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Authors: Edward Irving

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BOOK: The Last American Wizard
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Ace said. “Good. Now let’s get out of here.” She holstered her weapon–or at least that’s what Steve assumed happened. As far as he could tell, it just disappeared somewhere in the cargo
pants.

Ace reached for the front doorknob. There was a tremendous slamming noise and she snapped her hand back as the metal door bulged inward. Steve thought he could make out dents from an enormous skull and curled horns stamped into the
steel.

There was a second impact and he was certain of
it.

CHAPTER
FOUR

 

 

The pistol reappeared as Ace snapped into a perfect Weaver stance and put five quick shots into the center of the door. They didn’t appear to have any effect, and a third blow struck the door. Watching the hinges twist against the frame, even Steve could see that the door wasn’t going to hold much
longer.

Ace spun, grabbed Steve by the arm, and asked, “Do you know how to fly?” before propelling him back across the
apartment towards the balcony. Steve had no problem being shoved–especially as the door took another blow–but he was sure he’d misheard her last
question.

When they reached the balcony, he asked breathlessly, “What did you
say?”

With a note of exasperation, she asked again. “Do you know how to
fly?”

“Not without an airplane. And a
pilot.”

“Crap.” She looked out over the railing. Steve joined her and gazed down at the pavement four floors below. He thought of what the heroes of action movies would do and looked for other balconies that they could jump to or hang
from.

Unfortunately, the guys in adventure movies obviously had better architects. The artistically staggered design of the apartment complex meant that the only balcony he could reach was three floors down. The rental agent was quite proud of this, he remembered, saying it was an intentional protection against robbery.

It had seemed a good idea at the
time.

Another enormous slam echoed from his front door. Steve
took a quick look and saw two of the three hinges hanging loose and the latch plate almost out of the frame. It wasn’t going to survive
another–
slam.

Now, the dent in the door was so deep that Steve could make out the curl in the broad horns above what looked like a bull’s snout.

Ace snapped her fingers in front of his face, drawing his eyes back to the long drop. “OK, it wasn’t in the original tactical plan, but you’re going to have to get us out of
here.”

“Exactly how do you suggest I do
that?”

She had switched her pistol to her left hand and was using the right to dig for something in a cargo pocket low on her thigh. Steve had the odd thought that there seemed to be far more in her pants than he’d ever guessed from her silhouette. She pulled out a silver- colored metal case and hinged it open carefully, revealing a pack
of
cards.

“We going to draw for who gets to jump first?” Steve asked. “I’ll take low card. Maybe I’ll land on
you.”

She shot him a scornful look and then fired another five shots at the door. Steve cringed from the noise next to his head and half turned. He could see that she placed her shots so that they didn’t
hit the door itself but zipped through the open spaces where the door had been wrenched out of its
frame.

There was a tremendous bellow from the
hall.

Flicking through the deck with one hand, Ace pushed out a card with her thumb and held it out to Steve. He took the card and then cringed again as she rested her hand on his shoulder and fired again. There was another, higher shrieking roar from the
hall.

“The second half of the clip is always loaded with OTN-4 rounds.” Ace said. “That should slow him down for a
minute.”

“You mean, in a minute, Bullwinkle the Hammer is going to get in?” Steve shouted over the ringing in his ears. “We’re going to die!”

She nodded her head at the card in Steve’s hand. “Not if you can fly using that card the way you’re supposed to.” While she spoke, she dropped out the empty clip and rammed in a fresh one from yet another pants
pocket.

For the first time in his long career, Steve was too stunned to ask a question. He turned over the card and recognized it as one of those tarot cards that fortunetellers used. The picture was of a somewhat gay-looking teenager with a flower and an old-fashioned bindle on a stick over his shoulder. He was looking up–at an empty sky, apparently–and his next step was going to take him right off a cliff. There were no secret flying instructions that he could
see.

Steve looked at the back. Nope, no “Guide to Flight” there, either.

He shook the card at Ace. “What the hell is this?”

“That’s the
Fool.”

“Really?” Steve pointed at the bottom. “Probably why it has ‘The Fool’ written on the bottom. Let me be clearer. What good is this dumbass tarot
card?”

She looked at him sharply. “So you know the tarot?”

“Old ladies on the boardwalk peddle this–it’s a
crock.”

She shook her head, fired a couple of quick shots at the door, and then said, “You really have to stop dismissing things you don’t understand. The Fool is one of the most powerful characters in the Major Arcana and–among many other things–controls the power of flight.”

“You are shitting
me.”

“No sir. I do not shit you.” She fired at the door again. “It’s in Manual S-O slash O-T-N, Section one five three dash zero, and if it’s in the Manual, it must be true.” She said this as though it proved her point beyond any shadow of a
doubt.

Steve could only stare at her. She was beautiful–it was a pity that she was dangerously
insane.

She shot him another look–blue eyes as direct and grave as his third-grade teacher. “Here’s what’s going to happen, sir. You’re going to stare really hard at that card and figure out how to use
it.”

“What?”

There was another tremendous bang on the door. This time, it was followed by a grating crash that Steve assumed was his front door ripping out of the frame and spinning across the room to smash into the opposite wall. He automatically began to turn his head to look, but Ace gripped his ear and pulled to keep his eyes locked on hers. She pivoted so her back was to the railing and he was facing four stories of exceptionally empty
air.

“This is no time for playing tourist. You need to concentrate.” She fired three quick shots over his shoulder. There was another furious roar, but Steve thought he could hear enormous hooves smashing into the broken glass through the ringing in his
ears.

“OK.” Steve swallowed hard. “How does this
work?”

“I have no idea, sir. I’m not the Fool. You are. It’s your
card.”

“Great. How long do I
have?”

Ace fired another couple of rounds, elicited another shriek,
and holstered the pistol. She looked down at the ground. “I’d say about four
seconds.”

She wrapped her arms around him firmly and threw both of them off the
balcony.

CHAPTER
FIVE

 

 

Steve stared at the card–it was better than watching certain death arriving at Newton’s thirty-two feet per second per
second.

Beg?

Pray?

Demand?

Kiss?

Rip?

Possibilities flickered through his mind–they weren’t coherent enough to be thoughts. In a fraction of a second, he settled on doing what he did best–his primary skill as a
journalist.

He
Studied
the card, trying to identify all the odd elements separately and grasp it as a whole at the same time. He considered the relationships between the young man, the little dog, the sun and the moon in the sky, and the cliff before him that clearly was going to result in certain death
unless….

There was a terrible ripping pain that flashed across his chest and a crushing pain in his head. Everything went
black.

“Oh, shit!” he thought. “I’ve hit the ground. At least I’m not in pain.”

He considered that for a second. He shouldn’t be able to think after he was dead. He shouldn’t have been able to consider anything–not even for a second. For that matter, he thought it was doubtful that “considering” was on the list of potential post-death activities.

“Nicely done, sir. We still had six inches to unfuck ourselves.

Not bad for the first
time.”

Certain that feeling Ms. Morningstar’s arms around him was definitely not in the category of Things You Can Do in Bowie
After You’re Dead, Steve opened his eyes. They were hanging above the pavement–four floors beneath his
balcony.

As he stared at his feet, they gently dropped the remaining distance to the
ground.

After a quick assessment, he was forced to accept the fact that he was
unharmed.

Unharmed! In an almost-spontaneous celebration of life, he
put his hands on Ace’s cheeks and leaned in for an exultant
kiss.

Snick. Snick.
Wham.

Steve looked up from the
pavement.

Ace had released her hold around his waist, shot both hands
up between his arms, wrist-snapped his hands away, and then nailed him with a roundhouse punch to the side of his head that
had spun him all the way around before he hit the ground. This time, the impact with the ground was hard, painful, and much like all the other times he’d been knocked down. As he rubbed his cheek, Steve reflected that while it had been an open-handed blow, it sure as hell hadn’t been anything he’d describe as a
slap.

Ace was leaning over him, her face only inches from his, and pale with fury. In a low, hissing whisper, she said, “Listen very carefully, because I’m only going to say it once. I am a Navy SEAL, a veteran of four combat tours, and a rated expert in all weapons and tactics in the US Special Operations manual as well as those of fourteen other nations–both enemies and allies. My rank is Special Warfare Operator Master Chief Petty Officer. ‘Ace Morningstar’ is just an alias–you will never be cleared for my real name. Morningstar is a translation of ‘Lucifer.’ I’m named for the Devil because ‘The Devil of Ramadi’ was what the
hajjis
called me after my fortieth confirmed kill. ‘Ace’ is the nickname my squad gave me because I wouldn’t answer to ‘Lucy,’ and ‘Lucifer’ was just silly. You will never ever, ever attempt to kiss me again. Do you understand?”

Steve nodded his head slowly. “Now, are there any
questions?”

"Yeah. I thought Chris Kyle was the 'Devil of
Fallujah'?"

"No, he was the 'Devil of Ramadi'. People make that mistake all the
time."

“When did they start training women to be
SEALs?”

“They don’t. I had enough juice to convince people that I was a swinging dick like all the other recruits, and then I basically worked twice as hard to get
through.”

“Juice?”

She sighed and stood upright. “Mojo. Talent. Black arts. Voodoo.” She offered her hand and pulled him to his feet without any evident effort. “Magic. I wanted BUDS so bad that I went to a
bruja
in a small
botánica santería
just across the line from San Diego and she brought out what little juice I had. Everything was fine until last year, when I ran into a Seer and he spotted me as a woman.”

She shook her head. “Just my luck. Only four Truthspotters in the entire US military and one of them just had to walk past while I was doing
PT.”

“Why don’t I see you as a man?” Steve asked as he continued to rub his cheek. “Not that I would have ever figured it out by the way you
hit.”

“Because that was back when things were normal and a small number of people had tiny amounts of juice. The higher-ups think that the jet plane that either did or didn’t go over your head was a suicide attack by a mystical terrorist group and it forced a Change. Now I’ve been told that those of us who had any Other Than Normal powers before the Change are powerless. Evidently, the terrorists intended to benefit from the Change but we’re not sure if they just managed to keep the powers they had before from disappearing, or gained significant new ones. One guy–his name is Barnaby–thinks that the Change will mean that a shitload of new magic will affect just about everyone in one way or
another.”

She shook her head. “The fact is that no one really knows anything except that it’s a new normal and we need to learn how to deal with it
fast.”

She added thoughtfully. “Or possibly it’s a new abnormal.” Then she was back in his face, almost spitting out her words.

“However, this does not change some basic facts. I can still execute as efficiently as anyone else who lived through the Basic Underwater Demolition slash SEAL training facility at Coronado Beach–which means I can break every bone in your body before you can pick your nose. Since my current assignment is to keep you alive and functional at all costs, my options are limited, but I need to make sure you understand that ‘functional’ does not mean ‘pain-free.’ Nod your head if you are entirely clear on
this.”

Steve slowly and sincerely nodded his
head.

Ace stepped back and took a deep breath. “OK, that was a mistake you were going to make at some point, and it’s best to get it straight right off the top and not regret it later.” She looked up at the balcony. “Now that that’s clear, we need to get moving before that gentleman upstairs gets over his fear of magic bullet holes and comes over the
balcony.”

She turned and began to move quickly along the base of the building, heading for the corner so that they couldn’t be seen from his apartment. Steve’s head was still spinning, but he concentrated on putting one foot directly in front of the other and managed an only slightly erratic shamble behind
her.

As he rounded the corner, he heard a chirp and the LED headlights flashed on a BMW X5 M class parked across the lot. Ace pointed Steve to the passenger side and swung in behind the wheel. She pushed the start button, the twin turbo engine rumbled to life, and they pulled out. Ace was an excellent driver–never squealing the tires, cutting the apex of every turn, and only using the paddle shifter on the steering wheel to make tiny adjustments to the six-speed automatic transmission.

“You left this in the parking lot of my building and it’s still here when you got back?” Steve asked. “The record for a really
nice ride remaining undisturbed is about thirty
seconds.”

“Negs only saw a rusted Chevy.”

“‘Negs’?”

“Negatives,” she answered briefly, concentrating on getting
out of the main gate and merging into the four lanes of traffic on Route 197 and heading east. “Negatives are those who are unable
to perceive OTN objects or
events.”

“OTN?”

“Other Than
Normal.”

“Oh, yeah, you mentioned that before but I wasn’t concentrating on anything but survival.” Steve rubbed his cheek again. “How many people can perceive OTN
objects?”

She turned her head and Steve could see a slight grin. Turning back to her driving, she said, “As I told you, we’re not certain of the precise number at this point. We are relatively sure, however, that only one person is able to both experience and create OTN events. Unfortunately, he’s not terribly well informed, has a bad attitude, and is completely untrained. On the plus side, he seems to learn
quickly.”

Steve didn’t take long to work this out. “Wait, you mean me?”

“Yes,
sir.”

“How did this
happen?”

She took off the baseball cap–revealing close-cropped hair the consistency of duck down. Rubbing her head with her free hand along the places where the hatband had pressed the hair down, she said. “I really can’t go into that. First, because of basic
OPSEC–”

“Operational security,” Steve interjected. He was tired of her assuming he didn’t know
anything.

“Yes, sir. As I was saying, basic OPSEC and the fact that I don’t know much more about what’s happened than you
do.”

“How did you get to my apartment so
fast?”

“I had standing orders to proceed to your location if we ever experienced an
Incident.”

“Oh, right. The airplane crash that only I saw happening.” Steve’s head swam as the memory of the howling engines, the shrieking children and adults, and all the rest burst into his mind– feeling like the glass shards that had littered his apartment. “Shit. I’d forgotten that in all that’s happened since.”

Ace’s blue eyes examined him briefly. “That and you performed a blood
magic.”

Steve thought back. “You mean when I cut my forehead on
the
door?”

“Yes, sir.” Ace nodded. “Blood magic is extremely powerful. In your case, it was enough to break you out of the death loop the terrorists were crafting and elevated your resistance to psychic trauma. In other words, your mind had the time to do a bit of self- repair. If you reach up and check, you’ll find that even the physical wound is
gone.”

Steve carefully ran his fingers over his forehead. Then he flipped down the passenger side sun shield and checked in the little makeup mirror. “Wow. There’s nothing there at
all.”

“No.” Ace nodded. “That’s one of the telltale signs of blood magic. There isn’t generally any
physical
damage.”

Steve looked at the blonde woman for a moment and then asked, “The way you said that raises another question. If not physical damage, what sort of damage are we talking
about?”

“I wouldn’t know myself–I can’t do that sort of thing–but the manual indicates the high possibility of measurable harm to the soul.”

“Measurable? How the hell do you measure the… Stop, don’t answer.” Steve massaged his thumbs vigorously on his temples. “Great. An hour ago, I was certain I didn’t have a soul and now I have to worry that I’ve screwed it
up.”

There was another trace of a smile on the blonde woman’s
face. Steve continued. “Where are we going now? Wait, more important, when am I going to talk to someone who can tell me what’s happened? Is it this Barnaby guy? Who is he,
anyway?”

“You’ll be briefed very soon. It’s all complicated to explain, beginning with Barnaby.” Ace downshifted three gears until the engine was howling, and whipped through a tight right turn. Steve found himself thrown up against her and scrambled to move away. She said. “Seat belts are an essential safety item. I suggest you make a habit of wearing yours or you could find yourself in danger.”

He wasn’t certain if the “danger” Ace was referring to would come from an accident or from ever touching the driver again, but in either case, a seatbelt seemed like a good idea. Just as Steve had reached back and pulled down the harness, the car whipped into a parking space outside one of the single-story dull-green 1940-era wooden buildings that seemed to alternate with futuristic architecture in Fort Meade. Ace pulled the cap back over her head and got out of the
car.

Having just clicked the seat belt closed, Steve opened it again and
followed.

He was sure he saw a smile this
time.

BOOK: The Last American Wizard
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