. Didn’t they send you here?”

“No. My own gardens are also under attack, I came to the Council to ask them for help to save them.”

The smiles of the attendants disappeared, and their shoulders sagged. Three of them dropped to the ground moaning in despair, much as Soone had done when he first saw the blight in his own gardens. Old Hancow slumped and would have fallen, had not Soone grasped him by the arm and held him up.

“Take heart, elves,” Soone implored. “I’m here now, summoned or not. Tell and show me what you know, and I’ll help if I can.”

Encouraged somewhat, the attendants led Soone all about the Garden, pointing out damaged plants and telling him what they were doing to mend them. “We’ve tried growth and wellness spells, anti-fungal and anti-corruption poultices, and nutrients and stimulants,” said Hancow. “We’ve risked our lives to obtain Dragon dung, pixy pee, and other rumored elixirs and poultices that have proved useless. We’ve tried science and magic from other worlds. We’ve tried everything we know and experimented with things we don’t.”

“You haven’t treated the root cause,” said old Jeanine, as she pointed an accusing finger at Hancow. “It’s Evil, that’s what it is! Evil! We elves can’t directly sense it, because it’s not of this world, but we can recognize its effects!”

“There’s no such thing as Evil!” protested a younger elf, as Hancow shook his head. Soone recognized him, it was Knarf, one of several young Grand Hall attendants that in recent years occasionally visited his own gardens.

“Nonsense!” retorted Jeanine. “Why? Just because that fool Council says so? Why believe anything they say!”

“You’re fresh from the country, Jeanine,” said Knarf, “where elves are far behind the times and hopeless in coping with change.”

“Why do you say it’s Evil?” asked Soone. “None of us can directly detect Evil.”

“Because I’ve seen it all before. There are no conventional cures to this. This is the corruption to life that Demons bring.”

“There are no such thing as Demons, and certainly none on Alure,” replied Knarf, in exasperation.

“So the Council now says,” Jeanine replied. “Some of us know otherwise!”

“I don’t know any more!” said Hancow, throwing up his hands in exasperation. “Is there such a thing as Evil or not?”

Soone shook his head in disbelief. “How can any elf not believe in Evil? Keeping Evil and Demons from spreading death about the universe is what we elves do! It is the task that has defined us for countless thousands of generations! What’s wrong with you elves?”

“Times are changing,” Hancow stated quietly. “We haven’t directly encountered Demons for almost an entire elf generation. Most elves alive today have never even seen a Demon or experienced Evil. The Council has declared that any danger from Demons is past, if there ever was a danger in the first place. There is no Evil. The whole concept of The Balance has been declared to be a fraud.”

“That’s utter madness!” Soone protested. “The life on dozens of key worlds depends on our protecting it from Demons and Evil from the Void!”

“If Demons do exist, they’re ill beings that deserve our pity and help, Gaou,” said Knarf.

“They are beyond help,” Soone said. “They are pure Evil incarnate from beyond our universe!”

“You haven’t been out of your gardens in a very along time, Gaou,” said Hancow. “Elf views on many things have changed. Why support wards against a nonexistent enemy to protect off-Alure life when our needs here are so great? Our focus needs to be on Alure.”

“If the other worlds were to fall to Evil, Alure standing alone would also soon fall!” said Soone. “It is the combined life-force of all life that holds Demons and Evil at bay! Alure has no choice but to maintain The Balance everywhere!”

“Superstitious nonsense!” said Knarf.

Soone shook his head. It wasn’t only Council that had changed; the views of the entire elf society had shifted! “What about other elves? Where are your families and friends and neighbors? Why aren’t they here helping to save the gardens?”

Knarf shrugged. “Why should they? Gardening is not their job.”

Gardening wasn’t their job? This was all wrong! Suddenly, and shockingly, Soone realized whatever was attacking the plants was attacking far more! It all fit together too well. “Jeanine is right about Evil causing this, but it’s not just the plants that are sickened. My fellow elves, you’re poisoned also; and the Council is poisoned, poisoned with Evil and twisted in your minds! But how is that possible? What of your personal shielding?”

The others looked at him as if he had gone mad.

“Gaou,” Hancow explained again patiently, “it is settled philosophy now that Evil doesn’t exist. It follows then that it can’t be seen or touched or touch us, and is thus not a danger to elves. Personal shielding is thus a waste of effort that has been abandoned by most elves for several years.”

“Of course it has!” seconded Knarf.

“Suicidal madness!” said Soone.

“Evil can muddle thoughts, and it can kill,” Jeanine told Hancow. “Elves have fought Evil for millennia! Doesn’t our history mean anything to you?”

Hancow appeared to be confused. He looked back and forth from Soone to Jeanine to Knarf, clearly distressed.

Soone reached out and put his hand on the old elf’s forehead. What he didn’t sense there shocked him profoundly. “HANCOW, WHERE IS YOUR PERSONAL ANTI-EVIL SHIELDING?” he asked quietly and privately.

“We don’t need protection from what doesn’t exist,” Hancow again explained, but he seemed uncertain. “Nobody bothers with personal shields against the influence of Evil anymore. It’s a waste of powers!”

“Of course it is,” added one of the young elves.

Soone was so stunned that he couldn’t reply.

“I have kept my traditional shields,” said Jeanine.

The statement elicited groans and snickers from most of the attendants.

“I think that both Jeanine and the Gaou should go,” said Knarf, angrily. “How can they help if they believe such nonsense?”

“He’s right,” said another young elf, a female. “They’re only keeping us from our work. We’ll solve this for ourselves, if it needs to be solved. Perhaps we are entering a new time when these plants are no longer needed anyway. If we don’t need the Balance Wards, than why do we need great gardens to keep them strong?”

Except for Hancow and Jeanine, the attendants turned from Soone and wearily returned to their efforts. Soone stood and watched them, shaking his head. They were wiping and cutting corruption away from plants, washing with disinfectants, and chanting spells – all the usual things. None of it would be sufficiently effective against elemental Evil, especially if their hearts and minds weren’t in it.

Demons had done this! Evil brought by Demons, and Demon spells against elves that corrupted hearts and minds! Once Evil was fixed in an object it was almost impossible to remove it without direct effort by elves that knew and believed in what they were doing! Somehow a Demon had infiltrated Alure, and infested Alure with Evil at many locations, including his own gardens and this one. Life here was dying, and with it the Life Energies that were the source of most magic and warding against Evil.

“We need to find and destroy or at least remove the source objects of Evil from our gardens,” said Jeanine, breaking into Soone’s thoughts. “Both the Demon and the specific material that has been tainted with Evil must be dealt with.”

“Of course,” Soone agreed. With great focus and deliberation Evil could be eliminated by elves and especially by teams of Gaou, but the saving spells had to be cast against something, against the specific objects or substances that had been infused with Evil that affected everything near them with sickness and death. Find the Evil, and it could be contained by strong shielding spells and even obliterated. Elves were all taught how to destroy Evil, it was a matter of overcoming it by using the order inherent in the life of this universe. The difficult problem was in precisely locating Evil, as Evil could only be detected indirectly by elves.

“Gaou,” said Hancow, “Though I have gone along with the new ideas I am old enough to remember what Demons were like, and so much Evil would imply Demons. Do you really think it’s Evil that we are dealing with? It seems unbelievable after so many years!”

“But it fits all of the facts,” said Soone. “Your attendants and the Council and everyone else that has discarded their shielding have been corrupted. Elves are far more resilient than plants, but according to legend, confused, delusional thinking and weakness are common symptoms of an Evil influence. All the Garden attendants here show those symptoms.”

“Deluded or not I now follow your logic,” Hancow acknowledged, “though my head spins to do so. But Demons could not be here in Alure! Demons are massive, horrible monsters, misshapen and larger than a dozen elves. They would surely be seen and recognized at once!”

“If we are right about the Evil then one or more Demons must be near, or been here in the recent past and left Evil behind to continue the work of the Demons,” insisted Soone.

“They must be well cloaked then,” Jeanine suggested.

“Or they both cloak and physically disguise themselves so well that they pass for one of us,” said Soone. “Perhaps they cloud our thinking as some sort of mass hypnosis. Or perhaps they shape-shift. Elemental life-forms that need not assume any specific shape or substance. As beings from the Void perhaps they can change their size, shape, and mass! There are old legends of such things.”

The concept was utterly terrifying. The three old elves looked at each other with sudden suspicion, suddenly unsure that they could rely on their own senses to know who was an elf and who was a Demon!

“I don’t see how that’s possible,” Hancow said, “but I have believed for some time now that the withering of our plants is only a symptom of something more pervasive that is dreadfully wrong. But if even we elves can’t sense Evil except as a vague presence, how can we find it and fight it?”

Soone suddenly had such a powerful insight that the aged elf almost collapsed to the ground again.

“What is it, Gaou?” asked Jeanine, concerned.

“I know someone who can sense Evil directly, and can see through any cloaking!” His companions looked for him to explain whom that might be, but he couldn’t tell the two other elves about Ben King, that knowledge was too dangerous to share. “Hancow, please reassert your personal anti-Evil shielding. Jeanine can help you do it, as she has remained pure.

“Then I want the both of you to seek out others that have been untainted by Evil or can be easily redeemed,” continued Soone. “Seek especially elves that do not live in the cities. Tell them what we know, but do not inform the High Council. For those elves that are not so very corrupted, get them one by one to fully restore their shielding against the influence of Evil. But be careful! We don’t yet know who to trust at this point.

“And try to come up with new tactics to use against Demons and Evil. Elves have kept Demons at bay only through use of cleverness as well as magic. The Demons have perhaps spied on us for a long time and know our traditional tactics. You’ll need defensive and evasive tactics against powerful Demon bolts of energy, and you’ll need to be able to somehow find Evil to destroy it.”

“We need to begin with the older elves: the ones who remember Evil and Demons,” said Hancow.

“Along with failing gardens, many older elves throughout Alure have died in recent years,” said Jeanine. “That is what most prompted me to leave my village and seek the High Council.”

“And what did the High Council say about it?” asked Soone.

“They wouldn’t even see me!” sputtered Jeanine angrily. “I’m the Chairman of my Local Council, and they wouldn’t even see me! If you ask me, the High Council of Alure has been rotting along with its gardens!”

“I fear you are correct about that,” said Soone. “Let’s now do something about it, and do it quickly! We may be even closer to total doom than we realize! But be discrete! Above all, tell no one that I may have an answer to the problem. Seek out those elves who still believe in our ancient traditions and bring them here to fight Evil effects in the Council. I will seek out the one we need to help us precisely locate the Evil and I will keep you informed. But don’t depend only on my quest; you must proceed as though you can only depend on yourselves. Above all, keep your heads and use them!”

Soone hurried back to his gardens to await Sky’s return, although there was no telling when that might be. Ben was needed here on Alure immediately, and if he could get Sky to help with teleportation he could perhaps retrieve Ben quickly while conserving his own energies for other tasks. The boy could then hopefully locate and identify the Demon and the Evil.

On the other hand, finding the Demon could prove suicidal for them all. With weakened plant-life, elf magic on Alure was weakened. Weakened as they were, he doubted that the elves could combat a Demon if it was found, and Ben had no offensive abilities at all. Further, he didn’t even know if Ben’s shielding could stand up to a Demon, since Sky had removed him before the final Demon attack. Ben was part of the answer, he had to be, but exactly how should his involvement be accomplished? Such thoughts weighed heavily on the old elf as he teleported back to his home.

****

“Soone’s gardens are failing, Dark Master,” the Aprentice Demon appearing as an elf reported.

“Excellent, excellent, replied the Master Demon. And how does my old friend feel about that?”

“Soone is quite distressed.”

“Excellent! But this is only the beginning. The Elf Council, weakened from within, will discover too late that it no longer has the strength to oppose us. Alure itself will fall and its elves will all die. When the elf wards totally fail all planets infected with life will fall to my Demons. The quiet simplicity that is non-life will prevail.”

“After Alure, Earth will be attacked, Master?”

“Of course. We can’t take any chances with the Earthlings. The King boy needs to be destroyed while he’s still dormant. But other earthlings with his sort of powers will naturally arise; perhaps they already have! Once the elves are gone all humans should also die as soon as practicable. Starting with Hope, I’ll turn Demon Hordes down upon them!”

“I can perhaps still learn the boy’s secrets before he spreads them to others and then afterwards I could kill him,” said the more junior Demon. “Knowing how to better control the Wild Magic would make us all-powerful against the elves and anyone else who might oppose us.”

The elder Demon shook what might have been at one time been regarded to be a head. “We’ve been over this already. We are already more powerful than our enemies. I do not trust our Wizard pawns on Earth, and you can’t get near the boy; he would see you for what you are. When you are in human form on Earth you must continue to avoid him until I order you to attack them. As with the elves, the logical strategy is to first destroy their Council, then the town of Hope We will do it as soon as we are fully ready and have nullified the elves. In the end the boy’s dangerous secrets will die with him and all humans.”

“But there is still someone else who can get near the boy,” said the Apprentice Demon, “and might yet accelerate his healing and learn his secrets; someone we can perhaps get to help us unwittingly. A trusting fool of an old elf!”

A smile erupted on the Master Demon’s reptilian-like, misshapen, blackened face. “My old friend Soone! Of course. What delicious irony! Through our pawns we could convince him that re-awakening the boy’s talents is critical to saving his precious gardens! We could then consume the elf and learn whatever he has learned from the boy.”

“I had planned to return to Earth shortly anyway,” said the lesser Demon. His elf form stretched and shaped itself into human form. “But there is one problematic development on Alure you should be aware of that might make you want to move up our schedule. Some of the elf Wizards suspect Demons and Evil among them and are re-establishing their personal anti-Evil shielding.”

“That changes everything!” said the Master. “Their actions will likely be too little and too late for them, but we will take no chances. We will strike them immediately while they are still weak. I will strike at Alure while you strike at Earth. Along the way if we learn the boy’s secrets, so much the better, but we can take no chances. On both planets we will kill the Master Wizard Council leaders first. We have enough Evil on Alure and Earth to then bring on hordes of minor Demons to kill all the other elves and humans. None will remain.”

“I go at once, Dark Master,” the lesser Demon said. He shimmered and disappeared.

The Master Demon smiled. His Apprentice Demon was doing very well both on Earth and on Alure. He envied the younger Demon’s ability to so easily disguise himself so well that he could walk among the humans and even the elves without being detected. He could still do the same, but it was becoming ever more difficult for him. He was too far gone now, too much a Demon to disguise himself as anything else for very long. Increasingly his Evil saturated physiology forced focus on only one thing: his own destructive power applied to kill all other life.

Being a Demon was a delicate matter; a balance had to be maintained between the need to maintain structure and control to accomplish long-term goals, and natural Demon cravings for wanton destruction and chaos. The temptation of causing immediate death and destruction usually became too much for a Demon and insanity and a self-destructive rampage resulted. Only one in a thousand Demons survived transition to full Demon status and an extended period of sanity and powers. This Master Demon knew that he was extraordinary. He had survived for centuries and would shortly succeed where hundreds of other Demons had failed over many thousands of years. He would eliminate the elves!

Humans were suddenly becoming a greater threat than even the elves! Somehow young Ben King had begun to control Wild Magic! Eight years ago the child had even defended himself from his attack by using Wild Magic!

If King remembered how he was controlling Wild Magic and passed the ability on to fellow humans or to the elves all Demons from the Void could be rendered impotent. The boy’s ability to see through any cloaking was almost as dangerous. For many decades, the Master Demon and his apprentice disguised as humans and elves had infiltrated both the Elf Council and the human Hope Council, and influenced and weakened them. The elves had been an impediment for millions of years, though even that was a very short time from universe perspective. Elf resistance had gone on for far too long.

The emergence of Ben King meant that the final onslaught would have to come very soon, the Master Demon had reasoned. Fortunately this Demon was well versed in both elven and human cultures, and had already greatly weakened them from within. And now with elves attempting to recover themselves the time had come at last to utterly destroy the elves and humans! The blissful simplicity and peace that was death would soon be achieved across the Galaxy!

From the Evil he had gathered around him over many years, the Master Demon gathered more energy. He had one more thing to attend to here on Earth, and then he would transport to Alure to kill all elves!

****

“Good day, Gaou Soone,” said an unexpected voice. “How was your trip to Council?”

Soone was so startled that he nearly collapsed again. However, in an instant he identified the source of the voice; it was only Rog, his useless apprentice, making one of his thankfully rare visits.

After several years, Soone still didn’t know what to think of Rog. From the Council’s viewpoint, it probably made sense to appoint an apprentice for him. He was already far older than most other elves, and wouldn’t live forever. His gardens were the finest on Alure, and would need to be taken care of after he was gone to meet the Maker. His wife had died long ago and they had no children, and he had never gotten himself an apprentice to be his replacement. So the Council was clearly doing its duty when they assigned him an apprentice. Long ago he had similarly been assigned as an apprentice to the former keeper of his gardens, old Lucian. But why had they appointed Rog? And why had he accepted the appointment? The young Wizard had absolutely no interest in or aptitude for gardening!

Rog was clearly currently excited about something; his usually bland pasty complexion was flushed pink with enthusiasm, and he supported a broad smile that Demonstrated to Soone for the first time that the younger elf actually had teeth. “Master, you will never guess the assignment from the Council that I have managed to get!”

Soone’s jaw dropped open. It couldn’t be! “Are you to assess the status of my gardens for the Council?”

“Yes! Isn’t that amazing! I’m not sure that they even remembered that I’m your apprentice! I happened by the Council after visiting the Library and the Great Hall, made my usual plea to them to be assigned to some task that would advance the interests of Alure, and they gave me the job!”

“Very interesting,” said Soone, his head spinning. He had asked for outside help from the Council and they merely gave him his own useless apprentice!

“This will win me points with the Council, I’m sure! It may be my ticket to getting a position on the Council support staff itself!”

Soone stared at the young Wizard, his mind churning. Rog was the worst apprentice imaginable! But perhaps it was more than indifference and incompetence; perhaps Rog was the Demon! Could it be? The more he thought about it, the more sense it made. Rog was always off somewhere else, Maker knows where, instead of being with him. He could have been visiting the Soone gardens and the Grand Hall gardens and who knows where else on Alure, spreading Evil! Perhaps he even teleported himself to Earth and other worlds to wreak havoc!

“I will need your strong recommendation, of course,” Rog continued, “but I have learned something else that may make you wish to consider as you reassess whatever negative opinions you may have already formed of me.”

“Really?” Soone remarked, as he tried to quell his growing fear that Rog was indeed the Demon. If Rog knew that he knew he was a Demon, would he kill his Master immediately?

“You had a human here eight years ago!” Rog accused suddenly. His silly grin was bigger than ever. “He lived here with you for a whole Earth year! That’s highly forbidden, as you well know!”

Soone began to weakly protest, after regaining his voice.

“Don’t bother to deny it, Soone, I know what I know,” Rog insisted. “And the human was a Wizard, though a sick one, and you think he might be able to help with your garden now, if you can go to find him on Earth and bring him back. Am I correct?”

Soone was speechless. If Rog was the Demon, and the same Demon that had killed the boy’s parents, he would know of Ben’s existence, but how had he traced Ben here to Alure? The answer came to mind almost immediately. Rog had seen Sky visit here several times before he attacked the Kings. When he saw the sprite take the boy, he knew exactly where the human would likely be taken. Perhaps he had even foreseen it, before it happened. Foresight/premonition was a rare gift, but not so rare for a Demon with easy access to the timeless Void, and it would explain why Rog had wanted to apprentice with him in the first place!

“Who told you all of this?” Soone asked quietly, though he was almost too afraid to ask the question.

“Nobody had to,” Rog replied defensively. “You think I don’t notice things, but I do! I spied on the two of you for the whole year he was here. I even learned the human’s language so that I could understand his jabbering. It took me nearly the whole time to figure out why you took the risk of keeping him, but I finally did.”

“You amaze me, Rog. What did you conclude?”

“That the boy has secret powers, powers that you wanted to learn from him. Something about being able to detect Evil, am I right? That must be why you risked looking out for him! However you failed to learn his secrets, and finally returned him to his world in the hope that as he matured in his home environment he would become cured and remember all his secrets. Now he is reaching maturity and has likely revived his powers, and your garden faces crisis. So now you want to seek him out to learn the secret of his powers and save your precious gardens. Am I right?”

“You are amazing,” said Soone. “So you’ve known about the boy for all these years?” Soone reasoned that Rog hadn’t turned Ben into the Council eight years ago because the boy would have recognized him as a Demon.

“Of course. I only mention it now for two reasons. First, because all you need do is learn the human’s secrets, and you may then be able save the gardens yourself. I offer to you my help in that regard, as I can help get you to Earth and back without the Council knowing, and without you having to expend all your own energies. You will also discover that I am very knowledgeable, as for most of my life I have studied heavily in libraries and museums. I also have an amulet that stores much energy that I can use to power our adventure to Earth and back.”

Rog pulled a metallic amulet out from his vest pocket and showed it to Soone for a moment. Soone didn’t dare try to examine it closely. Elves had ancient amulets that could store energies but this was just as likely to instead be a chunk of pure Evil.

“All that I ask in return is that you pass on to me the boy’s secrets so that I may be the one to save the rest of Alure,” said Rog. “I know more magic than you think; I often study spells in the Alure Great Library. You aren’t as young as you used to be, you know. You are probably far too old to handle the use of new powers great enough to save Alure. A younger elf such as myself should obviously learn them. I should be the one to save Alure. You see, as you may have already guessed, I have certain ambitions beyond my apprenticeship with you.”

“Ultimately you want to become a member of Council.”

“Ah, you understand perfectly! I had hoped that would be the case. Should I become a public hero, my ascension into Council will be assured. I will be such a tremendous hero that I will very likely soon lead the Council. I know that you have no personal ambitions, so you have no reason to deny me my own ambitions, am I correct? And you live conveniently near Council as well as the Library. That always made you the perfect Master for me! Do you agree with my plan?”

Soone had no reason to deny Rog except he was by now certain that he was the Demon that was subtly attacking Alure. This business about the boy having some sort of secret powers that could save Alure was a ruse to help entice his help, he reasoned. True, the boy’s shielding and cloaking was powerful but his key usefulness would be his ability to see through cloaking and detect Evil, as Rog himself suggested. What other useful abilities Ben might have beyond that, if any, was totally unknown.

Soone knew for a fact that Ben could detect Evil. Soone kept a few jars of material that had been made Evil to experiment with, stored fairly far from his home and away from his most critical gardens. It had taken him years of work and Sky’s help to isolate it. Early in his visit, the boy had detected the Evil and convinced Soone to erect even more powerful containment spells to protect the area where the Evil was stored. Ben’s ability to detect and pinpoint the location of the small quantity of Evil was uncanny. “And if I don’t go along with what you want?”

“Regrettably I would be forced to expose you, of course,” said Rog. “Harboring a human is a serious matter, especially one with potentially dangerous powers.”

“I suppose you have proof that I was with him?”

“Of course. It is my habit to pay attention to others and learn what I may. Knowledge is power. By spell I have preserved several images of you and the human interacting. I would claim that my own laxity in reporting it to authorities until now was out of my loyalty to you. But I propose that together we now go to Earth, where I will monitor both you and the boy. You and I will learn his secrets and I will become powerful enough to save Alure. Any charges against me would be forgotten after I save Alure from whatever may be troubling it.”

“How do I know that you indeed have proof that the human was here?”

Rog demonstrated his assertion with a wave of his hands, which resulted in a three dimensional image of the young Ben and Soone, sitting at the kitchen table and eating cookies and milk, as they exchanged small-talk about Alure.

Soone realized that he had no choice. If he didn’t go along with the Demon’s scheme now, he would probably be immediately killed and Ben would then face the monster alone. It took a team of Gaou to oppose a Demon or destroy Evil, and even if he had enough time and opportunity, Soone had grave doubts that such a team could be assembled from the Evil-weakened populace of Alure.

The only hope was Ben and his Evil detecting abilities or his as yet unknown full abilities, but to teleport himself to Earth would take too much energy. He could perhaps get Sky to help him, but there was no telling when the free spirited sprite would find her way back to Alure.

That left Rog. He would have to put himself in the hands of the Demon, and hope that this wasn’t all simply a convenient way of getting rid of him immediately. In case of that, he would leave a note for Sky, suggesting a back-up plan. In the meantime after they reached Earth he would have to somehow get away from Rog, then get Ben to Alure to join up with the elves that sill believed in Evil that Jeanine and Hancow were hopefully gathering even now. “Very well, Rog, I agree. Give me an hour to gather what I need for the trip, and I’ll be ready.”

 

****

 

 

CHAPTER 8

Busy School Day

 

Dr. Francis Snedville, the school psychologist, decided to establish regular therapeutic sessions with Ben. On the morning of a particularly serious session Ben had a startling experience. When he first entered the school he felt the presence of Evil close by. In the direction of the Evil at the far end of a long hallway he saw a group of students walking away from him. One of them glowed so brightly of Evil that Ben couldn’t immediately distinguish the features of any of them! As his focus improved he saw that instead of a human it was instead a monstrous creature dark and grotesque in shape: it was a Demon like the one that haunted the nightmares he still occasionally had! The next moment as the group rounded the corner the Demon disappeared, and the sense of Evil was abruptly greatly diminished by the magic damping wards of the building walls.

Ben was left standing frozen in the hallway, with a look of stupefied astonishment and fright on his face that was immediately observed by Jim Nater, who happened to be with him at the time.

“What’s wrong, Ben?” he asked. “What did you see?”

Ben could only mumble something incoherent and go on to class.

Later Ben told Dr. Snedville about the attack on his parents but didn’t mention the morning Demon incident. The psychologist interpreted Ben’s childhood Demon story quite differently than Ben did. “Your problems are not uncommon,” he immediately announced. He was a tall, thin, serious middle-aged man, with an air of authority and uncompromising certitude. “Many of our students have problems coming to terms with their powers and with reality. You have to first understand that your Demon fantasy is just that, a fantasy.”

“I think that you should first understand that what I saw was real,” Ben countered.

“The human mind is a marvelous and malleable thing, young man. When something happens that it can’t accept it invents something that it can. I don’t doubt that your Demon is very real to you, but it represents something deeper, something more commonplace but hidden below your delusional fantasies. You already acknowledge that you don’t remember much of what happened during the incident. Whatever really did happen has been replaced by vivid dreams of Demon attacks, sprites and elves that for some hidden reason your subconscious prefers over reality.”

Ben shrugged. This psychologist was as annoying as the one he saw when he lived among the Unaligned. They were all apparently trained to insist that their patients were delusional. “The sprite visited me the day I arrived in Hope. An elf took care of me for a year on Alure. They were real. They ARE real.”

“You clearly have a strong need to continue these fantasies, in order to hide whatever the truth is.”

“The sprite met one of my friends here in Hope.”

“You clearly have great powers that are not under your conscious control. Perhaps the sprite is created by your subconscious such that even others can see it. Elves might be real but humans haven’t seen them for generations. Why would an elf contact a child instead of the Council? I am quite certain that your elves are imaginary. Or created by you.”

“You mean as some sort of astral projection of my mind?”

“Perhaps. I once had a patient that imagined a pet dog. Over a period of six months hundreds of people witnessed what they assumed was a real collie. She took the dog to our local veterinarian, and they phoned me to tell of a dog they could see and touch but had no weight, or heartbeat to hear, or blood to sample. What Wizards imagine sometimes become to some degree real.”

Ben didn’t say anything. His mind was spinning. Was that possible? Could he have imagined it all? And created much of it with his own powers? “What about Desolation Glen? Isn’t that real?”

Dr. Snedville nodded. “I’m afraid so.”

“So then, there must have been a Demon.”

“The Council thinks that wild, elemental magic got out of your parent’s control, killed them and caused the poisonous desolation that remains. Wild Magic is real, and dangerous, as your parents found out too late. Nowadays however, we know that there are no such things as Demons or Evil. There may well be elves, but if they are real they disappeared from Earth long ago. Sprites, like Demons, are even more rarely sighted by humans than elves. Like your Demon, I’m certain that your sprite is total fantasy.”

“That’s crazy. We were on a picnic when something monstrous attacked us; I do remember that part clearly enough. As to elves and sprites, they’re as real as you or I. As to Evil, that’s very real too. There’s tons of it in my own backyard! Despite the wards around it, it could be influencing Hope right now! This whole town lacks my shielding and could be delusional because of the Evil.”

“Perhaps, but all that seems to me like more escapist delusion and rationality on your part. We must base our understanding of reality on facts and there is no solid proof for anything you have told me. Right now I only have various theories about what you really might have experienced. When we have worked past your hidden fears and helped your memory to return, I promise you that we will learn the hidden truth that you avoid.”

“But I’ve always wanted to know the truth! I’m not avoiding or hiding anything now! What I remember actually happened; I just need to also remember those bits that I’ve forgotten! How much do you remember of when you were six years old?”

“Something traumatic definitely happened eight years ago, that much we do have proof of. But sometimes we have no control over what we think and what we seem to remember. I believe you suffered a traumatic experience that caused your mind to juggle together truth and fantasy. I believe you when you say that you are not hiding from truth on purpose, but there is something in your subconscious that is blocking your memories and your ability to control your magic, something that you can’t get at consciously because it is too terrible for you to accept.”

That part Ben could not deny. Some of his recurring flashes of memories were of terrible things. Could there be even more terrible truths that his mind rejected in order to escape them?

As he and his friends walked home from school that day, Ben ran through it all in his head, again and again. Could it be true? What Doctor Snedville said made sense, in a strange sort of way. What if he was right? What if there was no Demon? What if he created the Demon in his head? What if he had totally imagined today’s Demon sighting? Maybe he just made all these things up in his mind to protect himself from some terrible truth? Maybe his Demon memories were made up in a dream, and then consciously thought about over and over thousands of times until it became firm reality for him!

Unbidden, an even more terrible idea began to form. What if he had somehow killed his own parents? What if he lost control of himself and killed them using Wild Magic, then made up the Demon to absolve himself from guilt?

“Something is bothering you Ben,” said Ann, interrupting Mark’s unflattering description of their math teacher.

“Yeah, you haven’t said a word,” agreed Mark.

“It was that last session with Snedville the psychologist, I bet,” guessed Ann. “What happened with him?”

Ben told them.

“That’s plain crazy,” Ann said angrily. “Sky is real, the Desolation Glen is real, and so-forth. I saw it! I spoke with Sky! I think I would have known if Sky was some sort of astral projection or something! I have some skills of my own, you know! You might have lost your powers or misplaced them or whatever, but I still have mine.”

“Roger that,” agreed Mark. “You’ve been working on this thing for eight years, Ben, and this guy talks to you for a few minutes and tries to twist it all around to make it look like it’s all your own brain’s fault? That’s totally bogus. We knew you eight years ago and would have known if you were wacko. You weren’t then and you still aren’t now.”

“That’s for sure,” agreed Ann. “I’d know it now if you were, you know that I would! Trust me on that!”

“That’s right, there is that weird connection between you two, isn’t there?” Mark said. “I didn’t really believe in it until you returned, but now I think that it’s real.”

“Anyway, that psychologist guy deals with Wizards and so forth all day,” added Ann, changing the subject. “He’s not a Norm school psychologist, he is specially trained to address Wizard problems. You’d think he would at least have an open mind about Demons and so-forth.”

“Mom isn’t even convinced that Demons exist.” Mark noted. “A lot of folks aren’t. There are several Council members that claim there is no such thing as either Evil or Demons. That’s official Hope policy now.”

“Maybe the elves have been altogether too successful in blocking Demons and Evil,” conjectured Ann. “Legend has it that the elves shield Earth from Demons and Evil. But elves haven’t been seen on Earth for over a hundred years. That might not be a long time for an elf, but it’s several generations for humans. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. So now the Council says they don’t exist. But you know better, Ben. You know better than Dr. what’s-his-name and the Council. Stick to your guns, Ben!”

“Thanks, guys,” said Ben, in gratitude. “But there is something else that’s been bothering me.”

“Well at least it can’t be as bad as Dr. what’s-his-face,” Mark said.

“It’s much worse,” said Ben. “I sensed Evil today. I think that I caught a glimpse of a Demon this morning.”

“Here in Hope? OK, that IS crazy!” said Mark.

“Where?” asked Ann.

“In the main hallway at school.”

“Ah; so that’s what freaked you out this morning!” said Mark. “Jim told me that you blitzed out, your face got white as a sheet, and your jaw was on the floor.”

“Where did it go?” Ann asked.

Ben shook his head. “Hard to say where it went. It must be well-cloaked, and the school magic damping wards also apparently help hide it.”

“What did it look like?” Ann wanted to know.

“Bigger than a man, black, and built chunky like maybe like it was a bunch of rocks stuck together to sort of make a man. It had red eyes and horns on its head, I think. It looked pretty much like the thing that killed my folks.”

“Pretty much?” Ann asked.

“It didn’t seem to be as big as the one eight years ago, but maybe that’s because I was smaller then,” explained Ben.

“But inside the school?” exclaimed Mark. “Like you say, most of the school has protective wards.”

“So did my backyard eight years ago and that didn’t stop it,” said Ben. “Most protective wards protect against Earthly dangers and magic, not against things from the Void like Demons.”

“If it is a Demon you should avoid it and not look for it,” said Ann. “You aren’t ready to face a Demon.”

“I agree but I wasn’t looking for it this morning and found it anyway,” Ben noted.

“Why do you suppose it would have horns?” Ann asked.

“Cause they look cool maybe?” said Mark.

“I have no idea,” said Ben. “I bet my psychologist would have some theories about that!”

“Horns are what some living creatures develop for various Earthly reasons,” said Ann. “It just seems to be an odd thing for Demons from the Void to have.”

“Who knows?” said Ben. “Not even the elves know why there are any Demons at all.”

“Have you told anyone else?” Mark asked.

“No. After my visit with Dr. what’s-his-name, I didn’t even know myself what was real or who would believe me.”

“Snedville is real,” said Mark, “but not so much his psychology BS. I wouldn’t tell him about the Demon.”

“I’m also afraid to tell Sharp,” said Ben. “Maybe she’d kick me out of school!”

“Well we can’t just let a Demon have free reign in Hope,” said Ann. “The Demon is likely posing as a student or teacher. You could start by telling Moco.”

“No, I don’t want to worry him. Besides, his response would probably be to take me back to the Unaligned out West. I’m starting to like living here.”

“OK, so then let’s tell our Dad,” said Mark.

“Maybe we should, but he’s on the Council,” said Ben.

“True, and we don’t know what the results of that might be,” agreed Ann. “But we have to tell someone!”

“Let’s tell everyone in town by telling our Apprentice Wizard friends,” said Mark.

“Tell them and word will quickly get out about it to everyone in Hope for sure,” said Ann, “but maybe that’s a good thing. People have a right to know, and we don’t want the Council to simply try to sweep it under their rug and try to forget it. This needs to be faced up to.”

“OK, we’ll tell our fellow Apprentice Wizards as soon as possible,” said Ben. “They need to be put on alert at this point that there is definitely a Demon and very soon some nasty things might happen.”

“I’ll tell several of them telepathically right now while we are all still near the school,” said Ann. “In class today we were told that if we were careful Apprentice Wizards could use telepathy out of school because Norms can’t hear it anyway. So this is actually homework. I can focus my thoughts just to them.”

They stopped walking for a short time while Ann closed her eyes to focus and send her messages.

“OK then,” said Ben when they soon resumed walking home. He of course ‘heard’ what Ann told their friends. “My secret is out for sure!”

“Feel free to tell me about it also, young Ben,” said a small voice originating from an oddly dressed tiny old man with big ears that had just stepped in front of the trio from behind a tree-trunk that they were approaching.

Ben stopped in his tracks, and Ann and Mark quickly followed suit. “Soone?” he exclaimed, dumbfounded.

“None other,” the elf replied, in Elven. “Umph,” was all he could manage seconds later, as Ben lifted the little elf into the air and hugged him.

“What’s happening? What are you doing here?” Ben asked, after he put the elf down.

“What the heck’s going on?” Ann asked Ben. “Who are you talking to?”

“First things first, Lad,” said Soone. “Will you be introducing me to your friends? By the way, keep in mind they can’t sense, see, or hear me.”

“They can’t?” Ben replied. “You’re fully cloaked then?”

“Not to you, Lad,” noted the elf. “You see through any cloak.”

“Who’s fully cloaked?” asked Ann.

“Soone is,” explained Ben. “This is the first I’ve seen him in seven years! Soone, these are my best friends Ann and Mark. Go ahead and shake hands.”

“Yes, I had assumed these were your two closest red-haired friends,” said Soone, as he reached out and shook their hands. “Flame is as beautiful as you described!”

“An honor to meet you,” Ann said to the invisible presence that gently shook her hand.

“Likewise, but this is totally weird, Mr. Soone,” Mark complained, when it was his turn.

“We can shake your hand but can’t see, sense, or hear you!” Ann exclaimed.

“Step behind these bushes and I’ll cloak the lot of us,” Soone said.

Shortly thereafter, when Soone had extended his cloak to mask them all, but somehow they could all see and hear each other. Ann and Mark gasped when they finally saw what looked like a tiny, gray-skinned, pointy eared, very old man, two heads shorter than themselves, dressed in odd, dingy looking green and brown clothing.

“You’ve grown a heap and then some since I first met you, lad,” Soone remarked, as he sized up Ben critically from head to foot. “Humans grow up as fast as the weeds do in my gardens! Do you realize that normal cloaking spells slide right off you? My masking of you has always been ten times as hard as masking anyone else.”

“But what are you doing here?” Ben asked.

The elf shrugged. “To business then. I do not cloak only to hide myself from your human Wizard friends. There is a Demon here on your world.”

“I saw it earlier today,” said Ben.

“Yes, I heard Ann’s message to that effect,” said Soone. “It helped me zero in on your location. But how? We only arrived here from Alure half an hour or so ago!”

“I saw a Demon at school several hours ago early this morning,” explained Ben.

“So early? Really?” Soone pondered. “It’s possible, I suppose. He probably makes the trip whenever he wants. Demons likely have energy to spare. He and I both were strongly cloaked when we arrived here. That helped me sneak away from him to search for you.”

“You brought a Demon here with you from Alure?” said Ben.

“I believe so,” said Soone. “When you lived with me in hiding on Alure did you see other elves when they came to visit me?”

“A few,” said Ben. “But you always had me masked so that they wouldn’t see me.”

“It took me a while to learn how to effectively do that!” said Soone. “Doing any magic with you is almost impossible! But you saw them all and none of them were Demons?”

“Of course not!”

“What about Rog, my Apprentice?”

“I saw him many times,” said Ben. “He was always snooping around.”

“And you could see that he wasn’t a Demon?”

“For sure he wasn’t!” Ben insisted.

“Maybe I’m wrong about him then,” Soone concluded. “He recently told me that he knows I was hiding you that first year and he insisted on coming with me to Earth.”

“Maybe he changed to a Demon sometime over the last seven years,” said Ann.

“Maybe!” said Soone. “There are ancient elf legends about elves becoming possessed and changing into Demons. In any case at least I’ve managed to elude him and I have found you, Ben, and that’s good news, but I unfortunately now lack the energy to return the both of us to Alure.”

“What?” said Ben. “You want to take me with you to Alure?”

“Aye,” replied the elf. “Our realm is over-run with Evil, and only you can help us find it, since you can sense Evil and see through any cloak to identify Demons.”

“But what about the Demon that’s here on Earth?” Ann exclaimed. “Ben might be the only one that can find our Demon! He’s needed here!”

“She has a valid point,” said Ben.

“But Ben, what are you going to do when you find a Demon, here on Earth or on Alure?” asked Mark. “Can you and Soone defeat it?”

“Alas, it would take several untainted Gaou or a multitude of human Wizards to defeat even a small Demon,” noted Soone. “The size of our Council and yours was determined by how many powerful wizards are required to combat a single Demon.” His smile faded as he shrugged his tiny shoulders.

“Aren’t there over a hundred Gaou on Alure?” Ben asked. “And over a million other less powerful Wizard elves?”

“Yes, but I don’t know how many have been tainted, and they are scattered over the planet. Our Alure leadership is pathetic now; even worse than usual. Evil has tainted elf minds to the point that Evil and Demons are held to be myth by even the Elf High Council!”

The three humans looked each other as their jaws dropped open. “That’s exactly what has been happening here in Hope!” Ann was first to say.

“Oh my; that is disturbing!” said Soone.

“Could that be coincidence?” Mark asked.

“No, I would not assume it to be so,” Soone reasoned. “For many thousands of years this has not happened to the elves, and for over three hundred years it has not happened with Hope Wizards. For it to happen simultaneously both here and on Alure over the last several years is not likely to be mere coincidence. It is likely to be Demons and Evil.

“Somehow, my human friends, the Demons have learned to cloak themselves so well that even we elves can’t detect them, and to strike at our very essence without us even suspecting. If the elves fall, the Demons will reign over all. They seek to ultimately destroy all life in the multiverse but for themselves. Hundreds of life-inhabited worlds in this galaxy will be annihilated first, and without elf opposition the Demons will spread like a plague. Only Alure elves have kept them at bay.”

“Then why do they bother with Earth?” Mark asked. “If Earth Wizards are not strong enough to threaten them, I mean.”

“Excellent question, young human,” Soone remarked. “Something on Earth has indeed sparked their interest. Something they perhaps fear.”

“Me!” Ben said. “I’m a danger to them because I can sense them! I’m the reason they’re interested in Earth! I’m the reason that they are here on Earth now! I’m the reason they killed my parents! They were after me!”

“Perhaps, but it will be you that saves us all, young Ben,” said Soone.

“How?” Ben asked. “Me finding and confronting a Demon would be probably be suicidal, but for sure it would be useless, since the only powers I have are defensive!”

The old elf shrugged. “The elves are greatly weakened, that is true, but they still stand a better chance against monster Demons and Evil than do the similarly weakened human Wizards of Hope. Elves are shown as infants how to destroy Evil. That’s why you must return with me to Alure, Ben. If you can use your senses to find the Evil on Alure we elves can deal with it! Then with elven power and perspective restored we can also deal with the Evil here on Earth!”

“But you said that you lack the energy to take us back to Alure,” said Ben, “so where will you get the additional power needed?”

“Were I able to contact our energy rich sprite friend I would do so, young Ben,” Soone explained. “Sprites gather more raw energy to themselves than they need. As it is, I had thought to seek out your Wizard Council for their aid.”

The three teens exchanged knowing glances. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” Mark said. “There’s no telling what our Council might decide. It’s led by a Wizard named Grim that would never believe in Demons or side with elves.”

“I hadn’t thought to find your Council as tainted as ours,” admitted Soone.

“Ours might be worse!” said Mark.

“I agree,” said Ann. “They’re super-suspicious of outsiders, and even of themselves. My parents say it isn’t natural, the way that some of them are behaving in recent years. So yes, our Council may be as tainted as yours or even worse. Half of them even deny that elves exist, and almost all of them deny the existence of Evil or Demons. But maybe you don’t need the full Council. How much power do you need?”

“The powers of four or five of your strongest Wizards might be enough for our teleportation,” Soone stated.

“The Tuttle family alone likely wouldn’t be enough then,” Ann noted with disappointment. “Besides, if we were to let Mom and Dad in on this they’d be honor bound to tell the full Council anyway.”

“So as lousy an idea as contacting the Council seems to be, it might be the only option,” Ben concluded. “The Council is made up of eleven of some of the most powerful Wizards of Hope.”

“We should start with talking to Mom and Dad,” Ann added. “Let them decide who to tell next. They have friends on the Council.”

Soone suddenly jolted as if startled. “There are searching spells suddenly in play here,” he said abruptly. “Dozens of them; strong ones. Something must have happened to alert your guardian Wizards! My cloaking spell might not be enough to hide us; it could even call attention to us! I was not expecting such sophisticated scrutiny!”

“I feel it too,” said Ann. “My Dad says in emergencies that’s what Hope police do. They look for magic happening around town of any type. Then they teleport to any suspicious magic activity.”

As Ben watched Ann speak, she stopped moving completely. Eyes, lips, arms, everything. She stood frozen as still as a statue. “What?” he remarked, turning to Mark to see what his reaction would be to his sister’s strange behavior. Mark, however, was also completely motionless. Frozen in mid-stride, his right foot hovered an inch above the ground, though it should clearly have been supporting most of his weight. Somehow he was defying gravity. Mark remained mute, but Ann began crying out loudly for help again and again telepathically!

“IT’S A POWERFUL STASIS SPELL, DONE BY SEVERAL STRONG HUMAN WIZARDS,” he ‘heard’ Soone tell him telepathically. The elf was also frozen motionless, Ben soon noted.

“Are you alright?” Ben asked aloud.

“WE’RE ALL QUITE WELL, YOUNG BEN,” the elf assured him. “I COULD BREAK THE SPELL BUT IT WOULD REQUIRE MUCH OF MY REMAINING ENERGY TO DO SO. I THINK THAT INSTEAD I’LL UNMASK YOU SO YOU CAN PERHAPS BETTER ASSESS WHAT IS HAPPENING.”

“Look! It’s the King boy, but I don’t see anyone else,” said a man’s voice shortly. “They must all be strongly cloaked, but we can still vaguely sense them and our stasis spells should work on them. But the boy isn’t incapacitated by us at all! He must still have those shields that everyone has been talking about!”

Ben saw several men and women converging on them from all directions, dressed in tan Hope police uniforms. Each held some sort of gun that was drawn and pointed at him and in the general direction of his friends. He couldn’t sense their feelings but they looked both angry and frightened.

“What’s going on?” Ben asked them.

“Quiet, boy,” said one of the men. “You’re under arrest, elf, wherever you are! You and whoever else might be with you.”

“Under arrest?” Ben protested. “For what?”

“Attempted murder, illegal cloaking, and aiding and abiding an Unaligned intruder to Hope. The elf with you here somewhere is a wanted fugitive. We sensed strange magic hereabouts: some tricky cloaking and masking that we never saw before. Figure it must be the elf!”

 

****

 

 

CHAPTER 9

Jailed!

 

“Hey! Watch out, you’ll hurt somebody!” Ben protested, as one of the officers swept the area in front of himself blindly with a Billy-club, nearly striking still invisible Ann in the head.

In response, Soone dropped his cloaking spells totally, such that he, Mark, and Ann suddenly appeared to the startled police! The elf also freed himself up from the stasis spell just enough to speak. “Explain yourselves, Earthlings!” he demanded angrily.

“It’s the elf fugitive, all right!” the lead officer exclaimed. “I recognize him! It’s you that will do the explaining, elf. Keep your spelled stasis guns on him boys; he’s the dangerous one.”

“He’s here to help us!” Ben protested.

“Quiet boy, this elf is wanted for attempted murder!” said the officer.

“Attempted murder of whom?” Ben had to ask.

“The Wizard Council.”

“MOM AND DAD!” Ben sensed Ann exclaim.

“What about the Tuttles!” Ben asked. “Are they alright?”

“Elizabeth and I are alright,” said Red Eric, as he suddenly appeared among them. “I’d like an explanation as to what’s going on here though. Why are my children under a police stasis spell? I came when I sensed Ann’s cries for help!”

“We’re all under arrest,” Ben explained.

“As you are also, Sir,” explained one of the officers, evidently the senior one present, judging from the numerous stripes on the shoulder of his uniform. He was a big man, physically two-heads taller than Eric and nearly as muscular, but he seemed to shrink in size as he confronted the enraged father Master Wizard. Several police had shifted their weapons to point them at Eric!

“EXPLAIN!” demanded Eric in a thunderous voice, as he faced the officer. Eric’s long red hair stood out, and lightning crackled and danced all around him, from eyes and hair and fingers!

“You should turn yourself in quietly, Sir,” the officer told Red Eric. “Until now you and your wife have been known to be Hope Wizards of honor.”

“What are you accusing us of?” Eric asked the sergeant. “Mike, we’ve known each other all of our lives!”

“And that’s what hurts the most, Eric,” said the policeman. “Several of us and the rest of the Council witnessed you teleport with this elf into Council Hall, where you and the elf attacked the Council!”

“That’s totally crazy!” said Eric. “You know me better than that, Mike; you all do!”

“We thought that we knew you well,” said Mike. “But a few minutes ago many of us personally witnessed you and this elf attack the Council. Submit to partial stasis and come quietly now to your internment or we’ll have to attack you with deadly force. Your children could be injured in a battle between us.”

Eric glanced at his incapacitated children and the little old elf. He could shield himself but not everyone. Besides, Mike and the other police were powerful attack Wizards that together could probably defeat him. Also, although he could escape via teleportation, that would mean abandoning most of the others being arrested. He shrugged, then raised his open hands as a sign of submission and let himself and the others be led away to the waiting police van. As the police handcuffed Eric and covered him with restraining wards he demanded to be immediately taken before the Council.

“That’s our orders, Eric,” said Mike. “The Council demands to see you and anyone supporting you.”

****

The Hope Council Hall was packed full of a hundred noisy spectators and a dozen police, and smelled of smoke and burnt flesh. The long table at the front of the room that Council members sat behind was half demolished or singed black as though burned by fire. Nine Council members were in attendance; everyone except the Tuttles. Everyone was talking excitedly and seemed highly agitated.

“That’s him!” shouted Council Chairman Horace Grim, who stood and pointed as the entire arrested group was marched into Council Hall. “That’s Red Eric the traitor! And that’s his elf partner!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about and the first I’ve seen of this or any elf was a few minutes ago when he was already in police custody!” protested Eric.

“Liar!” said Grim. “We have the whole thing on surveillance video!”

The room lights dimmed and on the white wall to one side of the Council Table a video began to play. It showed the Council, minus the Tuttles, apparently in session, though there was no public audience. Eric was dumfounded. Why hadn’t he and Ann been notified of a meeting? Why had it been a secret session closed to the public?

In the video Eric and an elf suddenly popped into view and stood before them, then drew and fired some sort of lightning-spitting hand-guns at the Council members, who ducked behind their tables while cloaking and shielding. It was over in seconds. Eric and the elf disappeared, while anti-fire spells put out all flames. Several Wizards including several Council members suffered serious burns but quickly healed themselves and each other.

“That obviously wasn’t me!” said Eric. “I don’t even own a gun let along a directed energy weapon! Why would I use such a weapon when I can hurl sun-hot plasma from any part of my body as a Master Wizard with attack abilities? Your so-called evidence is obviously cheap fakery.”

“I saw Demons in the video,” said Ben, “two of them! I saw no elf or Red Eric. This video shows that there are at least two Demons on Earth, and they can apparently assume the form of anyone!”

“Pure nonsense!” said Grim. “The boy is obviously part of this attempted coup!”

“If a coup, why was the attack directed at me and the friends of Eric rather than at you, Grim!” said Fredrick Kroner weakly, from where he sat at the most charred section of table. His clothing was charred and torn, and one of his arms was supported by a makeshift sling.

“Perhaps because the attackers could sense the weakness of you and your friends, Kroner!” retorted Grim.

Eric glanced at the other Council members and noted the disheveled appearance of those that tended to vote against Grim and the damage done to the long wooden table that they sat behind. Fortunately their now charred sections of table had evidently protected them from very powerful energy blasts. Eric had helped ward the table himself and realized that massive deadly blasts had been necessary to do the extent of the damage he saw. However, the sections of table where Grim and his closest supporters sat were untouched. How convenient for Grim! “Why were you meeting secretly without me and my wife?” he asked.

“So you want to discuss your other crimes!” Grim said. “We were meeting to discuss the declaration of war sent from the Unaligned, which also clearly implicates you Tuttles and your werewolf friend Moco! The long missing King boy is likely to be in on it also; my own son and his friends say that King has been talking about rebellion in the High School and bragging about living with the elves and the Unaligned!”

“That’s a lie!” said Ben loudly, over the sound of the video! “And I sense that there is Evil in this room now! Strong Evil!”

“And there is no declaration of war from the Unaligned!” shouted Moco from the audience!

PAUSE!” thundered Grim, stopping the video. “Seize that werewolf!”

Three burly policemen converged on and seized Moco, who instantly changed to his most powerful man-beast form and shook them off as though they were rag dolls! There were shouts of alarm from the crowd as the tossed police bodies crashed around the room while Moco’s roars reverberated throughout the Hall like the thunder! It sounded more like impossibly load roars of a tiger than the cries of a wolf!

CALM YOURSELF WOLF!” thundered Eric, “VIOLENCE IS WHAT THEY WANT!”

Moco paused and quieted. His contorted features smoothed and most hair disappeared.

Recovered Police approached the Wolf much more cautiously this time, and respectfully shackled his hands and feet with heavy warded steel while a half dozen additional police pointed stun-guns as well as conventional handguns and rifles at him.

“Here for all to see is the declaration that Alan Dale dared to send to this Council!” declared Grim. On the other side wall the magnified image of a typed letter signed by Alan Dale appeared for all to read. It declared war on Hope by the Unaligned and the elves and demanded immediate surrender, and declared Eric Tuttle to be the Governor of Hope to rule at the behest of Alan Dale, leader of the American Unaligned and President of the World Paranormal League.

“That’s not the authentic message that I brought from Dale!” shouted Moco, over the clamor of voices that erupted. “It’s a forgery! Here is a copy of the real letter!” He held up a piece of paper in his shackled hands.

The paper burst into flame. Who had done it was impossible to tell; the room was full of angry Wizards!

“Some coward is afraid of the real letter!” growled Moco.

“So you admit to consorting with the wanted fugitive Alan Dale, and bringing the message from him!” said Grim gleefully. “You openly admit it!”

“The real letter said nothing about war, surrender, or Eric Tuttle!” Moco claimed. “It spoke of the peaceful new World Paranormal League and invited Hope to join it! There is no such thing as an official leader of the Unaligned or the League; Dale organized the League but is only one of more than a dozen American representatives and fifty international representatives to the League, which has no president. Is this traitorous act of yours Hope’s irrational response to the League and the outside world, Grim? And who or what is pulling your puppet strings?”

“Your words betray you and your fellow conspirators, werewolf,” said Grim. “You are clearly allied with Dale, well known traitor to Hope and now the leader of the Unaligned!”

“Dale and many others are no longer unaligned, they are simply not aligned with Hope,” replied Moco. “My alliances are primarily to family and pack, Wizard, but in this matter I agree with Dale. Hope has too long walled itself off from the rest of the world and arrogantly claimed to rule and represent all peoples of the world that have paranormal powers! In today’s world of growing numbers of paranormal people your little town’s absurd claim of legitimate dominance of them is increasingly absurd! Dale has traveled the world and found several other cloistered towns much like Hope, and persuaded them to join together as a world organization of people with powers. Some are Wizards, some are vampires or werewolves or shape-shifters and everything in-between. He invites Hope to join League also! His is a message of peace, unity, and progress!

“Together we can from a position of united strength confront the Norms of the world and come out into the open and live with them as equals! We are all creatures of power, yes, but more than that we are all humans and citizens of Earth. It is time that we openly join together and ally ourselves with elves and other peace-loving peoples of the universe to thrive together and confront common enemies such as prejudice, Demons, and Evil!”

Ben was astonished to hear such a lengthy and impassioned speech from Moco! He didn’t know that the Wolf ever even thought about such issues!

“Live with Norms as equals?” Grim retorted sarcastically. “The real message is the one I displayed. You are mad, werewolf, totally mad, to think that changing your story now to save your skin will work! We Wizards are superior in every way to mere humans, while werewolves and others with limited powers are abominations that will never have even the full rights of Norms, let along equality with Wizards! Hope stands against your nonsensical assertions and against outsiders such as the Unaligned and the elves, and against their nonsense about Demons and Evil!”

“You presume far too much, Chairman Grim, and certainly do not speak for the full Council,” objected Fredrick Kroner. He stood tall and spoke strongly, though his clothing was blackened and tattered, and to stand he had to brace himself against the charred table. “Fundamental equality for all Hope citizens has always been a core Hope value, even though as a practical matter Wizards receive preference, training, and privileges that are meaningless for non-Wizards anyway. Wizards, weres, vamps, and Norms, we are all humans with equal rights!

“As to the prisoners, we must interrogate them further and seek truth. However all prisoners will be treated with honor and dignity, in particular our long trusted colleagues Eric and Elizabeth. What we have experienced and heard here today is shocking and incredible and requires very careful study with open minds, not rash reaction. Besides, if Dale has indeed established some sort of world-wide organization for paranormal humans and invites us to join it I want to hear more about it! The Wolf spoke wisely and his words need to be fully considered. I move that we adjourn this meeting and begin our investigations and deliberations immediately!”

The vote was five to four, with the motion passing, much to the consternation of Chairman Grim. The public was dismissed and prisoners were led away in chains while Grim and Kroner argued loudly.

****

At the King home Amanda the vampire wasn’t surprised to soon find Elizabeth the Master Wizard at her door. She had sensed her approach. She ushered the Wizard inside the darkened house and away from the brilliant burning light of the sun.

“My husband and children have been arrested, and so have Moco and Ben,” Elizabeth stammered, so upset that she could barely speak. “Eric and an elf are accused of terrorism. Eric, Ann, Mark, Ben, Moco, and the elf are all arrested and accused of treason and being in-league with Alan Dale! Eric told me of it all telepathically, but now he is in a well-warded prison and we can’t communicate at all!”

“Yes, I am aware of all that and more,” Amanda said calmly. “Compose yourself Master Wizard; cool heads and strong competent action are required but we can provide it.”

“Eric fears that you and I will also soon be arrested!” said Elizabeth. “He wants us to flee to the home of his friend Fredrick Kroner while the Council sorts this all out.”

“The Council can’t be depended on to sort anything out, Master Wizard, not with Horace Grim in charge of it,” said the vampire. “He must have created the fake version of the letter from Alan Dale that brands both of our husbands as traitors.”

“You might be right,” said Elizabeth. “I can’t believe that the Council has turned on Eric so ruthlessly! They know him well enough to never believe that he could be a traitor to Hope!”

“The Council’s actions aren’t entirely unexpected,” said the vampire. “In response you can help me distribute these throughout Hope.” She handed a printed sheet of paper to Elizabeth. “This is a copy of the real letter from Alan Dale.”

Elizabeth read the letter aloud. “But this is incredible!” she said when she had finished. “Imagine a world-wide league of Wizards!”

“No, it’s a league of all paranormal humans, not only of Wizards. And by the way, vampires, werewolves, and other variants of paranormal humans greatly outnumber Wizards!”

“Of course,” said Elizabeth. “If this letter speaks truth it knocks Hope off its self-ordained pedestal and nullifies Wizard notions of superiority! The concept excites me! But bigots like Grim would go totally crazy! No wonder Grim replaced the original letter!”

“There may be much more to what is happening here than Grim’s petty bigotry and love of self and power,” said Amanda. “There are Demons involved. Exactly how we don’t yet know, but it can’t be good, and it’s about time that Hope knows about everything that’s really happening! You likely have via your computer and smart-phone the email distribution for everyone in Hope? Could you distribute the authentic letter to everyone? I already have the Hortegas distributing two-thousand printed copies all around town and giving a head’s up about Demons.”

“We can’t use regular email,” said Elizabeth, “it’s far too insecure with regard to the outside Norm-ran world. Emails from my home computer typically travel across town via a San Francisco server farm that is probably monitored by the Federal Government. But I can email a message that vaguely refers to your hardcopies as being the genuine article and speaks against Grim and the imprisonment of our families. Also we have a secure land-line internal to Hope that is used for emergency purposes. I’ll put your letter on that, but it will only reach a couple of hundred Hope school and city government people.”

“Good enough, but you’ll have to do all that later. Right now we need to hide elsewhere until my son-in-law arrives to provide what help he can. Just before you came I informed him of the situation.”

“Your son-in-law?”

“Yes; the husband of my daughter Jewel: Alan Dale. Jewel and I have crystal balls that are in tune with the amulets. Now let’s get out of here!”

Elizabeth was shocked “Alan Dale is your son-in-law?” she managed. “THE Alan Dale from Hope? The Council says he’s a murderer! Police and Missionaries sent to bring him to Hope have totally disappeared!”

“Alan’s a very nice fellow, for a Hope-born Wizard,” said Amanda. “Dozens of your missing police and missionaries were converted to his cause by him, none were harmed or murdered! Instead of arresting him they became emissaries working with Alan to establish the World Paranormal League.” She hurriedly put on a black broad-brimmed hat and dark glasses, and led the stunned Wizard towards the front door.

“Actually that sounds more like Alan,” said Elizabeth. She knew him well, long ago.

The doorbell buzzed as the women reached the door!

“Open up, it’s the police!” said a loud voice from outside the door!

“Crap!” said Amanda.

“Indeed,” agreed Elizabeth.

****

The Council holding cell was comfortably outfitted with cots, chairs, a kitchen with food, and a bathroom. There were enough ceiling lights to read by, though there was nothing to read. All in all it was a comfy living space. However to the discomfort of the prisoners it was oppressively warded to obscure magic of any kind, and the walls and doors were too solid and warded to invite a breakout. There were no windows, only a few tiny air vents, and the locked doors were of heavy warded wood and steel.

“This cell is totally escape-proof,” said Eric. “I should know, I designed it myself.”

“You should be proud of your work, Daddy,” said Ann. “I sense no weaknesses in this cell.”

“I’m sure that we can all appreciate the irony,” said Moco, as with a shrug of his wide shoulders he casually snapped off his heavy steel shackles and then circulated among the other captives, snapping off their handcuffs effortlessly. “The dampening wards you designed for inside this cell actually weakened our shackles, Eric. You might want to reconsider some of your ideas next time you design a prison cell. Any ideas about how we get out of here?”

“I suggest that we exchange information between us,” said Soone. “Perhaps enlightenment will suggest to us a means forward.”

“I’m beginning to get the idea that you elves are much more oriented towards study than action,” said Moco.

“I am actually most oriented to studying and cultivating life,” said Soone. “Considerable action is required.”

“It is truly an honor to converse with an elf,” said Eric. “Particularly one as illustrious as you! You and an older elf named Lucian were personally involved in establishing Hope here over three centuries ago, were you not? We have writings and old drawings and paintings that depict the occasion.”

“I recall well your forbearers, young Tuttle,” replied Soone. “You are the spitting image of the Tuttle I worked with three centuries ago to establish Hope! Alas my old mentor Lucian is gone now and of elves involved only I remain to directly recall those days! Establishing an Earth town with a human Wizard Council seemed like a good idea at the time, but as Moco’s remarks suggested, perhaps something more than study is needed now, both here on Earth and on Alure. But we digress into history and politics. We face more immediate problems to alleviate, such as our current imprisonment.”

“We need to get the hell out of this pen!” said Moco. “If I had something solid to batter the walls and doors with, I’d give it a go, but no doubt they are heavily warded and that would be a waste of time and effort anyway.”

“Yes it would be,” said Eric.

“And it would make a terrible racket!” added Soone. “Unsuitable for sensitive elf ears, I am sure.”

“And then what if we did break out?” asked Ben. “What would we do then? We must have a plan.”

“Then let’s come up with one before the Council interrogates us,” said Eric.

“What do you suppose is the hold up with that, Dad?” asked Mark. “Kroner seemed anxious to get started and he’s your friend.”

“I don’t know,” said Eric. “I’m anxious to tell him my side of things, but Grim is doubtlessly mad as hell that Fredrick stood up to him and may be preventing interrogations. Grim replaced the letter from Dale and set us all up for jail time. Plus it is no coincidence that only Kroner and his friends were attacked by the Demons; Grim has to be in league with them! Who knows what they have planned next?”

“I’m much more anxious about the Demons than I am about Grim,” said Soone. “Apparently two or more Demons frequent both Alure and Hope, spreading the corruption that is Evil. But young Ben can see through their cloaking disguises and identify them and also identify Evil. Not even videos fool him, and that troubles me. Very sophisticated spells were required for the deception, and I have never heard of Demons capable of such magic!”

“In any case, Ben was able to see through the spells,” noted Elizabeth.

“Yes, he has seen two Demons, but there could be even more,” said Soone. “It is said that lead Demons can create gateways to the Void and call multitudes of lesser Demons to themselves.”

“Lesser Demons?” asked Eric.

“Yes,” said Soone. “Horde Demons. Lesser in terms of intelligence, at least. Deadly killers, of course: pure killing machines. They act by instinct to attack any life they find and anything built by living beings. We need to stop the intelligent lead Demons and prevent them from calling forth legions of lesser Demon. And of course to stop them we need to first locate and identify them. We need to also locate all the Evil. I can lead efforts to destroy the Evil once it is located.”

“Legions of lesser Demons would create a Demon apocalypse,” said Ben. “But at least none of the Council members are Demons. Nobody I’ve personally met in Hope is a Demon, but I saw one in the school at a distance. Two Demons disguised as elf and man attacked the Council. As to Evil, there are many tons of it in the King backyard, and there could be more hidden elsewhere in Hope. There is certainly Evil inside Council Hall; I sensed it!”

“That sounds like enough Evil to subtly influence the health and disposition of all Hope residents,” said Soone, “and it would also help power the activity of any Demons hiding in and near Hope.”

“You’ll never convince Grim of that,” said Eric. “But Kroner and some of the others might listen.”

“And I should tell you something else that I noticed, though I’m not sure what it means,” said Soone. “The image of the Demon disguised as me in the attack on the Council wasn’t quite right.”

“It looked just like you!” said Eric.

“Not exactly,” said Soone. “It looked like me perhaps a century or two ago, when I was scarcely past middle-age. The memory of what I looked like centuries ago had to come from somewhere. Where would a Demon get that? It is a puzzle.”

“One thing I puzzle about is Demon horns,” said Ann. “I can understand Demons having legs, arms, eyes, and so-forth for practical reasons, but why would they have horns? With Earth life it’s evolution that leads to features like horns.”

“Physical form with Demons is whatever shape they feel like having,” said Soone. “Millions of years ago elf ancestors had horns, and elves have four fingers and toes per appendage, also like many Demons have. Perhaps they copy ancient elf features to mock elves. Or perhaps the legends of Demons possessing elves is true. We don’t know, Ann. There are many things that even elves don’t know about Demons. Always there are many more puzzles than answers, but that is what makes life interesting.”

“Right now our situation is too damn interesting a puzzle!” said the Wolf, who had been testing the strength of the cell door to no avail.

“Which reminds me of that other puzzle that Mark mentioned,” said Eric. “Why isn’t the Council interrogating us as they said they would?”

****

In his private office behind Council Hall Horace Grim Junior sat before the desk of Horace Grim Senior, shaking his head in denial. “I can’t do it Father! I can’t say that I agree with Kroner on issues very much, but I’ve known and trusted him all my life! He was my English teacher and magic mentor in high school! Anyway, within a few years he will retire and be gone! With Red Eric soon also out of the way, I’ll have no strong rivals in Hope! I will fully rule Council to carry out your bidding! Troy will be an adult soon and carry on after me, just as you have agreed! But I see no reason to murder Kroner, Father! I won’t do it! And I still don’t understand why Eric and the elf tried to kill him either! I am very confused!”

The Demon in the form of Horace Grim Senior smiled, and human-like, shook his head, and then began to change form. Gray hair disappeared to be replaced by black. Wrinkled skin smoothed. Thin arms and legs added muscle and old shrunken bones strengthened and lengthened. “Eric and Soone didn’t try to kill Kroner, you idiot!”

“Father! You can shape-shift? What do you mean they didn’t try to kill Kroner! I saw them!”

“I haven’t been your father for over twenty years, fool! I disguise myself as him when it suites me!”

“That can’t be!” Grim said. “I would have known! Old age is merely finally catching up with you, old man! You are my father! I know my father’s memories and mannerisms!”

“Those I took those from his mind as I killed him,” said the Demon. “As I have done with dozens of creatures over the centuries. As I do now with you! You have outlived your usefulness, Wizard fool! Now I do you a great honor, human. Your short useless life is over, but you will in a sense live on through me! I will carry forward your program of hate and destruction beyond anything you ever imagined!”

The Demon that reached out to seize Horace Grim Junior looked exactly like him in every detail! Grim could only cower in shock and fear as the Demon duplicate of himself grabbed both his wrists and squeezed them with enough force to crack bones. He tried to cry out in pain but found that he had no voice, and that he couldn’t even breathe. Or physically or magically do anything. Or think. Mercifully he was dead in moments. The body itself shriveled up and disappeared as the Demon Horace Grim absorbed it into himself, along with Grim’s thoughts and memories.

It would have been satisfying to then destroy what was left of the Hope Council, but the Master Demon was bothered by the news that the elves of Alure were regrouping and that Soone had come to Earth. Having an elf Wizard on Earth meant that Alure and Earth had to both be attacked at once. He decided it was time to leave Earth to his Apprentice while he personally destroyed the Alure Council. As he changed himself into elf form and gathered energy to teleport himself to Alure he telepathically relayed his orders to his Apprentice. As he expected, his eager Apprentice was overjoyed that he would be the one to at long last openly attack the arrogant Earthlings!

****

 

 

CHAPTER 10:

Premonition!

 

Martha Sharp was annoyed. She liked to know at all times what her students were up to and right now she didn’t know. While her close friend Fredrick Kroner focused on school budgets, over-all curriculum, and Council ‘big picture’ issues, she focused on the children, especially their education and wellbeing. A spinster with no children of her own, she regarded all the children of Hope to be her children; every single one of them including vamps, werewolves, and Norms as well as the fledgling Wizards. It was an immense responsibility; the present town of Hope with all its many faults was at the mercy of the adults, but the children were its future!

There was of course Troy Grim and his gang of bullies to worry about. Though there were always school bullies to worry about, Troy and his buddies were a particularly troubling bunch. The thought that they would soon graduate and be released to terrorize Hope at large as full Wizards was frightening, though at least they would be out of the high school and no longer her problem. She and Fredrick had already had several serious confrontations with Horace over Troy’s behavior and future. Horace was blind to Troy’s faults and responded only with anger. Horace had changed over the years to someone hateful that she barely recognized.

She didn’t like it, but Troy would likely go on to receive advanced training at the Academy after high school. His abilities, though mediocre, were just enough to support his continued training. The abilities of his three buddies were fortunately inadequate to allow them to continue to the Academy, unless sometime during their senior year they displayed abilities that up to now were well hidden.

Though Troy and his buddies were a constant annoyance, a whole new set of issues emerged when Ben King returned to Hope. Overall, Ben’s influence seemed to be positive, but disruptive. She didn’t like disruption and change, and Ben seemed to be a change bringer. She didn’t like Ben’s talk of Demons and Evil. On the other hand, she agreed with Kroner that in recent years Grim was becoming a huge problem. Then there was Alan Dale. What would his far-ranging efforts lead to? And how would Hope and Hope’s children be effected?

She learned from several students that emboldened Apprentice Wizards were now united around Ben and his friends. They openly opposed Troy Grim’s bullying and the bigotry that was increasingly preached by Troy’s father and his supporters. The Apprentice Wizards protected even the Norm-students at the school! Sharp strongly approved of the group’s sentiments and actions, but feared that some sort of dangerous confrontation with the Grims and their supporters could be triggered. She would have to keep an eye on the situation and make sure that her children were protected.

Even more surprising was the rapid formation of a Junior Apprentice League at the elementary school level, promoted and led by fiery young Rick Hortega, another close friend of Ben King and the Tuttles. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Junior group included even children that were Norms!

“Why not?” Rick told Sharp, when she spoke to the boy about his organization. “Don’t the Hope Charter and the United States Constitution both support equality for everyone? That’s what my group is all about! The Norms of Hope are all relatives and friends of Wizards. My parents are Norms! I wouldn’t want my Mom and Dad kept out of any group; why would I keep my Norm friends from joining the Junior Apprentice League?”

“I don’t object to it at all, young man,” Sharp replied, though she was astonished to hear a first-grader speak of such things. Talking with Rick Hortega was almost like talking with an intelligent adult! Clearly Rick was someone for her to keep her eye on! “I was merely curious as to its origins.”

“Ben and Ann gave me copies of the Hope Charter and the United States Constitution for me to read,” said Rick. “Those have a lot of good ideas.”

Ben and the Tuttles again! Another one of the young Junior League members brought to her door something else to read: an apparent message from Alan Dale that invited Hope to join a world-wide league of paranormal people! An attached note also warned that a Demon had been spotted at the High School! Almost simultaneously, an adult messenger delivered to her an official Council copy of the note from Dale that was completely different: this one was a declaration of war on Hope and a short note signed by Horace Grim indicating that the Tuttles, Dale, and new King-house occupants were all traitors!

What the heck was going on? She liked and trusted the Tuttles, and had a very high opinion of Alan Dale when he was a Hope student. She didn’t know Ben King’s guardians well, but she did already know Ben King well enough to not suspect his guardians of wrong doing. The King and Tuttle homes were only a short walk around the block from her own home and she decided to go there herself and perhaps find out some truth! She certainly wasn’t the strongest Hope Wizard, but after dealing with students and parents for three decades she was an expert in finding truth and dealing with people.

When Sharp walked out her front door she was astonished to discover more than two dozen students of mixed ages gathered in front of her house, apparently waiting for her to emerge! And still more students were converging there from all directions!

“Jim Nater and Rick Hortega; you’re behind this, aren’t you?” she asked. “Why are you and your Apprentice and Junior Apprentice friends gathering here?”

“For your help,” said Jim. “There’s big trouble brewing at the Council, Vice Principle. It’s going to be really terrible, and it’s going to happen very soon.”

“You know this how?” asked Sharp.

“I had a premonition,” said Jim. “I told some friends about it.”

“And the parents of some of us insisted on you being told,” added Rick. He glanced back towards the gathering crowd, where several adults had arrived. The adults nodded towards Sharp, subtly acknowledging their acquiescence with the proceedings.

“Jim, you believe that you can foresee the future?” Sharp asked, astonished. She had judged Jim to have less magic skills than most of his new Apprentice peers, but perhaps that assessment was not correct.

“Yes, Vice Principle,” Jim replied, his face red with embarrassment. “I catch glimpses of things that might happen in the future. I never told anyone about it before, but I never foresaw anything so bad as this before. Council members will die!”

Sharp shook her head and smiled. “Such foresight is a level five skill, Jim, and unimaginably rare. You must have merely heard people talking about the failed attack that already happened earlier today, Jim! Nobody was killed!”

“No, no!” said Jim. “I don’t mean that one! I don’t see that one anymore so yes, that attack already happened and nobody was killed, just as I foresaw. I think that one was done to put the good guys into prison and out of the way! They’ll be safe there for now. But there’s going to be another attack! I still see it so it hasn’t happened yet! And maybe it won’t happen, if we can weaken the Demons.”

“We want to help against the Demons!” said Claire Jones, one of the senior class Apprentice Wizards. “The adults of Hope are confused and together we Apprentice Wizards are strong. Even many of the youngest Junior Apprentice kids have strong powers.”

“You kids aren’t going into combat against Demons!” said Sharp. “No way! If there are Demons in Hope you have to let the adults handle the situation!”

“But we won’t have to confront the Demons!” said Rick. “Ben says that they feed off Evil. That means that we can weaken them by destroying the huge pile of Evil in Ben’s backyard.”

“That way we won’t have to combat them directly,” said Claire. “We can weaken them from afar. We’ll destroy the Evil where they get their power. That’s the plan that Jim and Rick came up with.”

“But whatever it is that big pile of material in the King backyard is dangerous!” Sharp protested. “And if it’s Evil we don’t know how to destroy Evil! The Council tried to destroy that stuff eight years ago but failed. Legend has it that elves know how to destroy Evil, but the only elf on Earth has been captured and is being held in jail by the Council!”

“We were lucky enough to find another elf on the way here,” said Rick.

“Actually he found us,” said Claire. “And he says that he can help us destroy Evil and shield ourselves from it while we do.”

Sharp was startled when a creature of legend abruptly dropped its cloaking and appeared before her! It was either an elf or a very small person well disguised as one!

“Greetings, Earthling!” the elf said. “My name is Rog! I am Soone’s faithful and incredibly talented Apprentice! I have come to Earth to save humans from Demons and Evil!”

“It’s just like Ben told us,” said Rick. “The elves are our friends!”

“You haven’t happened to see my companion Soone, have you?” asked Rog. “I fear that he has gotten himself lost since we arrived. I am most anxious to find him!”

****

“Hello, Mother Richards,” said the tall, handsome, middle-aged Wizard that greeted Amanda and Elizabeth when they opened the front door of the King home. Nearby four of the Hope Police Force lay about on the ground, apparently unconscious. Amanda exchanged a quick warm hug with the man, who immediately turned his attentions to Elizabeth. “Elizabeth, you look well. It’s been a long time.”

“It’s been a very long time, Alan Dale!” said Elizabeth. Her memory flashed back fifteen years to when she, Eric, and Alan were in all best friends graduating from the Hope Academy, and Alan asked her to go away with him to explore the world of the Unaligned. She refused. She loved both Alan and Eric, but Eric was the stable sensible one that planned to remain in Hope. Alan was the adventurer and dreamer, with dreams that reached far beyond the gates of Hope. She chose Eric, and never regretted her choice. Not very often, anyway.

Sometimes she wondered what her life would have been like if she had chosen Alan. She imagined herself traveling throughout the world preaching unity and equality for paranormal people, while fleeing the Hope police. “You look very well yourself,” she said. She wondered how was it that men reaching middle age tended to be even more attractive, while woman began to lose their appeal.

“I was happy to hear of your children, and of you and Eric becoming Council members,” said Alan. “I knew that you two would make a go of it here in Hope!”

“And it sounds like you have found someone to make a go of it with you among the Unaligned,” said Elizabeth. “I am genuinely happy for you, Alan!”

Alan turned to gesture towards two other Wizards that stood behind him. Elizabeth hadn’t even noticed them before then; she hadn’t noticed much beyond Alan. “You remember Tony and Markus?”

“Of course!” said Elizabeth. “You are Police Attack Wizards, both of you! Four years ago you two were sent to capture Alan, weren’t you?”

“It didn’t work out that way,” said Markus. “We liked Alan and his ideas. So instead we helped him form the World Paranormal League. Alan has a lot of enemies. We are his friends, supporters, and bodyguards. The others sent to capture Alan also became his supporters.”

“They stubbornly insist on following me wherever I go,” said Alan.

“And he stubbornly insists on going wherever he wants to,” said Tony. “He’s here against our advice. Hope is no place to be for people that have been declared to be Rogues by the Hope Council.”

“The Council is in turmoil,” said Elizabeth, “and Eric and my children are imprisoned by them along with Ben King and Moco.”

“Yes, and there are Demons about also, we have heard,” said Alan. “Hope was screwed up enough by Grim even without Demons. Since I left Hope things have really turned to crap, haven’t they!”

“For sure,” said Amanda, “and if Kroner and his friends including Eric are done away with things will become even worse. There has already been one attempt on their lives.”

“Without Kroner and Red Eric there is no chance that Hope will join the League,” said Alan. “But if Hope falls to Demons, that question becomes irrelevant. Hope is still home to the highest concentration of united Wizards on Earth. Without Hope the rest of Earth would also likely fall. We have to act now. The League as yet has no cogent fighting capability but there are a few friends I have made that I can get to teleport here to help with the Demons. Meanwhile we better get ourselves to Council to free the prisoners and try to protect us all against Demons and Grim.”

“We’ll go with you, of course,” said Markus.

“No,” said Alan. “You and Tony stay here, wakeup your police friends and apologize to them profusely, and convert them to our cause at least temporarily. We’ll need their support to save Hope. Come join us when they have recovered.”

Markus and Tony clearly weren’t happy about separating from Alan, but they seemed to be used to taking orders from him. They made no complaint as Alan, Elizabeth, and Amanda teleported away with a loud popping sound.

The trio arrived a blink in time later in front of the Hope High School complex, to find over two hundred citizens gathered around the front entrance, which was apparently closed and locked. More people were arriving every minute, and they were all anxious and agitated, the empathic trio sensed.

“Hey, that’s Elizabeth Tuttle!” someone shouted, and dozens of heads turned towards the Council Woman. “I thought she was in jail!”

“Who is that guy with her?”

“It’s Alan Dale, the Rogue!” someone exclaimed. Several other people pointed and shouted but most of the crowd remained focused on the closed front doorway into the complex.

“I don’t give a damn who it is; can they open the doors?” Demanded an older man. “We can’t be kept away from Council this way! It’s illegal! And I want to know which one of those letters from Dale is the real McCoy!”

“I want to know what they’re doing about that attack earlier!” said a woman. “Did they really arrest the Tuttles? If it was Demons why did they arrest the Tuttles? The Tuttles are solid citizens!”

“There ain’t no such thing as Demons,” insisted a young woman, “but there’s no such thing as a crooked Tuttle either.”

“We can answer some of your questions,” announced Elizabeth, her voice magnified.

The trio weaved their way through the crowd to the top of the steps, tried in vain to open the doors, then turned to face the crowd. By now most people recognized both the Council woman and the Rogue. “It’s true!” someone exclaimed, “The Tuttles are in league with Dale!”

“Hush!” said Dale, his voice magnified. “This is the first contact I’ve had with Hope and my old friends the Tuttles in more than a decade. The letter that invites Hope to join the World Paranormal League is the legitimate one from me, Grim put out a fake one to continue his vendetta against me and his control of you and the Council.”

“You’re a murdering Rogue and a traitor!” someone shouted.

“Lies by Grim,” said Dale. “I never murdered anyone or conspired against Hope! I’ve established a world-wide peace-seeking organization that I now want Hope to join! And I’ve come now to help save Hope from Grim and from Demons! The Tuttles are innocent and must be freed! Ben King must be freed so he can identify the Demons. Evil and Demons are real and on Earth and have to be destroyed, with the help of our ancient allies the elves!”

“That’s all Hope Council business and Hope citizen business!” someone shouted. “Even if you aren’t an outright traitor, you aren’t a Hope citizen anymore and have no say in what happens here!”

“But I am a Hope citizen and a Council member!” proclaimed Elizabeth loudly with a magic enhanced voice, as she stepped in front of Alan. “Grim had the Council illegally hold a meeting without notifying me or my husband. Grim excluded us from Council as he has excluded you! He holds my husband and children as prisoners, which is of course illegal also, as Eric is still officially a Council member, and the children are juveniles. As Council members Eric and I can’t be legally excluded from Council meetings but neither can you! All citizens have a right to attend and contribute to all meetings!”

Angry shouts of agreement came from the crowd.

“These doors can’t legally be closed to you or to me!” Elizabeth continued. “The Council was attacked by Demons according to Ben King, but Grim and his supporters weren’t attacked; only members that have been his opposition were attacked! Add it all up citizens! Grim is in league with the Demons!”

“She’s right!” someone shouted.

“Maybe not; but we won’t find out for sure if we’re kept out here!” said someone else.

“This can’t be allowed to happen here in Hope!” said Elizabeth, still using a magic magnified voice. “I’m a Council Member and Master Wizard and a proud citizen of Hope! My husband and children are being held prisoners in there illegally! If these doors don’t open for us all I’ll blast my way through them!” She turned and tried the twin front doors one more time, but they were still locked shut. They were made of solid wood several inches thick, but harbored even more solid protective wards: wards a thousand times stronger than any wood. She stepped a few paces away from the doors, then turned to again face them. Sensing what was going to happen, people that were near the door stepped farther away.

A brilliant lightning blast erupted from Elizabeth’s extended hands and struck the door with explosive force! She wasn’t half the attack Wizard that Eric was, but she wasn’t to be trifled with! The ground trembled from the impact, but she wasn’t much surprised to find that the well warded door was unharmed.

Elizabeth shook her head. Eric had taught her how to throw lightning bolts but aside from rare practice sessions she had never done it. Her blast was stronger than she expected, but the door wards were powered by essentially all the Wizards of Hope. She herself had helped keep the city wards strong by contributing magic energy to them hundreds of times over the years. Most Wizards gathered in the crowd had done the same. She turned to face them. “Most of you are proud Wizards of Hope! Join me now to blast open these doors and preserve Hope and the integrity of its Council!”

This time as she turned again to face the doors she was joined by dozens of Wizards from the crowd. The next blow against the locked doors was a blindingly bright and loud, and the concussion of the blow knocked most people in the crowd off their feet!

Still the door and surrounding building were untouched!

“I sense that the door ward is actually stronger than when we started!” said Elizabeth, after again trying to manually open the door without success.

“I suspect that the door ward absorbs much of your energy blasts,” said Alan. “Eric would have designed them that way! He was designing these wards when I left Hope.”

“I suspect you are correct,” said Elizabeth, “though we could have hoped that our blast would be powerful enough to overtax and break the ward. So what now?”

“What about other entrances?” asked Amanda.

“All are strengthened by the same ward system,” said Elizabeth.

“What about the Dome over the Courtyard?” asked Alan. “Most of the Courtyard wards are likely aimed at containing blasts between training combatants inside the Courtyard, and masking observations from the outside, not at shielding blows from the outside.”

“Yes, it might be possible to break through the Dome from above,” agreed Elizabeth.

“How will you get up there?” asked Amanda.

“We’ll find a way,” said Elizabeth. “Cloak yourselves individually from satellite viewing, or the Government will see too much,” she added, as she floated up to hover ten feet off the ground. Alan and dozens of other Wizards followed suit. Most had never flown outside a warded space such as the Courtyard. Most had many times contributed energies to the wards that protected the Courtyard. And now they would try to break through those wards.

****

In the forest behind the King house near the edge of Desolation Glen, two hundred Apprentice and Junior Apprentice Wizards, along with several dozen anxious parents, gathered around Vice Principle Sharp.

Before them on a small rock outcropping young elf Rog stood, surveying the ash of the dead clearing that stretched in front of him. “Maker!” he exclaimed. “All that ash is Evil? It’s a good thing that I showed you humans how to self-shield against it or we’d be kaput by now, or damn close to it!” He turned to the small boy beside him. “I don’t suppose that your friend Ben King has shown you how to control Wild Magic, has he?”

“He can’t remember how to control any magic,” said Rick. “He would tell his friends if he could remember something like that.”

“So much for Plan A, as you humans would say,” muttered the elf. When he arrived on Earth he immediately located a computer and studied common phrases.

“Can we destroy it, Mr. Rog?” asked Claire Jones.

“Well of course we can destroy all the Evil!” said Rog confidently, loud enough to be overheard by the entire crowd. “All elves are shown as children how to destroy Evil, that is the good news. The bad news is that first the Evil must be located. Usually the more difficult trick is to locate it, but that has conveniently been done for us already in this case. But destroying all of it will take more work than I at first thought! Evil is actually little bits of the Void, according to elf science, and the Void is where no kind of math rules hold up for long. No science or magic works in the disorder of the Void.

“But this isn’t the Void. The order of this world and especially the magic of Life Energy would over time will eat away these bits of Evil. Evil can also be done away with rapidly using magic, but it’s a dangerous business. If your protective shields fail you, the Evil will make you sick, and combining Evil and Life Energies together carelessly can be like combining matter and anti-matter. Bad things can happen if it is not properly done.”

“We have to do it!” said Rick. “We have no choice.”

“I can quickly show you how, but we’ll need Life Energy and lots of it,” said Rog. “Far more than I expected to need. I sense a good source of such energies here, carried through the Earth, but the Evil is blocking it. If we can but unblock it, perhaps we can shape the flow by spell to cancel out most of the Evil.” He looked out over the gathered crowd. “We need a blast of what Earthly life magic you already have within each of you to be directed at the very center of the glen.” He pulled a metallic amulet from a pocket. “If you would be so kind as to discharge your magic energies into this amulet, then I’ll be able to personally use them to unblock the Earth magic flow.”

In groups of a dozen or more, the child and adult Wizards gathered around the amulet and directed their energies into Rog’s amulet. Rick helped gather and direct the energies of the children. Several times Rick was credited with stopping young Apprentice Wizards from contributing too much, which could have been life-threatening. The adults were amazed at the skills shown by such a young child. Sharp wasn’t sure that she liked that everyone was draining most of their energies into the elf’s amulet, but saw no alternative to following the directions of the seemingly knowledgeable and well intentioned elf.

The elf held his glowing amulet and grinned. How well things were going!

 

****

 

 

Chapter 11

Demons Attack!

 

The Alure Elf Council had been called into emergency session, much to the consternation of its members. “This is highly irregular!” Chairman Hemsope complained. “Declaring a Demon emergency is still in our laws as a reason for an emergency session, but that’s only because we haven’t gotten around to deleting all that foolishness about Demons and Evil from our laws yet.”

“We wouldn’t have bothered the High Council at all,” said Jeanine, “but over much of Alure this Council still holds sway over many, and we need all the elves we can get to defend Alure and the Balance. We need to protect against Evil!”

“The true evil is the long obsession of the elves have had with the Balance,” said Hemsope. “We elves have dedicated ourselves to it for millennia, this myth of Demons and Evil. Far too many elves still defy Council and waste their hard-earned magic by feeding the Balance Wards. Think of all we could have done for ourselves if we hadn’t been feeding those Wards! Because of that neglect, now our gardens fail!”

“No, because of your neglect of the Wards they are weakened and now Demons and Evil attack elves and their Gardens,” said Jeanine. “But those of us that still hold with elf traditions have gotten ourselves together here to either get your approval and support or to make sure that you no longer oppose us.” She gestured to the five dozen elves that had entered the Chamber with her. Most were elves as old as herself or older, along with two or three generations of their kin. Powerful elf Wizards, all of them, but only a few were officially Gaou. Most were from the countryside, where traditions still held strong, but several were from the Grand Hall Gardens, including old Hancow.

“The Gardens still fail, Council Leader,” said Hancow. “The only hope for them is for us to return to the old ways.”

Several local elves were also in attendance, including young Knarf and his circle of friends. Jeanine recognized them: they were the same elves that argued against Soone about elf traditions at the Grand Hall. “So this is the bunch that has been preaching against the High Council!” said Knarf. “And now you’ve foolishly gathered yourselves together here with the High Council. How very timely and convenient! Traitors, all of you rabble!”

“Excellent point,” said Hemsope. “You gathered here are all subject to the official reprimand of the Council!”

“Don’t bother,” said Knarf. “The High Elf Council of Alure is being dissolved here and now! Here and also on Earth where Evil has been concentrated and Demon powers are great! It is time for all elves and humans to die!”

The image of the elf shimmered, glowed, and seemed to age. For a few moments some of the older elves noticed a resemblance to a long dead and revered elf of recent history. Then horns appeared on the image as it expanded and darkened, while it tripled in height and gained in mass dozens of times. New skin looked like scales made of black rock-chunks, its eyes glowed bright red, and red also glowed between and through the scales. When two horns appeared on its head all the stunned elves in the room knew exactly what the being known as Knarf was!

“It can’t be!” mumbled Hemsope. “It must be illusion! A projection, perhaps!”

“Always the fool!” said the Demon, with a voice as deep and loud as thunder. “That’s why I helped you become Council Leader! A leader of fools!”

From the Demon’s hands a ball of lightning suddenly formed and shot forward to engulf the Council Leader! In moments the elf was gone, consumed by Evil and pure energy, but the ball of energy grew still larger and brightened while the Earth, building, and air trembled as if anticipating what was coming next!

“Strengthen your shields and join them together!” shouted Jeanine, as she crouched down on her knees in the ancient elven defensive posture that minimized surface area and exposure to attack. The eves with her group also assumed the defensive posture and formed shields around themselves and linked them together, just as they had practiced doing for most of their lives.

The explosion from the bursting ball of energy knocked the grouped visiting elves across the Chamber but didn’t destroy them. When the smoke cleared Jeanine and her followers were all tumbled together where the far wall had been a moment earlier, but still crouched unharmed in their defensive postures. The ten other Council members were gone, obliterated into their constituent elements and blown away like most of the building. Knarf’s little band of followers were gone. The walls were gone. The roof was gone. The entire Chamber building was gone: tons of well-crafted, heavily warded stone were completely obliterated. The only thing of the Chamber that remained was blackened stone floor tiles, except for where the Council Leader and the Demon had stood. There the tiles were gone and replaced by a shallow pit full of glowing black rocks.

“The rocks are Evil, Jeanine,” said the Demon. “Stone by stone I gathered Evil by creating ruptures to the Void. I planted Evil here, and also at the Grand Hall and Soone’s gardens under the water troughs. But I put most of the Evil here in the Council Chamber under the floor tiles, to sap the strength and dull the thoughts of the so-called leading citizens of Alure. It has been delicious to watch the High Elf Council of Alure decay physically and mentally! There are tons of Evil gathered here on Alure, and there’s even more Evil horded on Earth!”

“Thanks for that information, Demon,” said Jeanine. “We’ll get rid of all that Evil, now that we know where it is.”

“You won’t live long enough to make use of anything you’ve learned,” countered the Demon. He extended his arms to hold his open hands above the evil rocks. Tendrils of lightning snaked up from the rocks to strike and be absorbed by the Demon’s open beckoning hands as he drew strength from the Evil.

“What should we do Jeanine?” asked one of the younger elves.

“Too late for us to do anything except brace for the next blast,” said Jeanine. “We’ll follow our plan or die trying!”

The Demon smiled and stepped towards Jeanine with outreached open hands. The joined together elves were strong but over the centuries the Demon had seen their spells before and knew exactly how to overcome them. “Goodbye elves!” it said.

****

“It’s about time you called us together to meet again!” said Fredrick Kroner, as he entered the Council Hall. “Grim, I demand that the prisoners be released immediately. In reviewing our laws I have come to realize that no Council Member can be held prisoner. Why that was not realized by this body earlier is truly puzzling.”

“It is because there is fifty pounds of Evil hidden in the podium,” said Horace Grim. “It has a dizzying effect on biological beings.”

“What?” said Kroner. “What are you talking about?”

“The end of Hope Wizards and of all humans,” said Grim.

“Are you losing your mind Horace?” asked Council member George Price, one of Grim’s supporters.

“Your support is no longer required, Price,” said Grim. The image of Horace Grim faded to be replaced by Fred Hanes, the usually grim and silent friend of Troy Grim. “And the time of hiding is past.” Fred’s image disappeared also, and glowed as it turned black and expanded in size to inhuman proportions. Its monstrous features immediately identified it to be a Demon of legend, but this creature was no myth, this was real! “Time to die, humans!” it said. Its voice was impossibly loud and deep. Without warning lightening shot out from the Demon’s hands and obliterated Price, who sat closest to Grim.

Half a dozen Hope security police fired blasts of energy at the Demon, with absolutely no effect, except to soon bring their deaths. The Demon swept his hands through the air, lightning erupting from them to strike all the police down. He then directed his lightning at the remaining terrified Council members, first restraining them all and then striking them down one by one.

“This Chamber and entire complex is designed to protect from outside dangers, fool humans! It’s a well-designed death-trap for you now that blocks your escape! You can’t even teleport away! Death is your only refuge!”

Several Wizards of the Council had attack skills and fought to live even though shackled by Demon spells, but their efforts were futile. Two tried to flee but were easily picked off by the Demon when they fled towards one of the exits.

Soon only Fredrick Kroner remained alive. “Your turn to die now, Kroner,” said the Demon. “For years you opposed me, resisting my Evil with impossible resolve. Now I take great pleasure in your death!”

Kroner was too old and terrified to effectively flee or defend himself, and was also being restrained by overpowering Demon magic. But despite the restraining spell he managed to defiantly lift up one shaking arm and direct a mighty blast of energy at the Demon, which the Demon totally ignored!

A return massive energy blast from the Demon knocked Kroner across the room like a rag doll, but most of the blast was deflected and absorbed by an armor clad figure that had suddenly interposed himself in front of Kroner! The astonished Demon next suffered a massive hammer blow to the top of its head that actually knocked it a pace or two backwards!

“Die Demon,” shouted Carl Bruger, as he drew back his hammer to strike a second mighty blow!

The blow never came. The Attack Wizard was amazed to see a huge blast of energy from the Demon completely obliterate most of his strongly warded hammer! Bruger threw the surviving hammer handle at the monster, but the solid steel projectile bounced harmlessly off one of the creature’s raised hands, while the second hand of the monster in the form of a gigantic fist struck out towards the impudent human.

“You’re far too slow, blundering Demon!” Bruger taunted, as he ducked the blow and in a single swift motion drew his sword and struck the extended striking arm of the Demon. Brilliant energy from the blow shattered the blade in a sharp explosion, and the Demon screamed in anger when it realized that just below the elbow the sword had cut half-way through its arm! “Too slow and too weak to defeat a Hope Attack Wizard!”

Glowing red Evil poured freely from the Demon’s wound for a few moments, then stopped as the wound sealed and hardened to black rock-like Demon scale. “I will kill you next for that, human,” the Demon screamed, as with surprising speed it launched itself towards Bruger, who was by now fleeing out the rear exit of the Chamber.

The doorway was just wide enough for Bruger to duck through with his wide shoulders but nowhere near large enough to accommodate the Demon, who doubled the size of the opening with a large crash and scattering of shattered wood and stone, despite the strong wards that reinforced the doorframe. The Attack Wizard and the pursuing Demon shot up the stairs and through another too-narrow doorway that was also soon violently enlarged by the Demon.

“Now!” shouted Bruger, as he dodged yet another column of flaming plasma that shot towards him from the on-charging Demon!

Ringed around them in the Courtyard, over a dozen Attack Wizards simultaneously erupted in lightning blasts that struck the Demon from head to foot with energies gathered from a hundred thunderstorms! The Demon stood frozen in shock, glowing white-hot for a few moments as the Evil within it consumed the residual energy of the blast.

At that moment Sam Putt struck it with his Attack Hammer, a weapon strengthened by him every day for three decades by spells. He intended the mighty blow to shatter the Demon into manageable Evil pieces, but instead of shattering the Demon the hammer itself shattered with a thunderous explosion that flattened the Attack Wizards, including Sam and Carl!

“I don’t get it!” Carl told Sam. “One being couldn’t have all that power!”

“It is itself shaped Evil and it draws strength from the Evil it has placed in Hope!” said Sam. “It will keep renewing itself using Evil while we exhaust ourselves!”

“Correct Human!” said the Demon. “The Evil that my Master gathered to Desolation Glen will power me to destroy you all and allow my Master to call forth thousands of my brother Demons to kill all life on Earth!”

****

At Desolation Glen, the Elf Rog tossed his beloved amulet of power into the center of the desolation and shouted for joy when the resulting explosion knocked himself and the humans off their feet!

“It worked!” said Sharp. “I can sense the Earth magic flow!”

“Well of course it worked!” said Rog. “I already miss my amulet though. I gathered life energy into it for many years, saving up for a moment such as this! At last I’m a real hero! I hope that among you are bards capable of singing songs of praise that will do justice to the heroism of Rog!

Have you actually used your spells to destroy Evil?” Sharp asked.

“Not yet,” admitted Rog. “But I learned the spells when I was a child and never forgot them. I was always a very good student.”

“Terrific!” said Sharp.

“Are your Evil containment wards still holding?” asked the little elf.

A few steps back from the Desolation, more than a hundred of the stronger children and adult Wizards held hands and formed a circle that completely surrounded the field of Evil. “The physical containment wards are stronger than ever,” said one of the adults. “We constrict the wards to push the Evil back towards the center. But now we also begin to block the effects of the Evil on Hope, by expanding our personal protection shielding as you have shown us.”

“The Life Magic flowing now to the center of the Glen is being cleverly crafted by me to safely and rapidly eat away the Evil at its center!” said Rog. “And using the spells I have shown you, you humans are also eating away at the Evil at its edge and pushing the Evil into the wellspring of Life Energy! Humans are fast learners!”

“The Hortega boy quickly showed us what you showed him, and helped us to all work together,” said Sharp. “More important, Rick calms our fears and strengthens our resolve. Many of these children have never even heard of Demons or Evil, or seen the destruction in this glen. The Council is going to have to reassess the value and legality of collaborative magic, if we live through this event.”

“So far so good!” said Rog, “but this is only the beginning. As the field of Evil weakens, we will compress the containment wards, shrinking the field as we tighten and strengthen our circle around it. We will eventually form a double circle, and then a triple circle, as we all the while increase our consumption and containment of the Evil. We will continue to shrink the circle until the Evil is completely gone!”

“The bad news is that this could take hours and despite our shielding we are being assaulted by being in close proximity to the Evil,” said Jim Nater. “If any of you start to feel dizzy let Miss Sharp know and she will replace you with one of the others that continue to arrive here.”

“Yes, I will instruct people on your spells as they arrive and see that they are placed where they are most needed,” said Sharp. “I have already identified Wizards with healing powers to aid those who suffer from Evil effects.”

“Will destroying the Evil kill the Demons Mr. Rog?” a small girl asked the elf.

“Oh no, not at all,” admitted Rog. “They carry Evil within themselves. This will merely weaken them. Killing them will be up to others, such as Ben King. I hope to never in my lifetime as much as see a Demon!”

“And like you said, we have other allies such as Ben King,” said Sharp.

“But isn’t Ben King in prison?” said the girl.

Imprisoned both within the Hope government complex and within his own mind, Sharp noted, but she said nothing.

 

****

 

 

CHAPTER 12

Breakout!

 

“As usual, there’s the good news and the bad news,” said Red Eric. “The good news is that I sense that the wards of our prison are greatly weakened. The bad news is, that means that the linked wards of the Hope central facility are being stressed elsewhere. That can only be a bad thing! Moco, the distant thunder that you thought that you sensed is perhaps evidence that the Council is under attack!”

“It sounds like it’s time for us to break out of here and help the good guys,” said the Wolf, “assuming that we can tell the good guys from the bad.” While in his strongest man-wolf form he ran full tilt at the door and struck it with his shoulder with a loud thump, then slowly sank to the floor in pain. The door appeared to be unharmed. “Damn that hurts!”

“You broke your bones in several places!” said Eric, as he ran his sensitive hands over the Wolf. “Not easy to do with magic strengthened bones stronger than steel!”

“You have half healed yourself already though,” said Soone. “You made an impressive and valiant effort just now, Mr. Wolf-man, but if we are to break that door we must do so in concert! We have the magic of myself, Eric, Ann, and Mark to add to your great physical strength!”

“Even so I estimate that our combined efforts would be inadequate,” said Eric. “The door wards are still far too strong.”

“Perhaps I could be used as a battering ram by the rest of you,” said Ben.

“That’s not happening, Cub,” growled the Wolf, as he stretched and flexed his completely healed body.

“Maybe it’s worth a try!” said Mark. “I mean, Ben is pretty much indestructible.”

“But if even a sprite could barely keep hold of him to fly about with him, how would we propel him against a door with enough force to break through it?” asked Ann.

“She’s right,” said Ben. “Besides, if you try to throw me violently against something I’d probably blowup in your own faces. My shielding is probably more likely to hurt you guys than to hurt the door.”

“And anyway as I said, it’s not happening!” growled the Wolf.

“But perhaps Ben’s shielding can be used in another way,” said Soone. “Eric, when Moco struck the door I sensed a surge of energy flowing through the surrounding walls and ceiling, but hardly a change at all in the energies flowing through the floor, which remained immense: many times the energy of the walls and ceiling. The floor is not warded the same as the walls and door. What does that mean?”

“The ward energies for the entire complex flows through the floor here, that’s why the cell was conveniently located at this place,” explained Eric. “A barrier ward for a cell wasn’t needed for much of the floor; the incidental ward energy flow is barrier enough. Besides, this is the basement. If anyone broke through the physical floor and the ward conduit, there’s only solid bedrock below it.”

“But what happens if that energy flow is blocked?” asked Soone.

“What are you getting at?” said Moco. “Are you thinking of using Ben’s shielding to block the ward energy flow for the entire building complex? Even a wolf-man can figure that we’d probably all get blown to hell! And who knows what would happen to Ben? That ward’s way more powerful than anything he has tested his shield against!”

“But the elf may have something!” said Eric. “It wouldn’t be as risky as trying to use him as a battering ram. I could monitor Ben and yank him out of the flow if I see that he’s in trouble, and I’d pull him out after only a few seconds anyway. We only need to block energy powering the door for a few seconds, we don’t want to stop the flow permanently; for all we know, good guys are using the wards somewhere else to fight bad guys. Soone can shield us all from possible explosion, in case that happens. Moco can rip a hole in the physical floor and then open the door when the flow is disrupted. And that leaves my Ann and Mark to run through the door and set it open from the outside for the rest of us.”

“We will play our part!” said Mark, speaking for the twins.

“Nope, it still sounds too dangerous for the Cub,” said Moco.

“I want to do it!” said Ben. “We have to get out of here now and this sounds like our best shot! Besides, all this is my fault! You have to let me help!”

“Your fault? What do you mean?” asked Moco.

“All this started happening when I returned to Hope,” said Ben. “I should have stayed with the Unaligned!”

“You’re smarter than that, Ben King!” said Ann. “You didn’t bring the Demons here; you warned us about them already being here! You’re a hero even without having control of your powers!”

“I’m very certain that the Demons have been getting onto Alure and Earth before you came along, Ben,” said Soone. “You play an important role in things but you are not the source of our miseries. Quite to the contrary, you are a source of hope for us!”

“Enough talk!” growled the Wolf. “I’m not going to let my stubbornness and concern for you actually prevent your rescue, Cub. Soone’s idea and Eric’s plan to carry it through is the best chance we’ve got. Now let’s do it and get ourselves out of here!”

****

Above the glass Dome that stretched high above the Courtyard far below, two dozen levitating Wizards used every power at their disposal, but had thus far succeeded in merely breaching the masking wards that blocked visual observation; they were unable to break their way through shielding and into the Dome. They could only watch on hopelessly as below them a monstrous Demon battled Hope Attack Wizards. On the Courtyard practice field, magic was not ward-muted, and the Attack Wizards individually and in pairs and larger groupings attacked the Demon with every weapon and spell they had at their disposal. Ward-hardened spears and arrows and balls of exploding fire and lightning bolts cascaded down on the creature almost continuously, without appearing to do it the slightest damage! The Demon appeared to be unhurt and clearly had the upper hand.

The Wizards tried unsuccessfully to imprison the monster in freezing water that only steamed away before ice could form around it. Norm weapons such as machine-guns and burning napalm had no damaging effect at all! Wizard efforts to levitate the creature were hopeless; it could apparently control its weight to off-set any such efforts! Nothing could stop it!

Many violent Wizard attacks were reflected back at the attackers themselves. A vat of red-hot molten steel levitated above the Demon and was dumped over it, but it exploded off the creature in red-hot molten gobs that badly wounded two Wizards. Wizard thrown lightning power-bolts similarly reflected off of the Demon and instead savaged the attacking Wizards!

Meanwhile although the Wizards skillfully dodged and shielded, the Demon killed them off one by one. The victim Wizards tried to dodge the blows while their companions tried to mask and shield them and draw the Demon away, but the monster was relentless in its dogged pursuits once it became fixated on a particular victim. It focused on one Wizard after another, increasing their weight to slow them down and restraining them telekinetically while blasting them with burning bolts of power! Three Attack Wizards perished, then four, and their mere deaths weren’t enough to satisfy the Demon. In each case at the last the victim was grasped by the Demon and blasted into glowing dust and smoke while their companions screamed their impotent anger and dismay!

“Does it seem to you that the Demon’s blasts are getting weaker?” Sam Putt asked Bruger.

“Not from where I’m standing,” the younger Wizard replied. “It’s still way stronger than us! But maybe we can wear it out!”

“Except we’re wearing out faster than it is!” said Sam.

While gradually the Demon decimated the ranks of Hope’s finest fighting force, high above them the numbers of Hope citizens that watched the battle gradually increased to over a hundred! Alan and Elizabeth welcomed newcomers to their ranks gratefully but even the growing multitude could still not breach the Dome! There was such a crowd of Wizards gathered that Elizabeth barely noticed when two dozen more Wizards joined their ranks via teleportation, led by a plucky ancient looking old woman that that was greeted especially warmly by Alan Dale.

“Elizabeth, this is Maude Philips!” said Alan. “And these are Wizards from around the world, brought together by the League!”

“We come at Alan’s request,” said one of the male visitors. “He is far too important to the League for us to let him be harmed by Demons or by Hope Wizards!”

“This is Win Chan of the Chinese Delegation,” said Alan.

“Your help is welcomed! All of you are welcome here!” Elizabeth added, as she stared at the new Wizards in amazement! They appeared to be of every race and nationality imaginable! Despite a scattering of Hope Missionaries across the globe, most Hope residents were from the United States or Canada. There were Wizards elsewhere, but most refused to come to Hope. But her attention was drawn most strongly to the old woman! “I remember you!” she said. “From when I was a small child! I’ve guessed your identity for years, and now I know my guesses were right!”

“As well you should, Granddaughter,” said Maude. “We still have the red hair in our line, I see. Mine has been silver for a long, long time. Yes, I’m one of those crazy radical folks that ran-off to the freedom of the Unaligned from the strictures of Hope society. There are many more of us ex-Hope folks out there than the Hope authorities let on!”

“My Mom said you were dead, before she died herself!” said Elizabeth.

“Not hardly,” said Maude, as Elizabeth floated into Maude’s waiting arms. “Your Mom disowned me when I left Hope.”

“Conduct family reunions and introductions later,” said Alan. “Now we need to break inside the Dome and help the Hope Attack Wizards fight the Demon!”

“I don’t see how that will be possible,” said another of the visitors, a huge blonde man who spoke with an Irish accent. “I ken the Dome to be too strongly warded, even for the likes of us!”

“And most of us are not trained for attack as are many of the Hope Wizards,” said another of the visitors, an exotically dressed black woman. “Most of us don’t have nice warded buildings like this one where folks can freely practice magic skills. Most of us need to all the time apply all our skills to hiding from the rest of humanity.”

“And to getting those of us that don’t hide very well out of trouble,” said a very British sounding man. “But that usually involves finesse rather than battle.”

“Very few Hope Wizards are trained for battle either,” said one of the Hope citizen Wizards. “But we’ll do what we can, though we can’t do anything until we get inside the Dome!”

At that moment the Courtyard Dome abruptly stopped glowing!

“The wards are down!” someone shouted! Wizards began to drop down towards the Dome!

“Don’t knock down the Dome!” shouted Alan, too late, as large sections of Dome glass were shattered or disintegrated by the descending Wizards. At that point he belatedly realized that the gathered Wizards lacked planning and training to attack a Demon!

Wizards and Dome remnants together fell down towards the Demon, who stood in the center of the Courtyard and gathered his energies for a huge welcoming explosion. “How convenient!” the creature muttered, “most of you aren’t even shielded!” It was a vulnerable mob of more than a hundred citizen Wizards that was attacking, not a trained fighting force!

****

Deep within the Hope High School and government complex, Ann and Mark emerged smiling from their holding cell. But as the prison door slammed itself shut and the ward powered up again, before them stood Troy Grim, holding a handgun that was pointed at them! His eyes were wild and he looked as if someone had recently beaten him up.

“What’s happening Troy?” Mark asked, in as friendly a tone as he could manage.

“You look like the twin Tuttle brats, but who are you really?” Troy asked suspiciously.

“You know us, Troy!” said Ann.

“I know who you look like,” said Troy, “but that don’t mean shit. I saw Fred Hanes turn into some kind of monster and tear Frank and John to pieces. It would have got me too if I wasn’t fast on my feet! I looped back and followed it, that’s what I did! Then next thing you know it turned into my Dad and then back into a monster that massacred the Council! I want you to tell me what the hell is happening, Tuttles! I sure as hell don’t know! The cops say my Dad is dead! Killed by a Demon! Did you know that?”

“I’m sorry,” said Ann. She had never liked Horace Grim, but not to the extent that she wanted him to be murdered. “No, of course we didn’t know!” As they talked, Ann edged towards the cell door controls.

“We’ve been locked up and just got out, so there is a lot we don’t know and had nothing to do with,” said Mark.

“But we do know that Demons that can shape-shift are attacking Hope,” said Ann. “You aren’t our best buddy, Troy, but you aren’t a traitor to Hope, are you? Or a Demon?”

“Me? Of course not!” said Troy. “I just want to get my cut of wealth and power! Without my Dad how the hell am I going to make it in this town?”

“You’re still a great football player, right?” said Mark. It was the only positive thing about Troy that he could think of.

“I guess,” said Troy. “But first I have to live through this day! And maybe you guys are Demons too!”

“If we are Demons that gun wouldn’t hurt us anyway, and if we aren’t you don’t need to point it at us!” reasoned Ann. “So how about putting it away and we’ll talk.” Meanwhile she used telekinesis to push the lever that controlled the cell door ward. Troy didn’t even notice.

“Talk?” said Troy. “Yeah; that’s why I came down here. I wanted to talk to you prisoners and maybe figure out what I should do, though I expected you all to be locked up! Besides, that King kid claims that he can tell who is a Demon. I figure that could come in handy.”

The heavy but unlocked and un-warded wood and steel cell door suddenly shattered into wood splinters and twisted metal scraps, as the Wolf almost casually stepped through it. “We think so too, kid,” said the big wolf man, who with his Wolf hearing had listened to the teens talking.

Troy was startled when Ann next used telekinesis to knock the gun from his hand!

A moment later the Wolf picked it up and casually crushed it in a huge clawed hand. “These things are pretty useless against Demons,” he remarked.

“Hey it’s Troy! What’s happening out here, Troy?” asked Ben amiably as he, Soone, and Red Eric stepped out of the cell.

“I could probably rip that information from your mind, Troy,” said Eric. “But if you vocally tell us what has happened since we were imprisoned that would be preferred.”

****

On Alure, the Master Demon pursued elusive flying, fleeing elves that defied his every effort to kill them. His energy blasts seemed to merely repulse and push aside the individually shielded ellipsoidal personal pods shielding each elf, without causing any real damage to any occupants. More strange yet, elf evasive maneuvers and shielding consumed most of their energies by far! The fleeing elves only occasionally fired at him feebly. That didn’t make sense! They weren’t seriously trying to destroy him! Instead they were simply evading him and drawing him further away from the remains of the Council Chambers.

Only when he attempted to recharge himself using the Evil at the Council Chambers did the Master Demon begin to suspect their real strategy. He found that he could only withdraw half as much energy from his stores of Evil as he expected to! That could mean only one thing. While he was out chasing elves, other elves must be destroying his caches of Evil!

He teleported back the demolished Council Chambers and verified his suspicion; a hundred elves mobbed his Evil stash and were rapidly nullifying it! There wasn’t enough Evil left on Alure to support his planned Demon apocalypse! Perhaps there wasn’t even enough for him to escape Alure!

 

****

 

 

CHAPTER 13

Battle at Desolation Glen

 

Above the practice fields of the Hope High School Courtyard, a hundred Wizards descended from the remnants of the shattered overhead Dome towards the monstrous Demon that awaited them. More than a hundred additional Wizards remained above the Dome, cut off when the Dome wards reasserted themselves.

Having the Dome wards back in place suited the Apprentice Demon perfectly; the Dome enclosure would greatly magnify the deadly effects of the destructive blast he was planning. He was disappointed to find that he could draw far less energies from Desolation Glen than he expected, but nevertheless, the explosion that occurred when the first of the descending Wizards reached ground-level was enormous.

The effects however, were disappointing for the Demon. While a few of the closest human Wizards were indeed crushed or even vaporized, most of the effects of the blast were greatly muted by one of the human Attack Wizards, who had interposed himself over the explosion and absorbed most of its deadly effects! Instead of most Wizards being killed outright almost all of them were only stunned.

But he still smiled his Demon smile, for at least he had finally vaporized that pesky loud-mouthed Attack Wizard Carl Bruger! For years he watched Bruger brag about himself while he sat quietly on the sidelines in the guise of a flunky for that idiot son of that fool of a Council Chairman, Horace Grim. Now Bruger was gone forever!

The remaining Attack Wizards appeared to be unhurt; they even managed to cushion the fall of most of the survivors that had entered through the Dome. Though many were unconscious and badly injured, more than a dozen of them immediately took up defensive stances directed towards the Demon, led by a woman with brilliant red hair that he recognized to be Elizabeth Tuttle, a Master Wizard. Strangely, he didn’t recognize several of the Wizards with her, although he should have been able to recognize most Hope Wizards.

Only seven of the original Attack Wizards remained, but several able looking Wizards wearing police uniforms had entered the Courtyard and were converging on him, followed by dozens more Wizards that poured onto the battlefield through several doors. The disruption of the wards had enabled the unlocking of all the outside doors!

Worst of all most of the Wizards that had brazenly crashed through the Dome were largely intact and rapidly growing in strength as they healed themselves and each other. If he could simply muster another blast immediately the Demon was sure that he could kill most attackers, but for reasons unknown he was having increasing problems accessing the regenerative powers of the Evil at Desolation Glen.

There was a second large store of Evil much closer than the Glen, but the Master Demon reserved that Evil for himself. The Apprentice Demon knew better than to access its energies without the Master’s permission.

While the remaining Attack Wizards continued to fling powerful bolts of energy at him, dozens of other Wizards now surrounded him, spoiling for battle. At the edge of the Courtyard his Demon eyes spied the arrival of Red Eric, Soone, the Tuttle brats, and the King kid. With them was none other than that fool he had pretended for years to be buddies with, Troy Grim!

He wanted to immediately kill them all! But for the first time, the Demon realized that he didn’t have the power he needed! It wasn’t supposed to be this way! He was supposed to be able to draw almost unlimited energy from the Evil at Desolation Glen! And human resolve was supposed to crumble with the destruction of their Council! Instead, those Wizards that remained seemed to be emboldened! The Hope citizen Wizards were aroused, not cowed! He could sense their growing strength and determination! Meanwhile he was weakening!

His situation didn’t improve when the Dome wards abruptly ceased again completely and over two hundred additional Hope Wizards entered the Courtyard from high above. Most of them didn’t even know how to throw blasts of energy but they knew how to shield and to apply telekinetic force. His power blasts no longer broke through shielding to reach any of the humans, and his every movement was opposed by many tons of force!

He was no longer the hunter, but the hunted!

“He saved over a hundred lives, and used up the Demon’s time and energies!” said Sam Putt of his fallen comrade Carl Bruger, as more than a dozen of the lead Wizards parlayed together at the far end of the Courtyard. Tears ran down the big man’s cheeks, but he held a huge drawn sword that he ran his well-callused fingers over again and again as he strengthened and sharpened the weapon, and his dirt and blood smeared face was full of anger. “I’m going to cut off the head of that grinning monster!”

“Yes my friend, we all hope you will,” said Red Eric.

“For sure Bruger saved my life and that of Alan and his League friends,” said Elizabeth, who stood comfortably in a warmly hugging huddle of Tuttles.

“But none of us has ever killed a Demon,” said Amanda. “There may be subtleties to killing an alien creature of un-Earthly powers that we do not know. Am I right, elf?”

“Yes, caution is warranted,” said Soone. “Demons are Void-spawn and permeated with Evil. I am not the expert on it like my old mentor Lucian was, but I recall some of my Demon-lure. For one thing, note that cutting off its head would not kill it.”

“What?” exclaimed Sam.

“Demons don’t have central nervous systems or brains like biological beings do,” explained the elf. “In fact, they tend to lack specialized organs of any kind: no hearts or livers or stomachs or any of the other sorts of specialized body parts that we biologics have come to depend on. A few external features such as limbs and eyes are formed to serve specific purposes, but nothing is a permanent structure. They are more or less a uniform living energy-like substance. Elves and human Wizards to an extent can control magic energies; Demons ARE magic energies, but energies of Evil driven by the chaos of the Void. They are Evil in living form.”

“I don’t care what they are made of,” said Sam. “I just want to know how to kill them!”

“Dismantling them is indeed an effective weakening strategy, though the Demon would need to be sliced into dozens or perhaps hundreds of pieces that are kept separated to avoid rapid reassembly,” said Soone. “And then the pieces each need to be totally obliterated.”

“Obliterated how?” asked Eric.

“A powerful creature strong in magic that eats the pieces might work,” said the elf, “though finding creatures of Earth magic is highly problematic, and the Demon pieces would be extremely poisonous to them. I once witnessed an Alure dragon eat a Demon and the result was not favorable for the dragon or the Demon. No, I suspect that elf spells to destroy Evil would work best. Those involve combining Evil and Life-Forces in a controlled manner which prevents explosion but cancels out the Evil.”

“Let’s get to it then,” said Sam. “I’ll slice and dice, and then the elf can do his anti-Evil spells.”

“Correction,” said Soone. “I can lead your Wizards to do it. One elf cannot do it alone, especially an old tired one like me.”

“One little problem though,” said the Wolf. “The Demon is gone!”

“The Courtyard wards are down,” noted Soone. “There is no impediment to teleportation! It must have ported itself away!”

Indeed where the Demon had stood only moments before there was only a broad circle of smoking, blasted Earth. Future Courtyard groundskeepers would have a devil of a time getting grass to regrow there thought Soone, assuming that in the future there would be a Courtyard with groundskeepers.

****

“Form the triple ring now!” Rog directed. In each of the existing rings every third person stepped back a few paces and joined hands to form a third ring around the desolation. This time Apprentices and parents responded more confidently than when they accomplished their first shift from a single to a double ring. Rog and Sharp circled the group constantly, providing advice and encouragement. In the inner-most circle Wizard Apprentice magic was ably consolidated by little Rick Hortega. His inner-group had become particularly proficient at nibbling away at and nullifying Evil.

It was becoming increasingly obvious that they were succeeding in rapidly destroying the Evil of Desolation Glen. Less than ten percent of the Evil remained, and though that still left several tons of the deadly substance, it was steadily disappearing. While the ring of Wizards ate away at it steadily at its edges and pushed it inward, in the center the Evil was rapidly disappearing as Life Energy/Forces shaped by Rog welled up from the Earth to consume it!

The Life Energy originated and leaked from countless trillions of living beings Earth-wide, from terrestrial and oceanic plants, animals, and simpler forms of life, and even from tiny atmospheric life forms carried in the winds. The tiny amounts of complex energies sank into geological formations where they welled and flowed, and were shaped and concentrated by gravitational, magnetic, and quantum mechanical properties of the Earth’s crust. Some collected and persisted within various mineral formations for countless centuries. Most of it eventually sank deeper into molten magma where it was destroyed, or after emerging at the Earth’s surface was burned away by the fiery light of the Sun.

But some flowed like ocean currents through conducting geological features to burst forth at the surface in special places: Life Energies from nearby and distant forests and jungles and oceans. Such a place was now called Desolation Glen.

On Alure at places such as this the elves had long ago learned to shape Life Energy. Here at Desolation Glen Rog now shaped spells for the emerging Life Energy to rapidly consume Evil. The process was proceeding amazingly well. Sharp also received periodic telepathic reports about what was happening at the Hope Courtyard, where the battle against the Demon seemed to also be going increasingly well. In another twenty minutes or so all the Evil here would be gone, then perhaps this whole nasty business would be over with and he could immediately return to Alure a hero.

There was only one possible scenario that Rog feared, and now without warning it suddenly occurred. Near the center of the circle of Evil a monstrous Demon suddenly appeared. It looked exactly like the illustrations in the Alure Library texts on Demons: humanoid with distorted features including horns, clawed hands and feet, and big black outer-scales spread over red glowing inner layers of red-glowing Evil. It appeared to be smiling, but Rog had a terrible feeling that was not a good thing.

The Demon’s smile disappeared as it surveyed the Glen with big featureless red eyes. Most of the Evil was gone; tons of Evil that had taken him and his Master eight years to transport here! And it was surrounded by Wizards! For a moment it thought that it had teleported itself into a trap, but then it noticed that most of the humans that surrounded it were mere children, and its smile returned!

It could sense that the Wizard children were shielded against the subtle degenerative effects of Evil, but not against conventional physical attack. A modest blast at that point would kill most of them. But after teleporting even the short distance between Courtyard and the Glen the Apprentice Demon was too drained to manage even a modest destructive blast! Before it did any more killing it would have to recharge using the Evil that remained. Fortunately there was still several tons of Evil in the Glen; enough to kill all the Hope Wizards!

Meanwhile accompanied by much shouting and screaming most of the humans retreated in every direction away from the Demon and into the surrounding forest. Though like Rog none of them had ever seen a Demon before, they immediately had no doubt about the identity and murderous intent of the monstrous creature that had abruptly appeared among them and caused them to run away in fear!

The Apprentices of the innermost circle that ringed the remaining Evil retreated away quietly in an orderly group led by Rick Hortega, and soon established strong cloaking and shielding of themselves. If anyone in Rick’s group had a power, the group as a whole also had that power, but with the strength of over two-dozen Apprentice and Junior Apprentice Wizards: the cream of Hope’s future.

The reaction of many of the adult wizards was also measured; many of them withdrew only a short distance and crouched behind nearby trees, watched the Demon, and reported status to other Wizards throughout Hope. Meanwhile terrified Rog stood frozen in place, staring at the Demon with his mouth agape!

As the Demon drank in energy from the Evil at its feet, it finally noticed the little elf that stood only ten yards in front of him. “My dear friend Rog! What are you doing here! You must be responsible for the destruction of Evil done here! I’m afraid that makes you my immediate enemy! Not that it makes much difference. You’ll all soon die anyway when my Master brings Demon hordes down on you to destroy all life on Earth!”

“How do you know me?” Rog asked, his terror overcome for the moment by curiosity.

The Demon’s smile deepened. “I’ve known you and influenced your life for years, Rog.” His image shimmered and shrank to elf sized, then assumed the form of three different acquaintances of Rog for only a few seconds each before returning to Demon form! “My Master and I have long influenced new generations of Elves to turn from traditions such as gardening and supporting the Balance Wards!”

“No!” said the elf, “that’s not possible!” Knarf, Zen, and Purf were in reality a Demon in disguise?

The recharged Demon raised a huge clawed hand and pointed its open glowing palm at the elf. Annoyingly, elves were endlessly trying to understand things! “Goodbye, Rog!”

At that moment over three dozen Wizards appeared, having teleported from the Courtyard. Most formed a rough circle around the Demon and Evil, but several Attack Wizards immediately shielded Rog, blocking the lightning bolt from the Demon that would have otherwise incinerated the elf. Instead, the lightning washed all around the little elf, for several seconds encasing him in a ball of fire as bright as the Sun.

“The Demon is already recharged!” Sam declared, from where he and several other Wizards stood a short distance from the Glen. “That blast almost breached our shielding of the elf! Wizards on-site including Sharp report that the elf they wanted shielded by us is largely responsible for destroying most Evil of the Glen! What’s his name? Rog?”

“Astonishingly yes, he is indeed Rog, my Apprentice,” said Soone. “And he is clearly not a Demon! Can you confirm that he is not, Ben?”

“I can see that he’s not a Demon,” said Ben. “But even without full Wizard senses I can tell that he needs our immediate help.” The traumatized little elf had sunk down to his knees and was apparently near total collapse.

“Even though he is far too close to the Demon, I must go to him,” said Soone. The Gaou began walking unsteadily towards Rog. Ben and then Ann joined him and supported the tired old elf by each holding one of his arms. Mark and his Master Wizard parents followed them, along with Sam, Alan, and a dozen other Wizards.

The Demon meanwhile gathered more energy from the tons of Evil that still remained in the center of the Glen. Many of his strongest enemies were now all bunched together and coming towards him. Let them! They didn’t know that his blast to kill the elf had intentionally been a weak one, even though it was much stronger than should have been necessary. His next blast would be a hundred times stronger and kill them all!

Nearby the Demon, Rog was coming out of his terror induced stupor. Amazingly, he found that his spell to shape the emerging Earth Life Energies in the center of the Glen was still in place. Evil was still being consumed but only at a tiny rate, as circles of Apprentices were no longer pushing the Evil into the invisible spouting fountain of Earth Life Energies.

So close to the field of Evil and the Demon, Rog could also sense that the creature was again absorbing huge amounts of energy from the remaining Evil; enough energy to overcome any conceivable shielding that could be established by whoever had saved him a short time ago. That meant that he was doomed. He probably had only seconds left to live! The Demon would very soon blast him out of existence!

He should flee; that’s what he should do! He should have never gotten into this hero business in the first place! Could he run away? No, that was a ridiculous idea! Elves were terribly slow runners! Attempting to flee would only provoke the Demon to immediately blast him! Could he teleport away? No, he sensed that a binding tendril of energy from the Demon surrounded him and would likely painfully prevent him from teleporting away. Besides, attempting to oppose the Demon so blatantly would doubtlessly cause an immediate elf-killing blast from the monster. He had to somehow delay that happening, not provoke it! And astonishingly, he also felt strongly that he had to save his aged Master from the Demon blast that he was sure was coming!

But how? He didn’t know how Demons thought or could be persuaded about anything! Or did he? Unknown to himself, he had apparently consorted with a Demon for many years! The Demon had posed as elves and perhaps as humans for many years. Some of that had to still be part of the Demon!

“So you escaped their trap then, Zen,” he said loudly. “Should I call you Zen or do you have a more preferred name? Is Knarf or Purf better?”

“I have no name, fool elf!” said the Demon. “The real Zen died a decade ago, when I absorbed him and his memories into myself, as I did with the others. Now tell me about this so-called trap!”

“I just got to this world of bumbling humans a short time ago,” Rog said. “You must surely know far more about the trap than I do!”

Meanwhile two groups had reached Rog’s side, the group led by Soone and his friends, and a larger group that except for Ben was unseen by the others due to its cloaking.

“MY APPRENTICE ROG!” pathed Soone. “I AM AMAZED BUT PLEASED TO DISCOVER THAT YOU ARE WELL AND A HERO!”

“A hero near death by Evil Demon?” said Rog. “I don’t think I’m a hero if now we all get killed. And yet you join me?”

“Yes, my Apprentice!” said Soone. “I feel that I owe you my loyalty.”

“Welcome, Gaou Soone!” said the Demon. “And young King boy! My Master had thought to destroy you and the boy himself, but I am sure he won’t mind if I do the job for him.”

Rog wanted to do something heroic but he couldn’t move!

A moment later the Demon erupted in lightning that shot out from him and engulfed the entire group in fire! But in front of them all stood a young teenager that reflected away most of the blast and absorbed much of what remained. As the blast faded away it became clear that none of its intended victims had been in the least harmed.

“Impressive, human!” said the Demon. “But you can’t stand in front of everyone at once!” To illustrate the point the creature directed its next blast at one of the Wizards ringing the Glen that stood alone. The poor man was instantly incinerated and blown to pieces!

Rog was astonished; Ben had saved the others including Master Soone and himself by placing his own life in danger! But how long could the boy stand up to a Demon? Something had to be done! Something by a hero! “That’s intolerable. Zen!” the little elf said, though his voice shook from fear. “And cowardly as well! But then you always were a coward!” The little elf suddenly bolted away from Ben and the others, sprinting around the Glen as fast as his little legs could carry him!

The Demon responded with directed lightning bolts, blast after blast that the elf just barely managed to evade by ducking and zig-zaging! Much to the surprise of everyone including Rog, although not a swift runner the young elf proved to be highly skilled in dodging bolts of energy flung by Demons! He found that he could sense the moment that the Demon let-loose a bolt and react!

“Much too slow, Zen!” Rog taunted, as he dodged attack after attack!

Though the little elf dodged skillfully, it was only a matter of time before a bolt caught him squarely, Ben and the others realized. The Demon was constantly renewing itself from the Evil of the Glen, and could probably keep this up indefinitely, while Rog likely had only moments to live!

“The elf buys us time!” said Red Eric, between lightning blasts. “But what are we to do with it?”

ROG SAID SOMETHING ABOUT A TRAP!” pathed Soone. “WHAT TRAP WAS HE TALKING ABOUT?”

“This place is a special place of Earth Life Energies,” said Ben. “That’s why the Evil was placed here, to block the good magic and replace it with Evil!”

“It may pose a danger to Demons then! Perhaps a natural trap!” said Ann.

“Rog must know that!” said Ben. “That’s why he dodges around the Glen instead of fleeing into the forest! This Glen with its Life Energy is the very trap that can destroy the Demon!”

“Only if the Demon is placed within the Energy flow and kept there long enough to destroy it!” said Soone. “I suggest that coordinated telekinesis may serve!”

“Sounds like a plan!” said Alan. “But how do we get the creature into the Life Energy flow to start with? In the Courtyard we could only slow it slightly with our combined telekinetic powers and now it has strengthened itself!”

Rog continued to taunt the Demon and dodge its attacks! As he had hoped, the Demon partly followed him, walking through the Evil, which had been reduced to a small area not much larger than a typical living-room, but so far the creature had stepped around the fount of Life Energy at its center. Even though the Life Energy was invisible, both Wizards and Demon could still sense where it was.

“There needs to be more taunting targets to confuse it,” said Rick Hortega. Except for Ben, the others hadn’t even realized that Rick and the other well-cloaked Apprentices were even on the scene! Ben watched through their cloaking as Rick’s group moved as one towards Rog on the far side of the Glen.

“Yes, this Demon is a hopeless dunce,” shouted Rick, from where he suddenly appeared when he was half-way to Rog! The Demon responded with a power-blast, but Rick was already gone!

Noting the efforts of Rog and Rick, the grouped Wizards cloaked and dispersed themselves around the Glen, appearing visible to taunt the Demon for a few seconds before again turning invisible and scampering or teleporting away from the resulting blast from the Demon.

“You try to trick me into leaving what remains of the Evil,” said the Demon, “but it won’t work! You will tire and I will blast you away one by one! I can’t lose!”

He could be right, the Wizards thought.

In the forest behind the King house, more Hope Wizards by the hundreds gathered and were organized by Sharp to surround the Demon in the Glen of Evil! Young and old, weak and strong, they had heard of the death and destruction at the Town Hall and Courtyard, and the threat that the Demon would soon bring death to everyone in Hope and beyond! Sharp had half of them shield and half of them prepare to ‘grab’ the Demon, though all were instructed to for now stay just out of sight of the Demon.

The Demon could sense them though; hundreds of them just out of sight!! He could sense their fear, but also their growing anger and determination. Life Energies were concentrated within them all, so much Energy that it irritated him to be so near them! But very soon they would all be dead! He was still sure that once he killed the ring-leaders that were nearby, the rest would flee in fear. Let them! Some would escape him, but there would be no place to escape the apocalypse that the Master would soon release upon them when he returned from Alure!

Meanwhile dozens of Wizards were circling, taunting him with pathetically weak blasts of lightning and then cloaking and dodging away when he tried to blast them back! A few of them were even hit by his power blasts; he was sure that they were! But they were shielded and his blasts had become so weak that all the attacking Wizards were now escaping harm! But he would get them somehow! He had too!

That annoying elf Rog reappeared again to his far-right and he stepped towards him! The Demon was determined to get him this time! He was so intent on blasting Rog that he didn’t notice that he had stepped into the erupting fountain of Earth Life Energy until he felt it burning his foot and leg!

“Now!” a Wizard shouted!

The Demon tried to pull away from the Life Energy but he found that he couldn’t! He was held fast by hundreds of Wizards! He turned off the pain but it was still not pleasant to watch his foot and leg disintegrate. Worse, he could feel the rest of his body being pushed irresistibly into the Life Energy flow! He had to get loose! Nevertheless when he sensed that one of the closer Wizards had gotten careless and dropped his shields, he struck! The Wizard disappeared in a cascade of Demon lightning!”

“Don’t let go of it or lessen your shields and cloaking!” Eric called out with his magnified voice! “It’s still dangerous!”

The Demon struck out again and again even as it disintegrated, but the blasts continued to became weaker and less accurately directed. It tried to teleport away several times but failed; it was far too weak to teleport. It was dying, little by little. Finally it seemed to self-destruct: dozens of pieces of it flew away from its center. The pieces totally disappeared into the small remaining blanket of Evil ash.

“All the pieces of it need to be destroyed,” said Soone, “or it will regenerate itself using the Evil as raw material!”

Rick reformed his group around the field of Evil and resumed constriction and destruction of it. Other Wizards joined them and accelerated the destruction process. Evil, including the last remaining chunks of Demon, was totally disappearing from the Glen at last!

****

Deep within a Pentagon Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility, Dr. Richard Phelps of the CDC fought back laughter. He glanced about at the other dozen people sitting in the small conference room for some sign that they were also amused but saw none. “You’ve got to be kidding, Colonel Wells! You couldn’t have flown me here from Atlanta and had me sign oaths of secrecy for this! You say your project is called ELF and you are set up to deal with people with paranormal powers and aliens that call themselves elves?”

“Yes,” said Ed Wells. “The name was sort of an inside joke until we very recently found out that there actually are real elves. All new ELF Team personnel go through what you are going through now, Dr. Phelps. Your indoctrination is much rushed due to recent extraordinary activity in the community we study, but what you just said sums things up nicely.”

Phelps shook his head. On the big digital screen in front of him was the fuzzy image of hundreds of people suspended in the air above a large glass-dome structure. “You claim that these are actual flying people, Colonel?”

“Yes, there is a secretive USA town occupied by several thousands of people with paranormal powers,” said Wells. “This satellite image includes inputs out of the range of the usual optically detectable frequencies but these people are usually not so careless to display their abilities like this. This greatly enhanced photo showing flying people is of their community center only a couple of hours ago. This and other intel confirms that some sort of crisis is currently occurring within their community: something that clearly rises to the level of an immediate national security concern.”

The screen image changed to a video obviously taken from high above.

“We sent in spy drones today and got some very interesting footage,” said Wells. “By this time the flying people were gone, but look at the dome!”

The center of the dome was obviously damaged; large sections of glass were missing!

“Maybe the flying people were trying to fix dome problems but failed, or maybe they caused the damage themselves; we don’t know. But we suspect some sort of relationship to the unusual activities towards the outside of town that we have also been observing. On-screen a suburban landscape appeared: houses scattered intermittently among areas of forest and grassy fields.

“What’s that dark circular area in the middle of the view?” asked Phelps.

“Exactly what we’ve been wondering for eight years,” said Wells. “It appears to be an area of no life. At first we thought it was a burned area, but it seems to cause gravitational and magnetic fluctuations. It’s been that way for eight years, until today. Our sources say that the Hope people aren’t sure themselves what it is.”

Drone video was displayed showing a much smaller blackened area. Suddenly a flash of light occurred within the blackened area. “What was that?” Phelps asked.

“Detailed analysis suggests artificial lightning,” said Wells.

More flashes occurred at irregular intervals; dozens of them. “What’s happening?” Phelps had to ask.

“Detailed analysis suggests a battle using lightning between Wizards and a monstrous alien creature.” said Wells. “We have still photos that show more detail.”

“Wizards?” asked Phelps, but then the next image took his breath away. On a carpet of what looked like ashes stood a nightmarish creature: black but with red-glowing eyes and mouth and devilish horns atop its head!

“Eight feet tall, we estimate,” said Wells. “And packed with deadly power.”

The next image caught a bolt of lightning emanating from the creature’s open hand to strike out at a man at the periphery of the shot.

“The human Wizard was blown to bits,” we concluded. “The humans seem to have gotten the monster cornered in the ashen area and they appear to have defeated it only minutes ago, but we’ll need to confirm that for ourselves.”

“We?”

“Myself and a few selected science and military specialists are going to examine the site and our security forces will take on defensive positions in the area. Our core group of science and security specialists is mostly the people in this room. You will meet most of them on route to the town but know now that the Project is led by myself and Dr. George Crane.”

A small thin gray-haired man of perhaps sixty rose from his seat and reached out to firmly shake the hand of Phelps. “Nice to have you aboard, Phelps,” he said. “I think you’ll fit in well with the rest of the science staff. That includes our own biologists of course, but we are required by Congress to have a CDC rep. So you are going with us as our new CDC medical expert. If that monstrous creature and the elves are really alien life forms they could present severe bio-hazards, couldn’t they?”

“Conceivably,” said Phelps. “But am I supposed to believe any of this? For example this business about there being real elves and real paranormal phenomena?”

“Give me slides 32 and 33 and show Dr. Phelps some levitation, John,” said Crane.

The man at the computer controlling the presentation made a few entries that brought to the screen the image of what appeared to be two normal looking teenagers: a boy with black hair and a girl with striking red hair. They appeared to be helping to hold up the small being that stood between them. It was a head shorter than the teens: a non-human with grey skin, huge ears, and large sad eyes. The next photo showed the elf again, if that’s what it was; this time the small creature was waving and winking at the camera!

“The elf actually seems to realize that our distant stealthy drone is taking photos of him,” said Wells. “We don’t know how!”

“We can ask him when we meet him,” said John, as he rose from his chair. Then he kept rising until he was floating in the air several feet above the gathering, who didn’t pay much attention to what was for Phelps the most amazing thing he had ever seen in his life! So far!

****

As the last bits of Evil and Evil Demon were being obliterated in the Glen, a monstrous apparition abruptly appeared nearby, took in the scene with its red eyes, roared in rage, then disappeared with a loud snapping sound that suggested teleportation.

“That was a second Demon, just like Ben said!” noted Ann. “And it’s twice as big as the other one!”

“Not that I’m sad to see it go,” said Eric, “but where do you suppose it went?”

“Not far,” said Soone. “I sensed it has low energy levels, for a Demon. It likely came all the way from Alure.”

“Our poor planet!” said Rog.

“To the contrary, I suspect that the Alure elves fared well against the Demon, or it would have much higher energy,” said Soone.

That was confirmed when moments later, another elf popped into view nearby.

“Jeanine!” Soone exclaimed, as he shook loose from the two teens that supported him and rushed to warmly greet the newly arrived elf with warm hugs.

“Gaou Soone!” said Jeanine in elven, “I am much relieved to sense your powerful Life Energy aura and see you well! There was Demon trouble also here on Earth, I assume?”

“Yes, but human Wizards and elves triumphed! The Demon that attacked us is destroyed,” said Soone. “My Apprentice Rog was particularly heroic!”

Rog’s face tuned a shade darker and he smiled but said nothing.

“A monstrous Demon attacked and killed the Alure Council members but was then stopped by the gathering of elves you requested, Gaou. Though weakened it fled before it could be destroyed. Elves have teleported to several different worlds to look for it; I was assigned to try to locate it on Earth. Did it come here?”

“Yes,” said Soone, “near where you now stand and only minutes ago. Then it ported away, though not very far away, I’m afraid. It lacked the energy to leave Earth.”

“It must be found and stopped!” said Jeanine.

“Yes, with the help of the human Wizards including our friends here,” said Soone. He glanced around him at the many watching humans. Most had puzzled looks on their faces.

“Wizards who might be willing to contribute if they could but understand elf language,” said Ben. “I’m the only human here who does!”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Soone, switching to English. For the next few minutes Soone and Ben introduced Jeanine to the others. Ann, her mother, and her great-grandmother were particularly pleased to meet a female elf. In fact all the humans were entranced by the three elves, a factor that at least to a limited degree softened the blow of death and destruction that had been dealt to Hope by the first Demon.

Hope people were upset. Thousands still congregated at the Glen and at the High School/Council complex to find out what was happening. It had still only been hours since dramatic deadly events began in the morning, and as it became more clear who and how many had died during the ordeal, there was much despair and crying among the citizenry. Hope was a town of only about ten thousand, where almost everyone knew almost everyone else. The Council Members, Attack Wizards, and police that had been killed were all well-known citizens with many friends.

Sam Putt at the High School and Red Eric at the Glen exchanged information telepathically and periodically gave updates to the crowds, as more and more situational information was gathered.

The emerging news wasn’t all bad. Most injured parties were already healed or well on their way to being healed, thanks to the efforts of dozens of Wizards with healing skills. Among the rapidly recovering wounded was Fredrick Kroner, much to the relief of his friends and colleagues Eric and Elizabeth Tuttle. Kroner had suffered grave injuries, but he received expert medical care by surviving Council staff members. He would soon be completely well! The trio comprised the only surviving Council members, in a town that had just suffered major trauma and badly needed their leadership.

“The worse may be yet to come,” said Ben. “The second Demon is twice as big as the first.”

“Yes, which means that this second Demon is likely far more powerful than the first one,” said Soone, “according to collected elf wisdom with regard to Demons.”

“Soone, you’re the Demon expert here,” said Red Eric. “Where has it gone?”

“Somewhere with Evil where it can recover strength and decide on its next moves,” said Soone.

“It wants to bring a Demon Horde here,” said Rog “To do that it needs tons of Evil. But we have destroyed all the Evil here at the Glen.”

“On Alure there was more than one cache of Evil,” noted Jeanine, who due to Soone spells had been picking up English absurdly quickly. “The same tactic is likely to be in effect here.”

“There was Evil at the Council Hall that with Apprentice help we have already nullified, but it was not huge amounts,” noted Eric. “There must be another large stash of Evil near the Courtyard that Demons are able to draw on.”

“The Grim Mansion!” piped up Mark suddenly. “The Evil is there so the Demon is there!”

“Maybe!” said Red Eric. “The Grims certainly had ties to the Demons, and like the Glen it is a nexus point for Life Energies that the Demons would seek to nullify. We should check out the Mansion A-S-A-P. That will be a highly dangerous task; I’ll have Sam Putt do it! By the way, where is Troy? He didn’t teleport here to the Glen with us.”

****

In the Grim Mansion Troy was busy in his father’s office gathering all the cash and valuables that he could find. He carried a large cloth laundry bag and a suitcase that were already stuffed with valuables from all over the Mansion. He would use it to buy himself a new start in the outside world, where even his modest Wizard skills could be applied to achieve vast power and wealth. He’d have his way with Norm women too, as many as he wanted! He’d probably father himself scores of Mixy brats! With the Hope community shattered there would likely be nobody to stop him!

Suddenly he was startled to sense someone else in the Mansion with him. He certainly wasn’t expecting company; the Mansion was warded nearly as strongly against unwanted guests as the High School/Council Hall complex. Since he was a small child he had known how to get into the Grim Mansion, but as far as he knew he was the last person alive to know how to do so! Now he sensed someone in the basement which in recent years he avoided because of the inexplicable headaches it caused. In fact the entire Mansion seemed to do that, such that he spent most of his time at the homes of friends.

“Troy my lad!” said the Master Demon as it stepped into the room. The ceilings were just high enough to accommodate the monster, though it had to duck to get through the doorway. “It pleases me to see you again!” The voice was that of Troy’s father, Horace Grim! With a gesture of its hand a bolt of power shot out and obliterated poor gawking Troy immediately! Only a bit of ach and smoke remained to sink onto the floor and spread into the air. He would have preferred to kill Troy slowly and painfully, but after the setbacks on Alure and Earth he felt a need to get on with things. He couldn’t waste his attentions on a single biologic: he had to kill them all!

But things were looking up again! “Ah, it’s so good to back in my fortress of Evil again!” he mused to himself, as he drew more energy from the basement floors and walls, which glowed brightly with Evil: three times as much as had been in the Glen! On the positive side, both Councils had been devastated, and Soone and the King boy still lived. He would be the one to kill them himself very soon!

The walls and floors of the Mansion glowed and contorted. Everything within them that was of human design or origin withered and disintegrated. There was no longer any need to disguise what the Mansion really was.

The humans with elf help had defeated and annihilated his Apprentice Demon, but he would establish more Apprentice Demons from the Demon Horde that he would bring to Earth tomorrow morning. In the meantime he would maximize his strength and begin the spells needed to bring the Horde. He would soon have to reign over hundreds of rambunctious sub-sentient Demons, but he wasn’t too worried. Once the Demons detected biological life their instincts would take over. They would kill and kill until there were no Wizards or other life left anywhere on Earth! Then he would teleport enough Demons to Alure to finish the job there also!

****

Sam Putt approached Grim Mansion with extreme caution, strongly cloaked and shielded. Was there a Demon in this house?

Was it his imagination or had the building grown larger? It was constructed to have two main above-ground floors and an attic, plus a full basement. But now each floor seemed to be over a dozen feet in height instead of the usual eight. The stone walls and tiled roof seemed to glow red in places, much as the Demon had! Also nothing could be seen through any of the windows, not even window shades. Each window was totally black, as if it was either solid black stone or an opening to nothing but empty space.

The front porch had marble columns and rails, but row they also had a dull red glow to them. Sam was glad that that clever boy Rick Hortega had shown him how to shield against Evil; with every step he took he became more certain that the entire Mansion was encased in the stuff.

Like a prankster on Halloween he rang the front doorbell and ran!

Moments later a thunderous explosion rocked the neighborhood, as the porch in front of the door erupted in a massive ball of flame that might have annihilated Sam had he not fled and been shielded by two of his friends as well as himself!!

“Holy crap,” he muttered. He felt glad that he had ducked behind a big tree. He was wondering what to do next when the front door of the Mansion swung open, and out stepped a massive Demon! It looked around for a few moments before focusing its red-eyed gaze on the tree that sheltered Sam.

A moment later bolts of lightning erupted from its monstrous clawed hands to engulf the tree. Sam was fortunate that by then he had teleported himself far away!

****

That evening The Tuttles, elves Soone and Rog, Ben, Moco and Amanda ate supper at the well-warded Tuttle Home. The elves ate very little, even when their small size was considered, and they ate only vegetables, fruit, and nuts.

“Nutrition wise, how good is Earth food for you?” asked Ben, when they had finished eating and retired to the living room.

“Relatively good,” said Soone. “Our molecular scale physiologies are similar. Elves could likely survive eating only Earth food for several months. Conversely, you survived Alure food for a year without any noticeable ill effects.”

“I brought some nutrition pills with me,” said Rog. “Elves that explore other planets use them, so when I got the idea to come the Earth I procured some.” From an enormous pocket in the loose-fitting trousers he wore Rog pulled out what looked much like an Earthly small pill bottle.

“Much as I like Earth and humans, I don’t expect to be here long enough to require such nutritional supplements,” said Soone. “I need to get back to my gardens. And I hope that Ben and perhaps a few others of you will come to Alure with me to locate all instances of Evil which may remain, and to enjoy this lonely old elf’s famous cookies.”

“I can’t imagine that many humans would pass up an opportunity to visit the home world of the elves or elf cookies!” said Eric. “But first we need to save ourselves from the Demon. Any ideas?”

“Sam encountered a very powerful Demon when he checked out the Grim place,” said the Wolf. “That could suggest more Evil inside that Mansion than you’re figuring on. And the house wards are likely very strong. The Evil there is not out in the open like it was at the Glen; so how will we get in at the Demon and his Evil?”

“We’ll throw a lot of force at it and hope for the best,” said Eric. “Unless anyone has a better idea.”

“I could pay it a visit,” said Ben.

“Not happening, Cub!” said the Wolf. “Put all such thoughts out of your head.”

“I agree,” said Eric. “I want nobody under the age of twenty involved, present company included. Youngsters with skills will help protect Hope civilians as they are evacuated. With any luck children won’t see any action at all.”

It was decided that everyone would spent the night at the Tuttle house. While Moco and Amanda went outside to check on the King house next door and prowl the surrounding woods for a bit, Ben and the elves helped Ann and Mark set up cots in the basement recreation room for all the guests. At that point although everyone had already experienced a very long day, Soone insisted on having a serious discussion with Ben and the Tuttle teens.

“Although the adults understandably wish for the safety of their young, that may not be possible,” Soone began. “The Demon that remains may be far more powerful than the one that was vanquished earlier, and only with human Apprentice help. In addition, the Demon and Ben have a past history that may drive events.”

“The Demon wants to kill me and I want to kill it!” said Ben.

“But you lack the skills to do that,” said Soone. “Sit next to me and hold my hand please!” he told Ben. “You too Ann! Rog and Mark can watch over us as the three of us focus together.” The Gaou was soon nestled comfortably on the sofa between the two teens. “Each time I have found myself near the two of you I learn a little more about the spell that joins you together and about the spell that plagues Ben. It is a secret that may need to be solved to save us all, for despite the optimism expressed by some adults I fear that the Demon we now face is far more of a challenge than the last one.”

“What do you want us to do?” asked Ann.

“Try to sense each other,” said Soone. “I will try to analyze that linkage.”

“I sense nothing of anyone,” declared Ben, after less than a minute.

“And I sense only that Ben is somewhere very near,” added Ann. “We’ve done this a dozen times and it’s always the same!”

“Relax, children, and give it time,” said Soone. “Let your minds wonder freely.”

“I’m so tired that I might soon fall asleep,” said Ann.

“Well, I’m already falling asleep,” said Mark, from where he now lay atop a cot.

“Take deep, relaxing breaths,” said Soone told Ben and Ann. “Don’t worry about falling asleep; that might even work better.”

“Works for me,” said Ben, as he leaned more heavily against the elf and pulled his lanky legs up onto the sofa under himself. “Wake me up if something happens.”

Ann found that if she scrunched herself short and lay her head on Soone’s lap she could fully recline. Soone released her gentle grip and instead rested his sensitive four-fingered hand on her forehead. Though he could sense nothing of the boy through his shielding, he could sense practically everything of her. What a marvelous experience that was! She was loving, caring, strong, and optimistic! No wonder Ben thought so highly of her!

And there deep within her he found the spell that linked the two teens. He found that it was simple and direct, and powered by their warm mutual regard. He followed the thread of it that linked the two of them from her mind to very edge of Ben’s shielding: and there he was blocked! He didn’t try to force himself further, however; instead he focused on gently trying to understand the thread better. Then he tried to strengthen it, but he couldn’t tell if he was having any effect.

WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER OF THE DEMON ATTACK EIGHT YEARS AGO?” Soone asked Ben silently.

“I still don’t remember it much at all,” Ben said softly. “We were having a picnic and an ugly Demon appeared and attacked. Then the next thing I remember is waking up with you.”

BUT EXACTLY WHAT WERE YOU AND YOUR PARENTS DOING AT THE TIME?”

“I suppose that we were doing magic of some kind together. I learned a lot of magic there.”

SUCH AS WHAT?”

“All sorts of stuff.”

SELF LEVITATION, FOR EXAMPLE?”

“I suppose.”

“DO YOU REMEMBER HOW TO DO IT?”

“Of course! I could do that before I learned to walk!”

“DO IT NOW!”

“I can’t!”

YOU CAN’T EVEN TRY?”

“I’ve tried thousands of times and failed!”

TRY AGAIN.”

Nothing seemed to happen. There was certainly no levitation.

“See, I told you!” said Ben. “I’ve done these sorts of drills countless times. Nothing ever comes of it.”

AND IF YOU DON’T CHANGE YOUR ATTITUDE, NOTHING EVER WILL. TRY AGAIN.”

He tried again, and again nothing visible happened.

TRY AGAIN, BUT RELAX AS MUCH AS YOU CAN. FLYING FOR YOU IS NOT DIFFICULT; IT’S AS NATURAL TO YOU AS BREATHING. AND FORGET ABOUT CLOAKING AND SHIELDS, YOU DON’T NEED THEM.”

“Those abilities are all I have left! It’s what they told me to do!”

WHO?”

“My parents! I remember that now! Shielding myself is the last thing they told me to do! And I did it the best I could but I failed them! They’re dead and it’s all my fault!”

“It’s not your fault!” said Elizabeth, who had been listening in. “You were a six-year old kid. And they told you to shield yourself because that’s what any good parent would do, right? They wanted you to shield yourself, not them!”

“But I was the one with the new powers,” Ben protested. “I should have used those powers to save Mom and Dad!”

“What new powers?” Soone asked.

“I remember now! I was learning to influence Wild Magic!”

“How?” asked the elf.

“I don’t remember.”

“I suspect that you do, somewhere in that traumatized mind of yours,” said Soone.

“Maybe if he encountered Wild Magic again he would remember,” said Ann. “But how could we make that happen?”

“Isn’t Wild Magic related to Evil?” asked Rog. “After all, both have to do with the Void.”

“True,” said Soone. “One theory is that Evil is a particular form of Wild Magic, structured to persist for an extended period of time in this universe and upset the chemistry of life. Evil disturbs quantum mechanics, according to current human science terminology.”

“Quantum mechanics? You’ve been reading minds to improve your verbal skills, haven’t you!” said Elizabeth.

“Absolutely,” said Soone.

“How does Wild Magic and Evil being similar help us?” asked Ben.

“Maybe if we learned to shape Evil it might help us learn to shape Wild Magic,” said Rog. “We already know how to destroy Evil; maybe we could figure out how to shape it.”

“Maybe,” conceded Soone. “Of course the only remaining Evil on Earth that we know of is inside the Grim Mansion along with the Demon.”

“It’s not very handy for us to get to then,” said Rog. “Too bad!”

“Getting back to your misplaced guilt, Ben, I agree with Ann,” said Soone. “The Demon killed your parents, not you.”

“But my messing with Wild Magic may have brought the Demon to Earth,” said Ben.

“It was already here on Earth for many years before you encountered it,” said Soone, “and it will still be here tomorrow. Let’s all get some sleep. Tomorrow will be another long tough day.”

“Or a short one if we don’t somehow live through all of it,” said Rog.

****

“There were humans here only hours ago bearing human weapons!” said Amanda. “The trace of their auras is strong, they had the confidence of warriors! Two of them; and they weren’t wizards.” Amanda has dressed and moved like a black ninja, but most of the time as a precaution she willed herself to be invisible. Her empathic senses could sense every living thing for a hundred yards.

“And they were wearing what could be military boots,” agreed Moco. He was in full wolf form, such that his wolfish senses were maximized. “Armed Norms! And the weapons were guns! The stench of the gun oil, boot leather, and sweat is strong! An armed advance Norm scouting party, perhaps! What could it mean?”

The couple had been scouting the suburban neighborhood surrounding the Tuttle and King homes when near the very edge of town they had sensed signs of intruders.

“The Hope Wizards are focused on the Demon, and have their guard down with regard to any other intruders,” said Amanda.

The Wolf raised his head and let out a long, mournful sounding wolf howl. “Perhaps that will give both intruders and Wizards something to think about, my love.”

 

****

 

 

CHAPTER 14

Norm Invasion

 

“What do you mean the road is blocked at the gate?” Red Eric erupted, when he heard Police Lieutenant Mike Forest’s report at Council Hall at the break of dawn. “All our supplies come in through there!” It was not what he wanted to hear after earlier receiving a report of intruders from Moco and Amanda.

“It’s the USA military!” said Mike. “They’re at the town gate in force! Trucks full of military men and woman! And even at least one tank! And they’re not just at the Gate! They’re ringed all around the town; there must be thousands of them! They say that they’re taking over Hope! Martial law, they say! In an hour they’re coming in with an advance group to figure us out, then within an hour more there will be hundreds of troops in Hope! And they gave me these papers from the CDC to show to the Council!”

Eric and Alan read the papers together, then handed them to Fredrick Kroner and Elizabeth to read. The three of them were all that was left of the Council. Old Kroner though still tired from the cataclysm the previous day had had come to work at Council Hall even earlier than Eric and Elizabeth, determined to reestablish a semblance of town government. Dazed frightened people were constantly wondering into the Hall by the dozens, seeking information and reassurance.

“The Army can’t take over a civilian town; that’s un-American!” said Mark.

“These papers say that the CDC is claiming a health emergency in Hope!” said Kroner.

“That’s absurd!” said Elizabeth. “Hope has the healthiest people in the world! Our healers see to that! Besides, even if there was a health emergency, how could they know about it? And why would the military be here?”

“The health emergency is just their cover story,” said Kroner. “Face it; with all that’s happened the last couple of days in Hope our cover is totally blown. These people are most likely the National Security Agency, not the Center for Disease Control.”

“Crap! The NSA! You’re right!” said Eric.

“Does the CDC have tiny little flying machines with cameras?” asked Soone.

“What?” said Eric.

“I saw one yesterday during the battle,” said the elf.

“That sounds like maybe the NSA or FBI,” said Ben. “An unmanned reconnaissance drone!”

“We should have detected it ourselves!” said Mike. “In recent years we have occasionally detected drones, but not to the extent that it caused us alarm.”

“We were all a little too busy with a Demon yesterday to worry about cloaking ourselves from the Government,” said Eric. “And now we’re just as busy with the second one. Last night Sam confirmed that it’s held up in the Grim Mansion.”

“And he nearly got killed doing so,” said Mike. “If two of my men weren’t there to help him shield and cloak he might have never gotten away from the Mansion alive. Sharp is rounding up a few civilians with Attack skills to encircle the Mansion now. Most of those brave citizens who gathered together yesterday to help with the first Demon are home resting, morning their dead, and healing their wounded. We’ll need to get them in play again also, assuming that the NSA or whoever they are let us.”

“I have already told Sam to keep everyone well clear of the Mansion,” said Eric. “Assuming the Demon has a source of Evil in there by now it has recharged itself fully and could be more powerful than the first Demon.”

“What about elf help?” asked Ann.

“It will likely be just myself and Rog for today,” said Soone. “I’ve already sent Rog to help keep the Grim Mansion under observation. The Alure elves are generally exhausted from their ordeal and are working to restore themselves and the priceless gardens of Alure. Jeanine has returned to Alure already to put together a troupe of elves to come and help us but that could take several days. Their assumption is that the Demon was weak when it came to Earth and will also need several days to recover. That is all based on an assumption of relatively low quantities of Evil in the Mansion, of course.”

“The strength of the attack on Sam Putt suggests that the Demon has already recovered enormous strength,” said Eric. “I don’t think that we have several days. We might not even have minutes!”

“A CDC BUS IS AT THE FRONT GATE AND DEMANDS ADMITTANCE,” came a telepathic message from the Hope town Gate.

“Crap!” said Eric. “I’ll go greet them and try to tell them as little as possible. You two hold down the fort here,” he told Elizabeth and Fredrick, before popping away with Mike.

“The Feds!” said Kroner, shaking his head. “That tears it! Let’s evacuate as many civilians from Hope as possible. I’ll contact as many Wizards as I can that are capable of teleporting a second person. We’ll teleport folks to nearby towns that we’re familiar with. There are a dozen or so area hotels that we can use as transfer points. Let’s start renting rooms.”

“Agreed,” said Elizabeth. “Between the Demon and the military Hope is too dangerous for our citizens. I’ll set up shop in front of this building as the evacuation point. Many folks are already gathered out there.”

“I better go join Eric,” said Alan. “Too bad my League friends have gone home, as they probably could have helped also.” With that Alan Dale also popped away.

Out of sight from the others Amanda used her amulet to contact her daughter Jewel. “Yes, the situation here is direr than ever, daughter, and of course your Alan and my Wolf insist on being in the middle of it. Keep all of our Unaligned and League friends advised of developments. Their aid may be needed again very soon.”

****

At the Hope front gate, Eric, Sam, and Alan were confronted with a chaotic scene. Two besieged Hope Police gate-guards faced off against a dozen heavily armed military people. The military people didn’t know it, but they were greatly over-matched. Both gate guards were talented Attack Wizards.

The ‘gate’ itself was merely a light-gage orange-painted steel chain that stretched across the narrow roadway between two small wooden white guardhouses. It and the little guardhouses were strongly warded, of course, and deceptively strong. Not even the huge A-1 Army tank that sat to one side of the road only fifty yards from the gate could have rumbled through the chain or guardhouses, or through the deceptively flimsy looking ten to twenty-foot high chain link fence that stretched from each guardhouse to completely encircle the town of Hope. Along the fence in either direction Eric and Alan could see that there were more Army trucks and bored looking troops, hundreds of them! Mike’s report hadn’t exaggerated the Army presence. Meanwhile beyond the tank and squads of solders on the road, the Wizards could detect dozens of civilian vehicles that were being prevented entry into Hope; mostly trucks carrying food and other consumer goods.

Immediately in front of the gate a small ordinary looking bus with Center for Disease Control written on it in several places sat idling. Out of it climbed a military officer and a small man in a business suit. Eric and Alan walked to meet them.

“Ah!” exclaimed the Military Man, as he reached out to shake Eric’s hand. “You are Red Eric of the Hope Council, are you not? I am Colonel Ed Wells, US Army, and this is my civilian counterpart, Dr. George Crane. We are honored! We have wanted to meet a Hope Council Master Wizard in person for a long time!”

Eric’s jaw dropped! These Norms knew who and what he was!

“You are George Crane the Physicist who taught at Stanford?” exclaimed Dale, as he joined in the hand-shaking. “I’ve read your writings! The books written for the general public of course; not your technical papers.”

“Remarkable,” said Crane. “You are Alan Dale the infamous Rogue! We have intel on you also of course, and on your efforts to form an international league of paranormal people. Your presence here is very much an added bonus.”

“Since astonishingly we already apparently partly know each other already perhaps we can get right to business,” said Eric. “What do you want with Hope?”

“In sum we need to ensure the safety of the United States and the world,” said Crane. “We have been monitoring paranormal activity here and elsewhere for many decades. While there appeared to be no danger to the country we kept out of your business, but events yesterday in Hope took a very serious turn. We need to assure ourselves that this country and its citizens are secure with respect to Wizards, elves, and the especially the monster you battled yesterday. A Demon, was it not?”

The words were terribly shocking ones for Eric and the other Hope personnel! Hope’s anonymity was a sham! “The crisis of yesterday is temporarily abated but is expected to shortly resume,” Eric admitted. “Your presence here at this time is an added complication that endangers us, you, and all life on Earth.”

“I concur,” said Alan. “There is nothing that you folks can do to help us. Only human and elf paranormal powers have any chance to defeat the remaining Demon danger.”

“That may or may not be correct, Mr. Dale,” said Wells. “In any case it is our group that has been entrusted by our Government to make such assessments. We will of course take your inputs into consideration. We will take over Hope security today via marshal law legal provisions as indicated in our notices provided to you earlier. Meanwhile we invite both of you to join us in our bus while we drive first to the site of yesterday’s commotion and then to your Council Hall to confer with Hope leadership.”

“That requires a certain amount of trust that you have yet to earn,” said Alan.

Wells shrugged. “We are well aware that either of you could for example in moments teleport away or incinerate all of us, but we trust you will not do that. That would bring hellish retribution down on your town and your kind. We would rather confirm our intel and analysis that tells us that you are generally outstanding individual human beings and American citizens. We want to freely exchange information and work with you on common issues such as elves, Demons, and humans with paranormal powers.”

“Very well,” said Eric. “Let’s talk further in your bus. I have a lot of questions for you, such as how do you know so much about us? And exactly what do you want from us?”

“I suspect that we have far more questions for both of you,” said Dr. Crane. “In particular with regard to space aliens known as elves and Demons.”

****

“I tell you again that there are certainly no deadly pathogens involved,” Eric told Dr. Phelps, who insisted on putting on a hazmat suit for his examination of Desolation Glen. “We have explained to you that Demons are the very antithesis of life. Demons kill all life they contact, including those lifeforms dangerous to humans. The elves are super-careful visitors of multiple worlds and are many centuries further advanced in science than humans. They would never contaminate any world they have dedicated themselves to protecting! There is no reason for you to check for microscopic bio-hazards!”

“All this information is from where?” asked Dr. Crane.

“Mostly from Soone via Ben King as passed on to me by my children,” said Eric.

“That sounds like unsubstantiated rumors at best, and I still must as best I can follow CDC protocol anyway,” said Phelps.

“Yes, it is what it is,” said Crane. “As I have said before, we must insist on conducting our own science-based investigations and drawing our own independent conclusions as to what is hazardous. Dr. Smith will suit-up to go with you, Phelps.”

“I should also go with you to pinpoint exactly where events happened,” said Eric.

“We have drone video that does that for us accurately enough, and anyway we only have two hazmat suits with us,” said Dr. Smith, who has already putting on the second one.

“I can shield myself and several others against any conceivable dangers except a Demon,” said Eric. “And there is nothing to fear here anymore anyway. As I told you, all the Evil here has been destroyed and the remaining Demon and Evil are in the Grim Mansion.”

“Thanks for the offer to help, Tuttle, but we have to do this on our own,” said Dr. Crane. “You need to stay in the bus with the rest of us and answer more questions. I’m intrigued about what you just said about the advanced state of elf science. Would elves be willing to share their science acumen with humans?”

“I don’t know,” said Eric, as Phelps and Smith stepped out of the bus and towards the desolated area nearby.

“I hope they won’t share dangerous information with you,” said Alan Dale. “But why ask us? Ask an elf directly.”

“We thought to do so shortly at Hope Council Hall,” said Crane.

“The senior elf Gaou Soone could teleport here now, if you wish,” said Eric. “The quicker you use up your questions, the sooner we can all get back to the serious pressing business of destroying the second Demon.”

“Let’s not get ahead of things,” said Wells. “The first thing we have to do is objectively establish what happened here and what the current status is. Then we’ll decide what needs to be done and by whom. Hopefully with your cooperation of course, if we do determine that we need your help.”

“Alan and I have just spent the last half hour telling you what has happened and what the current status is,” said Eric. “Elves have been battling Demons and protecting humans and other sentient Galaxy life-forms for thousands of years, at least.” Through a bus window he was watching Phelps and Smith. They were walking slowly and stopping every few feet to take photos and various measurements. They reached the edge of the desolation itself but instead of proceeding into it they cautiously skirted around it. At least they were heeding his warning that the desolation was dangerous.

“We are required to verify everything for ourselves!” insisted Wells.

LOOK AT THEM OUT THERE DITHERING ABOUT!” said Alan privately to Eric. “THEIR EXAMINATION OF THE GLEN COULD TAKE HOURS, AND THEY PLAN TO THEN DO SOMETHING SIMILAR AT THE COUNCIL CHAMBERS. VERIFICATION FOR THEM MEANS MEASUREMENTS AND LAB ANALYSIS TO DETERMINE THINGS THAT WE CAN IMMEDIATELY PERCEIVE AND WE ALREADY KNOW. THEIR VERIFICATION EFFORTS COULD TAKE DAYS. SAM DOESN’T THINK WE HAVE DAYS, AND NEITHER DO YOU. WE HAVE TO GET AT THE DEMON AND ITS EVIL NOW!”

“Colonel Wells, we’ve told you again and again about the overriding urgency of the Demon situation and you’ve essentially ignored us,” said Eric. “I don’t know if you can even be any help to us in destroying the Demon, but we should at least talk about it.”

“OK,” said Wells, “let’s cut to the chase. The Demon is of course our biggest concern, not yours. You’ve told us where it is. Thank you! Our science team with military backing is going to be ready to contact whoever or whatever is in that Mansion within an hour. Don’t worry yourselves about that; if necessary, we will use a great deal of deadly force if negotiations with the creature fail.”

“If necessary?” said Alan. “Negotiations?”

“Naturally we will first try to negotiate a peaceful agreement with it before using any force,” said Wells. “That is established protocol for alien contact.”

“You can’t be serious!” said Eric.

“And don’t try to stop us,” said Wells. “We have abilities you don’t know about.”

“If you mean the limited powers of John, Jake, and Ken, they’re far out of their league,” said Eric.

“You’ll just get your men killed,” said Alan. “And worse, you’ll delay our trying to destroy the Demon! You could get everyone on Earth killed!”

“We’re the Government, we’re in charge here, Tuttle,” said Wells. “Bottom line, that’s the way it has to be. You folks are civilians. We appreciate your cooperation and we’ll be as fair as we can with you and your people, but the incident yesterday changed everything. Our little undercover project to track you folks that have what you call Wizard powers has suddenly gone prime time and our bosses expect us to take charge. So we have.”

“We repeat, you’ll just get your men killed, and maybe even all life on Earth killed,” said Eric. “Colonel, Doctor, we’ll have to parlay among ourselves to figure out where we go from here with you.”

With a loud snap Eric and Alan disappeared.

Colonel Wells immediately turned to face Major Jake Osborne, chief of ELF Team security. “You and the others were supposed to constrain them with your psi-powers! What happened?”

Jake and the other two security personnel sat quietly, eyes open and staring ahead and bodies unmoving, and failed to respond. Others of the Team rushed to revive them but for several minutes the three men were unresponsive.

“Report, Major!” Wells repeated several times, until Jake was finally able to reply.

“The three of us attempted to constrain both of them. That’s all that I remember.”

“I told you that they would be far too strong for us,” said Ken Wishborne, FBI agent, when he was finally able to speak. “Tuttle is a well-trained Master Wizard, maybe the best there is, and nobody knows exactly what Dale is, but he’s said to be one of the most talented of the Unaligned. We were as small children to them. They felt us trying to constrain them and instead constrained us.”

“They could have easily killed all of us,” Crane pointed out. “Instead they simply left us. Also our forces are receiving no resistance from them at the front gate. Our tanks and armored personnel carriers are almost to the Grim Mansion. The townspeople are withdrawing from the area of the Mansion and offer no resistance to us. They also answer no questions, but tell us we must refer all our questions to their Council.”

“And after the Demon attack yesterday that’s the Tuttles and Fredrick Kroner,” said Wells. “Well, for now we don’t need any of them. The Demon is the greatest and most powerful threat. Our first priority is to contact the Demon and seek a peaceful alliance with it. That’s our marching orders from on high.”

“That will be a totally useless and highly dangerous exercise, according to Tuttle,” said Crane. “But let’s get on with it. Recall Smith and Phelps. They can come back here in the near future to study this site. If Tuttle and Dale are right, we need to intervene with the Demon immediately.”

“Can we trust what Tuttle and Dale told us?” asked Dr. Marx, a Team Physicist.

“Every damn word of it,” said Wells. “They didn’t deny anything. Maybe we put the fear of the Government in them. It was obvious that Tuttle felt that truth was the most sensible way to deal with us.”

“Among us you’re the best judge of character and truth telling,” noted Crane. “Maybe you have a touch of psi-powers yourself!”

“Tuttle seemed far more scared of the Demon than he was of us,” said Marx. “I think that we should talk to the elves before we try to contact the Demon. We should first try to understand the science aspects of this creature, physical and psychological! Tuttle said that Demons are from another universe or from something he called ‘the Void’ between universes. And he said that the elf Soone knows far more about that.”

“No,” said Wells. “We’ll go straight to the Demon and learn what we need to know for ourselves even quicker. If Tuttle is right and the Demon is the immediate threat we need to try to change its mind A-S-A-P.”

“Or we’ll need to kill it,” agreed Crane.

“If necessary.”

There was another aloud ‘snap’ sound.

“What the hell was that?” Wells asked.

“I’d say that was the second of our Wizard friends,” said Wishborne. “Only one of them popped away a few minutes ago. The second one turned himself invisible and stayed a little bit longer to listen to us talk.”

“Or a third one was with us all along, invisible and listening,” said Major Osborne. “There could still be one or more with us! And some Wizards can read thoughts also!”

“Swell,” said Wells. “Forget about Wizards for now. We need to figure out exactly what we’ll tell that Demon in about fifteen minutes. Words, protocol, fallbacks, weapons, and so forth. Get to work!”

****

“We have to protect ourselves!” said Sam. “If you hadn’t told us to port here to the Courtyard we’d have fought the Norms to stand guard over the Grim Mansion!”

“We can’t legally oppose them,” said Kroner. “Even if the Norms are wrong, they think that they’re protecting national security! Our national security! We are USA citizens! As long as they aren’t violent with us we can’t get violent with them.”

“I agree,” said Red Eric. “I did a lot of mind-reading while I was with them, and for the most part they have been honest with us. When I stayed behind cloaked to spy on them I became even further reassured. The Government has been aware of Hope and paranormal folks for many decades. Hope has been keeping paranormal citizens hidden and in line for centuries, which is exactly what they want, so they’ve generally let as alone.”

“Sounds like we’ve been unknowingly working for the Norm Government,” said Sam. “Maybe we should sue them for Government back-pay and pensions.”

“They’ve apparently infiltrated Hope and know a lot about many of us,” continued Eric. “They have even enlisted some of the Unaligned as agents. So they sort of have paranormal humans figured out but the recent proof of the reality of elves and Demons has them in a tizzy. And apparently the power of the Demons is intriguing to the military higher-ups.”

“As some sort of military weapon or ally?” asked Sam. “Are they crazy?”

“Colonel Wells thinks it’s a crazy idea also,” said Eric, “but if he doesn’t give it a shot he and perhaps his whole Team could be replaced by people that know nothing and care less about Wizards or Hope. That, I think, would be a bad thing for everyone.”

“So what do you think we should do?” asked Kroner. “Oh, and by the way, your wife and I have voted you to be the new Council Chairman. Congratulations!”

“That’s swell; I’ll try to not let it go to my head,” said Eric. “We’ll let the Norms give it their best shot but provide some back-up support for them. We’ll make ourselves available to step in if needed, and I expect we’ll get to that point very quickly. We have over a dozen Attack Wizards and at least three dozen volunteers with some Attack training. Missionaries have also been recalled and are trickling home to Hope. We’ll use half our folks back up Wells and his folks. Sam and I will work out details.”

“What if the Norms figure out what we’re doing?” asked Kroner. “What if they object? Most of them do carry guns! It takes Level 3 powers to stop a bullet safely! We are supposedly under martial law and confined to our homes.”

“I intend to tell Wells what we are doing and perhaps even get his agreement,” said Eric. “I can be pretty persuasive.”

“What about Hope non-combatants?” asked Martha Sharp, who had remained silent up to that point.

“How many will be evacuated say, by half an hour from now?” Eric asked.

“Only a couple of hundred out of roughly ten thousand,” said Sharp. “We have two dozen Wizards led by Elizabeth teleporting young children, Norms, and others out of town as quickly as they are able, but there are too many to evacuate quickly. Some of us could fly out but few can also cloak at the same time or carry others with us, and flying people might make tempting targets for startled Norm soldiers who are maybe looking for flying monsters. I suggest that you get your buddy the Colonel to bus most of us out, including all children. They are the future of Hope.”

“Yes, we should keep our kids out of combat,” said Eric. “They were admittedly indispensable but far too involved with that first Demon altercation. I want them out of harm’s way from this second Demon.”

“Agreed!” rumbled Moco.

“They were instrumental in the victory over the first Demon,” said Sharp. “I think they want to also be involved with destroying the second one.”

“Desolation Glen Evil and a Demon are gone thanks to them,” said Eric, “but hopefully the Grim Manson houses far less Evil and they won’t be needed again. We’ll have the Apprentices and Junior Apprentices help guard the non-combatants as they are evacuating, Martha. Tell Ben, my kids, and the others that’s an order.”

“The Council has spoken,” said Sharp.

“You’ve had it too easy, Martha,” said Kroner. “If Elizabeth was here with us instead of being outside the front door leading evacuations we’d unanimously vote you into the Council so that at least there would be four of us.”

“Get that idea out of your mind, old man!” said Sharp. “You’re stuck with me as your Vice-Principle forever or longer and I have no time for Council nonsense. I have hundreds of children to look after.””

“We don’t have much time,” said Eric. “Sam, keep a few well cloaked Attack folks observing the Norms at the Mansion. Use the Kelman place as a forward observation post. I’ll meet you there in a less than five minutes.”

****

“I’m not evacuating!” Ben adamantly told Elizabeth Tuttle. “Besides, I doubt that you’d be able to teleport me anyway because of my shielding. Even Sky and Soone have had trouble doing it.”

“It won’t be your turn anyway until tomorrow sometime,” said Elizabeth Tuttle, “unless my husband gets the Norms to provide buses.” She looked around at the gathered crowd. There were at least five thousand. Others had sensibly given up and gone home. Those families that remained were getting schedule information from the team of volunteers she had organized to help with evacuations, or simply hanging around to get any news that might show up. Martha Sharp was everywhere, spreading information and calming the crowd, but news of the Norm military arrival increased anxiety even beyond what it had been earlier.

Ben shrugged. “I just thought I’d tell you that I’m not going.” He wondered back through the crowd to rejoin his Apprentice friends that circled the area.

“This is totally stupid!” someone else in the crowd stepped up to Elizabeth to complain. “If they’d open the gates most of us could simply drive out of town within an hour!”

“You’re preaching to the choir,” she responded. “But we’re doing what we can!”

From her elevated position atop the stairs that led into the building she was one of the first people to notice the two armored military troop carriers that were approaching. She teleported to the curbside to greet the squads of heavily armed soldiers that quickly exited the vehicles and lined up to face the milling crowd.

An officer spoke into a megaphone, but then quickly gave up. The megaphone didn’t work.

“You won’t need that to speak to me,” Elizabeth told him. “I turned it off for the moment.”

The officer turned to face Elizabeth. “This town is under martial law. This is an illegal gathering that must disperse.”

“We are dispersing, Lieutenant. The town of Hope Council has already declared a state of emergency and is evacuating Hope citizens from this location as quickly as possible.”

“No evacuation has been authorized,” the Lieutenant replied. “To the contrary our orders are to prevent all residents from leaving Hope. Citizens are instructed to stay in their homes.”

“The evacuation is an action absolutely necessary for public safety that has been authorized by the Hope town Council including myself. My husband the Council Chairman is talking about that with your Colonel right now in order to receive your authorization and assistance. I am confident that you will shortly receive communications to that effect.”

The Lieutenant shook his head. “You don’t understand. Stay in your houses and we will protect you from any harm. That’s our job.”

“Protect us? Lieutenant, this is the center of town and less than a mile from the Grim Mansion. This will possibly soon be a war zone. We need to get our people out of here!”

“We have troops surrounding the Grim Mansion. The biggest danger in this town is the panic you are creating for yourselves. Besides, we have surrounded the town and nobody can leave it. Whatever dangers there are here need to be contained here. This is a quarantine zone. My people are already risking their lives just to be here!”

“You’re in no danger from us; and about a hundred people an hour are already leaving Hope,” said Elizabeth. She pointed to the center of the crowd where a group of several dozen people abruptly disappeared.

The Lieutenant appeared to be startled but determined. “I don’t know what psychic tricks you folks are up to here but I have my orders. You are ordered to disperse and go home peacefully. Do it now and nobody will get hurt!” He raised his assault rifle and pointed it at her. The fifty other soldiers of his command also raised their rifles.

His rifle disappeared. All the rifles of all the soldiers disappeared!

“You could have hurt someone with those,” said Elizabeth. “That can’t be allowed to happen, Barns. Guns are useless against Demons. I have my orders too. I put your guns inside your transport vehicles. You could go get them again but then maybe next time I’d put your guns a dozen feet underground or twist them into lawn ornaments.” One of the rifles suddenly appeared in her delicate looking hands and she casually bent the barrel into a circle before dropping it onto the ground. “We are not your enemy, Frank Barns. In fact we face a common enemy. But we are not helpless either.”

As Barns puzzled over the fact that this woman knew his name though he had not given it, his soldiers stared fearfully out into the crowd of Hope civilians. Many nasty rumors had been circulating about them, making the point that these weren’t normal people! Dozens of frightened and angry faces looked back at them. Some of the adults looked particularly angry. All were unarmed and most visually appeared to be normal humans but a few were unusually hairy and some were strangely pale and shrouded in black clothing. Werewolves? Vampires? Yes, there were rumored to be dangerous misfits in this town! The dumbfounded soldiers were suddenly aware that they were not in charge here and were themselves perhaps in grave danger! Instinctively they moved closer together for their own protection.

A panicky soldier pulled the pin on a hand-grenade but then fumbled it awkwardly and it fell to the ground in the midst of the troops. As the soldiers began to scatter there was a muffled boom and a momentary red, basketball sized ball of flame where the grenade had been. The ball of flame was quickly gone and torn bits of hot steel fell harmlessly to the ground.

“That was careless,” said Elizabeth, using a magically magnified voice. “There are children here and this is an emergency situation where we don’t need panicky adults. Please be more careful. Show yourselves, children! You know that cloaking like that is disrespectful! Show these men that you mean them no harm!”

Two dozen grade-school and high-school aged children abruptly appeared out of nowhere where they completely encircled the troops. “Sorry Mrs. Tuttle,” said one of them, a boy that couldn’t have been older than six. “We won’t hurt anybody. Are there cookies yet?”

A matronly looking old woman abruptly popped into view next to Elizabeth, carrying a huge box of oatmeal-chocolate chip and oatmeal-raisin cookies. Half the cookies flew from the box and floated to each of the children, while the other half floated to each of the soldiers. The smell of worm freshly baked cookies filled the air as the children laughed and ate them!

Hesitantly at first, Lieutenant Barns and then the other soldiers ate their cookies.

“That’s more like it!” said Maude Phillips. “Nothing like some fresh-baked cookies to improve the disposition of folks! Does anyone want some cold milk and some more of my cookies?”

Dozens of hands went up, many from the soldiers. The crowd of waiting citizens went back to waiting and talking among themselves with confidence that the soldiers were not a threat.

THIS ISN’T JUST THE COOKIES, IS IT, GREAT GRANDMA?” Ann asked Maude privately.

“NO PUMPKIN, I SHOWED YOUR YOUNG FRIEND RICK A SPELL TO INDUCE CALM HAPPINESS AND HE SHOWED IT TO HIS FRIENDS. THAT BOY HAS A BIG FUTURE.”

HOW LONG WILL THE SPELL LAST?” asked Elizabeth.

LONGER THAN THE COOKIES BUT NOT AS LONG AS WE’D LIKE,” said Maude. “BUT IT MIGHT LAST LONG ENOUGH FOR RATIONALITY TO ENSUE.”

****

“I need to talk to you,” Red Eric told Colonel Wells and Dr. Crane. The ELF project leaders were in the back seat of a jeep that was carrying them towards the Goth Mansion.

“Where are you?” the puzzled Wells asked.

“I’m driving your jeep,” said Eric.

“What about our driver, John Johnson?” asked Crane.

“I transported him ahead to the Mansion site,” said Eric. “I wanted you to know that a few of us stayed at the Mansion to see how you make out with the Demon. Cloaked of course.”

“I don’t suppose there’s anything we can do about that,” said Wells.

“Nor would you want to,” said Eric. “The other thing is that we’re evacuating the citizens of Hope. Here they are in immediate danger from the Demon and frankly from your armed personnel.”

“Our superiors won’t be happy about that!” said Wells.

“However our evacuation is going far too slow,” continued Eric. “We’d like you to send busses to help: several dozens of them if possible. Otherwise the evacuation could stretch well into tomorrow. Alternatively if you open the front gates most citizens could simply drive themselves out of town.”

“But you mentioned earlier that the Demons had shape shifted and passed themselves off as human for many years,” said Crane. “Couldn’t the Demon get himself bussed out of Hope and into the general population?”

“You have a point, though that would be very unlikely. The Demon will generally want to stay with the stationary collection of Evil that powers it. If he wanted to leave he would likely teleport himself. But as a precaution we could perhaps have Ben King look at everyone who leaves town. The boy can see through any cloak.”

“He can?” said Wells. “In that case maybe King should be present at the Grim Mansion when we confront the Demon. In fact, I think you should also be there, Tuttle. And the elves.”

“Not the boy,” said Eric. “He’s been through enough. But perhaps I and one of the elves could come with you.”

“What about the elf bio-hazard?” said Crane. “Regardless of what you told us, that remains a big Washington concern.”

“The King boy lived on their planet for a year without any problems for elves or human,” said Eric. “The risk is low, as I’m sure the elves will shortly be glad to explain to you scientifically.”

“And that’s incredible!” said Crane. “A human child lived on an alien world many light years away, for an entire year! I fear that all of it might be too much for mankind to handle. Wizards among us along with other shades of paranormal folks? Elves? Demons and Evil? There’s going to be a lot of political push to sweep it all under the rug. Major governments likely all have paranormal operatives that they all think gives them advantages. The elf thing is, I think, far too big a thing for America to keep to ourselves, but many will want us to do that! And like everything else, the biohazard issue will be enormous.”

“We’ll have to risk the biohazard,” conceded Wells.

“Agreed!” said Crane. “Smith and Phelps can monitor us all for now, just in case!”

“Plus as I already mentioned we have a few cloaked Wizards observing nearby also.” said Eric. “So tell your guys not to be too trigger-happy and to focus on the Mansion. The Demon will stay in the Mansion with its Evil source as much as it can, and will likely be very recognizable when you see it. So in sum we’ll be there to give you advice and back you guys up if we are needed. In return for our help how about the busses we need?”

“We’ll start rounding them up now,” said Wells. “But in the meantime we’ll go have a talk with that Demon. If things don’t go well with the Demon you’ll get your busses quickly.”

“Deal!” said Eric. Moments later the jeep lurched momentarily when a puzzled looking John Johnson reappeared behind the steering wheel as Eric disappeared.

 

****

 

CHAPTER 15

Death at Grim Mansion

 

“What do they plan to say to a Demon that will change its very nature and keep it from killing the life that it hates?” Rog asked Eric.

“Not even the Military think that that there is much hope that negotiations will work, but their bosses say they have to try,” said Eric.

“What bosses?” asked the young elf. “Why aren’t we talking directly with them? Do they understand that when they deal with my Master they deal with essentially a leader of another planet? A planet with a far more ancient and advanced civilization than that of Earth?”

“I don’t think they quite comprehend that part yet. If we survive the next few days we’ll try to make them understand. Right now we need to focus on the Demon in Goth Mansion. Listen now! The Norms are about to start.”

On the street in front of the Mansion, seven huge tanks had their guns trained on the Mansion. In addition, fifty armed troops peered and aimed their hand-carried weapons at the Mansion from behind trees, tanks, and armored troop carriers. From their vantage point in the Kelman home, across the street and a little down the street from the Grim Mansion, Eric, Rog, and Sam watched events unfold. The Kelmans were of course long-gone and hopefully evacuating from Hope. The watching Wizards couldn’t visually see the three hundred additional troops that encircled the Mansion, but they could sense them. Sam was in constant telepathic contact with the ten cloaked Attack Wizards that shadowed the human troops. Eric held in his hand a radio that connected him to earphones that Wells wore.

“Attention in the Grim Mansion,” announced Wells over a megaphone. “Your house is surrounded by armed troops but we mean you no harm. We want to talk with you about establishing peace between you and Earth. We can exchange science, art, and other things of value and benefit to all of us.”

There was no verbal response. Instead there was a low rumbling sound that emanated from someplace in the Mansion. The sound grew louder and louder! And the Earth began to shake!”

****

Deep in the Mansion, the Demon was aware that the building was surrounded now by annoying living beings, beings of order and Life Energy that more than anything else in this universe of well-ordered phenomena opposed Demon Evil. Now they were spouting words, words perhaps based on logic and Life-driven emotions that were the antithesis of Demon honed Evil! Meaningless blather to be ignored, from living beings to be destroyed!

Since arriving at the Mansion it had absorbed its Evil and its energies, and grown ever larger and stronger, stronger by far than any other Demon in the known universe! He would have to be strong to survive and to some extent control those he now called from the Void: Demons by the hundreds and soon by the thousands! The room filled with them! Then the adjacent halls! Some were much smaller versions of himself, but others took many forms large and small, some similar in form to Earth life-forms both current and extinct, but most unlike anything imagined even in human nightmares!

They ravaged all things human they found: chairs and rugs and pictures, clothing, televisions and kitchen cookware and appliances that were obviously purposefully designed constructs of sentient life-forms. Annoyingly they also munched on the Mansion floors, walls, and ceiling, as those were infused with Evil that invigorated them.

A few of the larger ones at first challenged for Demon leadership when they arrived but the calling Demon was always much bigger and stronger and destroyed them or at least forced them into submission. Finally, when the entire Mansion was full of Evil Demons from attic to basement, the Master Demon for the time being stopped calling more from the Void and issued a one-word command to them that even their primitive minds understood: “KILL!”

****

Colonel Wells was about to reissue his statement to the Mansion when the ground-shaking rumbling reached a crescendo and the Mansion doors burst outwards to spew dozens of hellish monsters! Like the original Demons they had black bodies covered in red-glowing fissures and spots, but there were few common shapes among them. A few vaguely resembled humans in form, but most resembled Earthly insects or reptiles or microscopic life-forms. Some constantly changed in form, growing or absorbing eyes or mouths or legs or tails or claws as it suited them! Many of them roared and screamed incessantly, so loudly that many nearby humans could do nothing but cover their ears and cry out in pain! One of the humanoid-shaped Demons was monstrously huge: it must have stood at least fifteen feet tall!

After a moment of shock the assembled troops that were able to function despite the frightful Demon screaming opened fire on the emerging monsters. Bullets caused the creatures to pause slightly but didn’t stop them. Tank-shells and sometimes grenades blew them to pieces but the pieces began to reassemble themselves in seconds. Meanwhile lightning erupted from some of the Demons, blasts of power that exploded anything they touched including tree-trunks, armored vehicles, and armed men. Some of the blasts even blew apart other attacking demons, but there were more and more of them pouring out from the Mansion to replace them!

“Plan B!” Eric heard Wells shout into his radio. The solders that remained were in full retreat, including Wells. The lucky ones were being shielded by the handful of cloaked Attack Wizards that were scattered among them. The unlucky ones were being torn apart or vaporized by hundreds of nightmarish Demons.

Eric teleported himself to Wells and teleported with him back to the Kelman House. Wells was badly shaken up but still in control of his faculties. “My people are being slaughtered!” he lamented.

“We are saving as many as we can,” Eric told him, “but we weren’t expecting a Demon Horde.” Indeed, the Kelman House around them already contained several solders that had been teleported in by Wizards, many of them injured. “We already teleported your science team to our evacuation point. What is Plan B?”

“Ground troop retreat and air bombardment of the Mansion,” said Wells. “But that won’t stop them either, will it?”

“Unlikely, but it may slow them down a bit,” said Eric. “Our Attack Wizards will also perhaps slow them slightly. But you’ll find that killing them is practically impossible.”

Outside, the Demon Horde had breached the military perimeter and was tearing apart and blasting to bits tanks, vehicles, trees, homes, men, and everything else in their path that lived or had been built by the living. A handful of scattered Wizards led by Sam Putt were having partial success in knocking apart a few of the swarming Demons, but they were badly outnumbered and the knocked apart Demons typically reassembled themselves in less than a minute. A few of the Demon lightning blasts also got through to two of the Wizards, vaporizing them.

Eric ordered Sam and his remaining men back to the Kelman House, where they focused on strengthening the house protective wards while their leaders watched hundreds of Demons continue to pour out from the Mansion.

Whistling screams abruptly filled the air momentarily, then dozens of thunderous Earth-shaking explosions of red fire covered the Mansion. The bombardment went on for several minutes as the Wizards in the Kelman House deflected shock after shock and hails of blast thrown rock, soil, homes, and shrapnel. Despite Wizard wards and shielding, windows facing the conflagration were blown to pieces.

Even before the resulting smoke began to clear, those in the Kelman House could again hear the hideous sound of screaming Demons! The Wizards quickly deadened most of the sound, but it was clear that the bombardment hadn’t wiped out the Horde. When Eric caused a stiff breeze to clear away the smoke and dust, the Wizards weren’t entirely surprised to see that Grim Mansion was also undamaged; even its glass windows were intact!

Many Demons had been indeed blasted to bits but were rapidly re-assembling themselves. Already hundreds of surviving Demons were marching away from the Mansion in every direction, looking for more things to destroy. They were probably disappointed that near the Mansion all surrounding neighboring houses had been completely obliterated by human bombs before they could even get to them.

Wells and his dozen surviving soldiers in the house were shocked. How could anything have survived the tons of missiles and bombs that had rained down on the Mansion? They could only watch in dismay as Demons wondered haphazardly away from the Mansion, destroying everything in their path living or a product of the living. Many were busily tearing up even the remaining stretches of the asphalt street, as well as the few trees growing along it that had somehow survived the bombardment.

“We’re well cloaked or they would be all over us by now,” said Eric. “Plus they seem to be in no particular hurry. Notice how they pause to destroy every living thing and work of man before moving on. I am also intrigued that the Mansion survived so well! It suggests that this Demon knows how to ward objects!”

“In our libraries I have read nothing about Demons being able to ward protective spells,” said Rog. “This is not a good development. Perhaps this Demon learned elf methods by absorbing elf thoughts and skills. That is a legend among elves. I could site references.”

“What will stop them all?” asked Wells. “I want to kill them all quick!”

“Nothing,” said Rog. “Nothing known to your material science or to our magic science can quickly kill a Demon Horde. A few Demons might be defeated, not a Horde. They will destroy and kill on this world until they have themselves been overcome by the innate order of this universe. Unfortunately that could be years or even centuries from now, if they have Evil to periodically renew themselves with. Elves have learned how to block them and destroy individuals by focusing Life Energies against them, but it is not what you would term a ‘quick’ process.”

“Then there’s Plan C,” said Wells.

“What’s Plan C, Colonel?” asked Sam.

“It’s Top Secret,” said Wells.

“It’s a hydrogen bomb,” said Eric, after reading the Colonel’s thoughts. “A big one.”

“Won’t work,” said Rog.

“What?” exclaimed Wells. “How could you know that?”

“I’m a student of elf ancient history,” said Rog. “That was one of the things elves tried millions of years ago. The most that any material weapon does is break a Demon to bits. They then reassemble themselves. They are not creatures of this universe.”

“I didn’t know that elves dealt with high-tech,” said Wells.

“We had our high-tech phases in our past,” said Rog, “but we matured out of them. Life Energy driven magic was found to be much superior to technology, particularly when it comes to fighting Evil and Demons.”

“It’s more powerful?” asked Wells.

“In some ways; plus it’s more civilized and aligned with nature, I suppose you would say,” said Rog. “But in this case Demons and Evil are largely not of this universe and can only be obliterated by using Life Energies. Nuclear fission and fusion weapons produce purely physical events that do not generate Life Energies or destroy Evil. They are a form of evil of this universe.”

“But let’s not be too negative about our chances,” said Eric. “We recently completely obliterated a very powerful Demon and we can do it again. As many times as we have to in order to kill them all!”

“So what do suggest that we do?” Wells asked.

“Retreat and stall,” said Eric. “Slow them down, save our people, and somehow learn how to defeat and destroy them each one at a time.”

“We can’t stay here,” said Sam. “The Demons will soon discover and overwhelm us. Yes, an immediate orderly retreat is best.”

“Leave a few cloaked wizards to track the Demons but do not oppose them,” said Eric. “We’ve lost too many good Wizards already. The rest of us will teleport to the evacuation point.”

 

****

 

CHAPTER 16

Breakthrough!

 

“With regard to your busses there’s the good news and the bad news,” Lieutenant Barns told Elizabeth, after talking with several of his fellow military people via radio. “The good news is that there are dozens of busses gathered outside of Hope to support evacuations. The bad news is they can’t get into Hope. Your flimsy looking fences can’t be cut or broken through by our troops. Even our advance scouts had to climb over them. And besides your fences, you have shaped hills and other natural appearing obstructions that it would take days to build a road through. So we’re cut off from the busses. The Mansion lies roughly between the Front Gate and here, and it’s spewing Demons that already threaten roads leading between here and the Gate. Busses and other road vehicles are out of the question. We’re trapped.”

“We’ll make our own exits from Hope then,” said Fredrick Kroner, who had teleported from inside Council Hall to help Elizabeth with the evacuation. “The Demons are coming from the central part of town. We’ll march our people in three groups to the West, East, and South, gathering folks as we go. We wizards can breach the fences but we’ll have to hike through the hills. The busses can pick up our people just outside of Hope. From there they can be bussed to safety. How far, do you think? Ten miles? Twenty? A hundred?”

“Ten or twenty for now at least,” said Elizabeth. “If we can’t stop the Demons within ten-miles of Hope we’re probably all screwed. Ok, let’s form groups and start moving out. Frank, yes, having a squad of your men escorting each group is a wonderful idea. You military folks have organization and communications that will be useful.”

Barns saluted Elizabeth and withdrew to give his people their marching orders. He was beginning to get used to her knowing his thoughts. He felt a little better about it after Elizabeth explained that mind reading was an uncommon practice felt to be only justifiable in emergencies.

He fully agreed that a Demon apocalypse qualified as a genuine emergency. He had gotten several reports from the command center outside of Hope that verified that hundreds of Demons had survived the recent bombardment and were spreading out from the Grim Mansion in every direction, killing and destroying everything in their path. These people were right to evacuate themselves.

People that had to this point stubbornly stayed in their homes were finally fleeing in terror. Wizards, Norms, werewolves, and vampires helped each other, cloaking and avoiding advancing Demons.

Barns was also getting used to countermanding some of the orders he had been given earlier trough the chain of command. It was expected of him as an American military officer to modify tactics based on changes in field conditions. Adaptability was paramount.

“Good job, Lieutenant!” Colonel Wells told him, when minutes later he and twenty others teleported from the Mansion site and he and Elizabeth gave them a short report. “I want you to continue supporting Mrs. Tuttle and the evacuation. Meanwhile I will focus on the Demons, along with our science team and our Hope allies.”

“Our science team has been conferring with Mr. Soone, Crane told Wells when the Colonel rejoined his ELF team. We feel that the Demons definitely have weaknesses that can be exploited.”

“Most Demons aren’t very smart,” began Dr. Smith. “They behave via what seems like instinct and reaction to stimuli, rather than response to cognition. They can perhaps be baited and fooled. And perhaps best of all, they usually act as individuals rather than in groups. However they are all attracted to another Demon’s excitement.”

“They essentially get tired when they use too much energy at once and are usually slow,” continued Dr. Marx. “They usually walk and almost never levitate themselves to fly. They can teleport but that is highly energy intensive for them and they seldom do it. Soone says they feed on a steady supply of energies from Evil that is either nearby or within themselves. Only the larger, more powerful ones can sometimes absorb raw energies of this universe.”

“So hold on!” said Wells. “They don’t feed on Earthly stuff? Not even on living things?”

“Correct,” said Soone. “They don’t have digestive systems or consume Earthly substances of any kind. They have an overpowering instinct to destroy life, especially sentient life, but generally they must subsist on Evil brought with them from the Void within their own bodies or as separate inanimate bits of Evil.”

“And that’s a damn long logistics line!” said Wells. “So these things will eventually simply starve to death?”

“Yes, but perhaps not before they kill all life on Earth,” noted Soone. “They have enough Evil within their own bodies to subsist for centuries at modest levels of energy use, but they must draw on other Evil to support periods of exceptional energy use.”

“We brought down the first Demon by destroying the Evil deposit it fed on,” noted Rog. “I think it is their greatest weakness.”

“That is valuable intel,” said Wells. “What else?”

“They can be blown or cut to pieces that can then be totally destroyed bit by bit,” said Dr. Phelps. “However, they can rejoin themselves together or grow a new Demon from each piece, if they have enough Evil substance on hand as raw material to draw upon.”

“The first Demon blew itself up intending its pieces to revive within a pool of Evil, but we were able to destroy the Evil along with the pieces,” said Rog.

“That all sounds promising,” said Wells. “Now let’s come up with some battle tactics from all that or we’ll soon all be up over our eyeballs in Demons! Oh, and we need to eat something ourselves before we collapse from lack of food, and work in shifts that give us periods of rest.”

“I’ll pop some food here for us,” said Soone, before disappearing. How he could do that without producing a popping sound none of the others knew.

Half an hour later as he finished a sandwich Wells wasn’t surprised to receive a secure phone call from his superior in the Pentagon, General Winfred Ismith. “I’m with the President now considering Plan C, Wells. What is your status, assessment, and recommendation?”

“Condition Beta,” said Wells immediately, which was code for a dangerous situation but one that didn’t require immediate escalation. That meant no Plan C, at least for now. There was hope! Condition Alpha would have meant everything was fine and there wasn’t a worry in the world, while Condition Gamma would have meant the end of the World, and no doubt about it.

Ismith gave a sigh of relief, smiled, and signaled ‘OK’ to the President and his staff.

“Unfortunately the deadly visitor refused our overtures for peace and immediately attacked us,” said Wells. “We already have over 300 casualties, mostly our Army people, and mostly dead.”

“So the Demon is definitely hostile,” said the President. “What about the Hope people?”

“The friendly talented citizens of Hope are aiding us in every way they can,” continued Wells, “as are their very talented visitors from afar. But the deadly enemy forces have multiplied, as I am sure you have seen from drone surveillance. Plan B was useless. Conventional weapons at best only slow the enemy, and do not kill them. Further, the visitors from afar insist that Plan C would only destroy our own tactical measures that we are now trying to develop. I repeat: Plan C would be counter-productive. Our science team concurs.”

“How much confidence do you have that your tactical measures will be effective?” the President asked.

“Fifty-fifty, I’d say, Sir,” said Wells. “If we don’t have effective tactics developed today Plan C should be reconsidered. Use troop and drone observations to independently confirm progress. And I request more men and firepower be kept at the ready outside the town to try out on the Demons and to contain any Demons that breach our forces in town. Combinations of conventional weapons and wizardry are expected to result in the best tactics.”

“What about bio-hazards?” asked the President.

“Minimal,” said Wells, “though we’re keeping an eye on that issue. By the way, werewolves and vampires are of course human mutants just as the Wizards are, so there is no danger of their conditions being spread by them biting people. Those sorts of rumors need to be combated.”

“Agreed,” said the President.

“So in sum I am hopeful,” said Wells.

“What of long term issues, Wells?” asked Ismith.

“Very favorable, if we can but survive the current problem.”

“Very well, Wells. You remain in charge of our efforts, at least for now,” said the General. “Later, if danger spreads beyond the town, we may decide on abrupt implementation of Plan C. If so, there will likely be no time for your command to withdraw safely.”

“Yes, that was always understood,” said Wells.

“Good luck, Ed,” said the General, as he signed off.

“Keep me advised, Winfred,” said the President, as he rose to leave. “I like better odds than fifty-fifty, especially when it might come to nuking our own citizens. See that everything possible is done to improve those odds.”

****

Army attack drones and helicopters constantly flew over the slowly advancing Demons, blasting as many Demons to bits as they could with super-accurate ‘smart’ missiles, bombs, and cannon-fire. The Demons made easy targets; they usually didn’t run or dodge or even acknowledge the presence of their attackers. The attacks didn’t permanently destroy any Demons, but it cost the monsters time and energy to reassemble themselves.

The military also brought to bear an assortment of even more exotic weapons, including directed electromagnetic emissions of various wavelengths. The laser, microwave, and x-ray cannons did nothing but invite deadly Demon attention. Demons could strike at targets within half a mile with lightning blasts that destroyed several aircraft and land vehicles including tanks. An enormous awkward railgun mounted on a monster-truck got off only one shot that knocked a single menacing Demon to pieces temporarily before getting torn to bits itself by Demon claws. Acids and other chemicals had no effect, nor did napalm- fed fire. Water dumped from airplanes to quench the fires was also ignored by the monsters. Liquid nitrogen froze their surroundings for a short time but had no effect on the Demons themselves.

Aside from blowing the Demons to bits, one simple tactic devised by Dr. Phelps was found to significantly delay the advance of the demons. Tons of hay from nearby farms was dropped on the monsters and they always paused to destroy every bit of it before moving on. Phelps called it the ‘give them what they want’ tactic. They even enticed many of the Demons to retreat all the way back to the Mansion by dropping tons of hay over the building.

Still the Demons slowly advanced, destroying houses and everything else in their path. More than anything else, their insistence on taking the time to completely obliterate the houses slowed their advance. Most homes were strongly warded by their Wizard owners. The observing humans and elves suspected that the Life Energy powered wards both attracted and slowed the Demons. They also suspected that in the open countryside beyond Hope the Demons would advance much faster. But first they would completely destroy Hope; every brick, scrap of wood, and resident.

The High School/Municipal Center drew hundreds of Demons to it. The monsters seemed to enjoy destroying every bit of the huge structure. Army analysts estimated that this delayed the Demon advance for more than two hours.

Meanwhile the allied troops, several teams of Wizards, Army personnel, and elves tried out the battle tactics that they had brainstormed together. Knowing that it would be suicidal to attack multiple Demons at once, they decided to attack outliers that were at the advancing fringe of Demons. As a plus, those monsters tended to be the faster, smaller ones, though their brutish power and appetite for death and destruction was still enormous.

“Over here!” shouted Sam Putt, to distract a Demon towards himself. This one looked like an eight-foot tall flightless carnivorous bird, with long legs ending in huge clawed feet, a fat middle that especially glowed from Evil, and giant beaked-head atop a long thick neck. It could run as fast as a man in short spirts but would then inevitably lose its balance and fall down. It preferred to walk slowly enough to keep its balance as it tore things to pieces with its beak. Non-living human artifacts it tore, crushed, and burned. Any living matter it encountered was reduced to steaming sludge or smoldering ash.

It had been methodically tearing a Ford pickup truck to pieces when the team led by Sam found it. The front bumper and hood sections were gone, torn off as though by a giant can-opener. The engine was itself half gone; the engine block munched away like it was soft cheese instead of solid metal designed to endure the heat and stress of gasoline combustion, plunging pistons, and whirling drive-shaft. Around the truck irregular chunks of charred metal were scattered, droppings from the truck-devouring Demon. The effort was taking it several minutes. Maybe they should drop junk-cars on these things to show them down instead of hay, Sam thought. He’d have to pass that idea on to the Colonel if he survived long enough to do so.

Right now the Demon was more interested in devouring Sam than in devouring the Ford. Destroying life itself was a much higher priority than was destroying the things made by life: the Demon sensed Sam’s powerful Life Energies and wanted to destroy them. Worse, its instincts told it that Sam was sentient. There was nothing more hated by Demons than sentient life.

This Demon was much quicker than Sam expected; it nearly impaled him with its darting beak before the Attack Wizard could bring his longsword down on its long, swaying neck with a loud crash and flash of power. To the consternation of everyone except the he monster, Sam’s tremendous blow cut only half-way through the neck and didn’t even slow the monster down. Thick red Evil gunk bled out from the gash for a few moments before congealing into rock-hard black scale that filled the wound. The monster had in less than half a minute already healed itself!

The Army Ranger with the team pulled the pin from a grenade and bravely popped it into the creature’s snapping mouth. Two seconds later it exploded, blowing the head into dozens of pieces that scattered around the grassy green yard where the battle was occurring.

Alan Dale and three more Wizards of the team quickly found the scattered Evil bits of Demon where they corrupted patches of grass and destroyed them using the anti-Evil spells learned from the elves. In the meantime the decapitated Demon single-mindedly pursued Sam while it sprouted a new head.

THAT SORT OF WORKED,” said Eric, from where he stood not far away, observing and coordinating three of the teams. “BUT IT’S DANGEROUS AND TOO SLOW; WE’D HAVE TO BLOW OFF DOZENS OF HEADS TO GRADUALLY DESTROY THE WHOLE DEMON. IT MIGHT WORK BETTER WITH DEMONS WITH BIGGER HEADS.”

Sam’s team next managed to blow in half one of the legs of the Demon, though it took three more grenades to do it. That greatly slowed the Demon, and the separated leg segment was carried off for destruction by a second team. Despite lightning blasts from the Demon Sam managed to slice off additional sizable chunks of Demon which were then isolated for destruction. Mostly he sliced off reforming limbs before they could fully solidify. Piece by piece the Demon was dismantled. Sam and the other participating teams cheered in celebration when the last piece of it was finally destroyed.

“OK, we have a successful tactic to use against single isolated Demons of certain types,” said Sam, but he wasn’t smiling. “But it took the combined efforts of two dozen of us over twenty minutes of dangerous struggle to destroy one ordinary Demon. There are hundreds of Demons! Even now I can see several more Demons getting too close for comfort!”

“They’re headed straight for us!” said Eric. “They must have somehow sensed that the one we were fighting had encountered potential victims! We’ll have to pull back now!”

“And continue to work on tactics,” added Sam.

“We need more Wizards!” said Alan Dale. “Much as I hate to leave this fun-filled exercise I need to teleport to unaligned places to get more support for Hope. Messages via my amulet have not been enough; I need to do this personally.”

“Understood,” said Eric, as he reached out to firmly shake Alan’s hand. Then with a pop the Unaligned Wizard disappeared.

****

Inside the Mansion the Master Demon focused on the latest rift to the Void he had coaxed into temporary existence and brought tons more Evil to Earth. He had already brought over from the Void more than three thousand Demons and needed more Evil to support them. There was a balance to be kept; there had to be enough Evil to power the Demons that now roamed the Earth killing and destroying! In particular when they encountered Life Forces to be overcome, Evil was consumed. In addition Evil was unstable in any stable universe such as this one, especially when small quantities of it encountered Life Energy. He would need tons more Evil to sustain the Demon apocalypse he had started.

There was literally infinite Evil in the Void, but fetching it in useful quantities took substantial time and energy. Soon he would have to start establishing Evil deposits throughout the State, then throughout the Country and finally world-wide. He would of course make use of humans and human technology to help him do that. He would perhaps disguise himself as human and travel about with suitcases of Evil, and he could mail boxes of Evil to every major city of the world. Those would attract Horde Demons that would destroy all life and all artifacts suggesting life.

But Earth was a big place with billions of humans and thousands of big cities and millions of towns. Managing the needed devastation all by himself would be almost impossible, or at least take much too long. Some of the work he could pay unsuspecting humans to do, but much of it required Demon powers, smart Demons that could disguise themselves, follow his orders obediently, and open rifts to the Void to bring more Evil and more Horde Demons.

Unbelievably, his one remaining intelligent apprentice had been destroyed, and his Horde Demons were too impossibly stupid to be any help except when it came to causing mindless destruction. With the Master Demon occupied obtaining more Demons and Evil. The Horde Demons devouring Hope were essentially leaderless and mindless. Though they were destroying Hope, they were taking long hours to do it! Idiots! In the meantime the Wizards were getting away!

He desperately needed new Apprentice Demons: smart ones. The fastest way to get a smart Demon was for the Demon to absorb an elf. Elves made excellent templates to form smart Demons. That’s what he did himself over an Earth century ago. Absorbing other life-forms simply wasn’t as effective. Here on Earth there were only two elves: Soone and Rog. Soone was of course the best choice, but he would also use Rog.

He would have to capture Soone and Rog himself. Most Horde Demons would mindlessly destroy them, not absorb them. He would have to make sure that the delicate process of absorbing them was properly done. Perhaps he could even manage to destroy other enemies while he was at it, such as the King brat.

But first he had to speed up the attack on Hope. Taking advantage of his elf heritage, he managed what no other Demon had done before: he influenced Horde Demon instinct by heightening their preference towards attacking living things over destroying nonliving artifacts produced by the living. He also teleported a few small Demons ahead of the others, to the edge of town and beyond. When these ‘scouts’ caught up with fleeing humans their excitement would be sensed by the others and they would all stampede ahead to catch the humans. Finally, he rampaged through the Demons that were gathered near the Mansion, basking in the energy from the Evil that was concentrated there. Most of them fled; those that didn’t he tore apart and consumed for himself.

Then he set off to find the two elves that were already on Earth. He didn’t have much time. With the elves regrouping on Alure, he needed to establish so much Evil and so many Demons on Earth that not all the elves of Alure would be able to stop them. He needed elves as templates to develop intelligent apprentices, but only a few hundred of them. That many would doubtlessly soon be sent from Alure to save Earth. They would be too late. With a new apprentice or two he would become unstoppable. He would then use whatever elves were sent to save Earth build an army of subservient Apprentice Demons. Then he and his Horde would return to Alure to destroy all remaining elves. The elf Balance Wards, already weakened, would be gone, and Demons would destroy all life in this Galaxy, and then throughout the entire universe.

****

Ben King and the Apprentice Wizards that accompanied him were disappointed not to be on the front-lines, fighting Demons and Evil. Instead they formed a thin protective line along the left, rear, and right flanks of the three-thousand person group of Hope citizens that was fleeing on foot towards the East and hopefully towards buses that awaited them outside the fence that ringed the town.

At least Mark and Rick were in this Apprentice Wizard group with him, and Soone and Ann walked together nearby, frequently accompanied by Maude Philips and Elizabeth. The Wolf and Amanda also helped lead the group. Ben was not alone; he was with the people that he most cared about.

When they stopped occasionally to rest Soone repeatedly studied the link between Ben and Ann, attempting to solve the puzzle of both the link between them and the spell that hampered it. At times he felt he was making progress, but there always seemed to something missing. Maybe it was true that the presence of Wild Magic was necessary to trigger Ben’s memory and solve the puzzle.

Helicopters had already reduced their ranks by a thousand, and another Army helicopter carrying forty civilians was taking off every ten minutes. Wizards were also teleporting and flying people out by the dozens. Elizabeth, who led the East Group and had gotten reports of similar success from smaller West and South groups, was feeling optimistic about the retreat. Oldsters, infants, and toddlers were already safely out of town.

Then Moco, who had been scouting to their rear, caught up with her and changed from full wolf to wolf-man form so that he could tell his bad news.

“The Demons are catching up with all three retreating groups,” he reported, between deep breaths. I’ve had wolves luring Demons astray when they get close to any group, but that’s not working as well anymore. I suspect that they are being driven away from the Mansion area by the Master Demon.

Elizabeth sent telepathic warnings to Sharp, who led the South Group, and to Kroner, who led the West Group.

“That makes sense,” said Soone. “The Devon Master might be aware that we are escaping his reach. He is by now likely understanding that simply turning loose his Horde in Hope was not bringing speedy enough destruction of Earth life to please him. Horde Demons are simply too stupid to effectively fight a war on their own.”

“They’re still much too effective for my liking,” said Lieutenant Barns. “We’ve been learning how to fight them, yes, but they are also learning. The Colonel reports that the Demons are no longer stopping to destroy inanimate objects such as houses, they are instead focusing only on biological life-forms.”

“Yes,” said Moco. “I have observed that myself. They still stop to destroy trees, but are ignoring streets, houses, and other human-made things.”

“Homeowners not covered by property insurance for Demon apocalypse damage will perhaps be thrilled, but it doesn’t sound good for us,” said Elizabeth.

“We still have close to a mile to go,” said Maude. “Are we going to make it?”

Almost in answer to her question, a goat-sized Demon that looked vaguely like a long-legged crab launched itself off the roof of a house they were walking past and landed atop a young werewolf child. Elizabeth and Maude blasted it with no effect, and bystanders who tried to physically strike or pull the monster off the hapless girl suffered horrible burns from simply attempting to grab it. Finally Moco grasped it in his big clawed hands and with a mighty heave tossed it a hundred yards away from the victim, where a dozen Wizards soon vengefully chopped it to bits and annihilated it with elf anti-Evil spells. But rescue came too late for twelve-year old Mary Ritz, who had been mutilated and killed in moments.

Though distraught, Rick and some of the Apprentices participated. Because they hadn’t detected the Demon they felt responsible for the death of their fellow-Junior Apprentice, but at least they proficiently destroyed the last bits of the monster that had killed her.

When it was over Moco’s third-degree hand-burns had already begun to visibly heal but there was nothing left of Mary but a bloody mass of flesh that reminded some on-lookers of disgusting highway road-kill. The entire horrified group of fleeing Hope residents were shocked and brought to tears and shouts of rage.

“We’re far from the advancing line of Demons!” said Barns. “Where did that Demon come from?”

“Somehow that one leap-frogged ahead of the others!” said Maude. “How?”

“The Master Demon likely teleported it,” said Soone. “Spread the word that there are likely others!”

“Wolves will scout about the advancing refugee groups and not just to their rear,” said Moco. “But East, West, and South Groups all need to move faster!”

No urging was needed; word spread through telepathy and Army radios, and all the groups picked up their paces but increased their alertness with regard to randomly placed Demons.

****

At their next short rest-stop Rick Hortega had a surprise for Ben, as they stood gathered under a big shade-providing oak tree with Soone and Ann, with the intent of again trying to break through his power paralysis. “There’s Evil in that bag you’re handing to me!” Ben said in surprise. “Just a golf ball-sized piece, but still dangerous. You shouldn’t be carrying it around.”

“I saved a piece from that crab-Demon that killed Mary,” said Rick. “Mark told me that it might help you figure out how to do your magic. If that works out maybe Mary didn’t die for nothing.”

“Well done, young Wizard!” said Soone.

Ben shook his head in wonder as he grasped the bag, and gave Rick an affectionate pat on the back. Rick never ceased to amaze his friends. It was hard for Ben to believe he was only six years old, the same age he had been when his parents were murdered and Soone became his first foster-parent. But despite his powers Rick was still a six-year old boy. He was glad when Maude made the effort to give Rick a warm hug.

Ben, Soone, and Ann sat down in the shaded patch of rich green grass. They were in the outskirts of Hope now, and there were more patches of woods than patches of grass that formed most yards. This grass was particularly green, thick, and healthy; perhaps the residents of the small home it surrounded used magic spells to help it thrive. Ben couldn’t help wondering if Demons would destroy this grass soon, as well as the great tree that majestically towered above it. The monsters would want to eventually totally destroy the house and kill trees, bushes, grass, weeds, topsoil, and everything else around it. In time, they would kill everything in the world. Then everything in the Galaxy and beyond. But Ben knew that he had to avoid such thoughts and focus on here and now in order to prevent such a future from happening.

“Perhaps you should join in our attempts to help Ben find himself,” Soone told Rick, as the boy stood nearby with Maude. “In learning and discovering magic natural talent is more important than experience. The fact that your greatest talent lies in the area of collaborative magic could provide insight into what we are trying to do.”

“An excellent plan, elf Wizard,” agreed Maude as she guided Rick closer to the cloistered trio.

Maude guided Rick to sit in back of and between Ben and Soone and rest his small hands lightly on their shoulders. The contrast between the teenager and the elf magically was amazing, young Rick immediately sensed. Of Ben he initially sensed nothing. Less than nothing actually, as Rick sensed only empty space where Ben sat. By choice the Gaou was open to him, and was far more complex than anyone he had ever encountered, with layer upon layer of living spells linked and bound together by massive amounts of Life Energy, all harmoniously formed in an exquisitely complex matrix. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever encountered in his short life!

What did it all mean? Rick had only vague dream-like notions, but those included glimpses of astonishing plants and wondrous creatures, and astronomical nebulas and planet upon planet filled with life: flying creatures, swimming creatures, running creatures, billions of them! Rick was mesmerized!

WONDROUS AND BEAUTIFUL BEYOND IMAGINATION, ISN’T IT, YOUNG MAN!” Soone told Rick. “YOU GLIMPSE ALL THAT I AM, ALL MY MEMORIES AND SPELLS BUILT UP OVER CENTURIES OF EXPERIENCING LIFE ON ALURE AND OTHER WORLDS. ALL OF THAT AND MORE COULD BECOME YOURS TO EXPERIENCE FIRST HAND, YOUNG RICK! BEN COULD DO SO ALSO, IF WE CAN HELP HIM FIND HIMSELF. I ENTERTAIN THE NOTION OF SEVERAL HUMANS LIVING FOR A TIME ON ALURE FOR LEARNING AND CULTURAL EXCHANGE PURPOSES. BUT WE MUST FIRST STOP THE DEMONS FROM DESTROYING ALL OF WHAT YOU HAVE GLIMPSED. THAT IS THEIR INTENT. AND ONLY CREATURES LIKE US WHO TREASURE AND UNDERSTAND LIFE AND LIFE ENERGIES CAN STOP THEM.”

Ben could of course overhear, and experienced a pang of jealousy and regret. He had seen with his own eyes some of what Soone had given Rick a glimpse of, but had been unable to experience it as deeply as Rick did by mind-melding with Soone for only a few seconds, something he had never been able to do! How much he had missed over these last eight years! People who have lost their eyesight must have similar distraught feelings, he reasoned! But feeling sorry for himself was a useless exercise, he had learned many times over. He forced himself to move on.

Ben and Soone shared the small piece of Evil within their joined hands. It looked like a harmless piece of coal but burned to the touch as if it were acid. That had to be painful for the elf, though he made no complaint. Ben felt nothing: no burning pain from the Evil and no warmth of life from Soone.

His other hand was grasped by Ann. He could now sense that she was somewhere near, and that was huge progress made. But his paralysis with regard to magic was still mostly intact.

Soone sensed a great deal as he probed his human friends cautiously. Ann was strong, welcoming, loving, and honest. She was obviously very strong in magic, fully as strong as an average elf. Rick was even more interesting. Probing the powerful youngster was a give-and-take operation, with Rick probing him as much as he was probing Rick. At only six years old the boy’s magic was as strong as anyone the Gaou had ever probed, human or elf. Soone was fully as astonished with Rick as Rick was with Soone!

Together both old elf and young boy monitored the link between Ann and Ben, and the interaction between Ben and the Evil. Soone and Rick also tweaked the Evil with tiny bursts of Life Energy, and the Evil tweaked back with little bursts of unruly chaos! Ben’s shield responded with little push-backs to the Evil, and Soone and Rick watched how it was being done.

“That strange and rich texture to Ben’s shielding is Wild Magic,” said Soone. “And it’s somehow under his control! That’s something elves haven’t been able to do in millions of years! Sprites and Demons to some extent deal with Wild Magic, but not in as such a sophisticated manner as this! Ben, can you sense how you’re doing it?”

“I’ll try to!” said Ben. With his eyes closed he managed to do something that he hadn’t been able to do since he was a child. He formed within his mind a vision of himself and his surroundings. In recent years when he tried to do this he had come up blank except for himself, as a bright white image. Now however, an image of the small piece of Evil appeared to him, blackish and glowing dull red. He could indeed sense Evil!

But how was he doing that? He looked closer at himself. The Wild Magic in his shielding was entwined with Life Energy in an intricate way, but in a way that somehow seemed obvious to him at some subconscious level. His intricately structured Life Energy shaped the Wild Magic subtlety, not so much attempting to impose brute-force control on it as taking advantage of its arbitrary nature in this universe. It was all constrained greatly however, twisted closely about his body countless times like a coiled spring. Tiny strands of it reached out only a few inches from himself. Those would detect high energies of any type, and upon detection cause the heavier strands to strike outwards. In sum, it was standard shielding, but with a Wild Magic core worked into it that wasn’t at all standard.

He focused on producing tiny strands of standard Life Energy-powered magic to provide detection and caused some of them to expand outwards – strands for sensitive standard passive sensing, not strands to cause the Wild Magic to automatically spring out destructively. Immediately he detected Soone, and also Anne and his link to her. And there also was Rick, and beyond them hundreds of people, trees, birds, and countless other living things! They were all strong in Life Energy, and beautiful beyond comprehension to sense! He hadn’t been able to sense and enjoy his surroundings like this in eight years! He had regained his Wizard ‘sight’!

“I CAN SENSE YOU!” he pathed to Ann joyously. “AND OTHERS! I SENSE EVERYTHING AROUND ME!”

“That’s wonderful, Ben,” she replied. “But I can still only vaguely sense you!”

“Yes, you are still hidden from us,” said Soone. “But do not despair. This is a huge step for you!”

“OK, the rest period is over people! Let’s get going again!” called out Elizabeth abruptly, from the front of the marching group. They all reluctantly resumed their march. This time Maude, Soone, and Rick floated together alongside Ann and Ben as the two teens held hands and enjoyed each other’s company more intimately than had been possible for eight long years.

****

In the Pentagon where General Ismith oversaw the analysis of gathered information on Hope, the Demon serge hadn’t gone unnoticed. Satellite, aircraft, and drone surveillance photos and videos were on display around the war room. A large map of the Hope area was displayed on one wall, with areas destroyed by Demons shaded-in with gray. Half of Hope was shown in gray, including all of central Hope. The High School/Council complex was completely gone. All that remained of Hope’s most important building was broken bits of bricks and concrete, twisted metal, and shards of glass.

“The Demons are definitely advancing faster,” said one of the analysts. All the town will be covered with Demons within the next fifteen minutes and the fences around the town breached.”

“And the fight against them?” asked Ismith.

“Dozens of Demons have been destroyed but we estimate that their numbers have grown ten times as fast. There are several thousands of them now.”

“What about the refugees?” Ismith asked.

“Half have reached the busses and are rapidly leaving the immediate area,” said a Major. “The remainder of the three Groups still fleeing on foot might or might not reach relative safety in time. It will be close.”

“And what is the impression that our bus operatives have of the evacuees?” asked Ismith.

“They have been model passengers, even the excessively pale and hairy ones. They are grateful and polite almost to a fault,” said the Major. “That is exactly as expected from the previous assessments by Wells and Crane. For the most part these are simply ordinary people and model citizens. It’s just that many of them also have extraordinary abilities. Even the werewolves and vampires often have useful psi-powers.”

“We could send in more Special Forces to help them,” said Ismith.

“Committed manpower is already fully engaged fighting Demons that have suddenly appeared outside the town perimeter,” said one of the Colonels. “We’re slowing them down but not destroying enough of them. We need our elf and Wizard friends to do that, but they are apparently fully committed inside the town.”

“Commit more of our forces inside and around Hope,” said Ismith firmly. “We have to save as many paranormal folks as possible; they have been the only ones effective against Demons. They just might be our only chance to win this thing.”

“Except for Plan C,” said the Colonel. “And committing more assets will only mean more casualties if we do commit to Plan C.”

“Committing more assets may be our best chance to avoid Plan C altogether,” said Ismith. “What is the projected loss of life from Plan C?”

“At least three-hundred thousand people,” said an analyst; “but potentially over ten times as many if the winds shift the radiation into the Boston or New York metro areas. At least fifty thousand killed outright from the blast, and most of the rest over weeks, months, and years from radiation effects.”

“Send in more assets,” ordered Ismith. “A-S-A-P!”

****

At the Hope High School/Council building site a solitary elf appeared, observed that the building was completely obliterated, and then disappeared again.

 

****

 

CHAPTER 17

Taken!

 

Nobody took particular notice when another retreating human joined the East Group: a young man of ordinary appearance. Stragglers were constantly joining the Group as they passed more houses. People were intent on walking out of Hope as fast as they could, and watching out for attacking monsters: monsters that looked like monsters.

Slower people had already been flown or teleported out of the Group; only the fast walkers remained: older children and younger adults, Wizards, Norms, and a few vampires and werewolves. One amazing young child-wizard named Rick remained, along with one amazing old elf.

Soone currently floated comfortably between Mark and Ann, his feet not touching the ground as the two earthbound teens guided him along. Elizabeth had several times tried to get them to leave the Group via Wizard flight or helicopter to join the busses, but had been rebuffed. Maude floated along comfortably over Soone, like the elf she was also resting sore feet. Ben walked alongside Ann, still enjoying her company despite the seemingly unending emergency. Now that he could converse with her telepathically, they were doing it almost constantly “WE’LL ALL BE IN A BUS IN LESS THAN FIFTEEN MINUTES,” he told her. “I WANT YOU, MARK, AND YOUR MOTHER AND GREAT-GRANDMOTHER TO BE OUT OF THIS.”

“What about you, Ben?” asked Ann. “And Soone and Rog?”

“Our place is here in Hope, Ann,” answered Soone, “as long as there are Demons. I have been gathering my strength to transport Ben and myself to wherever we are most needed.”

“Hold up for another rest!” announced Elizabeth abruptly, from the front of the East Group, using her magic enhanced voice.

“Another one already? But we’re almost there!” someone protested.

“A small Demon attacked the solders near the fence,” explained Elizabeth. “We have Wizards helping the military to destroy it. We’ll be moving on as soon as the mess is cleaned up, in ten or twenty minutes, tops.”

“Let’s work on your wizard powers again, Ben,” said Soone, as he, Ben, Ann, and Rick again sat down on the ground in a tight circle and joined hands.

Effortlessly this time, Ben closed his eyes, extended his senses, and formed a mental picture of himself and his surroundings.

“Try something else, Ben,” Soone urged. “Anything! Something simple! Levitation, perhaps?”

“I’m not sure that I remember how!” said Ben. “It’s been a long time! And there are all these people around us! What if I accidently hurt someone?”

“If we can collaborate, I can show Ben some things,” said Rick.

“Perhaps you can,” said Soone, “but only if a way through Ben’s cloaking and shielding is found. Others are walled off from him. It has to be him that finds a way.”

“Let me try!” said Ben. He closed his eyes and enriched his vision of himself and everything around him. He was again aware of his shields and how to control them, and how to reach out with his senses. Reaching out, he was again glad to detect his friends and fellow Hope citizens.

As well as something completely unexpected: a towering mass of Evil that was rapidly rushing up behind Soone! It had to be a Demon!

Almost without thinking, Ben acted! He threw himself at Soone and wrapped his arms around him, along with his shielding!

A moment later the gigantic Demon dove/tackled and wrapped his huge arms around the crouching elf and boy. There was a bright flash of light and clap of thunderous sound and they were all gone!

Ann and Rick were blown away from the event with deadly force, as if a bomb had detonated next to them! Wizards rushed to the scene, trying to figure out what had happened. Mark attended his sister, who was not badly hurt. Rick Hortega was much more seriously injured, and was soon attended to by Maude Philips.

“It’s very bad, but I think I can help him pull through,” said Maude, as she held her old wrinkled hand on his bloody forehead. “But I’ll need to take him someplace quiet. And I’ll check on Alan while I’m gone.” With that she and Rick popped away.

“I sensed Maude and Rick leave, but where are Ben and Soone?” Elizabeth asked, as she popped onto the scene and knelt to examine her daughter.

“It was a young man, and then it was a giant Demon taller than two men,” said a bystander. “Bigger than a rhinoceros it became, as it charged at the old elf. At the last moment Ben threw himself over the elf, and the Demon landed atop both of them.”

“And then with a flash-bang all three of them were gone!” added Mark. “Teleported away, likely by the Demon!”

“Soone pushed me away at the last moment,” said Ann, “or I would have been hurt bad like Rick. It looked like the first Demon, but many times bigger!”

“What happened here?” asked Moco, as he trotted up to Elizabeth as a gigantic wolf and changed to half-human form to better speak with her.

A half-minute later the Wolf screamed into the sky in pain and rage, then trotted back towards town. From the surrounding wooded suburbs came answering howls. The howls repeated again and again, moving steadily west towards the center of town and Grim Mansion.

****

Ben lay on a hard surface with his arms still wrapped around his elf friend. They had been tossed there rather roughly by the Demon, but his shielding cushioned him and Soone effectively. It was a plain twenty-foot cube-shaped room they found themselves in, and it seemed to be constructed totally of Evil black rock with a red under-glow, much like a Demon.

Ten feet away on the other side of the room stood the actual Demon: a fifteen foot tall, fifteen-ton wall of what looked like black rocks set into a core of what looked like red-glowing molten lava! “Two for one,” it roared! “You saved me a trip, Ben King!”

“You saved me a trip, Demon,” said Ben, with much more bravado than he felt. “I was coming after you soon!”

“The half-grown child-Wizard!” said the Demon. “Eight years ago you surprised me. Now I am more than ten times as strong and prepared for your primitive magic.” Lightning shot out from the palm of his hand and struck and encircled Ben’s shielding. The shield held and Ben and Soone were not hurt. “That’s just a small reminder of what you face, human. I could strike a hundred times stronger and destroy you, but at this point I do not want to hurt my old friend Soone.”

“I have no Demon friends,” said Soone.

“You are wrong, Soone,” said the Demon. “Do you remember the last time we spoke? More than an Earth century ago it was! You tried to talk me out of performing the Last Voyage ritual, and I refused. I was not ready to meet the Maker.”

“I have not spoken with Demons!” Soone protested.

“But you have spoken with your mentor!” the Demon replied. Soone saw its image shimmer, shrink, and reform into a much smaller, more familiar form.

Even Ben could see the change happen; he was seeing both the unchanging form of the actual Demon and a magically projected image. What he could see emerge within the Demon-form was an elf! An old elf, even older than Soone!

“No!” said Soone. “This is the ultimate perversion! It can’t be!”

“You surely recognize your Master, Apprentice Soone!” said the Demon. “As you were once my elf apprentice, so will you become my Apprentice Demon!”

“It is!” said Soone. “It is you! Lucian! My Master, mentor, and best friend!”

Soone fainted.

****

“Now that civilians have been bussed miles away the high command wants the town of Hope completely cleared and conventionally bombed before nightfall,” said Colonel Wells. “In other words, we need to wrap up our anti-Demon sorties A-S-A-P and get our people to safety! The bombing will destroy what’s left of Hope and everything within two miles of the outside fence. Where we are right now is just outside the target area and will for now remain our forward mobile command post.”

They were in a parking lot three miles outside the Hope entrance gate that used to be merely a fruit stand. Now it was the current location of Well’s mobile command center, complete with a half-dozen Army vehicles and fifty Armed soldiers. A half dozen officers, the ELF team, Rog and Hope leadership sat gathered in a hastily erected Army tent that was roomier than the Colonel’s ELF bus command center.

“Why?” asked Red Eric. “You already tried intensive bombing and you know that it only delays Demons for a few minutes. The tactics that Sam has been leading are the best way that has been found to destroy the Demons, not bombing.”

“It’s for political cover,” said Fredrick Kroner. “Isn’t that right, Colonel? In case Plan C is decided on?”

“That’s part of it,” said Wells. “My superiors wouldn’t want Plan C to happen until they’ve retried Plan B. Plan B the first time was massive but this will be a hundred times that, including special precision bunker-busting bombs for the Mansion.”

“Ben and Soone are almost certainly in that Mansion,” Elizabeth pointed out.

“Maybe they are,” said Wells. “And maybe they’re even alive. But maybe they aren’t in the Mansion; for all we know, they teleported to Cincinnati or to the Moon. Listen, if we could get them out safe that would be great. But apparently we can’t. Right now we have no viable plan to get into that Mansion.”

“Consider that there will be huge political fallout if you don’t do everything you can to rescue Gaou Soone,” said Rog. “Pass that on to your so-called high command.”

“Political?” asked Dr. Crane.

“My Master Soone is the oldest, most powerful, and revered elf of Alure. Perhaps revered in a way similar to your most famous scientist, artist, and President all put together in one person. Consider also that Alure culture and science is thousands of years advanced beyond your own. I have listened to your thoughts and know that your leaders are interested in a long-term relationship with Alure and other planets. Abandoning Soone to a Demon could prevent such plans from reaching fruition.”

“Consider also the political importance of Ben King,” said Eric. “Many Hope and non-Hope Wizards and others value that boy highly. Plus he may be our only hope to defeating the Demons such that your Plan C isn’t needed.”

“I will pass your thoughts on up my command chain,” said Wells. “But through our drones, manned reconnaissance aircraft, and satellites, my leaders recognize the worsening situation here. Despite the best joint efforts of your people and ours, the Demons are increasing in numbers and spreading faster than ever. Fortunately there are almost no residents living near Hope, and the few that live within five miles of the fence that circles Hope have already fled the area. We have also begun evacuating nearby towns.”

“The scarcity of folks immediately around Hope is no accident,” said Kroner. “Hope owns all that land and discourages outsiders. Our people surrounding Hope began evacuation when the town did.”

“Resulting in a wide ring of open farmland around Hope where the Demons can be spotted and stopped,” said Eric.

“We have a dozen teams doing just that,” said Wells. “They’re all doing a fantastic job. But we are losing ground. We have plenty of Army personnel; what we need are more Wizards.

“As of now you have two hundred more!” said Moco, from where he suddenly stood at the entrance of the tent. “Half are Unaligned human Wizards from all over the world, and half are elves from Alure. Oh, and my brother and fifty of his pack also arrived, teleported by the Unaligned.”

“I have reports that fifty new anti-Demon teams are being formed,” said Eric.

Alan Dale, the elf Jeanine, Moco, and a massive man that could have been Moco’s twin entered the tent. “I don’t believe that many of you have ever met my twin brother, Pack Leader Krell,” said Moco.

“Meeting comrades of my Brother is enjoyable, but my pack came to destroy Demons,” snarled the Moco look-alike twin. They even sounded alike! “We’re forming new teams right away with wolves as scouts and having them shadow existing teams!”

“Maybe there will be enough teams to stop Demons from escaping the Hope area!” said Wells.

“We should only half of them in that way,” said Moco. “The other half need to attack the Mansion.”

“But it may require all of them to stop Demons from attacking the next towns!” protested Wells.

“Destroying the source of the Demons should be the number one priority,” explained Moco, “or the Master Demon will simply continue to bring them here as fast as even your new teams can kill them. Faster, probably. The others can of course then be killed ASAP.”

“He’s right,” said Eric. “The source of the Demons has to be destroyed as soon as possible and we already know that simply bombing it won’t work. We need to destroy the Master Demon and his Mansion of Evil using mostly wizardry while most Demons are occupied away from the Mansion. And we’ll of course try to save Ben and Soone when we do that.”

“Of course,” said Moco. “And by the way I’ve just come back from the Mansion and noticed that there are actually few Demons there and elsewhere near the center of town. Probably because there’s no more stuff there for them to destroy. Now might actually be a good time to attack the Mansion.”

Everyone in the tent turned their attention to Colonel Wells.

“OK,” said Wells. “Let’s hear some ideas about exactly how to accomplish your Mansion mission.”

****

Ben and Soone were alone in their prison of Evil; the Master Demon had for now gone off on its own to possibly work on other issues. If the captives entertained any ideas of escaping through a doorway when the Demon left them that hope soon disappeared. There was no doorway. When the Demon exited the room it pushed itself against a wall and then slowly sank into and through it, seeming to melt himself, the wall, or both.

Ben was glad for this pause in the confrontation; he was shocked at how disturbed Soone was from the Demon’s revelation that it had consumed Soone’s old friend and mentor Lucian. Ben held his hand and spoke to him for half an hour before the old elf finally stopped sobbing and could again speak with him sensibly.

“The terrible fact of this Demon’s absorption of my mentor explains much, young Ben,” said Soone. “Lucian was by far the greatest elf of his age. The Demon has his knowledge and some of his skills; that is how has managed to so effectively penetrate and corrupt Alure elf culture and Earth Wizard culture. Lucian was a loving, sensitive elf loyal to elf traditions. To have his knowledge turned towards Demon Evil and against elves and life is ghastly beyond measure!”

“Why doesn’t it simply kill us?” asked Ben.

“We killed its apprentice,” said Soone. “The Horde needs more intelligent leadership than one Demon can possibly provide. The Master Demon wants one of his junior Demons to absorb me the way that he absorbed Lucian. He’s likely looking for a good candidate junior Demon to accomplish that task, but hasn’t found them yet. Thus for now we still live.”

“We have to get you out of here!” said Ben.

“We have to get both of us out of here and do it soon,” said Soone. “For one thing, my personal anti-Evil shielding is requiring too much of my energies. Though you might not sense it your shielding may be draining your energies in a similar way. But then again maybe it isn’t.”

“Wouldn’t my use of energy have to be draining me?”

“Maybe not.” said Soone. “Over the last eight years you’ve expended a lot of energy, and yet never seemed to run out of it. I’ve been pondering that situation for a long time. It must have to do with Wild Magic that you captured. Wild Magic is primordial chaos. When it encounters this universe ordinary energy of this universe is created, which you in turn internalize as Life Energy. The Wild Magic might provide an essentially limitless form of energy for you.”

“If so, I don’t know how to fully use it,” said Ben.

“Burt you are rapidly learning how to! And also consider that Evil may be some form of Wild Magic. Demons get energy from Evil. Could you get energy from Evil also?”

“I really don’t know,” admitted Ben.

“How much Evil is here in this Mansion?” the elf asked.

“Tons of it,” Ben said. “Much more than there was at the Glen.”

“It could have been collected here by this clever Demon for many decades,” said Soone. “For sure you can quit blaming yourself for attracting this Demon to Hope. It was here long before you were born. You simply happened across the Master Demon when it decided to create a second horde of Evil at the Glen. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time; that is how you humans sometimes describe it.”

“And it caught me and my parents mucking with Wild Magic and didn’t like it,” said Ben.

“But that’s all history, young Ben. It’s time for you to put all of that behind you and get back to learning about the Wild Magic inside you, and about Evil too, and how to destroy it, before it destroys us.”

Ben sat down behind Soone, wrapped his long arms around the little elf, and closed his eyes. “You watch for the Demon’s return, and I’ll learn what I can.”

Much easier this time, he was immediately able to sense himself and Soone in magic detail. The elf was like an open book, deep and dense with centuries of elegant wards and elf magic lore exposed to his understanding. The elf’s personal protective shields were indeed strained, so while he was there Ben strengthened them a thousand-fold with a lasting spell.

After studying the structured complexity that was Soone, studying himself at first seemed simple, and there were interesting similarities. The elf’s style was simple elegance, like a Bach fugue. His own style was rather more complex, like a Beethoven symphony. What he had intuitively done as a child to tame the Wild Magic was like a lovely symphonic passage that he quickly relearned.

He extended his outreach to the floor beneath him, and the wall behind his back. Instantly he could sense the corruption! It was still mostly ordinary stone; but it wasn’t entirely of this universe! Throughout the ordinary minerals were strands of a vast network of pulsing unearthly materials that didn’t belong here in this universe at all! Evil! When he probed it with his Life Energies they annihilated each other into nothing, but at the expense of his Life Energies. That’s how the Evil at the Glen had been destroyed, but it had taken a great toll of Life Energies to do it.

Evil was Wild Magic structured to both persist in this universe and to cancel out Life Energy. Living things that carried lower concentrations of Life Energy were weakened by the presence of concentrated Evil; but highly concentrated Life Energy could be used to obliterate Evil.

With his Wild Magic he reached out to the Evil and discovered that the Demon structured Evil easily reverted to its more natural form: Wild Magic that without protection of Evil structuring or his own intricate Life Energy spell immediately found itself in a universe where it couldn’t survive for more than an instant. So it simply disappeared, perhaps into some parallel universe where its form was compatible! Now wasn’t THAT interesting!

For the next half-hour he applied this newly discovered interaction to dissolve away Evil in the nearby wall. When he was done he had nullified the Evil of a cubic foot of wall.

“There’s the good news and the bad news,” he told Soone, when he had finished. “The good news is that I have learned a wonderful new way to destroy Evil. The bad news is that it may prove to be a slow process and we are imprisoned by tons of Evil that powers the Demons.”

“Yes, when there is good news there is most often also bad news,” said Soone, after listening to Ben’s description of what he had learned. “Let us make use of the good. I have been thinking. My Apprentice Rog managed a spell process to almost automatically destroy Evil using Life Force that welled up in the Glen. I sense that this is also such a place not far from here, but beyond are walled room, so right now it is out of reach. But you have your own new way to destroy Evil. Could that also be controlled by a persistent spell that works Wild Magic? Perhaps multiple spells?”

****

After ‘interviewing’ three dozen minor Demons fresh from the Void the Master finally identified a suitable apprentice candidate. From an elf perspective it looked a little like a minor dragon, which from a human perspective looked something like a wild boar. It was only human-sized but that shortcoming could be easily fixed after the transformation. The important thing was that through some quirk of fate it had both a spark of intelligence and suitable experience.

Its intelligence was great enough for it to realize that total submission to the Master was required, and to enable it to follow basic commands. More important, it absorbed a dragon/pig-like biological creature on planet Omega a short time ago, which helped explain its current form and perhaps much of its intelligence.

Now the Master Demon had to somehow separate the elf from the boy without destroying the elf. They likely didn’t have much time before the tremendous Evil around them overcame their defenses and killed and spoiled the elf.

How would he do it? His elf-patterned mind allowed him consider such questions logically. Somehow the Master needed leverage on the boy. A distraction perhaps? Something or someone the boy cared about as much as he cared about the elf, threatened with death by Demon? One of the boy’s foster parents perhaps? Or one of the troublesome Tuttles? The Master would have to capture one of them! But where were they?

Not for the first time the Master Demon felt regret about having the memories of an elf Gaou but not most of his abilities. If the Master was a real elf that could control Life Energy and not a corrupt imperfect copy of one, there would be more ways to find and capture victims. Using elf ideas about magic that used orderly Life Energy, the Master had developed several Evil-energized powers but only very few; Evil was in essence too disorderly and difficult to influence in ways that Wizards could subtly influence Life Energy.

Soone would be the perfect template for a new Apprentice Demon. Then there was troublesome Rog, Apprentice Wizard Elf! Though young by elf standards, he would also provide a viable template to shape a new Apprentice Demon, and would need to be captured soon also. For Demons, elves were both bad news and good news. Right now he wished there were even more elves on Earth for him to use!

 

****

 

CHAPTER 18

Inside Grim Mansion

 

Fifty elf Wizards, half of them Gaou, teleported to where the street in front of Grim Mansion had been, before it was destroyed by Demons. Fifty human Wizards followed, most of them unaligned with Hope but united under Alan Dale. A hundred Army Rangers with weapons were teleported with them. Fifty werewolves were already on the scene and rousting half a dozen nearby Demons that attacked the intruders with claws and bursts of lightning. Only robust shielding and evasive maneuvering saved the human and elf personnel.

While several Wizard/Army teams set about dealing with the Demons, Eric, Sam and Rog arrived and examined the Mansion front entrance. It was non-standard out-sized entrance with steel double-doors, extra-wide and tall. Though plain looking it literally vibrated with Evil-sourced energy.

“So what do I do now, knock?” said Sam. “Then we are supposed to ask the Master Demon to come out and play with us while Rog cloaks and sneaks inside, right?”

“That’s the super-brilliant plan,” said Red Eric.

“Certified by genius Army, elf, and human Wizard nerds,” said Sam. “What could possibly go wrong?” From his weapons belt he pulled out his latest attack hammer. “This is my ninth hammer since this whole thing started, Eric. I should have forged and warded them by the dozen. Stand back now while I ring the Demon’s doorbell. Then we cloak and run like hell. I hadn’t done this sort of thing since I was a kid, now this is my second time for doing it at this cursed Mansion!”

“I’ll help shield you while you knock on the door,” said Eric. “Then I’ll cloak us while we run away. Put all your strength into your hammer blow. Remember, if we end up teleporting to escape the Demon, port to Desolation Glen. That place is still overflowing with Life Energy that is likely to be avoided by the Horde Demons like the plague.”

Rog stepped away and to one side of the doorway and disappeared through cloaking. The usually talkative elf hadn’t said a word since he learned about his dangerous part in the plan. Eric wasn’t sure what a terrified elf was supposed to look and act like, but he suspected that Rog presented an archetypical example. Could the frightened young elf be depended on to do his part?

Wham! Sam struck a tremendous blow to the Mansion door that would have entirely flattened an ordinary house. The explosion vaporized most of the hammer but Eric’s shielding protected himself and Sam, though they were both stunned and knocked off their feet.

The doors slammed open and the biggest, ugliest Demon they ever saw ducked through the opening to take in the scene. For several seconds it looked about in amazement at the teams of elves, Wizards, and Norm Army Rangers that were engaged in destroying his Demons before lifting his head and belching the most blood-curdling roar ever heard. That delay likely saved Eric and Sam, who finally got around to clearing their heads, cloaking, and running like hell.

The pause also gave cloaked Rog the time he needed to dash with his short legs behind the Master Demon and into the Mansion. The young elf had reasoned that with everything he had already gone through one more Demon encounter would be easy for him to handle, but he was wrong. A bout of craziness must have driven him to do what he had done earlier to defeat the Apprentice Demon! After that was over and he had a chance to think about it he was very shaken, but at least at the time he thought that the worst was over. He was wrong!

Then an even more monstrous Demon showed up, and then a whole Horde of Demons! But eventually more human Wizards and elves showed up, relieving him from most responsibility. He decided that he would avoid further conflict. That changed when Soone was captured. For years he had been a horrible apprentice, and now his Master was in deadly danger, perhaps already killed! So he insisted on being the one that would go into the Mansion after Soone and Ben! No doubt about it, he was caught up in another bout of personal craziness!

Inside the Grim Mansion foyer Rog immediately encountered a stairway up, a stairway down, and a hallway leading left. Otherwise there was absolutely nothing: only what appeared to be bare stone walls, ceilings, floors, and stairs. There were no rugs, furniture, wall coverings, light fixtures, or anything else. To top things off the size of everything seemed huge to the little elf, as if it was fashioned for giants much larger than even humans. Worst of all, it was likely that the walls, ceilings, and floors were stuffed with Evil!

Rog had no idea which way to go. As he paused to think about it the front door clanged shut behind him, trapping him inside the Mansion. But the Master Demon was outside, and he was inside and perhaps safe from it! He felt so enormously relieved that he dropped his cloaking to focus on shielding against the enormous Evil that was all around him.

As he breathed a deep sigh of relief a Demon that looked like an Alure minor dragon came charging down the stairs at him!

****

Twenty miles away in a nearby town that was used as an evacuation point for fleeing Hope residents, Maude Phillips was healing Rick Hortega. Although the young man had suffered many broken bones and serious internal injuries, he had immediately started healing himself, very likely saving his own life. He might have even completed the job of healing himself had he not soon become totally exhausted. As it was Maude immediately continued sustaining the boy and healing at a low rate until she could transport him to best healer she had ever met, who happened to be a vampire and the wife of the unofficial leader of the unaligned Wizards of the world.

“He needs one final push, Jewel,” Maude said loud enough to be easily heard in the adjoining motel room by a person with super-sensitive hearing.

Jewel awoke from her restorative nap and because it was easier for her than using muscle power, used telekinesis to push aside her blanket and float herself into the next room where Maude sat beside Rick and monitored his recovery.

Maude appraised her floating friend with envy; the beautiful vampire appeared to be no more than twenty-five, though her real age was many times that. Her long brown hair floated about her head like a halo, and even wearing Norm casual clothing her perfect body was evident. She had plainly regained much of her strength after her earlier exhausting healing session with Rick.

Even before resting her pale hand on his forehead next to Maude’s, Jewel could sense that Rick was mostly recovered. She had done the bulk of the healing two hours earlier, but since then Maude’s lower rate of healing had also accomplished much.

Over the next ten minutes Jewel passed more Life Energy to the boy but he did most of the remaining healing effort. “Wow, this kid is amazing!” she at last exclaimed to Maude. “All of his healing has been a joint effort between him and us.”

“He is highly exceptional,” said Maude.

“Where did you learn healing, youngster?” Jewel asked Rick, when she sensed that though his eyes were still closed Rick was now fully awake.

“I witnessed several healings, and then participated in several more of them as collaborative Wizard Apprentice efforts,” said Rick. “But I didn’t know that vampires could heal or levitate!”

“Most can’t,” said Jewel, “but it’s not that uncommon for us to have Wizard-like powers. We usually hide them so that busybodies like the Hope people leave us alone. Vampires live a very long time; we should learn a few things over several centuries of life, shouldn’t we?”

“I guess so,” said Rick. “Thanks for healing me, both of you. You’re Alan’s wife Jewel, aren’t you?”

“You know that I am, Rick Hortega. We’ve been exchanging thoughts since Maude brought you here.”

“Where is ‘here’?” Rick asked, as the vampire gently sat herself down in a nearby chair. Sitting in a chair and no longer floating in the air made Jewel appear much more ordinary, but the boy-Wizard could sense her immense inner strength and magical complexity. Were he a few years older he might have paid more attention to her beauty.

“We’re in a Comfort Inn fifteen miles from Hope,” said Jewel. “Alan wanted me kept completely out of this Demon affair; I of course insisted otherwise. As a compromise I came here to help with the Hope evacuation and to be near Alan. This hotel is half-full of Hope people, some requiring healing, though most evacuees have traveled on to more distant towns for greater safety, your parents included.”

Maude handed her already ringing cellphone to Rick. A happy and spirited discussion between Hortega parents and son ensued for several minutes, mostly in Spanish. At last Rick terminated the call and handed the phone back to Maude.

“Thank you again, both of you,” said Rick,” but your thoughts tell me that my friends Soone and Ben are in great danger, and others place themselves in great danger to free them. I must go to them also and do what I can!”

“But you are a child!” Maude began to protest, but her vampire friend quickly shushed her quiet.

“Take then this amulet, young warrior,” said Jewel, “with which you may communicate with me, my mother Amanda, my husband Alan, and my father-in-law the Wolf. It could also help you roughly locate them. The amulets glow brightly when in proximity of each other. Help free the prisoners who now I suspect number four, for they hold the keys to the Demon’s demise.” From her neck she removed a gold necklace that held a large green colored gemstone in a gold setting, and placed it over Rick’s head and around his neck.

Rick briefly examined the heavily warded stone before nodding and slipping it under his tee-shirt. Then with a loud snap he teleported himself away and into danger.

“Your healing abilities are legend, but you also see the future, Jewel!” said Maude.

“I see many possible futures,” Jewel replied, “most of them lousy. At times I have supported myself as a fortune teller. Used wisely foresight is a very useful gift, though it is but one of many useful tools.”

“You said four prisoners. Who aside from Ben and Soone are prisoners?”

“Through my amulet I glimpsed Moco enter the Evil Mansion moments ago. A short time earlier through my future-sight I glimpsed Moco attack a Demon to save a young elf, as a likely future. I fear now that Wolf and elf will become prisoners or worse in the Mansion of Evil.”

“I can see why like myself you are often referred to as a witch. You deserve it!”

“Thank you Maude!” Jewel replied with a smile that exposed sharp fangs, accepting the complement as intended.

****

There was a blur of motion and the Demon charging Rog was gone, tackled away by a snarling fur-covered demon of another sort: a huge werewolf! With a mighty swipe of clawed hand the wolf-man tore a front leg off the dragon/pig-Demon, though the clawed hand was burned and the Demon severely bit the fore-arm of its foe, resulting in urgent howls from the Wolf.

Moments later the shocked elf regained use of his senses and powers, and he erected a strong shield around the Demon which did not much hinder its super-strong attack motions but did blunt and dull it’s blows such that it could not claw or bite.

“You saved my life!” Rog told Moco, as both he and the Wolf dodged the blunted body-blows of the Demon. Even with only three legs the Demon managed to alternately charge at both elf and werewolf.

“And you dropped your cloaks and got me bit!” retorted the Wolf. “Why did you do that?”

“Sorry!” said the elf. “It was a mistake! Where did you come from?”

“I ducked in behind the Master Demon as soon as he opened the front door, then down the stairs a ways.”

“Will your arm be alright?”

“It will be, in another minute!” said the Wolf. “Meanwhile you’ve somehow kept this thing off us a bit for now, but how do we kill it?” It was slowly growing back its missing front leg, while the torn-off leg was slowly crawling around the floor, worm-like.

“No way that I can think of,” said the elf, as he dodged another annoying rush by the limping Demon.

“Well then, un-shield its other front leg and I’ll slow it down some more!”

True to his word, when the thing next charged the Wolf it’s other front leg was savagely torn off of it and tossed away. The act burned the Wolf’s clawed hands, but those began to heal. Meanwhile the crippled Demon kicked its rear legs and rolled around on the floor in a hideous display, but for the time being it could no longer charge at elf or Wolf!

“I’m healing a little slow,” said the Wolf. “Could that be the effect of Evil?”

“Yes! But I’ll shield you!” said Rog.

Moco held out his clawed hands, which finished healing almost immediately!

“Wolf, you are an evil detection device!” said Rog!

“Yes! Injure me, and if I’m slow to heal I’m near Evil! Isn’t that swell! But thanks for the shielding, elf!”

Rog was about to ask Moco which direction they should go when the Wolf picked him up and rapidly carried him downstairs. They ended up in a long hallway with no doors or windows in sight. Like the foyer the hallway they found themselves in was huge, as if it was sized to accommodate giants, as it as it was perhaps ten-feet wide and fifteen feet high, and constructed of what appeared to be the usual Evil-impregnated stone material.

“That thing will be on us again in minutes,” said Moco. “In the meantime how do we find the prisoners?”

“I was supposed to sense where they are after getting past the outside shell of this house, but that’s not working!” said Rog. “This whole building must be made of Evil through and through!”

“Gosh what a surprise,” said Moco. “OK, so I suppose we’ll try shouting and knocking on the walls.”

The pair was soon walking down the empty hallway, shouting and knocking on the Evil infested stone walls, and pausing to hear answering shouts and knocking. They sensed no reply.

****

The human and elf battle-teams found that the usual tactics employed against Demons weren’t effective against the Master Demon. Lightning-like blasts from human and elf Wizards and hand-carried Norm Army weapons weren’t powerful enough to dismantle the creature into manageable pieces. Sam broke two swords to fragments trying to merely slice off a Demon finger. This monster was simply too big and sturdy to be harmed!

Meanwhile the Demon struck back only awkwardly, repeatedly failing to harm its attackers. Red Eric and Lieutenant Barns watched the action from a hundred yards away, increasingly puzzled by its lethargy.

“I don’t like it,” said Eric. “It seems to be holding back. We were supposed to be keeping it occupied to give Rog time to find Ben and Soone but it seems to using the same sort of delaying tactics with us. Why?”

“It’s giant-sized, maybe that simply makes it slow,” said Barns. “I have a helicopter gun-ship coming in to cut it in two with twenty millimeter cannon-fire and hell-fire missiles.”

“Maybe we should try talking to it,” said Eric. “That might help keep it busy.” He dropped his cloaking and took a few steps towards the Demon. “What have you done with our friends?” he demanded, using his magic-enhanced voice.

At the same time the attack helicopter appeared overhead, and its cannon erupted. Without even looking up at it the Demon waved towards it a great clawed hand that for a moment burst with lightning that shot up and blasted the helicopter to blazing pieces.

“Red Eric!” it said. “My apprentice should have killed you! But then our plans don’t always go the way we wish, do they? But then sometimes things go even better than we hope they will! For example I wanted another elf captive and a short time ago one foolishly walked into my fortress home under his own power, along with an equally foolish wolf-man! There is no doubt the wolf-man was subsequently destroyed and the elf was absorbed to become my new apprentice. Isn’t fate wonderful? And now here you stand! You will make the perfect addition to my ever growing guest list!”

The Demon moved blindingly fast but the Wizard teleported away even faster. The monster dove and closed its great arms around only empty space where the Wizard had stood.

Fifty elf and human Wizards sought to restrain it, but even their combined telekinetic efforts weren’t enough to keep it from standing up and roaring its defiance at its darting evasive tormenters. Human guns and explosives it also easily endured. Ignoring them all, it walked slowly back to the Mansion.

There it discovered its apprentice-to-be growing new limbs while downstairs Rog and the Wolf roamed the halls, noisily looking for their captive friends and foolishly broadcasting their location. He willed the Mansion to wall them in at the end of a hallway. They could shout and carry on as much as they wanted in there; in the morning they would die, if they even lasted the night.

Next he drew in more power from the Mansion and used it bring to him hundreds more Horde Demons and Evil from the Void. There were far too many Wizards and elves too near the Mansion to suit him. It was getting dark. The puny elves and humans that opposed him would soon learn the terror of confronting Demons at night!

****

Inside their prison Soone and Ben huddled together so that the elf could attentively watch the teenager work his new spells to shape Wild Magic. For the twentieth time the old elf watched Ben weave a containment spell about a tiny bit of Wild Magic and meld it into a pea-sized stone that had been shaped by Soone.

“I can see and very much appreciate your work, Ben, but I cannot duplicate it, no matter how many times you show me. Frankly, your art far exceeds mine. If I were younger, perhaps I could manage to learn it, but not anymore.” He accepted the small stone from Ben and carefully placed it in the small pouch full of amulets he carried attached to his belt. “That’s enough for me to carry about with me I think; and also enough for your own pockets. Place any others within the walls and ceiling to eat away this prison.”

“If only we knew which wall if breached would lead out of the Mansion!” lamented Ben. He examined each of the four walls and the ceiling and floor where the first of what he called the Wild Moles had been planted. Each spot featured stone pitted and crumbling where the Moles had eaten away the Evil that had been holding the stone together. A two-foot deep, yard-wide depression had formed where he had placed the first Mole on the wall. A growing pile of loose rock and sand lay below the hole.

“In time all the Evil of this Mansion will be gone, eaten away by your Moles!” said Soone. “You have created astounding weapons against Evil!”

“But meanwhile the Demons kill and destroy!” said Ben. “We have to get out of here and try to use the Moles against Demons!”

“Yet in creating your Moles you use up your Wild Magic shielding,” said Soone. “You make yourself vulnerable to attack.”

“I’ve used only a little of it so far, but I’m afraid that you are correct. The Demon could well destroy us before my Moles destroy the Evil here.”

“Yes, once again both good news and bad,” lamented Soone. “I begin to hate that human expression, even though it contains wisdom.”

“You are tired, Gaou, you must rest now. My Moles and I will guard us through the night, or at least alert us if the Master Demon returns.”

“Yes, this has been a very long day. I regret that for many it will be a longer night, for Demons do not sleep.”

****

The Demon-twisted remains of the ten to twenty foot high steel chain-link and barbed-wire fence that circled Hope now served only as a useful landmark rather than a barrier for the teams of elves and men that fought on after darkness. The warded energies that once powered the fence were extinguished. Hundreds of flares and floodlights lit the sky and battlefield. Dozens of teams destroyed Demon after Demon but also suffered casualties themselves. Men and elves fought and were injured and sometimes died. Overhead unmanned drones and manned helicopters spotted and blasted hundreds of Demons that spilled out from Hope and relentlessly trudged outwards towards other towns. Through the night these towns were fully evacuated by regular Army troops.

The Demons had no need to rest and never stopped. The elves and humans napped in shifts, and their anti-Demon teams fought and destroyed Demons throughout the night. Just when they thought that the tide of Demons had been at last turned, towards dawn a new flood of demons attacked, pushing out nearly to the neighboring towns.

Meanwhile Earth news stations at last openly broadcast the unbelievable story. What had leaked out or been told in bits and pieces earlier throughout the day was now clarified and confirmed by Government spokespersons. Yes, the United States was being invaded by alien monsters that destroyed and killed everything they encountered, but the monsters were being contained, and the invasion was occurring only in one limited USA area. As a precaution people in neighboring towns were being evacuated.

No, the invaders were not invincible, the monsters were being killed by the dozens by the Army with help from friendly aliens and humans with special powers. Yes, the Army was being aided by humans with incredible paranormal powers; some of them had even been in the Army for many years!

Yes, humans world-wide have been evolving paranormal powers naturally and the Government had known about it for several decades. A few with extraordinary powers are even called Wizards. The monster alien Demons chose to attack a small town that for centuries was a haven for Wizards, because humans with paranormal powers were enemies of the Demons!

On all news stations the President outlined the situation, and details were provided by General Ismith, who then answered questions for over an hour. The highlight of the night was a set of Army videos released to the public. Several Demons were shown being successfully destroyed by teams of Army and Wizard personnel. The fact that team personnel often flew through the air, turned themselves invisible, blasted Demons with lightning generated by themselves, and did other seemingly impossible things was not lost on the captivated Norm audience!

The terrifying power and savagery of the Demons was also plainly evident, along with the fact that casualties were experienced by those brave elves and human men and women that fought them.

Many sub-stories, some of them true, also raged through media. There were mostly true stories about werewolves, vampires, and shape-shifters, but also pure fictional stories about zombies, ghosts, unicorns, and dragons. Convoluted conspiracy theories were rampant also, with Wizards either heroes or the most dangerous threat to humanity ever. It was a very long night!

****

Deep within the Mansion, Rog and Moco rested as best they could. After the hallway behind them abruptly closed, at first they expected to be soon visited by the Master Demon, but as the hours went by they thought increasingly of food, water, and sleep. The Mansion floor was cold and hard, but the Wolf had no difficulty in sleeping while maintaining a half-wolf form covered in warm wolf fur. The little elf first lay next to the warm Wolf but in the morning woke to discover that he lay curled atop Moco’s broad furry back.

“Arise and provide some enchanted light for us, elf Wizard,” the Wolf requested. “You have slept enough. Besides; I heard something that was not your snoring.”

The elf caused one of his amulets to glow brightly. “I don’t see anything but the usual stone and Evil walls,” he said.

“Nor do I, but do you hear something through that wall?”

The elf sat for a minute with one big ear pressed against the stone wall. “Yes. It sounds like something chewing through our wall.”

“What can chew its way through stone laced with Evil?” asked the Wolf.

“Nothing that I want to meet up with,” said Rog. “How was your sleep? I don’t feel very rested. I suspect that my anti-Evil shielding has been working very hard to protect us and that is tiring me out.”

“I’m tired also elf; my own self-healing has worked all night to fight off the corrupting effects of Evil that works its way to me even through your shielding.”

“But if morning has come our friends will doubtlessly by now be launching a rescue mission to save us,” said Rog.

The Wolf shrugged his broad shoulders. “We are the disastrous rescue mission launched to save Ben and Soone. I hope that our rescuers do better for us.”

****

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” said Ann to Rick. “When my father finds out about this he’ll freak!”

“Mine too,” said Rick. “But somebody has to do something.”

“The rest of us agree,” said Clair Jones. “In particular Jim Nater says that according to his foresight this is probably our best bet. We have close to fifty of the best Apprentice and Junior Apprentice Wizards cloaked here. If you two can detect where the captives are we’ll get to work on dissolving Evil Mansion walls.”

Ann and Rick worked their way slowly around the Mansion, Ann hoping to find a spot where Ben seemed close by, and Rick hoping to detect the Wolf’s amulet with his. Ann felt that Rick was far away until they reached a point to the rear of the building at ground level where she felt that he was much closer. Only ten feet further on, Rick’s amulet began to glow brightly.

“So which spot do we attack?” asked Mark.

“Both,” said Ann. “Our friends seem to be near each other in the basement, but it could be separate rooms.

“But there is only one of me,” said Rick. “I’ll focus largely on the Wolf’s amulet first. Maybe we can get to the point where we can communicate.”

Rick knelt and placed one of his small hands on the stone wall at ground level. His other hand was held by Mark, whose other hand was held by a string of four dozen other Apprentice and Junior Apprentice Wizards of hope, collaborating through Rick as they had repeatedly been shown to do in order to destroy Evil together affectively.

Slowly the Evil in the wall was eaten away by Life Energy that was strong in the children Apprentice Wizards of Hope. After ten minutes of effort a crowbar was used to knock away weakened wall stone, such that a three-inch deep area two-feet across resulted. While the crowbar was being used Rick shifted his attention to the second location. Alternating between the two locations Rick and his co-joined Apprentices continued eating away at the Evil and weakening the wall, a few inches at a time.

****

“Well of course they went to the Mansion to try to rescue their pack friends!” said Krell, between big bites of raw beef gratefully provided by the Army as breakfast for their fierce werewolf fighting companions. Numerous stories of selfless heroic werewolf actions against the Demons were circulating through the Army ranks.

Many suggestions were even made by Army people that werewolves officially join the Army, but to no avail. The werewolves turned them down. They retained loyalty primarily to their packs, immediate relatives, and to no others. Meeting with and befriending individuals while fighting together against Demons was a way to make individual friends and form temporary alliances, but ‘joining’ for several years a Government group that numbered hundreds of thousands of total strangers of unknown thoughts and scents made no sense to them whatsoever.

“The devotion of your young to helping pack friends is admirable,” said Krell. “What else would you want or expect of your offspring?”

“Obedience, for one thing,” said Red Eric. “Yesterday our youngsters were busy providing valuable last-resort rear-guard protection to our fleeing people well ahead of the advancing Demons. That was a horrendous day for everyone. We removed the children from all duty after that! I expected them to sleep today till noon or later! Instead they teleported away!”

“Ha!” snorted the werewolf pack leader. “Then you expected far too little of them! Is that really how you raised your children? To cower in the den while their friends are being destroyed by monsters?”

Eric shook his head. The Pack Leader made sense. He should have seen this coming. Ann would of course insist on looking for Ben and Mark would insist on going with her. It now seemed so obvious to him! But the thought of his two children placing themselves in such danger was intolerable. They could have at least consulted with him!

“Young Rick is doubtlessly with them,” said Elizabeth. “With him to focus the powers of dozens of his friends they are a very formidable force and well cloaked and shielded.”

“I also have two anti-demon teams watching them very closely.” said Sam. “We dare not do more or we will call attention to their efforts. In the front of the building Demons have been exiting all night, but those quickly march outwards towards the battle raging around Hope. The children are cloistered to the rear of the building and have been very quiet and well cloaked. They seem to be chipping away at the outside if the Mansion in two places. Does that make sense? Why did they pick those spots? Could they possibly detect something which adult Wizards and elves have missed?”

“Possibly,” said Elizabeth. “Are we are forgetting Ann’s claim to be able to detect the presence of Ben? Could she be detecting him even through thick warded walls of Evil?”

“By Jupiter that must be it!” said Eric. “But my impulse is still to teleport myself to the Mansion and port my children the hell away from there!”

“I advise patience,” said Kroner. “They are there and apparently undetected by the Demons, and they may be on to something.”

“They better be,” said Colonel Wells. “The Pentagon wants that bombing run to happen! Yesterday if not sooner! They might have forced the issue already if it hadn’t been for all the publicity.”

“Indeed, Elizabeth gave a wonderful TV interview this morning,” said Kroner. “I especially liked her impassioned description of the plight of Ben and Soone.”

“I liked it when they asked her to demonstrate powers and she levitated around the room,” said Sam. “Levitating some of the news people was also a nifty trick.”

“Yes, I suspect that having Elizabeth doing harmless magic such as that was a better way to introduce people to paranormal powers than having Sam bash things to bits with one of his hammers, or showing a werewolf eating several pounds of raw bloody meat,” said Kroner.

“Yes, she could probably get her own reality TV show and make enough money to rebuild Hope,” said Eric. “But first we need to survive the day.”

****

In Grim Mansion the Master Demon paused from attracting Demons of the Void and assessed his three new apprentice candidates. That made four altogether, and he had only two elves captured. He would additionally have to capture some of the elves that he had recently seen battling his Demons.

But first he would do away with Soone.

Soone was held prisoner in one of the rooms he had re-shaped to accommodate his new gigantic size. The troublesome King boy would first be lured away from Soone when he saw that his guardian Moco was also captured.

The Demon’s first indication that something was seriously amiss occurred when he stepped slowly through the wall of the room that had been accommodating Moco and Rog and found that it was empty! There was a Wolf-sized hole in the outside wall!

“Impossible!” he roared. The outside wall was three feet-thick stone and Evil reinforced by his wards! Those walls had easily withstood powerful human bombs and other weapons! To no avail he swept his big arms about, hoping to capture one of the escaped prisoners, cloaked but perhaps still within the room. The room was empty. Elf and werewolf were truly gone!

Fearing that his other prisoners may have also escaped he turned to enter the adjoining cell and got another surprise. As he caused his body to merge with the wall and push his way through it there were sections of wall that didn’t melt and join his body! Instead there were wall sections that were now mere rock without Evil webbed through it! Nevertheless he used his great strength to push himself through, sending chunks of inert wall tumbling and flying.

There he arrived in time to catch a glimpse of Soone, escaping through an elf-sized hole in the outside wall. In rage the Demon threw a blast of hot plasma energy at the escaping elf that was blocked by the shields of the King boy, who was inside but cloaked while helping Soone climb through the hole!

The fifteen-ton stone/Evil behemoth charged at boy and elf, but the elf was already through the hole and the boy had teleported himself into the hallway, through the gaping hole in the room wall that the Demon had just made.

There the boy was promptly attacked by several minor but deadly Demons that soon found that the boy was soundly shielded by Wild-Magic. Ben skillfully tossed a tiny Mole into the mouth of each of them, causing them to stop their attack and claw at themselves instead of Ben. They had slowed him down however, enough such that in moments the Master Demon grabbed him in one of his gigantic clawed hands!

“What have you done to my apprentice candidates, human!” he bellowed. The four smaller demons were headless and gradually disintegrating from the neck down!

The Master wasn’t equipped to feel pain, but he did notice his hand stiffening where it was in contact with the boy. He decided to bash the boy to bits by smashing him against an Evil wall as hard as he could. To his surprise the blow smashed through the Mole-weakened wall and his right hand also crumbled to bits! The strongly shielded unharmed boy then scampered back through his cell and out through the hole in the wall to the outside!

The bellowing Demon followed by working his body through the outside wall while absorbing a section of wall into himself. He emerged larger and stronger than ever to face an assemblage of human and elf Wizards!

He sensed them but there was nobody in sight; they were obviously cloaked. Then abruptly a dozen Ben Kings surrounded the Demon, each hovering at his eye level, waving a glowing sword at him!

Harmless projections of course! The Demon raised his right hand, intending to create an explosive burst of power that would rock, singe, and hopefully kill any nearby cloaking human or elf that wasn’t very strongly shielded. That is when he noticed that his entire right-hand was still gone! It should have healed itself but instead some sort of corruption was eating away at the Evil that he was made of! It must be the same unfamiliar spell that had weakened his walls and demolished his apprentice candidates, he realized!

With his left hand the Demon created a massive power-burst, a thunderous blinding eruption that threw back the cloaked Apprentice Wizards a hundred yards, but because of their collective shielding only shook them up a bit instead of killing them. Though the Ben King projections also disappeared, the real Ben King stood directly in front of the Master Demon and remained as totally unaffected as the Master!

At least the Wizards had been stopped for the moment! The Demon next willed that his corrupted right forearm separate from his upper arm and drop to the ground. That saved himself for now, the Demon reasoned, but that was not fully adequate as a defense. There were obviously numerous instances of this spell; he had to defeat them all! He reached out telepathically to examine his truncated arm. What he sensed was Evil gradually disappearing as it encountered what could only be Wild Magic! It was the meddling King brat again! An intricate Life Energy spell that he had never seen before was influencing the Wild Magic to destroy Evil!

He tried to destroy or disrupt the spell, but the Wild-Magic protected it from all his attempts. But he did notice that a tiny amount of the Wild Magic was also consumed when any Evil was destroyed. So the answer to the problem was obvious! More Evil and more Evil Demons: so much Evil that all the Wild Magic would be consumed! For every Demon the King boy attacked with his Wild Magic, ten would take its place!

Though he had expelled the corruption from his arm, he sensed something wrong deep within his chest! It was another instance of corruption, he realized! He had inadvertently taken it into his body when he merged with the outside wall to pass through it! He willed his body to eject the corruption and the bit of Wild Magic within it that was causing the corruption. It flew out of his body as an irregular bolder the size of a basketball!

By now his right arm and hand had fully grown back. Drawing on energies from the still immense Evil of the Mansion and himself he ripped open a rift to the Void and called forth more Demons!

There were infinities of Demons in the Void, but there was competition for the best of them, between the infinity of universes where an infinity of Master Demons called them forth to destroy life in an infinity of life-infested universes. Seldom however was a Master Demon as skilled as the one that based his magic on Gaou Lucian. Once again hundreds of new Demons responded to his well-structured call and appeared around the Master Demon!

There was no competition for or shortage of raw Evil, it existed in unlimited quantities in the Void. The Master Demon drew in many tons more of it, and incorporated half into himself and half into the Mansion.

While he was busy doing this Ben and Soone tossed handfuls of Wild-Mole pellets over the Master Demon. These Moles also began to immediately eat into the Master, but seconds later the Demon expelled them all from its body, each one encased in rock. The Master has inconvenienced by the Moles, but not defeated. Ben had crafted a sword of Wild Magic also, but doubted that it would be more effective than the Wild-Moles, so he merely carried it with him as a weapon of last resort as he and the others retreated.

On a plus note cloaked Apprentice Wizards darted about and retrieved the Wild-Moles expelled by the Master Demon or lying dormant after they had consumed a Lesser Demon, and used them to eliminate many more of the Lesser Demons. But the Horde Demons were now clearly overwhelming both the Apprentice Wizards and the two dozen anti-Demon teams that had been diverted to battle them as they emerged from the Void.

 

****

 

CHAPTER 19

The Void

 

It was a tired leadership that soon responded to Eric’s call to parley back at the headcounters of Colonel Wells. He had moved his headquarters eight miles further away from Hope in order to be beyond the advancing Demons. “My spy drones record that overwhelming numbers of Demons are surviving despite record numbers being dispatched by Apprentice Wizard heroes, began Wells. Would someone who better knows what’s happening explain it to me?”

“To sum up, we have rescued all captives safely and Ben King has created a wonderful new weapon against Demons and Evil,” said Eric. “Unfortunately the Master Demon has responded with thousands of new Demons and many new tons of Evil which are again overwhelming us.”

“So the Master Demon survives?” asked Dr. Crane.

“It’s bigger and badder than ever,” admitted Sam.

“But it still has no new apprentices,” said Soone. “That at least is a good thing.”

“It seems to me that we were at some sort of a critical tipping point and we lost,” said Crane.

“It seems that way to Washington too,” said Wells. “But I assume there is another plan in the works?”

“Ben and Soone have come up with one,” said Eric, “but like all plans it entails risks.”

“We can hardly wait to hear it,” said Major Osborne.

“Ben King will attempt to open a rift to the Void to gain more Wild Magic,” said Soone.

****

The group that teleported to Desolation Glen consisted of the most talented human and elf Wizards available. Sam and Wells remained focused on the Mansion and the Master Demon, supported by most anti-Demon teams, werewolves led by Krell, and elves led by Jeanine. Their job was to keep the Master Demon diverted from Ben’s quest for Wild Magic.

Ben’s job was to return to the place he feared and had nightmares about since the deadly Demon attack eight years ago, and to gain deeper knowledge and skills with regard to Wild Magic than had been obtained by the elves over millions of years of study and experience.

Soone, Red Eric, Rick, and Ann monitored Ben’s every thought and spell. Rog mostly monitored the monitors. Cloaked elf and human wizards that included three anti-Demon teams cloaked and shielded the entire party. Claire Jones and sixty Apprentice Wizards were cloaked nearby, ready to strengthen through Rick any spells that Ben might cast. The Wolf roamed about the entire Glen area with a dozen of his pack friends. Similarly, Army drone surveillance was accomplished from a distance so to not raise Demon suspicions, with access to dedicated air-strike assets on call.

The select half-dozen member Wizard team lay down a canvass tarp over the ash-covered ground in the middle of the Glen and sat on it in a circle, Ben sitting between Soone and Ann, while Rog, Eric, and Rick completed the circle. They immediately joined hands and bonded together, Rick leading the way to conjoin the inner circle led by Ben, and to link to the outer Apprentice circle led by Claire Jones.

Ben sat with eyes closed, expanding his awareness of the area. There was nothing visible to normal senses to indicate anything peculiar about this spot, but they all sensed that from deep in the Earth below them a great fount of Life Energy welled up. Ben hadn’t experienced this since he was a child, and the sensation threatened to overwhelm him. Countless billions of the living things of Earth contributed to the Life Energies, plants and animals, microscopic and gigantic, near and far. The Earth itself collected and for a time contained the Life Energies, most of which in turn served as a catalyst for yet more life, while a small but significant part of it was automatically diverted by ancient elf Balance wards to deter Demons and Evil.

BECOME IN TUNE WITH THE LIFE ENERGIES, BEN,” said Soone.

That was easy for everyone in the circle, for being in tune with Life Energies was the essence of being a Wizard. Ben explored the welling up Life Energy in detail, its complex structures and strengths. It was all familiar to him, like a scent, taste or familiar tune from long ago. He had done this many times before with his parents.

Ben could control the Life Energies he quickly realized, and use them directly as yet another mighty weapon against Demons and Evil. But he knew that wouldn’t be enough. It wasn’t mobile and not powerful enough to defeat the Master Demon. He knew this because he and his parents had used this energy to shield themselves from this same Demon eight years ago and it hadn’t been enough then. Now the Demon was many times stronger than it was eight years ago. What Ben needed was more Wild Magic, and to get it he needed to create a rift in this universe that reached to the Void!

Eight years ago the Demon had created such a rift. Ben and his parents had been crafting Life Magic here when the Demon suddenly appeared and used its Evil to open a rift to the Void and cause tons of Evil to rain down in the Glen! He and his parents had used the Life Energy to fight it but it wasn’t strong enough to stop the Demon. But there was Wild Magic in the Void also, and Ben out of desperation tasted it and heard it and learned how to draw, shape and manage it.

He had quickly learned how to shield himself using Wild Magic. It seemed so simple and obvious to him how to do it! He couldn’t explain it from a science perspective any more than an orchestra conductor could explain all the thoughts and physics of an orchestra playing a symphony, but he could do it! It had to do with sensing and controlling harmonics, he felt, harmonics that linked precisely tuned Life Energy with Wild Magic such that they worked together!

But he had no time to savor his insights; he and his parents were under attack by the Demon! Before he could extend the shield to also protect his parents the Demon incinerated them to ash before his eyes! He had been seconds too late!

Now he had another chance to succeed or fail! Instead of his parents, this time it was his friends that would die if he didn’t gain and tame the Wild Magic, and then perhaps all humans, elves, and those protected by elves!

But he had no time for such thoughts. He immersed himself mind and soul into understanding and subtly shaping the universe around him! He found that it required strength that he initially didn’t have. Through Rick he reached out to his fellow Apprentice Wizards to drink in their strength and they didn’t fail him.

With their combined strength Ben formed the flood of Life Energy about the remaining Wild Magic he had been holding in his body and extended it like an antenna, miles above the Glen. Then he strummed it like a musical instrument, evoking numerous different combinations of frequencies, attempting to coax a space-time rift into existence that would exude Wild Magic in harmony with its song! It was a song that he was remembering as he rediscovered it: he had held and tasted the Wild Magic for most of his life but repressed that knowledge until now because at a deep level he associated it with his parent’s deaths.

In the outer fringes of Earth’s atmosphere, a rift in the fabric of the universe opened to the Great Void. A surge of Earth space/time/matter shot out into the Void and became Wild Magic that would strike out towards countless other universes, and an answering surge of Wild Magic shot into Earth’s atmosphere, destabilizing it. Above Hope where blackening gathering clouds towered, countless molecular bonds succumbed to sudden high voltages and shed countless electrons that surged through instantly ionized pathways.

Some of the erupting lightning reached Earth, where shields protected elves and humans from electrical surges and from sudden rising winds and pummeling hail and rain. The Earth beneath them rocked and shook as blow after blow of raw power shot through it! Above the Glen winds swelled and twisted into a roaring tornado funnel that reached from above the heads of the circle of conjoined friends of Life up into the featureless, timeless, infinite black Void that yawned above them.

Some of the Wild Magic from the Void reached towards Earth and Ben snagged and encased it with his own reaching net of Life Energy and Wild Magic and coaxed it under his control.

Strengthened, Ben reached further out into the Void, which far from being empty, was an infinite timeless turmoil of both being and nothingness, bordering infinite areas of structure called universes. The chaos that ruled the Void was far different from the patterned instances of normal unpredictable behavior found in most of the universes. The chaos within universes obeyed set mathematical rules, the chaos within the Void constantly changed rules.

Yet even in this environment patterns arose, patterns of mathematics that through self-consistency worked better than others and persisted, sometimes persisting so well that entire universes were formed and walled themselves off from the Void. But most forms that arose in the Void never reached universe status. Most were inert, but a few lived. Most were simple but relatively few evolved into complex beings known as Demons.

Ben found some of them and studied them. It was difficult because his sensing tendrils of Life Energy entwined with Wild Magic was constantly attacked by the corrosive chaos of the Void and had to be renewed. Ben constantly renewed his energies from Rick and the others in order to do so. But despite the unrelenting turmoil Ben managed to create various test spells in the Void and noted which repelled and which attracted Demons.

Repel them or attract them? To Ben the choice was clear. Immediately he put all of the Life Energies of the Apprentice Wizards of Hope into a single clear signal. Long minutes went by.

THE MASTER DEMON COMES!” warned Eric abruptly, when he received warning from one of the anti-Demon teams. The Master Demon had apparently sensed Ben’s signal. “THEY ALL COME!” added Eric in astonishment. “THEY ARE ALL ATTRACTED HERE TO YOUR SIGNALS!” Thousands of Horde Demons large and small stopped their expansion outwards from Hope and turned to race towards the Glen, a gathering, unstoppable wave of Evil, moving with impossible swiftness!

Exhausted teams that had tried to stop them but could only slow their advance now watched in astonishment as the deadly monsters turned towards Hope and retreated much more quickly than they came, many of them even teleporting themselves. High above Hope unnatural towering black clouds erupted with lightning. A half-dozen towns poised on the brink of destruction were saved, but the human and elf witnesses to what was happening felt that the heroes gathered at the Glen faced certain doom! Thousands of Demons were charging towards them!

DON’T TRY TO STOP THE DEMONS, IGNORE THEM!” came Ben’s surprising command to all those gathered around him. “DUCK LOW AND SHIELD!”

The first Horde Demons reached the Glen and leapt above the circle of heroes, where they were swept upward with irresistible force into the formless black of the Void. Dozens more came, then hundreds, all leaping up into the vortex and disappearing into black teeming emptiness!

The Void was their home, Ben had reminded them with his call. The Earth and its Life Energies were a constant irritation and danger to them anyway that they had no need to challenge, not when the comfort of the Void called to them! Above all Ben’s signal imitated Evil; Evil so perfect and strong that it pulled all Demons to it!

By the dozens the Demons yielded to Ben’s call and leapt into the rift leading to the Void, until only one towering monster remained. The enraged Master Demon at last stood before Ben and his circle of friends, defiant and angry beyond measure.

Ben had gotten what he wanted from the Void. At his command the Void snapped away along with the twisting funnel of wind that had fed it. The towering spire of Life-Energy encrusted Wild Magic collapsed down into Ben’s outreached hand as young Ben broke the circle and stood up to face the nemeses that had killed his parents. Then he had been a small boy. Now he was a full Master Wizard with powers never before achieved by human or elf!

“If I let you escape to the Void you could return and kill more of us,” Ben told the creature. “I can’t let that happen. You need to die, Demon!”

From the Master Demon’s clawed hands lightning leapt out at Ben and his the circle of friends but was reflected away harmlessly by Ben’s shielding. Then it screamed its defiance and physically charged at Ben. Twenty tons of Evil-animated rock-creature launched itself at Ben and his circle of friends and in a thunderous flash exploded into trillions of bits of inert harmless sand that fell in a heap to the ground. Ben had a new, ultimate weapon against Demons: an instant disruption of Evil stability that caused Evil to instantly decompose into nothingness.

All the Demons were gone, and with them all the nightmares!

 

****

 

CHAPTER 20

Peace

 

“I’ve been accepted to every college that I applied to!” Claire Jones joyfully told Ben King and Ann Tuttle. The three Apprentice Wizards were sitting on one of the few original surviving patches of green grass in Hope, watching the rapid progress of the Hope High School reconstruction. Federal Government and Wizard powers together were rebuilding Hope at an incredible pace. Thousands of Norms and Wizards and their equipment were involved. After only four months dozens of homes were already repaired or rebuilt, as were roads and utilities.

With the help of Life Energy shaping elves, plant recovery was even swifter: trees, bushes, flowers and grass had been restored within days. Roadsides included trees that already towered high throughout the town!

In only four months more everything was scheduled to be finished and Hope citizens would start to return.

Those that wanted to return! There was a whole new exciting world opening up to Wizards and other para-humans: new opportunities for humanity and especially for those humans with marketable powers. There was such a demand for talented Hope citizens to relocate among Norms it was estimated that only half would return to Hope. However several times as many people with powers wanted to move into Hope. A town that catered to Wizards was appealing to many paranormal humans, especially since Hope was now fully open to werewolves and vampires. Alan Dale was right, there were tens of thousands of people with paranormal powers that had hid themselves from Norms, but were now ‘coming out’.

They were welcomed by most Norms. After all, paranormal people had just saved the world! And practically every Norm found out that they knew one or more of the people with powers and never even knew it, including friends and relatives!

“Of course the Norms want you in their schools,” Ben told Claire. “You’re a brilliant student and a leader among your peers.”

“And a genuine heroine of the Demon War,” Claire added, “but of course not THE hero.”

“The Norms like their exaggerated heroes but in this case their hero worship of Ben is justified,” said Ann. “Ben deserves the gratitude of every human and elf.”

“I was in the right place at the right time and got lucky,” said Ben. “Many people were instrumental in resolving the Demon problem, including both of you. It was many humans and elves all working together that saved us.”

“True, but only you have been able to control the Wild Magic that finally defeated Evil and Demons,” said Claire. “Not even Rick or Soone have been able to duplicate most of what you have done with Wild Magic.”

“Soone is unfortunately past his prime and Rick is only six years old,” said Ben. “They will probably both figure it all out eventually. But if they don’t maybe that’s just as well. I used up most of my collected Wild Magic to produce thousands of Wild Moles to combat most conceivable Evil and Demon emergencies for many years to come. Rog has been sharing my Moles throughout the galaxy. However, due to the strengthening of the elf Great Balance Wards I doubt we’ll be troubled with Demons or Evil for a very long time.”

“There’s enough excitement to suit me without Demons and Evil,” said Ann. “Alan and his World Paranormal League are up to their eyeballs in the effort to renormalize how paranormal folks are living openly with Norms. Personally Ben and I are going to restart our High School Apprentice Training here in a few months, though that seems to be a bit silly after our crash-course in fighting Demons and Evil.”

“It will be strange,” said Ben. “I will be both a student and teacher. I am slated to teach advanced skills to students of all ages, including qualified vampires and werewolves.”

“Reestablishing a physical High School will be a good thing,” said Claire. “Our on-line computer-based High School classes are terrible, in my opinion.”

“That’s what Sharp says,” said Ben. “But although the Hope teaching staff is enlarging to accommodate the flood of new applicants, computer classes will need to become standard to accommodate tens of thousands of paranormal students outside Hope.”

“Also the new Hope Council is busy rewriting most Hope town regulations,” noted Claire. “The next couple of years will be tough but what is emerging is incredible for all humans!”

“Not everyone is happy,” said Ann. “Wells and his military friends aren’t happy that paranormal powers are forbidden for use by militaries.

“Not openly, anyway,” said Ben.

“It was the right decision but I doubt that rule will be kept for long,” said Claire, “and the rule doesn’t preclude paranormal power use in police organizations. And of course there are bound to be secret organizations aplenty, both government and private. The potential for both good and evil is huge. Wells is busy helping to manage all that. Such issues will keep coming back to haunt and keep everyone busy.”

“The elves are super busy also,” said Ben. “Under Jeanine’s leadership they are also re-organizing and renewing themselves, and their incredible gardens have been fully restored by Soone and other gardening Gaou. When Rick and the other Apprentice exchange students return next month from Alure no doubt we’ll get a full rundown on elf cultural renewal.”

“And I’ll be part of the next exchange group in June,” said Claire. “That’s what I’ve popped in to tell you guys in person. I’ll be delaying Earth college indefinitely. Rog invited me to join a group of Wizards from several planets that will regularly visit other worlds. We’ll first visit a planet called Tunic.”

“Then I hope you don’t freak-out over spiders,” said Ben. “But make sure you first get a nice tour of Alure. There’s nothing quite like seeing your first dragon.”

“Rog has promised me a ride on one,” said Claire.

“Yes, Rog has become quite the naturalist since his big adventure” said Ben. “Like Soone, he even turned down being on the newly reformed High Council of Alure. Our adventure transformed Rog in a good way. In the new Rog, Soone has a worthy apprentice at last!”

“Where should we go next?” Ann asked Ben, after Claire had popped away. “And which one of us will do the teleporting?”

“I want you to take us to Desolation Glen, Ann,” said Ben. “After that you can pop us over to see Mark at the hospital. He has been curing several Norms a day of diseases including cancer. Then I’d like you to pop us to the West Coast to visit the Wolf and Amanda for the early evening.”

“How come you are officially the big-shot Earth Master Wizard and Alure Gaou yet I seem to do all the porting?” asked Ann, as she reached out to hold Ben’s hand. There was no cloak or shield between them anymore. The rush of thoughts and emotions that they intimately exchanged overwhelmed them for a moment, but they were used to that now. Now and forever!

“I’m saving up my energies to port us both to Alure tonight to visit Soone and the human exchange students,” Ben explained. “That’s hundreds of light years away, you know! Not that the distance makes very much difference anymore due to the new warded spells set up to aid interplanetary travel.”

“OK, Ben, the Glen it is!”

They popped into what for the previous eight years had been an area both dead and deadly. Nursed now by several elves that made use of the font of Life Energy that welled up at its center, the emerging Glen Garden was full of young new trees and flowers. Some of the more exotic looking plants Ben recognized to be from Alure, including a ten-foot sapling that could someday grow to be over a thousand feet tall. With regard to to Earth, the elf ‘look but don’t touch’ rule no longer applied.

Near the center of the Glen rose a ten-foot stone obelisk with engraved metal plaques affixed. Those briefly told of the fount of Life Energy, the Desolation Glen battles, the honored dead including Ben’s parents, and the Garden that now grew there. Hundreds of visitors, most Norms from outside Hope, streamed past the obelisk, gawking at it and at visiting elves and human Wizards.

“Someone of great power comes!” abruptly said a garden elf that turned to stare up into the partly-cloudy sky.

High above them an object was gliding down, blue against a pure white background cloud. It was the sprite Sky, unseen since before the Demon War! Dozens of cameras recorded the event as the sprite glided down gracefully to land only a few feet from Ben and Ann.

“Hello, Trouble Bringer and Flame!” she greeted Ben and Ann cheerfully before giving both of the teens a friendly hug. “It has been several months since my visit when you moved back to Hope. Have I missed anything exciting? I notice there are elves here. Are there any elf cookies?”

 

 

The End

 

****

 

Story Notes

 

Characters:

- Ben King: Orphan with Wizard/paranormal powers. He was six years old at the opening ‘incident’, and is 14 years old and entering 9th grade at Hope High School for most of the story.

- Greg and Elaine King: Ben’s dead Wizard parents.

- Sky: The sprite friend of Soone.

- Soone: A Gaou (Elf Master Wizard) and-a loner of Alure, friend to Ben and Sky.

- Rog: Soone’s seemingly worthless elf apprentice.

- John ‘Moco’ Richards and Amanda: Werewolf and vampire couple and guardians to Ben.

- Tuttles: Red Eric and Elizabeth, Wizard Council members and parents of twins Ann and Mark, Ben’s best friends and next-door neighbors.

- Horace Grim: Troy Grim’s father and Hope Wizard Council Chairman.

- Fredrick Kroner: Hope Council Secretariat and friend to Red Eric.

- Carl ‘the Hammer’ Bruger and Sam Putt: leading Attack Wizards of Hope.

- Martha Sharp: Hope HS Vice Principle and advocate of Magic Science.

- Troy Grim: Son of Horace and leader of his gang of bullies, including Frank Marks, Fred Hanes, and John Dwight.

- The Hortegas: Jose, Guinevere, (Norms) and their young son Rick Hortega with powers. New Hope residents.

- Claire Jones: Apprentice Wizard leader; a senior at Hope High School.

- Rogue leaders Alan Dale and Maude Phillips: Highly vilified Rogue Wizards gifted with strong paranormal/magic powers that live somewhere ‘out West’ far from Hope among the Unaligned.

- Elves include: Council Leader Hemsope, Jeanine the country elf, Rog the apprentice to Soone, and Hancow a master gardener.

- Jewel: Unaligned vampire daughter of Amanda (wife of Moco); wife of Alan Dale.

- Lucian: A long dead elf that along with Soone helped establish Hope and the Hope Council. The much revered mentor of his apprentice Soone.

- Ed Wells, Colonel: Co-Lead of the ELF project. Other ELF Team members include: Dr. George Crane, Physicist and Co-Lead; Dr. Richard Phelps, CDC MD; Dr. Jerry Smith, Biologist; Dr. Marx, Physicist; Major Jake Osborne (Marine)/Unaligned Wizard; John Johnson, CIA/Unaligned Wizard; Ken Wishborne, FBI/Unaligned Wizard; Lieutenant Frank Barns, Marine. Project Pentagon boss: General Winfred Ismith.

 

Concepts/Things/Terms:

- Aligned: Beings of power registered with Hope and abiding by Hope/Hope Council rules with sworn allegiance to Hope, including Hope citizens and Missionaries.

- Demons: According to the current Hope Council these beings do not exist, but according to legends they are Elemental spawn of the Void that jealously abhor the biological life that arises throughout much of the multiverse. Typically super-powerful including great strength and control of disruptive energies including Evil. Some are said to be deceptive shape-shifters. Most are said to be not very intelligent.

-Elementals: Non-biological beings of raw, wild energies that arise throughout the Multiverse, including especially the Void. Non-biological, non-material life-forms that consist of, manipulate, and feed on energies of various forms. Examples include Demons and sprites. Declared to be fictional by the Hope Council.

- Elf: Disciplined wisdom seeking magic-capable biological race of this universe that abides on the distant planet Alure. For millions of years the elves have maintained ‘order’/the Balance between this universe and others/the Void by opposing Demons and Evil. Declared to be fictional by the Hope Council.

- ELF: (Not an acronym.) Whimsical name of a top secret USA Government project that monitors paranormal humans, with focus on Hope.

- Evaluation: The Hope screening process for the ‘magically gifted’ to determine who will become Apprentice Wizards in training at Hope High School. Also used to assess Wizard capabilities and to recommend all official associated classifications/rankings.

- Evil: An elemental substance originating from the Void and used by Demons to disrupt life. Evil is not usually directly perceived by beings of this universe including even the elves of legend who oppose it. The current official Hope Council view is that Evil does not exist.

- First Rule: Those with paranormal abilities are not to display them such that they are observable by Unaligned Norms, for the existence of humans with paranormal abilities is to be kept secret from Norms. One of several Hope rules strictly enforced in Hope and loosely enforced by Hope even among the unaligned.

- Gaou: Elf Master Wizard.

- Great Balance: A healthy status-que maintained by the galactic spells/wards of elves to prevent Evil from flooding and destroying life in this universe. Elf science long ago concluded that inter-universe rifts enable much magic but also threaten life in individual universes if not limited and controlled. Elves through their powers are said to control Life Energies born of this universe in order to maintain protective wards. In modern times the Hop Council has determined the Great Balance to be a mere folk-tale.

- Hope: A small Eastern USA town ran by the Council of the Aligned Wizards of Hope. A gated community that is a haven for the slowly emerging sub-race of magic-capable humans that are appearing spontaneously world-wide as part of normal evolution. Hope unifies, keeps safe, and controls Wizards.

- Hope Missionaries: Cadre of Hope Wizards that travel the world looking for persons with Wizard-powers, particularly children with emerging powers. These they try to recruit to become Hope citizens, or to at least align themselves with Hope.

- Life Force/Energy: The subtle ‘magic’ forces that permeate and help animate living things and swirl about this universe, attenuated by various living and non-living beings/structures including the minds of some living creatures including elves and some gifted humans. It is the direct source and media of most paranormal/magic powers/acts and is not detectable by ordinary scientific mechanical measurement devices, but only by other living beings with special ‘powers’/sensitivities. Can sometimes interact with/influence Wild Magic.

- Life: Naturally arising self-replicating persistent complex structures found in some stable universes including our own, including biological life such as humans and elves, as well as elemental life forms such as sprites and Demons. Various forms of life both depend on and generate corresponding Life Energies.

- Mixy: Derogatory term for the mixed-race offspring from a pairing of paranormal individuals of different sub-races/para-human groups. As often as not, their powers are diluted rather than simply accumulated, however at times mutation and activation of what had been recessive can result in unexpected powers in offspring. Parents with no apparent powers can even (rarely) produce offspring with full Wizard powers.

- Multiverse: The infinite collection of all mathematically consistent and hence relatively stable and real universes, bounded by a chaotic Void.

- Norms: ‘Normal’ humans without powers. They are usually unaware that paranormal beings/powers exist. Natural mutation and selection in the Norm population produces small but increasing numbers of para-normal humans with powers among the Norm population.

- Rogues: Unaligned people of power designated officially to be enemies of Hope by the Council.

- Rogue Wizards: Unaligned Wizard-powered individuals declared by the Hope Wizard Council to be enemies of Hope.

- Sprite: An Elemental species that inhabits this universe; a sentient, free spirited storm and Wild Magic surfer, born of Wild Magic that escapes from the Void, or possibly of the Void itself. Declared to be fictional by the Hope Council.

- Sasquatch: Sentient close relatives of humans that live hidden in forests world-wide. Their paranormal powers, if any, are unknown, but there are rumors that they possess at least empathic powers that allow them to avoid most contact with others.

- Skin walkers: Para-human sub-species capable of assuming the form of multiple creatures including humans and various wild beasts. Very rare.

- Spell: A persistent work of magic attached to something/someone.

- Unaligned: Wizards and other people with paranormal powers that are not aligned/allied with Hope. The Unaligned appear naturally world-wide and are encouraged by Hope Wizard Missionaries to move to Hope for proper training and to join Hope.

- Vampires/Vamps: Para-humans that subsist mostly on the blood of biological life-forms. Some have paranormal powers including self-transmutation, levitation/flight, mind influence/control, extended life-times, and strength augmentation.

- Void: The ‘nether-world’ interface between relatively stable universes that forms the chaotic environment where according to now defunct legend Demons, Evil, and perhaps sprites and other elemental entities arose. In the chaotic Void interface between mathematically consistent universes physical laws/math-systems shift and fail. Leaks/rifts between universes energize the Void and those energies that leak to our universe are commonly known as Wild Magic by practitioners of magic/paranormal abilities.

- Ward: A persistent spell designed to operate for periods beyond when it is being actively supported by the originating entity. Some wards are meant to continue forever as long as its magic energies are maintained. Wards are usually tied to physical objects and sometimes maintained by multiple Wizards over many decades or centuries.

- Werewolves/Weres: Earth para-humans that can transmute themselves from near human to wolfish-human or even pure wolf form at will. Typically the only additional paranormal capability seen is greatly enhanced strength, especially when in wolfish or pure wolf forms, though some individuals have exhibited extreme self-healing abilities and some empathic senses/abilities.

- Wild Magic: Energetic phenomena caused by spontaneous random rifts between the infinity of mathematically similar but inconsistent universes. A leak of elemental primal energies from the Void. Impossible to predict or control and nearly impossible to understand by conventional science or Earth magic wisdom. Rumored to sometimes interact with suitably structured Life Energies, which could make it accessible via Wizard magic, but Wizard attempts to access Wild Magic have historically ended in tragedy for Wizards.

- World Paranormal League: An organization rumored to be in development by the Rogue Wizard Alan Dale to unite all paranormal humans of Earth. Its ultimate aim is to represent the rights and interests of paranormal humans in a world where paranormal humans are known and accepted as equals by Norms.

 

Hope Power Terms

- Power: Any paranormal capability, usually deriving from control of Life Forces.

- Power categories: Traditional paranormal power/magic categorization and rating system devised by the Aligned Wizards of Hope. Power categories are designated as P1 through P25.

- Power strength Levels (designated by the letter ‘L’ followed by a number): Are Hope Council approved ratings determined through Evaluation and numbered L1 (weakest) through L5 (strongest). The quantifications for various Levels are traditional, somewhat arbitrary, and subject to change/refinement by the Council.

- Forbidden Powers (designated by X): Powers designated as forbidden and illegal by the Hope Council.

- Non-Existent Powers (designated by E): Rumored powers that are felt by the Hope Council unlikely to actually exist.

 

Official Hope Power Categories:

P1 – Telekinesis; L(1-2): Ability to negate/control gravitational forces and thus levitate material objects. A common Wizard ability. L1: levitation of small nearby objects; L2: levitation of larger, more distant objects. By tradition levitation of self is treated as a different category. Ranked low because it is very common.

P2 – Empathic sense; L(1-2): Ability to read/sense the emotions of other living creatures. L1 for limited, erratic ability; L2 for highly reliable and precise ability. Arguably ranked low largely because it is very common.

P3 – Healing of self; L(2-4): Ability to heal oneself. L2 (common) is the ability to heal minor injuries or illnesses more quickly than ‘normal’; L3 (uncommon) is the ability to heal serious problems and more quickly; L4 (very rare) is the ability to heal fatally serious problems almost instantaneously.

P4 – Healing others; L(2-4): Ability to heal others. L2 (uncommon) is the ability to heal minor injuries or illnesses quickly; L3 (rare) is ability to heal serious problems quickly; L4 (very rare) is the ability to heal even fatally serious problems almost instantaneously. It should be noted that such acts typically place a heavy burden on the Wizard that accomplishes the healing, including pain and weakness. (This is an instance of the more general ‘there is no free lunch’ rule.)

P5 – Telepathic communication; L(2-4): Ability to send and receive/‘hear’ consciously directed thoughts. ‘Reading minds’ unbidden is a related ability that is much frowned upon socially and in extreme cases are punishable by law. Levels are based on accuracy, distance, and masking from others. Level 4 involves coded messages.

P6 – Self illusion & invisibility/cloaking; L(2-4): From a science perspective invisibility cloaking includes the ability to halt for a time the absorption and emission of electromagnetic waves/photons from the body’s surface. Illusion involves the altering of sensed appearance but not actual forms. Both are common powers but restrictions and cautions for use are required, as safety issues and various forms of felonious mischief are sometimes related phenomena. Cloaking can prevent visual and telepathic sensing that if done well can render an individual impossible to sense even by Wizards, except through touch.

P7 – Levitation of self; L(2-3): Ability to influence/negate gravitation effects on self. Common but extreme caution of use is advised due to high level of observability by the non-Wizard public outside of Hope. L2 involves mere ‘floating’ in place by merely negating Earth’s gravity but L3 denotes the ability for swift flight likely achieved through fine manipulations of gravity.

P8 – Energy transformation/attack; L(3-4): Ability to convert one energy form into another. Can be highly dangerous to both the attacker and the attacked. Many use restrictions; L4 used in attacking. Most forms rare. Legends of L5 – level energy conversion and control (E) are part of Hope history.

P9 – Pyrotechnic ; L(2-4); X: A common form of energy transformation resulting in the ability to ignite/combust objects. Higher ratings are ascribed to high volumes of flame at great distances. Common but discouraged for those below Wizard rank and forbidden for non-Wizards except in training situations. Use as a weapon highly forbidden; extreme caution is advised.

P10 – Astral projection; L(3-5): Ability to project visual image of one’s self to other locations. All levels very rare. At L5 (E, X) the projection assumes the abilities of the sending party, which is forbidden but perhaps is only a mythical/rumored ability.

P11 – Cyber influence; L(3-4): Ability to influence computer and other electronic operations. Rare, strongly discouraged, and usually illegal (X).

P12 – Psychic attack; L(3-5); X: Ability to disrupt or attack the minds of others, or in rare cases, control thought. Strongly forbidden/illegal though most occurrences are assumed to be accidental slips in control. Rumored to be a common vampire ability.

P13 – Séance; L(3-5); X, E: Ability to communicate in some fashion with spirits of the dead. Very rare. Both forbidden and officially believed not to exist.

P14 – Transmutation; L(3-5): Physical transformation of inanimate objects. For level 5 atomic and molecular identity can be changed. Level 5 is forbidden (X) but unlikely to exist (E). Levels 3 and 4 are allowed only by Wizards or in training situations.

P15 – Sensing of Evil; L4; E: The ability to sense elemental Evil. A very rare or perhaps even non-existent skill. Evil has been declared by the Hope Council to not itself exist, rendering this ability useless.

P16 – Personal physical transformation; L5: X: Ability to change the actual physical structure of the body. Forbidden for humans. Common for some para-humans such as werewolves, vampires, and (the most extreme case) skin-walkers. Legendary Demon ability.

P17 – Self-clone; L5; X: Ability to produce a perfect clone/copy of oneself. Very rare and forbidden.

P18 – Strength enhancement; L(1-4): Ability to strengthen one’s self, from slight enhancement of endurance (L1, common) to super-strength (L4, rare). A treasured ability for Attack Wizards. Rumored to be relatively common in werewolves and vampires.

P19 – Shield; L(2-4): Ability to physically protect self from physical and/or psychic harm. Relatively common for L2 and L3.

P20 – Teleportation of self and/or objects; L4: Rare but common for Master Wizards.

P21 – Spell casting/warding; L(2-5): Ability to create a persistent paranormal effect with regard to a person or object. Typically the effects persist for only minutes or hours, but some famous wards have lasted for centuries. Relatively rare.

P22 – Gollum ability; L(4,5); X: Life-like animation of the normally inanimate matter. A rare and forbidden spell.

P23 – Seer ability; L(3,4): Ability to sense/‘see’ through cloaking and/or across great distances. Relatively rare.

P24 – Weather, Earth command; L(4,5): The ability to influence the weather or other geophysical phenomena. Requires combination with P8 energy transformation for effectiveness. Relatively rare.

P25 – Cloistering; L5, X: Ability for beings of power to joint-think and command joint powers. Rare and strictly forbidden.

P26 – Premonition ability; L5, E: Ability to see/predict/foresee future events. Very rare, to the point that its existence is in doubt.

P27 – Masking ability; L3-4: Ability to cloak other persons or things.

 

Hope Wizard Categories/Levels:

Apprentice Wizard: Student of Hope HS receiving advanced training for control of powers. Evaluation confirmation of at least one or more Level 2 (or higher) powers is required.

Assistant Wizard: Has at least one Level 3 power, and has passed HS level Wizard training.

Wizard (Full Wizard): Has three powers of Level 3 or higher, and approval of the majority of the Wizard Council.

Master Wizard: Wizard that has one or more powers that are at least Level 4, and Council unanimous approval.

Council Member: A Master Wizard approved by at least seven of the Council to be one of the eleven Hope Wizard Council members. Removal requires approval of all ten remaining Council members.

 

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About Other Publications by This Author

Readers may also be interested in the additional published e-books of this author, including a diverse novel-length collection of twenty fantasy and sci-fi short stories titled There Goes The Neighborhood; Earthly Fantasy/Science Fiction Short Stories. Like the novels and novellas, these short stories range from pure science fiction to pure fantasy, and most take place in contemporary Earth settings.

If the reader likes ancient secrets, magic and science, romance and adventure, science fiction and fantasy, parallel universes and hidden fantasy worlds, they may enjoy the full-length novels Secrets of Goth Mountain (which like the second Global Warming Fun story/ novella has a strong Native American setting) and its loosely coupled epic fun-packed epic sequel Government Men. Government Men has a bit of everything, including the book itself and its author.

Yes, oddly enough Government Men includes itself and the author, along with unicorns, psychics, space aliens, an impending Armageddon, and much more! Started in 1992, Government Men was this author’s first fiction writing experience. Both Secrets of Goth Mountain and Government Men are action filled books that employ a great deal of science-based fiction including parallel universes, as well as strong doses of fantasy (yes, unicorns are fantasy!) and romance.

Bird lovers that like strong human female heroines and stronger blue jay heroes may (if T-rex sized raptors and other nuisances can be tolerated) enjoy an adventure trip to Aves the bird planet, achieved by reading the traditional science fiction thriller Blue Dawn Jay of Aves. Other than some of the short stories and perhaps much of the Global Warming Fun series, this is the author’s only totally ‘pure’ science fiction work to date.

Global Warming Fun is a series of short stories, novellas, and novels that uses climate change as a backdrop for the centuries-long life of telepathist Ed Rumsfeld and the emergence of sentient ants as well as ancient stone creatures that are based on the Mohawk myth of stone-coat giants and European legends of ice giants. At this writing six volumes of the planned ten part series are published.

Fantasy noir detective fans that can abide what used to be known by feminists as a ‘male chauvinist pig’ private detective as a hero, and can also tolerate trolls, elves, and other unexpected visitors to our world along with a talking mob cat, may enjoy The Shrinking Nuts Case. Thus far this is the author’s only major work written in first-person voice and is the most ‘pure fantasy’ work of novel length.

White Dragon’s Chosen is also primarily fantasy. It is the contemporary story of a teenager with certain powers and the white dragon that has chosen him to be his companion to join him in a fight to save Earth and other worlds from evil.

The current work, Apprentice Wizards of Hope, is mostly fantasy/science-fantasy. It is about paranormally powered teens in a contemporary setting, with Demons and Evil the primary dangers to overcome.

There is an attempt to employ some humor in most of these works, particularly in Government Men, The Shrinking Nuts Case, and some of the short stories. Positive outcomes are also very heavily favored, although just as in real life, those don’t always happen.

To learn the author’s philosophical world view (Weltanschauung) including thoughts on multiverse and quantum mechanics physics concepts and how that compares with phenomena that occur in the above novels, get geeky with the novella-length non-fiction e-book NOW and the Weltanschauung of Government Men.

All are available at sites where you found this E-book.

Have fun reading, everyone!

 

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Apprentice Wizards of Hope

When he was a small boy in the USA town of Hope Ben King’s parents were murdered by an Evil Demon. Ben escaped with the help of a mischievous sprite named Sky, who teleported him to the elf planet Alure, where kind old Master Wizard Soone befriended him. Eight years later it was time for his werewolf and vampire foster parents to return Ben to Hope to claim his heritage and become trained as a Hope Apprentice Wizard. Ben and the other Apprentice Wizards of Hope soon face murderous Demons and Evil that threaten life on Earth, Alure, and other life-bearing planets of the Galaxy. Ben and Wild Magic are the only hope for survival! Unfortunately Ben can’t remember how to do magic.

  • Author: Gary J. Davies
  • Published: 2017-08-04 18:05:13
  • Words: 102544
Apprentice Wizards of Hope Apprentice Wizards of Hope