15. Blow up the world with strange magic – Trial

ELO—Strange Magic


Jeannie D’Arcy, wearing a long wrap-around skirt, a white peasant blouse, jeans jacket and desert combat boots, walked into the coffee shop and ordered a soy salted caramel mocha. She also grabbed a pack­aged vegan blueberry banana muffin. Impatiently, she sat down in a booth to eat the muffin and flipped open her iPad, settling it into the groove of her Bluetooth keyboard.

That damn Harlon, she thought, as she gathered her wavy auburn hair into a ponytail. Son of a bitch is on my last nerve.

At the Magic Universe Grand Prix last night, Jeannie had watched Harlon like a hawk as he shuffled and was sure she saw him pull some tricks. She wasn’t certain enough, however, to call a judge over. But then, as she was considering what to do, Harlon drew a card, slammed it down, and yelled “Goddammit!” knocking over the die he was using to keep his life total. Jeannie was sure Harlon then reset his die to a higher number, and she called a judge. But it was he-said, she-said, and Jeannie ulti­mately lost the game, her first loss in more than a year.

I’ll get that sonofabitch, she thought as she logged in to Wizards of the Coast and clicked on Report Conduct.

“Jeannie, soy salted caramel mocha,” called the barista, and Jeannie got up to get her drink. Returning to the booth, she glanced at the name on the side—Genie—and smirked. Who thinks it’s spelled that way? she thought, popping the cover off the cup and taking a long draught of the hot liquid.

She wrote, “Harlon Rickmer cheated in the most recent Grand Prix by causing a distraction—throwing down a drawn card and uttering an oath—while simultaneously knocking over his Life Total die. When he righted the die, he made it indicate more life than he had earned.”

Jeannie leaned into her complaint, pounding on the fragile keys of her keyboard, cheeks growing redder as she went on. Finally, with a flour­ish, she stabbed her index finger at the Submit button and sent along her complaint to the authorities.

I hope they ban the bastard for a year, she thought, but she knew it was a long shot that Harlon would get anything more than a warning, if that. She could have used the money, too. The top prize was $10,000.

Flipping to the tournament’s website, she saw that the final match had featured a Troll Guardian deck from finalist Brandon Sullivan and reign­ing champion Skip Parvin’s innovative Cloud Assault deck featuring Strapius, Chancellor of Ilexium. Parvin prevailed.

Well, Jeannie thought, at least that cheater, Harlon, didn’t win, not that he was likely to. Damn, I could have beat that deck and that Parvin dude. Now I’ve got to find some way to pay first and last rent next month, assuming I find a place. And get the damn car fixed.

Jeannie’s ancient Camry was on its last legs and had been awaiting a muffler since the old one fell off two weeks ago. She could drive it, but it was so loud she knew she’d get pulled over. Throughout her life, she had always been discovered whenever she broke a rule.

It started in kindergarten with two incidents that cemented her hatred of authority, at the age of five. Her teacher, Miss Chipman, was seated in a chair in the middle of the classroom reading a book to the students, and several of the children were clamoring for her attention.

“Miss Chipman! Miss Chipman!” they chirped.

Jeannie thought she heard the boy next to her say, “Miss Chipmunk!”

She turned to the boy and asked, “Did you say Miss Chipmunk?” The boy ignored her, so she asked louder, “Did you just say Miss Chipmunk?”

Miss Chipman heard this and glared at Jeannie. “Under the chair!” she said sternly. “Under you go!”

Jeannie tried to point out what she had actually said, but Miss Chipman just got angrier, so Jeannie had to climb under the teacher’s chair and remain there while Miss Chipman read the rest of the book to her classmates.

The second incident was her mother’s fault. Often when Jeannie repeatedly asked her mom where one of her toys was, she’d snap, “I ate it!” Her mom was just being funny, but one day, while coloring with other children at a table, the little girl next to her kept asking Jeannie, over and over, where the green crayon was.

Finally, frustrated that the girl wouldn’t stop, Jeannie said, “I ate it!”

The girl started to wail and ran to Miss Chipman. “Jeannie ate my crayon!”

Jeannie didn’t quite know how to explain that she thought “I ate it” was a legitimate response, and soon she was under the chair again.

This pattern repeated itself again and again throughout her life. If there were a bunch of kids doing something bad, and she joined in, she’d be the only one who got caught. If she drove on expired license tabs, she got caught. If she picked up a lost wallet on the street, she got accused of lifting it. If she went in through the out door, she got caught. So, she decided to dedicate herself to leading a faultless life, never straying a millimeter from the proper path. The problem with this was that she was an out-of-the-box thinker, although she detested that phrase, often saying, “What box?” when people applied the saying to her. How can you be a rule-breaker if you’re always caught breaking rules?

This contradiction resulted in her current predicament: out of work (for offering a better solution than her boss’s and thus embarrassing him in front of his manager), out of friends (for telling her best friend’s husband that his wife was cheating on him), and out of patience with her last so-called boyfriend. Glenn’s general lack of interest in anything but reciting his daily work successes and his every brilliant thought resulted last night in Jeannie finally leaving him, and also, unfortunately, his apartment. Which led to this day, following a night sleeping in her Camry.

It wasn’t like it was hard for Jeannie to find a boyfriend. Her large breasts, flowing auburn hair, and pleasant face—but mostly her large breasts—ensured a plentiful supply of suitors. The problem was, men who only saw her boobs were generally shallow people, and they rarely lasted very long before Jeannie tired of them. Nonetheless, being currently homeless, Jeannie figured she needed to employ one of Lily’s 50 reasons to have sex, from How I Met Your Mother: #7 Paratrooping/bangin’ for roof.

She’d have to find a public bathroom large enough to enable her to change into her clubbing clothes, and then find some horny idiot—hopefully not too much of an idiot, and hopefully attractive—to spend the night with. It was late afternoon, so she could hang out at the café for a few hours before walking back to the Camry to retrieve her duds and getting ready for the conquest.

In the meantime, Jeannie scoured the job boards on her iPad. Her last job had been with a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contractor developing UAVs, small unmanned aerial vehicles also known as drones. She had a Secret clearance, which should make it easy to find a job in her specialty, machine learning, among the Beltway Bandits in suburban DC. She had been with a unit working on Explainable AI, which sought to produce decision systems that weren’t black box voodoo. The essential task was to provide a way for humans to understand the rationale for machine decisions. DARPA was interested in potential battlefield automation, but nobody would trust robots, aerial or terrestrial, to make kill decisions unless there was a way to trace the decision back to its components.

Jeannie had always looked at any problem from an ethical and moral background, partly due to her strict upbringing in the Church of Christ, Scientist. On her application to MIT, when asked, “What is your goal in life?” she had written, “To heal the world, comfort all the afflicted, and eliminate hate.”

That answer had come up again in her campus interview. It seemed that MIT rarely got technologists expressing idealistic goals like these. In the interview, Jeannie had argued that technology could achieve all of her goals. It just needed to be the right technology, one that was ethical and had the improvement of mankind firmly embedded in its structures.

Now, years later at 33, Jeannie was an AI expert and a data scientist. Although the work was interesting, she had been uncomfortable with her last assignment. She had faith in the technology; she did not have faith in those who would use it, primarily to make kill decisions on the battlefield. She hadn’t yet found a way to embed morality in the machine.

Her current dilemma required a speedy but perhaps not an ideal solution: She needed a job, probably with the feds, and she needed it fast. She had heard of another DARPA project to create a camera that integrated unbelievably tiny pixels—the size of red blood cells—with an independent AI system for each pixel that could transform the type of electromagnetic radiation the pixel could register. These pixels could combine into a system that could simultaneously do 3D mapping, infrared imaging, and motion tracking from a drone, yielding tremendously valuable information about a battlefield situation.

Jeannie went onto the DARPA site and checked out the jobs available for the Microsystems Technology Office, the group that produced the camera.

Hmm, she thought. Nothing pertaining to the camera, but what about this: “AMEBA ULF & VLF transmit antennas that generate electromagnetic (EM) fields by mechanically moving trapped charges (electrets) and magnets.” She had done some work on the radio control interface for the drones, so she had hardware experience.

They must need some kind of AI to coordinate all these tiny devices, she thought. Troy’s the program manager, so I expect his typical coterie of contractors will be applying. Deadline’s next week. Whom do I know who may be responding? She downloaded the attendee list for the Proposers’ Day meeting and scanned it. Yeah, it’s the typical Beltway Bandits, including MacAllan.

Jeannie brought up her address book and did a few searches.

Aha! If Juston at MacAllan isn’t applying for this project, I’d be very surprised. We both were on the Wolfhound project to equip forces in Afghanistan with radio signal tracking devices. Plus, he made a very clumsy, grabby pass at me at the MacAllan Christmas party a couple years ago. I wonder if he’s still single. I wonder if he’d like to go dancing tonight.

Jeannie opened Google Voice and texted to Juston. “J-man, it’s Jeannie. I haven’t seen you in forever and my date for tonight just canceled. We were going dancing. Care to fill in and catch up?”

Maybe I can kill two birds with one stone, she thought. Juston’s reply came almost immediately. “J-girl! Was just thinking about you!”

Sure, sure, Jeannie thought.

“I’m free tonight. Where shall we meet?”

The café was only a few blocks from the Pentagon City Metro, so Jeannie wouldn’t need her car if they went somewhere downtown. She wanted to go someplace where they could talk, so lots of the popular clubs would be much too loud. Ah! The Midtown Partyplex! Perfect. Four floors with different things happening on each.

“J-man, how about Midtown Partyplex? Meet about 6ish? I won’t have eaten by then, so we can grab some dinner and talk. Plus, dancing!”

“CU there. Can’t wait. ”

OK, that’s sorted, Jeannie thought. I guess I should just hang here until I need to change and leave.

With some time to kill, Jeannie indulged in her habit of clicking randomly on Google results and rapidly generating new queries from words and phrases from the resulting pages, sometimes as tabs and other times as new windows. She quickly flipped through the pages, sometimes scrolling, sometimes registering an image and moving on, sometimes drilling deep into an image by blowing up the view.

As she moved through windows of images at an insane speed, she realized that a certain set produced a fleeting image of a word: spelt. What the heck is that? The past participle of spell?

Upon further invest­igation, though, she found out spelt was a type of ancient grain.

I kind of like my interpretation better, she thought. She took a bite of her muffin and noticed it had a slightly weird texture. She looked at the wrapper. What do you know? This damn muffin is made with spelt. What are the chances? A little weird, but awfully good, she thought, as she absently munched the muffin.

Her mind drifted back to thoughts of Harlon, and that reminded her she was doing a Magic draft on the weekend and she should probably bone up on some cards she might be able to trade for. I need to finish in the money in that draft and sell a bunch of cards if I’m to have any chance of renting an apartment, she thought. She pulled her dice bag out of her jacket pocket and took a quick look at the cards inside. Yeah, these should fetch a good price. I wonder if I could find some more in that mess in the back seat of the car.

Jeannie had built herself an iPad app that searched Google Images for pictures of Magic Universe cards and displayed them on the screen in rapid fire. An expert player since she was small, Jeannie knew lots of cards, their costs, and their uses. She wanted to know them all, but with more than 18,000 available cards, it was a daunting task, despite her photographic memory. Her app was smart enough to cull out duplicates and featured controls for speed, pause, and magnify.

She brought up the app on her iPad and started the cards scrolling by in a horizontal gallery. Jeannie tried to identify each along with its value to her decks. “Dark Tracer,” got it. Ooo, “Breach Piercer” up 20 bucks. “Stormy Hill,” got to get it. “Jitterbug,” I should be so lucky. “Flame Burst,” I could use that one. “Fire Carver,” too. Hmm, two pyros in a row.

Jeannie had gotten so good at recognizing cards, she could crank the display up to max and still be able to spot the ones she wanted. She set the speed at about 10 cards per second and sat without moving for 15 minutes staring at the screen as the cards whizzed by.

In minute 16, however, something startling happened. She saw a run of very powerful cards: “Lightning Striker,” “Brain Freeze,” “Bent Sword,” “Astral Walk,” “Mage Academy,” “Dark Secret,” “Barnstorm,” “Total Recall.” Wow, she thought, what’s up with the really powerful cards? How unusual.

Suddenly the surroundings of the café faded to black and Jeannie became encircled by a set of nine huge Magic Universe cards. There was a low, humming, electrical sound in the air.

“What the hell just happened? Where am I?” she cried fearfully. There was no echo, and no answer. She was in a dark hall with a black seamless stone floor. She bent down to feel it. It felt neutral, not cold like concrete. Through the gaps between the cards, she could see a black wall a few feet away on the left. She craned her neck upward but could make out no ceiling. The space was dimly lit by an invisible light source.

She turned in a circle to look at the eight-foot-tall cards that surrounded her. They glowed as if from an inner fire. My god, she thought. These are the Sovereign Nine!

This legendary set of nine cards was old, from the beginning of the card game. The ring around her consisted of “Black Dahlia;” “Total Recall;” “Astral Walk;” the Bearers: Opal, Topaz, Onyx, Amber, and Peridot; and “Time Control.” These cards were usually restricted or banned in tournaments due to their great power.

“Omigod, where the fuck am I?” Jeannie asked again.

She could see no evidence of the café or the real world. I must be having some sort of vision, she thought.

Each card was surrounded by a pulsing electric aura. She examined the cards closely, starting with the Bearers. The five Bearer cards seemed unremarkable, except for their gigantic size. They appeared to be faithful replicas of the real cards.

Despite their rarity, Jeannie knew all about these legendary cards. As she walked the circle peering at them, she thought about how they were used in the game. Each Bearer adds a different type of mana to the player’s mana pool. The Total Recall card, one of the Boons, enables a player to draw three cards. Astral Walk lets you take an extra turn. Time Control forces players to shuffle their hands with their library and draw a new hand of seven. That one would be tricky to play, Jeannie thought. She touched it and jumped back at the small electric shock it imparted. Holy shit! That thing feels like it’s alive. She touched each of the other Bearers in turn and got a milder set of shocks.

She then turned to the Black Dahlia, the Holy Grail of Magic Universe cards. It grants three mana and, if played right, ends the game instantly. Jeannie was in awe of even seeing this card, considered to be the most valuable ever printed, and last auctioned for more than $200,000. As she reached out to touch the card, a huge arc of light surrounded her and lifted her off her feet.

Jeannie screamed involuntarily and said, “Put me down, whoever you are!”

A voice, seemingly emanating from the giant card itself, said, “Who are you, who have called forth the magic of the Universe?”

Jeannie was stupefied. That barista must have slipped some acid in my coffee, she thought. The Black Dahlia talking to me? What the fuck?

“Answer us,” the voice commanded.

She replied, “I’m Jeannie, and I don’t know how I got here, but please put me down.”

“Only true sorcerers are granted entry to this realm,” the voice said. “What is your mage name?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been given a mage name. I’m Jeannie D’Arcy.”

“We have brought you to this realm because you have magical powers as yet untapped. Untrained, you represent a threat. You must run a gauntlet of female wizards and then take a mentor to train you further for 40 days at which time we shall determine your fitness for continuing into apprenticeship.”

“Um, what the fuck are you talking about?” Jeannie was moving from confusion to irritation. Who was playing this elaborate trick on her?

“Here is your first trial, with Bright Knife, the temptress.” Black Dahlia set Jeannie back on her feet and the scene changed. All nine cards moved to form a line along the wall to the left. Each was situated three feet from the wall with two-foot gaps between them, forming a kind of corridor behind them.

Before her stood a scantily clad alabaster-white woman with extensive earrings and a red mohawk. From her studies of Magic Universe cards, Jeannie knew about this rare entity, but there was not much of a backstory available as there was with some of the other cards.

OK, she thought. She’s a temptress and an assassin, but I’m not a dude, so perhaps I’m gonna be OK.

“My darling,” Bright Knife said, “What is it that you desire?”

“I desire to get out of this fucking insane dream!”

“My darling, what makes you think this is a dream?” Bright Knife stepped up to Jeannie and slapped her. “Didn’t that feel real?”

Jeannie was startled and involuntarily brought her hand up to cover her slapped cheek. “Yes, that seemed real enough, but seriously, I just want to get back to my life.”

Bright Knife gave her a penetrating come-hither stare. “Sweetie, you’ll have to go through me to get anywhere.” Bright Knife smiled seductively. “You like girls?”

Jeannie flashed back to a near-intimate encounter with her lesbian roommate at college. “No, I only like dudes, so quit looking at me that way.”

Bright Knife had begun to undo the top of her skimpy outfit.

“And stop undressing!” Jeannie said. “It’s not going to do anything for me.”

“Are you sure?” Bright Knife asked, dropping her clothing to the floor and coming closer to Jeannie, who stumbled backward and collided with the card wall behind her. She felt an electric thrill throughout her body, looked up and saw that she was backed up to Time Control. She was becoming more frightened by the minute.

Bright Knife pressed her body against Jeannie, pinning her to the card, and placed her right hand between Jeannie’s legs, groping through her flimsy skirt. Jeannie twisted away from Bright Knife at a right angle and assumed the Tai Chi “Play Guitar” defen­sive position.

“Stay away from me,” she commanded.

Bright Knife smiled slyly and said, “I can help you if you tell me what you want.”

“I told you.”

“Returning to your life is not your true desire. What is it you really desire? What would really make you happy, satisfied?”

Jeannie thought for half a second and then blurted, “To be able to snap my fingers and fix all that’s wrong with the world.”

“Now we’ve got something to work with. I can help you attain your desire, but first, you must beat me.”

“Come at me, bitch!”

“Hand fighting is not my way.” Bright Knife produced a long knife in her right hand seemingly from nowhere and lunged at Jeannie with it. Jeannie deftly turned parallel to the knife, bumped Bright Knife’s arm out of the way with her left, raised her right arm as a bar to retaliation and then brought it down in an attack. She landed a solid blow to the neck and Bright Knife staggered back, still holding the knife. She jumped back at Jeannie in a two-handed overhead attack, and Jeannie once again moved to parry, grabbing Bright Knife’s right wrist and driving her left shoulder into her elbow, breaking it. She pulled the arm behind the stricken creature and kicked at the back of her left knee, bringing her to the floor while snatching the knife from the groaning Bright Knife. She then placed her right foot on her neck.

“Had enough?” Jeannie put more of her weight on Bright Knife’s neck.

“You have defeated me! Most of my knife work has been done at close, even intimate, range. If I could have gotten you into my bed, things would have been different.”

“In your dreams, bitch. Now tell me how I get out of this place or I’ll cut you good.”

“There’s no rest for the wicked, honey. You’ve many more trials to face.” With that, Bright Knife disappeared, causing Jeannie to fall to the floor in a heap leaving her knife behind.

“What the fuck? Where’d you go?” Jeannie said as she picked up the knife.

The voice of the Black Dahlia answered, “You have done well, initiate, with your first challenge. Beware your next.”

Jeannie looked around and noticed two red figures approaching. As they grew closer, Jeannie noticed they both appeared to be engulfed in flames. One had hair that looked like a flowing fire, and the other, clad in red leather, held what appeared to be a whip of fire, swirling it around her body in endless loops.

As they neared, Jeannie recognized them as Flame Burst and Fire Carver. Jeez, she thought. I just saw these two in my card review. I must be dreaming. Flame Burst, daughter of wealth, and Fire Carver, a street urchin thief in her younger days. Let’s see, Flame Burst lights up when angry or frustrated. She’s impulsive and hotheaded. Fire Carver is reckless and without morals.

“‘Sup, ladies?” Jeannie said, hoping to play the innocent.

“We saw what you did to Bright Knife. We’ll not be fooled by your trickery,” said Flame Burst.

“Well, then you know I’m not to be trifled with, don’t you?” Jeannie said.

Fire Carver laughed and snapped her flaming whip in Jeannie’s direction. Jeannie jumped out of the way, caroming off the Astral Walk card and landing in a crouch. Flame Burst tossed a fireball at Jeannie that she barely avoided.

I need some protection, she thought. Glancing around, she noticed the gap between the Astral Walk and Total Recall cards. She quickly passed through and flattened against the wall opposite the back of the Astral Walk card.

Think, Jeannie. Think. OK, OK, OK. What can I do to counter fire? A huge blast of fire ripped through the card gap, narrowly missing Jeannie and singeing her hair.

I love the smell of burnt hair in the morning,” Fire Carver said with a laugh. “How about a little more fire, scarecrow?”

Another torrent of flames roared through the gap, but Jeannie had made her way down to the end of the card row. She peered around the corner of the Black Dahlia card and watched the two attackers.

They don’t seem too smart, she thought. They’re attacking that gap pretty single-mindedly. Now how can I counter them? Instinctively, she patted the pockets of her jacket. Ah, my phablet! Perhaps I can simulate Dark Mirror and reflect their attacks back on them.

She opened the large cellphone and selected the mirror app she often used to check for stuff in her teeth.

I need them to be close to one another. Oh, good, she thought, peeking around the card again. They’re going through the gap. She quickly stepped out from behind the giant card and waited until the pair of pyros sounded closer. Then, with a shout, she spun back behind the card holding her phone straight out in front of her. Flame Burst and Fire Carver unleashed a fiery attack. Jeannie’s phone splashed the fire right back on them, killing Flame Burst and critically injuring Fire Carver.

Jeannie whipped back around to the front of the Black Dahlia and sprinted down the line of cards.

I figure Fire Carver only has two life left. Perhaps I can put her away with an electric shock.

Her phablet had an extra high capacity battery case attached. She removed it, pulled a bobby pin from her hair and grabbed her hair tie. She stretched the hair band lengthways across the battery and inserted the end of the bobby pin under the band, on top of one of the electrical contacts. How long should I hold it after I short the battery out? she wondered.

She leaned back against the Astral Walk card and felt a shock go through her body. The battery in her hand started to warm and soon began to glow. Omigod! I’m drawing power from the card! Where’s that damn Fire Carver now? She peeked through the card gap and was almost face-to-face with Fire Carver. Quickly, she moved the bobby pin to short out the contact and jammed the battery down the front of Fire Carver’s leather suit. She turned and ran back toward the Black Dahlia as the battery blew up, arcing and spraying fire both ways down the corridor behind the cards and sending Jeannie sprawling to the ground.

“Well done, initiate,” said the voice from the Black Dahlia card. “Fire against fire and shock against Fire Carver. Well played. But your next challenge will be harder still.”

“Listen, I didn’t ask to be initiated. I was just minding my own business. Why can’t you let me go?”

“Your power is too great to go unchecked, initiate. You must complete the initiation or perish.”

Oh fuckin’ great, Jeannie thought. I wonder how many challenges there are. Well, at least I’ve learned I can lean on the power of these humongous cards. Jeannie allowed herself a little smirk of triumph.

Let’s see, if we’re going in order of card value, Total Recall will be the next card I can use.

She looked around to see what had changed and noticed Fire Carver’s red leather suit at her feet.

Hmm, perhaps a little protection would help, Jeannie thought. I hope I can squeeze into it. Fire Carver was a bit shorter than I am.

She quickly stripped to her underwear and pulled the pants on. They morphed, seemingly flowing over her form. The top stretched to accommodate her ample bosom. Sweet! Not only am I a badass, now I look like one, too! I just need a pocket for my phone. At this thought, a hip pocket appeared, and Jeannie jammed her phone into it.

She then discovered Fire Carver’s fiery whip somehow holstered on her right hip and Bright Knife’s knife in a scabbard on her left.

Damn! she thought. How’d that happen?

She noticed Flame Burst’s fiery wristlets laying nearby and put them on. Man, I’m armed! She pulled on her boots and her jacket and stood up and looked around.

She thought she heard horse hooves echoing from far away. She turned in the direction of the sound and began to make out the form of a white horse galloping her way.

Oh, shit, she thought. That better not be Lady Zhurong! But it was.

The regal Asian figure on a golden saddle atop the white steed got closer. and Jeannie could see that on her head was a visored helmet sporting two long moth-like antennae that streamed behind her as she rode. Incongruously, she wore two large tasseled earrings.

That makes no sense for a warrior, Jeannie thought. They could be caught in a sword or pike and pull her off her horse. Need to keep that in mind.

She’s based on a character from an old Chinese novel. Hmm, let’s see. In one battle, after resisting twice, she was lured into a trap because a guy insulted her. So, impulsive. She wields flying half-moon swords. Fantastic. More sharp things. This leather won’t help much against that. But a fire whip should do a number on her horse. Let’s get it on!

Swords flashing, Zhurong charged at Jeannie, who deftly slipped aside and cracked her whip across the horse’s buttocks as it passed. The horse reared, but Zhurong was yanking on the reins to turn the beast’s head around for another pass. The horse keeled over awkwardly, rolling onto Zhurong’s right leg. She kicked herself out from under the struggling animal and regained her feet, staggering on her injured leg toward Jeannie with her swords whirling.

Jeannie feinted toward Zhurong’s feet and she took the bait, jumping up and raising her swords above her head. Instead of striking low, Jeannie sent the whip high, tangling Zhurong’s arms. Zhurong screamed and dropped the swords, one of which gashed her breast on the way to the floor. She landed and crouched, grabbing the burns on her arms.

Using her whip, Jeannie flicked one of the swords toward herself and bent to pick it up. As she did, she heard a whirring and looked up to see her adversary sprout two insect wings and rise inches off the ground.

Jeannie barrel-rolled to her left and jumped to her feet. Zhurong lunged at her with the other sword, swinging low. Jeannie leapt and swung at Zhurong’s head. She missed, but the tip of the sword caught in Zhurong’s dangling earring, ripped a chunk out of her earlobe, and knocked her slightly off balance. Continuing the same movement, Jeannie followed with a roundhouse kick to Zhurong’s bleeding chest knocking the wind out of her. Zhurong fell to her knees gasping, but lashed out with her sword, just managing to snag a bit of leather off the boot on Jeannie’s right ankle. Jeannie stumbled, off-balance, heading away from her adversary.

Still winded, Lady Zhurong staggered to her feet as Jeannie retreated, making for the gap in the card wall. She turned to ensure that Zhurong was following her, but the Warrior Queen hung back, fearing a trap. Entering the gap, Jeannie leaned up against Total Recall to catch her breath. She suspects this is a trap, so I’ve got a few moments to think. Ah! She’s vulnerable to anger and insults. Wei Yan lured her into the valley and a net trap by insulting her. I should give that a try.

Using the strands of the whip, which obligingly clung to the wall and the back of the card, she set up a fiery web across the corridor about four feet from the gap and two feet above the floor.

She peeked around the edge of the card. Zhurong was crouched a dozen yards away, pressing one hand against her bleeding earlobe and the other over her gashed breast. Jeannie ran out from the gap as if she was going to attack. Grabbing her sword, Zhurong jumped to her feet and raced toward her. Jeannie turned and ran back behind the card, and Zhurong stopped and retreated. I’ve got her now, Jeannie thought.

Immediately she charged out again yelling, “You weakling! You wretched piece of insect dung! You can never overcome me!”

She feinted at the Queen’s face, then at her feet. Zhurong immediately lunged, but Jeannie sidestepped and turned to run back to the card gap.

“You’re not fit to be a foot soldier, let alone the Warrior Queen! I fart in your general direction,” she called over her shoulder.

The enraged Queen gave chase, closing fast behind Jeannie. Jeannie reached the gap and turned left, then slid under the fiery web. Zhurong entered the corridor, charging too hard to stop, and ran straight into the fiery lariat web, which sliced her into pieces. Jeannie scooted on her butt further down the corridor to avoid the spreading pool of blood.

Hah! She thought. I’ll bet it was that last Monty Python insult that did her in! Maybe I should have added “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries” for good measure. She chuckled as she caught her breath. After a few minutes, she looked down the corridor at the vanquished Queen. Zhurong’s body and blood were nowhere to be seen, but her armor and swords re­mained.

I’m assembling quite an armory, Jeannie thought. I expect I’ll need it for the next challenge, whatever that may be. She donned the Queen’s shoulder armor over her jeans jacket and sat back down to rest. With a start, she realized she’d been in the corridor for quite some time. Oh, hell. I wonder if my next challenge is already here. She looked around the corner of the card and, sure enough, she could see a huge, bulbous, amorphous mass crawling toward her from several hundred feet away.

That looks like a giant slithering colon, Jeannie thought. Wait, oh no. That’s, that’s not . . . damn, it is. It’s the Pod Spawner! She could split off a whole army if I don’t take care of her quickly. But she’s a ways off and crawling slowly, so I have some time to prepare. I think I’ll need all the Bearers to beat this mama. If she spawns off too many pieces, I’ll get overwhelmed quickly.

Thinking hard, Jeannie realized she could use the cards to make a five-spoked revolving door. She ran over and grabbed the Opal Bearer card, turned it 90 degrees and pushed it against the back wall. She grabbed Topaz Bearer, pushed it against the open edge of Opal Bearer, adjusting it to a 72-degree angle. She did the same with Onyx Bearer, Amber Bearer, and Peridot Bearer, assembling the cards arranged around a center. The cards could now act like a revolving door: five giant cards on a central axle. Jeannie could push the assemblage and rotate it around, and she could position it with two cards nearly touching the wall, creating an enclosure she could hide in.

She rotated the pentangle and hid in the protected compartment, with two of the cards against the back wall on either side of her. She was protected for the moment from a ground attack.

As she leaned against the wall, Jeannie felt a weight in her jeans jacket pocket. What the fuck? She patted the bulge, then put her hand inside the pocket. Ah! My dice bag. But it shouldn’t be this heavy. It just had my dice and a few cards inside. She pulled the bag out and opened the drawstring top. To her surprise, she saw many cards inside.

Where did these come from? I thought I just had a couple in there. She grabbed some cards and pulled them out. Omigod! Bright Flyer, Octocopter, Blue Bearer, White Bearer, Black Bearer, Total Recall, and Time Control! Great cards, but where did they come from?

She thought for a moment. Oh, yeah. Time Control enables a player to draw seven cards. It must have given these to me when I used its power to beat Lady Zhurong. But wait. Does this mean I can use cards in these battles? I could mount a pretty good defense of Pod Spawner with these. Damn, though. I’d certainly need more. It’ll take a least six turns to beat her and her minions. What counts as a turn, though? Let’s see. When the pyromancers attacked me, maybe Astral Walk gave me two turns. My first turn was when I used the mirror app on my phablet to kill Flame Burst and drastically wound Fire Carver. And the second turn enabled me to destroy Fire Carver with the shock of my phablet battery after drawing electricity from Astral Walk. So, when I used Total Recall to battle Lady Zhurong, I should have gotten three cards.

She looked back into the bag and drew out three more cards: Amber Bearer, Theranos, and Froggify.

Wow. I’m getting a pretty decent library together here, she thought. And my battles have given me more assets. I got the fiery whip from Fire Carver, along with her fireproof leather suit. I got the wristlets from Flame Burst. I wonder if they enable me to use her residual power to cast fire. And just now I got Zhurong’s armor and swords when I defeated her. She glanced at the armor she was wearing. So cool, she thought, getting excited.

I’m going to need some mana to pull this off if I can do what I think I can do. She looked deeper into the dice bag. Huh? It looks like a tangle of necklaces in the bottom. She pulled one out, an opal necklace. Is this the manifestation of the Opal Bearer? She retrieved another, a peridot necklace. “Peridot Bearer,” she almost yelled. I’ll bet all the other Bearers of the Sovereign Nine are in there.

She took Onyx Bearer and Topaz Bearer out and put all the necklaces around her neck.

I must have gotten these when I assembled the cards into the pentangle. OK, so if each gives me the associated number of mana, I’m very close to having what I need to beat the Spawner.

Omigod, she thought. It’ll be so cool to be able to cast these cards against Pod Spawner and her Pods. Let’s see what else I’ve got. I think I had a couple cards in the bag before I entered the arena, including one of my favorites, Dark Fury.

She dug into the bag again and found, yes, she had Dark Fury, and Deadly Shock.

Jeannie moved the pentangle and peeked from around the edge of a card. The Pod Spawner had slowly drawn near. Here goes nothing, Jeannie thought, and leapt from behind the card to charge at the Spawner, whirling Lady Zhurong’s swords. The Spawner waved a lumpy appendage toward her, and Jeannie slashed it off. The Spawner manifested a thin tail and whipped it around toward Jeannie, who leapt into the air and sliced a few feet off the end. The Spawner struck Jeannie with the back of her shortened tail, knocking her sprawling. Jeannie got up and ran back to the pentangle, rotating it to seal herself against the wall.

The Spawner toward the pentangle and squeezed out another Pod. Jeannie heard the flapping of wings and thought, oh shit. She must have split off a Winged Darkness.

The beating of wings came closer as Winged Darkness rose up, perched on the top of the pentangle, and started trying to peck Jeannie from above. It couldn’t reach her and started walking about on the tops of the cards, trying to figure a way to fit itself into Jeannie’s compartment.

Crap, Jeannie thought. I need something with wings. I’d better cast Bright Flyer and Octocopter.

She used three mana from casting the Bearers.

Bright Flyer came into being inside the compartment and the copter materialized just outside. Bright Flyer, with her blond hair in a slightly disheveled ponytail and wearing a blue and gold uniform, immediately sized up the situation. “Pods. God, why did it have to be Pods!”

“Yeah, right? They’re tough. First things first: We need to get rid of this flying bastard.”

“OK,” Bright Flyer said, “here’s what we should do.” The two consulted on a plan. While they were talking, Winged Darkness continued trying to find a way down into the compartment. Jeannie and Bright Flyer suddenly pushed on the pentangle, which caused Winged Darkness to stumble awkwardly, pinning one of its talons between a card edge and the back wall.

Bright Flyer sprinted to the Octocopter, climbed aboard, and got airborne. Jeannie ran away from the copter, and Winged Darkness finally freed itself and followed. Bright Flyer quickly circled around in back of Winged Darkness, flew up from the rear, and dropped onto the creature from above, shredding it with Copter’s quartet of bottom rotor blades. Blood and pieces of Winged Darkness rained down. A large section of skin from Winged Darkness’ wing fell and draped over Jeannie like a tarp. She threw it off and ran over to Bright Flyer, who had landed the Copter.

“That was terrific! You made mincemeat of that Pod!”

“Thanks. I’ll hang around in case you need more help, but I’m not much good against anything without wings.” With that, she got back in the copter and flew high out of sight.

Jeannie’s hand now contained only Total Recall and Time Control.

Meanwhile, the Pod Spawner crawled slowly toward Jeannie, she pinched off a black Pod—Disease Cloud, whose touch means death. The two Pods advanced slowly toward Jeannie with Pod Spawner to her right.

Jeannie cast Total Recall to draw three cards to replace the ones she had used. She drew Amber Bearer, Theranos, and Froggify. Jeannie cast the Theranos—whose power immediately adhered to the power of Fire Carver’s fire lariat. Combined with the power of Lady Zhurong’s armor, which prevented damage, Jeannie felt fairly well-equipped to battle the Pods.

Disease Cloud was disgusting to look at, resembling hunched, huge-beaked vampire covered in giant leeches and maggots. I hope those things falling off them aren’t autonomous, Jeannie thought. As she watched, some of the leeches and maggots fell to the floor and became little puddles.

Jeannie circled to her left, placing the Pod Spawner behind Disease Cloud so she could deal with one at a time. It would take time for the slow-crawling Spawner, who took damage from casting Disease Cloud, to flank her again. She waited for Disease Cloud to advance within reach of her whip and then lunged forward and snapped the whip with a two-handed overhand motion.

The whip cracked and spit purple fire as it sliced Disease Cloud in half. The Pod remained upright for half a second, then, as the halves fell to the ground, leeches and maggots boiled out of its interior, falling to the floor and liquifying along with the Pod’s body. The puddle boiled and quickly spread toward Jeannie.

Skirting the stinking and rapidly evaporating wave of liquid, Jeannie whirled her whip around her head to keep the Pod Spawner at bay as she retreated to the pentangle and enclosed herself again. When she heard the Pod Spawner approaching the left side of the pentangle, she rotated out the right side and ran 30 feet away.

That damage the Pod Spawner took by spawning Disease Cloud is taking its toll, she thought. The Spawner is hurting.

With a groaning effort, the Pod Spawner hauled her bulk around the side of the pentangle and pinched off Dark Fury. The hideous tubular dragon had one huge, sharp, spiked arm that was almost as tall as the Pod itself. Jeannie used the Amber Bearer to cast Froggify, which turned Dark Fury into a small purple frog. The frog lurched sideways before hopping feebly toward Jeannie uttering, “Ribbit!”

Suppressing a giggle, Jeannie quickly cast Time Control to get seven new cards. To her surprise, she only found six cards in her bag: Opal Bearer, Peridot Bearer, Fire Elemental, Dark Fury, Malevolent Growth, and Deadly Shock.

What the hell, she thought as she backed away from the slowly advancing Pod Spawner and the comically menacing frog. Where is the seventh card? She looked in the bag and couldn’t find any more cards. Damn, I must be out of cards! Shit!

She needed to get on with the battle quickly, so she played Fire Elemental. The blue frog instantly burst into flame as thin lines of rippling fire encircled it. It leaped ineffectually at Jeannie with its mouth agape before flopping over on its back. As the fire seared its belly, it burst open, propelling thousands of small, dead, black ants. The frog body turned black and shriveled until it was no more.

The Pod Spawner lurched forward and quickly squeezed out Dark Predator, a snarling four-legged demon with huge claws and snake-like hair.

Hah! She’s getting desperate, Jeannie thought. Unlike the previous Pods, though, this one is fast and nimble.

Jeannie moved quickly to cast Malevolent Growth. Dark Predator immediately sprouted multicolored stinking tumors that grew at a lightning rate. Some popped, spraying a foul liquid in Jeannie’s direction. Jeannie retreated, but some of the goo landed on her armor. Damn good thing this is enchanted armor, she thought. If that stuff stings as bad as it smells, I could be a hurting unit. As she watched, the gigantic tumors totally enveloped the Pod, smothering it to death.

“Oh, yeah! I think I just got in touch with my inner monster!” Jeannie said.

The effort of splitting Dark Predator so quickly obviously had drained the Pod Spawner further. Her forelimbs were limp wrinkling tubes. Her back legs were dragging as she slithered feebly toward Jeannie. She groaned three times and finally struggled to squeeze off a new Pod, Life Drain.

Jeannie recognized the significance of this choice instantly. Life Drain is a siphon for life. Pod Spawner is definitely on her last legs if she needs to siphon life, she thought.

Jeannie cast Deadly Shock just as Life Drain leapt at her. A gigantic laser beam streamed down from above and incinerated Life Drain in an instant. The battlefield filled with an acrid stink. Jeannie started coughing.

Jeannie figured it was time to use Dark Fury, a kind of nuclear option which kills all creatures on the battlefield. She needed to do it quickly before the Pod Spawner could squeeze out another pod. But she was short mana. She needed four mana to cast Dark Fury, but she only had two, from Opal Bearer and Peridot Bearer.

If only I had been able to draw all seven cards via Time Control!

The Pod Spawner dragged herself slowly toward Jeannie. Jeannie retreated to the revolving pentangle, and the Spawner labored to follow after her.

Jeannie was beginning to panic as she rotated the pentangle to form a compartment. What can I do? Perhaps I’ll need to use Fire Carver’s fire lariat again or Flame Burst’s wristlets, assuming they can still produce fire.

The Pod Spawner squeezed an appendage through the tiny opening between the back wall and the card wall. It grew seven grasping fingers and blindly groped at Jeannie.

Desperate, Jeannie stuffed her hand into the dice bag and felt something soft. She looked inside and saw the top of a Black Dahlia petal protruding from a hidden pocket. Omigod! That’s the seventh card! It was hidden all this time! And it’s three mana!

Quickly she withdrew the Black Dahlia flower and cast it and the Opal Bearer. Then, with the Pod Spawner’s fingers a hand’s breadth away from her face, she cast Dark Fury. The Pod Spawner’s arm disappeared, and all Jeannie could see was a bright white light. She covered her eyes. It was several minutes before she could again see the walls of her compartment. She rotated the pentangle a bit and looked outside. She was alone on the battlefield except for the giant Black Dahlia card standing 15 feet from her.

“Congratulations, novice,” the card said. “You have passed the tests and dispatched your adversaries with great speed. We see greatness in you. Your power is formidable, and you have the potential to be the most powerful mage in the world.”

Jeannie blinked in surprise at this.

“However, you have much to learn and must be carefully taught. You must undertake the 40 days of mentorship we mentioned earlier.”

Emotionally and physically exhausted, the idea of enduring more agony at the hands of the haughty Black Dahlia enraged Jeannie. “What if I say no?”

“That is not an option for one of your talents.”

“That’s what you think,” Jeannie said. She raised her arms and shot fire at the Black Dahlia using Flame Burst’s wristlets. The giant card crumpled, smoking and crippled. Ragingly mad, Jeannie took Fire Carver’s lariat from her belt and was moving in to strike again when, in a blink, she was back in the café.

Overcome with nausea, she gripped the table edges and placed her forehead on its surface. Oh, my fucking god! I think I’m gonna be sick, she thought. But she stemmed the tide of vomit in her throat and after a minute, lifted her head to look around the café. Nobody seemed to be staring at her. The cards were still flashing by on her iPad. She glanced at her watch. It seemed that hardly any time had passed.

OK, that had to be some kind of psychedelic trip, she thought. Perhaps it was that crazy grain in the muffin, that spelt. She opened a new tab on her browser and typed a query: psychedelic grain.

“Ergot!” she said aloud. Then quickly looked around. A guy across the way gave her a weird look.

That’s the psychedelic fungus they thought caused the Salem witches and lots of other witch incidents, she thought. I’ll bet the spelt in the muffin sent me on a trip! Yeah, that must be it. What a weird dream! She looked around the café again. Wait a minute! That chick looks like Bright Knife. And over there, she looks like Fire Carver, sitting with Flame Burst! She turned around to look at the back half of the seating area. Yup, there’s Lady Zhurong. And you were there, and you and you, and you! Well, Dorothy, it looks like you’re back in Kansas again, but at least it’s not in black and white.

Satisfied that she’d solved the mystery, Jeannie got up and dumped the rest of the muffin in the trash. She briefly thought about telling the barista, but thought that would sound crazy, and decided to leave well enough alone. When she returned to her booth, she shut down the Magic Universe card carousel app. I think I’ve had about enough Magic for today, she thought. Now, what should I wear tonight? Something low-cut, of course. That Juston is a sucker for boobs. She laughed at her inadvertent joke.

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