Chapter 9

August 24th, 2010

Paris, France

2.00 AM

Hissss….

Night had long ago fallen over Paris, and though light still shone from the secretly beleaguered city, it seemed dampened, muffled. Light was a killer – it gave your position away, and was the arbiter of that which was good. What was happening this night had no business mixing with it.

The manhole cover shifted more, and another rush of hot air hissed out of the hole in the ground. It was followed by a taloned hand, and then another. A beast of the deep rose out of the sewers, ready to strike fear in the hearts of men.

James concentrated and turned back into human form.

A halo of fire surrounded him, blinding a homeless man who had looked on in terror. The light then died, leaving the wizard in absolute darkness. He turned and looked down the hole, and then hissed "Come on – we've only got three hours before sunrise. We have to get in and out in that time."

Two more men crawled out of the sewer, still in their monstrous forms. They quickly changed back, without the unnecessary ring of fire, and then they approached the worn-down set of buildings just off the road. Behind them glimmered the river Seine, moonlight reflecting off the surface to disguise its murky depths. The Wizards spared it no thought, and advanced in to a dark tunnel, leaving the now blind homeless man to crawl around in the dark and curse his ill fortune in rapid French.

The alleyway twisted and turned, shops looming out of the darkness. A sign barely still attached to the post it hung from proclaimed the alley "Le Rue du le Mort", an instant sign that this was not the territory of normal humans. "The Street of the Dead" was not a moniker humans usually gave to their roads. No, this was certainly not human.

The alley spread out in to a pavilion, with torches in each corner burning brightly, illuminating the square. In the centre, upon a pedestal, was a large brazier, made of woven steel, eye-defying loops and curves – in short, a work of beauty. Even this, however, paled in comparison to what was in the brazier.

A pillar of purple flame at least two stories high burned out of this brazier, dizzying in its height and awesome in its splendour. James stared up at the fire for a moment in sheer awe before turning to the others and whispering "Spread out. Let's find the professor."

"Wait-" hissed one of his men, but James had already set off across the pavilion, paying no attention to his more experienced inferior. The man sighed, and then turned to his partner. "He's too reckless. There's way too little defence – they must want us to come in… like cows to the slaughter."

The man made no response, and the original turned away, staring at the flames that rose far above his head. The fire seemed… incandescent. Ethereal. Almost as though it was hypnotizing him – but of course it couldn't be doing that. He shook his head, and turned back to his partner, only to find him gone.

"What the…?"

He then looked down, and his eyes widened. On the ground stood a tabby cat with black paws – something that shouldn't have happened in nature. The cat had glittering red eyes, and wicked fangs that were at least 5 centimetres longer than they should have been. Its tail waved back and forth, and the beast looked almost as though it were prepared to pounce.

"Oh shi-"

Every atom in his body suddenly seemed to be sentient, each vying for attention. He could feel every electron bouncing, every protein, every neuron – every part of him was alive. He revelled in the moment, the world suddenly bright and colourful, talking to him, screaming at him, crying at him.

Then, every atom in his body divided, and what was once a man became a raging inferno.

James felt the heat before he turned to see it, a rushing wall of flame behind him. Had he been human, he would have barely had the time to think Bright Light before he was vaporized. However, as a Wizard, he had a little more time, and in that split second he threw up a 360 degree shield – in other words, an orb.

The wall of fire struck him, and threw him back, through about five walls which were quickly disintegrated by the blast. Above him loomed an ever growing mushroom cloud, darkening the Parisian sky with its menacing mass. Over night, the number of cancer patients in the nearest hospitals nearly tripled.

James landed with a thud, the shattered pieces of his shield melting away around him. The world around him seemed a netherworld, a shimmering, heat-ridden hell. The Wizard quickly set up a shield to filter the radioactivity that was flowing through him, to protect his body. He then set up a heat shield, and looked around. All of the buildings had been levelled by the blast, leaving a large, circular plain, outside of which the buildings of non-magical Paris seemed wholly unaffected by the destruction. He noticed that the heat seemed to form a dome overhead as well.

His gun had melted already. James sighed, and then slowly and painfully rose to his feet. He reached out with his magic around him, only to find that the area around him – the land, the air, the fire – it was all devoid of inherent magic. If he ran out of magic, if he over extended himself, he wouldn't be able to heal himself.

Cursing, James started walking back in the approximate direction he'd come it – towards the Street of the Dead. As he approached, through the haze he saw something astonishing – the purple pillar of fire, still burning out of its brazier, throwing out almost no light. James approached it, and reached out towards it, his eyes narrowed. The heat shield protected him as he reached in. He felt some sort of fabric, and pulled.

Immediately, there was force pulling back, and James had to add magical strength to his arms to pull the cloth out of the fire. However, instead of cloth, he got a full arm, and then a torso, a head, legs. A full body came out of the fire, coughing up blood, broken spectacles hanging from his nose. He lay on the ground for a moment, and James cast a temporary anti-radioactivity and anti-heat shield on him. He then rolled over, and stared blankly at the red sky. He then started speaking rapidly in French.

"Hang on," James said softly, "I can't understand you."

The man blinked, and seemed to see James for the first time.

"You… Wizard?"

James nodded, and the man smiled softly.

"Good. Paris is lost."

"What do you mean?" James asked, glancing around. The explosion had seemed to be contained within the magical bubble – Paris was fully intact. "Paris isn't lost at all. We're on the verge of retaking it!"

The man laughed weakly, and then rolled on his side and coughed up more blood. James flinched, and then siphoned a bit of magic off in order to try and heal the man. He instantly met a massively powerful barrier in his way, stopping him from healing his wounded patient. The man rolled back on to his back.

"Boy, do you know who I am?"

James frowned, and said "Doctor Argent Headley?"

The doctor smiled, and nodded. "I am. However, it was a trap – the Chol have already retaken Paris. I was taken, tortured for information, and then used for bait. You should not have come – the Chol abandoned this centre of operations years ago. It was a small price to pay for hopefully wiping out the entire Wizard operation in Paris. How many men died?"

"Two."

The doctor smiled, and said "I'm glad that they didn't get the majority of our troops then. We may still have a chance. They'll likely have already struck with a counterstroke at the hotel already – and there are far more of them. It'll be a miracle if our troops survive."

"We're better trained," James said stubbornly. "I'm sure we'll win."

Headley laughed bitterly, and said, "Is that what they told you in training? That we're stronger, that we're smarter - that we're better? Is that what they said?"

"Yeah, and it's true, isn't it?"

"Hardly. The Chol are equal to or more powerful than us. We're losing this war boy, and I-" He was taken over by a spasm of coughing, and then slowly recovered. "I think we're going to die out. The Chol have the two most populous countries in the world to convert their warriors from. We have the third, but it's not enough. China and India together giver them a vast majority over us."

"Well, once we take Paris, we can take the rest of Europe!" proclaimed James, but the Doctor shook his head.

"You, maybe. Not me. They've poisoned me with Cerulean Fire. I'm done for – your mission was in vain. Leave me here… go save your comrades."

"…Yes sir," James said softly, standing up slowly from his crouching position. The man grimaced as a spasm ripped through his body, and then murmured, "What is your name, boy?"

"James, sir. James Crowe."

"Well then," the Doctor said, smiling slightly. "I would salute you, but my arms seem to not be able to move. Ah well, "C'est la vie" as we French say. Go join the fight. I bid thee farewell, James Crowe…"

Then, Doctor Argent Headley, founder of the 17th Wizard Legion, stared at the nuclear sky, and though his eyes never closed, a fundamental shift in the way he stared at the sky told James the truth.

The doctor was dead.

James raced along the shore of the River Seine, drawing in power from all around him as he ran, magically gasping as though he had been holding his breath. Not being able to draw in magic was a painful experience, one he hoped not to have to repeat any time soon.

As he drew closer to the hotel, running at an incredibly high speed with all thoughts of stealth gone, he thought he could hear the tell-tale sounds of gunfire, and the crackle of fire. He turned a corner, and started up the road towards his hotel. Now he could definitely see the blasts of fire, and the spray of bullets that blazed as Chol and Wizard met in combat. James raced up to the hotel, and was about to enter the fray when he had an idea.

The Wizard circled the building to the back, magic still lending speed to his legs. He soon found what he was looking for – a fire escape. Using magic, he leaped up to the ladder hanging about five metres above his head, and then slowly began to ascend. However, he was not unnoticed. Soon, two men around whom he could see a distinctive red aura – a positively blinding halo of light – ran around a bend, blood spattering in a trail behind them. They passed right under the climbing James, before stopping and turning. One of them yelled something in French, and pointed his gun up at him. The other man looked confused for a moment, before noticing James as well and pointing his gun at him.

James furrowed his eyebrows, and channelled magic in to the wall next to him. He slammed the palm of his hand in to the brick wall, and as it literally sank in, he curled his fingers, and pulled an AK-74 out of the wall. He aimed down, and began to fire. The first man dropped, cursing and clutching his gun arm, but the second man fired wildly upwards.

A searing pain shot through James's left leg, nearly incapacitating him. He pointed the gun downwards, and, baring his teeth in order to attempt to block out the pain, James fired. The bullet whizzed downwards, and shot through the man's brain, instantly killing him. Blood sprayed out, and landed on the concrete.

First blood.

James felt sick. No amount of training could have prepared him for what it felt like to take another life – the blood, the gore. He had not been a killer before, and despite what the Wizards had tried to do with him, he was not one now – right?

The Wizard slowly dragged himself up the fire escape, nearing the top. He tried to heal his leg, but something seemed to be stopping him. He climbed up to the top of the building, and flopped up over the edge. He panted for a moment, before looking up at the sky.

Well, it would have been the sky, had there not been a gun barrel pointing in his face.

"Say goodnight," The Chol pointing it in his face grinned.