Recruiting part 4

Christopher J.P.S. Roberts’ cross-over fan-fiction continues in Recruiting part 4, this time set in the World of Darkness.

***

Liam O’Keefe sat down at the bar, ordered a bottle of “the place’s best whiskey,” and started to drink. As his left arm was in a sling, he drank one-handed. He did not bother to look at the label, nor did he give much notice to the cost; Liam had been well paid for his services over the past several weeks.

Rather than think about his surroundings, Liam thought about his recent past. He still didn’t understand what had happened in Italy. He and the others had been back in Edinburgh for almost a week, but the time hadn’t really helped Liam make any sense of it all. In fact, while perhaps not the homely surroundings of Dublin, the familiarity of the bars of Edinburgh made what they had experienced seem even more surreal.

“Seems like quite th’ monkey ye’ve go’ there,” the barkeep observed in a friendly manner. “I’d be happy ta help ye git ‘im off yer back.”

Liam looked up, and was surprised to find that half his bottle was gone.

“I appreciate the offer, friend,” Liam said. “But I don’t think you’d believe it if I told ya.”

“Ach, if I had a nickle for every time,” the barkeep replied with a slight roll of his eyes. “I don’t know why everyone thinks the’re so bludy diff’rent, that their story’s so unbelievable.”

“Alright then, I’ll bite. I’ll give ya the truth of it. But don’t say I didn’t warn ya,” Liam sat up a little more, and poured himself more to drink.

“‘Bout a month an’ a half ago, I accepted a contract. Bodyguard type work, ya understand. I may have run with the IRA, but I’m no assassin.”

The barkeep nodded, but didn’t comment. Liam’s background was no surprise to him; there was, after all, a reason that Liam had come into this bar. With his story begun, Liam began to speak more freely:

“Client turns out to be a stuffy Scotsman with more money than God; hired me to provide protection for a kind of expedition he’d put together. Ya know Galileo, the fella what discovered planets an’ what-not? Seems that this Scot had run across some evidence that Galileo had some secret labs to keep his research safe while he was on the run from the church. Now, I’m no egghead, but even I know the money that could be made from finding artifacts like that, an’ I think to m’self ‘How hard could it be to protect a bunch o’ tweed jackets while they’re a-digging?”, so I signs on.

“So it’s me, the Scot (who insisted on coming along), a linguist, a wacko who thinks Galileo met little men from Mars, an’ a tight-lipped Yank that reeked of military training. So we start globetrotting. Now, don’t get me wrong, nothing wrong with any o’ that. That’s not where the problems started. The problems started when we met the competition. Oh, aye, there was competition. Apparently, ol’ Max wasn’t the only one t’find the lead to these labs, an’ the other fellas, they weren’t interested in just racing us to the discoveries. No, apparently they’d rather just be rid of us. Suddenly havin’ a former IRA sharpshooter, and a yank with some kinda special forces training, suddenly that didn’t seem so much like overkill.

“But that ain’ the real problem, an’ it’s the real problem that makes it a hard story t’swallow. So these other fellas, they’re not just rich folks, or mercenaries, no couldn’t be that simple. No, they’re apparently the fucking Illuminati, and I’m talking full-on crazy conspiracy Illuminati, just like in that Tomb Raider movie. No, don’t go looking at me like that, I did warn ya.

“So ol’ Max, he’s not just some rich fella either, no, he’s a bloody Free Mason. Now here in the isles every old, rich bugger’s a Mason, so that’s no shock, but it turns out he’s being financed by some great bloody worldwide Mason network. Aye. So now we’re all fucking Indiana Jones crawling through ruins and trying t’ solve puzzles and all that adventure movie shite. And as we go, we find out that we’re chasin’ something big. There was something Galileo found or discovered or learned right near th’ end that he didn’t bloody share with anyone. An’ he hid it in one super-duper-fuckin’-secret lab. So we’re all comin’ up with our own ideas about what the big secret is. I swear t’ God this’s the truth of it, but all this ain’t nothing compared to what happened when we found the last, the most secret, of these labs, the one with the Discovery-to-end-all-fuckin’-discoveries.

“Oh, aye, we found it. But it weren’t anything that anyone was expectin’. The nut bar thought we’d find a wee martian pod. I think the linguist expected t’ find proof of Atlantis. Max expected some secret bloody wisdom, some lost lore. And I’m sure the Yank was hoping for a bloody weapon; what else do Yanks want? But was it any o’ that? Nope. What was it? It was a comet.

“Aye. A comet. So after we get past the last o’ the traps, and the last o’ the fuckin’ Illuminati goons, an’ we get into the ultra-super-fuckin’-secret lab, the brains take a look at the instruments and they says that the equipment is set up to observe a comet that passes by once every three-hundred-and-some-odd years, some number as means something special to conspiracy wackos, and it’s about t’ pass by.

“So it does, the comet, I mean, and that’s when everthing turns inside-out. This big series of freaky lenses and tubes and mirrors and shite somehow focuses some kinda light from the comet, and it all comes flooding into the room…” Liam trailed off.

“Och, ye can’t fuckin’ do that!” The barkeep insisted. “Ye can’t stop there! What happened next?”

Liam stared down into his mostly empty glass, and spoke without looking up. “I wasn’t in the lab anymore. I don’t now how, but I swear I was inside a hollow iron tower. In the middle o’ the tower was a huge column of flame. It was so hot that I could feel every breath bringing scorching air into me lungs. It hurt, but it was the kind of hurt that your eyes have when you suddenly step from a dim building into daylight. I noticed that the walls of the tower had names scrawled all over them, carved into the metal. These were the names of special people. Deserving people. An’ I wanted to be one o’ them, but … but I couldn’t even bring myself t’ try. I felt weak.

“That’s when the demons came in.

“Aye, I said demons. I don’t care what ya think, but I swear to God Almighty that a swarm of demons came in through the door at the base of the tower. But they weren’t just demons, no, they had the faces of people I knew. People I’d killed, people I’d seen killed, people I’d gotten into fights with when I was drunk. An’ they were all screamin’ that I wasn’t worthy. That made me angry, more than I can describe. I started shooting with both me pistols. The demons shot back with assault rifles. I circled ’round the tower, going up this spiral walkway, and shooting ’round the column of flame. The tower sloped in as it rose, so every step up I took brought me closer t’ the flames, and I started t’ feel them burning away my insides. I was hit a few times, but every demon I killed made me stronger. I’d be damned if I let them beat me. When I killed the last of them, I realized I was at the top of the walkway, staring into the flame, but that fire was in me too, burning where m’heart and lungs used to be. I turned around, and there was this blank place in the wall, and there was a knife in my hand. I carved my name into that wall, an’ everything went dark.

“When I came to, I was on some scafolding near the ceiling o’ the lab. I looked down, and there were eight or so o’ the Illuminati goons sprawled dead on the floor, or on the scafolding. Max, an’ the brains, and the Yank, they was all wakin’ up too. They’d all seen something, like I did, but different, each one unique. But more than that, we all felt changed. Like some eye had opened that we never knew we had. We all felt this … this new strength, this power, inside us. And we started talkin’ about what we should do with it. Max suggested that we all go back with him, that we take some time and figure out what happened, that we shouldn’t talk to anyone about what happened until we knew more. I swear I could feel the gears turnin’ in his head, not just suspect it, but FEEL it. Still, it seemed like a good idea, so I agreed.

“But that’s when the Yank started talking. She had this firey look in her eyes, and she said she was taking this power back to her country.

“Now, I’d never trusted her. All along, I kept an eye on her, waitin’ for the snake to strike. In that moment, our eyes met, and I knew she was striking. We both drew, we both fired. Bitch was fast, just as fast as me. But my aim was just a bit better, and I had her outgunned two-ta-one. She got me arm, but I got her worse. She didn’t take any more shots, she just turned and ran, best as she could. I fell. The others, bless them, they were more worried about me than about stopping her.

“So, there ya have it, friend,” Liam looked up. “I’m here in your bar ’cause we’ve been in Edinburgh for a week, an’ it doesn’t make any more sense, and I just know the others are all hiding something. So that’s it; me whole crazy story. Sorry ya asked?”

“No, lad,” the barkeep replied, all the warmth gone out of his voice. “As a matter of fact, I’m right glad ye told me here. Saves us having t’get it out of ye later. Now, you come with me quietly, and you’ll be treated well.”

“Ah, fuck,” Liam sighed. He took a moment to look around, but he knew there wasn’t anyone else in the bar. He could feel the emptiness of the place. He cursed himself for not having paid more attention when he came in. He was so intent on getting drunk that he’d walked into a trap. But there was a tingle in his mind. He could feel something… “An’ if I don’t? Is that what the two lads in the back are for?”

The barkeep raises his eyebrows. “Now that is impressive. Yer Arcana are developing quickly, but talent will only get ye so far. We can teach ye, and we can show ye why ye have this power … and what it is yer meant t’do with it.”

As the barkeep spoke, Liam was focusing. The rough, earthy leather of his gloves helped his mind to sharpen, and he looked up into the eyes of the other man. In a flash, Liam felt what was intended for him: indoctrination, submission, servitude. This man saw Liam only as a tool, a weapon to use against his enemies. Liam also saw what they’d do to him if he didn’t cooperate.

“I’ll pass,” Liam said, and he slipped from the bar stool, falling to the floor. Before he hit the ground, he drew a gun with his good hand. He instinctively used the gun as he has used his gloves, tapping into the weapon’s purpose and the solidity of its composition. Liam had no doubt, no hesitation. He twisted and fired two shots through the bar. He heard his shots rip through the wood and the barkeep’s knees. The barkeep screamed as he went down.

Liam rose, and put a bullet into the head of each of the armed men that came running in from the back room, again firing in just the right spots without hesitation.

Liam cursed the pain in his slinged arm, and leaned over the bar. The fallen barkeep was still concious, but Liam didn’t think he’d be that way long at the rate he was loosing blood.

“I suppose your superiors’ll be along t’ collect ya before ya bleed out,” Liam’s tone was casual. “When ya talk t’ them, tell ’em t’ leave me the fuck alone. Call it the Liam Ultimatum.”

Liam went out onto the dark streets of Edinburgh, started back to Max’s place, then stopped. He began to question how well he really knew the man, or his other companions. Liam was sure not a one of them had spoken everything they thought or felt about what had happened to them. Liam didn’t blame them for that, but it still left him hesitatant. Max especially made him hesitatant.

Sure, Max seemed harmless, but he had showed himself to be part of a network just as vast as the one that had hunted them. What was his agenda?

But what other option did Liam have? Liam was a soldier. He wasn’t mindless, but he was a follower, not a leader. What would he do on his own? Would he be able to find answers?

Liam’s new-found senses flared to life. Liam knew there was something in the shadows of the alley he was passing. In the space of an eyeblink, Liam was pointing a pistol into the dark.

“Come out where I can see ya, or I swear I’ll shoot ya dead.”

Whatever Liam might have thought to be lurking in the dark, he did not expect a living shadow to detatch itself from the dim and come forward to stand in the light.

… i apologize … for startling you … i am here to … offer an alternative …

The shadow’s voice was like a warm whisper that did not seem to come from any one place.

“What the bloody fuck are ya?”

… i am … my master’s shadow …

“Jaysus Christ! Who’s your master, then?”

… i am not … permitted to … speak his name … i am here … to offer you … employment …

“Oh I don’t fuckin’ think so,” Liam replied. “I may be out o’ my fuckin’ mind, but I’m not about t’ take a job from a fuckin’ talkin’ shadow.”

The shadow rippled, like a person shuffling their feet. … whatever payment … you desire–

“I don’t care what your fuckin’ gonna pay me!” Liam interrupted. “I’ve had enough o’ conspiracies an’ mysteries.”

… please … The word seemed difficult for the shadow to speak. … my master understands … your hesitation … but he is in need … of a marksman …

“If this is so bloody important t’ him, why doesn’t he come himself? Wait, why am I still talkin’ t’ you? The answer is no! No more secrets, no more mysteries, no more. I’m leaving,” Liam turned to leave, holstering his weapon. But then a sharp jab went through him, like an explosion of headache, but in his instincts rather than any sense or body part. The pain reminded him of the fire that had burned him in the iron tower.

A man stepped from the darkness of the alleyway, and Liam had no doubt he was the source of the pain. The man was dressed in an immaculate suit, blacker than midnight. He wore a pair of inky black sunglasses, and had a tied back mane of platinum blond hair. The feeling pouring over Liam seemed to be radiating from this man. Being close to him was like staring into the sun for Liam’s new senses.

“Fucking Hell!” Liam cried.

“I am sorry,” the man sighed. His voice was strong, confident, but not unfeeling. “I sent my shadow to spare you this kind of encounter … and because it is dangerous for me to be here.”

The intensity of what Liam was feeling dimmed somewhat as he became aclimitized. “Who are you and what the fuck is going on here? Are you part of what happened to me?”

“In order: I am The Magus, and I am attempting to negotiate a contract with you. No, I had no part in anything that has happened to you.”

“‘The Magus?'” Liam replied. “I don’t fuckin’ think so. You’ll give me a name, or I’m not listening to another fuckin’ word.”

The man bowed his head a little and sighed. “Very well. I am sure you have reasons to be suspicious. My name is Seun.”

“Well, that’s something, I guess,” Liam conceded. “Frankly, I don’t know why I’m still standing here, but if you’re willin’ t’ be straight with me, I’m willin’ t’ hear ya out.”

“I am glad to hear it,” said Seun. “You have many questions. I will answer them as best I can.”

Liam took a breath, then shook his head. “No. No, you’re not bein’ straight. I– I can’t explain it, but I know this isn’t you. This,” Liam gestured at Seun. “This is a lie.”

Seun sighed again. “Very well.”

Seun tilted his head back, and the suit seemed to unravel, vanishing into smokey shadow. From underneath the suit, a rippling robe billowed out, hooded and cloaked. Everything around them seemed to darken, and Seun’s face vanished completly beneath the hood. Two points of blue light shone out of that darkness like eyes.

Liam had never seen anything like it. Seun was almost as shadow-like as the shadow that had spoken for him earlier, now patiently waiting to the side.

“This is my true seeming,” Seun said gravely.

Liam blinked as he stared at the figure robed in darkness. “I think I must be suffering from some kind o’ shock overload. Compared to suddenly being psychic, and a talking shadow, this doesn’t seem so bad. Now, what do you want with me?”

“I am sponsoring an expedition,” Seun explained. “For which I am seeking masters of various skills. You are the greatest master I could find in the skill of marksmanship.”

“Oh as if this isn’t deja fuckin’ vu,” Liam muttered. “Alright, look. I’m sure whatever it is you’re after is somethin’ dreadfully important t’ you, possibly t’ others as well. But what’s important t’ me is understanding what’s happened t’ me. Can ya do that?”

“I can,” was Seun’s simple reply.

“Then maybe I’ve lost me mind,” Liam concluded. “But sign me up.”

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