Mantra: A New Twist #3
Written by C.D. Lee
Created by Mike W. Barr
Property of Malibu Comics
"A Mirror For Mantra" Chapter Three: Highlander
"Is such mean mischief worth the fame
of sorceress and witch's name?"
- Sir Walter Scott
Not only did the Los Angeles Times database bring up hundreds of references to Prime and the UltraForce, but also to a score of ultras known to me either personally or by reputation. It perplexed me, though, to find stories about ultras whom I'd never even heard of, while not one word was written about "Mantra."
For the acid test, I searched out a story that absolutely had to mention my code name -- the one involving the "Spear of Destiny" robbery a few months back. What a fiasco! Just because the museum guards recognized me fighting with the thieves they assumed that Mantra had to be the leader of the gang; in fact, the real culprits were a group of unknown ultras. The paper mentioned the sighting of unidentified thieves with super powers, but nothing about Mantra.
It was like all memory of me had been blotted off the face of the earth. I put on my thinking cap, wondering whether I had I fallen into the Twilight Zone. How was it possible to suddenly become the Person Who Never Was?
My situation reminded me of that classic movie, It's a Wonderful Life, where a discouraged man is visited by an angel who lets him see the world altered by just one important detail -- he'd never been born into it. Jimmy Stewart's character sees his friendly little town reduced to hopelessness, squalor, and anger, which leads him to comprehend that his existence had been pivotal. In the end he's reconciled to the path which his life had taken and becomes able to see all his frustrations and disappointments merely as trade-offs to gain something of transcendent value.
Good for you, Jimmy, but I saw was a world that seemed to be getting along in fine feather without Mantra. I felt miffed; what had all my bruising battles been for if everything I'd accomplished was a wash in the end? More importantly, how had I gotten here? Surely no grumpy angel had done a number on Mantra, but what else could the explanation be?
I'd read science fiction books and seen television shows which involved parallel worlds -- like that Star Trek rerun where the Federation was a ruthless Empire. Far fetched? Not really! Hadn't I just returned from a different universe myself? Was that the key? Had the return trip from Vahdala accidentally spun me off into an alternate reality, one which seemed to be very similar to my own but still differed from it in a few crucial details?
If so, what could I expect? According to the theories espoused by prime-time entertainment, the same people might exist in more than one universe, but their lives oftentimes turned out bizarrely different. Sometimes some very trivial incident occurring in one world but not in the other, like a bad shipment of Venezuelan bananas changing the dinner menu in a number of ordinary households, was all it took to create two different historical time-streams.
Even if I could accept that something had squeezed Mantra out of existence, I refused to believe that an entire world could be defined simply by the absence of just one ultra. Following that train of thought, I did a little background checking. I soon came to the conclusion that this Earth's history was no different from the one I knew -- until the 'Eighties, that is, when peculiar little anomalies started cropping up. Serious discrepancies had arisen by the mid-'Nineties.
For example, different sports teams had won important championships and a number of celebrities alive in my world were dead here, and vice versa. The biggest difference I stumbled upon was that the presidential counsel, Vince Foster, hadn't committed suicide in this universe, but had instead gone to the FBI to make some sensational charges against the administration. As bad as the presidential scandals were back home, they were getting even worse here.
By early afternoon my research had rendered the whole Kismet theory absurd; why should the minx exist here at all if Archimage had never created Mantra for her to spar with? But still, if the woman at the Blake house wasn't Kismet, who was she? The probable answer boggled the mind.
I sat back to think things out. Had I really become an unwitting intruder into a parallel world? Did my own Earth still exist somewhere? Could I return to it? If I couldn't, what then? I'd be left with no identity, no money, no home, no friends, no family. In fact, it would a replay of the night I'd become Eden Blake -- only worse. Back then I'd at least had Eden's keys, her billfold and ID, and could steal into her house, crawl into her bed and pull her covers up over my head. Now I had diddly squat! I knew I could survive -- I was good at surviving -- but didn't like to think that the little I still had after the death of Archimage had suddenly been torn away from me -- not when I'd just started to settle down and accept things the way they were.
But did this situation have a silver lining?
The whole incredible business was too much to mull through on an empty stomach -- and this begged the question, how would I fill it? Go to a Salvation Army soup kitchen? Panhandle? Ludicrous! I had my pride.
Taking a job was equally out of the question; in this world I had no social security number, no resume, and no history of education. True, I'd been playing the bogus identity game for centuries and knew how to create a false ID, but even assuming I could land a job quickly, it would take two more weeks to tally up my first check. I wanted to be home long before that.
Or did I?
Money, and how to make it.
Before getting magic, fighting had been my only career. I'd oftentimes taken loot from the enemy, but never had to run in the rat race. Archimage, as rich as Croesus, had kept us knights well-provided. Unfortunately, our unique circumstances soon made us into a tribe of grasshoppers, never thinking about tomorrow. But how could we have avoided it? What was the point of salting away a hefty nest-egg when we each had an average life-expectancy of only two years in any single identity? Unwilling to beg, too stubborn to steal, I was in a pretty pickle. But where there's a will there's a way; by an incredible stroke of luck I noticed a hand-written notice taped to a streetlight just outside the library.
"A blue-gray Scottish fold, missing since Friday afternoon from 2420 Victory Blvd., Ste. 401; $200.00 reward." Then it gave the phone number.
I read the handbill twice, letting the possibilities sink in. Though I hadn't kept a pet for decades, I guessed that a "Scottish fold" had to be a breed of cat or dog -- people seldom sheltering cattle or horses in urban L.A. The more I thought about it, the better the opportunity seemed. Locating lost goods was not only quick money but honest work to boot.
Enthusiastic, I started scanning the drain grates for lost coins. A lot of pocket change gets lost on the street and by phantasming my arm as necessary I soon retrieved the all telephone money I needed.
Going back to the public phone in the library, I dialed the number carefully. "Hello," answered a woman on the other end.
"Oh, hi," I said, "is this the family with the lost Scottish fold?"
"Yes!" she affirmed excitedly. "Did you find a cat like that?"
Oh, so a Scottish fold was a cat; good to know. "Not yet," I replied, "but I might be able to help."
"This might sound funny -- but I'm a psychic."
I could almost feel the temperature dropping along Victory Boulevard. "Is this a joke?"
"No, it's not a joke, ma'am! I'm interested in the reward, but you won't owe me anything if I can't do the job. It would help a lot if I could touch something that belonging to your pet. Is that all right?"
"I don't know. . ." she mused, each word drawn out long to give herself time to think. "This really sounds outlandish."
"Police use psychics all the time to find missing children," I reminded her.
"Well, you sound respectable at least. . . ."
"I look respectable, too," I said. "I've got your address. Can I come over?"
The lady had gone so quiet that I imagined she was about to hang up. Suddenly she started speaking again: "All right, I'll give you a chance, if it doesn't cost me anything."
I said I'd be right over. Her home turned out to be a good-looking condominium. I located the security intercom inside a small entry and punched the apartment number. When the reply came I identified myself and was told to wait. The lady came down a minute later, probably wanting to get a good look at me before letting such a nut case have the run of the building. This was L.A., after all; I'd only been a woman for about a half-hour myself before being accosted by a street-person with robbery-and-worse on his mind.
The lady who opened the door was pushing fifty, apparently affluent, and wearing a smart V-necked jumper. I knew I looked a little grungy by comparison, but was banking on the notion that Eden Blake's charm transcended mere dishabille. Even at that, I judged the pet-lover's welcoming smile to be a bit tight and tentative.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, my hostess escorted me via elevator to the fourth floor, where she introduced herself as Mrs. Massey and asked, "Are you an actress?"
"You look like one."
I met her gaze bemusedly.
"It's a kind of a feast-or-famine business, they tell me."
"Mostly it's famine right now," I smiled bravely, falling into the role, "but I really am a psychic. -- It runs in the family." That much, at least, was true.
"A family of witches? Maybe you can sell the idea to a Hollywood producer -- Miss --?"
"Eden. Eden Freeman." I was using Eden's maiden name to insulate her family against any trouble I got myself into. "You've got a good idea there, but some things are just too unbelievable for fiction."
Once inside her apartment she brought out a framed picture of a plump, blue-gray cat with bent-down ears, whose name, she said, was "Highlander."
"Are you a fan of the TV show?" I asked.
"Me, too," I said. As a matter of fact, I watched the program whenever I could. My gal-friend Lila supposed it was because I was turned on by Adrian Paul's pecs, but actually the hero, Duncan MacLeod, spoke volumes to us knights of Archimage. Like us, he led an immortal life of action and combat -- except that he hung on to the same body all the way through. Art doesn't always imitate life.
I'd been studying the photograph intently, trying to impress the feline's image upon my unconscious. The strangest thing about the breed, I noted, was its ears; they really were folded, giving the animal a flat-topped silhouette. Otherwise, Highlander looked like any other well-cared-for gray cat.
Once I had drawn all I could from the picture, I asked to examine Highlander's sleeping basket and feeding tray -- items which should still retain traces of his bio-electrical field. Mrs. Massey brought me the requested items and as soon as I touched them I detected some faint aural emanations.
If the true be told, I'm not a conventional psychic but a life-witch and elemental-witch able to form a telepathic link with any living being whose bio-force I assimilate. Prime and I, having traded energy back and forth, share an exceedingly powerful bond; that's the reason I was able to teleport him across-country from New York last fall when Rune blind-sided me.
"May I have a bit of Highlander's fur?" I asked.
This commodity was readily supplied by the Scottish fold's grooming comb. Though trying to resemble the garden-variety mystery-movie medium, I was in fact drawing off the vestigial life-essence which lingered in Highlander's shedding, an action which markedly strengthened my connection to the missing pet.
But maybe not enough; up to then I had never tried to find a subject whom I had never previously met in the flesh. Fortunately, Mrs. Massey was a woman with an intensely emotional and immediate bond with Highlander. It occurred to me, therefore, that her bio-electrical field could help to strengthen the link between the feline and myself. . . .
"Mrs. Massey," I said, "I may be able to make contact with Highlander, but I think you could help out. What we'll end up doing will be a lot like a seance."
"Do you mean we hold hands?"
I nodded. "Hand-holding is good. Do you mind?"
She sized me up one more time before saying, "All right, when do we start?"
"Right now," I said, extending my right hand, palm-up.
She took it. "Now, Mrs. Massey," I said, "think about Highlander; front-load all your love and affection into the little guy's image. Make that mental picture become Highlander. Got it?"
She dipped her head affirmatively, took a deep breath, and narrowed her eyes into contemplative slits.
So far, so good. Drawing upon my magical resources, I absorbed some of Mrs. Massey's energy, but only enough to make her drowsy, and then used the bond thus formed to augment my psychic outreach to the missing beast.
Even with my hostess to help, I found it hard to pick up Highlander's thread. I'd already practiced enough magic to know that the simplest-seeming feats are sometimes the most difficult. All at once my mind opened like a swinging door, revealing something, dimly, darkly. I coaxed the impression along using sorcery, rather like one cranks up the volume on a weak radio broadcast.
"I see a room," I muttered, "a barren room. There's no furniture, but it still looks cluttered. I see a carpenter's sawhorse, a toolbox, and lots of tools. There are big rolls on the floor. They're rolls of carpeting, I think. Their color is like coffee with milk."
I started losing the image. I simply needed more power to perform a task so delicate; it would have been easier had I been wearing my mask, which always peps up my sorcery tremendously.
A spent force, I let go of Mrs. Massey's hand and slumped back into my chair breathing heavily. "Did I help?" I asked. "Is there any redecoration going on in the neighborhood?"
Shaking off her sleepiness, the lady yawned thoughtfully.
"There's an empty condo being redecorated," Mrs. Massey said. "I saw workmen carry in rolls of carpeting Friday morning." Then she added with a lilt: "And I think they were brown!"
She sprang up. "If only we dared to hope --"
I heaved to my feet, asking, "Where's the apartment?"
We took the elevator downstairs. This being Saturday, the condo-under-repair was, not unexpectedly, locked up. "The workmen would have left at 5:00 p.m. yesterday," Mrs. Massey lamented. "They won't be back until Monday morning!" She futilely shook the knob.
I could have gotten into the apartment easily, but magic wasn't feasible with Mrs. Massey watching. "Say his name," I suggested. "Maybe he'll answer!"
The lady put her lips to the door, calling: "Highlander! This is Mommy! Are you in there?!"
Though we listened intently, neither of us heard anything. My companion nonetheless remained game for another try, even if we had both grown a little less hopeful.
"Is there a building manager. . . ?" I began, just as Mrs. Massey repeated her call.
"I think I heard something," my companion blurted. "-- Highlander! Are you in there?! Speak to Mommy!"
This time I heard the whine, too.
Mrs. Massey raced off to find the building manager and I waited beside the locked door, content to let developments take their course unaided by further magic.
Continued in Part 4
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