Real Magic
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As the clock neared midnight, a dark van pulled into the field from the road leading east of Rochester. The moon glittered like a sickle in the darkness as it peered out from behind the clouds. A low wind was blowing, sweetened by the scents of attars and incense. The fresh-dusted grass mingled with the more exotic smells to assault the noses of the two agents as they exited their van and walked into the night.

"This is the place?" asked Dr. Hallahan. "I expected an auditorium or something. Does this guy even have permission to be here? Are we trespassing on top of everything else?"

"Shhhhh," replied Dr. Murata as she walked toward the distant light illuminating the stage. "Be grateful I got us this assignment and we're not stuck doing more desk work, or worse."

Murata's sweet-talking the superiors had got them sent out to attend a show by a stage magician the Foundation had flagged as possibly anomalous. The higher-ups had "reason to believe" the self-proclaimed immortal had genuine supernatural powers he was displaying under the guise of stage magic. They had provided precious few details. "Attend, collect data, and return," the boss had said. The two of them hadn't been assigned fieldwork in years, and they accepted immediately, eager to get out of the cramped, dull confines of their underground cubicles.

Murata had put on her best green dress and Hallahan had worn matching socks for once.

"You know, you really didn't have to go to the Foundation. You could have just asked me- of course I'd have agreed to go on a date with you."

"You flatter me," said Dr. Murata dryly. "Look, we're almost there." She pointed to the thick crowd of people huddled around the fold-out stage. There had to be at least 250 of them, all seated in folding chairs and muttering quietly at each other. As the agents got closer they slid into the crowd and took their own seats in the third row.

The moon passed behind a cloud and plunged them into a suffocating darkness. Two braziers on either side of the stage offered the only light. The heady scent of Indian perfumes wafted out of the fire. Maybe there's dope in there, wondered Hallahan. It would explain why he's got such a loyal following.

Suddenly, a figure in a black cloak stepped out from behind the curtain to the front of the stage. The man was smooth-faced and bright-eyed- far younger than anyone who could ever claim to be an immortal without looking completely foolish. He stared at his audience, showing his teeth in a mirthless grin.

Atop his long hair rested a golden crown fashioned in the shape of a rose wreath. His boots were knee-high and made of gharial skin. He waved a white velvet-gloved hand toward the curtain, which parted to reveal a wide assortment of props.

"Ladies and gentlemen," said the young man, raising his arms. "Are you ready to witness a brand of magic the likes of which the outside world has never seen?"

The crowd erupted in cheers. Murata shot an awkward look at Hallahan, who squirmed in his seat.

"Real magic," the young man whispered. "Bestowed on me by my lord Mahadas, the ruler of death. He chose me as his humblest servant to worship and amplify his eternal greatness. As such, I will now perform great feats of mortal magic for his glorification- including his most sacred of rituals, the so-called 'Indian rope trick'." He grimaced. "'Rope trick?' It is no trick! Tonight, it will be performed in full by its own immortal inventor, Jadoo the Great!"

Hallahan surveyed the stage. The magician had arranged a variety of objects on it. A box patterned with Chinese designs, a gilded bowl on a table covered in red cloth, wicker baskets, a rack where dingy old daggers and swords were hanging, and several other tattered props decorated the area. What a tacky setup. What, does this guy think it's still the 1920s? wondered Hallahan.

The magician sat down on the large table and pulled out a deck of cards from the inner lining of his robe. "For my first ritual," Jadoo said, "I will need a willing participant from the crowd."

Half-heartedly, and with a grin on his face, Hallahan raised his hand.

"What the hell, William?" Murata whispered. "Put your hand down!"

"What's wrong with you? Have fun. We're at a magic show."

"Yes, but this-" Murata's voice was suddenly drowned out by Jadoo's. "The man with the long red hair! Come up onstage!" Hallahan raised his eyebrows. He'd been picked, really? There must have been a hundred people with their hands raised. What if it wasn't-

"Come up onstage, if you would!" Jadoo repeated, shuffling the deck. The old woman to his right shot Hallahan a vile look and he quickly got up out of his seat, cutting through the two front rows and climbing the little side steps onto the stage.

"Many thanks for your participation." Jadoo handed Hallahan the deck. "Pick a card, please."

Hallahan picked one. "Shuffle the deck, if you will."

Hallahan did so, and laid the cards face-down on the table at Jadoo's instruction.

Jadoo pointed to a random card. "Is this your card?" It wasn't. He pointed to another. "Is this it?" It also wasn't. Hallahan furrowed his brow. Was he doing something wrong?

"I seem to have lost the card!" cried Jadoo. "But no fear, for I can simply create a new one!" He pulled the cover off the ornate bowl that was resting on the table. It was filled with black ink. The magician took the ace of hearts from the deck and leaned over the bowl. Jadoo closed his eyes in concentration, waving his hands above the bowl of ink. Small bubbles began to appear on the surface. He lowered his hands, dipping his fingers into the bowl, and before long the liquid was bubbling and roiling like a witch's cauldron.

Jadoo plunged his hand into the boiling ink. He pulled it out a few seconds later and shook it violently. Hallahan winced as a few droplets of ink hit him in the eye.

Jadoo held up the card for the audience. The ace of hearts had been transformed into the three of spades. "As you can see, the card has been transfigured after its descent into the blackness."

"Wait- one moment- I am recieving a message from high above! Mahadas has enlightened me to the location of the first three of spades! My guest, if you would, look in your holster!"

Hallahan obliged. In it he found, not his handgun, but the first three of spades. "Hey, I-"

"Is that your card?"

"Yes, but-"

The audience erupted in applause. Jadoo gestured for Hallahan to take his seat. "No, give me my gun back," said Hallahan.

"You'll get it back after the show. Take your seat," Jadoo hissed into his ear.

Faced with no real choice, Hallahan left the stage and squeezed back into his seat next to Murata.

"This next ritual is known as the box of suffering. It is most heavily sacred to Mahadas. As with the first ritual, I will need assistance from the audience."

A significantly fewer number of people put their hands up; Jadoo looked at the crowd and made his choice.

"The blonde woman in the white top!" he announced. A girl who didn't have her hand raised looked around, confused. "M-me?"

"Yes, you! Come up onstage, now!"

The woman sitting next to the blonde girl whispered something in her ear. The girl dutifully went up onstage and sat down in an office chair Jadoo had wheeled in. The magician picked up the Chinese-patterned box and slid out telescoping legs from underneath it, then placed it in front of the girl.

"This is the box of suffering. It represents the trials of the ascetic before his or her enlightenment in death," Jadoo said. He produced a length of rope and bound the girl's hands behind the chair.

"Now, if you would…" he opened a hatch on the back of the box. "Place your head inside."

The woman stared at the magician like spiders were crawling out of his mouth. "Y-you want me to put my head in there?"

"Please don't make me repeat myself. Place your head in the box."

The two of them stared at each other. A chill wind swept over the audience. A few long moments later, the girl broke her eyes away and obeyed the magician's orders.

Jadoo locked the hatch, grabbed a dagger from the rack and stabbed it into the box before the audience's eyes. Murata covered her mouth in shock as Hallahan watched with a bemused expression.

Jadoo slid the dagger in deeper. Muffled screams could be heard from inside the box as the woman writhed in her restraints.

"Damn, she's a good actress," mused Hallahan. Murata squeezed her eyes shut, unwilling to watch the carnage.

Jadoo began to drive several more blades into the box until the screaming stopped. The girl was limp and silent. He began to draw the blades out, each one coated in red. Murata's heart was in her throat as a tinny scent cut through the perfumes and wafted its way into her and Hallahan's nostrils.

It was the pungent stench of blood. Real blood.

"This woman has now given her life and soul over to Mahadas," Jadoo said as he cleaned the kris dagger with the red tablecloth. "With his blessing and power, I will now restore her."

Jadoo placed his hands on the girl's shoulders. A few moments later, she gasped and sputtered. Jadoo unlocked the box and the girl fell back, staring up at him as he untied her restraints.

The girl seemed woozy as she got up and walked slowly off the stage. Another woman came up to help her back to her seat, and Hallahan could hear the two of them excitedly whispering in the distance.

Jadoo performed several more tricks, each time bringing up an audience member. He cut a boxed woman into thirds and rearranged the boxes, threw some knives into an unfortunate young man, and caused a girl to become "possessed". Pretty cliché, Hallahan thought.

"Now, if you will… I must commune with Mahadas. I need to gather all my physical and spiritual strength for the next ritual," Jadoo said, and walked behind the stage curtain.

"We're going to have to report this as a dangerous anomaly," Murata whispered to Hallahan. "He needs to be contained."

"Oh come on, he's not anomalous. He's just a corny magician. Have you never been to a magic show before?" Hallahan said.

"Did you see the way those people have been struggling? This isn't acting, William. He's doing… something to these people. There's some sort of dark power at work here. I can feel it."

"Well, Dr. Schliemann can make that decision. I just don't think he's going to be impressed by, 'Oh, he was doing a bunch of scaaaaaary magic tricks'."

"Believe what you want. I don't like this one bit."

"As mortals, you sit there casting the shadows that bind you to this earth, while I walk in the shadow of true greatness," Jadoo said as he walked back onto the stage. "For I am not bound, but liberated in his darkness." The magician reached into his pocket and threw something into the braziers. They roared to life, blazing like two sundogs mirroring the black sun that was Jadoo. "To be alive is to cast the shadow that is death. But what is death if not merely a change of state? Everything in this world is merely a recyclement of some other dead matter. Flesh becomes soil, becomes trees, becomes fruit, becomes flesh again. Mahadas enlightened me to the significance of these truths. Like the cycles of water and stone, death is a ritual of change. And these rituals are pleasing to my lord. Tonight, I will show you death is not to be feared, but worshipped. I will perform his most sacred ritual of all- the so-called 'Indian rope trick'."

The light of the braziers cast long shadows across the magician's form, leaving two dark pits in place of his eyes. They scanned the crowd, predatory in their intensity. Eventually, his eyes locked with Murata's. Look away look away lookawaylookawaylookaway

"The young lady in the green dress," Jadoo said. "You'll be the one to recieve this great honor."

"Sorry, sir, but I- hey!"

The crowd began grabbing Murata and shoving her to the front.

"What the hell's going on?!" said Hallahan.

"Shhh!" the man next to him said.

Murata looked back at Hallahan wide-eyed. There was no chance she could escape from their rough grip as the crowd pushed her onstage.

Jadoo took her hand, pulling her up onto the stage. His touch was gentle, but firm. His cold eyes, illuminated by the hot fire, met hers. Her heart leapt into her throat as she looked into them.

Jadoo nodded, and then pulled an open basket out from behind the curtain to the center of the stage. He gesticulated at it, waving his hands in arcane gestures. Very slowly, a rope, knotted every few feet, began to ascend up out of the basket.

The rope snaked upwards like a charmed cobra. Jadoo closed his eyes in clear concentration, and the rope rose higher. It continued to climb up into the night for several minutes, eventually being lost to view. Hallahan and Murata craned their necks upwards, trying to see the top, but they saw nothing but the cloudy night sky.

The magician snapped his fingers, and the wavering rope immediately stiffened. "Now," he said to Murata, "you will climb the rope upwards until you reach the top. You won't fall, I guarantee it. Use the knots as steps."

Before she could think to say no, Murata found herself moving almost against her will. She grabbed the rough rope, stiff as an iron pole, and steadied herself against the first knot. She grabbed the third with her hand, put her other foot on the second and swung her other leg up. Christ, she's actually doing it, thought Hallahan.

Before long Murata found herself high above the stage, trying to force herself not to look back down on the crowd. She couldn't have been up very far, but she felt utterly alone in the blackness with the heavy clouds swirling above her. She hung suspended in the dark, with nothing but a rope that could drop at any moment to cling to. No sound from the crowd reached her ears, but she could hear Jadoo's orders; "Keep climbing!"

Murata shook her head. She'd climbed enough, and the crowd must have lost sight of her by now. She squeezed her eyes shut and held on.

"Keep climbing! Climb higher!" Jadoo called.

"I'm high enough! I'm not climbing anymore!" Murata yelled back.

Jadoo grabbed a kris dagger out of the inner lining of his robe and clenched it in his teeth. He began climbing up the rope himself, ascending much faster than Murata. She could see him coming up behind her. Her heart began racing even faster.

A scream pierced through the night, echoing down from high above. It resounded off the stage and into the ears of the enraptured audience and the helpless, screaming Hallahan.

The crowd surged all around Hallahan, arms pinning him and bodies pressing him to his seat. They leered at him, disgusted, without an ounce of pity or concern in their faces.

The screams were getting louder and wetter. They became gurgles, then- a few moments later, they went quiet.

Something dropped to the ground. It rolled for a few moments and then settled. As it stared at the audience it was clear what had fallen was Dr. Murata's severed head.

Hallahan could do nothing but scream muffled screams into the hands of the crowd and stare into their jeering faces. He writhed like a rat trying to escape the grip of a python. Their hold on him only squeezed tighter.

More pieces began to fall. A finger. A hand. Half a kidney. A cut length of intestine, and then another. The violated body of Dr. Murata was raining down from the black sky.

Before long, the obscene rain had subsided. The iron petrichor of blood and viscera overwhelmed all.

This is the end, thought Hallahan. Juniper's dead, and now they're going to kill me. But no knife or bullet pierced his flesh, and after a few minutes, he gathered the courage to crack open one eye.

Jadoo had descended the rope, and was collecting the pieces of Murata's flesh and placing them in a large wicker basket. Once he had gathered them all, he sat the basket down in the center of the stage and circled around it.

Suddenly, a soft scratching came from inside. The flames of the braziers dimmed and a silhouette arose from out of the basket.

It was Dr. Murata.


An hour later, the two agents drove on through the blackness towards the glinting lights of civilization.

"What did he do to you?"

"I don't know, but it felt… wonderful."

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