Mantra: A New Twist #2
Written by C.D. Lee
Created by Mike W. Barr
Property of Malibu Comics
"A Mirror For Mantra" Chapter Two: Kismet
"The Living Dead, whose sober brow
Oft shrouds such thoughts as thou hast now,
Whose hearts within are seldom cured
Of passions by their vows abjured...."
- Sir Walter Scott
No sooner had I limped into my dark bedroom than an amalgamation of scents -- perfume, cologne, bath lotion -- assailed me. All these smells were out-of-place, but it was the moans of disturbed slumber which drew me up short. Someone was sleeping in my bed! Evie? Gus? -- Absolutely not! The sighing I heard was heavy and masculine.
Was I so fatigued that I had blundered into the wrong house? A faux pas like that would explain the odors -- but no, that had certainly been my kitchen and living room downstairs, even though it was too dark to see it well.
Then it dawned on me.
I'd walked in on an intruder!
Were the kids all right?!
Shielding myself against bullets and magical blasts, I cast a blue-white beam into the sleeper's face, indignant enough to do something nasty if I didn't like what I saw.
I gasped, then bridled; instead of a stranger I saw my -- Eden's -- ex-husband, August Blake. What in hell was the big stiff doing in my bed?! Before I could utter my first syllable of rebuke, a second sleeper let out a bleary groan and rolled languidly toward her bedmate.
It was her, not him, who suddenly reduced me to an open-mouthed stare.
"Gus, is that you?!" Mr. Blake growled. "Turn off that light, for Pete's sake, and go to bed!"
"Gus? What is it?" the female murmured.
My survival instincts cut in at that point and I dosed the light, went phantasmal, and shot up through the ceiling. Once outside, I looked back at my violated house, confounded. August Blake was occupying a bed he shouldn't -- and he was with someone whom he shouldn't be with.
Gus lay side by side with Eden Blake!
I alighted in the upper boughs of a neighborhood oak tree, keeping my eye fixed on the Blake home. My bedroom light went on, but after a minute went off again. By that time I'd gathered my wits sufficiently to come up with a theory.
Last summer, I had gotten sick and tired of living Eden Blake's life and announced I was leaving and never coming back. Evie, at that time still believing that I was her real mom, got mad and told me she never wanted to see me again. But once I was actually gone she grew afraid that I'd think she'd really meant it. Accordingly, the little girl went to a magic shop and bought, and so went out and bought herself a charm with the supposed power to summon a loved one home.
It really was magical, but magic is always chaotic stuff -- and in the hands of a child it's pure dynamite. Somehow her "come-home" wish missed me and materialized a spirit-construct who called herself Kismet, one of my -- one of Mantra's -- earliest enemies. It was about that time that I realized that I didn't have any place to go after all, and so I returned home to discover that Kismet had taken my shape and was impersonating me -- that is, impersonating Eden Blake. She had even inveigled my ex -- Eden's ex -- to agree to a hasty remarriage. I managed to kick Kismet out just in time to stop a marriage I didn't want. As for Kismet, I thought she was done for -- but here she was again!
It had to be Kismet; who else used the same M.O? Whatever the mystical minx's twisted intentions might be this time, her instincts were always homicidal -- at least toward me. Worse, Gus and the kids had become her unwitting hostages.
So what could I do?
Wait until morning, I decided; if Kismet were playing it coy, she'd act the benign housewife, letting the kids go out and play, and probably even allow big Gus to shuffle off somewhere until supper time. That would leave me with a window of opportunity in which to deal with the usurper. On the downside, my plan called for hours of inactivity -- a lot of time to mark when one is falling-down exhausted.
A motel would have been the easy answer, except that I'd "left home without it." Live and learn, Lukasz! From here on I was going to carry a credit card tucked away with my costume, in what I've been calling my "mystical closet." But for the moment I had to deal with being broke and walking the street -- figuratively.
Where was I going to stay? While my powers of stealth would surly turn any housebreaker green with envy, using magic for committing crime didn't square with me. I've killed many times -- even as Mantra -- but I won't steal. I loved Eden Blake too much to make her a common thief, even if it's too late to save her from becoming a killer.
My best bet was to crash with a buddy -- preferably a friend able to help me put the kibosh on Kismet. It would be better to clobber my enemy with overwhelming force at the outset, rather than risk a knock-down, drag-out fight at the expense of my house and innocent bystanders.
At the top of the list of people to touch stood Warstrike, but Brandon had suffered some kind of breakdown on the Godwheel last December and had gone off on an extended cruise of recuperation. Likewise, another ultra who owed me, the ex-Aladdin agent Wrath, had retired into obscurity with his new wife, Kristen.
Prime was out, too; Kevin Green was just a kid and short of calling him in to save my life, I wanted to keep the lad out of trouble.
There were the other members of the UltraForce, of course, and also the Strangers, but I really didn't know any of them very well. What's more, calling in heavy artillery to extirpate a second-rate magical hologram like Kismet had to hurt my professional reputation. Beyond that, how could I explain Eden Blake's connection to Kismet and me?
Who else? Pinnacle was a pal, but I already owed her a lot -- and I had the distinct feeling that I wouldn't like loan-call-in day if I ran my tab up much higher. So, by a process of elimination, I scraped the bottom of the barrel and found Edgar Strauss squatting way down deep.
Strauss' brownstone headquarters, the Conjuror's Club, was not only E.S.'s place of business, but also his residence. For that reason he always kept up his magical defenses, visible only to a wizard like myself -- threads and tendrils of sorcerous energy crawling and coiling repulsively across the brickwork. The net looked formidable, but as a sorcerer Strauss was strictly third-rate and so far a simple Mantra spell had never failed to quell his best efforts.
My relationship with Edgar Strauss has always been a complex one, and therefore ready for something less than balmy reception, I went phantasmal. Sailing through the glass and brickwork, I didn't stop until I reached his bedroom, where -- once more shielded against sudden attack, I immediately filled the darkened space with a soft white glow.
Snug as a bug, Strauss turned over on his side but continued to snore. A sound sleeper, I guess! Luck for him it was only me breaking in and not one of his enemies -- of which he probably had a thousand.
"Strauss!" I exclaimed sharply. "Get up! I need your help!"
The sandy-haired man snapped awake.
"I'm sorry to burst in this way," I apologized, "but I need a place to stay tonight."
Startled, Strauss managed demand: "Who are you?!"
I set my fists akimbo. "Wake up, damn it! Who do you think I am? How many other women go knocking around Southern California in a Little Blue Riding Hood cowl and a nutty rock-video outfit?"
My would-be host only shook his head and yammered: "I don't know you. How can I? You're wearing a mask!"
This exchange was getting exasperating! "Of course I'm wearing a mask, meathead! You've never seen me without a mask before, and you never will. What's wrong with your noodle?"
He just gaped.
"If I didn't know better," I said, "I'd say you've gone brain-dead from one of those magical rituals that amateurs shouldn't be playing with."
"That mask --," he was mumbling, "-- it's the one they stole from me back in 1993!"
Now it was my turn to be confused; what did he mean by "they?" I had "stolen" the mask myself -- and he very well knew it!
"We settled this a long time ago," I reminded the wizard. "Why are you suddenly going on about the mask again?"
He grimaced. "Then you must be with those men who took it. Was it you who sent them?"
The question was absolutely crazy! Strauss seemed delusional.
"Edgar," I enunciated very carefully, "you have to know that it didn't happen that way!"
Unconvinced, the merchant of magic swung his legs out of bed and sat up, eying me strangely.
"What else should I think -- Miss? Thugs in circus outfits stole the mask in front of a hundred witnesses and now you've got it. What more do you want from me?"
Miss? He'd never called me that before. I don't much like being called a "miss" and Edgar Strauss knew better than to be disrespectful to Mantra. But that look in his eye -- complete and utter bafflement --
"Why are you acting like you don't know me?" I asked sternly.
"Because I don't! Where did I meet you?"
He shook his head. "I never heard of any `Mantra'. That sounds like a name one of those grand-standing ultra-heroes would come up with. -- Excuse me, in your case it would be `heroine.'"
I distinctly preferred `hero,' but let it pass. Had I fallen down a rabbit hole? There was no reason in the world for Strauss to pretend that he didn't know Mantra, so what was going on? Was it all part of some larger pattern? -- Strauss suddenly didn't know me the same night that Gus and some Eden Blake ringer were sharing a bed. I had a ticket to ride, but no timetable to tell me where in hell the engineer was heading.
A terrible thought struck me. What if I had somehow suffered an accidental time-slip en route from Vahdala, one which had sent me back to the days when Eden Blake was still alive? That would explain why Strauss didn't know me, since we wouldn't have met yet! No, that explanation didn't play; Strauss had referred to the year 1993, the year I became Mantra.
"What's the date?" I asked, just to be on the safe side.
My unwilling host returned an odd look. "March 18th, or the 19th -- if it's after midnight."
"I mean, what's the year?!"
"That's what I said!"
He answered slowly, tonelessly, like someone humoring the neighborhood axe-murderer: "Nineteen ninety-five."
The date meshed, so there had been no time-slip. Was Strauss simply suffering a lapse of memory? Could there be something more sinister behind it? Mentally and physically used up, I needed time to rest and mull things over -- but couldn't stay at the Conjuror's Club now that Strauss had suddenly become a stranger.
"I may be seeing you again later, E.G.," I said, "but I've got something to do first." Then, backing away, I turned phantasmal and leaped like a high-diver through the outside wall; three seconds later I was streaking through the nighttime sky -- to no place in particular.
What precisely had happened between my visit to Vahdala and my return home? What had that bizarre interview with Strauss been all about? Was Strauss the only one with a memory gap? Had anyone else forgotten Mantra? I'd learned to be ready for the unexpected where sorcery is concerned.
Previously I had been positive that my identity had been usurped by Kismet -- but now I wasn't so sure. All this strangeness, whatever its source, had become bafflingly complex. Would Penney or the Strangers still remember me, or would it be Strauss all over again?
The idea of being shut out of my own home, of friends talking to me as if I'd never existed, was confounding. I had to clear my head, but that only added up to another problem. I started to think about sneaking into an empty hotel room, but then remembered that I carried my own hotel around with me!
Pursuing my brainstorm, I flew to the summit of a tall building and I tied my cloak securely to a lightning rod, strengthening the knot with magic. That done, I dove headfirst into the cape's billowing folds.
My cloak is more than a garment, even more than magical armor; it's the gateway to a pocket-universe created long ago, or at least appropriated, by my former master, Archimage. It's actually just an envelope of nothingness, except for the deserted castle which houses the master mage's library. I'd only discovered the place three months back and, so far, hadn't decided what in blazes I should do with it.
Its Late Medieval layout didn't look strange to me; I'd gotten used to castles when they were still the rage in architectural innovation. Cloakless, I flew down into a small courtyard and strode into the chateau through an open door. Among its dozens of rooms I soon located a few furnished bed chambers, one of which I took for my own.
Unwilling and scarcely able to sleep in my metal teddy -- or `titanium thong,' as I unfondly call it -- I changed back to my street garb. This I stripped off in turn before slipping wearily beneath the covers.
No rest for the wicked! I'd forgotten a lot since 1600 A.D. -- like just how sneezy and itchy medieval bedclothes could be -- and Eden has extremely sensitive skin. So, kicking off my vile woolen blanket regardless of the chill, and instead drew upon my magic to warm the chamber sufficiently for sleeping.
Despite everything, I soon dropped off and awakened later feeling at least half-way refreshed. Having eaten supper with little Gus and Evie the night before, I wasn't too hungry as yet, but unless I reclaimed my home pretty darn quick I'd have to consider where my next lunch would be coming from -- especially if I stood by a code of conduct which rules out stealing apples from street venders!
Alas, my bleary mind wasn't coming up with many new insights and for the next hour I paced around the castle's chambers and corridors, trying to sort things out.
While casually exploring, it dawned on me that Archimage must have been some sort of a collector; I found many different types of weapons and suites of armor arranged in display, most of them standing in magical suspension as if worn by invisible men -- and women. In one chamber, in fact, the armor was all female -- and the sparing cut of much of it made me grateful that Mantra's aureate maillot covered me up as much as it did!
A quarter hour of wandering ended in the library where I poured distractedly over a few of Archimage's arcane grimoires. As I have said, I'm still a novice where magic is concerned; what I can do comes not through long years of study but from Eden Blake's mystical bloodline. As far as I know, only the women of the family are so empowered. That's the reason that Archimage, when he wanted to make me a wizard, had callously appropriated Eden's body for my use without seeking either her permission or mine.
Would Evie, too, grow up to be a sorceress? I shuddered to think of all the dangers that practicing magic would lead her into. But, yet, wouldn't it be an even greater shame if such an amazing gift was allowed to atrophy and vanish in disuse, like her grandmother's supposedly had?
I flipped through several strange volumes in sequence, none of them written in any language I knew -- and I know a lot of languages. I made a couple faltering attempts to translate exotic texts by means of sorcery -- as I'm able to do with spoken languages -- but failed. Restless and needing to be elsewhere, I slammed shut the tome in front of me and redonned my adamantine tank suit.
Afterwards, having flown back to the real world, I retrieved my tethered cloak prior to leaping to ground-level where I changed back into my civvies and merged in seamlessly with the morning traffic of shoppers and commuters.
Over the last few hours my game plan had changed slightly. Instead of flying directly back to the Blake house to bushwhack "Kismet," I needed to settle something else first -- namely to reassure myself that the world had not forgotten Mantra, even if Edgar Strauss had. With this object in mind, I trudged to the nearest branch-library where a number of hygiene-challenged individuals loafing in the lobby reminded me how much I, too, needed a bath and a change of clothes.
Continued in Mantra: A New Twist #3
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