Dave coughed and hacked up the last bit of water from his lungs as he started to regain his senses. One moment, he was sitting in the back of Henry’s transport van, the next, the van had careened off the road and into a fire hydrant. Before he knew what was happening, the water had entered the van and whisked Dave away. Soon, his blurry vision came back into focus, allowing him to see the incredible blonde beauty standing before him.
“Nimue?! Damn, great timing as usual-”
“Silence,” Nimue said, placing the point of her icy spear at Dave’s throat.
“What the hell?” Dave gasped.
“I shall know if you lie to me… and it will be the last thing you ever do,” Nimue warned him. “Are you or are you not the one who assassinated the Masonic Security Council?”
Dave’s mouth went dry in an instant. His hands were still bound, his powers still suppressed, and he knew Nimue’s threat was real. After a few agonizing moments of silence, he managed to stammer his reply.
“I-I’m not! I swear!”
Nimue eyed him for what felt like years. Her violet eyes, usually soft and warm, were now intense and fiery, penetrating even the most well-guarded corners of Dave’s mind. At last, she relaxed and lowered her spear, shattering the handcuffs with it.
“You speak the truth. I apologize, Dave, but I had to hear it from you.”
“No sweat,” Dave replied, still breathing heavily. “Makes sense.”
Looking around, Dave saw that Nimue had brought him back to her lake in England. It always struck him how different it was in such a secluded place. It reminded him of Lewisburg, where he grew up. In spite of the stressful circumstances, it didn’t take him long to regain his composure in such surroundings. After a few moments of silence, he took a seat on a nearby log.
“Thanks for getting me out of there.”
“Think nothing of it,” Nimue said, pacing back and forth in front of him.
“How did you know I was in trouble?”
“Your wife contacted me. She explained the situation, and I agreed to help get you out of there and at least determine for her peace of mind that you are innocent. I just reached out to her again to let her know of this. She is quite relieved, as you can imagine.”
“But won’t she get in trouble for helping me?” Dave asked.
“She might, if she were using a means that could be detected by the Masons. My lines of communication, however, are untraceable,” Nimue replied with a wry grin.
“Good to know,” Dave sighed. After a pause, he continued, “Is it true, Nimue?”
“I’m afraid so. All four members of the Security Council are dead.”
“Who did it? What do they hope to gain by framing me?”
“I cannot say,” she said with a shrug.
“Bull,” Dave snorted. “You said yourself that you can peer into all points in time. You know who did it, don’t you?”
“I do, but I cannot say,” she repeated.
“Why not?” Dave pressed, beginning to become frustrated. “Whoever is doing this is clearly out to get me. If I’m to fight back, I need to know what I’m dealing with.”
“David Brighton, I’m disappointed in you. You have at your disposal all the tools and skills necessary to overcome this problem, yet you expect me to simply deliver the answers you seek on a silver platter. You should know me better than that.”
Dave cocked an eyebrow at this. “So, my life is on the line, but your reply is to say this is just a teachable moment?”
“Exactly,” Nimue grinned.
Dave sighed. “Wouldn’t be the first time you’ve done that to me…”
Nimue giggled at this. “Don’t worry. You are more than capable of figuring this out on your own. I have faith in you.”
“Then why pull me out of the situation with the Masons?”
Her smile disappeared at this. “Because, quite frankly, you would now be dead if I had not intervened.”
Dave’s eyes went wide at her words. “Henry… was going to kill me?”
“No, not Henry.”
“I cannot say.”
“GODDAMMIT, NIMUE! THIS ISN’T SOME GAME!” Dave shouted, standing and getting up in her face. “I have a wife and daughter to think about, now. I need to know who wants to kill me.”
Nimue shook her head. “David Brighton, you continue to underestimate yourself. You, who traveled back in time to Camelot. You, who trained under Merlin. You, who engaged Morgan le Fay in combat. You, who saved the timeline from untold damage. And after all this, you still think you cannot figure out who would want you dead? Calm yourself, and the answer shall find you.”
Though he still trembled with anger, Dave took a step back and tried to calm down. He was still surprised how much his personality had changed since his time in Camelot, but he knew his old personality was still buried within his mind. After a few deep breaths, he felt a familiar sense of solitude return, allowing him to better contemplate the events of the last several hours.
“Ok, Henry and everyone else is absolutely convinced that I’m guilty, even though I’m not. Clearly, someone has planted an overwhelming amount of false evidence against me, but who would do that?” When Nimue gave no reply, Dave continued, “It’s got to be related to the Illuminati. I hacked their systems and exposed them to the Security Council, so this must be their retaliation. Is that right?”
“Very good,” Nimue smiled.
Dave sighed. “Still, that doesn’t tell me who specifically is targeting me, nor how they managed to convince the Masons that I did this…”
“For that, I can share something that may help,” said Nimue. “You see, Ben Carson’s dying words to Henry were for him to share something with your wife, Madeleine. She said his message was simple: page 394.”
“Huh. Wonder what that means?”
“Madeleine relayed this information to me and said she has been researching to discover the meaning behind Ben’s final message. On a hunch, she turned to page 394 in her Incantus to see what might be there.”
“And what did she find?” Dave asked.
“A chapter detailing the use of aura energy to craft disguises. With such techniques, one can actually take on the appearance of another, even down to their voice.”
“That’s it!” Dave exclaimed. “Someone disguised themselves as me before they assassinated the Security Council! If they made sure there were eyewitnesses, nobody would question the story that I did it. Still, I’m no closer to figuring out who’s really behind it. No way to clear my name otherwise…”
“It would seem to me that you will not be able to discover the identity of the killer with mere deductive reasoning alone,” Nimue offered.
“True enough. Whoever this is has gone to great lengths to keep themselves off the radar. Whatever means the Illuminati have to conceal their sorcery, this killer has it in spades,” Dave agreed.
“Perhaps it would be better to find a way to draw this killer back out into the open, whereupon you can expose their ploy.”
“Sounds like a good idea, but how?”
“As I recall, you humans have a saying. ‘Fight fire with fire’, yes?”
“Yeah, but… oh! Are you really suggesting-”
“I am,” said Nimue.
“It’s crazy… so crazy, it just might work.”
Henry Ironside marched down the hallway of the MBI headquarters, hidden beneath the Westin Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta. It had already been the worst day of his life in losing the entire Security Council, but he had also somehow allowed the killer to escape. Even though she professed innocence, he still wondered if Maddie Brighton had somehow aided Dave’s escape.
“Focus, Henry,” he muttered to himself. “No way to prove that, not yet. Gotta start with the autopsy. By the time we finish that, the team will have processed the van.”
He had his other medical examiners working on the bodies of the other members of the Security Council, but Henry needed a few moments alone with Ben to say goodbye to him before his autopsy. He felt he owed Ben that much after everything they had been through together. After all, it was Ben Carson who had found him on the rough streets of Baltimore as a boy and recruited him into the Masons. For thirty years, Henry had looked up to Ben, even idolized him.
“I just wish you would have survived, old buddy,” he sighed, entering the examination room. “I just wish-”
Henry fell silent as he looked up. Before him was the examination table, but instead of Ben Carson’s body lying on it, Ben stood beside the table alive and well. Henry blinked a few times and rubbed his eyes, still unsure of what he was seeing.
“Ben?!” he finally asked.
“Henry,” Ben nodded, clothing himself in a suit with a snap of his fingers.
“But… how?! I saw you die!”
“Long story, but I had a backup plan in place. Had to fool everyone, you included. Where’s Brighton?”
Henry grimaced at this. “We… couldn’t hold him. He got away…”
Ben sighed. “I thought that might be the case. Call a press conference with the sorcery media. I’m announcing a manhunt.”
Following Ben as he started down the hall, Henry called out, “Sir, with all due respect, I think we should have you checked out, in case-”
“I’m fine, Henry,” Ben scolded him. “This is bigger than me. Someone is trying to wipe the Masons off the map, and if we don’t act decisively, they may well succeed. So, you coming or not?”
As technologically advanced as the world had become, one would think that it would be impossible for a secret community of sorcerers to maintain a media presence and keep it hidden from the public at large. But as important as an honest and informed press has always been, the American sorcery community found a way to make it work. The various news outlets operated virtually identically to the news outlets in non-sorcery communities, but the means of distributing the news had to be different. For sorcerers, printed newspapers were still quite popular, since physical objects were far easier to interact with using sorcery. Such papers were sold as tabloid magazines, appearing far less reputable than even the National Inquirer, but when combined with a sorcerer’s aura, the text and pictures transformed to reveal its true contents.
Of course, certain situations necessitate a more immediate response through all possible outlets, such as a nationwide manhunt for a dangerous fugitive. In such situations, press conferences were an absolute requirement, as well as a secure place to hold the conference. Thus, the Masons had a presence in virtually every major city across the nation, often using a hidden room or floor built into an existing structure. In Atlanta, where Ben now stood at the microphone, it was a special room added to the Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel using sorcery. It existed in the sense that it sat above the famed Sun Dial restaurant at the top of the hotel, but this hidden floor could only be accessed by sorcerers; anyone else traveling that way would end up in the service tunnels leading to the roof. Hidden in plain sight, it was the most secure place for sorcerers in the entire city. Soon, the restless chatter in the room died down as Ben stepped up to the podium.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming out today.”
“Cindy, thanks for agreeing to look after Tammy for a bit,” Maddie said as she arrived back home. “This day has just been a whirlwind, it’s all I can do to keep up.”
“Of course!” Cindy replied over the phone. “I know you said you couldn’t tell me what was going on, but is Dave at least ok?”
“Yes. I’m sorry I have to be so secretive, but it’s necessary. I’ll call you with an update as soon as I can.”
“Ok, just be safe,” Cindy sighed.
The exact moment Maddie dropped her purse on the sofa, she felt her iPhone buzz with an alert. She gave a small sigh in annoyance as she picked her phone back up to check the message, finding that it was from an app dedicated to news for sorcerers.
“Wonder what this is all about?”
Maddie opened the app and bypassed the tabloid news on the front page by combing her login password with a bit of aura energy. Once inside the member’s only section, she saw a breaking news alert at the top of the page and clicked on the story.
“Wait… Ben Carson?! Alive?! And he’s announcing a manhunt for his would-be assassin right now…”
Maddie grabbed the TV remote and turned to a channel that was normally static, but a quick pulse of her aura switched it to the national news for the sorcery community. Her eyes widened as she listened to Ben’s press conference.
“Earlier this morning, the Masonic Brotherhood of American Sorcery came under attack, resulting in the deaths of my colleagues, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Steven Chu. The perpetrator nearly succeeded in doing the same to me, were it not for a covert backup plan I had in place. At this point, we believe the one responsible is the man we have pictured behind us, David Brighton. Eyewitness accounts at each attack confirm that they saw an individual matching his appearance. I am now announcing a nationwide manhunt for David Brighton. If anyone has any knowledge of his whereabouts, you are encouraged to contact the Masonic Bureau of Investigations. Be warned that David Brighton is an incredibly talented and powerful sorcerer. If you encounter him, do not engage. Report his location and get yourself somewhere safe. Make no mistake, our goal is to apprehend him alive. We need to learn his motivations and who else may be involved in this attack on our way of life. We have reason to believe that there may be a greater conspiracy behind these attacks, and if so, we will find out. We cannot build the future by avenging the past, and the ones who orchestrated these attacks will come to learn this. Now, I’ll turn the podium over to MBI Chief Henry Ironside…”
At that point, Maddie switched off the TV. She had heard all she needed. Thanks to her connection with Dave’s mind, she knew precisely where he was at that moment, but she had to move quickly. Time was of the essence.
“We cannot build the future by avenging the past… very clever,” she smiled.
“Larusso, we’ve got a problem,” said Mark.
“What?” Charlie huffed in irritation. He was past ready to deliver his report to the High Council and be done with assignment.
“Ben Carson’s still alive. Look.”
Charlie snatched Mark’s phone from his hand and looked on at the screen in disbelief. There was Ben Carson, alive and well at the press conference.
“It can’t be… what went wrong?”
“Doesn’t really matter,” said Mark. “As long as Ben is alive, he’ll eventually learn the truth from David.”
“He may already suspect,” Charlie admitted. “Something he said during our duel, right before you shot him… he said something about if Dave was really my name. Must have been something in my fighting style that tipped him off. But if does suspect the truth, why announce a manhunt like this?”
“My guess is he’s playing his cards close to the vest. At this point, he’s not sure who he can trust.”
“Meaning he likely hasn’t told anyone of his suspicions, right?”
“Yeah, probably,” Mark nodded.
“Perfect,” Charlie grinned. “We may yet finish this assignment according to plan. Does that room they’re holding the press conference in look familiar to you?”
“I think I’ve been there before. Looks like the secret penthouse in the Westin.”
Without another word, Charlie grabbed Mark’s arm roughly and teleported them both away. Mark looked around and saw that they were on top of a tall building somewhere. When he looked up and saw a tall pyramid of girders stretching out above them, he had a clue where they were.
“Is this where I think it is?”
“Yep,” said Charlie. “The Bank of America Plaza roof. And there,” he continued, pointing to the south, “is the Westin.”
“What exactly is your plan?” Mark pried as Charlie move to the south edge of the roof.
“Simple. I’m going to kill everyone at that press conference in one shot, as well as some of the poor idiots in the floors below. Now, Brighton isn’t just an assassin, he’s a terrorist, too.”
After activating his Dave Brighton disguise, Charlie began charging a ball of fire in front of him. Unlike other fire spells, this one was made of extremely volatile fire that would explode once exposed to the air without the aid of sorcery. Charlie then surrounded the fireball with a thin barrier of his aura, effectively creating a remote bomb. With a wave of his hand, the ball flew across the sky and towards the Westin Peachtree Plaza.
“Now what?” Mark asked.
“You just stay hidden,” Charlie said. “Once that bomb goes off, someone will look in the direction it came from, meaning they’ll see me. Or rather, they’ll see Brighton.”
Ben’s eyes darted back and forth as Henry answered questions for the room of reporters. He saw every face, heard every voice; he couldn’t afford to overlook anything in those moments. Every time that little voice entered the back of his mind to try and convince him he was just paranoid, something new caught his eye. He knew in his gut that there was a threat incoming, he just didn’t know from where. At last, near the end of Henry’s remarks, he saw a flash in the northern sky.
“EVERYONE DOWN!” Ben’s voice boomed.
As the room of reporters dove to the ground, Ben dashed forward, arriving at the window just as an incoming ball of fire broke through the glass. His mind analyzed the situation in an instant. The fire was unstable and explosive, the only thing containing it a thin layer of aura energy. Knowing there wasn’t much time, Ben poured as much of his aura energy as he could into forming a second shield around the fire, but the original shield dissipated just as he was finishing the shield. The slight amount of oxygen was all it took for the fire to begin its explosion, but Ben managed to direct the last hole in his aura shield out the window and away from any civilians. A moment later, he was able to seal up the aura shield completely and smother the last of the fire.
“We’re good. We’re good,” Ben said to the room. “Now, let’s try this new spell out,” he then whispered to himself.
Noting the direction and angle the fireball had arrived from, Ben quickly surmised that the shot must have been taken from the roof of the Bank of America building. He pooled a large amount of his aura in front of him as if to teleport, but instead of traveling with the energy as usual, he allowed the energy to teleport alone. This created a circular portal about five feet in diameter that lead directly to the Bank of America rooftop. On the other side of the portal stood a shocked Dave Brighton. Before he could react, Ben activated an aura whip and pulled Dave through the portal and into the room of reporters. After restraining him for a moment, Ben stood both of them up for the cameras in the room and dropped his own disguise, revealing himself as the real Dave Brighton.
“There’s two of ‘em?!” Henry exclaimed.
At that moment, the fake Dave broke free and leapt through the ceiling in an attempt to escape. Dave followed him and grabbed his ankle with an aura whip, pulling him from the air and slamming him onto the Westin rooftop. The doppelganger looked around frantically, but it was clear there was no escape without first defeating Dave.
“Who the hell are you?!” Dave demanded.
“Your worst nightmare,” the imposter growled.
The fake Dave first tried to teleport around quickly to disorient Dave, but Dave was having none of it and followed his every move by enhancing his senses. He was unable to track the actual sorcery the imposter was using, but Dave’s spell allowed him to hear everything going on around him and gave him almost 360-degree vision. Every time the imposter would teleport somewhere, Dave attacked that spot with a blast of aura energy. He then tried a different strategy of teleporting farther away to make his escape, but Dave erected a dome of aura energy around the rooftop to pin them both in. The only escape route was now through a room filled with angry sorcerers.
“You can try to run if you want,” Dave smirked, “but I’m pretty sure those people below will attack either one of us on sight.”
“You’ll regret that…”
The doppelganger then began attacking Dave with flying blades of compressed wind, trying to slice him to bits. Dave evaded with ease, but resisted the urge to retaliate in kind; he had to find a way to take this killer alive and discover who he was working for. He kept up his evasion tactics and waited for the fake Dave to change strategies. After a few moments, the imposter began firing off blasts of aura energy, which Dave then redirected using his newly-perfected portal trick. It was all the fake Dave could do to dodge his own attack at the last second.
“Oh, there’s more where that came from,” Dave smirked.
Henry darted from person to person, making sure nobody had been hurt in the moments before. As much as he wanted to get after the two Daves and figure out what was going on, priority one was containment and damage control. Just as he was about to leap onto the roof, he saw a figure flying towards the hole in the window. He readied an attack, but soon relaxed when he saw that it was Madeleine Brighton.
“Chief Ironside!” she said as she landed.
“Mrs. Brighton? What are you doing here?”
“Never mind that; where is Dave?”
Henry tensed up at this. “How did you know Dave is here?”
“I was watching the press conference. When Ben said that we cannot build the future by avenging the past, I knew he was really Dave in disguise. That is a quote from Dave’s favorite book, The Once and Future King.”
“Clever girl,” Henry snorted. “I’m afraid the situation is far more dangerous than you may know. Right before Dave revealed himself, someone attacked this press conference, tried to hit us with a remote explosive. Dave then did some portal spell that I’ve never seen before and pulled the apparent attacker in here with us. It was… another Dave Brighton.”
“That must be it!” Maddie said. “Don’t you see? Someone has been impersonating Dave to try and frame him for these crimes!”
Henry shook his head. “Even if that’s the case, we can’t figure it out until we take both of them into custody.”
“Where are they?”
“On the roof. But I recommend you stay-”
It was too late. Before Henry could react, Maddie had leapt through the hole in the roof, forcing Henry to go after her. When they landed, both were dumbfounded at the sight of two identical Dave Brightons engaged in fisticuffs. So great was the strength of their attacks that neither could get close to the pair.
“Dammit. No way to know which is the real one,” Henry muttered.
“Arrest him!” one of them shouted. “He’s the fake!”
“Liar! He’s he imposter!” said the other.
Though Henry wanted to jump into the fray and sort this out himself, Maddie restrained him with a calming hand on his shoulder.
“Patience,” she said. “I know my husband. He will find a way to show himself.”
“Or, we just knock them both unconscious,” Henry offered. “Doing that will deactivate any disguise spells they may be using.”
“Chief Ironside, I ask you to trust my instincts,” Maddie replied.
With a slight sigh, Henry begrudgingly nodded. As they watched on, it was clear that one of the Daves was hiding his sorcery to the point that neither could sense it, but it was impossible to discern which one was doing this. The pair was too close together and their attacks were happening too quickly. But after a few tense moments, one of the Daves pulled out what looked like a sword hilt and activated a blade made of wind. This took the other Dave completely by surprise and forced him on the defensive.
“There!” Maddie shouted. “That’s my husband, the one with the sword! Attack the other one!”
“Got it!” said Henry.
Both Maddie and Henry attacked the fake Dave at the same time, launching attacks of water and lightning, respectively. The imposter defended with a slab of stone from the rooftop but was still forced to retreat. The three proceeded to chase him across the rooftop, forcing him into a corner bit-by-bit. He knew it would only be a matter of time before they cornered him for good. Still, there was one slim hope for escape.
Continuing to defend while on the move, the doppelganger waited for the real Dave to make his move. The moment the real Dave went on the offensive again, the imposter launched himself at Dave and tackled him to the ground. He then whipped up a cloud of dust around the both of them, obscuring them from Maddie and Henry. It took everything he had, but the fake Dave managed to wrestle away Dave’s sword, sending it clattering across the rooftop. When the dust finally settled, the two were as identical as they had been at the beginning. But just as they were about to lay into each other once more, they heard Maddie Brighton’s commanding voice.
Each Dave now stared down a bolt of lightning. Maddie had charged one in each hand, ready to end either one of their lives if necessary. Both Daves relaxed as she spoke to them.
“This has gone far enough. It’s over. Both of you need to disarm and surrender.”
“Maddie, you have to kill this imposter,” one of them said. “He’s rigged this entire building to blow! You have to kill him!”
“You are so full of shit!” said the other. “First you murder the Security Council, then try to blame me for it? Who the hell are you working for?!”
“Maddie,” the first one said, “you know it’s me. You know your own husband.”
Maddie was now more torn than ever. Both of them were so convincing. She had no way of knowing which was which, but the first one sounded so reassuring in his conviction. Just as she was about to release one of the lightning bolts, she heard the other one speaking.
“Maddie, this guy is dangerous. He won’t stop here, nor will whoever he’s working for. We can’t take any chances. You… you have to kill us both, Maddie.”
That did it. Nobody on that roof, not Maddie, not Henry, not even the fake Dave had any doubts about who the imposter was anymore. Only the real Dave Brighton would be selfless enough to demand she kill them both for the greater good. Just as the fake Dave was about to attack once more, Maddie deactivated her lightning bolts and summoned a wave of water to envelop the imposter, freezing him in a block of ice. Henry then brought his entire weight down on the ice, shattering it and knocking the doppelganger out. His body shimmered with aura energy as the disguise dissipated, revealing the man behind the mask.
“No way,” Henry gasped.
“It can’t be!” said Maddie.
Dave stood over the man’s crumpled form and recognized him in an instant.
A moment later, Charlie began to come to. Though Henry’s instinct was to arrest him by the book, Dave had other ideas in mind. He grabbed Charlie by the collar and dragged him over to the edge of the rooftop.
“Who do you work for, Larusso?” Dave growled.
“Go fuck yourself,” Charlie laughed.
With a swift punch to his jaw, Dave continued, “You and I both know we’ll get it out of you sooner or later, so just make it easy on yourself.”
Charlie’s eyes darted between Dave, Maddie, and Henry. He was trapped. There was no escape route left. Worse, even if he were to escape, the death he’d receive from the Illuminati High Council would be excruciating. But if Henry took him in, he’d eventually discover Charlie’s secrets; he was too good an interrogator for anything less. If that happened, everything he had done was for nothing. He had only one option remaining.
“WHO DO YOU WORK FOR?!” Dave shouted.
Charlie just grinned. “The ones destined to rule this world.”
Before anyone else could react, Charlie chomped down on his false back molar. The crunching sound was gut-wrenching, but it broke the cyanide capsule hidden within the tooth, causing the deadly foam to fill his mouth and pour down his throat. Maddie saw this and attempted to extract the poison with her healing abilities, but it was too late. Within seconds, Charlie was dead, taking his secrets with him to the grave.
“I warned you not to underestimate him, Larusso.”
Mark had been watching the scene unfold from the Bank of America rooftop. Every time he thought Charlie might be able to pull it off, something else happened to ruin his chances. Aside from successfully assassinating the Security Council, the entire operation was now an abject failure. The only good thing to come of this is the fact that Dave’s portal that he used to drag Charlie into single combat was at the perfect angle to keep Mark hidden from view.
“Guess it’s time to deliver that report,” Mark sighed. “Good thing everything that went wrong is all Charlie’s fault.”