There are many worlds. Not only in this galaxy or even this universe but throughout the megaverse. Many of these worlds would be very familiar if you were able to visit them; like the one where the neighbor down the street didn't renovate his bathroom. Others are much stranger, like the one where the dinosaurs never died off and continued to evolve and dominate the world. Still more are somewhere in between.
The world where Dr. Matthew James lived was called Earth. The dinosaurs did die out here and humanity would eventually rise to dominance. It is a world that was much like ours until sometime into the twenty-first century. Mankind experienced an age of peace and prosperity that gave rise to a technological revolution centered on the concept of human augmentation. Between the twenty-sixties and twenty-nineties, it was widely believed that the Age of Aquarius had finally come to pass as predicted by ancient astrological beliefs and astronomical observations.
But the celestial bodies had something other than the age of wonder and hope that seemed to be dawning on this world in store. As the century drew to a close, catastrophe struck during a planetary alignment. Heralded by war and soon followed by pestilence, famine and death; the world was forever transformed. By nuclear fire, massive flooding, erupting volcanoes, earthquakes and storms of every kind the world tore itself apart. The life energy of hundreds of millions of people were released, sacrificed on the alter of change.
Long dormant magical ley lines brought to life by the celestial grouping surged with the power of the deaths of untold innocents. Blue eldritch energy wrapped around the tiny world, wrapping it in a web of powerful mystic energy. A force unknown to modern man had returned. A part of nature once scorned as flights of children's fantasy had forcefully established its existence in humanities consciousness once more. And where these blue ley lines intersected they created nexus points of energy. Energy that created Rifts in time and space.
Through these tears in the fabric of reality came other beings. Aliens to this world trod its surface. Many were completely unfamiliar and strange. Others resembled creatures and demons from old myths and legends. Stories that should have served as a warning to all. But very few had any warning of this chaos. Fewer still listened.
It is perhaps fitting that the return of magic to the planet would plunge the whole world into a new dark age. And Chaos was upon the face of the Earth.
For nearly two hundred years humanity clung to survival in North America. Trying to rebuild from the ashes, man sought to reclaim lost technologies from the ruins of civilization. Slowly people began to reclaim what was once theirs. Despite many setbacks, humanity began to rise once more. This time they were not alone. The survivors had to now compete with strangers and aliens. These new arrivals were dubbed Dimensional Beings but that term was soon shortened to the derogatory, D-Bee's.
Some people learned to co-operate with these new arrivals. Some of these so-called D-Bee's brought with them knowledge of magic which they shared with the frightened natives of their new home.
Others did not welcome these new creatures nor the knowledge they brought. To these people, D-Bee's were no better than the monsters and demons that now preyed upon all. Their magic was seen as responsible for the fall of humanity. And then they came as invaders! These people grouped with others of like mind to form towns and cities. They kept to their own kind and did not share anything they had with those outside their walls. Eventually the most powerful of these city states formed a union called the Coalition States.
Lazlo is one of two powerful cities of magic in North America—the other being Tolkeen. It is notable as the home and origin of Techno-Wizardry, a fusion of magic with technology. As such it has the largest collection of Techno-Wizards to be found anywhere. All other types of magic are commonly practiced here as well.
The city itself is located where the pre-cataclysm city of Toronto once stood. Like New Crater City, these are not the descendents of the original city but rather new arrivals who migrated there sometime in the last century. Originally the city was nothing more than a collection of mages and scholars who settled in the region to take advantage of the abundance of Ley Lines and Nexus points present. There is some irony that the most likely cause of the extinction of the previous city was the cause of the creation of the new community.
The city itself is named for a pre-cataclysm paranormal scholar, Victor Lazlo. Allegedly Erin Tarn herself had a hand in choosing the name for the magical collective.
The city today boasts a population of nearly one million. This does not include the surrounding communities that depend on and are allied to the city of magic. These collected communities add another quarter million people to the overall population. Perhaps half the population is human, the rest being Dimensional Beings or even some exotic creatures of magic such as Sphinxes and Dragons. Maybe as many as half the population practices some form of magic or has some other special or supernatural ability at their disposal.
The city is ruled by two political bodies. The first is the Congress of the Electorate, headed by a Cyber-Knight named Thomm. The second is the Council of Learning and is headed by a Great Horned Dragon named Plato. Defenses are managed by a volunteer militia that is highly trained and professional—a Dimensional Being named Arl Xzzyn. He could well be an escaped CS Dog Boy of wolf stock.
After careful examination of this city I would say that they are one of the major powers of North America—if it weren't for the fact that they all seem to be asleep. Or perhaps terminally naive. They have become so caught up in the quest for knowledge for its own sake that they have become blind to what they have. Just as alarming is that others are not so blind and perhaps covet what is here. More than likely the other powers that be recognize Lazlo as the sleeping giant it is and have begun making plans against this rival.
Ignorance is bliss, but for how long? Sometimes what you don't know can hurt you.
-Excerpt from the journal of Dr. Matthew James
Circa 100 P.A. (Post Apocalyptic Calendar):
While not the only new nation in North America, the Coalition States did eventually establish themselves as the most powerful. That does not stop some of the more established communities from trying to flex their muscles or spread their influence. The magical nation of Tolkeen is one such city-state that seems destined to be on a collision course with the mighty Coalition States. In contrast, quiet Lazlo hopes for peace and preaches tolerance.
All of this and more was well known to the young scholar, Dr. Matthew James. The young anthropologist was a jack of many trades. Aside from being an apt student of history, culture and mythology, the young man had a fair technical aptitude and had managed to gain some medical training. None of this even took into account military training and service he had undergone in his hometown's militia partly to pay for his extensive education and partly as civic obligation.
Despite his well earned diploma, it was private tutoring sessions he had received from his benefactors that really set him above other researchers. If his professors back in New Crater City had even known of the existence of some of the libraries he had studied in, they would have wept.
Yet for all the academic advantages he had gained, it wasn't enough. He craved yet more knowledge. That is why he found himself at a conference on geography in Lazlo. He wasn't the only one as this gathering had a celebrity guest speaker. None other than Erin Tarn herself had arrived to speak of some of the many things she had seen in her travels around North America. This was her last speaking engagement before leaving for the Vampire infested lands of Mexico.
Dr. Matthew James waited patiently in line to have his copy of "Traversing Our Modern World" signed by its famous author. While her speech had been given indoors, it was once outside those doors that she had been swamped with adoring fans. Matthew blew some black hair out of his eyes. Many in this crowd probably couldn't even read the book. That the good doctor himself looked out of place was lost on him.
Relatively safe within the borders of Lazlo, he wasn't wearing his Bushman armor that was like a second skin when he traveled. He did wear his favored leather hat. It was a mink oiled 'outback' style hat that his father had bought for him when he was a teenager. It kept the sun and rain out of his eyes when he was in the field doing research. A heavy leather trench coat also adorned his six foot, two inch frame. While not a muscle bound warrior, neither was he a frail academic.
Dark blue eyes scanned the slowly shrinking crowd ahead of him. Maybe half were full blooded humans like himself. Of those, many were no doubt magic users. As a man of learning he understood that knowledge itself was not inherently good or evil yet he couldn't quite bring himself to trust the arcane. He'd rather trust in the accuracy of his trusty NG-57 Ion pistol. Not that he had it on him at the moment. The city guard had made him turn it in at the city entrance along with his armor. Now he felt somewhat naked, surrounded by those who could not be so easily disarmed.
"Isn't it exciting?" A woman's voice joined the line behind him. "I never thought I'd ever actually get a chance to meet the legendary Erin Tarn."
Dr. James turned and took a moment to look over the new arrival. The young woman was maybe five or six years younger than he was, eighteen or so he figured. She was also about eight inches shorter than he was. Her short hair was black like his was while her eyes were a dark shade of violet. She wore a skintight black body suit shrouded by a light trench coat. Mystic symbols along the lapels spoke of a mystic talent to Matthews trained eyes. No doubt she was a recent graduate from an apprenticeship or an academy. "She is something of an inspiration." Dr. James conceded.
The young woman's eyes had been focused on the crowd, trying to steal a glimpse of the legendary scholar. After Matthew spoke, she turned them to him and took his measure. Whatever she saw in him, she appeared satisfied with it. "She's just seen and done so much, you know? I'd really like to get her alone and find out all she knows."
"Not much chance of that happening." Dr. James chuckled. "Sir Thorpe, the Cyber-Knight is always by her side and he watches her like a hawk. I'm sure he's not happy with this situation as it is. It must be a security nightmare trying to keep her safe in public like this."
"You don't think anyone would actually try to harm her, here, do you?" The young woman's eyes seemed to double in size.
The scholar shrugged. "You never know. The CS has put a rather hefty bounty on her head. Sooner or later someone's going to try and collect. But you're right, they'd have to be suicidal to try it here."
The young mage raised her brow, her eyes still wide. "Oh? Why is that?"
"Well, of course there is the issue of the impressive Sir Thorpe not to mention the rest of her entourage. But Miss Tarn has friends in the government of Lazlo and they're keeping an eye on her today." He nodded to a pair of militiamen in Urban Warrior armor walking patrol with their L-20 pulse laser rifles slung. "Those two are for show. I've seen quite a few others in the crowd who might look like a part of it if they weren't so intent on its study. That's to say nothing of the private citizens who would immediately act to protect the famous Miss Tarn—especially if it meant getting more autographs from the lady. Personally, I'd be afraid of being mobbed by this crowd for cutting line, much less attempting an assassination."
Looking around, she seemed to be digesting his words. "I guess you're right." Then she turned her attention back to him. "I'm Dale."
Tipping his hat to her, he introduced himself. "Dr. James, but my friends call me Matthew."
Dale edged up so that she was now standing beside the Doctor in line. "That so? What are you a doctor of? Cybernetics?"
He shook his head. "No, my feeble medical training is barely more than first aid. I'm an anthropologist specializing in humanoid cultures although I'm fairly knowledgeable about mythologies and have some background in history."
She seemed amused. "You don't smell like books." Her smile took a mischievous bent. "I suppose that's just as well. You wouldn't want any CS Dogboy's picking up that smell on you. They don't like your type anymore than they do mine."
Dr. James shook his head. "I'd be fine in Coalition territory, so long as I didn't try and teach anyone to read or write. Or dispute their official history. Not everyone in the CS is illiterate. Their military officers, political elite and the whole upper crust of society are very well educated."
"But that's what scholars do, right?" Dale queried. "Go around teaching people stuff? Bringing the light of knowledge to the huddled masses."
"Knowledge is power." Dr. James stated coolly. "The wise share it carefully." He immediately lightened up. "The huddled masses of the Coalition are blissfully content in their ignorance. I see no reason to face torture or execution for their sake."
Dale's eyes became more serious as she re-assessed her newly met companion. "A lot of mages feel the way you do."
"And what do you think, Dale?" Dr. James regarded her carefully as he waited for her response.
She shrugged. "You're right, knowledge is power."
"If you don't mind me asking," Matthew asked after a momentary silence, "but what sort of mage are you?"
Dale smirked at her companion. "Trying to gain power over me?"
The doctor was immediately defensive. "No, not at all. Just showing a polite interest in you to keep the conversation going is all."
"A polite interest?" Dale couldn't quite manage to sound offended as her smirk grew. "And here I was hoping you were into younger women."
"Well, to be perfectly honest, a scholarly type such as me is interested in any woman willing to talk to him." Dr. James chuckled.
"So what you're saying is that you're a nerd." She nodded. "That figures. An anthropologist your age is bound to be socially awkward."
Dr. James frowned. "What do you mean, an anthropologist my age?"
Shrugging, Dale answered. "When I think of anthropology, I think of old men stooped over dusty tomes smoking their pipes. It's just not a field I tend to think that a young man would be attracted to." She tilted her head and regarded him sideways for a moment. "What did make you decide to become an anthropologist?"
Dr. James adjusted his hat absentmindedly. "For the tactical advantage, of course. I studied at the New Crater City military academy."
"You're a soldier?" She shook her head. "I would never have known by looking at you. Still, I'm not sure I see why anthropology would be studied at a military academy."
"How many D-Bee species do you suppose are in North America?" Dr. James scanned the multitude of races gathered on the street.
Dale pursed her lips. "Hundreds? Thousands? I don't know."
Dr. James nodded. "Exactly. No one knows. The world was a complicated place before the coming of the Rifts when all people had to deal with was other human cultures. Now there are thousands of alien cultures to contend with as well. Those who chose to remain ignorant of how to deal with these beings are bound to find themselves in trouble."
"The Coalition has an answer." Dale grimaced. "Shoot them all and study the remains."
"It may seem like that on the surface." Dr. James agreed. "But I'd bet you dollars to donuts that the Coalition has its own scholars studying D-Bee's and their ways. They'd be fools not to. As powerful as they are, even they can't afford to just slaughter D-Bee's wholesale. Far better to learn about your enemy before dealing with them. And I didn't just study anthropology but also all sorts of lore. While I'm not a practitioner, I am up on my magic symbols and countermeasures."
"See!" Dale said in amused triumph. "You were trying to gain power over me with that question!"
"A question I notice you still haven't answered." Dr. James countered with equal amusement.
"Educated and observant." Dale said playfully. "What more could a woman ask for in a man?"
Dr. James began to tick off his fingers. "Money, muscles, looks, charm, power, fame, personality, a sense of humor…"
"I think you have humor all wired up." Dale interrupted.
"Just humor?" Dr. James tried to seem put off.
"Be happy with what you have and don't get greedy." Dale reprimanded him without malice. "That's what my mother always taught me."
"Did she also teach you magic?" Dr. James inquired, again displaying his polite interest.
"As a matter of fact, my dad did." Dale conceded. "My mom was a mage too, but I was more attracted to what my father had to teach me."
"So would that be incantations? Rituals? Perhaps you're an elementalist?" Dr. James pressed.
Dale sighed, surrendering to the doctor's persistence, "Incantations. No rituals or anything else. It's a quick and relatively easy form of magic to practice. Very useful in a fight or anytime you need some magic in a hurry. Maybe not as powerful in the long run as someone who also studies rituals, but there are always trade-offs."
Dr. James nodded with a smile. "Thank you for answering my question."
"Well, its only right that we know what each other can do if we're going to be traveling together." Dale said nonchalantly.
"What?" The doctor was taken completely off guard.
"Oh, don't pretend that the idea of traveling with a pretty girl like me doesn't appeal to you." Dale chided.
"Um, well…" Dr. James took a moment to carefully search for and select his words. "It's certainly not that I wouldn't welcome your company of course. But what even makes you think I'm traveling anywhere?"
"That's easy." Dale was enjoying herself as she teased her companion. "You've already mentioned that you're from New Crater City. You're not a native, you're just visiting. Maybe to hear Miss Tarn's lecture or perhaps just to get her autograph. Could be that you have a couple other lectures or other business here as well, but at the end of the day you're not staying. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if you were planning on leaving right after the signing. You're already dressed for travel. You're either going home or on your way to do some field research."
"Well, it's true." Dr. James was impressed by the young ladies powers of observation. "I'm here on leave and will be going home when I'm done here. Once I'm home again, I'm sure I'll be out on a new mission shortly."
"Isn't your hair kind of shaggy for a military officer?" Dale reached behind his neck to tug at a clump of hair that hung to his shoulders.
"Well," Dr. James leaned closer to whisper, "don't tell anyone but I'm part of the expeditionary division."
"You're a spy!" Dale whispered her exclamation with wide eyes.
"Don't be silly." Dr. James chided. "The enemy has spies. We have scouts."
"And who would the enemy be?" She asked with genuine curiosity.
"That's what I'm supposed to find out." His eyes again scanned the crowd ahead of him. Erin Tarn was almost in sight.
Dale was incredulous at his response. "How can you possibly not know who your enemies are?"
"Well, personally, I don't have any." Dr. James turned his attention back to the young lady. "As for New Crater City, they have kept to themselves for generations. They have only recently begun to open their gates to trade and visitors. They consider themselves to be a neutral free port for the moment but they need to assess their surroundings and decide what role they want to play in the future of North America. A number of the cities psychics have indicated that the next decade will be critical both for the city and for the continent at large. Thus it is imperative we have a thorough understanding of the situation… the big picture if you will."
The young mage listened to his words intently. "That actually makes a lot of sense to me. Although I'm a little surprised that you're being so forthright with me about all of this."
"Well," The doctor couldn't help but to smirk, "we should know about each other if we're going to be traveling together." He dropped the smirk. "In all seriousness though, I have been authorized to recruit a small band to assist me in my field research. Mostly for protection, you understand. The pay isn't great—only two-thousand credits a month plus some reasonable expenses. I've already recruited an engineer and a cyber-doc who where friends of mine back at school. They're waiting for me back at New Crater City. If you sign on with your mystical might, then I reckon I'd only need a couple of mercenary types for protection."
"Not a very large group." She commented as she considered his offer seriously.
"I don't want to attract too much attention." Dr. James shuffled forward a couple of steps as more room was made ahead of him in line.
"Sounds like fun times." Dale said cheerfully.
Before Dr. James could comment on the ease of her acceptance, a commotion started up at the front of the crowd.
A voice boomed over the commotion. "We're very sorry everyone, but Erin really must be going now. She has appointments to make before being off to Mexico to investigate the mysteries there. Don't worry, she'll continue to correspond to relate her adventures to you."
"What!?" Dale vented her outrage. "I wait all this time, talking to some dork," She paused for a moment to lower her voice and address Dr. James, "No offense." And then she continued to rant, "And I don't even get to see her!? That's soooo unfair!"
Dr. James was more amused than offended. Glancing around the crowd, he grabbed Dale's elbow and guided her through the throng. "We might yet catch a glimpse of her, my dear."
Soon the pair found themselves at the forefront of Erin Tarn and her entourage's exodus from the area. Leading the way was Sir Thorpe. Even though Dr. James and Dale had never even seen a picture of the man, both were able to easily identify him. The Native North American Cyber-Knight was no taller than Dr. James but much broader. The cyber-armor grafted to his skin helped identify him as one of the noble Cyber-Knight warriors. His mere presence was enough to force the crowd to part before him.
Behind him was Erin Tarn herself. She was an elderly woman, yet hardly frail. There was spring in her step and intelligence in her eyes. Most striking was her obvious compassion as she continually paused to greet an adoring public despite the urging of her protective friends and protectors. Her grandmotherly warmth was an aura that you didn't have to be a psychic to sense.
"Miss Tarn! ERIN! Here! Look HERE!" Despite her own capable lung capacity, Dale could hardly make herself heard by someone as close to her as Dr. James over the din.
Yet Dale's energy was hard to miss, even for someone as swamped as Erin. The matronly scholar paused in front of the pair. "Well, aren't you full of youthful exuberance, dear. You make me blush to think that a pretty young girl would be so determined to garner my humble attention."
Being noticed by the famous adventurer thrilled the young mage to the point that she nearly forgot she had a book to be signed. But not for long. She thrust her copy of Traversing Our Modern World at Erin. "Please ma'am, could you sign this for me?"
Erin chuckled good naturedly. "Of course dear, even if you've just made me feel about a decade older by calling me ma'am." She accepted the book and quickly signed it. "Does your friend here want something signed as well?"
"I sure do!" Dr. James produced his own copy of her book.
As she accepted the manuscript she paused when she got a good look at Dr. James' face. There was a brief moment when there seemed to be recognition in her eyes. Then she shook her head. "No, he was older than you are. And much, much more world weary. And that was so long ago…" Then something seemed to occur to her. "Tell me young man, Do you know if your father has ever been to Tolkeen?"
Baffled, Dr. James shook his head. "No… as far as I know I'm the first person in my family in generations to travel more than fifty miles from New Crater City."
"Ah." Erin seemed disappointed for a moment but quickly cheered again and signed his copy as well. "Well, if you ever do get a chance, you should visit Tolkeen. Truly a place of wonders, you know."
Giddy now as a school boy, Dr. James nodded. "I'll definitely make it a priority."
Then, as quickly as she appeared, Erin Tarn was whisked away.
It took several moments for Dr. James to come down from his high enough to realize that Dale was staring at him. "What?"
The mage gave him a sly look. "She sure seemed taken by you."
He shrugged, "it's my boyish charm, I'm sure."
"Sure, sure." Dale laughed as she took the doctors arm and started guiding him to a less busy part of the street. "So when do we leave?"
"It's pretty late now and I don't want to be caught out in the wilderness after dark." Dr. James tucked his signed book into an inside jacket pocket. "We'll leave at first light tomorrow morning."
"Okay then." Dale agreed. "I'll show you where I'm staying so you can pick me up in the morning. I trust you do have a ride?"
"Yeah. I have an old beater of a hover truck." Dr. James sighed thinking of it. The thing was older than he was and very temperamental. He spent more hours maintaining it then he did driving it. "I'll pick you up at 0530 hours."
"Damn Doc, a girl needs to get her beauty sleep." Dale griped at him. When he didn't say anything, she hit his arm. "You're supposed to say, you don't need any beauty sleep, Dale!"
"Sorry." Dr. James tried to fend off a second blow. "I didn't read the script all the way through."
"Amateur." Dale sighed. "I can't work under these conditions."
"You'll just have to manage." Dr. James deadpanned.
"Of course. I'm a professional after all." She poked a finger into his chest. "Pay attention. You just might learn something from watching me."
"Stranger things have happened." He conceded, feigning reluctance.
"We'll see." Dale stopped in front of small Inn. "This is me. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
Dr. James nodded. "Bright and early." He watched her stride into her home for the evening and then turned and continued down the street.
After a couple of blocks another man fell into step beside Dr. James. He was a little shorter and a little leaner than the doctor but looking at him one got the impression he could handle himself in a fight, whether it was in a barroom or on a battlefield. His hair was neatly cropped and brown, as where his eyes. His clothing was expensive and stylish and his voice was refined. "I see you've recruited another for your party."
"I didn't know you were here today." Dr. James didn't look over at his new companion. He was already well known to him.
"I was hoping to get an autograph but couldn't get close enough." The man allowed himself a small smirk. "I noticed you managed."
Dr. James shrugged. "Dale had more to do with that than I did."
The man's smirk morphed into a frown. "It wasn't a chance meeting you know. I was watching carefully. When everyone else was vying to get closer to Miss Tarn, she was making her way to you. Deliberately."
Dr. James sighed heavily. "And here I was hoping she was attracted to my rugged good looks."
"You know better than that. I taught you myself." The man shook his head. "So why invite her along?"
"Because I don't know who she's working for," came Dr. James serious reply.
The other man nodded. "That's better. Still, this is a matter for concern. You shouldn't have been attracting any attention at all. At least not this soon in the game."
"She's a magic user. They have ways of knowing things." Dr. James produced a pair of cigars from his coat and offered one to his companion, who accepted. They paused in their advance to light the tobacco sticks. Dr. James blew out a thin cloud of grey smoke. "I don't trust her but I think I can use her."
"Good. Trust no one." The older man blew a ring and then pierced it with a lance of smoke.
"I don't. Not even you." Dr. James watched his contact from the corner of his eyes.
"Good." The man turned to leave as they came to where Dr. James was staying. "I'll be seeing you."
"When?" Dr. James wanted to know.
"When I need to." Without looking back, the man left as suddenly as he arrived.
Dr. Matthew James went inside and located his room. Once inside he locked his door and turned on the only light. Carefully he pulled out Traversing Our Modern World and examined the words Erin Tarn had personally written within above her signature.
"Remember always the past. Always have faith in the future."
He closed the book and knitted his brow, trying to understand the message.
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