Any similarity between any place, event or person (Living or undead) and any actual Place, event or person (living or undead) is purely coincidental.
© Copyright 2014 ManaTech: Mages by Tom Tinney.
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Unauthorized copying, redistribution or transmission of this book is a crime.
ManaTech™ is a trademark of PiR8 Productions
John J. O’Neil’s ears were ringing. A mortar shell had landed and exploded less than twenty feet from where he knelt. The German Kaiser’s minenwerfer crews were well-trained and accurate, firing from the opposite side of “No man’s” land. Over the last hour, the opposing artillery spotters had walked the well-placed shelling into John’s current position. Their methodical firing, along with hidden field observers, improved the accuracy of each additional barrage. It was July 4th, 1918, and for the last three days, the second Battle of the Somme had raged around him.
“That was close,” Jarlath said, ducking lower and adjusting his mana-reinforced helmet. “The shock from those things is invigorating.”
“That’s not the word I’d use,” John replied, crooking a smile toward his friend, as he removed his regular army steel helmet. He ran his fingers through his black hair and brushed at his dark brown leather long coat, a gift from Jarlath’s sister.
The dirt clods wouldn’t stick to the coat. Nor could it be stained. It took superhuman strength and a very sharp blade to cut through it. Elven leather goods, even ones based on human designs, were one of the imports from the other realm that everyone wanted. John wished he had a pair of knee-high boots to match. Not for styling, but for the protection they offered from small arms fire.
“You Ruitheanas-Sidhe have a strange idea of what invigorating is. I find the damned things irritating and frightening.”
“Aye, friend John, they’re close enough to be a wee bit concerning,” Jarlath replied, a wry smile creeping onto his elven face. “We’ll be fine. The mana-box I’m casting has tall sides and is thick enough to stop any mana-enhanced shell heads. Yes, I think we’re safe here.”
“You think? Now, that doesn’t make me feel as good as you might hope. Nikola was only going to open a wee window on Mars with the Volt-hammer and we found your realm instead,” John said.
“Indeed, Draoidhae Nikola has an uncanny knack for understatement,” Jarlath laughed.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear he was a Sidhe impersonating a human,” John replied, as another grouping of rounds exploded nearby. John heard the energy of the mana-box crackle as hundreds of bits of shrapnel and dirt struck it.
Earlier, during the heaviest shelling, Jarlath had capped the invisible mana-box, creating a hollow cube of mana. The air in the box had grown stale, becoming laden with CO2, after the first hour. Jarlath wasn’t a skilled enough conjurer to create complex devices, like pin holes, in the otherwise solid walls. He could create solid walls of an astounding height, width and depth, as well as thin, protective coatings over most anything. Except John.
Or anything John physically touched with his bare skin. Or anything touching most metals that John also touched.
Another shell went off, forty feet behind them.
“Aye, Drao–John, they’re boxing our location. Maybe we should move down the trench a little,” Jarlath said, brushing off the dirt and bits that had fallen through the open top. He removed his helmet, exposing his sharply pointed ears and long white hair, held back by a tie. There was sweat on his brow. His thin lips were quirked in their perpetual smirk, making him look like he found humor in everything.
“Nice catch. I’m not a Draoidhae when it’s just you and me, Brother-in-law to be. And I thought you Sidhe don’t sweat?”
“We do, but not often. Your world has a penchant for being almost as unruly and testy as the humans that inhabit it.”
“It’s called humidity and it’s what happens when you actually have weather. Get over it,” John said, tossing some mud on his companions’ nicely shined elven boots. “You lead, I’ll follow. Let me put on my gloves.”
John fished out the black leather gloves from his belt and pulled them on snuggly.
The gloves weren’t for vanity, nor were they to protect John’s hands from rough surfaces. These weren’t work gloves or fighting gauntlets. These were finely fitted and made of Sidhe Elven leather. They had only one purpose, to keep him from accidentally destroying the mana-constructs that he might contact.
John felt a cold tinge on his chest. The amulet. That was John’s responsibility to bear, brought back from the Ruitheanas-Sidhe realm. It gave him the ability to unmake mana with a single touch. It’s also why he was on the battlefield in the first place. The amulet grew cold when it was active or conjured mana passed near it. He felt it suddenly chill again.
“Hold on,” John said.
Jarlath took a defensive posture and drew his Sidhe long sword. He held his left hand open-palmed, ready to erect more mana-barriers if needed.
“I felt a breakdown. Someone was trying to cast on top of us. They brushed me,” John said, turning to get the direction of the spell.
“I don’t know. Maybe Georg?”
“Draoidhae Georg is a great artificer of mana, but I don’t see him using the subtler spying arts. Ban-Draoidhae Margreet excels at subtle manipulations over long distances. She has a sense for it. Regardless, why would either be this close to the front?” Jarlath asked.
“To look for us. They know I’m siding with Nikola in his efforts to move the wizards out of this insane war by neutralizing their efforts,” John replied, looking at Jarlath’s sword hand. “And where is your gun? That sword isn’t going to do us any good if the barrier gets breached and we get overrun.”
“Old habits die hard, my friend,” Jarlath replied. “Besides, it seems odd to arm myself with the very weapon Draoidhae Georg designed and that’s being used to equip the entire German army.”
“Old habits indeed,” John replied. “Georg just had to improve the weapon with mana-coated parts. Those Lugers are damned near indestructible and don’t seem to wear at all. I know you’re young and full of piss, but keep the gun handy, okay?”
Jarlath looked like a teenager, thin and well-muscled, standing just under six feet in height. John had calculated him to be at least 1800 years old, by Earth’s time cycle.
John had also seen Jarlath fight with a sword in close combat. The young man was lethal and blindingly fast. Most humans couldn’t follow a Sidhe, or “Elf” for those less enlightened, when they moved at their full capability. John had watched two younger Sidhe at a fencing demonstration, their swords a blur and their own movements leaving the impression they “jumped” from spot to spot in an instant. In fact, they moved in quick bursts that were almost impossible for the human eye to follow.
The fact that John could see the young Sidhe moving during the exchange was something else he’d carried back from the Ruitheanas-Sidhe realm. He literally watched each blade as it sliced the air and made contact. The parties involved had seemed to slow down, but in fact, John’s perceptions had sped up.
“How would I hold the gun? I don’t have a third hand,” Jarlath said, trying to look perplexed. “I need a free hand to manipulate and erect barriers.”
“Fine. The sword it is. Maybe you can throw it really hard if we need to hit somebody at a distance.”
“That would require that I–.”
“I was joking,” John said. “The probing seems to have stopped. Let’s check back in and then we go take a peek at the preparations.”
John withdrew a velvet pouch from his pocket and shook a large blue sapphire into his gloved hand. He tapped the two largest facets and the stone came to life.
“John, it’s good to hear from you. How goes the war?” asked Nikola’s familiar voice.
“It’s still going, sir. Are we any closer to a launch date?”
“John, call me Nikola. It’s been ten years. You no longer work for me, so ‘sir’ isn’t appropriate. You’re my equal in every measure.”
“Yes, sir,” John replied, ignoring the request, as he’d done every time Nikola made the declaration over the last ten years. “Did the intel help? Did the politicians finally buy into the plan?”
“They’re coming on board slowly,” Nikola’s voice replied. “I believe we have things firming up on this end. It took a bit of effort to make Thomas stop providing mana-enhanced arms and his material support to both sides, but he and I finally have an understanding. The Germans sinking the Lusitania with mana-enhanced torpedoes is helping to put pressure on the neutrality crowd. Pershing believes he has the men trained to deploy. We can end this thing a few years early once we get the go ahead. Is Jarlath there?”
“I am, Draoidhae Nikola,” Jarlath replied, bending toward the stone. “Greetings and prosperity to your house.”
“And yours, Jarlath Seabren. Your father and mother send their love. Have you surveyed the exit points?”
“I have, Draoidhae Nikola,” Jarlath replied, ever respectful of Nikola’s stature and abilities. “The French and British armies hold the ground securely at all thirty locations. We only have twenty-five of my kinsmen to erect barriers, so some will have to double their effort to cover the remaining five.”
“Some of the first ones through will be our other allies on the new council. They can erect defensive positions quickly. I’ll send orders for your fellow Sidhe to provide support at a single exit point. Your father’s seen fit to integrate some Sidhe weavers into our ranks and they’ll be the first out of the breaches. They should be able to erect barriers quickly enough to protect the arriving troops and cap the trenches. Let’s designate the northernmost locations for them. I thank you for your diligence, son of Seanon.”
“Going silent,” John said, tapping the stone, cutting off Nikola before Jarlath could reply. He leaned in close to Jarlath.
“We’re being observed,” John whispered while pointing outward, then drawing on the ground with his finger. “I felt another brush of mana. I think someone has conjured a spy tube over our heads.”
“And what do you want to do about it?” asked Jarlath quietly, pointing in the opposite direction and squatting to look at the random scrawling in the dirt.
“The net,” John replied and smiled. Jarlath nodded.
John removed his right glove and reached into his jacket. He withdrew an army issue flare gun.
“Get ready to run,” he said, tilting his head to his right. Jarlath nodded.
“Pop goes the weasel,” John said and pointed the flare gun skyward, pulling the trigger.
Instead of a flare, the explosive charge fired a wad of fine wire mesh into the sky. The weights embedded in the wire mesh flew outward, expanding the wire into a large net. The end of the wire remained anchored in the chambered shell. The shell and metal of the gun provided a connection, almost like a circuit, between John’s bare hand and the wire mesh. It didn’t conduct electricity, but it did conduct the neutralizing energy the amulet carried. The neutralizing energy that would force mana to lose its memory and return to its most basic form.
The net flew upward, expanding and throwing tendrils in every direction. John felt a cold twinge on the amulet. The mana spy tube and any other manifestation the net touched immediately ceased to exist in any coherent manner. The mana was just mana again.
John glanced skyward as a biplane came into view, the mana-camouflage falling away. At the same instant, high above them, a actual red flare burst forth. Probably fired from the previously unseen observation plane. The wire from the John’s web-flare sagged and touched the barrier that surrounded them. It disappeared as well.
John yanked on the wire, breaking its connection with the chambered shell. John felt a pressure change.
Jarlath and John took off without a second thought. John reloaded his flare gun and then jammed it, holding it in his right hand, into his over-coat pocket. Jarlath raised another barrier as they ran.
John wanted to avoid accidently touching the barrier that was keeping pace with Jarlath and him. If he touched it, it would disintegrate, again. He looked awkward, running with his hand in his pocket, as his long strides put distance between him and the position where he’d fired the flare gun.
“I love that trick,” Jarlath said as the trench walls shook. John stole a glance backward. The earth was flying upward as multiple shells landed where they’d been crouching moments before.
“It’ll serve in a pinch. I’ll need to swing by camp and pick up more shells. They had us dead to rights. We know one thing for sure,” John yelled.
“What is that?”
“Margreet does not like having her spells disrupted. And she is a ruthless bitch.”