The orc screamed in pain and fury as my laser-blade katana sliced through his midsection, pinning him to the brick wall. I planted my foot against his chest to gain leverage and pull it out, when I felt a burning sensation in my hand. I let go and jumped back just in time to avoid the fireball emitted by the exploding powerpack in the handle. The body armor worn by the orc must have overloaded the batteries, and the resulting power surge was just more than the regulator could handle.
"Damn cheap weapons!" I muttered under my breath as I stood and evaluated my position. The good news was that the explosion had taken care of the orc, the bad news was that I had used my last cash to buy that sword; my only remaining weapon was a second rate magic stunstick, bought from the same pawnshop as the sword. It looked like a cheap toy, and suspicious of all things magical, I had yet to try the simple spell to activate it. Suddenly feeling naked and alone, I backed into a dark corner of the sewer to reassess my situation. I asked myself: Why was one of the most sought-after mercenaries in the city scrapping with orcs in a scummy sewer with second-rate weapons?
Well, I guess it started with a job I did a while back. I was contracted by an unnamed party to sabotage some sort of laboratory where genetic experiments were being conducted. Some religious group was afraid that the scientists were trying to usurp God's power by creating genetically superior beings. Upon further investigation, I found that this particular religion was funded almost completely by a competing genetics lab, but what do I care about all that? The cash was good, with a generous advance, and an expense account to boot. Politics were beneath me. If someone wanted the lab trashed, the lab would get trashed. It even seemed to be a relatively easy job, with the only security being provided by a few psychic sensors planted along the perimeter of the grounds. That's where my friend Boloboroth comes into the picture. Boloboroth, Bob for short, was the only shaman I had ever learned to trust. There was too much of magic that I just plain did not trust, and those who dabbled in it were even harder to understand. So when I needed a little bit of paranormal assistance, it was Ol' Bob I went to. As far as shamans go, he wasn't much to look at. In fact, to those unacquainted with him personally, he was just the blind guy selling fancies on the corner. He dressed in a plain brown robe, with a rope around his middle, and a battered leather cowboy hat pulled down over the gaping holes where his eyes used to be. I never saw whether or not he wore shoes; the robe never allowed his feet to show, but rumor was he didn't own any. He had been a victim of the Indian extermination projects, and had lost his eyes while being tortured to reveal the location of his village. There were many stories about how he escaped that one, but the most prevalent was that his long-suppressed magical abilities suddenly leapt to the fore, and the detention facility where he was being questioned simply became a big smoking hole.
I met him first when he approached me about a job, helping him with a project that he was working on. As far as I know, he never revealed who was bankrolling him, but he never had any problem financing any of his projects. And you can bet your last nutrient pill that any project he was involved in would be at the expense of anyone involved with wiping out every last member of his tribe. I don't remember him ever taking a job purely for profit, but then there was a lot about him that I didn't know. Or care to know for that reason. He was, after all, a shaman. That first job, which was a simple, cut-and-dried run with a data card, gave me a chance to get to know him, and a sort of friendship developed. He tried to persuade me to learn some of his trade, saying something about a "natural talent", but I told him that stuff gave me the creeps. As long as I could hire a shaman to take care of that stuff on any of my jobs, that was as much as I needed to know. He kind of guffawed, then never spoke of it again. But we did spend a good deal of time together after that; I would notice him sitting in his usual spot on the corner, two or three of his homemade magical fancies hovering in the air over his greasy old hat, waving his hands in a sort of hypnotic, rhythmic kind of dance. He always knew it was I, and greeted me in the same way: "Ho So'jer! Kill any gummint types lately?"
He loved to hear my stories of jobs I had done which involved killing any kind of government personnel. His hatred of anything related to the so-called "gummint" ran very deep. Knowing that I was completely mercenary, not loyal to any one faction, always seemed to make him cackle under his breath. I guess the event which caused us to become even more closely tied together was the night I found him sprawled out in the alley just down the street from his usual corner. It was the eve of a blue moon, and the sickly white light shone down from between the scraggly clouds blowing fitfully across the sky. What I at first took for a pile of rags stirred, and I heard a raspy voice mumble: "Ho So'jer, kill any gummint types lately?"
I knelt down next to him, and asked him what was wrong.
"Damn blue moon, caught me with my pants down." He whispered, in a voice much weaker than I could imagine for him. "I guess you din't know that when the blue moon shines on me, I lose touch with the Voices, and don't have the strength to wipe my nose. Give on old man a hand, will ya?"
I reached down and as gently as possible, cradled him in my arms, and headed for home. He weighed almost nothing, and as filthy and greasy as he looked, he smelled more of sagewood incense than he did of unwashed street vendor. When we got to my flat, I fed him some broth, and he slept soundly through the night, and in the morning, he was gone. He had left, by way of gratitude I guess, one of his magic fancies lying on my kitchen table. It was a single eagle feather, bound by a leather thong to a couple of shiny beads above a single bearclaw. It was interesting to look at, but not having any clue what to do with it, I hung it over the bathroom mirror, and forgot about it. Until this lab job came up, that is.
Despite the large expense account I had for this job, I was having a hard time coming up with any good psychic shields to get me past those psychic sensors. I happened to mention it to Bob one day, and he sold me this beaded headband thing, which he said would make me invisible to any psychic or magic sensors. "Not invisible to the physical or psychic eye, or anything stupid like that, just not noticeable. They will see you, they just won't notice you."
And it worked; the lab job came off slick as snot. I crept right in through the front door with the night shift, planted a few charges on the main gas lines running through the lab, left in the morning with the same workers, and went home to watch the news. Sure enough the lead story was the destruction of the downtown laboratory, and the religious weirdoes getting plenty of publicity for taking credit. I was so impressed by how the headband had worked; that I offered Bob a bonus from the generous completion payment I received. "No So'jer, I owed you a favor, now we are friends. A favor returned by each has bonded us."
I laughed and reminded him of my mercenary nature, but he seemed to have already gone back to communication with the voices in his head. I couldn't help smiling at his naiveté, and dropping a roll of bills into his battered tin mug, walked away.
So what does all of this have to do with me burning out my last weapon in the belly of an orc in a sewer underneath the bad side of town? Well, I ran into this orc while running away from every two-bit bounty hunter in the city. At the same time, I was trying to find out what happened to Bob. He had been missing from his usual corner for quite a while, nothing unusual, until I had the dream. I was sleeping off a pretty good party one night when I heard the voice of my long-dead sensei Noh-Chi Won. It seemed to be coming from my bathroom, and I sort of floated in there to see what he wanted. His reflection looked out at me from the mirror, and he was calling my name with the kind of urgency I had learned to dread during my time as his apprentice.
"Raka-san, you lazy stupid child! What has happened to the wisdom I tried to teach you?"
I flinched, trying to imagine what I had done to anger his spirit, and instinctively expecting the leather strap that he always carried to emphasize my mistakes.
"You have floundered in the world without Magic long enough, it is time for you to get past your childish fear, and embrace the messenger I have sent to you!"
I gaped at his angry face, trying to decipher with my sleepy mind the message he was trying to convey, when suddenly his image seemed to melt away. His eyes sank back into his head, and his strong jaw wavered and shrunk up toward his nose, which was flattening, and spreading out across his face. Then his slicked back hair grew upward and outward and a greasy leather cowboy hat sporting a single turkey feather slid down and covered the oozing eye sockets. The face of Boloboroth had replaced my old master, and it was now his cracked old voice that spoke to me from the other side of the mirror.
"It is time for you to choose loyalty over money, So'jer! I find myself in great need of your help. No other do I trust, I call on the honor of the soldier to respect our bond. A favor returned has bonded us."
Still trying to grasp the meaning of his words, I saw his withered old hand reach out towards me, then turn upwards, to where his old gift, the eagle feather fancy hung on a nail at the top of the mirror. As his fingers closed around it, the bearclaw began to glow, and the feather crackled with energy. He grasped the feather at the base, with the beads and the bearclaw dangling beneath, and his hand reached out of the mirror, and placed it in my hand. "Follow its direction, it is the symbol of our bond."
As my hand closed around the leather thong, I felt energy arc up my arm, and I suddenly jerked awake, back in my bedroom. The sheets were balled up in a wad at the foot of the bed, and my pillow was drenched with sweat. I moaned, and rolled off the bed, swearing never again to drink that swill at the pub downstairs. I staggered into the bathroom to get a drink, and noticed that the magic fancy was no longer in its place over the sink. I stared for a minute, then shrugged and reached out to turn on the water, and my breath stuck in my throat. There wrapped around my hand was the magic fancy, the feather dangling off of one side of my palm, the beads and claw off the other. I decided that it was time to find out what Ol' Bob needed.
The next morning, I headed directly to Bob's corner, the fancy now tied around my neck. The bearclaw hung down in front, but the feather kept fluttering up into my face, so I tucked it down the back of my shirt, where I could feel it resting against my skin. At his corner, there was no trace of him, and I asked the guy at the newsstand across the way if he had seen anything of the old man.
"Aw guess the laist time I seed him was when them guys picked 'im up in that big ol' car t'other day. Din't seem too happy 'bout it, but then 'gin, they was about twelve of 'em, all packing blasters. Aw guess Aw would have been a mite nervy too, were it me." He spat a stream of tobacco juice at a huge cockroach that had scurried across his torn moccasins, and then lost interest in me as he picked up a can of bug spray and took up a loud and profane pursuit of the intruder. I crossed back to Bob's corner, and copped a squat just like he always did, and tried to examine the situation. Then, the feather at my back began to twitch, and when I looked down at the bearclaw, I saw that it was glowing like it had in my dream. I started to reach up to untie it, when the world seemed to slide sideways. The daylight disappeared, and a sewer stench struck my senses like a brick. I had to cough back a wave of nausea, and I heard a voice screaming at a maniac pitch.
"Now old man! Tell us now, or you will spend eternity here with the rats! Your act isn't fooling anybody, I know that your powers are far beyond these toys you peddle off on gullible fools! Give me the secret to your power, and I will let you die quickly. Resist me, and you will die a thousand painful deaths, each slower and worse than the last!"
I looked around, trying to see the source of the noise, but realized that it wasn't just a lack of light, I was blind. I tried to move, but although I couldn't feel any ropes or binders, My arms were frozen at my side, and my knees were pulled up tight against my chest. I started to panic, when suddenly; I heard Bob's voice, softly, in the back of my mind. "So'jer, be calm, you are not here, only feeling my thoughts. Go, and find me!"
To be continued...