Chapter 1

If three o'clock in the morning is the hour that tries men's souls then five o'clock is the trial prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one. It's a fiendish hour that permits no mercy or respite and possesses a near limitless amount of contempt for your wishes, whims or desires ... let alone any further notions of further rest or repose. While time itself is almost never your friend, this particularly unholy hour will gleefully call for the bailiffs to drag you off kicking and screaming to your impending doom, all the while staring down the cleavage of the buxom court stenographer while chatting her up.

In Texas history, five o'clock in the morning was also the hour of the Comanche's. This was the time at night when that fierce Indian tribe preferred to conduct their raids, at an hour when people are most likely to be in their deepest state of sleep. I would have liked to have been one of those happy, happy folks, snoring away blissfully, but Belladoncyatrix, our dragon Trixie, woke me suddenly up by crashed into the side of our bed in her sudden haste to get out through the railway carriage door. A sudden call of nature I assumed, but now I had an abrupt case of full wakefulness.

Checking my Uncle Lester's pocket watch again for the third time didn't much improve the situation. It a rather interesting watch and I don't know if Aunt Millie made it for him or if it was a gift from the Great Western Railroad upon his retirement. Its clock face lights up when the lid face is opened; tells the time of day, phases of the moon, and even the local weather. It's also very definitely magical and provides several minor protections, including against pickpockets and missing train departures. Extremely useful, especially if you were a railroad engineer for over forty years, although it's probably fairly difficult to miss your own train, assuming you're the driver.

As usual, Miranda was cuddled up to my side still soundly asleep. She was dressed for sleep last night rather more fully dressed than her usual preferred nightwear ... namely being gloriously nude. It had been quite chilly and she'd put on one of my older shirts and even some skimpy panties too! With her eighteenth birthday being now just a few weeks away she had largely abandoned her goal of my immediate seduction and had resigned herself to just waiting out the time until she'd be 'legal', under my terms at least anyway. This still didn't in the least bit stop her from still showing off the available goods at any and every opportunity, at least until it became too chilly to be practical. Even having a fire-breathing dragon sleeping at the foot of your bed doesn't quite substitute for having a proper reliable heating system ... which we didn't have. I'd carefully applied some water and fire magic a few times to the old broken radiator in our carriage but I just couldn't resuscitate it back to life, even briefly. Then again, very little (if anything) about US railroads was even remotely reliable. On the other hand, I really couldn't complain about the magnificent private carriage that Sebestyen Dénes had given us for the long trip to Washington. Not to mention the rather fine selection of wines and spirits that were included.

I checked my pocket watch yet again, but in vain. It was now 5:03AM and I was still eyes wide-awake and staring up at the ceiling. It was also quiet ... way, way too quiet. Rail yards are almost never quiet. The one I was familiar with back home in Austin was always busy at any time of night or day. This morning there was no grindings of metal wheels, no squeaking of softly applied hand brakes, no rattling of boxcars or even the odd blast of steam, let alone any pleasant chug-chug-wuff-chug sounds from any rolling steam engines.

Our private railway carriage had been the first car of our train, the Empire Builder Limited, with a string of ten passenger cars behind us. We were pulled by an apparently venerable and delicate steam engine and coal tender that was just mechanically delicate and prone to regular breakdowns and would have been consigned to some Texas rail museum or scrap yard at least a quarter century ago. The limited part seemed to mean it had very limited operating hours and it deferred priority to any and every other train running on this line. We rarely ever kept moving for more than a few consecutive hours before our train would move onto a rail siding to let something else pass us. Even coal and bulk slow freight trains seemed to have priority over us!

We'd arrived (finally) in Cleveland late yesterday afternoon; three days after leaving Chicago with the explicit and enthusiastic promise from the conductor, that after a promptly executed engine swap 'in an hour or two' that the Empire Builder would again be on its way. I knew better of course, but his carefully cultivated façade of sincerity fooled me and we stayed put in our carriage for all the rest of that long evening. Cleveland is noted for being one of the US's most beautiful cities and makes every top five favorite places to live listing I'd ever read about, and I wanted to enjoy some of it. Or at least find a really good hot dinner. We were still only about half way to Washington and even Miranda wasn't sure that she could face the prospect of many more greasy meals served in the Limited's dining car!

About midnight or thereabouts, they disconnected the aged engine and tender and then had a yard switcher move the entire rest of the train off to a secondary siding behind the passenger station. Then, awhile later just as we were getting back to sleep, our lone private carriage was then shunted off all alone, somewhere at some back-ass part of the classification yard, all by itself. That should have been my first clue that something was about to go terribly and violently wrong and involve unfathomable amounts of property damage. However, things were quiet in those early hours of the morning ... and we were both bored and tired, and so we slept the slumbers of the innocently misguided and clueless.

All was still stillness in these last late hours of the night ... and this perturbing thought suddenly now made me sit right up in bed to strain my eyes to listen even harder; not a sound anywhere. The rail was indeed absolutely much too quiet, except for a soft thumping sound that sounded like it originated from directly under my bed. Probably Sean rooting for something in one of our travel bags for something. Probably an antacid to wash down with another bottle of twenty-plus year old single malted scotch. If bored and left to his own, Sean could outdrink the entire Gulf of Pacific fleets, admirals and all.

"Good ... you've heard it too then!" Sean suddenly chirped right into my left ear. Rather loudly too and without the usual faux Irish accent he usually affects when he's pulling his usual 'innocent and harmless me' routine. In moments of stress he drops the fake Brownie act entirely and speaks out directly and loud, rather than just whispering directly and secretly into my mind.

That was my second big clue that something was about to become terribly wrong and my entire day was likely to be turned to shit.

"Trixie smelled some intruders nosing around outside and she went out to check on them." Sean helpfully noted as I flung myself out of bed and began a swift but ultimately fruitless search to find my slippers and a bathrobe. "She's just now found three of them right underneath this carriage ... along with a couple of backpacks full of some extremely nasty military grade explosives, and now she's about to become really, really excited ... and what does our Trixie do when she becomes excited?"

Oh, fuck! Military grade explosives are pretty stable and extremely hard to set off accidently or prematurely, but virtually nothing in this or any other world is particularly dragon-proof, especially concerning dragon fire. That's surface of the freaking sun level magical heat and with just one puff, Trixie was going to toast our unwelcome nocturnal visitors and ignite enough bomb making material to blast away half of this rail yard!

I flung myself back onto the bed and right on top of Miranda and turned my shields up to their maximum, maybe even to notch eleven, and it still was only just barely in time or strong enough.

Everything became noise and light and then happy darkness once more.

It seemed like hours before I could consider opening my eyes, but it was probably just a minute or so. Everything hurt, but in theory that was good ... that meant that I was still alive and more or less in one intact piece. I could still feel Miranda in my arms and that was much more encouraging news. She was awake and squirming, apparently rather unhappy about something. I wasn't too concerned about that ... women are always discontented about something. When I did crack an eyelid open to take a quick calculated look around, I could see that she was talking, or rather yelling quite loudly right into my face ... but I couldn't hear or distinguish a word of it. My own ears were ringing as if I were in a church bell tower and over that roar I couldn't make out a single word. I could feel that she was starting to channel Air around us but I couldn't figure out exactly why until I happened to look down and saw that the ground was rather quickly catching up to us. What goes up must come down, etcetera. The explosion had blown us rather high up into the air and we were now on a rapidly accelerated downward reentry course to impact.

I'd done this particular dance before ... but this time I wasn't heading towards a relatively smooth splashdown in the cold pleasures of Town Lake back in Austin. With the light from a dozen burning ground fires all around us, I could see a lot of twisted steel rail flung all about us in all directions and I didn't much like the thought of coming down upon any of that! The blast had done a pretty fair job of concussing my three surviving brain cells, but with a little concentrated thought I could still channel Air myself, and strongly, and I added my power to Miranda to let her stop our descent entirely.

Being up here seemed to be a safer place to be at the moment than being down there so I gave ourselves about fifty feet or so of additional altitude. The idea, if I had one, was to get above some of the smoke and fire to take a decent look at the carnage around us. The aerial view and our options, weren't improving with more elevation and I was strongly considering another less rapid descent back down to terra firma when a silver bullet punctured through my virtually impenetrable magical shields. It seemed to take a lifetime to pass through them and then miss my left ear by probably less than inch, travelling in improbably slow motion the entire time. That gave me the clue that my Uncles railroad watch was still in my hands and open, and some time-dilation effect was in progress ... but unlikely to last for very long!

With both eyes now wide open and straining for the slightly signs of movement, I could see additional bullet tracks heading towards us, coming slow but surely ... and to my horror, with somewhat more accuracy.

"Hang on; we're going to crash drive!" I shouted to Miranda. She yelled back something like, "What did you say?" being apparently about as blast deafened as I was, but I was already yanking us downward almost as quickly as our previous free-fall. At least this time it was a relatively controlled powered glide downhill so that I could at least pick our landing site out of the available short list of nearly equally bad options. None of my ground based landing sites alternatives appeared to offer much protection, so I settle for landing us under a precariously leaning coaling tower that had had one of its four supporting legs blown way. It was already swaying in the weak breeze and didn't look in the least bit stable but was unfortunately the best of a rather bad (and short) list choice of immediately available options. We hit hard, but my shields held up and they didn't buckle too much even when we crashed into one of the remaining weakened legs of the coal tower. It wobbled rather disturbingly for a moment but held, for now. I didn't care ... being crushed in a minute or two by several tons of falling coal sounded like a better option than being shot immediately right now.

The snipers, and there seemed to be at least four of them, still had us in their sights. While we dove for cover, they kept shooting as fast as they could reload, substituting mass of fire for accuracy; a trade-off that suited us both for the moment. Magical shields, even good ones, won't entirely stop a well-prepared silver bullet, and with the cost of good Arc-Tec grade silver being almost the value of gold, they were shooting up a small fortune ... and the bullets were getting uncomfortably closer to us.

The wreckage strewn around us provided some partial cover and even with the spreading ground fires from the explosion, there wasn't a lot of light for them to aim by. Despite Air being my strongest magical skill, I'd never figured out the trick to making a real invisibility shield, building a reflective barrier of air that gives the caster some limited concealment. That's wizard level magic and they didn't teach this at my high school for young Adepts and minor wizardlings. I doubted that Miranda had learned anything about this all on her own either. I may have doodled and daydreamed through most of my formal schooling, but her own education had been entirely self-taught, until I took her on as my apprentice. We'd learned quite a bit in our limited time together, but now it seemed like our time was entirely running out. I did fire up my Aversion spell, but that mentalist technique was really only effective at very short range, to fool another mind that I wasn't 'there'. It was great for sneaking around secret Deseret military facilities but lousy against long-range snipers gunning for you!

Uncle Lester's watch now went dark and the hinged case bezel clicked itself shut in my hand, its minor time-dilation charm exhausted for now. The world resumed its normal hectic full throttle speed and the irregular array of flying silver projectiles immediately became an inundation. With multiple shooters arrayed against us from apparently all sides we couldn't hide from them all, and after watching several bullets suddenly take immediate hard ninety degree turns away from us, from the distance of just inches from my nose, I decided with disturbed relief that Sean was very likely still here with us as well.

From the sudden explosion of fire erupting from the top of the passenger station about two hundred yards away, I discovered with relief that Trixie was apparently quite alright as well. Being like Sean, a creature of innate magic, even a good bit of quality military grade explosive detonated at pointblank range wasn't enough to hurt her significantly. Even my blast-impaired hearing could make out the thunderous bellow of her cries of anger as she next blasted out another snipers nest from a water tower off at a distance off to our right.

"Aye, she's in a right state, all right! In a right burning rage, you might say. Loosened a few scales a wee bit and gave her snout a bit of a smack but nothing to keep our gal out of the fight. Ah, there goes the last of those sneaky boys with the guns." Ah ... the fake Celtic lilt was back in Sean's voice so that meant that the worst life-threatening peril was likely over now. There had been six snipers in total but Trixie had found the lot of them and she then circled the burning rail yard a few more times looking for something else to burn to extra crispy tenderness. She didn't have to wait very long. A large pool of an undulating dark purple color appeared for a moment in the air about fifty feet away from us; a dark portal that was bringing some fresh playmates for the next round of our dance card.

I gathered up my dignity, dusted myself off a bit and gave Miranda helping hand up and couldn't help but notice that she was offering quite a view of herself now. My shirt that she had been sleeping in was largely shredded and not really covering anything of any significance. If anything, the way the rags draped across her full young breasts enhance the view and added to her sex appeal; the panties were in slightly better shape, but parts of the fabric had been torn from the elastic. The important lower bits were still concealed, but not by much. Her French-cut's knickers had been tattered into resembling more of a skimpy thong now, with the majority of her taunt and coal dust covered ass now virtually entirely out for display. That interesting view made me think to take a quick look down at the front of my own boxer shorts and I discovered to my annoyance that I was rather exposed myself. My ass was mostly still covered but a few large strategic tears had left my crotch pretty much 100% on display. Well ... I had other more important things to worry about at the moment.

Our newly arrived guests were a confident lot but then again most senior Deseret wizards don't suffer from any lack of confidence whatsoever. I think they acquire it as an element of their latent insanity. These four emerged from the portal alone, walking side-by-side wearing their dark battle robes. Each wore a dark silver circlet high upon their forehead and I could smell the taint of negative spirit energy about them right from the first moment I laid eyes upon them. Lots of it. These guys were juiced, with more magical power in their figurative little fingers than I had possessed back when I was a fairly clueless Adept. These guys were wizards ... and not wimpy ones either. Our enemy had brought some of their best for this dance card and I ought to have been impressed, but at the moment, I was just quietly rejoicing that my hearing was now slowly beginning to return.

"You will know pain and then you will know fear," they hissed at me, the four of them together as one with a collective voice that had more than enough evil undertones to make nine out of ten wizards go code brown in their pants. "Then we will take your soul and make it burn for all eternity!"

Promises ... promises. My Aunt warned me as a boy about counting chickens before they'd hatched. These guys were bad news, but I wasn't a piss-ant Adept anymore. I was still learning how to play with the big boys and these Deseret nutters were ideal for a bit of practical exercise.

"Speaking of burning..." I giggled in reply, "you're about to know the pain and fire of being a human barbeque, since you couldn't come to Texas I'll bring it to you here instead!" Trixie had finished off all of the long-range players in this lesson of tableside breakfast cookery and was starting her power dive to scorch these newly arrived over-optimists to a nice sooty pile of black ash. They burned really nicely ... but when the plume of dragon fire had faded, four dark vaguely human-shaped dark shadows remained ... and they just smiled. Their clothes too, like ours were now gone, but their essence remained. They were nothing but creatures of negative energy masquerading in human form and apparently not even magical fire could consume them.

This was not good. Trixie tried again, longer and hotter until she could huff nothing but a few wisps of smoke. To no result. Deciding that she need to think about this problem and reconsider her options, our frustrated dragon made a tactical retreat just as the unharmed creatures began to target her with negative energy bolts that did somewhat hurt but didn't particularly do much actual harm to our winged comrade. She flew away out of range and landed upon the burning roof of the passenger station and began to brood, letting her growing rage simmer until it could find a more suitable outlet for it. With their winged foe withdrawn from the fight, the wizards returned their attentions to Miranda and me.

"You cannot resist us and you will beg for a death that shall never come!" they hissed in unison, the words whispering as much inside my head as from my still ringing ears as they began to slowly glide towards us. I grabbed Miranda's hand and started to backpedal away, fast. I needed a coherent moment to gather up my thoughts and then my shields again, and fast. The explosion had rung our bells pretty good and I was still having a hard time putting my brain cells back into operating order. We both probably had mild concussions from the force trauma of the blast but our enemies weren't going to let us call an injury time-out and wait for us to get our act together.

These appalling high-level Deseret spawns of darkness were much better organized and were able to stick to their plan. With a collective spoken word of power, the darkness surrounding them flexed and grew, releasing after a moment a rather impressive collection of shadowy dark figures into the gloom around them. I didn't need to blink more than twice to recognize these newly summoned creatures – shadow stalkers; the big, nasty ultimate enforcers of the Shadow Plane that existed for the sole purpose of killing, preferably slowly and in extremely nasty ways. I'd gone a full fifteen rounds with just one of these nightmare creatures last Christmas in daylight and it had almost killed me. Now I faced at least eight, maybe even ten or more. This time it was night, and the surrounding flickering lights from the burning train yard fires were already beginning to ebb down and even now they didn't provide anything near like enough light to even annoy these creatures. They'd be at their full strength during this darkest hour of the night and like sinister flickers of murky lightning, they were all upon us in an instant, but not before my magical shields had been firmly re-raised, and for the moment, they held.

I had my moment now to begin to think, but it wasn't doing me the least bit of good and I began to panic instead. I was virtually naked, without anything remotely useful to be had from my coat pockets, like raw silver for magically forging a weapon that might do some bit of good against these otherwise virtually unstoppable creatures. Sure, they'd be somewhat vulnerable to applied magic in even marginal daylight, but not much so right now. Here in their element, in total darkness and at their full powers and abilities they would each be nearly as magic resistant as Trixie. I'd need some pretty hefty physical force, also undoubtedly accompanied with silver, just to scratch or even momentarily repel them, and that really limited my immediate options to virtually slim and none.

Miranda had never seen a shadow stalker before, lucky her. She did about what I'd done the first time around, and cried like a disgraced televangelist while losing her bladder control momentarily. Neither of which stopped her from then gathering about her wits to try to do something to help the situation. At first she just added her own much lesser strength to my shields and helped to brace them. I'd been holding things together but those long eviscerating claws seemed to be clawing ever closer to us. I don't think that was my imagination. Their ghostly claws seemed to radiate pure negative energy and normal mundane shielding, even turned up to maximum, wasn't going to keep them out for long. Praying for an early dawn wasn't a very helpful thought either.

Next, though, Miranda began to do what I should have been doing in the first place. I needed now to keep 110% of my concentration keeping those killing claws away from us and couldn't risk diverting my attention even just long enough to find us a way out of here! She began to probe around us to discover any Leys or other latent magical power sources, and she was rather surprised by the subtle but yet abundance of riches to be harvested.

"Keep probing!" I grunted, "Railroad yards are full of latent magical energies like air, water and earth, and also spirit – especially near the tracks if steam engines have been around." My uncle had told me this once when I was a boy and I'd always loved visiting train stations and rail yards just to feel the various faint and subtle energies. This is probably why even utterly non-magical people can still feel a deep emotional attachment with trains, especially steam engines.

I suddenly felt a ferocious claw bite deeply into but not quite fully penetrate my shields and this spurred me out of some of my concussive haze. I gathered Air and grunted sharply, flexing a very strong pulse of air outwards, as much of a shock wave as I could hastily generate and this gave us a moment of respite. The shadow stalkers weren't particularly harmed and were back surrounding us again in mere moments, but the weakened coal tower came off much the worst for this attack and the blast shattered another of the remaining steel coal tower support beams. The tower amazingly was now wobbling unsteadily still upright upon its two remaining good supports, but that miracle wouldn't last for more than another few seconds ... but it did suddenly give me an idea that was worth trying. It was an impossible idea that couldn't possibly work, but I was going to try it anyway. Besides, I was the Zyphyr and I've done the impossible before!

"Get down and grab the ground with both hands and then get as much of everything and anything you can, then give it to me, fast and stay down tight because the shields might go down any second now." I shouted out as I pushed her down to the torn up ground under the terminally weakened coal tower. There was no 'might' about it. The only remaining issue was whether or not I'd be alive afterwards to bring any sort of protection back up again. Shielding up and playing defense was a losing play anyway – if this stupid idea didn't work then we'd all be dead anyway, or really wishing that we were.

My own plan began with falling on top of Miranda's to shield her with my own body as much as possible. I tried to hold the magical shield around us, to make it thicker over our huddled bodies but it wasn't coalescing as firmly as I would have liked. I could now feel inhumanly cold burning claws raking into my back as I gathered every ounce of power that I could muster away from our weakening shield protection. I'd been carved up like a turkey by a shadow stalker before but I hadn't enjoyed that very much the first time around and the repeat experience was even less pleasurable now. Around me, there was a sea of frenzied flailing claws that were now shredding my remaining shields to shreds and me now along with them as well. They'd be entirely through the remnants of the shielding in just a few moments, but I just needed one last moment or two to act as well. The damaged coal tower above us was now starting its final fateful plunge to destruction, nearly straight down on top of us all, and that suited me perfectly.

"Sean, if you're still here," I grunted through the mental exertion and burning physical pain, "you better either help keep these bastards off of my back for a few more seconds or make damn sure that I transform this section of iron rail into silver or you'll need a new partner for that future bacon ranching empire!"

Alteration, often called either Trans-alteration or just plain matter manipulation is an upper level wizard talent that uses magic to alter/adjust any part of the material world into a different state. This takes a crazy amount of power, even for a very small physical change. Matter likes staying in its present current state and really resists being altered and sometimes fights back kicking and screaming. Think of the material world as a surly teenager being made to do something it doesn't want to do. In the end, if you apply enough force or persuade it enough, it might obey ... and will probably brood and plot ways to get back at you later. Either you have the talent (and probably an unhealthy knowledge about how the universe really works) or you don't. I'd turned a handful of silver coins into a small silver weapon before (relatively simple and easy work actually), but turning a big fifty or sixty pound hunk of iron into silver was a thousand times more complicated. I needed it to work, so I was going to make it work ... and apologize to the universe later, if necessary.

There are very, very good reasons that even expert Alterationists don't open up factories that change lead into gold, or even try more than dabbling with extremely tiny amounts of any transformed material. I thought I could feel both Sean and Miranda inside of my head metaphorically helping the power flow and with a not inconsiderable amount of raw sheer force and will I made it happen. The length of twisted steel rail in my hands shimmered and flowed as if it were liquid, pure silver, firm and solid yet also constrained by a magical plasma full of competing and contrary wills of its own as the universe fought against this trivial but material change to its existence. I then grabbed this four-foot length of silver rail with my will and flung it upwards with nearly all of my remaining magical strength high into the air directly into the path of the rapidly collapsing coal tower.

Being newly trans-altered, the silver rail would be extremely brittle, insanely fragile and more than a little unstable with a certain stubborn willfulness to discorporate, or return to its former state as quickly as the laws of physics and magic would allow. The collision between the falling coal tower and the fragile silver rail was more than enough to shatter it, creating a rather explosive disincorporation of the silver nearly down to its component molecules. The very fine dust was still entirely silver still - but not likely to remain so for very long. Already its molecular integrity was becoming increasingly unstable, with its atoms ready and even eager to fly apart so that they might return to being simple iron once more. In a few minutes, the silver particles would become nothing but iron and carbon dust ... but I only needed them to remain being silver for just a few more seconds.

The explosion of the silver rail discorporating itself upon the wooden coal tower did a pretty decent job of exploding the remains of the wooden coal tower. The shattered structure was already releasing most of its coal into the air but I wasn't taking any chances. With the rest of my strength I 'Melon Charmed' and imploded the exploding coal tower for good measure, creating as an end result a large settling mixed cloud of ultra-fine powdered coal and silver plasma. It must have been a sight to see, the glowing silver grey rain cloud descending slowly on top of us all, but I was face down trying to cover Miranda from the burning claws that now fell upon us without any further resistance or impediment. The shadow stalkers were under orders to inflict maximum pain but without causing death and in retrospect, I think they were unparalleled masters at their job.

"Now – Trixie!" I commanded, with a voice barely louder than the gust of a flapping butterfly's wings. I was the Zyphyr, damn it ... and I wasn't going out without a last ditch fight right up to the very end!

I had really only learned about the superior explosive qualities of fine coal dust from a short semi-historical 'don't do this' lesson in one of my old magical textbooks. Namely, don't cast fire underground in old coalmines, sewers or some other place likely to have flammable gases. Here and now, I had created my own rather superior demonstration of creating an improvised explosive that rather put the example of the bomb under our railroad carriage quite to shame. Trixie's flame ignited the coal/silver dust saturated air that in effect generated a rather massive 'fuel-air bomb' that effectively leveled whatever portions of the rail yard that the earlier original conventional explosion had missed. The crater itself around us wasn't technically very deep, but pretty much everything now within eyesight was rubble. Some coal hopper cars on a maintenance line a bit behind us had been tossed around like they were children's toys and enough brand new fires had started up everywhere around us that we could now see everything around us just clearly enough to make some rudimentary decisions.

For starters, we were now quite alone. Miranda had seen the silver infused mega shockwave shred to minute bits both the shadow stalkers and the four high-ranking Deseret wizards. That had been the plan ... but I'd never assumed that we'd be lucky enough to survive it! I think I had shielded us again at the very last nanosecond, but I could never be completely sure. Shadow stalker claws were trying to rearrange my spinal column at that same moment, so I admit to be a tad distracted. The end net result was one much totally leveled railroad station and switching yard, and all of our foes being reduced to very small component pieces.

That's me, Zak Zyphyr to a 'T' ... when in doubt use overwhelming and excessive force!

Technically, this was a win for us, the visiting team, but it didn't really feel like one, especially when yet another wizard now appeared before us, bigger, meaner, and even far nastier than the previous four. Nine feet tall, at least, and looked a lot like his father too, strongly resembling the NetherLord I'd killed in the Deseret breeding pit while rescuing Bel. This ungodly bit of cross-dimensional progeny didn't even present the pretext of being human; it had been tied to our plane of existence now but this creature exuded raw negative energy under its material flesh. Unmistakably, this fellow was also the current pinnacle of Deseret's ongoing human-visitor breeding project and a vile monstrosity that should never have been permitted to exist on this or any other plane of reality. Fortunately, I could correct that little oversight, assuming I could find the strength to stand, even with Miranda trying to hold me upright. I was wobbling like a toy top, but was staying upright. I could even feel my magical levels returning, but not nearly fast enough.

Still, I'd rather gotten into the habit of spitting into the face of death. While still face down in the rubble I flung a spirit bolt at it and the wizard just casually batted it away harmlessly with a laugh. Spirit was the only thing that could hurt it ... but I was going to need a lot of it, and fast, after a much needed moment or two to recover from the last fight, assuming I didn't bleed to death first. Miranda didn't panic this time and determined that a quick tactical retreat was very definitely in order first though. She wrapped both arms around me and half carried and dragged me towards an overturned coal hopper a few dozen yards away with the hope of using it for some protection but the monstrous wizard blasted it away. The ten ton heavy steel car bounced at least fifty yards across the burning rail yard with about as much energy and effort as if he had been levitating a tea cup instead.

The side blast knocked my ass silly, flinging us both a good twenty yards across the yard to land (very ungently) face-first on top of a huge mound of overturned coal from one of the wrecked hoppers. Miranda, bless her foolish heart, stood up over my helpless body in one last mad act of protective defiance ... and got her ass blasted off her feet a moment later by a massive negative energy bolt that utterly devastated her minor shields as if they weren't even there. It would have killed anyone even remotely normal, but my apprentice was from Chicago and tough as nails. She was breathing, just barely, close by my side, and I crawled over barely close enough to be able to grasp her hand. It was already cooling and I could feel the negative energy inside of her battering away at her small reserves of inner spirit that remained. She was dying. The dark energy would consume her in mere minutes and then probably turn her into something unnatural, probably a soulless corpse imbued by negative spirit matter to serve the whims of her sinister master.

Her only hope was for enough 'good' spirit magical energy to enter her to displace and expel the darker energies from within her. By holding her hand, I might be able to sacrifice my own dwindling spirit energies to help her, but even giving up my own life energies entirely would never heal her enough to get her back onto her feet, let alone be able to challenge one of the very greatest wizards of Deseret. That just wouldn't help ... but I had one last thought that just might, assuming I could gather up enough of my own strength to perform one last miraculous feat of alteration.

Coal is organic. Very much so actually, being the compressed and more or less fossilized remains of enormously vast ancient Carboniferous forests. If the coal is particularly good, you can even see the remains within of the old plants and trees, even the form of the leaves themselves. There was still spirit here, albeit in minor amounts and relatively hard to get to, being locked up within the rock. However, it was present and I could feel lots of it potentially ... lying down with my face pressing against an entire full coal hopper's load of the stuff. About a hundred tons worth, even perhaps a bit more depending how full the hopper had been before the coal dust fuel-air bomb had knocked the car's load over.

It just might do. My enemy, being an evil wizard of the old school, took the time to gloat now over our helpless bodies rather than being more practical and finishing us off first. In his defense, we probably looked 99% beaten already. I was a complete bloody mess and Miranda had been knocked out for the long count. Yeah, I'd have probably have made a wisecrack or two at my adversary too in the exact same circumstances. Actually, since I needed a moment or two to gather strength to channel my last reserves of magic before I completely bled out, it might not be a wasted bit of effort to taunt him back to keep him talking.

"So, what's your name bright-eyes? I'm going to need to know who to send the insurance repair bills to, once this is all over." I enquired with rather more vigor than I really felt.

"I'm the Exalted Lord-Wizard Balegor at your disservice," He laughed, "Wizard of the Second Circle. You are, or were the infamous Zak Zyphyr, busybody and general all-around annoyance, a troublesome thorn once, but not for very much longer." I could feel him once more gathering negative energies but I just had barely enough time now to preempt his final strike.

With my life's-blood, flowing down upon the massive mound of coal it was easy, even my pathetically weakened state to forge a connection between my dwindling spirit and the latent spirit locked within the fossil rock. Sometimes making that sort of connection by mental means alone would be exhausting and time consuming, so if you can use or build a more physical sort of connection it just makes everything far simpler. With my weakening thoughts, I could easily begin to unlock the latent spirit energies, slowly at first but it soon became a chain reaction, like river floodwaters that have burst through a restraining dam. The stream became a surging torrent until I was almost deluged by the released raw spirit energies that now flowed all around me and into me.

In retrospect, this was pretty much the complete reverse of what I had done with the iron, turning it (temporarily) into silver. Nature had made this Trans-alteration herself, slowly and over vast geologic time. This change had been slow but very stable, but still the living memory of all of these former plants and trees lived on, in minute magical spirit energies anyway. Now all of the work of those millions of years was being released in a matter of moments. Seemingly to my wonder and amazement I was not bleeding to death on top of a mound of railroad coal but instead standing within a lush great forest as an untold millennia's worth of trees grew, lived, died and fell into the swamps all around me to become preserved. Their last energies preserved for this one final moment of absolute death and rebirth.

I was filled with spirit. It surrounded and encompassed me, and through my hand, it flowed also into Miranda and it effortlessly displaced the dark negative magic that would have possessed her. My physical wounds all healed at once as well and in another moment, I was once again made whole. I had the strength now to stand ... and fight!

I didn't even try to gather this massive flowing fountain of spirit magic, but instead I just allowed myself to be its conduit, to let the raw power flow through me unfiltered and unrestrained. With both hands raised, I just extended my fingers towards the startled dark form of my massive foe and willed, or rather just moderately directed the flow of spirit towards him. The flow was weak at first; but as the connection between us was made, and as his high darker energies rose to confront mine, I could effortlessly increase my own redirection of the rising massive spirit energies to confront him. It rapidly became little if any sort of contest between us as his dark spirit proved to be incapable of resisting the vast amounts of raw pure spirit that I could now channel against him.

The NetherLord spawn had never felt such energies before and even the massive might of his protective shields of darkness couldn't restrain what had been unleashed against him for long. The surging conflicting energies tore the dark magician apart and in but a mere heartbeat or two he had been utterly destroyed.

My physical wounds might have now been healed and Miranda's life force restored, but we were utterly mortal and unsuited for channeling magic this pure and powerfully raw for even a few moments longer. As the pure ancient spirit had flowed into me I had for the most part redirected it, but now it was still surging all around us at levels that I soon felt I could neither control nor safely absorb. With some last unspent reserves of our remaining physical energy, I pulled the barely conscious Miranda to her feet and we slowly extracted ourselves from the prehistoric lush Carboniferous forest back to the mere normal world more. Finding a bare patch of ground safely outside of the brightly glowing sphere of Transalterating spirit, we just quietly watched with wondrous amazement as the last few tons of the coal were released into energy and the spirit fountain at last finally exhausted its fuel source. The energy field collapsed sharply upon itself with a sharp flash of light and a loud concussive burst that again once more knocked us from our feet. Fortunately, there wasn't a thing left in the rail yard to collapse or destroy, but it did bounce the rubble rather nicely.

I waited for our next challenge, yet another adversary or assault team from Deseret, or their local allies, but the night remained peaceful, save for the burning fires of the rail yard that were consuming everything around us. After a while I began to relax and let my will drop its remaining grasp on the faded magic around us. The numerous small latent magical fields that had once permeated this formerly active railroad switching area were all now gone, its store of energy now consumed and exhausted. Everything around me felt spiritually dead; utterly lifeless, and this magical sense of sterility went out for as far as I could extend my senses. The battles against the Deseret wizards had fully consumed every bit of life and latent magical energy around us for at least the distance of several football fields, perhaps even half a mile or so. This entire area had now become a magical null zone, devoid of anything or everything that an adept or wizard would need to channel from.

Well, I guess it would be a long time before any more wizards' duels took place here at this rail yard! In an emergency, you can channel very small amounts of magic solely from your own personal body reserves, but that is in effect borrowing from your own life force ... and strongly not ever recommended.

Miranda and I sat and studied the remains of the battlefield and quietly held hands in silence until the first light of dawn appeared on the horizon. The fires of war continued to burn all around us and for the moment, it was prudent to just be patient and let the worst of fires burn out before we considered where we should evacuate ourselves too. Interestingly, the destruction around us was not a particularly unhappy sight for either of us. Winners or not, the fight this dark night had taken altogether too much from us and we just wanted a few minutes of peace for our souls.

Trixie landed quite near us to remain protectively alert as she stretched out to rest herself and shut her eyes, which had been irritated by the original carriage explosion. The rest of her senses remained on full alert, but things remained quiet in these last peaceful moments before dawn. Even Sean had the sense to remain silent. I could feel him nearby, but his presence was passive, and I politely enquired if he could devote a minute or two to finding any of our possessions that might have survived the sabotage of our railway car. I wasn't optimistic.

Not much had. A few minutes later my leather money belt with my Republic of Texas silver minted coins was dropped into my lap, not much the worse for wear, and also my large work satchel that held our most important and irreplaceable paperwork, like my GWA passport and BMA Adept badge inside of it. Miranda's official apprentice certificate was there too, which was a relief to discover, along with most of our US money orders too. We still had most of our money but it left us very lacking in the clothing department until Sean found an old tattered railroad blanket that mostly helped to cover up Miranda's otherwise mostly nude form. My favorite coat (along with its assorted goodies and protections) was a complete loss, as was the rest of our wardrobe. I tucked the money belt into the leather case and breathed a sigh of relief. That was at least one major problem taken care of.

With the cooler and longer nights of autumn, dawn eventually came, but not before a flood of concerned firemen, railroad supervisors and an increasing assortment of petty government officials arrived at the outer edges of the devastated train passenger station to take account of the disaster ... and to start the finger pointing. They wouldn't have to search too far to find us, but we weren't in a hurry to welcome the circus that was certain to result.

With the first sunbeam of dawn, we both noticed at once a bright glitter mostly buried in the dusty embers at the bottom of the former coal pile I had ignited into pure spirit. Miranda gently lifted the object out from its nest of residual ashes and I was surprised to find that she was holding a pure sphere of what seemed like crystal. It was actually a huge perfectly round diamond, the compressed final waste by product from the consumption of the mound of coal, about 100 tons worth. It was about the size of a decent Rio Grande valley grapefruit and possessed significant residual energies of pure spirit as well. In her hand it glowed brightly and with extremely primal spirit powers, like with the power of the sun, but its burn was only slightly warm to the touch and not in the least uncomfortable. I then held it for a moment or two but it didn't quite glow in my hands with the brightness and intensity that it had for my apprentice. It hadn't quite bonded to her, but I think she had a deeper connection to it. That was fine ... at least I could maybe use the darned thing, at a time of necessity.

I was certain that our spirit globe (for lack of a better name for our newly magically crafted artifact) would soon attract a great deal of unwelcome attention so Miranda wrapped up the crystal with what was left of her nightshirt and we then tucked it into the depths of my old adept's briefcase kept it hidden there. For extra good measure, I dug around inside of it for a few minutes in the dim morning light and found a rather colorful and impressive BMA 'Classified - Official Documents' tag and wrapped it around one of the leather handles of the oversized satchel. It now looked just official enough that I hoped it would keep most prying eyes away from our stuff.

The daylight was growing around us by the moment and the sounds of sirens seemed to be closing in on the ruined rail yard from all directions. Stranded and pretty much trapped, there wasn't much else left to do but shuffle off to face the music. We weren't terribly enthused.

"On a scale of one to ten," Miranda enquired as we began to slowly wander towards the nearest group of would-be rescuers, "just how would you rate this one on the rat-fuck scale?"

"Pretty close to an eleven." I muttered. "No one, no matter how many years they spend sifting this disaster area with a sieve, is going to find so much as a burn toenail from any of the Deseret assassins and wizards, or any trace of local talent that probably helped to set this whole situation up. It's going to be just the two of us, walking out of the carnage with a vague and quite unsatisfactory explanation of the night's events."

"So once the local shit-for-brains get their marching orders from upper management, we're going to be the ones left standing without chairs once the music stops playing." It wasn't a question, but an accurate statement of the facts.

"Got it in one. With the entire area being a magical null zone now, an army of forensic wizards won't find a trace of anything here either, which could be bad if they're given enough time to write a really imaginative report. Sean and Trixie can hide anywhere as long as they need to, but we're going to have to at least be polite about answering a few of their questions, so just keep your mouth shut and let them deal with me." I'd spent half of my magical career dealing with superiors who wanted my ass and hide flayed and nailed to a wall as an example to others. In the mood I was now in, I was almost looking forward to someone trying!

We let ourselves be 'rescued', and really had little trouble from the local firemen and some bosses from the USRA (United State Railroad Authority), who were the very first responders to the disaster. We claimed quite truthfully that our passenger car had been damaged in the explosions and fire, causing us to lose nearly all of our possessions. No mention of dragons, Deseret snipers or magical assault teams ever passed from our lips. We were nearly naked, cold, tired, and covered head to foot in grime, burned ashes and coal dust. The fire and railway men didn't much care who or what we were and cut us some slack. Clearly, we were just victims and survivors of the situation ... an explosion of a coal tower perhaps, they were suspecting. Close enough to the truth to suit us.

Clean wash-up water was promptly found for us along with a pair of used but clean utility jump suits for us to wear. There was even discussion about finding some warm soup and some sandwiches for us, soon, when the local ass-clowns from the Federal Bureau of Magic Regulation showed up to take over the crime scene. As we were pretty much the only 'survivors' from the main rail yard area, that made us very definite 'persons of interest'. I pulled my Adept's ID and my US governmental travel orders that should have been a get out of jail free card, but this only jacked up their interest in us.

It was time for a ride downtown with the prospect of small dark rooms with bright lamps and many angry shouting people eager to beat out a confession. Worse still, I didn't think we were going to get those promised sandwiches or soup!

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