They saw the battle long before they even got near. A pall of gray smoke mingled with hints of green and yellow floated away on the still evening air. An occasional bolt of magical lightning would light up the smoke cloud as someone loosed a spell at an enemy.
"Woo Hoo Tater! Looks like a good 'un for sure!" Sammy said as soon as he saw the cloud. Nathaniel could only nod and check his caster one more time. He was still unsure about Sammy, and was loathe to set him off again right before what looked to be a serious battle. They were now winding through what had at one time been a rather expensive neighborhood, though it was now utterly abandoned and gone to ruin. Most places of wealth and privilege had gone this way since the global consolidation of power. According to the official news media it was a sign of the progress made by the global government to eliminate class warfare and world poverty. What it really meant was a lot of really big houses for squatters to occupy. And for rebel witches to set up bases in. Suddenly, Nathaniel sat up straight and started paying close attention to the houses they passed.
"Hey, this is the old Hawthorne Heights neighborhood, isn't it?" He asked Sammy, who was in the middle of a bawdy love song to the nav box. Sammy looked at him for a minute before answering, "Yeah, I guess so. Why? You never lived in a place like this did you? I thought you grew up in the sticks." Nathaniel nodded, and tried to find a mailbox or street sign that was still readable. Every so often he could even make out the numbers on the fancy gates at the end of the driveways.
"Yeah, I did. But Ma brought me up here one time to show me where Yolanda Rorshack lived. Ma was crazy about her. Said when she sang the Gospel, even the angels would stoop down from heaven to listen. I remember as we was walking by we even saw her bring her trash out to the sidewalk... I'll never forget that day." Sammy's grin widened as he watched Nathaniel's head crane to follow every dilapidated gate post and street sign they whizzed past. "Yo-LANDA RorSHACK?" Sammy asked incredulously. "You saw YoLANDA RorSHACK taking out the GARBAGE! You are my hero! Did you get to touch any of it? Wow! Did it smell like normal people's garbage? Or did it smell like she had one of them angel's take a leak on it to make it smell like lilies?" Nathaniel's head jerked around in anger at the cutting sarcasm in Sammy's voice. His eyes narrowed and he pointed a stern finger at Sammy.
"NEVER talk about her like that again! She was... IS God's own servant, sent here to comfort us poor souls and..." Sammy laughed derisively.
"And to make a bazillion bucks off of mindless rubes like you and your mama and then disappear as soon as the world REALLY starts to suck! Yeah... pardon me for blaspheming her holy garbage, dude." Nathaniel sputtered angrily for a few seconds but before he could come up with a proper retort the radio squawked to life again.
"Para12, this is Command." Sammy grabbed the mike with one hand while power-sliding the van through another intersection.
"Command, this is Para12, go ahead." Nathaniel sat there fuming as Sammy winked at him.
"Para12, this is Command. What is your ETA to the Code 249?" the raspy voice of the dispatcher asked briskly. Sammy glanced over at the nav box then thumbed the mike.
"'Bout five minutes or less, Command. Got any new intel for us on the situation?" Nathaniel forgot all about his anger of a moment ago as he and Sammy both waited for an answer. The hiss of static on the channel went uninterrupted for a full thirty seconds before Command answered.
"Para12, negative. The first units on scene are no longer responding. All we know is Code 249 in progress."
Nathaniel wanted badly to scream at Sammy that they should turn and run, that they were walking into a trap, that Command was purposely sending them to their deaths. But the memory of Sammy's angry face made him bite his tongue, even though Sammy's face was still covered with the usual goofy grin. Winking again at Nathaniel, he thumbed the mike once more.
"What about backup, Command? How many other units are inbound?" The answer finally wiped the grin off of Sammy's face.
"Para12... you are on your own."
Sammy slid the van to a stop at the end of the street. They could get no closer to the actual location due to a stack of rusty car bodies blocking the street. All seemed quiet for now, but the pall of battle still hung thick in the air over the entire neighborhood. They both sat in their seats for a moment, surveying the scene. Then, Nathaniel turned to Sammy and stuck out his hand.
"Sammy, I am sorry I upset you earlier. No matter what, it's been interesting working with you. I'll see you when we get wherever it is we're going." Sammy looked at his hand incredulously before taking it and shaking it enthusiastically.
"And I am telling you, the only place we are going after we turn in all these heads will be The Prancing Pony for a couple dozen brewskis." Nathaniel shook his head, but smiled anyway.
"Let's go then." He said, then opened his door and stepped out onto the cracked pavement.
Neither said anything as they picked their way through the wreckage littering the street. Nathaniel pointed his caster at the empty windows of the houses they passed, but Sammy just walked with a determined swagger and his trademark grin. Finally, they reached the house in question. Nathaniel tried double-checking the numbers on a flattened mailbox he found in the middle of the street, but it was painfully obvious that this was the place.
The house itself was more or less untouched, the faint green glow around the edges revealing the spells of protection that were still intact. But everything within a hundred yards of the place had been blasted beyond all recognition. Smoking craters were everywhere, and the stump of what was once a large oak tree was burning fitfully. It's smoky flames cast weird shadows that danced fitfully across the yard. Nathaniel motioned with his caster at an upper window of the house where he thought he saw a shape moving and Sammy nodded. Pulling an adjustable frequency anti-magic grenade from his belt he gestured at the window and signaled for Nathaniel to be ready. Nathaniel glanced at the sensor mounted on his wrist and made note of the magical frequency used by the spells protecting the house. He fiddled with the control on his caster for a few seconds, while Sammy did the same with his grenade. When they were ready, Nathaniel aimed his caster at the window, and Sammy pulled the pin. After a silent three-count Nathaniel triggered a three-spell burst at the window at the same instant that Sammy lobbed the grenade.
Yellow light flashed from the muzzle of the caster and impacted the window with its customary hum and crackle. The spells from the caster disrupted the protective spells for only an instant, but that was long enough for the grenade to crash through the glass and enter the house. Sammy and Nathaniel both dived for cover as the grenade detonated. Hoping their plan worked, but not having time to check the sensor and see, they both jumped up on the porch and ran to the door before the protective spells could be re-cast.
Sammy aimed a spell at the door hoping to blast it off its hinges. It worked, and they both followed the disintegrating door into the house. They did their customary tuck and roll, coming up with their casters at the ready. But there was nothing but dusty silence inside the house.
They crouched for a full minute, scanning the house and waiting for something to appear. Nothing did. The only sound was their labored breathing and the crackling of flames somewhere upstairs.
"Check your sensors, Nate." Sammy said. Nathaniel looked at his wrist. The protective spells around the house were gone and no other magical activity remained within range.
"Looks clear Sammy... I don't see anything. But that don't seem right." Nathaniel said.
Sammy grinned and muttered, "Maybe they cleared out before we got here."
Nathaniel doubted it. It had taken a lot of magical energy to cast a protective spell over the entire house, and he couldn't come up with a single reason why the witches would do that for an empty house. He shook his head. "Let's clear it room by room. It's too easy to fool the sensor."
Sammy shrugged. "You got it, boss. Let's start down this hallway." He nodded at the hallway just beyond his position and Nathaniel nodded in agreement. Raising his caster he sprinted across the room and stopped just outside the hall. "Go!" he shouted to Sammy, who sprinted past him and down the hallway and stopped outside the first room. As soon as he was set, Nathaniel sprinted down the hall and took up position on the opposite side of the door. Their eyes met for an instant and they both nodded and Sammy turned and kicked down the door. Nathaniel jumped into the room and rolled right closely followed by Sammy to the left. They came up to one knee, with their casters covering the room but it was empty. They repeated the process until they had cleared all of the rooms on the ground floor, then they sprinted up the stairs and began clearing rooms there.
As they stood outside the last door catching their breath, Nathaniel nodded at Sammy that he was ready.
"Dude, I'm beat. You kick this one. I ain't sure I got another one in me."
Nathaniel rolled his eyes but shrugged his shoulders. It made no difference to him; Sammy was the more muscular of the two so the door-kicking was just generally something he was better at. Nevertheless, Nathaniel knew how to kick a door. Turning towards the door he kicked with all his might and was across the threshold before the door hit the wall behind it. But as he tucked into his customary roll he felt a wave of warmth wash over him and felt himself being pushed from behind by an invisible hand. He flew across the room and hit the opposite wall where he slumped to the floor, the breath knocked from his lungs. As he lay there on the floor gasping for oxygen, his eyes focused on the ceiling and his blood ran cold. The ceiling was covered with complicated glyphs that he recognized as runes of power used by witches to provide them with additional magical energy for their spells. Then a familiar grinning face came into his vision and the fear changed to a cold anger.
"Sorry, Nato Potato... Man! You have no idea how hard it is to get behind you!" Sammy was holding Nathaniel's caster in one hand and his own in the other, and they were both trained on Nathaniel's chest. "I always knew you were paranoid above and beyond the call of duty, but you don't even trust your partner most of the time!" Nathaniel had finally caught his breath, but his head still felt woozy and numb.
"Wha... are you doon?" he managed to gasp, the anger growing stronger as his mind struggled to grasp this turn of events. Sammy's grin widened and he shook his head.
"Nope, I don't get the pleasure of filling you in. I only get to be the one to bring you in for her." Sweeping one caster towards the open doorway he indicated a dark shape that had appeared there. His voice took on a reverential tone and he bowed his head slightly, "SHE -- will have the pleasure of answering your questions..." he turned his head and winked at Nathaniel as if he were telling one of his favorite bawdy jokes, "...before you are broken."
Nathaniel sat in the chair, his arms restrained at his sides and his feet firmly locked together on the floor. Smoky green tendrils crawling about his arms and legs were the only evidence of the restraining spell the witch had cast on him. She sat cross-legged on the floor in front of him, her face hooded and her hands making intricate patterns with her hands in the air around her. Her voice wavered hypnotically, and despite his anger and disgust Nathaniel found himself relaxing, his mind filled with pleasant memories and delicious aromas. He pushed against them, reciting in his mind a litany of the horrible atrocities committed by witches in the past century since the secrets of their magic had been revealed to the world. He struggled to remember every battle he had fought against them, every gory death he had seen caused by their cursed magic. The struggle continued in his mind but at last he could no longer remember why he was even resisting; with a gasp he relaxed and gave in. Beneath the black hood Nathaniel sensed a smile, and he was surprised to find that it warmed his heart to see it.
"Now Nathaniel Roman, give me your heart. Tell me your pain, reveal to me your soul and I will give you peace." Her voice was soft and tremulous, and Nathaniel felt an overwhelming desire to please her at any cost.
"My mother always told me that witches were to blame for all of the trouble in the world... she would stay up late at night braiding ropes from human hair to put around our beds. I never could sleep; I was too worried about being turned into a frog or a newt in my sleep." The hooded witch nodded and her sweet voice sounded in his ears, soothing away the tension summoned by the memory. "We have ever been misunderstood, and silly superstitions, instead of providing comfort and safety, only heighten the mystery and fear. I have had you brought to me today because I wish to soothe your fears. Tell me more."
Nathaniel nodded dreamily, and began reciting a disjointed and disorganized history of his life. Memories long-banished flickered through his mind; his mothers hands, worked to bloody blisters washing dishes to earn a living; visiting his father's grave every Sunday morning and reciting prayers to ward off evil spirits -- and witches. He recalled with pain the day he was discharged from the Army, the only place he had ever felt successful.
Each and every painful memory was soothed and healed by the witch until rambling story reached the present. The fear and anger he felt when he realized that Sammy had betrayed him was maybe the worst hurt of his life; perhaps because it was still so fresh and clear in his mind. He shared with her the image in his mind of Sammy standing over him helpless, threatening him with his own weapon, and she nodded understandingly.
"Yes, your Sammy had to do a harmful thing my love... but he did it only at my bidding. In time, you will thank him, and understand he also did it out of love for you." Nathaniel nodded, pleasure washing over him as he allowed her to take the pain of betrayal from him.
"Thank you my love..." he mumbled, a thin string of drool dripping off his chin and onto his shirt.
"You are very welcome Nathaniel. Now, let me tell you why I asked him to do this thing, as well as what you can do to repay us..."
Two weeks later, Nathaniel stood next to Sammy in full dress uniform before a vast crowd. They snapped to attention as a distinguished looking man approached them. Stopping before them one at a time, he pinned medals to their lapels. He stepped back, and they both snapped a crisp salute, which the man returned.
"Congratulations, men. The United Nations, and the citizens of the world thank you for your dedicated service in our continuing effort to rid the world of those who would pervert science and magic for their own evil ends." He dropped his salute and reached a hand out towards Sammy. The solemn face he had been wearing through the entire ceremony was suddenly replaced with his more normal grin.
"Secretary General Gunn, we have something for you as well!" Gunn's face froze at this breach of protocol, and he tried to withdraw his hand but Sammy held it fast. Nathaniel stepped forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Sir, we come bearing a message from our Mistress, Lady Felula, the one the world had known as Yolanda Rorshack. She wishes us to tell you that your war against witches is over." Nathaniel placed his other hand in the middle of the Secretary General's chest. Gunn looked down and finally understood when he saw the still-healing sutures across the back of Nathaniel's sickly, greenish hand. The sutures that were instant and incontrovertible proof that a person had allowed a witch to implant a spell caster inside his own body. The sutures that preceded the side effects of a magical implant that made it so easy to spot a user of such prohibited technology: the green skin and enlarged nose covered with pre-cancerous warts.
In the instant it took the Secretary General to finally understand what was happening, and just before his security detail could leap forward to separate him from the two witch hunters, Nathaniel looked at Sammy, and grinned,
"Well, Sammy, ready to die?"
-- Tyler Willson