Ann Macela--Author
 
 
Unexpected Magic by Ann Macela
Cover illustration Copyright 2011 by Winterheart Design

Unexpected Magic

Fifth book in the Magic series



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About the Book

What if you could cast a spell to help you do your everyday job? But . . . there’s more to living than work, and you’ve lost your soul mates to death? What if an ancient force brings you together with another? And throws both of you up against the worst, most evil magic item around?

 

Magic practitioners always find their soul mates and live happily ever after. Always.

What if the unthinkable happens, however, and a mate dies young? Is the living mate doomed to a life alone? After a perfect love, does the mate even want another life partner?

 

Defenders and Swords form teams to destroy evil magic items by sharing their energy. Sword Johanna Mahler and her team have developed a revolutionary method for combining magic energy--now they need to know if others can use it. Johanna has also vowed never to let a student Sword destroy himself by taking on a powerful item the way her young mate did--and died for his recklessness when they were teenagers.

 

The Defender Council sends widower Sword Saxton Falkner to demonstrate a new apparatus for measuring magic energy output. Equally important is determining how to best use those independents not affiliated with a team.

 

Neither expects to find a new soul mate in the midst of political practitioner arguments, bullies among the young--and older--Swords, a totally new method for generating magic energy, and battles with a disgruntled Sword determined to prove his superiority, especially to Johanna.

 

Before Johanna and Saxt can live happily ever after, they must survive not only all these problems, and come to terms with their losses and gains, but face a return of the Cataclysm Stone, a tremendously powerful evil crystal that wants the Swords’ blood. 




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Prologue 

  

Seventeen Years Ago

 

      “Billie? Where are you?” Johanna Mahler looked down from the balcony of the small arena under the Defender training building. Only one light was burning in the stone-walled arena itself, and none of the usual magic barriers to protect the balcony from the magic cast below had been activated. She leaned over the three-foot-high railing to see the floor. A sole spotlight illuminated the center of the darkened space.

 

      Where was Billy Johnson? Where was her absolutely marvelous soul mate? Soul mate! The words still thrilled her eighteen-year-old self, and the thought of her nineteen-year-old lover, soon to be her husband, practically sent her into ecstasy.

 

      Billy had told her to meet him there. He had a secret, something good to show her, he said. Although he’d laughed delightfully at her wheedling, he wouldn’t give her even the smallest hint, except to say, “No, it’s not that!”

 

      She smiled wider as she pictured him, tall and muscular and handsome. His light brown hair with golden highlights that she loved to run her fingers through, his dark green eyes that saw into her soul, his roughened hands that found exactly the right spots to caress.

 

      Oh, yes, he was her soul mate, the love of her life, the only one she’d ever have, ever want, ever need.

 

      Oh, yes, he was her “Beej,” and she was his “Jo,” forever. Or, that’s what they called each other in public. In private--that was another matter altogether. Then they were Arwen and Aragorn from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which they had both read and loved. He was, literally, her hero, and they were champions in a great cause.

 

      Oh, yes, they were both Swords, capable of destroying evil magic items. She and Beej would be able to destroy evil magic items together, maybe even lead their own team someday. Something else to have in common. No, more than simply “in common.” Working in a team created an enormous connection among all its members. The only bond stronger was that between soul mates.

 

      She’d been a Sword since her thirteenth birthday. Billy had come to his blade after they mated. He was learning quickly and, while justifiably proud of his progress, he worked extremely hard to become as good as she was. As if he could catch up with her. That was impossible. With their mating, he’d risen to level eleven and she to fifteen. They’d remain at those levels for the rest of their lives. He’d never be able to cast spells of equal power. Well, that really didn’t matter. They were together.

 

      Or, they should be. Where was that man? She hadn’t seen him when she entered the building, or in the halls, or in the lower levels.

 

      Although, ugh, she had seen Phil Bellman by the elevator. He was a Sword, too, three years older than she was, and thought he was God’s gift to women and to Defenders. Phil was tall and pretty good-looking, although she always thought his eyes were a little too small and close together. He’d actually asked her out before she met Billy. No way did she want to even have a cup of coffee with the egotistical creepy braggart.

 

      But why was she thinking about Phil instead of her soul mate? Where was Billy? She called his name again, but her voice only echoed around the arena.

 

      Then a door opened on the other side at floor level, and in he came.

 

      “Hi, Jo!” her mate called. He was wearing his black Sword robe and carrying something.

 

      “Beej! What are you doing down there?”

 

      “I have a great surprise for you.” He stepped into the spotlight and put on the floor in its center a crystal bowl.

 

      A dark lump--a crystal? a rock?--lay in it. From up here, she couldn’t tell exactly how big it was. Maybe smaller than a ping-pong ball?

 

      “What’s going on? What’s that?” When she peered intently at the object, a nasty, unsettling, burning sensation hit her magic center right below her breastbone. Oh, no. That only happened when she confronted . . .

 

      “Oh, Beej, what have you done? That thing is evil. I can feel it. Don’t move. I’m coming down.” She spun around to run up the stairs to the balcony door.

 

      “No. Stay there.”

 

      His call stopped her. Facing him again, she leaned against the railing. “Why?”

 

      “Wait,” he said. “I want you to watch me destroy it.”

 

      “How did you steal it out of the vault? You have to put it back.” Although her magic center was churning to repel the evil, the burning sensation in her middle grew worse. “That’s a strong item, and I can feel it reaching out for a victim. You’re not used to one this powerful.”

 

      “I don’t feel anything, and I’m right next to it,” Billy stated firmly. “I’ve been thinking about destroying an item by myself ever since . . . uh, never mind, it’s not important. I really want to prove to you how worthy I am to be your soul mate, and this is the best way.”

 

      A twinge of nausea caused her stomach to do a flip. Her magic center fluttered and filled with dread. “You don’t have to prove your abilities or your worth to me. We’re soul mates. Of course we’re worthy of each other.”

 

      “I have to show both of us, Jo. For my sake, too. It’s been tearing me up to watch you working with your team, actually destroying real evil, while I’m still taking baby steps. My lightning bolt sucks, and my fireball fizzles. The only item the masters let me tackle is half the size of an aspirin. I need to know I can take on a bigger one. What kind of man and Sword would I be if I don’t prove my ability?”

 

      He sounded so certain, so brave, so . . . bullheaded. Hadn’t she been thinking about his pride a few minutes ago? His competitiveness? His frustration? Had she been that unaware of his feelings? Why hadn’t she recognized what was going on in his head? Understood how dissatisfied he felt? She was his mate. She was supposed to be able to almost read his mind. Why hadn’t she seen this foolishness coming?

 

      A flood of icy apprehension washed over her when she realized that her blindness could result in disaster.

 

      “This is crazy. We’re not in competition. Can we first talk about what you’re doing?” she pleaded. Her magic center trembled, grew more anxious and frantic with each sentence. She had to make him understand how dangerous his actions were.

 

      “I’ll get you an invitation to practice with my team, not simply observe,” she promised. “You’ll see how we have to work together in real life. It’s very different from the classroom. Remember, we’re all about teamwork. None of us act individually.”

 

      She took a deep breath, tried to speak calmly, appeal to his reason. “I’m the one with the experience here. The rock in that bowl is much more powerful than the practice ones you’ve been using. Yes, the masters have been letting you act by yourself. They need to test your ability, and they’re with you if you have a problem. Training is the only time you’ll act alone. You’re really making great progress. We all think we suck at your stage. Let me at least come down before you try to shoot a beam at it.”

 

      “Yeah, yeah, I’ve sat through the lessons. You sound exactly like one of them. Can’t you understand, I have to do this?” He was beginning to sound exasperated, like he did when his mother pressured him not to do something he wanted to.

 

      She, however, wasn’t his mother. Why wasn’t he listening? Could it be . . . Was that rock in the bowl strong enough to influence him? Make him think he was stronger than it?

 

      She couldn’t see his face clearly because the spotlight left it in shadow when he bent toward the bowl. She didn’t have to. She knew exactly what his expression would be--the arrogant one he always wore just before trouncing an opponent in chess. He truly believed he could kill the evil object.

 

      The words of one of the training masters came back to her: “Beware Sword arrogance. It’s a trap for the unwary.”

 

      Before she could speak again, he pointed at the floor, and a pentagonal fortress sprang up around him, green and blue walls shimmering brightly. From the colors, she calculated it offered level eight or nine protection. The gleaming structure was supposed to hold in the evil magic.

 

      It didn’t. Johanna could still feel the evil oozing out, searching for a victim. She could even smell its awful stench. “Oh, my God, Beej! Your pentagon is not strong enough. Give it more power!”

 

      Billy must have been paying some attention because the blue in his fortress walls darkened and indigo streaks appeared. The addition of energy brought the pentagon up to about level ten. Still not enough, because the evil emanations did not diminish. From the way her center was reacting, that rock must be at least a level twelve, maybe higher.

 

      Her mate assumed a stance and brought his hands together. Oh, my God! He was going to draw his sword, cast the spell for a magic blade.

 

      “Beej, don’t!” she shouted. Why wasn’t he listening to her? She was the one with the experience. She was the proven Sword.

 

      This time, he shook his head and concentrated on the bowl before him, obviously blocking her out deliberately.

 

      She yelled with every ounce of authority she could force into her voice, the way the masters did, “Don’t cast your blade! Wait for me! I’m coming!”

 

      It would take too long to go out the balcony and down the stairs to the lower level, so she climbed over the railings. She glanced over her shoulder at him before starting to lower herself.

 

      Billy cast his sword, and a bright blue blade of magic energy rose from his clasped hands. He squared off against the item in the bowl.

 

      “Noooo!” Johanna maneuvered until she hung by her hands from the railing. When she let go, the drop to the stone floor was greater than she thought it would be, and she landed heavily. Her ankle twisted, gave way under her weight.

 

      Despite a sharp stabbing pain, she scrambled to her feet somehow and limped toward the pentagon as fast as she could. “Don’t attack it! Let me help you!”

 

      “Trust me, Jo, I can do it! I’m Aragorn!” He grinned at her and sent a blue beam of energy at the rock. Blue light splashed around in the bowl--to no effect that she could see.

 

      “No! Your beam has to turn white when it hits the item! You can’t produce enough power to do that by yourself!” She tried her best to hobble faster. After she almost fell, she vowed she’d crawl if she had to.

 

      Johanna was about twenty feet from the pentagon when the rock shot a black beam at Billy’s blade.

 

      With a blinding flash and a lightning-strike crack of thunder, his sword and his pentagon exploded.

 

      The shockwave threw Johanna backwards almost to the wall.

 

      Screaming Billy’s name, she forced herself off the floor and struggled through her pain to reach his crumpled body.

 

      He wasn’t moving.

 

      Alarms screamed, long undulating wails of sounds that matched the cries coming from her own throat. A smell of something burning filled the air.

 

      She knelt beside him, pulled him into her arms, and cradled his head in one hand. When she saw his totally white face, her heart and her magic center seemed to freeze. Then his eyelids fluttered when she pushed his hair gently off his face.

 

      Oh, thank you, God, he’s alive.

 

      She leaned down to give him a kiss on the forehead. “Don’t try to move, Beej, help is on the way.”

 

      He opened his eyes, those wonderful dark green eyes, gazed straight into hers, and whispered, “Love you.”

 

      Although she tried with all her might to tell him she loved him, too, her throat tightened so much she couldn’t get the words out.

 

      And he died in her arms.

 

***

 

      Six weeks after the funeral, Johanna visited Billy’s grave. She really needed time with him by herself.

 

      Her parents and his meant well, but they hadn’t let her be alone since that day in the arena. She’d also been to the Defender counselor every single day. The results? She was extremely tired of everybody stepping on eggshells around her, of them watching her every expression, her every statement, her every action.

 

      Yes, when some practitioners lost their soul mates, they killed themselves. No, Johanna wasn’t going to do that, although where the strength to keep going was coming from, she didn’t know.

 

      Suicide, however, wouldn’t help Billy, and she had to think of both sets of parents who needed her.

 

      After all the counseling, she knew the stages of grief by heart--by her broken heart. She figured she was past the denial stage and into the anger part. Anger at Billy for letting his competitiveness overrule all he’d been taught, for ignoring the danger, for not believing she loved him no matter what. Anger at herself for not realizing how he felt and then not doing more--whatever ‘more’ was--to stop him.

 

      She was a Sword. She was supposed to take charge in emergencies. She should have gone to the arena floor right away. She should have shot a bolt or a fireball at his pentagon to distract him, to show him how unprepared he was. Or she should have helped him by attacking the rock. Between them, maybe they could have defended themselves until help arrived.

 

      She knew her feelings were irrational--even though the knowledge didn’t help soothe her anger or lessen her guilt at the moment. Billy had been determined. She couldn’t actually have stopped him altogether. At some point she’d have to let those feelings go, work her way through the stages, and concentrate on the future--or so the grief counselor said.

 

      Dear God, it wasn’t going to be easy.

 

      Surprisingly--because she didn’t expect it at all for a long time--she had made some progress. After a lot of talk and thought and soul-searching, she’d come up with a plan, a new purpose for her life.

 

      She knelt by the headstone. His wonderful parents had it inscribed “William Thaddeus Johnson, Beloved Son of James and Grace, Soul Mate of Johanna Mahler.” She laid her single red rose on the grass at its base and traced the engraved letters with her fingers.

 

      “Beej, my Aragorn, I don’t know if you can hear me. I hope so. If you were here in front of me, I’d smack you in the face for trying that stunt. Then I’d love you all day and all night, and when we woke up, I’d love you some more.”

 

      She sat down and made herself more comfortable in the peaceful green surroundings. Her magic center vibrated in an encouraging manner, and a soothing calm enveloped her.

 

      “But you’re not here,” she sighed, “and I have to get used to that. Everybody tells me it’s going to take time. Yeah, right. It’s going to take forever. No matter what, I will love you all the days of my life. Nobody will take your place in my heart, ever. You are my one and only soul mate.

 

      Despite her attempt to speak stoically, Johanna sobbed the last words. She was so tired of crying. So tired, period. She had to say this, however, and she blew her nose and sat up straight.

 

      “Beej, I have no choice except to go on. I’m going to become a teacher. Not an art teacher, like I planned, though. I’ll pursue my degree in education and afterwards apprentice myself to a Sword Teaching Master.”

 

      She spoke the next words firmly, deliberately. A solemn promise from her to her soul mate. “I’ll teach young Defenders and Swords how to use their magic, how to be safe. I won’t let what happened to you happen to them. I’ll teach them how to recognize the signs of Sword arrogance. I’ll teach them to recognize strong evil. I’ll do all I can to make sure nobody else, no new Sword, ever does what you did. Ever takes on an evil item by themselves. Ever dies for nothing.”

 

      With a sigh, she stood and looked down at the grave. “I’ll come back to let you know how I’m doing. I love you forever, my soul mate.”

Chapter One

Present Day

 

      “We’re going to have to tell them what we’ve discovered,” Sword Johanna Mahler told her Defender team while the seven of them walked along the icy path to the hotel in the late January darkness. To speak privately, they had purposely lagged behind everyone in the audience leaving the lecture hall at the HeatherRidge Center in the Chicago suburbs.

 

      “I’m afraid so,” Rosa Sanchez agreed, pulling up the hood on her coat. “That presentation made it clear the Defender Council is going ahead with the energy-measurement project. If we don’t make known what we can do in its beginning, we won’t have a say in what happens. Our development has to be part of the recipe. It could revolutionize how each team heats up its power production.”

 

      Despite her worry, Johanna smiled. Chef Rosa always spoke in cooking terms. She was correct, as usual. The team’s method for increasing magic power to destroy evil magic items would stand the Defender-Sword world on its head.

 

      Dorothy Gundersen shook her head. “I do wish we could figure out why others are having such difficulty implementing our concept. We’ve tried it with five people, and not one has been able to work past the initial step. If nobody can join us, then our process is only an oddity, not a means to transform energy transfer.”

 

      Johanna looked from the short, round Rosa to the tall, spare Dorothy. “I think others can come into the ring, but it takes a huge amount of trust to open yourself and give without worrying about the consequences. Besides, since we haven’t been completely forthcoming, our trial subjects weren’t sure what result we were aiming for.”

 

      “I guess you’re right,” Dorothy said, resignation coloring her tone.

 

      “You’re all worrying too much. Man, when we demonstrate our method, we’re really going to throw those hot-shot engineers a curve ball.” Pat O’Flynn wound up and made a throwing motion like he was pitching for the Cubs. For a brawny, middle-aged man, he could still move with ease and grace.

 

      Clyde Russell, the other Sword on their team, laughed with the rest of them while he settled his knit cap on his balding head. “I think we all agree with Johanna about the trust issue. I suggest we view the demonstration tomorrow before deciding on concrete action. I’d like to see the ‘apparatus’ in action.”

 

      Everybody nodded. Clyde was always the voice of reason. Johanna gave him a smile, which the elderly Sword returned with a wink.

 

      “No matter how the measurement project comes out, we still have to deal with the Defender Council’s other plans for finding team homes for those without them,” Jim Pulaski said as he slipped on his gloves. “I particularly didn’t like that business about consulting this new ‘Merlin Office’ about replacements on retirements. Are they going to try to tell us what to do? No one knows you’re retiring, do they, Clyde?”

 

      “I don’t think so. I’ve discussed it only with you and Fergus, and I trust him to keep the secret.”

 

      The thought of having a new Sword imposed upon them sent a chill down Johanna’s back that had nothing to do with the twenty-degree temperature. “Whatever happens about your replacement, Clyde, a glacier a hundred miles high will be sitting on Chicago before I accept Phil Bellman on our team.”

 

      “Amen,” and other sounds of agreement came from the Defenders.

 

      “I won’t retire if the Council tries to force someone on you in my place,” Clyde said. “Fergus is on our side also.”

 

      “Good. Where is Whipple?” Jim asked. “We could use his advice and influence here.”

 

      “Lying on a beach in the Caribbean,” Dorothy replied. The head of Housekeeping for the HeatherRidge hugged herself and shivered. “And do I envy him and Bridget.”

 

      “The way the Council is pushing all this stuff about testing and the unaffiliated and practice and replacements makes me nervous,” Jazara Grant, the youngest of them at twenty-seven, said. “Bureaucracy is not our friend. One day we’re doing fine, and the next we have all these problems. Where’s it coming from?”

 

      “Once the engineers figured out with a way to measure a team’s magical energy output, it was bound to cause a hullabaloo, and one idea leads to another,” Clyde answered. “Every decade or so, the Council gets excited about some idea or development, or a situation occurs that needs rectifying, and they act. Usually at the end, we’re better off than when we started--able to use our Defender and Sword talents more effectively.”

 

      “Not always, though,” Rosa interjected. “About twenty-five years ago they tried to add both a Sword and a Defender to the teams to make use of the unaffiliated--what they’re now calling Independents. Oh, I guess I should call them ‘Indies.’ The result was, instead of a pentagon, we had to cast a hexagonal fortress to accommodate the sixth Defender. Talk about too many cooks!”

 

      “What happened?” Johanna asked. She didn’t remember ever hearing of the event--not surprising since she’d only been ten years old then and didn’t even know she was a Sword yet.

 

      “Some had a horrible time creating the hexagon, especially those who cast the spell with their hand.” Rosa spread her fingers parallel to the ground and pushed downward. “Five fingers equals five points of the pentagon, but what do you do for the sixth in the other figure?”

 

      Jim took up the tale. “With all the spells and gestures--and especially the habits--set for a two-Swords/five-Defenders team, coordination was difficult. The Swords didn’t have enough room to maneuver inside the golden ring, either. Add to that compatibility issues, and everybody complained, including the Indies. The Council finally gave up and returned to the old ways.”

 

      “What about the guy running the show--Saxton Falkner?” Pat scratched his head. “I never heard of him until the announcement of the testing.”

 

      “That’s because you don’t pay attention to practitioner politics,” Jim answered. “He’s a member of the Defender Council and chairman of the Committee on Swords. Some think he’ll be the next head of the Council. I have to say, he dresses the part of a leader. That suit he’s wearing retails for three thousand in my shop.”

 

      “He does have a good reputation as a venture capitalist for seeing potential in new businesses,” Rosa said. “He’s not called ‘the start-up genius’ for nothing. I’d think he should be able see the possibilities in our new process.”

 

      “Let’s see how Falkner handles himself,” Clyde suggested. “He doesn’t strike me as the type to ram these new procedures down our throats.”

 

      “Exactly,” Jim said. “Falkner’s been extremely effective in clearing out some of our more ‘medieval’ practices without disruption to the ones that work and especially without ruffling the feathers of those who want to hold on to the past. Pat, you really should keep up with what’s going on at Council level.”

 

      Johanna tuned out the continuation of the perpetual discussion between plumber Pat, who claimed he had too much work fixing people’s pipes and practicing with the team to spend time on the larger organization, and Jim, who owned an exclusive men’s clothing store and was a junkie for both practitioner and Chicagoland politics.

 

      Instead, she thought back to Falkner standing at the lectern before he began his presentation. Jim was right, in appearance and dress the man was definitely a determined, urbane leader. Tall, rangy in build, with his dark brown hair graying at temples, his slightly hooded eyes, and his ramrod posture, he could be the poster boy for a Sword in modern dress. He didn’t need a gleaming blade in his hands to be proclaimed “dangerous.”

 

      Then she’d had that odd experience. She had been sitting with her team on the next-to-last row of the graduated seating in the lecture hall. He’d been waiting for the audience to settle and had looked up, straight at her. Even with all that distance between them, their eyes had met--and held for a number of seconds. A distinct warm tingle had run down her spine, and she’d had to shut her eyes tight to break the contact--which had left her wondering for some inexplicable reason what color the eyes staring back at her were.

 

      If that were not bad enough, the same thing happened at the end of his presentation. Again she had forced herself to glance in another direction. What was going on? Why was he singling her out?

 

      Her magic center fluttered as if in confusion or apprehension. It didn’t seem to know either.

 

***

 

      Where was that honey blonde he’d seen in the lecture hall? From the side of the ballroom, Saxton Falkner surveyed the crowd and sipped his Scotch. He’d first noticed her in the lecture hall because the overhead lights made her hair gleam like a golden halo. She’d talked to her neighbor, faced front, and stared straight at him. Her gaze had hit him like a shot of magical energy.

 

      Their eyes met and held once more, at the end of his talk. Each time she’d been the one to glance away first. Interesting. What difference it would make, he didn’t know, but he couldn’t wait to see what color her eyes were.

 

      The jolt of power reminded him how his restlessness had increased since he closed his business and left Cleveland last October to work on the energy-measurement project. He knew what his problem was--an excess of that very energy. Man, did he need to find a team to practice with. Since his--really, his father’s--had disbanded six months ago, he hadn’t found the time, what with his business, Council matters, and this project.

 

      Not that his former team produced the kind of energy exchange he needed--no, stronger than needed. The kind he actually craved. A free-form pouring in and out of power that energized and exhilarated at the same time it absolutely exhausted. The opportunity to use every last bit of his fifteenth-level power, to drain his center dry, to blast an evil magic item into ashes.

 

      Although he’d practiced with a number of teams in the Northeast in the past, he’d never found a combination of Defenders who could raise and sustain their output to the level he instinctively knew he required. His father’s team did the best they could--being only levels ten to twelve. They simply couldn’t produce greater amounts. If they’d been measured, they’d certainly have been at the bottom of the range.

 

      Was his craving the reason he’d agreed to lead the project and explain the Council’s plans? To find a high-level team that suited him, that satisfied his need, his hunger? No, the entire project was worthwhile, under any circumstances. A personal benefit would be an added bonus.

 

      No matter what, he needed practice, and the level of the people in the pentagon was inconsequential. The HeatherRidge Center had four resident teams. Even with one on vacation, he should be able to wangle an invitation to work some magic.

 

      His magic center vibrated. It wanted some practice, too.

 

      Maybe with the team with the blonde? Who was she? What was she--Defender or Sword? He’d have to check her credentials in the Council database after he met her tonight. With all the details to worry about, he hadn’t paid much attention to the untested individuals or teams.

 

      Why the interest in a woman he’d never met, and particularly a practitioner, was a mystery. He’d gotten over the loss of his soul mate ten years ago. Or more accurately, he’d at least come to terms with it. Since then, he’d dated only non-practitioner women, and none with long-term ideas.

 

      Once a man had a soul mate, every other woman paled in comparison--especially to his Maddy. Besides, he wouldn’t, couldn’t even conceive of marrying a non-practitioner. He’d heard of men who had, although none of them had been Defenders or Swords. How would you explain his kind of magic, especially the danger involved in it, to an outsider and expect her to understand and accept it.

 

      God, what had started him on this track--dating and marriage? Oh, yes, the woman. No matter his feelings on the previous subject, he hadn’t lost his appreciation for beauty, and the blonde was really lovely.

 

      Saxt scanned the room again and sighed mentally. No blonde. Instead, toward him rushed more Defenders and Swords anxious to discuss the project. He took another sip of his Scotch and glanced over at Gary Witherspoon and Herb Ball, the two engineers who developed the magic-output test and its measuring apparatus. They made the mistake of sitting down to sign teams up for the test and were trapped at a circular table.

 

      Saxt knew better. He kept on the move, meeting as many as possible, spending only a few minutes with each. Some asked pointed questions, others expressed reservations, a few didn’t care for the project at all--about what he had expected. Most seemed to be holding their opinion in reserve. All wanted to see the measurement process in action.

 

      A tall, muscular, dark-haired man sauntered up and introduced himself as Phil Bellman. He topped Saxt’s six feet by at least four inches, and he smiled with a self-assured, slightly condescending expression. It reminded Saxt of one he saw often in business dealings. One he never trusted. Its appearance usually hid a deep weakness--in the business plan, the financials, or the leadership. What would be Bellman’s fault? What was he trying to sell?

 

      Saxt shook hands, and Bellman’s grip--several degrees too strong--reinforced his wariness. The man’s strong cologne didn’t make a good impression either.

 

      “I’m an Indie,” Bellman stated like he was conveying an astounding fact, “a level-fourteen Sword. I practically grew up here at the Center. When I was training in my high school and college years, only three teams existed here. A fourth was formed while I was working on my MBA and learning the options trading business, and I was simply too busy to join it. My business has been successful, I have the time now, and I’ve been looking for a team. I’m much encouraged by the Council’s plans.”

 

      “How long have you searched, and how many openings have come your way?” Saxt asked.

 

      “Three years and three teams, all in California, but none worked out.” Bellman made a dismissive gesture as though the reasons were of little importance. “I believe I’m one of the most powerful Swords without a team. I’d like to be one of the first in the rotation and on the list to join one.”

 

      Bellman appeared ambitious, even if he had his facts wrong. Saxt could think of at least eight higher-level Indie Swords. Because he wasn’t giving anyone special treatment, he kept his statements general. “The Merlin Office to coordinate practice, replacements, and new team creation will be announced on the Defender Council website in a couple of days. Send an e-mail saying you’re available and when. That’s only for the practice rotation, not team placement, for a while. I can’t promise you’ll be chosen first, of course . . .”

 

      “I’d be an asset to a team. A level fourteen’s nothing to sneeze at, and I have some of the greatest energy capacity around.”

 

      “Let the office know your level and what kind of teams you’d like to practice with and later join,” Saxt replied. What was it about the guy that bothered him? Bellman’s pushiness? No, Saxt could understand the desire to be on a team. Why didn’t the man’s normal Sword self-confidence ring true? He seemed sort of . . . defensive? Or like he thought he was entitled to a team?

 

      Bellman looked like he was going to say more--probably a variety of more self-aggrandizing statements. Saxt was wondering how to detach himself from the conversation when he noticed someone waving at him. Jake Alexander, Defender and the director of the HeatherRidge Training Center, beckoned from across the room. Saxt excused himself from Bellman and started over to him.

 

      Short, stocky, and rumpled, Jake appeared mild and bland, and, in fact, he was thoroughly reasonable and easy to work with. Woe be to the person, however, who pushed the man. Jake could also be as hard as reinforced concrete and as direct as a guided missile. He was perfect for a training facility where, in the hands of novices, magic could go wrong at any moment. Casting spells required discipline, and the man had the talent for instilling it in people and the institution.

 

      When Saxt drew closer to Jake, he saw that the director was surrounded by a diverse group. One of them was the honey blonde.

 

      Who met his gaze and quickly turned her gaze to the floor with an expression somewhere between puzzlement and shock. Interesting.

 

      When Saxt reached the group, he was pleasantly surprised when a subtle wave of magical energy swept over him. He recognized what it was--the team effect. When together, powerful and closely attuned teams always shared energy without conscious action. The effect’s presence only solidified his desire to practice with them.

 

      “Saxt,” Jake said, “I’d like to introduce one of our resident teams. These are Defenders Dorothy Gundersen, Jim Pulaski, Patrick O’Flynn, Rosa Sanchez, and Jazara Grant, and Swords Clyde Russell and Johanna Mahler.”

 

      Saxt shook hands all around as Jake named the team members. When his gaze met Johanna’s and his hand gripped hers, a jolt like the one in the auditorium hit his center. She must have felt something also because her big blue eyes grew round and she quickly let go.

 

      “My favorite team,” Bellman announced from behind him.

 

      Saxt looked up to see the man almost beaming at all of them--like he was the fox in the henhouse.

 

      “Clyde, if you ever retire, I’m your replacement,” Bellman continued in a jovial manner that left no doubt of his certainty he’d be stepping into the position.

 

      From their glum silence, nobody on the team agreed with him. Instead, the Defenders shifted to subtly position themselves between Bellman and the Swords. The team-effect energy grew slightly tense.

 

      “We’ll remember that, Phil,” Clyde said dryly.

 

      Saxt made a mental note to find out all he could about Bellman and this particular team--and what might cause them to take a pentagonal stance. No reports of overt hostilities had come his way. Of course, covert animosities existed in every organization, and if Bellman was as pompous as he appeared, the team’s defensive posture could easily come from their history with him. To relieve the tension and change the subject, he asked, “What do you think of the Council ideas and the testing?”

 

      “Interesting,” Clyde answered. “We talked about the test and the project on the way over here, and we have a number of questions, but we’d like to study the process first.”

 

      “Any problem with the idea in particular?” Saxt inquired.

 

      The team members glanced from one to another. Johanna finally said, “We’re interested in seeing the measurement test tomorrow.”

 

      “I think you’ll find it enlightening,” Saxt said. Why didn’t they want to voice their concerns? Everyone else did. From their closed expressions, he doubted they’d give him a real answer, so he fell back on a neutral question. “How long has your present team been together?”

 

      “Oh, for a long time,” Rosa replied. “Clyde and I started it twenty years ago, and it took us several years to find our permanent members. Since then, we’ve only had one change. Jazara joined us . . .”

 

      “Five years ago, when I completed college,” the young African American finished the sentence.

 

      “Yes,” Dorothy said, “when Steve Hendry’s work transferred him to Singapore. Jazara has been an excellent addition. We’re doing very well,” the tall Viking of a woman said proudly.

 

      “Have you been to the vault yet to see the remnants of the Cataclysm Stone?” Clyde interjected quickly, as if he wanted to wanted to change the subject.

 

      Saxt filed away the fact that they didn’t want to discuss the project or their output. He was happy to answer Clyde’s question, however, because he knew from Council discussions it would lead to Johanna. “No, I haven’t. You were part of the fight with the Cataclysm Stone last year, weren’t you?”

 

      “We all were, in one way or another,” Clyde said. “Johanna and Dorothy helped destroy the smaller piece of the Stone in that first horrible battle. Johanna also trained Jim Tylan, who actually shattered the larger Ubell section, and she was with John Baldwin in the clean-up crew at the Finster mansion.”

 

      “Ah, yes, Tylan, the wild talent,” Saxt noted. “I’d like to meet him and to hear that tale from your perspective. At the Council meetings, John couldn’t speak highly enough of the job everyone did. What was it like training Tylan, Johanna?”

 

      Jake spoke before Johanna could. “Johanna is one of our teaching masters here at the center. She specializes in training new Defenders and Swords.”

 

      “Getting an adult started on magic was difficult for both Jim and me,” Johanna answered. “Since he didn’t grow up a practitioner, the poor man didn’t have a clue what to expect. I’m not used to teaching very basic spell casting either. We learned together. All in all, I prefer working with teenagers, especially the younger ones.”

 

      “And bless you for that, my dear,” Jake said. “They’re the bane of my life. No discipline, no caution, trying spells beyond their current training.”

 

      Everybody chuckled. Jake’s complaints about teenagers were well known--even to Saxt.

 

      “That’s what you always say, Jake,” Johanna said with a smile, “even if you like them as much as I do. The younger ones are more open, haven’t made up their minds, and are willing to try something new. It’s the sixteen and older set that give me fits.”

 

      “Would it be possible for me to sit in on one of your classes?” Saxt asked. “I really need to learn more about the youngsters coming up through the process. How we integrate them into teams is going to be extremely important.”

 

      He thought she was going to decline his request, but Jake said, “You have a class tomorrow morning, don’t you?”

 

      “Yes,” Johanna replied with a sigh. “We’re going to cast castellum for the first time as a real fortress around each individual, so it might be interesting for you to observe. At least better than drills with lightballs or energy transference.”

 

      “I’d like to see that,” he replied. “The engineers will be setting up the measurement apparatus in the big arena, and they won’t need me. What time and where?”

 

      “Nine o’clock in the small arena in the Defenders Building. Be sure to bring your robe.”

 

      “Need some extra help?” Bellman asked. “I’m available to help keep the kids in line.”

 

      Although Saxt thought he saw her jaw clench, Johanna said mildly, “No, thanks, Phil. My students are going to be nervous enough with one observer. That’s enough distraction.”

 

      Another team showed up to claim his attention, and before he turned his attention to them, Saxt only had the time to say, “I’ll be there.”

 

      While he listened to the newcomers, he watched her team diverge throughout the room and individually engage others in conversation. Bellman stared after them for a few seconds before heading for the bar.

 

      Saxt sighed mentally while he answered questions and elicited opinions. The newly arrived group had none of the team effect about them. He missed the “buzz” already.

 

      His center vibrated. It must miss the flowing energy also.

 

###

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