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This resting on an antique oak desk against the far wall in a dressing room cluttered with gizmos, gadgets and party tricks – complete with streamers and slowly deflating balloons. Piles of paper and props filled out any remaining space making manoeuvring within a feat worthy of a world class stage magician, or a real wizard if there were any left. The desk where he sat was lit by two bronze lamps, swinging lazily overhead, tiny flickers of flame dancing across his shadowed features. A series of small mirrors reflected this meagre light where he required it, casting dark shadows at odd angles everywhere else, to spectacular effect. It was an invention he was quite proud of, not the least for minimising the weakly cost of lamp oil, and he quite liked the atmosphere he'd created – rather like that of a warlock's sanctum. At this particular moment in time, the room and he were alike; Normally immaculate and well kept with straight combed hair, he maintained a clean-shaven, almost elfin face that stretched over high cheekbones and ended in a sharply pointed chin. Dark eyes were framed by darker brows, of medium thickness that left to their natural shape hinted at his Kutari heritage even if his skin, which was only lightly tanned did not. The image looking back was wholly different. Dishevelled curly black hair, clung to his head in matted clumps, stuck there by beads of sweat. A level of perspiration, unusual for one whose livelihood demanded calm; Any one of the magician’s more popular tricks could be his last, and very often nearly were. Black smudges under his eyes and deep lines of worry and regret aged him by decades and denoted a dangerous lack of sleep. And weeks of remaining indoors at all times, never venturing out even for the direst of emergencies had left his skin with sickly pallor. None of this concerned him overly much, what did bother him were his eyes – they were old, too old. They weren't his. Still in his twenties and very much in the prime of his life, Zachaias the Amazing performed dozens of shows a year, dazzling audiences of all ages throughout the known world. It was admittedly a hectic, often frantic lifestyle and he was often worn out at the end of the season, but the popular performer couldn't remember the last time he'd felt
quite so fatigued. Certainly he'd never let himself go before, not like this, stroking his chin, and feeling the coarse hair that lent him the appearance of fierce desert nomad, he attempted half a smile and shook his head. “Perhaps I’ll shave,” he mused, as if that alone would undo the damage of three sleepless weeks. A knock on the door stirred him but he ignored it, deducing correctly that it was his new manager, here to assail him with insincere encouragement, and a too cold or too hot cup of tea (he preferred coffee), or to bore him with the day's figures. A moment or two later another knock followed, then another, finally he combed his fingers through his hair – a futile gesture, and called out, “The door is open.” The new manager, a rather rotund man of around fifty with a shiny bald pate and bulldog face opened the door and peered within. No bag of flour in my face this time...so far.... “Yes Ralf?” After a moment's hesitation Ralf stumbled over to him with a steaming cup of tea. The portly man considered the young star, and pondered for the briefest time what the previous manager might have done to have warranted the sack. Whatever his misconduct, he thought sadly it couldn't compare to what he was planning, unless of course he'd been working for the same crowd. Inevitably this notion conjured up an image of failure and it's stiff penalty, he shuddered. Pushing dark thoughts to the recesses of his mind he said, “Good job today, the routine's coming on nicely.” “What does that have to do with the cup in your hand?” the magician asked dryly without looking. “Well it's just I thought you could murder a good cup of tea.” Did he just flinch. “I mean, you look well...awful. Trouble sleeping? I could make you a camomile.” Waiting around to see if the performer might reply, the older man hung around a moment more absently tousling a balloon. After several minutes without a word he placed the cup and saucer in front of the showman and left, closing the door behind him. The lad was a wreck, which meant one of several things. One, he suspected what was really going on in which case his own life was in very real danger. Two, he was merely pushing himself too hard. Well that couldn't be true, the magician seemed to have lost his spark and detested practice. Which left three, women. Putting it down to trouble with the
'birds,' and seeing this as his last chance to fulfil the contract, Ralf made up his mind up to return after dark when he was out at the local, drowning his misery. A presence stirred, a mist he inhaled without thought, it was something that everyone who'd been inducted just had to live with. Nothing was free. “We can retrieve it to night.” he projected. “He suspects nothing.” This projection, more to himself, felt hollow and not for the first time that day he struggled with the icy tendrils of doubt. This is your last chance, you know what will happen should you fail. The thought was not his own. It was not trouble with women. Girls came and went in Zachaias' tumultuous life, feeding off his fame while his star was still rising and after two marriages, no woman had caused him any real pain for long. It was the all too real bird sitting atop the mirror which the manager had either ignored or failed to notice that had brought bitter tears to his eyes. The unusually large pigeon or whatever it was, for it defied description, resembling and behaving like no seed eating or predatory bird he'd ever seen, just sat there looking at him with soul shredding owl-like eyes. Just as it had done the night he had come in to possession of the book. Opening a drawer in his desk he pulled out one of several notebooks, once thick and voluminous, now slight, raggedy and somewhat short on pages. He had only recently acquired this volume, and it had been an endless source of trouble, including three or more attempts on his life. If they were real or imagined he couldn't tell, the pace at which he had lost control of his life had been too brutal. In last few weeks, he'd changed venues twice, sacked the man who'd managed him for years, possibly for no reason and he was certain that his grip on sanity was beginning to slip. Despite this he was not willing to give up possession of the notebook just yet and certainly not to just anyone. He was, he realised obsessed with its mystery. His desk here, and several shelves at his home were littered with other books, scrolls, parchments and excerpts, even newspaper clippings. Ever since he could afford to be, the magician had been an avid collector of knowledge, an insatiable curiosity the very thing that kept him going, and he'd acquired tomes of all kinds throughout his career. These ranged from factual to fictitious, historical to prophetic, archaic and even a few arcane
and certainly forbidden. But none of these had ever to his knowledge brought him so much strife as this badly weathered journal. Filled with names, addresses, occupations and various theories although most were quite mad on reflection, this was quite possibly his greatest coup. It was living long enough to make heads and tails of it that was the problem. Flicking through the first few pages he ignored the 'crazier' theories: ‘Church figure caught lying,’ ‘Proof key official’s are involved in the occult,’ and ‘Pagan architecture – proof of conspiracy.’ Finally stopping on a page where several scraps of a shredded official-looking document had been reassembled and glued in at sharp angles. 'We are almost ready to move. [word missing] and [word missing] have been established and embedded [into] every walk of life from the lowliest servants to the [word missing] ranked [word missing] officials. Fully seventy-five percent of the population is in our pockets and this figure is projected to exceed ninety within twenty [years].' Zachaias had a pretty good idea, who the 'We' in this paragraph was and considered the implication of ninety percent control over the population. The question in his mind was when the document was written, since the date had not been recoverable. For instance if the document had been written a few days ago, read, shredded and then recovered then there was still time. Or it could have been written decades ago and no-ones life was their own, the poor state of the document left few clues. Further down the page it continued, ending in a list: ‘These officers and senior official's are both [word missing] Association members and [word missing] Inductees, they can be trusted.' – [word missing] Thomas – [word missing] Investigator [word missing] – [words missing] [word missing] [word missing] Wainwright’ Reading through the following pages, he re-read the passage that chilled him most.
'Archbishop Dominic can also be trusted, he is wilfully blind, he will likely remain so, however something must be done about Father Willem. The church appointed spiritual advisor to the Emperor is far too resourceful and seemingly beyond reproach, a poor combination. Ignore the Archduke for now, we know how to bring him down and things have been set in motion, just be ready.' There were further revelations, though whether or not they were damning evidence or the mad ramblings of a crazed conspiracy theorist was hard to tell, as the stuck in scraps of paper become less numerous and illegible scrawling more common. Most of the remaining notes were scrawled at odd angles, others written up the margin and still others were too small for eyes to actually read, the last letters in particular trailing off into scribbled obscurity. Closing his eyes he was soon lost in thought, how did he get into this mess anyway? And so close to his biggest show of the year? Just a few years ago he had realised his boyhood dream and performed his magic show for his Majesty, the Emperor. Garrick himself had been the first to rise and offer his applause, the standing ovation that followed had been deafening, and later he had dined with him and his young family. That evening and many evenings thereafter, the magician had shared with them his most closely guarded secrets of the trade. He'd had no regrets – if anything the royal family enjoyed his shows all the more for knowing, and now they were thick as thieves. Though he often wondered where he acquired such an antiquated expression, it seemed strangely appropriate – they had attended both his weddings after all, and on his last birthday he and Garrick had tracked a prize tiger through the jungle of Goa. Yes, they were among his closest friends, family even. If he ever managed to get his head above the waters he vowed to find a way to express his gratitude to Father Willem in a way the priest could appreciate. It was almost certain the emperor's adviser had a role to play in his rapid rise to fame and glory, they shared a common friend. And while neither could talk of it without seeming to be completely mad, both men owed it their careers. Now he stood to lose everything, even his life, because of his actions, or perhaps his lack of action – specifically running, three, or was it four weeks ago? Thinking of that night caused him to shiver. He still remembered those fevered, fretful eyes darting in all
directions. The voice that spoke too quickly, as if he knew his time was spent, and each second was a second stolen from death. And he still remembered the smoking gun in the distance. It wasn't one of the large barrelled, clunky revolvers commonly called 'hand cannons' used by the local street gangs and syndicates. Those he knew had an infamously short range and were favoured by violent criminals for their intimidation value. No, the gun that was fired was police issue, perhaps military. Later, he decided that, that conclusion was one borne of paranoia and adapted the list to include several other firearms he remembered reading about. The Lythe n' Gillan 54 was one mass produced model in particular that came to mind. Most private security institutions provided their personnel with this side arm, and a large number had been sold to other nations, including the northern Turehu and Orork tribes. Having eased his fears somewhat regarding that issue, his mind returned to the journalist. How had they met? Pure chance? This conclusion was disproved by the presence of the bird that followed him everywhere. Larger than life, an ill omened figure out of mythology, Mōhitimōhio – the Watcher, had perched above the journalist while the transaction had taken place. Dark circles ringed keenly observant eyes of fire, looking like nothing so much as a pair of glasses, and he had made the connection immediately, thinking 'wow the bird looks like...' Though it wasn't until the three shots were fired, bullets tearing through the unfortunate soul, while the bird remained motionless, that Zachaias came to a terrifying realization – the myth was real. Mōhitimōhio cocked his head then, looking down at the journalist, as if to say. 'Wasn't there something your were supposed to do before you died?' Resigned to his fate, the man had nodded, reached out and handed the tattered and bloody book to him, dying moments later. Returning home, Zachaias found the same creature waiting for him on the sill of his bedroom window, then again in the rafters of the practice hall where he was preparing for his big show, watching. When 'the Emperor's Magician' changed the venue of the practice hall to a run-down warehouse on the other side of town only to find the bird waiting for him there as well, he knew he had somehow signed his death warrant. He was a hunted man now, and it was only a matter of time before he was found gunned down in the street or floating down the Silver Ribbon with a knife in his back,
while a bespectacled bird morbidly watched the exchange of a bloodied notebook he wished he'd never seen. Perhaps he would end up a victim of a stage accident he thought with a sudden pang of regret, wishing he hadn’t fired his previous manager…or…he glanced down at his untouched cup...maybe they poisoned his tea. Looking back in the mirror he saw the journalist's face – near feral and deathly afraid. . Hastily tossing the notebook back in the drawer, he drew out a small container of ‘sugar’ and spooned it liberally into the suspect tea – nothing happened, it was safe, Zacahaias breathed a sigh of relief. Clapping his hands three times the undissolved sugar foamed and swirled into letters that spelled out a legible word: ‘Relax.’ Leaning back he allowed himself a moment of peace, he was confident now his plan would work. Drinking the tea, now cold, with one pull he set the cup down, and putting his head in his arms he began to cry, not bitter tears this time, but ones of relief. Latter that night when the manager returned to the performer’s room he found it empty, the young man had gone to the pub after all. Good. Bodily stepping inside he angrily shoved a balloon out his face and tore down a stray streamer that got in his way. Tripping over a rack of replica weapons he swore, and swore louder still when he stepped on a child’s ball and rolled headlong into the desk with a crash. Cursing every magician everywhere for their bits and bobs and the general clutter they surround themselves with, the manager pulled himself together and tore open the drawer he’d spied him open through the keyhole – it was empty. Anger growing, he tore out another drawer, the one directly beneath the first and found it too was empty. Cold fear crept up his spine, a sensation best described as a deadly spider crawling up ones trouser leg. What if it wasn’t here?! Pulling out another drawer he spied at last the cover of the bloody journal he was after. Snatching it up and thumbing it open unspeakable horror exploded in his brain, instead of reassembled documents and lists of names, were seating plans, guest lists, a recipe for onion soup and an excerpt from Magic Trick’s for Children by one C.H. Clemence. A whirlwind of fear and anger at himself, the world, and his masters built up to a crescendo, rippling through his flabby body from his toes to the top of his head which flushed an ugly red. His body started to shake like a pressure cooker –
the process had started, he had minutes left – if he found it before then he might be spared. He tore through the small room like a possessed animal, upending bins, tearing through piles of paperwork which he reduced to confetti, even blindly punching holes in walls, perhaps the book was hidden in woodwork! The irrational rage subsiding only when he tore the mirror from the desk and hurled it with supernatural strength through the door, shattering it off its hinges. Afterwards, with a barely a hiss the turmoil left him. Deflated and dejected he fell forwards, suddenly feeling quite weak. You failed. The alien thought delivering a body blow he collapsed onto one knee, gasping for breath. Holding the back of the now three legged chair for support he felt his spirit seep out of him. The presence that held his own spirit in thrall wormed its way through his veins and airways causing the magician’s manager to writhe around in agony, gasping for breath and clutching his wrists, vainly trying to staunch the flow. After several agonising minutes, the wraith forced its way out through his mouth. Weakly his lips struggled to form the word “no…” but he choked on it, blood and bile spilling out with his soul, his plea for mercy falling on deaf ears – this was the price of failure. Without the spirit to sustain it and give it life the body hung limply on the magician’s chair and the malevolent presence wafted out of the room to give its report. Waiting another hour or so, just to be on the safe side, Zachaias removed the hidden panel from the wall and stepped out from his hiding place to view the damage. Not that, that was overly important now, a new venue would need to be found, and a new manager, or perhaps his old one might still be available. He'd have to somehow develop a better judge of character by the morning. Still...reflecting on his narrow escape brought a smile to his lips, the first since his ordeal had begun. Gathering himself he gingerly made his way to the upended desk and righted it, opening up the top right drawer, he pried out the cleverly concealed false bottom and recovered the damning evidence he would need. Without looking back he stepped through the broken door and headed for his long abandoned apartment whistling an old tune.
He had a lot of ground to cover and he had to leave tonight, besides he was among other things, 'the Amazing Bullet Proof Man' and he lived by the showman's oath. He failed to notice luminescent orange eyes within faux-spectacles following his every move, or the whooshing of wind beneath the creature's wings. The Watcher kept pace with his footfalls and the shadows weren't far behind.
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