Lightning Rod

The beginning of an end

The rain continued to fall through the evening. Mist filled the streets of Seattle, hiding the peaks of the 'scrapers. Salamander wandered alone through the valleys of the city, chilled by the rain and wind even though his leather trench coat. He enjoyed evenings like this, the fog covered enough of the urban setting to let him imagine his youth, and walks through mist filled forests in New England. The maples and oaks, with leaves starting to bud in the early spring. The feeling of slushed snow seeping through boots... Damn it, he thought. I've got to stop this and keep my mind on the present.

Another police car went buy. Two blocks and two cars, Salamander thought to himself. I'm definitely close to the slums. As a matter of principle, the police did not patrol the business district. The major corporations, with their vast wealth, maintained their own protection from the 'outside'. These guards protect employees and add security to the billions of dollars invested in high-tech equipment inside each compound. Whatever the surface look the guards maintained, they were nothing more than private armies. In the shadows the major corporations waged wars with each other, struggling to be the top in the industry and crushing the rest. When economic battles are not enough, a well timed strike by security can turn the tide. The police, whom were rarely as well trained or armed as the corporate guards, avoided the business district. Through aggressive lobbying of the corporations, the police were convinced to 'ignore' the business district: it would take care of its self.

Another block. The buildings were becoming more and more disheveled, some abandoned and others burned out. Those stores still in business were unique and self supporting, though barely. Some survived as fronts for gangs or black market suits. Probably most of the shops are both, Salamander amended his thoughts. The faint roar of a motorcycle grabbed his attention, and he became acutely aware of his surroundings. The street was deserted, except for a lone man walking on the other side of the street. The roar of the cycle was coming closer, a growing thunder muffled in the fog. As it continued to draw closer, the sound changed; there was more than one bike. Gangers, Salamander concluded. Great. Turning around to find cover, he noticed the man across the street duck into an alley to hide.

Salamander turned to head for the nearest alley on his side of the street when suddenly stars exploded before his eyes. He rolled over, realizing that he was on the ground, and got to his knees. Dazed, he steadied himself with his arm and looked up. And up again. Before him stood a monster of a man, two and a half meters tall. A dwarfed cap sat on a mop of thick black hair on his head. With blood-shot yellow eyes he looked down at Salamander and cracked his knuckles. His gang jacket, one that Salamander did not recognize, hung open, revealing that he was not armed or armored. A fist fight was not something Salamader could hope to win, and with the rest of the gang coming, he didn't have much time to take cover. The ganger stepped and wound up to kick Salamander hard. Swords Deuce! Salamander thought as he focused his magic and raised his arms. The ganger's scream of pain let Salamander know the man had no clue what happened. With confidence and dweomer running through him, Salamander stood. The man braced himself on the side of the building, keeping his left foot off of the ground. The steel toed boots had been all that kept the ganger from breaking his foot. Even still the pain was evident on his face. With determination the he lunged at Salamander with a fist, hoping to break his head. Grinning in victory at the unmoving Salamander, he swung.

The fist, nearly the size of Salamander's own head, stopped dead as if it had hit a wall a foot in front of Salamander's face. There were a few snap sounds as bones in the giant's wrist and had broke under the strain. This guy is not used to fighting in the big league, Salamander thought. Focusing his will again, Salamander attacked the man's mind. With a roar, the ganger clutched at his own head, unable to understand what was happening. With a final moan, the man collapsed, dead.

A bead of sweat fell down the side of Salamander's face. With a gasp of relief he released the barrier magic that had blocked the punch. The effort to maintain the barrier while making the mental attack was not small, and it was a second wind he felt when he dropped the barrier. Moving over to the body, he peered down the alley to see if the man had friends. No one, good. Salamander ducked into the alley and waited. The gang didn't like people like Salamander in their turf at night, and after geeking one of their own, he would be hunted down. In silence Salamander drew his pistol and waited. Spells were effective, but very draining. Gangers should be easy enough if surprise is used.

The first of the cycles came into view under the street lamp. The rider stopped and dismounted, leaving the bike in the middle of the road. He ran over to the downed man and inspected the body as the other bikers, five in all, approached the scene and stopped.

"Ritger's dead," the ganger announced to his friends. "No, he ain't been shot no wounds. His nose is bleeding," was his response to questions about the cause. "God damn mages," the ganger muttered.

Salamander didn't wait another moment. He fired a burst of rounds at the kneeling man. All three hit, and the man dropped without another sound. He didn't even have a chance to be surprised. His friends, still on their bikes and stunned by the sudden attack, were too slow to react as Salamander aimed and fired another burst at one of them. Two of the three shots hit and the man fell back with a yell, but Salamander didn't wait to see of he got back up. Instead, he fell back into the alley as bullets buried themselves into the corner of the building. He gathered his will again and sent forth a small sphere of energy. The ball, shot at one of the gang, hit her in the midsection. She tried to scream, but it was cut short when she was consumed with convulsions. The electricity of the sphere attacked her nerves and muscles as it jolted her to death.

The remaining gangers fired back at Salamander when he showed himself to cast the spell, but the Mage had ducked back around the corner too fast. Salamander prepared to fire again with his pistol when he heard a scream cut in mid voice, a shot, and then another yelp of pain, then silence. Salamander jumped from behind his cover, his pistol leveled at where the gangers had been. The two bikers that remained were now on the ground, dead. One beheaded, and the other missing his right arm. Above them stood a man dressed in a black fatigues.

Salamander recognized him as the man who had been across the street before the attack. In the light Salamander was startled by the man's face, which was painted like a harlequin. Another freak of the streets, Salamander thought. He lowered his gun, but readied an attack with his mind if the man moved forward. With a smile, the man bowed and sheathed his sword in one motion.

"You are very practiced in the art of magic, my friend," the man said with a touch of an English accent. Salamander guessed the man was in his mid-twenties by his voice, which strained slightly to fake the accent. "You were fortunate to have it, as gangs can be very violent. I have sworn to kill every last member of this gang, and I thank you for your 'assistance'. If you excuse me, I must continue. Good morrow."

And with that the man walked back across the street and into the shadows. The faint sound of police sirens warned Salamander that he too needed to disappear. With a whisper about shadows Salamander shimmered, became transparent, and then disappeared. Had anyone seen him, they would have sworn he had become part of the fog. Salamander walked on, and sustained the spell for three blocks, then hid in an alcove to release it. Damn maniacs around here, he thought again of the harlequin vigilante, then continued on his way.
* * * * * *

Salamander coughed lightly when he entered the bar. Damn, he thought, I'd think I'd be used to this by now. He surveyed the room from under the brim of his hat. Most of the tables were full; three to four people sitting in closed circles and muted conversation. No one conversation stood out, but the mulled voices resembled the meditation of a Buddhist monk. Barmaids whisked between tables serving ale and mead. Salamander tallied the types of patrons in the room. Great. Moving to an empty booth near the back of the room Salamander caught sidelong glances. Unlike most of the people here, Salamander had no visible cyberware or weapon, which drew more attention than any hardware would have. He thought to them all, you do not want to mess with me.

He made it to the empty booth he sat down, pushing his overcoat under his legs, Salamander slid onto the bench. The Seatle rain had slickened his coat; on the vinyl bench cushion he slid easily in. No one was watching too closely, Salamander decided with satisfaction. Maybe I'll be able to get out of here without a problem. As if in response his jaw throbbed with dull pain. Rubbing it, he signaled the waitress over to him.

"A Guinness," he said. pushing her his credstick.

"You're late," she said, taking the credstick and heading back to the bar.

Salamander grunted. If you were caught in a gang fight, you'd be later that I am. He closed his eyes and concentrated. Life energy. Aura; essence of Life, Ace of Rods... Salamander opened his eyes again and looked around.

Where beings were, now masses of glowing energy sat. The people at the table closest to Salamander radiated blue. Areas of their beings were blackened by electronics buried in their bodies. Most were to amplify physical attributes, but some were computers existing in their brains. One being drew Salamander's attention. His aura was bright, with no electronics to inhibit his life essence. A pair of bright white spheres dangled from his neck. They were the energy signatures of talismans, property of the mage whom they ornamented. In comparison Salamander's aura was brighter, and Salamander knew he could take him if need be. But those chummers he's hanging with are probably his friends. Your friends are nowhere near here, he reminded himself. No sense in getting geeked here. He closed his eyes and opened them, seeing the physical world again.

The barmaid returned with his beer and credstick. She placed the tray down and left him to drink in piece. Taking a long draw from the foaming glass he seemingly stared at the empty bench across from him. He pretended not to watch the man approaching his table. Faintly he heard Scotland the Brave playing over the jukebox. A few chuckles through the crowd made Salamander grimace. Bastards, he thought. How would you like to lose your homes? The man sat down across from Salamander with a half empty glass.

"You Scots are all alike, always moping about your home," the man said gruffly, asking to be hit. Salamander shifted his expression to neutrality, and ignored him while taking another draw from his mug. "If any of you got together to do something about it, you's make a formidable army. But getting together is the tough part, eh? Not one of you knows who started it, or even who pushed the button." Salamander continued to drink. "A bloody bit frustrating, wouldn't you agree?"

Salamader finish his beer, and motioned for the barmaid to refill it. "I didn't come here to be insulted, laddie." He looked the man square in his eyes. The leather fedora the man wore sat low on his head, but from beneath the brim eyes bore holes in everyone in the room. It almost seemed the man could watch everyone in the room while staring at Salamander. Salamander curved his lip a little in disgust at the man's slighting. If he wanted a confrontation, he'll get it. With a small push of his will, Salamander made his eyes glow faintly for a moment. "You should be a little less insulting to a customer, especially a mage."

"What to you want?" The man let Salamander's challenge go. If he had taken the Mage's warning to heart, or if the etiquette of business required it, Salamander couldn't tell. Or were some of the other bar patrons his friends?

"Information about the Eridani Corporation. Specifically what is going to be on the trucks heading out of Seattle later this week." Salamander nodded to the barmaid as she handed him his drink.

"Do I look like a routing schedule?" The man expressed his pain at the request. In truth, the haggle had begun. "Wednesday night, at a place of my chosing, seven thousand."

Salamander pretended to consider it, then refuted. "It's child's play. Three thousand and tomorrow night. Right here."

"You want child's play, go to the playground. Tomorrow night? It'll cost you for express delivery. And my operative, she ain't cheap either. Five thousand." The man nodded, but not to Salamander.

So, he does have friends here. Salamander didn't turn around, though the hair on the back of his neck stood. He tried to think what he had seen behind him. The orc mage? It didn't matter too much, he just had to keep his cool and continue the bargaining. Salamander did consider this one. Obtaining the schedule would be more than the man bargains for. "Done, but I will meet you here. Tomorrow." He finished his beer then stood up. The man stayed where he was, watching Salamander.

"You better bring the money," the man said. "And no friends." The man seemed confident that Salamander was desperate for his services. Why else would he agree to such a high price for tomorrow night? He smiled thinly.

"You better have the right information. I have other sources." Salamander left it at that, not caring what the man's expression was. He was intently aware of the crowd as he moved through it. If any of them moved to attack, Salamander would have noticed. None did, and he left the bar, back into the rain of Seattle. Lightning flashed in the distance, and a moment later thunder rolled over the slums.
* * * * *

Salamander wandered home in a seemingly random pattern. At times he would double back on his path to take a turn that he had 'forgotten'. "Bloody frustrating." The words of the contact rang in his ears. If I didn't need his talents, I'd kill him for that, Salamander told himself. Don't quite know who the enemy is, do you? Do we? No. Not yet. But soon. Salamander kicked a rock into the street. It's clack across the pavement echoed on the brick buildings surrounding him. A car passed by, humming quietly on its electric cell. Salamander concentrated on listening to it as splashed through rain puddles, then turn. Four blocks, Salamander decided. Though he wasn't particularly worried about the car, he passed the time by meticulously observing his surroundings. Maybe next time you won't get jumped by a god damn thug, he told himself. Suddenly he noticed a presence. He didn't hear anything, but it was as if he felt someone existing behind him.

With one fluid motion Salamander spun and drew his pistol. Before he saw the actual body his arm was grabbed and the pistol removed from his grasp. An elbow dug itself into his ribs, though not painfully. Realizing he was about to be thrown, Salamander gathered his will and lashed out. His attacker was thrown as the spell picked him up and threw him like a toy. With an "ooph!" he hit a brick wall and collapsed. Salamander set himself in a fighting stance, as though he was ready to take the man in unarmed combat. Twitch the wrong way and your brain is mud, pal, Salamander thought, readying a spell.

"Damn it. With a mage, you always have to watch for the second wave." The voice sounded familiar to Salamander. When the man stood up and his face became visible, Salamander recognized him: the harlequin he had run across earlier that evening. "Are you always that jumpy and quick to kill with magic?" The man was rubbing his side; the spell had thrown him a good distance. "Nothing broken," he muttered. Realizing Salamander hadn't let down his guard, the man continued. "Don't worry, no one else followed you. I made sure of it."

Salamander didn't budge. What the hell is this guy doing here? It didn't seem like a trap, but it is the ones you don't expect that nab you. "Why are you following me?" Salamander reached down and picked up his pistol, never letting his eyes leave the harlequin. His apartment was across the street, and by the lights, he knew that Vantangaloo was there. Any gun fire would draw the shaman's attention. This guy wouldn't stand a chance.

"Well, meeting you earlier was the start. People like you don't wander the slums for their health." The man's forced accent was smoother, as though this was a rehearsed speech. "As I said, my charge was to dispatch the rest of the gang and find who was responsible for their actions. When I found out who it was, I decided to follow you. For I had a hunch that you were working on something big. After you talked to the contact I questioned him. You should really find someone else, he was rather easy to get to spill his guts."

Damn it! Salamander thought. After I get the information tomorrow he is as good as dead. "What do you want?" he asked the man. One shot. Vantangaloo would be at the window with spell and a shotgun. This guy is as good as...

"To join you. As I said, I was charged with serving justice, and when I found out who hired the gang before, the enemy had a new face: Eridani Industries." He smiled at Salamander's look of surprise. "It seems you and I have a common goal. Care to join forces? Whatever you plan on doing to the shipping truck can't be good for the company, and it would be a start as I wreak vengeance upon them."

Salamander studied him carefully. He was slender, but even under the loose fitting clothes and cape Salamander could see the man was well built. The harlequin face added a horrorific touch to an already intimidating appearance. The sword the man had used earlier was not visible, but Salamander was sure that it was there. A fifth to our group would be helpful, he thought. Another muscle, and another mind to help us get through this. "We'll see. My comrads will have to agree to it first. Is there a way I can reach you?"

"No," the man said. "But I know you will be returning tomorrow to get the information about the trucks. Rest assured that I paid your contact well enough not to speak to anyone else about this matter. I will find you on your way." The man bowed, and stepped back into the shadows. The alley swallowed him, leaving only his parting words. "My apologies, but you may call me Jester."

Fitting, a fool, Salamander thought. The Fool- a new beginning and a path to happiness. With a sigh he turned around and crossed the street. A cold Guinness would be helpful right now. His jaw throbbed again in remembrance of the gang.
* * * * * *

Salamander opened the door to his apartment to be hit with the smell of pasta and sauce. Grinder is home, too. His pasta was always a welcome treat. At least the rest of the group had a nice evening. "I'm home," he said as though to a wife and kids. The first person he saw was Vantangaloo, slouched in a chair, watching television. He was tall and dark haired. He wore an old, torn tee-shirt that faintly read "Arizona". Dirty jeans covered his calf high snake-skin boots. Until coming to Seatle, Vantangaloo had wandered the deserts of the Southwest. After two years, Vantangaloo still wore his desert clothes. Both Salamander and Grinder had come to the conclusion that that was the only way Van could dress.

Like Salamander, Vantangaloo was fully engrossed by magic. He would meditate for hours, or immerse himself in a book about theory. But unlike Salamander, who drew his energy from his own will and inner strength, Van was a Shaman, and power was drawn from spirits.

Van wandered the deserts when he was young, without sight or direction. In his travels he met an old tribesman who straightened his life out. Van studied for ten years with the native Americans, learning about the spirits of the land, and how to work with them to create magic. Without them, I would still be a lost; a wasted soul, Vantangaloo would tell anyone who asked for story. Though they disagreed greatly on theory, Salamander and Vantangaloo (who was known as Dire Wolf on the streets) respected each other's thirst to learn. While magic did not consume all of their time, it was a big part of their lives.

An arm reached up in a stretch from the other side of the chair, and Salamander realized that he hadn't noticed his other guest. Sitting up, Vixen looked as though she had just awoken from a long nap. With half open eyes, she smiled his way. "Good morning, Sal," she said. Arching her back to loose the kinks in it, Vixen ran a hand through her long, shiny black hair. As she pulled at her hair the data jack planted on the side of her head became visible.

It was a small plate, only an inch across. There was no LED, only a small jack to where Vixen could connect the computer in her head to the rest of the Internet. Vixen was what was known as a decker. She could transfer her consciousness to the machines and information byways of the world. Though he never understood it, Salamander assumed that it was like being in astral space, a form of out of body experience. Vixen used it as a way to get information for her friends in minutes that normally would take days. Some of it she obtained legally, but other times, as Salamander was attempting to through his own contact; the illegal transfer of information was the only way to get it.

Vixen had followed Vantangaloo north when he left the tribe. Though not romantically involved with each other, the two of them were very close friends. They met Salamander after the three of them found themselves on the same side of a misunderstanding in a bar. Vixen and Vantangaloo were compelled to join Salamander in his crusade against a nameless enemy, who now assumed they were helping him. Vantangaloo enjoyed having a place where he could study quietly, and Vixen had a place where she could safely explore the internet. While her consciousness was in the machine, her body was limp and vulnerable. Salamander's apartment allowed them a place to call home, and safely pursue their hobbies. They could also protect each other while they tried to discover who was Salamander's enemy.

"Did you make a setup time?" A low gutteral voice asked from behind him. Salamander turned around, taking his jacket off in the same motion. He could not help but smile when he saw his friend. "Grinder" was a nickname of Salamander's life long friend. His thick black hair was cut short, and with his build gave him a military grunt physique. His toothy smile was punctuated with exaggerated incisors. What Made Salamander smile was the tomato sauce spattered smock that read "Kiss the cook". For all his tough exterior, Grinder was a true friend to Salamander.

"Yeah, tomorrow night," Salamander said. "We're going to have a problem getting it, but it shouldn't be a problem. Did you save me any?" Salamander's stomach growled in response to his sudden desire for food.

"You bet I did," Grinder said. Salamander noticed that Van had turned off the TV.

"What do you mean by a problem?" Van asked. His voice was not accusing, but filled with concern. Collecting information should not be a life or death struggle, he always felt.

"Well," Salamander said, "it looks like the contact is not as straight as he claimed to be." Salamander recounted the events with the gang, the meeting (though excluded the comments about Scotland) and the second encounter with Jester. The rest of the group nodded, agreeing they should go tomorrow as backup, in case Salamander was double-crossed.

"What about the Jester?" Vixen asked. "He said he'd find you tomorrow night. Do you trust him? I don't." Van nodded in agreement.

"Yes, and no," was all Salamander could say at first. "I trust him to really be on our side of this deal, but as he said, he is on a vengeance quest. Who knows how deep it is, and what we might get tangled with."

"And your plans of vengeance on an unknown enemy of your Scottish home is not as entangling? At first we had nothing to do with it," Vixen motioned to Van and herself. "But you and Grinder have done a rather good job of dragging us in."

"And there is the door if you want out," Salamander said. He didn't want to go through this argument again with her. She did have a point. Jester was going to make a fine addition to our band, Salamander decided. He glared at the young lady, who unblinking glared back.

"We're so wrapped up in it, even if we left we would still be caught in your web. We either stick though it and win, or die trying. You left us no choice." Vixen turned and sat back down in the chair that Van had abandoned. She closed her eyes as she plugged the datajack into her head, and was gone.

"I know that we can't escape this, Salamander," Van said, almost as apology for Vixen's comment. "But for the world I would never abandon you. Your suffering is shared by those of us who remember. If you will excuse me, some fresh air would be best for me. I need to stretch my paws." And with that Van left without a jacket into the damp night.

One of Van's forms of relaxation was to take on the form of a giant wolf and walk the grounds of the park a few blocks down. When he said he was going to stretch his paws, Van was serious.

"Com'on," Grinder said to Salamander. "The pasta is about ready."
* * * * * * *

The next day was as dreary as the night before as the rain continued to fall. Salamander sometimes wondered why the city of Seattle wasn't washed away by it all. With a flick of his wrist, the coffee he had been drinking was spread over the sidewalk in front of him. Cold, he thought disappointedly. Where are they?

As if cued, a form emerged from the shadow of a building entranceway in front of him. It turned towards him and bowed. Harlequin, Salamander thought. Well, he did say he was going to meet me tonight. I wonder how long he has been watching?

"Good evening, Salamander," Jester said in his bow. "As I said I would, I have found you. Have you and your friends decided on whether or not to accept my offer?"

"Yes," Salamander said, then paused. "We have considered, and we accept. My friends will be here soon, and you can meet them. I'll warn you now, don't expect us to trust you." No sense in letting him know they're late. Salamander leaned back against the lamp post and waited. From his stance, he hoped Jester would get the idea that he didn't want to talk. Jester didn't.

"Many thanks, friend. I am confident that in time you will learn to trust me, for my intentions are sincere, and much aligned with your own, it seems." Jested moved to lean against the building across from Salamander's post. "Your friends will be here momentarily, the transit schedule is off today." He smiled at Salamander's look of suspicion. "Not anyone's doing, it has just been an off day for city transportation." A sound from behind Salamander told him that someone had come around the corner. "Ah, here they are."

Salamander casually turned around. It bothered him that this 'Jester' knew who his friends were, where they were, and why they were late. At least they were here now. Salamander nodded in approval of their arrival - and that it was safe to approach.

For a group expecting a fight, on the surface they didn't look like any form of threat. Everyone had taken care to hide their armaments. Both Salamander and Vantangaloo wore leather trench coats. Where Salamander hid his automatic pistol, Vantangaloo carried a shotgun, and strapped in a holster to the inside of his jacket another shotgun hung for Grinder. Grinder preferred hand to hand combat, but used the shotgun when necessary. Grinder wore a loose, dark jumpsuit that allowed him the freedom for unarmed combat as well as hide in shadows. Though not as well as Jester, Salamander thought. Vixen was the only one who could be assumed to be dangerous. Her bulky leather bomber jacket could easily 'hide' a pair of pistols, and it did. Vixen gave Salamander a slight smile. "You're in luck. We made it."

"Yeah," Van added, "the Transit was late, but we didn't have any other trouble." He then nodded over at Jester. It was apparent that Vixen had deliberately ignored Jester. "And this must be our new 'friend'."

Salamander was about to answer when Jester spoke up, bowing. "At that, I am. Good day to you, friends. I am the Jester, and this is my play. Salamander has told me that you have agreed to employ my services, though I give them freely."

Vixen coughed lightly. This is going to be tense, Salamander thought. Grinder was the first to offer his hand. "Grinder, friend," he said. Jester grasped it firmly. "Salamander says that you are good with a sword. Perhaps you are a blade master?"

"Studying, of course," Jester said, then added at Vixen's look, "We always are studying."

"My name is Dire Wolf," Van said as he too shook Jester's hand, then motioned to Vixen with his head, "and this is Vixen." Vixen nodded slightly. She continued to keep one eye on Jester, and on the alley behind him.

"M'Lady, I am alone," Jester said, leveling her gaze. "And, I have no intention of double crossing you either. It seems that you and I are fighting the same fight, and it would be to both our advantage if we pooled our resources."

"But will your webs catch us as well?" Vixen started to mimic Jester's accent and speech, though subtly. "It seems in life I am but a fly being caught in web after web. It is only a matter of time before I finally awaken the spider..."

"Enough," Salamander said.

"Nay, I understand M'Lady's approach," Jester said. "And I can assure her that my web hast no spider to catch her, save the one she already is in fear of."

"We don't have time for this. If I'm too late, the bar is not going to be a safe place." Salamander finally decided to take control of the conversation. Grinder and Van nodded in agreement and approval of Salamander's cutting of the conversation. "I'm expected at the bar in twenty minutes. I can almost guarantee that our informant will have thugs, and he won't be afraid to use them if he thinks that he is about to get double-crossed."

"Well, at least he doesn't know you're a mage. That's an advantage," Grinder said.

Yes he does, Salamander thought. Damn my temper! He remembered using his magic as a threat to the informer. "No. He had a shaman there who picked me out. He knows I am a mage. Our only advantage is you." Salamander motioned to everyone else. "I don't want to see any of you in the bar earlier that ten minutes after me. Jester, you and Van stay outside and guard the front door." Salamander noticed that Vixen was looking at Jester with a bitter expression. "Vixen, you and Grinder I want on the inside. You two have the fastest reflexes among us. Besides, you notice things faster than me. I trust your judgement if you think it is a trap." "Besides," Van interrupted. "If the informant sees Jester, he'll know something is up. It would be best if he stays in the street with me." Vixen whispered something in his ear. Salamander thought he heard "watch him" but her voice was too low to tell. Van only nodded.

Salamander cleared his throat and continued. "If we have to make a fast break, I don't want the exit blocked. Hopefully we can walk in and walk out."

The group agreed and broke their huddle. They each went off in a different direction and wandered seemingly randomly. All paths lead to a single destination: the Sunken Cheeze bar. Salamander's path wound more or less directly there. Two blocks away from the bar he noticed a pair of gangers leaning against a lamp post, attempting to inconspicuously radio their boss that Salamander was alone. Good, Salamander thought, we met far enough away. As he passed the gangers he didn't give them a second glance, but noticed the butt of a rifle resting on the ground under one of the gangers's trench coats. Salamander was doubly glad that he asked his friends to cover him in this.

The thought of finding who was responsible for the death of his nation began to eat at Salamander. The news that Craighall, Scotland had been destroyed from orbit had devastated him. The first reports blamed the British government for trying to eradicate a pro-IRA movement in the town. Later it was said that it had been the IRA attempting to throw the Scots into open war with the British. The company who owned the satelite, Eridani Industries, claimed that the satelite was broken into by someone on the internet and used as a corporate strike against Eridani. One of the casualties of the CraigHall massacre was a division of the Eridani Industries. The structure, and all of its employees went up in flames during the first salvoes from space.

Years later rumors that it was England that did it to rid themselves of the last of the Celts and other unnecessaries sent the survivors in Scotland to war. With Scotland the Brave urging them with their pipers, the Provisional Army of Scotland met its end on the Lothian Road. The the British Army had been ready for them, and Scotland's heart was lost that day. Again, the rumors of a break in of the satelite began to rise, and questions of IRA involvement were raised. That day in Craighall, Scotland and England were conducting peace talks over the tension of the two nations. Ireland, desperate for allies, tried to win over Scotland by stopping the talks and blaming the incident on England. The IRA continued to deny involvement in the destruction of Craighall. The enemy remained faceless.

Salamander considered his current actions. Attacking the Eridani shipment of satelite parts was making a statement to the world: revenge is forthcoming. Beware the Scots! Hmm... Salamander thought. The Eridani are known for their security in computers. Someone breaking in would find it very difficult, unless they were on the inside. Maybe Vixen could take a snoop around the internet for some information. Pocketing the thought, Salamander continued to reminisce about his painful past.

Salamander had been sixteen when this happened, safe in Vermont visiting cousins. His father had been in the Provisional Army, and since them Salamander vowed to find the face of the true enemy of Scotland. "Raise an Army," the man had said, "But who are you fighting?" The thought that the informant got Salamander's goat soured his expression. Bastard's lucky I need him. Salamander found himself only hoping that the man was going to double-cross him.

Salamander reconsidered his wish when he reached the Sunken Cheeze. Another pair of gangers standing at the edge of the alleyway next to the bar. Neither did anything to hide their weapons: an Ingram Valiant machine gun for one and a Dechler's Special shotgun for the other. Salamander figured that these were here for the benefit of the informant: orcs are cheap thugs. Salamander smiled at the thought. Grinder was anything but a thug. Ah well. These two boys would be no match for Van and Jester. Probably another pair hiding in the alley. Jester seems capable enough in finding them. This had better go off quietly. With a deep breath he calmed his building adrenalin and opened the door.

As before, the smoke hit him like a wall and he coughed. The crowd seemed like the one from the other night, almost to the person. At the bar sat the shaman he had seen then. Though the shaman's friends were nondescript, they could easily have been the same people as before. Probably were, Salamander looked for an open booth in the back and moved to take it. The patrons let him by, most without a glance. Salamander did notice that the orc shaman was watching him. Probably noting a fellow mage, he thought. How fortunate that Van was going to remain outside, Salamander thought. He'd draw a lot of attention being a shaman as well. Sitting down, Salamander caught the barmaid's attention. "A pint of bitter," he said, handing her a credstick.

"At least you're here on time this time. And alone," she said with satisfaction. She must be amused that she knows so much, Salamander mused. Too bad she doesn't realize how wrong she is. A few minutes later the informant appeared in the crowd, though Salamander never saw him enter the room. The barmaid placed the beer in front of Salamander as his contact sat down. "Good evening," Salamander said. Vixen should be here about now, and Grinder a minute later. They didn't work like clockwork- that would be a fatal flaw- but they did have a sixth sense of each other's whereabouts in a situation like this.

"And to you, too. Do you have the money?"

Good. Nice and calm. I guess this will go off without a hitch. "Yes." Salamander pressed forward the credstick that held the five thousand. For all the mistrust the informant has given Salamander, the information was too valuable to play money games. Besides, killing you could be too easy, Salamander mentally threatened.

The man took the credit and looked at it. With a grimace of satisfaction, he handed Salamander a sealed envelope. "The schedule is all there. Not that there is much to it. The interesting one is the truck headed for Los Angeles on Thursday night. It's leaving at 11:30. The destination is Dow Chemicals, but I think you should know that DOW does not have a plant in Los Angeles. And since Eridani deals mostly in computer systems, I wonder if maybe Dow is up to something there."

Oh, it's not Dow, Salamander thought. The computers are systems for defence satellites. They have another destination, be sure. "Thank you."

"Always a pleasure to be doing business," the informant said with a grin. The touch of finality in the man's voice was too strong. A set-up? Salamander glanced to a side to see what was around him. No one was paying particular attention to him, and some were eyeing the shapely lady at the bar. Vixen. She was doing what she could to keep an over friendly man from mauling her with his 'charm'. Salamander wasn't worried about that. Grinder sat alone at a single table close to the door, drinking a pint of his own. Salamander smiled to himself. One thing he and Grinder enjoyed was imported beers. Still, there was nothing that Salamander could see as a trap.

"And may we do business again," Salamander replied, standing. He didn't care what the man had to say beyond that. Pocketing the routing schedule, Salamander headed for the door. Before he took two steps, the music on the Juke Box stopped, replaced with Scotland the Brave. A punk stood up in front of him, blocking his way to the door and his view of Grinder and Vixen. Please tell me you see this, Salamander thought to the two of them.

Two gangers stood behind the man, both looking as tough as they can. The leader sneered and spoke. "So, great mage of Scotland. Do you enjoy signing your own death warrant?"

What the hell is this guy talking about? And how did he know to call me that? Double-cross! "Move, friend. You have the wrong person."

"Like hell I do," the man snarled. "Did you think that wiping out a gang like you did would go without retribution?"

What is he talking about? Then he realized why; someone must have seen him leaving the scene of the biker gang last night. Great. Looks like Jester's Web is bigger than expected. Ah well, at least this spider is only a punk. Salamander looked to either side, seeing who had taken notice and who was trying to take cover. At least the shaman was doing nothing. Three others, gangers by their looks, had stood up to flank Salamander. Two on one side, and one on the other.

Calmly Salamander summoned his strength and willed his defense into existence. The smoke from the bar seemed to Salamander to concentrate around his head and a slight wave of nausea filled him, but the spell held. Damn it, concentrate! A chair shattered in mid air behind him, harmlessly. The barrier he used to stop the ganger the night before kept the six from harming him now. Salamander grinned. "Look, you can't touch me, but this barrier does not stop me from melting your brains with magic. Move."

The lead ganger took a hesitant step back, as did the rest of his thugs. Salamander gestured at him as though casting a spell, and the leader stumbled over a chair to take another step back. Suddenly the barrier spell was gone. The feedback from the spell ending abruptly hit Salamander like a fist. Who killed my spell? Salamander thought, reaching into his jacket for his pistol. The shaman!

As Salamander realized it, there was a barking order to attack from the bar. It was the Shaman. Salamander turned to face the single, larger ganger behind him. The massive man was lifting another chair to throw at him. Not taking too careful aim Salamander fired at him, hoping to just knock him down. Two shots hit the ganger in the chest, and the third passed him into the crowd. Shit, Salamander thought, but wasn't spared another moment to think. The man had gone down, but was slowly getting back up. An arm grabbed at his, and twisted the gun from his hand. Salamander instinctively threw his head back to free his arm. A fist narrowly missed his nose. With his other hand Salamander grabbed at the arm and turned. Using his own momentum he threw the attacker into the wounded man, bowling him over again.

Enough of this, Salamander thought. He turned to face the Shaman in a magical duel, but then realized that the barking orders from him had stopped. Over the body of the Shaman stood Vixen, two pistols in her hands. The drunk who had been hitting on her was also on the ground, moaning in pain as he held himself. Salamander smiled, then looked for Grinder.

Grinder had taken on the two humans and the leader. The leader was on the ground clutching an arm broken in many places. One of the thugs lay motionless on the ground with blood flowing from his nose. The third was being dealt with by Grinder. Salamander's friend was calm as he kicked the man in the face, then in the chest. The human staggered back to regain his balance, but Grinder kept on him. Salamander only assumed that he punched the man because he never saw Grinder move. Grinder's opponent, however, flew back and landed on a table, knocking it down. The man did not get up.

The last ganger Salamander had to face turned and headed for the back of the room. Summoning his will, Salamander sent a bolt of fire shooting out and hit the man in the back with it. The impact knocked the ganger forward, into three large men who had just entered from the back. Salamander looked up at the men, tall with bulging with muscles that barely fit in their ganger jackets, and swore. The automatic gun they each carried was dwarfed by their massive hands, but they were more than enough to kill. The thugs glared at Salamander with the intent to kill maliciously.

Salamander didn't wait to find out what their business was, and raised his barrier again as they leveled their guns. Shots ricochetted off the barrier as Salamander began to back up. Screams from the bystanders filled Salamander's ears as he tried to get away from the advancing gunmen. As he moved, the barrier around him pushed tables and chairs out of the way like a plow. "Shit! Vixen! Grinder! We have got to get out now!" he yelled.

Grinder's voice was the only one Salamander heard. "We're gone!"

Good, Salamander thought as he continued to back towards the door. The distinct sound of Van's shotgun and the pop of Vixen's pistols told Salamander that there was going to be problems outside as well. Shit, if I let these guys by they'll have us pinned outside. Salamander stopped. The trolls had stopped firing at him, realizing that the barrier he had created would not let them through. The barrier was made to block material objects, but not spells. Salamander mentally thanked Vixen for wasting the Shaman. Unconsciously Salamander looked again over at the body of the Shaman to comfort his thoughts; the last thing the mage needed was a suprise from him.

Salamander realized that he had to kill these gunners now. If any of them get past me, Grinder and the rest will be trapped. The continued sound of Vixen's pistol and Van's shotgun told him that at least the two of them were still standing. More automatic weapons fire from the street announced the arrival of gang reinforcements. Salamander decided to attack the men mentally again. The last ganger I mentaly attacked went down easily, Salamander reasoned, hopefully so will these.

Concentrating on the largest of the three, Salamander lashed out with his mind, hoping to crush his opponent's brain with a thought. Sweat dripped down his face as Salamander maintained the barrier through his attack. The gunman's eyes widened in horror and screamed in pain. Dropping his gun he clutched at his head, hoping vainly to block Salamander's attack.

Salamander released the spell before it pulled him into unconsciousness. The pain stopped as well, but the effect lingered on the man's face. His partners looked at him, then Salamander with apprehension. Calmness, Salamander told himself. Adrenalin raced through him, keeping his system going for the next attack. Maybe I can scare these three. "That's right, I can still attack through the barrier. And from the size of your brains, I'd say you stand a chance next to nothing of surviving." To emphasize it, Salamander reached out and 'pinched' the minds of the other two men. The desired effect was not nearly as good as the one he got. Both gangers dropped their guns and took another step back. Salamander smiled, and dropped the bullet barrier. "Good. Now sleep!"

With the barrier gone, Salamander could use all his strength to will the men to sleep. Already hurt, the first one could not fight the command to sleep. Rolling his eyes back, he fell over. The other two turned to flee the attack, hoping distance was all they needed. Salamander continued his mental attack, and with a grunt they fell, smashing tables and chairs like paper boxes. Salamander turned to look at the rest of the people still left in the bar. The few who were still inside made no attempt to stop Salamander as he picked up his pistol.

The gun fire from outside was still reporting, but not all that Salamander hoped for: Vixen's pistols were silent. Salamander could Still heat Van's shotgun, and he assumed the other shotgun was Grinder's. Salamander walked over to the first gunner. "Sweet dreams," he said, and fired three shots into the man's face. A patron of the bar began to gag at the gore; Salamander ignored him as he repeated his comment to the other two.

Salamander reached the front door of the bar to look out and around. In front of the door an orc lay mangled by the shotgun wound to the chest. Other bodies lay at the mouth of the alley where the orcs had been standing when Salamander entered the bar. From the alley shotgun reports continued to sound. When it looked like there was no one in the street Salamander stepped out and headed for the alley. If Van and Grinder pushed them back down here, then I better follow. When he rounded the corner he tripped over the leg of someone laying in the dark. Salamander looked closed at the body and realized that it was Vixen. "Christ, girl! What happened to you?" Salamander checked her vitals, and breathed a sigh of relief when he found she was still alive. Blood stained her shirt as it flowed from a bullet wound in her left shoulder.

"Vixen, are you in there?" Salamander asked, hoping that she was still conscious. She moaned a faint response to her name, but nothing more. "Ok, hold on. I'll take care of this." Salamander looked around to see if anyone was coming at them. Sure that he was safe, he began to gather his strength. His teacher had taught him to learn as many facets of his magic as possible. When he taught Salamander how to harm, he also taught him how to heal. Without the Shamanic chants that Van could used, Salamander had to pull from his own strength to guide the healing of Vixen. Slowly Salamander let the power run through him, then into Vixen. She shivered uncontrollably at first, but then calmed down. Salamander couldn't see the wound close, but felt it though the magic. When it was healed he let go of the life energy. With a moan he slumped under the strain of healing Vixen's wound.

Through the throbbing in his head, Salamander barely registered that someone was standing over him until he heard the cocking of a shotgun. All at once Salamander's head exploded in revelations: it was not Grinder or Van standing over him. Feebly he tried to raise the bullet barrier again, but the spell was too much for him. With everything else he had cast this evening, his mind was tired. The healing of a near-fatal wound was the final sap of his strength. Resigning to failure, Salamander waited for it to end.

But the shot never came. With a chortle the being fell forward, letting the shotgun fall from lifeless hands. Behind him stood Jester with his sword twisted to let the body slide off of it.

"Well met, Salamander," Jester said. "I see you have healed the Mistress Vixen from her wound. Come, Dire Wolf and Grinder have finished off the ambush, but I am sure there are more coming. Did you get the information?" Salamander nodded as Jester helped him up. Vixen was conscious, and with Jester's help she was able to stand. Jester continued to talk as they headed for down the alley after Van and Grinder.

Though he was physically fine, Salamander's mind was still fogged. He stumbled after Vixen and Jester, aware only of their feet as Jester helped Vixen along. I have the information, Salamander mind thought over and over. Now we have a target. A real enemy. "... you'd make a formidable army." Yes, we would. But this target is mine. When we climb higher, more will come to the call. Salamander faintly acknowledged that they were at the monorail station. Turn after turn he followed Jester, with thoughts of revenge fueling him as he went. Salamander suddenly realized that they were at the monorail station, with Grinder and Van, waiting for the next shuttle to take them across town, and home.
* * * * * * *

The next day brought sun to a Seattle that had all but forgotten about it. Nearly dazed by the effect of direct light, people went about their business with renewed energy. Sitting on a park bench Salamander and Van waited for Grinder to return from finding an ambush site. Jester had disappeared after the previous night's encounter, promising to meet them again that evening. Vixen was back at the apartment, regaining her strength. Though Salamander's magic healed her body, it was still fatigued. "Besides," she had explained, "if I can get more info on Eridani, maybe I can find out who broke into their system and fired the satelite."

Leave it to Vixen to find practical reasons to lose herself on the Net. Salamander couldn't supress a smile. The day was bright, but his glee was not born from that, but of the new direction his campaign was taking. Eridani Indistries made most of the computer hardware that went into military defense projects, including satellites. Another satellite was being built, and Salamander was determined to stop it.

"Eridani may have nothing to do with Scotland," Van finished Salamander's thought.

Salamander sat quiet for a moment, then spoke. "No, they may not. But they created the weapons that destroyed Craighall."

"Vengeance is a long road," Van said. "And those willing to be traveling companions are few and far between."

Salamander pondered what Van said. "Are you backing out?" He wouldn't blame the shaman if he did. Though Salamander valued his friend's ability, he wouldn't force Van to stay against his own will.

"No, and neither is Vixen. A poor choice of phrases. I was thinking of our Jester."

"Oh," Salamander wished he hadn't said what he did. "What in particular?"

Van sat silent for a moment. Salamander followed his gaze to see Grinder, at a distance, coming their way. "He seems to be sincere in his wish to ally himself with us. I think we can trust him well enough."

Salamander smiled inwardly. Though he didn't realize it, he had been worried about Jester's acceptance. Especially with Van and Vixen. "What about Vixen?"

"She does too, in her way. I doubt she'll fully trust him, but then she doesn't fully trust you, if you know what I'm saying. Jester seems young and full of fire, but untested fire. There is a lot he still needs to experience before I will fully trust him. However, he did go back to get you and Vixen when you went down healing her."

"Does she know that?" Salamander watched Grinder cross the street fifty meters in front of where they were sitting. He walked with finesse; a man with a well disciplined body and soul. Grinder's strength was subtle, like a cat relaxed, able to pounce at any moment. Salamander remembered when his friend had gone through goblinization, even before then his friend worked constantly to train his body. Just as through their youth Salamander learned to sharpen his mind to be a weapon, Grinder sharpened his body. Their approaches were starkly contrasted, but the intensity and ability for improvement was shared equally by both. When Van answered, Salamander realized that he forgot what he asked.

"Yes. She asked me what happened last night after she was hit. You know Grinder took a slug too."

"No," Salamander said, surprised. "Where?" He assumed that Van had used his Shamanic talents to heal Grinder's wound. For all the differences in their schools of learning, their capabilities were remarkably similar. Yet the similarity was only in some of the results. Both could heal, but where Salamander drew life from himself to heal his subject, Van pulled his strength from the earth. Both knew that if there was to be a choice as to who would perform the spell, Van would, without question. There were times, like the night before, when Van was unable to heal, and Salamander had to do it.

"In the leg. It wasn't that bad, but I'm not surprised he didn't tell you." At Salamander's quizical look, he continued. "He got jumped by one of the gangers as he came out of the bar. Grinder feels that he should have seen him. I guess it bruised his ego. Still, he'll not be any worse for the wound. It healed well. And about Vixen, I think she trusts Jester as well as we can expect her to for now. His coming back for the two of you was a big help."

"Yeah. I really hope he can keep his past out of our situation," Salamander said, thinking of Jester's and Vixen's argument the night before.

"I don't know. I have a feeling his past is our present. I wish I knew where it was that he went for the day, and who he has been working for. There is not enough for me to think that this is a clever trap, but then you never know how clever Clever can be until after."

By then Grinder had reached them. "Hello," he said. "I think you two ought to come take a look at a spot I found. It looks like this will be the best place for us to have a go at this."

Grinder lead them silently to the expressway. Salamander lost himself in thought as they walked. He considered spells that would help destroy the trucks, as well as spells that would help cover them if things got to be too much. If this works, Salamander thought, I'll be that much closer to vengeance. An enemy has been found, and they will pay for what has happened. And then the next face will be uncovered, and they will pay as well. So on and so on, until...

When they reached the spot, Grinder spoke again. "You can see about a half mile down the road from here. The trucks will be moving pretty fast, but we should be able to identify them in enough time to be ready. This embankment will give us a place to climb down to the highway if we need to. If we have to retreat we can climb the embankment on either side and escape into the slums. There is a 'rail station on either side, about a block that way." Grinder pointed off to the north. "So, do you two have a magic that can stop a truck? I don't think I can dig up any explosives by tomorrow.

Salamander smiled at the thought. "No, I can stop the truck without exploding it. The barrier I use to stop bullets can block the road. It won't be like hitting a wall, but I will be able to slow the truck down with each one. If I keep throwing barrier after barrier in front of it, I should be able to stop it. The cab might be a little mangled, but the truck will be relatively intact. If the driver is still alive you can take him out with a shotgun. I think Vixen can cover our retreat. If the truck has an escort, she can help us take care of it as well. Van and Jester can focus all of their attention on any escort." Salamander looked at Van for approval.

The shaman nodded absent mindedly. When Salamander followed his gaze, all he could guess Van was looking at was block to him by the monorail bridge that passed over the highway.

"What do you see?" Salamander asked, ducking to see past the bridge.

"No, not past the bridge. I'm looking at the bridge," Van said to ease Salamander's curiousity. From the faded tone in Van's voice, Salamander realized that the shaman was concentrating on something.

Salamander closed his eyes and focused on the life energy. When he opened his eyes, he was perceiving in the Astral plane. The bridge itself was dark grey, but what what then caught Salamander's attention was the wisp of mist slithering around the supports of the bridge. It twisted and turned with the surfaces, feeling every inch of the structure. When it was finished it floated off the surface, and headed straight for Van. When it reached the shaman it touched him, and then was gone. Salamander blinked again, breaking the seeing, and brought his sight back to normal. The noise of the traffic on the highway jumped when Salamander opened his eyes, driving the beginning of a headache. When he was perceiving in the astral, his other senses were tuned out. His teacher always warned him not to let his other senses slide, and he berated himself for letting it happen.

"Well, what are you thinking?" Salamander asked Van.

"If there is an escort behind the truck, I could drop the rail bridge on them." He paused for a moment, letting the idea sink into Salamander and Grinder. "The structure is weak enough that I can break it if need be."

Grinder shook his head. "Only," he emphasized the word. "Only if need be. I think that would be going too far in this situation."

"Agreed. The act will cost me a lot of strength. I will stay here with Vixen when we ambush it. If it takes too much out of me, then she will be able to watch over me." Van stood up. "I think this will be ok. I want to get back and see what Vixen has come up with." Van stretched, then smiled at Grinder. "And I'm hungry. Is there any more of your pasta left?"

Grinder smiled a reply. "Yep. Plenty."

"Great. I'm as ravished as a wolf. I'll save you guys some, if you don't take too long!"

Before either Salamander or Grinder understood what he meant, Vantangaloo morphed himself into a giant wolf and bounded off towards the apartment. Both protested, but Van was gone. The sound of horns honking faded as Van, stopping traffic as he moved, went farther and farther away.

"Do you think he'll save us any?" Salamander asked Grinder, still watching the last place he had seen Van.

"Are you kidding? Let's go grab a sub. You're buying." Grinder slapped Salamander on the back, then added before he could complain. "You owe me from the last time."

Salamander smiled. "I guess I do. So when do you think we'll be able to finish that game of Axis and Allies we started last week?" They began walking towards the commerce district, talking about board games and hobbies. The ambush was tomorrow, and they had chosen their site. The rest of the details would be finished at a later time. Now was the time for friendships.
* * * * * * *

When Grinder and Salamander returned home, Vixen and Vantangaloo were waiting for them. Salamander knew something was up by the way Van was looking at him, and the dried blood on Vixen's nose.

"What happened?" Salamander asked.

"I found something in the Net that will definitely interest you," Vixen said. "Unfortunately, it was a little more protected that I expected, and ran into a Guardian Process. It send some juice back through my headset, and 'bam'." she motioned to her nose. "It's not much, but it does sting."

"Wow," Grinder said, impressed at her 'war' story. Even though he didn't understand the world of the Net, he did understand the concept of a fight, and what losing a fight could do to someone's mind in the Net. He preferred to remain physical, and do his fighting in the material world. "Where were you?"

"Well, I was snooping around Eridani, like Salamander suggested. I figured like he did that a break in would be next to impossible, but I wanted to test their defence system out. So I did some poking here and there and found a back door. There it was, just sittin' there." Vixen added verbose semantics to her explanation. "So I popped in to take a look around. I didn't see anything guarding the area, so I peeked at some files dated the same day that Craighall was destroyed." She turned to Salamander. "Eridani is in deeper than anyone could have imagined."

Salamander sat down, numb. Could this be it? The final piece to put the blame on the true culprit? "Ok, what is it?"

"Well," she took a deep breath, "Eridani ordered the satelite to fire. There wasn't a reason why, but it was not an outside job."

"Damn..." was all Grinder could say.

"The file also mentioned something about an adgenda. It may be that Craighall was the first in a line of targets."

"But for what purpose?" Salamander said, the reality of the situation sinking into him.

"I don't know. Before I could get any further, I was discovered. If I stayed any longer, Van would have just zipped me up in a bag." Vixen spoke as though having to defend herself. "If I could get into an Eridani building, I could bypass some of the security and get more information, like names of those who are in charge of this."

"Well, I'm glad you are ok. That's the important thing. If you died in there, none of us would have never known what happened." Salamander said. Looking up at everyone else, he continued. "Well, it seems we have found our true enemy. This makes our strike even more important than before."

Everyone nodded in agreement. Realizing what they were doing, the group earnestly laid plans for the next nights ambush. Over and over, Salamander thought to himself "The enemy."
* * * * * * *

Salamander looked at his watch for the twentieth time. He looked at his watch again, realizing that in anticipation, he really hadn't paid attention to the time. It was 11:30. If the trucks were on time, they would be leaving the Eridani Industries complex now. Vixen figured that the trucks would take fifteen to twenty minutes to reach the ambush site. Salamander lay prone on the earth near the top of the embankment. Turning his head over his shoulder, he could barely make out Vixen and Van sitting next to a road overpass in their black fatigues. A glint of light off the side of a pistol told Salamander that Vixen was ready. Salamander looked across the street to where Grinder and Jester we hiding. In the dark, there was no chance that either adept could be seen, but through the astral their life-forms could not be hidden. Salamander looked at his watch again.

The sound of the city would cover the approach of the truck, leaving it up to Grinder to spot it with night goggles. Salamander, Van and Grinder each had a small hand radio to warn each other of events. Salamander's sat in the grass next to him because he felt that he would only need to listen. While waiting for the truck Salamander's mind whirled through the events that had lead him to this. The Eridani Industries had ordered the firing of the satellite on Scotland. They had remained hidden for so long, hiding behind blame on the British Government as well as the IRA. Salamander smiled. Now the hidden were the hunted. Tonight marked the start of war between the Eridani and the Scots.

Finally the moment that Salamander was waiting for was upon him. "The truck is coming." Grinder announced. Salamander readied his strength to throw barriers up in front of the truck.

"Grinder, How many vehicles are around it?" Van asked.

The radio was silent for a moment, then Grinder voiced, "Um, one. But it looks like it's got a rotary gun on the top. This is not going to be nice. Van, it's about fifty meters behind the truck. What's the chance you can drop the bridge on it?"

Salamander heard Van scoff. "Not very well. I can give it a shot, but if it makes it through we'll have to pull back."

The silence after Van's statement was obvious a wait for Salamander's comment. Even without touching the radio, his "No way" was expressed.

"Salamander," Grinder said, trying to talk Salamander around to their view, "if that rotary gun trains on any of us, we'll be hamburger."

Salamander waited until he could see the truck coming. When he figured it was too late to discuss the matter, he answered. "Van, just don't miss. Salamander out." He turned the radio off and pitched it to the side. The first barrier went up without a strain on his mind. The second barrier he placed ten meters behind the first. Salamander felt a tug at his will, but he maintained both spells and waited. When the truck slammed into the barriers, he would let it go, and raise another until the truck was stopped.

The sound of the truck's engine could be heard distinctly over the sound of the city. The escort car was in the other lane, still trailing by fifty meters. Salamander tensed as the truck reached the first barrier.

At the distance he was at the sound of the truck hitting the first barrier sounded like a plastic toy popping against a wall. Though the truck wasn't stopped, the sudden change in velocity caused the trailer to lift. Salamander let the barrier drop, and the truck pushed forward into the second barrier. The windshield of the cab shattered when it hit, and the trailed bucked up even further. Salamander threw up a third barrier, and let the second one fall. The third hit was enough for the trailer to break loose, and the truck fell into a vertical jack knife. The weight of the cargo pushed the trailer over the cab as it rolled. No one could survive that, Salamander thought as he saw the roof of the cab flatten to the level of the engine.

Salamander shifted his eyes to the trailing car. Just as he looked up, he saw the monorail bridge collapse onto the road in front of the escort. The car was already breaking, and when the driver slammed the breaks harder, it fish-tailed and slammed into the fallen bridge sideways.

Salamander grabbed the radio. "Let's go," he said to Grinder, and stood, running towards the truck. He, Grinder and Jester had decided to loot the truck if was safe to do so. A war against a company was going to take some capital. As he ran, he yelled orders to Van and Vixen. "Van! you two watch us! If anything is coming, yell! We'll try to be in and out as fast as..."

He was ten meters from the truck when the rotary gun on the escort car blazed to life. Salamander threw himself to the ground. The gun continued to fire, and Salamander rolled to place himself behind a cement barrier. Fumbling for the radio to talk to Van, he swore when he realized the it had shattered when he hit the ground. A blue bolt of energy shot passed Salamander and slammed into the car. The rotary gun started up again, firing at the hill Vixen and Van were on. Another bolt from the hill shot out at the car. Van was still alive, Salamander realized. Vixen started firing her pistol, which plinked off the armor of the car. When Salamander heard a scream of pain, he realized that Vixen was firing at someone outside the car. Nice shot, he thought to her.

Salamander crawled to the edge of the barrier and peered around. Ten feet in front of him he saw Jester and Grinder on the ground. When he realized that Jester was trying to pull Grinder towards the barrier, he knew the first barrage of the cannon had found a target. Salamander raised his bullet barrier between Jester and the gun, then ran to the adept to help pull his friend to safety. The rotary gun opened up on them, but the barrier held. Salamander noticed three people getting out of the car, all armed with automatic weapons. Using the fallen monorail as cover they also began to fire at Salamander and Jester.

"Here!" Salamander said, taking Grinder's other arm and helping Jester pull Grinder. "Where was he hit?" Salamander looked over his friend.

"Not too badly, but one of the rounds grazed his head. I think the shock wave knocked him out," Jester said. "I've also been hit," Jester said, lifting his right arm slightly. Salamander realized the harlequin was holding his arm to his side.

"Christ," was all Salamander could say. Van sent another bolt of energy into one of the men behind the barrier, and fired his shotgun. Even though only the energy bolt had hit, Van was making the men think there were many people on the hill. When Salamander and Jester got Grinder behind the barrier, Salamander took the radio from Grinder's pocket.

"Van! Grinder and Jester are both hit. We need to take the car out now. I don't care if the truck gets it too."

There was a moment of silence as Van reached for his radio. "Ok," the Shaman said. "Hell is about to visit Seattle."

Salamander put the radio down and took a deep breath. When he was ready, he stood up and with all his might launched a ball of flame at the car. The ball hit and exploded, engulfing the car and the men around it. The blast died, leaving the men burning and yelling in pain. The car continued to fire at the hill, unaffected by the blast.

Then the ground below the car lit up. First firey red, then brighter and brighter until it was white hot. Flames shot out from the pavement, drowning out the screams of the men. The car itself boiled in the heat before the gas tank exploded. Shrapnel flew in every direction, setting the fuel leaking from the truck on fire. A moment later the fuel tank on the truck exploded, and all of the trailer was engulfed in flame. The guns were silent.

"Can you heal, Salamander?" Jester asked. Lifting the mage's head to meet his eyes.

"Yeah," Salamander said weakly. "But Van is going to have to take care of Grinder."

"He's on his way down here now," Jester said.

Salamander leaned forward to rest his palm on Jester's wounded arm. With great care not to let go of his own life force, Salamander allowed a little into Jester, enough to heal the wound. With that effort, Salamander collapsed back against the barrier as a wave of nausia passed over him. The computer was so much scrap now. Eridani had lost the first engagement.

"Wow," Jester said, flexing his arm. "Come. We must leave this place. I would think the Eridani would like to find us straggling here."

Salamander looked up to see Van coming down the hill. As he reached the bottom, a shot ricocheted off the pavement next to him. The Shaman dove to the ground to avoid the second shot. Suddenly Salamander noticed the whine of a helicopter engine. "Fast response." He said to no one, though Jester grunted in agreement.

Checking his pistol, Salamander gave orders to Jester. "Take Grinder out of here. Where, I don;t care, but do not go back to the apartment until morning. Van and I trapped the door magically in case there was a problem. We'll meet you there." As the helicopter passed over, Salamander fired at it. Sparks flashed where his bullets hit the fuselage.

"What about you?" Jester said, reaching down to take Grinder.

"Van and I will be along. Give me your radio!" Salamander grabbed it before Jester reached for it. "Vixen! Get the hell out of here! Grinder is down. Jester is going to get him out of here while Van and I cover our ass."

"Right." was all Vixen said. Salamander knew she would make it out alive. Her bike was two blocks away at 'friend's' house. The chopper was coming around for a second pass. Salamander helped Jester get Grinder to the side of the road, then turned his attention to the attacker. Instead of firing, Salamander chose to dive. Flying sod stung Salamander as he slid to safety, barely in time.

As the chopper flew over him, Salamander was sprayed with a small amount of liquid. Sniffing it, Salamander realized that it was fuel. One of my shots must have hit a hose. Smiling, he called out to Van. "Hey! I think I hit a fuel line on that thing! Start casting fire at it!"

Van sent a bolt of fire arcing towards the aircraft. In splendor the vehicle exploded, dropping to the pavement like a lead weight. Salamander coughed in the sudden smoke. Looking for Van, he staggered to his friend. The Shaman stood, smiling.

"What's so funny?" Salamander asked.

"Nothing much," Van said. "We really caused a mess here."

Salamander turned and looked at the carnage. "Yeah, we did. Didn't we." He began to laugh lightly.

"What's so funny?" Van said, repeating Salamander's question."

Mockingly, Salamander said, "Nothing much." He then appended. "This is nothing compared to when we get done with the Eridani."

June 5, 1995 at 12:09 PM