WarSpell: The Merge

by Paula Goodlett, Gorg Huff

Book Cover: WarSpell: The Merge
Part of the WarSpell series:
  • WarSpell: The Merge
The West Wing meets the Avengers

How does politics deal with people, often citizens, who are suddenly gifted with special powers, and an extra set of memories.

Magic has started working!

But it's not legitimate magic. Not the magic of Merlin, the powers of psychics or even the magic of Hogwarts. Instead it is the magic of a "silly" game. A Role Playing Game called Warspell and other games like it. The sort of games played with oddly shaped dice and little lead figurines by even odder people.

And now not only is this silly sort of magic working, but the oddballs who play the games suddenly have special powers. Some of them are gifted with combat, or other skills. Others can do magic. They're riding magical horses through the sky or healing  the sick in the name of false gods.

They say they've merged with a character they played in one of their games. But is that really true?

Have they merged, or been possessed?

 

To the Merged, things look a bit different.

Suddenly, with no warning, they have the memories of a whole other life. Not a game life, a real life with a real mother and father, real friends and enemies. For many, even most, a life filled with violence and pain. Yes, they have skills and abilities, but those abilities were learned and earned in a hard school. Yes, they are changed, but anyone would be when they suddenly had a whole other life added to their own,

But they are still themselves.

Aren't they?
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Chapter 1

11:37 PM EST, Dec 30 8:37 PM PST
Fresno, CA, KGWN Editing Bay

Carla Jackson dialed the B roll back several frames with her right hand as she picked up her ham and cheese on rye with mayo in her left. She took a bite, still focused on the monitor, then had to move quickly to avoid a lap full of mayonnaise covered ham and cheese as it slid from the soggy pieces of bread. "Shit," she said, looking at the mess on the floor. She turned in her chair, reaching for napkins, and saw the network feed on monitor three. It was running silent, but it showed a woman, perhaps forty-five and overweight, with one hand raised and the other on a patient in a hospital bed.

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There was, for a few moments, a glow around the patient. Then it faded and the feed switched back to the anchor desk.

Carla's assumption was a faith healer using special effects of some sort, i.e. a fraud. But in spite of that her interest was piqued. Why would the network be covering that crap? Curiosity won out over responsibility. I have a few minutes. Besides, I can watch while I clean up the mess. She turned up the volume on the network feed, grabbed a handful of paper towels, and watched.

As soon as the volume was up, Carla's assumption was thrown out the window. Not the assumption that faith healing was a fraud; that was so deeply ingrained that it wasn't even stated or questioned. The assumption that the faith healer would be Christian was overturned. This, according to the network, was an Intercessor of Prima—whoever or whatever a prima was. "Wait a second. I know I've heard that name before." Carla concentrated, but couldn't place it.

Then Roy Carson, cameraman extraordinaire and now off-camera feature reporter, came into the editing bay. "There you are. Goofing off, as usual," he said with a wry grin. Roy's major complaint in their relationship was that she worked too hard. Not that he didn't work just as hard.

Carla shot him the finger, and he said, "Promises, promises."

Carla grinned. "You should be so lucky." In fact, he had been so lucky on several occasions. They hadn't moved in together, but they had gotten to the weekend together stage. Not at work, though. The station had rules about that.

Roy grinned, but just then the commentator said, "The hospital has refused to comment.”

“What are you watching?" Roy asked.

"I’m not sure yet. Some faith healer is using special effects as part of their schtick. Says the god is Prima, which is just stupid. They should be saying it's a Christian saint, at least, if not Jesus. The way they’re doing it, both the fundies and the atheists are going to line up against ‘em."

"Maybe they really believe?" Ray asked more than said, as he sat at a computer.

"And they're using special effects? I don't buy it."

"You'd be surprised," Ray said, then asked, "What's that god called again?"

"Prima, and the name sounds familiar for some reason."

"Well, the internet has Spanish to English translation, then there is a video game, and Wiktionary says 'not comparable.' "

"Game . . . something about game . . . No. Still can't place it. Anyway, according to Betty the Bitch Ross, the faith healing actually worked. Healed a surgical incision in a few seconds, leaving not even a scar."

"Bull pucky," Roy said.

Carla shook her head. Sometimes Roy's anachronistic phrases were just weird. "Bull pucky? Who says 'bull pucky'?"

But the network feed went to another clip. It was clearly something taken on a camera phone and uploaded. It was a teenager in a city park. The kid had gang tats, but walked up to a stretch of ground and said something. At which point the camera caught the grass growing back.

"Well, that kid's out of the gang," Roy said, "unless he can grow grass as well as grass."

"Roy, this is starting to get serious."

"What? Come on! Growing grass in the park?"

"Not just that, Roy. Both these clips are from Boston, but one is from Boston General Hospital and the other is from the other end of town."

"I don't buy it," Roy said as he stood up, "but I'll get Granger." John Granger was their boss, the news director for KGWN Fresno.

✽ ✽ ✽

"Six reports now, boss," Carla said as Roy returned with John Granger. “Four from Boston, one from Brockton, and one from New Bedford. It seems to be growing."

What seems to be growing? Roy pulled me out of a budget meeting for this." John Granger was a short man with a bullet shaped, shaved head. It wasn't political. He was going bald, so made a choice out of necessity. He was wearing a short sleeved striped shirt with a pocket protector and tan pants, and he could afford to lose about twenty pounds of love handles.  He was scowling his disapproval.

"I don't know yet. But we have three healings, two by—get this—an 'intercessor of Prima,' and one by an 'intercessor of Thorgan,' a kid growing grass in a few seconds, a guy flying a winged horse, and another guy walking up a flight of stairs that weren't there."

Granger watched for a few minutes as another report came in. It was another healing at Boston General, but the intercessor of a different god. He looked from Carla to Roy, and back to Carla. "All right. Whatever this is, it's looking like it's real." He lifted his right hand and wobbled it in the air. For some value of real. I still think it's some sort of coordinated fakery, but even if it is, we need to cover it. You two keep watching. I'm going to call everyone in.”

"Boss, whatever it is, it's spreading," Roy reiterated Carla's earlier point, "and the reports are behind the spread by the time we see them. Assume for just a second that something real is going on. How far has it spread by now?"

11:45 PM EST, Dec 30
Base Commander's Office
Ft. Benning, Georgia

Josh saw a blinking light on his phone. The hand that automatically reached out to answer it was dark brown, which seemed to be both right and wrong. The Duty Officer, Captain Tim Brown, sounded a bit panicked. "Sir, this is going to sound nuts. There's a centaur in my office, a real centaur. He says his name is Sergeant Ernest Walker." The captain paused for a moment, then said, "I haven't been drinking, sir, and I can prove it."

Major General Joshua Everett, USA, Post Commander at Fort Benning, Georgia, had been wondering if he was going to have to call the men in white coats. The report on Sergeant Walker was almost a relief. It meant he probably hadn't gone crazy. And, if he hadn't gone crazy the memories were valid. His memories told him that a sergeant suddenly becoming a centaur had just one explanation. Magic. Probably used by a wizard. This, in turn, meant that Josh wasn't the only one who had suddenly realized magic worked, probably. If there were two, why couldn't there be hundreds or even thousands?

"I didn't suggest you had, Captain. Bring the base to ready alert. Start calling them in, everyone. All leaves are canceled, as of this moment. Call General Watkins and the XO. Tell them to get here as soon as they can. After that, call the staff officers and tell them the same thing. Oh, and have Sergeant Walker report to my office."

"Ah, sir, I don't think Sergeant Walker will fit in the elevator."

"Right. Use the freight elevator around back. It should be big enough. Now, Captain," he continued, "you're probably not going to understand this next order. Don't worry about it, just pass it on. The people it applies to will understand. First, call the theater manager and have him open up the theater with the largest seating capacity. All personnel who have ever played a role-playing game of any sort are to report to the base theater ASAP. Magic users are to refrain from using magic unless absolutely necessary. That especially goes for amulet and book wizards and others who will need amulets, spell books, or other paraphernalia to craft spells. Have you got that, Captain? Read it back."

"The base is to go to ready alert, and all leaves are canceled. The Deputy Commander and XO are to report to you ASAP. All personnel who have played a role-playing game are to report to the theater complex ASAP. Magic users are to refrain from using magic, especially if they need some kind of paraphernalia to create spells. The theater complex manager is to open it up. Sir, can you tell me what's going on?"

"I don't know all of it myself, Captain, and I don't have time to explain. But unless you want to end up looking like the centaur sergeant or worse, I suggest that you get busy. Call me at my office as soon as you get in touch with the deputy commander and the XO."

For the last little while Josh had been dealing with an extra set of memories. Still himself, a forty-six-year-old general in the U.S. Army, but also a twenty-six-year-old adventurer. The two people were surprisingly similar. Both were dedicated to the defense of their nations and the honoring of their oaths.

Josh had conflicting memories. Two lives, but more. He remembered making the character Makkeer, warrior of Barkentown. Remembered rolling the dice, selecting the class, choosing the skills and talents. Makkeer had been real to him only in the sense that a character in a novel or a role in a play is real. Now it was different.

Now he remembered growing up as Makkeer, discovering his talents and practicing his skills. Makkeer's life was a life without airplanes or indoor plumbing but a life full of magic and derring-do.

The memories of Makkeer were as clear as those of Josh Everett.

Makkeer was his character in a game at his last post. He hadn't joined a group here. There hadn't been enough time, not yet. A new command was always a time-consuming task right at first. The combination of the memories and the phone call from the duty officer came together and Josh jumped to a wild conclusion. Somehow, magic, game magic, worked.

Josh picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number. The voice that answered was just the person he needed to talk to. "Fred?"

"Yes?"

"Josh here. I need something confirmed. Is Sorren the Bard there? I mean, really there?"

"Josh, you'll never know just how glad I am to hear you ask that question," Fred answered, relief in his voice. "Come to think of it, though, if I'm not crazy, I guess you might feel the same way. No, Sorren isn't here. Clevis, the wizard of Bornth is, complete with initiation tattoos. After you left, Sorren got killed and I rolled up Clevis. He's an academy trained amulet wizard but of high enough level to have memorized a few book spells. Josh, it's the strangest thing. I seem to have crafted spells ready to go. I can feel them. Is Makkeer there?"

"Yes. He is. Both of us are," Josh admitted. "Fred, have you tried using a spell? Do you have one it's safe to try?"

"No, I haven't tried anything yet. I was still trying to get used to the memories. I have a couple of spells that would normally be safe to try, though. I'm not really sure, because experimental magic is very unsafe. A lot more unsafe than the books say. Also, I guess it's a reaction from Clevis, but I really don't want to waste a crafted spell, not when I don't have my references to help rebuild it, and especially since the lack of amulets has reduced me to a low level book wizard without books."

"I think you're going to have to, Colonel. We have to confirm this or debunk it quickly. We really do. What have you got on tap?"

"Yes, sir, I understand. I have repair and valet. Like I said, Clevis is academy trained."

"It's your choice, Fred. We just have to know if it works. I'll do what I can to get you a copy of whichever spell you use."

There was a short hesitation then. "It works sir, or I'm crazier than I thought I was. I used valet and it's neatening up my desk right now."

"Well, Fred, I don't know whether to be relieved or start filling my shorts, but at least we know. It's real. Here's the situation. I just got a call from the Duty Officer reporting that a Sergeant Walker is now a centaur. The reason I had you try the spell was I needed confirmation that WarSpell magic did work and could be the cause. Now we have our memories, a solid reported incident, and a confirming test. Crazy as it sounds, it's true." Josh thought for a moment, trying to decide what to do.

Finally, he said, "Look, Fred, just to be on the safe side, call everyone you know who plays the games. Try to get any magic users to hold off on using any spells of any sort until we get this worked out. Especially, call any gamers from the military. I've already risked my career by putting the base on ready alert and giving a bunch of orders of questionable legality. Now I'm about to do it again. I'll talk to you later."

✽ ✽ ✽

Major General Joshua Everett took a moment to think. What the book said to do now was call in higher command, but was higher command a gamer? Would anyone in higher command have the memories that made it real for him or would they spent hours or days trying to convince themselves that it wasn't really happening? What would happen in the meantime?

If magic worked, the U.S. military needed to control as much of it as possible, as fast as they possibly could. For all Josh knew, there was a terrorist cell out there somewhere that played a role-playing game. What would they do? Teleport into the President's office and assassinate him, probably. Looking at it long term, it would be a stupid move or a crazy one. Both possibilities fit terrorists to a T, in Josh's opinion.

That was another reason to call the Pentagon right away. They had to be warned. He needed the highest-ranking officer he knew who would take him at his word. Josh barely knew the Army Chief of Staff but he did know his deputy; they had served together. Josh made another phone call. This call was harder to push through channels. Josh had to push both his rank and his friendship with General Joe Kramer.

"Sir, it’s Josh Everett."

"Josh, if you're calling me to tell me about a dragon or an ogre, I don't have time to listen. Run it through channels," General Kramer cut in before Josh could say more than his name. "You aren't the only person making that sort of report tonight. We're trying to get a handle on what's going on but I can't do that if I keep getting personal calls because people don't run this sort of crap through channels."

"I may have a handle, or at least a piece of one."

"Go on," Joe Kramer ordered, suddenly sounding very interested.

"It's kind of a long story, and it's going to sound crazy, sir, but there is one important point I need to get in first. Because if there is even one shot in a thousand that I'm right, we need to get the President secure ASAP. Plus as many other high profile targets as we can. If I'm right, there's a real possibility that a terrorist group may be in a position to translocate into whatever room the President is in, shoot him, and translocate back out again."

"What do you mean translocate?"

"Think of it as the transporter from Star Trek, sir. They will just appear in the Oval Office or wherever the President is. I know it sounds impossible, but I have good evidence that it can be done."

"Hold one." Josh held. . . .

"Okay, Josh, I trusted you, and now there are Secret Service men in the President's bedroom. If you're wrong, we're both in seriously deep shit. So, let's have it."

"Sir. You may or may not know that I play role playing games. While at my desk, a few minutes ago, I suddenly gained the memories of a character I played in a game about three months ago. I don't mean I remembered playing the game. I remembered the life of the character, parts of his life that weren't covered in the game. My first thought was that I was having some sort of nervous breakdown.

"While I was trying to figure out what was going on, I got a call from the post duty officer. He reported that a Sergeant Walker has been turned into a centaur. I ordered the base to ready alert and ordered that all personnel who have ever played role playing games of any sort report to the base theater to determine if any of them have had similar experiences."

General Kramer made a surprised sound. "You what?"

"I alerted the base, sir. However, I felt I needed confirmation as quickly as possible, so I called another member of my old gaming group and asked him if he had a similar experience. He did. More importantly, the character whose memories he gained was a wizard, and along with the memories had come several spells already crafted and ready to go. At my instruction, he tried one of the less dangerous spells. It worked.

"And that's important, sir. It means that more than just knowledge has . . ." Here Josh paused, searching for the right word. "I don't know how to describe it, sir. Come into the world. It also provides a confirmation of what probably happened to Sergeant Walker. Like I said, I know it sounds crazy."

"Yes, it does," General Kramer said. "But I don't have a less crazy alternative on tap."

"Sir, I'm familiar with half a dozen WarSpell spells that could either cause the illusion of a sergeant in the U.S. Army looking like a centaur or the reality of him becoming one. I am also aware of spells that would allow the instantaneous transport of a person from any point on the planet's surface to any other point. When I realized the implications of that, I called you.

"I don't know for sure, but I believe it's probable that a terrorist cell, or just a random nut job, play or have played the game. It's entirely possible that one or more of them is capable of translocation spells as described in the rules."

Dead silence answered him for a moment.

"Josh, I hope to hell you've gone off your trolley. I really do. But I can't take the chance. We have literally hundreds of reports of strange incidents," General Kramer muttered.

"Sir, we're going to need to harness whatever this turns out to be, if for no other reason than to counter its use by others. Also, it could be of tremendous benefit in fighting terrorists, not to mention the other things it can do."

" 'Countering' it. Can you prevent someone from transporting to the Oval Office?"

"It can be done, sir. There are spells to prevent what the WarSpell rules call planar travel, and translocation is a planar effect. I'd suggest you call in the gamers at the Pentagon. There are bound to be some of them, and I imagine some will be wizards, powerful wizards. Meanwhile, I've got people heading toward the base theater, and I'm going to need to talk to them, fast."

"You were stationed here not long ago, Josh. Who can I call?"

"Ah . . ." Josh thought rapidly. "Mike Sullivan. He's a major, over in supply. I'm pretty sure he runs a game."

"I'll try him, then. Now, General, once you get them gathered up, what do you intend to do with them? What are you going to do and what do you recommend we do here?" General Kramer asked.

Josh had been trying to think that through in the back of his mind. Now he paused and brought it forward. "Sir, the non-magical characters like me aren’t that important, at least not right now. The important ones are the magic users. At this point we don't know if it's just WarSpell or any role-playing game. There's a game called Undead, a game about vampires. It's fairly popular, and I'm not at all sure what's going to happen if we suddenly have real vampires in the world. That’s why I put the base on alert. I don’t know what’s out there or what we face. But I want to be as ready as possible.

"Call everyone in; find out if they've had an experience like mine. Sort them by type of game, character class, and level. Find out what we have. The amulet wizards are going to want amulets. They are pretty useless without them. The book wizards are going to want spell books, at least the WarSpell ones are. That, we can help with. Get everyone to record their spells instead of using them. Get some sort of magical protection on vital locations as quickly as possible. Find out the extent of the event and what games it covers. That's all I can think of off the top of my head, sir."

"Okay. For now, you do that on your base. And Josh, I want to hear from your deputy commander in the next hour. I want confirmation that there really is a centaur on your post. I'm also going to give him the circumstances under which he's to relieve you. I'm going to leave you in command for now, but with a watcher. Meanwhile, we'll see if we can get more confirmation. If you're not bonkers, you've at least given us a place to start."

"Yes, sir," Josh said, just before the dial tone told him that General Kramer had already hung up.

11:42 PM EST, Dec 30
Base Housing, Ft Benning, Georgia

Major Bradford Sims yawned and stretched as much as he could in the recliner. Deciding that he couldn't get a really good stretch that way, he gave up, stood up and stretched again. Wow, that nap really helped, he thought. I feel great. Glancing at the clock on the mantle, Brad realized he'd been asleep for about two hours.

The sounds Brad made moving around brought a question from his wife.

"Brad, are you coming to bed?" Marie asked from the bedroom. "I hated to wake you, you were sleeping so well. It just seemed silly to wake you up to go to sleep."

"And I really appreciate it, too. I was kind of whacked," Brad answered. "I'll be there in a few minutes. Now that I have some energy, I think I'll review my game notes. See if I can find a way out of that dungeon you put me in."

"Snicker, snicker, bub. Magreth put you there for a reason, you barbarian warrior. Serves you right, too."

"Now, Marie, you know that treasure is the reward for a job well done. How was Ulrich supposed to know that the treasure was a magic artifact that belonged to you?" Brad stopped for a moment, wondering. Memories of being Ulrich, memories from a childhood Brad had never experienced, were in his head. Where had they come from?

"We'll see if you get out next week, when we host the game," Marie answered, distracting him from his thoughts, "I'll be working on a new spell, you know. I made it up to seventeenth level tonight. Not bad for someone who’s only been playing since we moved to Benning."

"Well, we joined a game in progress and started at fairly high level, so it's not that great an achievement, Toots. You know, if you're going to keep talking, you might as well come out here. What have you been doing while I was napping, anyway? You want a glass of wine?"

"Sure," Marie answered, her voice coming nearer. "I kind of took a little nap myself, as a matter of fact. I was tired from a long day of pushing paper. I had some weird dreams, though. It's really kind of silly, but I woke up feeling like I'm really Magreth. I even have memories of her childhood. It must have been one heck of a dream."

"So did I, come to think of it," Brad answered, as he poured the wine into two glasses. "Well, I didn't wake up feeling like Magreth, but I feel like Ulrich, sort of. Maybe we're getting too involved in the game, do you think? I had a really strong dream, too. It seems like you were there, as Magreth, and I was there as Ulrich. I don't really remember much else, though."

Brad turned to hand Marie her glass and stopped, surprised by what he saw. "Umm, did you color your hair or something? It looks, I don't know, darker redder, or something."

Marie was looking at him strangely. "No. It's the same as always. Have you been working out? You look bigger. Like I always imagined Ulrich would, if he were real. You're all muscles and brawn, with all that barbarian vigor." Marie paused a moment and looked him up and down. "It's kind of hot."

Brad's eyes glittered a bit, as he surveyed Marie, slowly. "Hot?"

"Yeah," Marie answered. "That kind of hot."

Marie took her wine glass from Brad's hand and took a slow sip, glancing at him from heavily lidded eyes. When she spoke, her throaty voice reverberated in his skull. "You know, Ulrich, my friend," she murmured, as she ran her fingers down his chest, letting him feel the edge of her long nails. "I've always been a little attracted to you barbarian types. You have, ah . . . certain attributes, let's call them. There are a few things about you that I find intriguing. I don't suppose you'd like to declare a truce, would you?" Magreth gazed at Ulrich, her eyes gleaming with promise. "I could let you out of this dungeon, Ulrich, assuming you were willing to make it worth my while."

"Magreth, my friend," Ulrich crooned, "I'd be more than happy to declare a truce with such a woman." Ulrich gently touched Margeth's shoulder, causing the strap of her gown to slide gracefully down her arm. He followed the strap with hot eyes and let his hand drift closer to her, holding it near enough for her to feel the heat. "Now, about this dungeon . . ."

Things were just beginning to get interesting when the phone shrilled. Brad and Marie were brought back to reality with a thump.

"Damn," Marie muttered, reaching for the receiver, while Brad glared at the offending instrument.

"Hello," Marie said, "Yes, this is Captain Sims. . . .Yes, he's here, too. . . . Yes. Okay. We're on our way." Hanging up, she got up and headed for the shower. Brad could hear the water running briefly while Marie took what had to be the shortest shower on record. He continued to lay flat on the bed for a few moments.

Marie called, "Fun's over, bud. Up and at 'em. Showers are definitely called for, and then we've got to put on our uniforms."

"I can't move. I'm too disappointed," Brad griped. "Who called and why do I have to put on a uniform?"

"Come along, great warrior. Don't you realize what just happened?"

"Besides what looked like it was going to be something really great being interrupted by that instrument of the devil? What do you mean, Marie? Why should we get a call, and why put on uniforms this hour?"

"It's time to start using the big head, Brad. We've just been alerted. From some of the things I was just told, I think magic works, the dreams are real. I also think some of our superior officers have figured that out," Marie answered.

Brad ran for the shower, beginning to understand. Magic, working magic, would mean that Marie, as a seventeenth level natural wizard would be very useful. Brad, as Ulrich, was an eighteenth level warrior. Brad wondered what effect that would have on his combat readiness evaluation. Then, even as he wondered, he knew. Green Beanies were sniveling babes. Seal Team Six were ninety-eight pound weaklings. Batman was toast. The Hulk and Superman might be problems. Knife, sword, crossbow, longbow, and even if a modern combat was unfamiliar to Ulrich, he could use it better than most. Besides, the rifle was not unfamiliar to Brad. The world had just changed, drastically.

He dropped a hand onto the bed post as he passed it and flipped over the king size bed, landing on cat feet on the other side, and continued to the shower.

 

Chapter 2

11:50 PM EST, Dec 30
8:50 PM PST
Fresno, CA, KGWN Studio sound stage

"What's this?" Carla Jackson asked, holding up a sheet.

"It's the White House's 'no comment,' " John Granger said. "The lid was on and everyone had gone home when this happened. Everyone is being called in but no one seems to know anything."

"Figures," Carla muttered. She wasn't a fan of the present administration. Then the door opened and she looked up. "Hey, Tim," Carla said as she saw KGWN's weather man come in the door. "What are you doing here?"

"Trying to find out what's going on. I was at dinner when my son insisted that something was going on. It's all over the internet."

"I know, but we don't have that much yet. The number of incidences are growing exponentially as the effect—whatever it is—spreads."

"Do you have a plot?"

"No, not yet," Granger said. "Maybe you can work something up for us. Meanwhile, Carla, the network has another report. This one out of New York, monitor three."

On monitor three, a green dragon was sitting in the middle of a New York intersection, picking its teeth with what appeared to be a knight's lance. It puffed smoke and said, "Sometimes the dragon wins." Then a cop walked right through it.

Carla laughed. "Someone has a sense of humor."

"What's the White House saying?" Tim asked.

11:55 PM EST, Dec 30
White House Conference Room

In the White House, Christopher Warren, the President's Chief of Staff, had been listening in on the conversation between Generals Kramer and Everett. When he was sure Joshua Everett was off the line, he said, "Let me get this straight, General. We have Secret Service agents in the President's bedroom because a friend of yours believes in terrorist wizards and thinks they might attack the President?"

"Yes, sir," said Joe Kramer.

Captain Jack Wiggins, the night duty officer at the White House, was pointing at the television screen, where a winged horse was sailing majestically along about a hundred feet off the ground. On it was a young lady dressed in a fancy cocktail dress.

After watching for a few moments, Chris spoke again. "Find out, General. Find out if it's true. Find out what we can do about it if it is. Find out fast." He hung up the phone. "Captain, I want the Chiefs and the Secretaries of Defense and State in the situation room in one hour. Someone turn up the sound on that thing."

✽ ✽ ✽

Mike Seals looked out at the camera with an expression of concern. "We're getting these reports from all over the eastern seaboard, and they seem to be expanding to the rest of the country too. No one knows what they mean. The most common reports, by far, are of sudden miraculous healings, especially of wounds or from surgeries. After that, the reports are mostly about flying things. We have reports of people flying like birds, sometimes with wings and sometimes without. There are several reports of people riding on winged horses. The horses are mostly pale or white, often translucent. However, there are some more threatening events. There have been several unexplained deaths."

✽ ✽ ✽

"Captain, have we heard anything normal, yet?" Chris asked. "Anything that might explain what's going on without resorting to fantasy?"

"Not a thing, Mr. Warren. There's no new military threat from anyone, as far as we know."

"Drugs in the water supply?"

"There's no way you could get a drug into all the water supplies at once, sir," Captain Jack Wiggins answered. "They would have had to have hit hundreds of separate water supplies across fifteen or twenty states by now and . . . No, sir, it's just not possible."

"Less possible than that?" Chris asked, pointing at a picture of a golden dragon in Central Park, New York City.

"Yes, sir. Less possible than that. We have an F-16 pilot report of a green dragon flying near him for a few moments. He was at thirty thousand feet when this started and had been in the air for an hour. We pulled the pilot in for psych testing, but at this point I'd guess he is going to pass just fine. Sir, I don't want to believe it either, but so far General Everett's explanation is the best we have."

"So I'm supposed to go tell the President that the reason the Secret Service is in his bedroom is we believe that magic works and wizards may attack at any moment? Captain, I've known the President for years. He is a damn fine man, maybe even a great man, but St. Francis of Assisi he ain't."

12:42 AM EST, Dec 31
Pentagon, Office of the Army Deputy Chief of Staff

"Major Sullivan reporting as ordered, sir." The slightly overweight major saluted. Mike Sullivan had been rushed to General Kramer's office at the Pentagon at record speed. The surprise was that he was already in his office when Joe Kramer called for him after midnight. He had apparently come in on his own after whatever this was started.

"At ease, Major," General Kramer said. "Have a seat, and a cup of coffee if you need one. It's been a long night, and it's going to get longer, I expect."

"Sir, I'm fine. In fact, I feel great."

"Who did you Merge with, Major? Whose memories did you get?" Joe Kramer asked it bluntly. Major Sullivan's reaction might help him decide if Josh Everett had gone buggy. Sullivan first looked startled, then relieved. The major's look clearly said, "How did you know?" rather than "What are you talking about?"

"Yes, we know about it," Joe said, responding to Sullivan's unasked question. "It's happening all over. Josh Everett suggested I call you when he gave his report. I need to know how many magic users we have and what they can do. And I need someone to explain it to me, and to the President."

Mike Sullivan was nodding. "I'll be happy to help, sir," he agreed. He paused and thought a moment. "I know quite a bit about the game and what spells are likely to be available. What do you need?"

"Josh said there were spells that could protect places like the White House and other targets a terrorist might go after. Do you know any of them? Can you do it?"

Mike shook his head. "I'm familiar with the spells as a Game Master, but I can't do magic. I wish I could, sir, I really do. Unfortunately, the character I combined with isn't a mage."

"What about the people you play the game with? Will they be any help?"

Mike looked uncomfortable for a moment. After straightening his shoulders, he looked General Kramer in the eyes. "Yes, sir. One will, and a couple of others will also have useful spells. One of the people I was gaming with tonight is running a twentieth level natural wizard, and that's the character she combined with. She'll have the right spells."

"Then what's the problem? Call her," General Kramer encouraged, moving his phone to the edge of his desk. "We've called everyone in, but the recall probably isn't finished yet. Call her. I don't care where she is. We'll get her up here. We need to protect the President, right now."

Still looking a bit uncomfortable, Mike took the phone and dialed a series of numbers. "Airman Matthews, this is Major Sullivan." A pause, then: "Jeannie, they know about whatever it was that happened tonight."

Even General Kramer could hear the silence over the phone.

"It’s okay, Jeannie, really it is. We really need Shofar. We need to protect the White House." Another pause. "Right. I'll do what I can from here."

Looking up at General Kramer, Mike Sullivan blushed. "It's not what you think, sir. I don't have a relationship with her, not that sort. She's just really good at the game and plays regularly. That's all."

"Who is she, Captain? And where is she? We need her here, now. I'm not going to worry about fraternization at a time like this."

"She's Senior Airman Jeannie Matthews, sir, and she works in the personnel office. She tried to report the Merge to her boss and is confined to the break room next to her duty station right now. They, according to the sergeant who got to the office first, 'don't have time for nutcases right now.' We'll need to get her out of the unofficial office arrest the sergeant in charge of her section has her in."

"Hand me that phone."

When the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army calls the Commander of the Records Section at the Pentagon, he tends to be listened to. He mentioned the President, the White House, and the need for speed. The commander promptly called the staff sergeant, who was Jeannie Matthews' immediate supervisor. Jeannie Matthews would be waiting in the Pentagon parking area.

12:54 AM EST, Dec 31
Pentagon Parking Area

Jeannie Matthews was a real surprise to General Kramer. He saw her waiting under the awning when he arrived. She saluted, and he noticed that she was a tiny little thing who couldn't be more than eighteen or nineteen years old and probably weighed about a hundred pounds soaking wet, as well. But there was an assurance about her—an aura of power, he thought—and she had a self-confidence that was admirable, considering the circumstances.

General Kramer returned her salute just as the staff car pulled in. He got in and motioned for her to join him. When she slid into the car, he started asking questions. "What do you know about all this? What kind of magic do you have?"

"Not that much, General. Well, I should probably say—not that varied. I'm a natural wizard who focuses on protection and transport spells. Amulet wizards, book wizards, and natural wizards each work a bit differently. I don't have to have spell devices like amulet wizards or spells crafted in advance, like the book wizards do," Jeannie said. "Shofar has quite a number of protection spells she can use. From what Major Sullivan said, I think what you need is to prevent translocation or other attacks that will seem to come out of nowhere. For right now, I can do that with a translocation block. It blocks a room or a smallish space from being teleported into. If I use it enough times, it can cover the entire White House. It won't help if the President leaves the building, but he'll be about as well protected as we can make him for now. It'll work, unless someone has a god break it."

"Major Sullivan said something about gods, too. Someone is going to have to explain this god business sometime soon," General Kramer muttered. "Now would be a good time, in fact. Airman… Airman, ahh . . . Shofar, would you mind explaining about the gods?"

"I'll do my best, sir, and it's Airman Matthews. Or Jeannie, sir. Shofar is my other self, I guess, but I'm still Jeannie."

"That's something of a relief, Jeannie," General Kramer admitted while the staff car pulled onto the Beltway. "Nothing against this Shofar person, but she's not in the military, and right now I'm feeling just a tad paranoid. Now about someone having a god break it? Tell me about gods."

"Yes, sir, but it gets a little confusing, to tell the truth. WarSpell games are usually based on a sort of mishmash of cultures, sort of Middle Ages, but not quite. The games usually have a pantheon like Rome or ancient Greece," Jeannie explained.

"Intercessors get their magic from one of the gods or an embodiment of nature. Natural wizards like me do magic naturally, by talent and feel, and sometimes by accident. Book wizards study and craft their spells using their own bodies and auras to hold the prepared spell till they need it. Amulet wizards make devices to hold the spells, one amulet per spell. I don't know whether the gods of the game worlds came with the Merge, General. I haven't had a chance to talk to anyone who Merged with an intercessor, and they might not know yet anyway. Mostly they pray for spells in the morning." Jeannie paused for a moment "General, have there been any healings?"

"Yes," Joe Kramer answered. "There have, more than anything else so far, as a matter of fact. Does that mean that the gods have come through?"

"It probably means that the intercessors' spells came through. I can't be sure about the rest. When an intercessor prays for her spells they come crafted and ready to go. If they get their spells back in the morning, well, it probably means that at least they have contact with the gods of their game worlds. If the gods did come through, especially if they do more than just provide intercessors with spells, things are going to get kind of interesting."

The car pulled into the White House drive and stopped again at the west entry. General Kramer and Jeannie Matthews got out, but General Kramer still had unsatisfied curiosity. He looked over the White House grounds and put it on hold for a moment. "Airman, would you please . . . do whatever it is, use the magic?"

"Yes, sir," Jeannie responded. She took a good look at the building. "Ah, how many rooms does the White House have, sir?"

"I don't know. Why?"

"Sir, I've never gone on one of the tours. I didn't think about how big it is. I can cover maybe fifteen rooms today, then I'm going to be tapped out. I can do about the same tomorrow," Jeannie explained. "The spell will last about twenty days. After that it will have to be renewed. Sir, you're going to have to find some more magic users."

"We're working on that. Any other options?"

"I could try a wish, sir, but I don't know if it would work. I'd be pushing it, and sometimes they backfire if pushed too hard. Later, when there's more time, people can research specific spells to cover the White House and other important facilities." Jeannie hesitated.

"But we're looking at a period of time while we're uncovered," General Kramer said. "I understand, Jeannie. We're on it."

They were, of course, stopped at the door. The White House was locked down. It shouldn't have been a surprise to General Kramer, though he was shocked for a moment. When he remembered that he had called in the alert, he shook his head ruefully. It took a couple of minutes before they were cleared to enter. During that few moments, General Kramer was informed that the President was not in a good mood. The Chiefs were in the situation room, and they weren't pleased either.

It was right about then that Joe Kramer realized he had yet to actually see a spell being used. He had well and truly gambled his career on Josh Everett's guess about what was going on. Joe hesitated just a moment and realized that he'd do the same thing again if he had to. With an escort of secret service men, he led Jeannie to the situation room.

By now the President, the chiefs, the secretaries of state and defense were really irritated. They'd been woken, rushed to work, and not one of them had anything but second-hand reports and some video footage that was less impressive than Star Wars or Jurassic Park. The nation was in an uproar; the President had barely managed to doze off before the Secret Service had come into his room. His wife was not a happy camper, either.

✽ ✽ ✽

President James Maguey watched the Army deputy chief of staff enter the situation room, followed by a young woman who looked more like an Olympic gymnast than a soldier. Airman Matthews, the report said. He knew Joe Kramer and would take his word about most things having to do with the Army, but this was pushing things quite a bit. Something weird was definitely going on, something dangerous, a threat to the country he loved, and possibly the whole world.

But magic from a silly game? If they kept looking at Josh Everett’s delusion, they could miss the real cause until it was too late. Joe looked to be aware of his irritation and was toughing it out. The airman didn't seem especially bothered. "Well, General, now that you’re here, what do you have for us?"

"Airman Matthews has spells to protect the White House, Sir," Joe Kramer answered. "They work one room at a time."

"Will we be able to see anything?" James asked. He needed to know if actual evidence was going to be forthcoming or just more claims.

"I don't really know, sir. Airman, what do you think?" Joe asked.

"Sir," Jeannie answered with a wry grin, "I believe so. As Shofar I remember a light purple glow. I can feel the power. I can feel the spells within me."

"Well, we'll see, I guess," James muttered. "If it's even real and not some kind of insane hoax, that is. And that's what I'm inclined to believe, to tell the truth."

The airman shrugged, ignoring the outraged looks from certain people in the room. "I can feel it, sir. I know I can protect this room, as well as a few more. I don't know any way to prove it to you except to just do it."

"Do it, then," James ordered. "We'll see what happens."

"Yes, Mr. President." The airman drew her hands together then spread her arms straight out to her sides, while turning in a slow circle. A pale purple glow began to grow from her body. The glow spread quickly, reached the walls and ceiling and conformed to the shape of the room. The glow dimmed, but if you looked carefully, you could detect a very faint coloration on the wall.

James Maguey sat silently and watched, waiting as she drew her hands back together. He kept waiting, wondering if anyone else had seen and felt what he did. The crawling tingle across his skin had come as a real surprise. He freely admitted that he had very little imagination, so the sudden feeling as the glow from Jeannie grew left him disconcerted.

No one spoke for a few moments. Finally, James asked, "We all saw that, right? Everyone felt it?"

A murmur of agreement and questions ran around the table. Even the most skeptical among them realized that the glow couldn't have been faked, not at such short notice. No one admitted to feeling anything. He did notice that the airman gave him an intent look.

"What now?" Ellen Carter, the secretary of state, asked. "How do we know this room is protected?"

Joe Kramer shrugged, just like the airman had. "I suppose we could try to find someone who can translocate and ask him or her to try it. Other than that, I have no idea."

Mutters broke out around the table, until James cleared his throat. "For now, people, we will assume it worked. It certainly did something. It won't hurt to do it in some other rooms. The Oval Office, parts of the residence . . . How many rooms can you protect tonight? Or can you protect the whole White House?" James recalled Kramer saying something about "one room at a time." That could well mean a limited number of rooms.

"About fifteen rooms, I understand," Joe Kramer answered. "So we'll need to pick them carefully."

"The briefing room, Mr. President," Chris Warren said. "We're going to have to brief the press. If we give them what we have so far, it will work to decrease the tension level. People are next to panicking out there."

"Who briefs?" James asked. "Madeleine or me?" Madeleine Redbear was the Press Secretary for the Maguey administration.

"For now, sir, let's make it Madeleine. You're too busy. No offense to Airman Matthews here, but there is still a chance someone is playing with us." James gave Chris a look, the one he used when Chris' political paranoia went over the top. "Okay, sir, I don't really believe it but . . ."

"Right, Chris. The Press Secretary will brief. Jeannie, Chris is going to take you to Madeleine. I want you to give her a quick overview of what magic can do. When that's done, she'll tell the press and you'll be called out to do whatever you just did on the pressroom.

"Chris, have Madeleine imply, but not actually say, that the Press Room is the last room in the White House to be blocked. This may be a case where having people think there's a protection is as good as having one. Just in case it isn't, though, Joe, I want you to find us some other people who can help Jeannie out."

✽ ✽ ✽

Jeannie felt a little nervous about appearing before the press corps. "Ms. Redbear, what if they give me a lot of trouble?"

"They won't, Jeannie," Madeleine seemed reassuring but distracted. "I'll stomp any of them who try and they know it. Me, they'll give a hard time, but I don't let them beat up on amateurs in my pressroom. Look, Jeannie," Madeleine hesitated, "I trust Chris Warren and especially the President. I know you’re nervous. So am I. Think about it. I'm about to go out there and tell a bunch of very cynical reporters that magic from a game really works."

"I understand, Ms. Redbear." Jeannie looked around the press secretary's office. It was loaded with memorabilia, everything from a peace pipe to a small jade elephant. A buffalo made of bone and apparently very old, was on a shelf. "Is there a reason that's broken?" Jeannie pointed to the buffalo, with its neck broken off at the shoulder. "Would you object to it being fixed?"

"Object? Not hardly. My grandfather gave it to me. When Jerry Cochin, the assistant director of communications, bumped it, it nearly broke my heart."

Jeannie led Madeleine to the shelf and made sure she could see clearly what was happening. Jeannie touched the figurine with only two fingers, one on the body and one on the neck, and used a spell called repair. The expression on Madeleine Redbear's face as the body and neck of the figurine came together without so much as a seam told Jeannie that she was convinced.

"All right, Jeannie. You do the magic and leave the explaining to me." Madeleine grinned. "If they don't believe now, they will in a few days."

Being exposed in the public spotlight—Jeannie shuddered at the thought. "I never wanted to be famous. Never," she said. Jeannie took a deep breath and felt Shofar's comforting memories. Shofar had given a lot of demonstrations in her life. Having that experience at hand was a lot of help. She still didn't really like this, it felt too exposed, somehow. "When I was in junior high I won a prize for a poem. It kind of made me a target at school. People don't like people who are different."

"Don't worry," Madeleine comforted. "You'll do fine."

✽ ✽ ✽

"Ladies and gentlemen," Madeleine Redbear said from the podium, "I'm going to tell you what we know and what we've done so far. You won't believe me, but I'm going to tell you anyway, and if you start calling me a liar you're going to have a lot of egg to wipe off in a few days. Be careful and get it right.

"We know that some type of event is taking place, although we don't know what caused it. For some unknown reason, magic has started working. It's spreading, too. We just got in a report from New Mexico, and magic has started working there. All our military bases are being alerted as we speak. As if that part wasn't hard enough to believe, we are fairly sure now that the magic that has started working is not the magic of Merlin, but magic from a game. Specifically, it's the role-playing game WarSpell. The magic from other similar games may also be working but we are not certain of that. WarSpell we are sure about. We don't know why this happened. We don't know how, either, so there's not much point in asking those questions at this time. I'll answer the questions I can answer, but don't ask me to speculate, please." Madeleine pointed to the NBC White House correspondent. "You first, Sam."

"Madeleine, what is the President doing about this?"

"As I said, the President has put military bases on alert. He has ordered that all personnel who can now do magic refrain from doing so unless absolutely necessary. He's ordered base and unit commanders to find out which of the personnel under their command can do what. We're also securing vital areas against the possibility of magical attack," Madeleine answered. "Next." Madeleine indicated the CNN correspondent.

"Madeleine, my son plays WarSpell," the CNN correspondent hesitated. "What does that mean?"

"Just a second." Madeleine motioned Jeannie over, and whispered

"What about it, Jeannie? John Durham's son is fourteen years old."

"It's likely that his son is Merged. He might be awake from what he thinks was a nightmare. Or, he'll wake up in the morning with the memories of someone considerably older. I have the memories of Shofar who is thirty-eight." Jeanie hesitated. "Among other things, I remember what it's like to kill someone up close and personal while they're trying to do it to me. The odds are so will his son, no matter what character he played."

"Shit. Well, don't tell him that last part," Madeleine thought for a moment. Forehead creased, she said, "All right, I wasn't expecting this. We're going to push your little demonstration up a bit. Then, as gently as you can, explain what he's dealing with."

Madeleine went back to the podium. "We have an expert. Senior Airman Jeannie Matthews, of the United States Air Force, Merged with a very powerful natural wizard named Shofar. Airman Matthews has been putting protection spells over the White House. Partly as a demonstration, she's going to do that for this room. The spell, which is called translocation block, is designed to forbid unauthorized entry into the White House." Madeleine smiled as she motioned Jeannie forward.

Jeannie hesitantly moved forward into the center of the room. The pressroom was fairly large and would be easier to protect if she started from the center. Doing her best to appear calm, Jeannie found that Shofar's memories helped again. She could almost hear Timmin, Shofar's teacher, telling her "Just imagine that they're frogs. And remember, if they annoy you too much, they might well end up frogs."

"Before she does anything else, Jeannie is going to put a translocation block on this room. When she's finished, she'll answer John's question and a few more. Not many, though. She's had quite a night already, protecting the White House."

Jeannie, at Madeleine's cue, cast the spell. As the pale purple glow spread over the room, she could hear the reporters muttering to one another. Finally, she went to the podium to answer questions.

"Airman Matthews," John Durham asked, "can you tell me what effect this is going to have on my son?"

"I can't say for sure, Mr. Durham. But from what we've learned so far, the most likely thing is that your son has experienced the Merge like I did. What that means is that he will suddenly have the memories and abilities of one of the characters he's played in WarSpell. We're not sure exactly how it works, but he probably Merged with his most recent character. That's not certain, not yet." Jeannie stopped for a moment. She wanted to reassure the man but she didn't want to make promises that she wasn't sure were true. "For me it's been a mostly enriching experience. Partly it's the abilities, but it's also added another perspective."

The reporters started buzzing to one another, and Madeleine let it go on for a few moments. "Any other questions?"

CBS correspondent Alvin Durtz was waving his hand in the air along with everyone else. "Alvin," Madeleine pointed.

"Airman Matthews, what about the gods of the fantasy worlds? Did they Merge, too?"

"We don't know yet." Jeannie wondered where he'd gotten the information to ask that question. "Apparently some spells did. There have been several healings and that's generally magic that's given by one of the gods. But that doesn't mean that the gods that provided the spells have access to our world. We won't know that until the people who have Merged with intercessors pray for their spells. That generally happens around dawn."

Next Madeleine called on the New York Times reporter. "Airman Matthews, how much of the White House is protected?"

Madeleine interrupted before Jeannie could say anything. "We're not answering questions about which facilities are protected. Every time someone uses a spell to try to get into a protected place, they waste their spell, according to what we've heard so far."

"Claude Simmons, Dallas Morning News. Madeleine said the President has ordered military personnel to refrain from unnecessary use of magic. Was that to hold down the confusion caused by whatever it was that happened?"

"Partly. It was also to conserve magic for where it's really needed," Jeannie answered. "It would probably be a good idea for civilians to show similar restraint. Book wizards, especially, have only what they have crafted."

Chapter 3

12:34 AM EST, Dec 31
9:34 PM PST, Dec 30
Fresno, CA, KGWN Studio Sound Stage

"Hey, everyone," Andrew Fenton said as he strolled into the room, "what's all the excitement about?"

Carla rolled her eyes. Sometimes she wanted to compare Andy to Ted White from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, but it wasn't accurate. Andrew was quite bright, but he preferred to leave work at work and expected the staff to fill him in with the least possible effort on his part.

"Armageddon," said Roy. "You missed the Rapture by five minutes."

"Can't be, Roy," Andy said, "or I'd be gone."

"Well, something weird is going on. We have faith healings from Canada to North Carolina, and as far west as Chicago," John Graham said.

"And they actually work," Roy added. "I saw an open wound healed in a moment from a New York hospital report."

"Trick photography," Andy started. Then, apparently seeing the faces around him, stopped. "Is this for real, boss?" he asked Graham.

"Something is sure going on, Andy."

"What's the military saying?"

12:45 AM. EST, Dec 31
Post Commander's Office, Ft Benning

"That's the situation, Stan, José," Josh Everett finished his explanation. "Now we've got to deal with it." It was a scene from a dream, or maybe a fantasy TV show. Two generals and one colonel sat at the oak table in the conference room. Normal enough, until you noticed the centaur standing nervously at one end of the room.

"But, General, it’s crazy," Colonel José Mendoza insisted. "How can magic work? How can you believe it in this day and age?"

"José, I wouldn't believe it either," Brigadier General Stan Watkins said, "if it wasn't for him." Stan indicated Sergeant Walker, who was standing at the closest approximation of attention he could manage. "We've both touched him, so we know he's real. I never messed around with those games, but I've heard of them. Meanwhile, if it's true, we've got things to do."

Sergeant Walker was out of uniform and apparently somewhat uncomfortable about it. Josh was pretty sure that when and if the spell was reversed, the uniform would reappear. In the meantime, Sergeant Walker was a bit embarrassed by the, ah, exposed equipment.

"Yes," Josh agreed. "Not the least of which is that you, Stan, need to call Joe Kramer. He thinks I've lost my mind. José, come with me to the theater. I ordered all personnel who've played role playing games to report there. We need to get this mess straightened out."

Josh was a bit worried about José's continued insistence that 'this can't be happening' when it obviously was. On the one hand, Josh sort of understood. On the other hand, he didn't have time to let José adjust. It was time to toss him into the deep end and let him sink or swim.

"Stan, when you've finished with General Kramer I need you to call all the company commanders. Make sure that anyone who's ever played WarSpell or any other role-playing game gets the word. We need them at the theater, not sitting around thinking up mischief."

Grabbing his hat off the rack, Josh said, "Let's go, José. There's no telling what a bunch of bored magic users might do. We've got to get to the theater and get things under control."

12:50 A.M. EST, Dec 31
Base Theater, Ft Benning, Georgia

This was more Josh's thing than Makkeer's. Makkeer had never been in charge of much of anything more than his horse. Oh, he'd been around it. You didn't get as good as he was without coming to the attention of kings and warlords, but he had studiously avoided being made a captain. Josh, on the other hand, had spent all of his adult life in command of soldiers. The difference in perspective was interesting. The combination of Josh and Makkeer's memories left the general with a broader viewpoint.

The room was packed, Josh noted. Sergeant Walker was on stage with a very confused elf named Georgia Rigs, or Eveliena. Major General Joshua Everett stepped out on stage. Georgia Rigs and Sergeant Walker stood to either side of him, after he waved them forward. Josh was carrying a sheaf of sign-in sheets and was a bit surprised at the number of them. There appeared to be quite a few RPG players at Benning.

"If anyone here knows where the sergeant's lower half is, he would like it returned as soon as possible," General Everett began, and paused as a nervous titter swept the audience. "Yes, I know it's weird. About the last thing I ever expected to see in real life was a centaur, believe me. Sergeant Walker, here, would like to know how he ended up this way too. He assures me that he has never played a role-playing game in his life. He was checking the guard post and suddenly he was a . . . well, as you see him. I have some people out looking for the guard he was checking on.

"We'll get to that in a little while, though. For now, we need to get some information. I'll need everyone's name, character, abilities, and level, along with anything else you can think of. We've got to know who we have and what we're capable of. All of it, crafted spells, spells you can develop, everything. Yes, this is real, as I imagine you've all guessed. The President is aware, and so are the Joint Chiefs, by now. So, let's get going. Captain Marie Sims?" Josh had called the base personnel office and been told that Captain Sims, the Chief of the Military Records Section, had left for the theater after they got the word. He hadn't known that she was a gamer.

"Here, sir," Marie answered, standing.

"I'd like you to take charge of the records, get them organized, and find out what people can do. Start with yourself, please. When you've done that, turn the paperwork over to one of your people, if you have any here. I'll want to know everything, eventually, but all officers first, just so I know how many people I have in charge.

"I think it might be best to form lines, although I know how much we all love lines, don't we?" Another titter ran through the audience, and General Everett grinned again. "Okay, officers first in line, warriors over here, wizards and other magic users in the center, and anyone else over to the left, please."

✽ ✽ ✽

Marie Sims and her husband, Brad, hurried forward. While Brad went to take the third place in line at the warrior desk, Marie went to take a look at the sign-in sheets and find names she recognized from work. Brad saw her murmur a question to General Everett and saw him nod. Marie looked around the theater and she called for Sergeant Fuson and a couple of other people. Sergeant Fuson, after consulting with Marie, came over and took position behind the warrior desk and grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen.

"Sir, your name, please," Fuson began. Brad's attention wandered as the light colonel in front of him answered the questions about character, level and abilities. His thoughts didn't wander very far, just back home, to earlier this evening when he had woken suddenly.

"Um, sir, Major Sims," Sergeant Fuson said, bringing Brad's attention back to him. "I've got your info, but I need the character you play and his attributes."

"Sure thing, Sarge." Brad went through Ulrich’s stats, then asked, ""Are you Joe Fuson, from my wife's office?" As he looked around, Brad noticed a few things. A group of soldiers were generally in a bit better shape than a like group of civilians. But, here, it was more than that. People were not wearing their glasses. Hair colors seemed a bit brighter and eyes clearer. In general, people looked a bit more buff than they really should have, especially at this time of night.

"Yes, sir. I didn't know the captain played WarSpell, though."

✽ ✽ ✽

So far, the vampire games' magic had turned out to be incompatible, as had the superhero games. At least they didn't have any people here who had merged with a vampire or spiderman. The space adventure games hadn't Merged, perhaps because they didn't have magic, or it could be that everyone in the hall who had played Star Fury or Tech Wars had also played Warspell and had merged with a Warspell character. Marie Sims reported a count of 797 people. Of that number, 562 were magic users of one sort or another. 85 were natural wizards, who didn't need a crafted spell. 225 were divine casters who got their spells from deities. 103 were book wizards, and they didn't feel comfortable crafting spells without a written reference. The last 234 were amulet wizards, most of whom were pretty much useless, though over a hundred of them had a limited number of spells they could craft into tattoos. And the tattoos had come across. Including one poor guy whose face was covered in them.

"What are we going to do with the intercessors, I wonder." General Everett said. "Most of them can stay in the service, I expect. The ones that serve a war god or a healer ought to come in handy. Some of the others, though, I'm not so sure."

"I don't quite understand, sir," Marie said. "We can't force people out of the service for their religious beliefs. I grant that I never realized just how strange the gods could be. It's like some people sort of let their imaginations go wild or just get silly."

"I'm not so worried about the silly ones. It's the bad guys who concern me. Backnor the Corrupter was in the game guide, you know. Quite a few people used the guides for their gods. Life is going to be interesting from now on, I imagine," General Everett muttered. "And warriors, how many of those do we have?"

"198, sir. Straight fighter class, that is. Between the woodsmen and the champions we have another 137 fighters who have a bit of magic, 225 intercessors including nature intercessors, 85 natural wizards, 234 amulet wizards who won't be able to make amulets until we find the magic moss they need, if we ever do. There are 103 book wizards and 36 members of the criminal character class, some of whom have picked up a few rote spells. Sir, we have to do something about that name. It was okay as long as it was a game, but how are people going to react when someone says 'I Merged with a criminal?' Most of these people are criminals in the same sense that George Washington was a criminal to the British during the Revolutionary War. Okay, some are the Artful Dodger from Dickens." Marie shook her head and continued the briefing. "All sexes, the, ah… whatever it was, has quite literally trapped several women in men's bodies and vice versa. We've got everything from a zero level multi-class character to a twenty-first level Criminal/Amulet Wizard, level ten for the criminal and eleven for the wizard.

"The elf," Marie continued, "is an eighteenth level intercessor of Druisii who accidentally transformed herself in a dream. She was asleep when the Merge happened and her body didn't feel right to the elven character she played, so it fixed things. Apparently in her game world only elves could be intercessors of Druisii, and elves have an allergy to built-up spaces. She wants out, sir, says she needs trees and feels closed in."

"Send her out to the woods then, Captain. God knows this base has woods enough, even if a bunch of the trees are covered in kudzu vines. Tell her to check in once a day for the time being. We'll figure out what to do about her later, I guess," General Everett decided. "Now, have the wizards come up with a list of spells they have ready?"

"Yes, sir, at least a partial list. It’s right here," Marie answered, handing him the list and stifling a yawn at the same time. "They're still working on what they can do, when they have time. This is just what's ready to go right now."

"Tired, Captain?"

"Exhausted, sir. It's been a long night."

"Just a while longer, Captain, and we'll all go get some sleep. Who is the strongest wizard we have?"

"Ah, well, that would be PFC Greg Simmons, General. Seventeenth level book wizard, he says. I'm the same level, but a natural wizard. The intercessor of Druisii is stronger, but she's going to have to leave before something really bad happens," Marie answered. "If you don't mind, sir, I'll go let her know she can head for the woods. She's starting to look nervous."

"Fine, Captain. Let her and any other nature followers head out. There's a snack bar out on the golf course. Have them all report there once a day, until we get this mess straightened out. Set up a schedule or have them do it. I need to talk to Joe Kramer at the Pentagon to find out what's going on. I hope we'll have a better handle on things pretty soon."

"Then there's Sergeant Walker," Marie muttered, looking at the centaur. "Do you have any idea what happened with him?"

"Maybe. I have some people checking."

12:35 AM EST Dec 31
2nd 818 Infantry Motor Pool, Ft. Benning, Georgia

Mornfeld the Mage sat against the APC and tried to make sense out of it. He had been on a fairly standard dungeon crawl. Nothing unusual for him and his companions. They defeated the monster, but it took most of what they had. The monster's followers weren’t pleased and made their displeasure known by mass attacks. It was time to leave and their high-level transport magic was already used. The orc army hit the camp and made off with most of the horses. Transform was one of Mornfeld's standard spells and was especially useful and flexible. In this case it would save them again by transforming Randor into a centaur and providing Mornfeld with a ride. Just as Mornfeld was using the spell, something impossible happened.

Suddenly, Mornfeld was in another world. The spell went off and Mornfeld stared in horror as a sergeant was transformed into a centaur. The sergeant centaur took one look at his hooves and ran off.

Mornfeld didn't know how he knew that the thing he was sitting against was an APC. He also didn't know how he knew that he was in a motor pool, or how he knew that a motor pool had nothing to do with anything liquid.

There was movement, and lights were approaching. He hid behind the APC, but recognized the sounds. It was a car approaching. The car stopped and someone got out. "Private Dixon," someone shouted.

Mornfeld suddenly realized that he was Private Dixon. He remembered that he had guard duty at the motor pool and had to leave the game to go on duty. The last thing he said as he went out the door was "I'll cast Transform on Randor when I get back."

Gerry had always claimed that Randor was hung like a horse. Now he would be.

Timothy Dixon, PFC was finally merging with Mornfeld the Mage. He remembered the events of both their lives and, more importantly, he now understood at least a little of what had happened. He recognized Sergeant Walker, whose goal in life seemed to be to catch privates doing something they shouldn't be doing.

Private Dixon also recognized the Military Police armbands and went out to face the music. He wondered what the penalty was for turning a horse's ass into a centaur.

1:02 AM Dec 31
Base Theater, Ft. Benning, GA

General Everett went back to the podium. "All right, the Army is going to need every spell we can come up with. So, I want all the book wizards to start sorting out which spells you have crafted and transcribing them."

Josh saw a hand waving in the air, "Yes, what is it?"

The short balding officer stood to answer. "Captain Frazer, sir, JAG. I've been going along with all this because of the unusual circumstances, but that last thing you said crosses a fairly big line. Collecting the personal information about people's characters was iffy, legally. Under the circumstances, it will probably be deemed allowable as a security measure.

"Still, General, spells are the private property of the person who has them. Ordering people to turn their private property over to the Army, well, to put it bluntly, sir, it's theft. I don't think you can even require someone to give you a copy of a spell. If you do, you could wind up with the Army subject to lawsuits running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps into the billions."

Captain Frazer looked a bit embarrassed, but continued, "I'm sorry, sir. If there had been time I would have approached you privately."

Josh wasn't pleased, but the captain did have a point. "Captain, if it's not an illegal question, what was your character?"

"Bordash, a ninth level criminal, Sir. He's a criminal who specialized in stealing magical items and paraphernalia, as a matter of fact. Stealing like that was, by the way, a capital offense in the game world I played in. It's not illegal to ask, sir. It may or may not be legal to require an answer or to punish refusal to answer. We're dealing with an unprecedented situation here."

"Well, what do you suggest we do about it, Captain? We are probably going to need those spells. And we'll probably need them sooner rather than later."

Another hand was raised and Josh nodded to the soldier, "Yes?"

"PFC Greg Simmons, Sir, or Duke Meninor of Dairenth." Greg Simmons was a skinny kid, but he carried himself like a duke. "I have a possible solution and an additional problem. The problem is that some of the spells are not the sort of thing we're going to want running around on the net. I don't know what we can do about that, sir, but we probably don't want to start by sitting around a theater swapping spells. We might want to think about who gets what."

"Point taken, private. You mentioned a solution?"

"Yes sir. I have a specialized spell crafted. I think I can use it to get my spell books."

"I know more about spells as a gamer than my character does, but I'm fairly sure you can't simply wish us up a bunch of written spells," Josh said.

"Actually, sir, that's roughly what I intend to do. Meninor has a quite extensive spell collection and a backup set of spells. I've been thinking about it and I think that with a camera, a computer scanner or a copier, I could make copies of the spare set."

Josh felt a bit of hope rising. "And you mention this because?"

"Well," Private Simmons answered, "The spare set is hidden away, but I know where it is. I think there is a good chance that this particular spell will bring it to me. It's what it's designed to do. I should have a little while before Meninor whisks them away again. If everything is set up and waiting at the copy shop, there should be enough time to copy the whole set. I would be willing to donate a copy to the Army. You'd have something to trade with, if you had that many spells."

Uproar broke out at this offer. Book wizards were always on the lookout for more spells, and right now no one had any written spells to look at. Working out the solution took some more time, but eventually a compromise was reached. The copying of spells for the Army would be voluntary, but if you didn't volunteer you wouldn't get access to the Army spells. Volunteering meant providing a complete list of all the spells you had crafted. Any spells that were unique had to be written out and turned over to the Army for copying. After a copy was made, the spell would be returned to its owner.

1:30 AM, 31 Dec
Ft. Benning Print Shop

"Hang on a minute, ma'am," Private Simmons said. "I should probably test this idea first."

Marie waited impatiently while Private Simmons slowly and carefully wrote out a few symbols with a fine pen. He had apparently noticed Marie's impatience, "With all due respect, ma'am, there's no rush and this is not the sort of thing you want to get wrong by hurrying. Let's calm down a bit and think things through." He ran the result through the copier. "That will work," he said with a smile. "I thought it would, but couldn't be sure, not until I tried it."

Marie looked at the two papers in front of her. The copy didn't look any different than the original. "Good. Really good," she said. "Do you need anything from me?"

Greg Simmons shook his head, "Not really. The staff here can do the copying after I cast the spell. Once the books get here, if you have a spell to hide us from Meninor, or a translocation block to keep him from pulling them back too soon, that would be good. The hiding place is alarmed, so as soon as I do this, he's going to know the books and scrolls are gone. They're worth several thousand gold pieces, something like, I don't know, maybe two million dollars. He's not going to like this."

The post print shop was in the headquarters building, and its staff was at their duty stations. Everyone looked dazed and tired, but was ready to do their job.

"There are three things that can happen," Greg warned the staff. "First, it's possible that the spell will fail. I know for a fact that if you just try to wish up something that doesn't exist, the spell will fail or boomerang on you. The thing is, I've touched these books and scrolls. I'm sure they exist and I know them and their location quite well. I really don't think the spell will fail or boomerang."

Apparently Simmons, or perhaps Melinor, went into lecture mode when he was working things out, Marie realized. The tendency to go into "teach" mode must be an occupational hazard.

"Second possibility, the spell will succeed and it will create the books and scrolls the way whatever happened created the memories and abilities I have from Melinor. In that case, we have no problem because Melinor doesn't exactly exist. Truth is, I can't really buy that either."

Marie nodded at this. Magreth felt really real to her. The thought that she didn't exist somewhere was a bit unsettling.

"Third, and this is what I believe, Melinor is as real as I am and suddenly the alarm on his cache of backup spells is going to go off and he is going to be really annoyed. Ahh…" Greg began. "Damn. I should have thought of this earlier. A fourth possibility is that when the alarm goes off Melinor is going to know, or at least guess, precisely what is going on. I have Melinor's and my memories and a fair chunk of his personality. He may have mine. I think I know what he's going to do in that case.

"He's going to gamble and give us a bit of time. He's going to let me copy his spells because, well, I'm him, sort of. Even so, he's going to expect something in return. Something that's easy to get here and hard or expensive for him to get there.

"If we send something back when he retrieves everything, it should be cool. If the event went both ways, he'll know what I'm doing and why. We need your spells in case the event was one way or in case he guesses wrong about how long copying will take. I could have underestimated the time by half. We need to send him something decent, something he will consider fair. We really don't want him mad at us."

"I suppose not," Marie answered. "I know I don't want Magreth coming to visit, not if she's angry. That's an interesting question though. I wonder if it did go both ways."

"We may find out," Greg said. "Meanwhile, I'm ready, but while we're making these copies, we ought to find some gifts, just in case."

"I'll work on it, Private," Marie agreed. "You get busy and let's get this done as soon as we can. Is everyone ready?"

The print shop personnel nodded. No one knew what was going to happen, but they would make the copies as required. Greg Simmons cast his spell. The books appeared on the desk in front of him and the copying started. Marie used a quick "hide us" spell, one just strong enough to last about six hours. After the copying was well underway, she started looking for appropriate gifts.

✽ ✽ ✽

"We need some things," Marie explained to Staff Sergeant Young, supervisor of the print shop. "I think these books and scrolls are going to be jerked away as soon as the spell ends. The owner might be a little bit ticked off at us, so . . ."

"I saw the centaur, ma'am," Jennifer Young said. "I was outside with my dog when he ran past. Gave me quite a shock, that did. If someone can do that . . . well, we'd all look downright silly as frogs. We need to pay for the use of them, didn't the private say? There's sort of a problem, though. It's the middle of the night so nothing's open . . . Hang on."

A few minutes later, Staff Sergeant Young had collected a couple of reams of high quality paper, a box of envelopes, some Post It notes and two boxes of pens. She also explained a bit about her plan and the problem to her staff and everyone began to get into the act. The pile of gifts grew and Staff Sergeant Young got a couple of empty boxes to hold them. Chocolate bars, a can of coffee and a box of tea bags went in, as well as a Betty Boop calendar. One young private had a box of colored pencils and another of highlighters that she had forgotten to take home.

Copying continued right up to the last moment before Marie's spell was due to fade. By that time, forty-one copies of the books and scrolls had been made and the gifts had grown to fill three boxes.

"It's coming down," Marie warned. "Stand away from that desk, all of you."

Marie was almost disappointed when nothing happened. "What do you think, Private?"

"I think Melinor got my memories. And he's giving us time," Greg said. He thought for a moment. "We've got all the copies we need, but he wouldn't know that. He may just let it sit for a day or so."

"You know him better than I do," Marie said. "What should we do? Leave it alone, move it, what?"

"I'd leave it alone if it were me," Staff Sergeant Young said. "He might take it the wrong way if we moved it. The office can make do without that desk for a day or so. The longer he leaves it alone, the more I can think about what would be a good gift, too."

"That will probably work," Greg agreed. "And I'll go get a few things, too." Greg took another drink of the coffee he'd been drinking all night. "I have a hunch that if he got my memories, he may have gotten some of my habits as well. And I'll bet he starts scrying any minute now."

"Already has," Marie muttered, indicating a small, almost invisible distortion of the air near the table. "I can tell. And we'll probably need to report that we have proof that the event, or merging, went both ways. They got our memories too."

Greg nodded. "That's what I thought. Let me leave him a note for the next time. The first thing I'm going to do is go buy more coffee. The game world didn't have it. I expect he's missing it already."

✽ ✽ ✽

Staff Sergeant Young watched the books and the growing pile of gifts warily for the next two days. When Melinor pulled his belongings back, the gifts had increased to eight boxes, one of which contained nothing but cans of coffee. Staff Sergeant Young remembered at the last moment to add a can opener. Just in case.

 

Chapter 4

1:03 AM EST, Dec 31
10:03 PM, Dec 30 PST, Fresno, California

"Okay, Andrew, Carla, on three, two, one…"

"Welcome back, everyone," Carla Jackson said, as she smiled gravely into the cameras. "We're here with our continuing coverage of the— Well, 'crisis,' I suppose. As you can see from the map insert, the event is moving across the country. We've got a detailed report now on an event that happened in Biloxi, Mississippi."

The director cut to the report on a floating gambling casino that had just been robbed by person or persons unknown. Quite a bit of money had disappeared from the teller’s cage. It happened in front of a dozen witnesses. While the report was being shown, Carla turned to her co-anchor, Andrew Fenton. "Where's the latest report from, Andrew?"

"Aspen, Colorado," Andrew answered. "Apparently some semi-crazed fan got some kind of magic and decided he really wanted to meet that blonde singer, what's-her-name. You know, the half naked, bump and grind girl. Ah . . ."

"Brandee," Carla guessed. "Like using two e's is original, honestly. Okay, so whatever it is, is getting closer by the minute, it seems.

"And when it gets here, we'll cover it just like we're covering all the other events," Andrew grinned. "I don't guess I'll get lucky, will I? Somehow, imagining you turning into some kind of barbarian princess dressed in little more than a few gold coins kind of gives me a rush. Maybe someone will make you an illusion, like they did the Paula Abdul thing."

Andrew sounded a little hopeful, but Carla shook her head. "I don't think so, buddy. And get your mind out of the gutter, will you? Barbarian princess . . . Right. You should be so lucky. And, I'll thank you to remember I'm not 'little-miss-Brandee-with-two-e-s.' "

"And, three, two, one . . ." the director said.

"Your turn," muttered Carla.

"Welcome back to the studio, folks," Andrew said with his "just regular folk" voice. "Well, we've certainly got some interesting goings on here in the U.S.A. tonight. I wonder what's next. Now, if you'll take a look at the map our weatherman has been preparing, you'll notice that our latest report comes from Aspen, Colorado. Let me draw a line here, and you can see that this thing isn't happening at a steady rate. Now, we don't know why, yet. It just could be that events aren't being reported yet. We'll probably know tomorrow. Whatever it is, though, it's headed this way. In fact, because of the time it takes to get the reports in, it may be closer than we think. Carla, back to you for the report on Aspen."

"In Aspen," Carla began. She fell silent for a moment. Suddenly, she had the memories of Eowina, a Bowna natural wizard. The Bowna are the bad elves in the WarSpell game. They were difficult to detect in the games, because they looked like any elf. Their hair tended to be bright and the ears were pointed. Carla didn't see it happening, but over a hundred thousand viewers and everyone else in the studio did.

Her skin was normally light brown, now it lightened about a shade and a half as the viewing audience watched. It wasn't their TVs either, because Carla's hair had gone from mid-brown to a brighter tint with gleaming highlights. Her eyes had gone from brown to hazel with green predominating. Her ears, at least the left one which the side camera could see went from round to not exactly pointed, but definitely pointier. All of it happened in the blink of an eye, on camera, under bright lights. Neither her clothing nor the background changed, so it was obvious that the change was in her, not the cameras.

What the cameras could see was, of course, the least of it. The memories of her two lives merged and blended. She was a natural wizard, but she was also a news woman and she had just become part of the story. Professionalism is a strange thing.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Carla continued, "I'm almost certain I have just experienced whatever has been happening tonight. I have the memories of Eowina and those memories indicate that I can do magic. When I was in college I used to goof off by playing a game called WarSpell. One of my favorite characters was a Bowna, a type of elf, who had given up the evil of her tribe and struggled to become good. What I remember from the game sort of matches what I remember of Eowina's life." Carla didn't mention that Eowina was over six hundred years old and that her change of heart was recent and not all that firm. Eowina loved, or at least lusted after, a handsome intercessor of Noron and was reforming to please him as much as anything.

✽ ✽ ✽

In the control room, John Granger saved the b-roll from camera 3 that captured the side shot of Carla's left ear at the moment of her change. He set Marge Davis to expanding the images digitally. Then he started typing.

By the time Carla finished her description, Marge had the sequence ready and John said, "Camera 2, stay on Carla, Camera 1, head shot on Fenton. Carla, pass it to Andy on my mark. Andy, read it from the prompter, intro, then the replay.

"On my mark people, five . . . four . . . "

"But right now," Carla said as John continued his count, "I'm giving this to Andrew Fenton, who is going to show you some footage. Andrew."

"Camera 1," John said as he switched the camera two more buttons. "Okay. You’re off camera and mike quiet. What the fuck happened?"

"I don't know. Some sort of Insithinile, spell, I think. But to do this over a continent, it's more than even most Diume, gods, could manage."

"In-sith-emly?" John asked "Die-you-me?"

"As I said ‘roughly, spell and gods.’ But we don't mean the same things by those words that you do. That is why I first used the more precise elven words."

"What do you mean?" John asked as Andy was describing the slow motion replay of Carla's change.

"We don't have the year it would take to explain." Carla shook her head. There was a note of disdain in her voice that John had never heard before, at least not from Carla.

Meanwhile, Andy finished the bit and went to commercial. "What the fuck?"

Carla turned with lightning speed and her hand came up. Then she stopped as Andy backed his chair almost off the stage.

"Do not take that tone with me," Carla hissed in a tone that would make an angry snake envious.

"Carla?" Roy Carson asked from off camera. John sympathized. In a way she was Carla, but at the same time she wasn't.

Carla's face changed, her expression becoming less alien. "It's still me, Roy. At least mostly. John, we have a report to finish. We need all the info research can get on WarSpell, Runequest, WBCG, and other fantasy role playing games. Because so far everything I know fits with what's in the game. In the same way that Sesame Street is a news program, but it still fits."

"Okay, Carla. I think I can follow that. The games are a simplified version of the world they represent. And magic works in those games?"

Carla held up a hand and a small ball of flame appeared above it.

Marge spoke then. "Commercial's ending in five . . ."

Quickly, everyone went back to their seats and they went back to reporting on whatever was happening, with Carla filling both the roles of expert and newswoman.

01:15 AM EST, Dec 31
White House, Situation Room

"General Kramer, you have a call from Brigadier General Stanley Watkins at Benning."

"Right," Joe checked his watch. "He's late. Doesn't matter though. We have more confirmation anyway."

"General Watkins, what do you have for me?" Joe Kramer asked.

"I've seen the centaur, sir," Stanley Watkins reported, "and I'm convinced that a Merge . . . or something . . . like General Everett described has happened."

Joe caught a hesitation about Watkins statement. "What are you leaving out, general?"

"It's General Everett, sir. I've known him for years. And I've been working closely with him for the last few months, ever since he took command. The way he acts, the way he moves, since the Merge . . . it is him and yet it isn't."

"Explain," General Kramer ordered.

"Different officers have different styles, sir," Stan Watkins answered. "General Everett has always been a belt and suspenders type of officer—very studied and careful." There was a hesitation. "General Everett isn't really less careful than he used to be. But the style is wrong. He projects a less studied style."

Joe Kramer was beginning to become impatient. "Get to the point, General Watkins."

"Okay. He did three checks for confirmation, just like I would expect from him, but he already had the fort coming to ready alert before he made the third check. It wouldn't have really hurt anything if he'd been wrong. It was a judgment call and I couldn't fault it either way. I just can’t help thinking that before the Merge he would have done all three checks and a couple more before he acted."

"Any other examples? Anything in his behavior that you think might constitute a threat?"

"No, sir, there’s nothing like that and no really concrete examples either. It's more of a feeling . . . I don't know how to say it. He's the same guy, but different. The kicker is, sir, that my natural inclination is to follow this new guy faster."

02:40 AM EST, Dec 31
White House, Situation Room

James Maguey leaned back in the chair and rubbed his eyes. He was bushed. He had been bushed at eleven when he went to bed. He'd gotten less than an hour of sleep before this mess started. Joe Kramer was on his way back to the Pentagon. From all reports, things were getting interesting over there. There were twenty-three thousand employees more or less, civilian, military and the civilian contractors who handled the janitorial services and the assorted shops. All those people had to be checked out, and that was just the Pentagon. The federal government was the largest single employer in the US, after all.

He sat back up and looked at the young airman who had way more self-possession than she should have. "I've never played one of these games, Jeannie. I never found the time," James said. "I never would have believed this was possible. What’s next, I wonder."

"Mr. President," a voice interrupted. "I've got one."

"One what?" James asked.

"A manual for that game, sir," answered Secret Service Agent Mark Williams. "Once we figured out what was going on, I called the owner of a local game store and had him open up. Then I went out and bought the manual because I figure we need to know more about it. I figured that if it was a game it had to have rules. It says here that you can get something called wizard armor to protect you."

"I can do that," Jeannie spoke up. Jeannie looked a bit drained after protecting fourteen rooms, but was sounding a bit better after a cup of coffee and a snack. "Sorry, Mr. President. I should have thought of it right away."

"What will this wizard armor do?" the President wanted to know.

"It's another layer of protection, sir. About the same as a suit of chainmail armor but good against certain magical attacks too." Jeannie answered. "With your permission?" Jeannie quirked an eyebrow and waited.

"All right, Jeannie," James agreed. "I suppose you might as well. After that, though, you look to me like you need some sleep. If it's all right with you, we'll put you up here for the night and have our talk in the morning. What do you think?"

Jeannie gave a slight shrug, and nodded. "I'd just be going back to the barracks, sir. I'm probably not going to be that much help, but I'd be happy to stay if you think it's useful."

10:00 AM EST, Dec 31
Washington D.C., White House

When Madeleine Redbear walked into the White House Press Room, the shouted questions nearly deafened her for a moment. Normally the pressroom reporters were a fairly disciplined bunch, but not today.

"Quiet," she roared. "Calm down. If you can get yourselves under control, I will make a statement."

"But, ma'am," an intrepid junior reporter from ABC began . . .

"I said quiet," Madeleine interrupted. "And what are you doing here, anyway? You're not Ardis Rickenbacker."

The reporter, Amy Henderson, flushed. "Sorry," she mumbled. "It's my first time in the pressroom. Ardis won't be here anymore. She up and quit, then disappeared, they said. I got a call telling me to get up here right away. So I did."

"There's a procedure, look it up before the next press conference," Madeleine ordered. "Now, if you're all ready?"

Quiet reigned in the pressroom as Madeleine took her place behind the podium. Under the hot lights and the glass-eyes of the camera, she began:

"As near as we're able to tell, the event that we've been calling the 'Merge' started at about 11:30 last night in the northeastern United States."

Actually, they could tell quite a bit nearer than that. As reports had come in overnight from military bases and embassies around the world, the administration got pretty good reads on the time the Merge hit at each place. Those reads allowed them to plot an expanding globe of magic. By backtracking, they placed it as having started on the campus of MIT. That; however, was not for public consumption, not yet.

"The first news report came from Boston, if you'll recall. It was a healing and didn't get that much play. By the time the event reached New York City, we were all watching as illusions of dragons cavorted in Central Park. The Merge traveled around the globe at a steady rate.

"Thanks to the quick thinking of some of our military officers, we were able to find protections for the White House, and other vital locations, so it wasn't necessary for the President to be taken to safety. He's here and he's going to stay here, he says. He's been in meetings all night, dealing with this crisis. Yes, we do consider it a crisis.

"This morning, after the healings that took place last night, even more healings began to take place. Apparently that is due to healing intercessors praying first thing in the morning.

"Other things have happened, too. There have been even more illusions, unexplained deaths, mass healings, and that sort of thing. By the way, with only a few exceptions, the dragons, orcs, ents, and other mythical beasts have turned out to be illusions. The pale colored pegasi that are seen carrying people are the result of a spell and are used for personal transport. They are created by magic and disappear a few hours after they are created. The winged people that you have seen on TV are the product of a similar spell and the wings, like the flying horses, disappear after a while. There have been a few cases where a person or an animal has been transformed by spell into a centaur or other mythical creature, but those are rare. From what I understand, the transformation doesn't effect the basic nature of the transformed individual.

"The military has been alerted world wide, since one o'clock this morning, our time. We still don't know what caused it. It may be a natural event. Lucas Holland, the President's science advisor, says, quote 'since there has been no measurable weakening in the whatever it is, it's probably going to last a while.' But that's as far as he's willing to go, considering that we have no idea of the cause.

"What we do know, and it's as hard for me to believe as it is for you, is that magic works. We don't know why or how, but we have people tracking that down. We suddenly have what are called intercessors, or intercessors, of a lot of different gods. We not only have magic but it's mostly concentrated in the industrialized nations. It's especially concentrated in the US. We have more magic users per capita than almost any of the game worlds. So not only are we living in a world with magic; we're living in a world with more magic than most."

Chapter 5

7:20 AM PST, Dec 31
Fresno, California

My God, what a night, Carla thought as she looked in the mirror. She finally got a bit of sleep, but now it was time to wake up and face reality, such as it was. A look in the mirror and a period of thought, and she decided that overall she wasn't dissatisfied with the physical effect of the Merge. The irises in her eyes were just a bit elongated vertically like a cat's. All together it gave her a sort of spooky look and she found that she rather liked it.

The phone call from Mom last night . . . That was interesting. Her machine was full of messages, some of which she'd been able to ignore, others that had to be answered. Mom, with her "We love you even if you do look different, now." Dad, with his "Is that what you did with all the money it took to send you to college?" Carla shook her head. Dealing with Dad wasn't going to be that much fun for a while.

One call was from a stranger and sounded a bit threatening. "I'll be watching you." That kind of spooky she didn't need, especially because with Eowina's memories and emotions mixed in, what Carla wanted to do was scry the bastard and turn him into a greasy spot. Or, better yet, use his brain stem as a component in a magical item. And now Carla remembered doing that to humans who irritated her, more than once.

She found another disadvantage when she went to her kitchen for breakfast. Her usual quick cereal and banana breakfast didn't satisfy. She wanted meat. That was from Eowina. She knew the Bowna were universally carnivores. It was cultural, but real nonetheless.

Suddenly Carla felt nauseous. She remembered eating orc and enjoying it. She took a breath and sniffed meatloaf, started salivating. Carla thought meatloaf at 6 am was nauseating. But the craving was still there. She needed meat to restore her energy. To satisfy the cravings, she made a quick ham and cheese omelet. Cheese she could cope with in the morning, as well as eggs and butter. The omelet, along with toast and jam made a fairly decent breakfast. The cravings quieted down, at any rate.

Another problem asserted itself when she got in her car to head for the studio. For some reason, the car made her itchy. After some thought, she remembered the elven discomfort around cold iron. Eowina didn't care for metal, and her preferences were affecting Carla.

Psychosomatic, Carla determined. Eowina's preferences do not have to affect me. I can get over this distaste for some things.

The drive to the studio was unusual. Fresno certainly wasn't L.A., but it was a busy city. Traffic was less heavy than usual, but some of that might have been due to the flying people and horses. When Carla considered it, she realized that she could have simply flown to the studio. She just hadn't considered her new abilities. She considered them now.

Carla was now a natural wizard, like most elven wizards. She worked mostly with slow magic and plant magic. The sort of magic you use to gradually grow a tree into a door to a different place or a different plane. Almost all that magic was left behind in Eowina’s world.

What Carla had available was the emergency stuff. She could armor herself. She could fly or throw lightning. And she could slow time. Well, actually, speed herself up to three times her normal speed, making the rest of the world seem to move at a snail’s pace. That spell prevented her from doing any other magic while it operated, but it gave her a major advantage in combat. "I'm frigging Wyatt Earp," Carla muttered as she wove through traffic on her way to work.

Given time, she could use her magic to grow plants and trees that did everything from hold a mansion to play music. Given a few years, she could make a plant servant that would fix and mend.

None of which was much use in the world she lived in. She still needed to make a living and she still loved her work. She was still thinking about magic and her new abilities as she parked in the studio's parking lot.

✽ ✽ ✽

Carla and the rest of the news team had just finished watching a replay of the White House news conference.

"So what can you do?" John Granger, the news director, asked.

"Not a lot that's all that useful here," Carla admitted. "I'll probably never get mugged again or if I do the mugger will regret it. Ah, briefly, I imagine. Mostly I can kill things and blow stuff up."

Andy Fenton shifted away from her. Carla felt that had to be a good thing on the whole. Andy didn't really understand the concept of personal space. "I'm a . . . Eowina concentrated on combat magic. And because she was, is, whatever, a natural wizard, she didn't have the broadness of options that a book or amulet wizard would. I do have fly and a couple of other spells that are useful. But the truth is, unless we get attacked, I'm mostly just a reporter with a couple of neat tricks." Carla was trying to be forthcoming. This was information that John and the crew needed. But one of the things that she got was an unhealthy dose of Eowina's paranoia. You don't tell anyone your tricks. They can use the knowledge against you.

"Which brings us to the question of what you're going to do now," John said. "No, we're not considering firing you. You can stay as co-anchor on the evening news if you want to. But think about it, Carla. This is the biggest story I've ever seen. I want to know what happened and why, and so do our viewers. So will everyone. At the same time, you just got exposure all over the world. We know our feed of your changing and reporting on it while it was happening to you got picked up by every major news network."

Andy Fenton was looking very upset. He had hopes of moving up from the local news to a job with the networks. He'd been at the station longer and apparently didn't like the idea that she might be getting ahead of him. Carla kept her smirk to herself. Andy wasn't a bad guy, but he had an overdose of ambition. He got a little testy when things didn't go his way.

"I tell you what, John," Carla said, after some thought. "According to what we're getting from Washington, everyone is focused on how to deal with what's happened. No one, no one at all, is focusing on why it happened. Now, I've been changed, but I'm still a UCLA grad in journalism. I want to know why this happened."

"Do you have some sort of a plan?" John asked.

"Maybe," Carla admitted. "You know how Tim Hufton was tracking the changes on the weather map?"

"Yes," John answered. "But what does that matter?"

"Maybe if we gather all the information on what happened and when it happened, we'll be able to trace this back to its source. I imagine that it could take weeks to get straightened out. Suppose I take one of the trucks, or maybe a van. I can head east and I can cover all the weird stuff that's happened on the way. If we don't hurry, we can do a report or two every day, one from each town we stop in, if you want. I can work my way back east, and by the time I get there, well, we might have a better idea of what happened."

John thought for a moment. "Christ, that's going to cost a bundle," he said.

"It may cost a bit," Andrew broke in, "but it will be good for the ratings. Think about it, John. We've got the only televised Merge in the world. She's going looking for what happened and why. The networks are bound to pick it up. They'll almost have to."

Carla nodded, while thinking she wasn't surprised that Andrew agreed. It would get her off the anchor desk and give him a shot at the fame he wanted. As the "at-home" anchor, he'd be introducing her segments. Still, it could work out well. And get her out of town until Dad had settled down a bit. "That's right, John. And it's still early. If we get this organized, I can be down in, oh, Bakersfield, by the afternoon. There's bound to be someone I can interview there."

John gazed off into the distance, considering the proposal. "All right," he said. "The best truck, the best equipment we have. I'll organize it. You go pack, and if there's someone you want on your team, let me know in the next hour. I want you on the road by noon. And I'll expect a feed by 6:00 tonight. Find me a story, a good one. The weirder, the better."

Carla nodded, knowing that was coming. John liked strange stories. He sent someone out to Roswell, New Mexico every year, just in case. "I'll find one," she said. "I'm going to want Roy Carson, both as my cameraman and a researcher. He's got his own sources."

"He does. But they are mostly local," John said. "I don't know how much help he'll be on the road." Then he looked at Carla and a smile twitched his lips. Carla realized that her relationship with Roy was not quite the secret she thought.

11:00 AM CST, Dec 31

Mercy Hospital, Houston, TX

The doctors had come and gone. The damage was neither permanent nor life threatening. Reverend Jefferson Davis Thompson, called Rev Jeff by all and sundry, as was his clear duty, was making a phone call, the first of what would be many. "I'm sorry to bother you with this, Sam," he told Senator Sam Davis, the senior senator from Texas. "If it were just me, I would never bring this up. It's about this thing that has happened, the Merge they're calling it on the news. Senator, I don't think it's a Merge. I think it's a takeover. It is true biblical possession. The Devil got his hooks into them gradually. It happened through this game, and over the course of years slowly infected as many people as possible, all through a seemingly innocent game."

"Rev, I've been worried about the Merge myself, but aren’t you going a bit far?" Sam asked. "Many of these folks seem to be doing good works."

Jeff hesitated briefly. "Senator, you've met my wife. She's a good, God-fearing woman, but the Devil got his hooks into her in college before she had come to the Lord. It's my fault, Senator. I know it is. I thought I had brought her all the way into the Lord's house, but apparently she had stopped in the door to God's holy temple. This morning for no reason she assaulted me, screamin’ heathen oaths to the false god Zagr . . . something. She started proclaiming that women must rule the men. When I would not abandon the Lord, she attacked me, and Jimmy as well."

11:07 AM CST, Dec 31

Houston TX, Offices of Senator Sam Davis

Senator Sam Davis was horrified by Rev Jeff's call. He'd been watching the news all night and was exhausted. First there was that strip tease in Times Square, after that the dragons and flying horses. Then there was that little-bitty girl at the White House, casting that spell. Here in Texas, a coven of witches had actually cast a spell and made it work. Jeff's call cast the already disturbing events of the last twelve hours in a frightening light. "Tony, get in here."

Tony Branduzzi, Sam's aide, rushed into the room. "Yes, sir?"

"Jeff Thompson just called me and said his wife is possessed by the Merge."

"Ahh . . ." Tony began.

"Come on, Tony. What have you got for me? I need facts and figures." Sam put Tony to gathering facts about WarSpell as soon as he saw the White House press conference.

"The best estimate I've found is that six and a half million people have played WarSpell at one time or another in their lives. That's just a guess. It could be off by as much as a couple of million. If it's off at all, it's probably a low estimate. That would give about one in a thousand people or a little less, but they aren't evenly distributed. Probably a quarter of the people who have played the game are in the US and another quarter in Europe. Most of the rest are in Russia, Japan, China, Australia, and India. What that means is that between a half a percent and one percent of the population of the US has played. There's no way of telling if everyone who has played experienced the Merge."

"I know it sounds weird, Tony. But look at what's been going on all night on that thing." Sam motioned toward the television. "All night and this morning, it's been the same thing. Magic, Merge, magic, Merge. Even the President is falling in line. Got himself a little wizard, he does.

"Now I have the call from Jeff about his wife, and the news about that coven. Granted, Texas has its share of nutcases who like to run around naked. But they don’t generally grow a tree overnight. I don't like the idea of a witches coven that can do real magic."

"Sir, what do you want me to do?" Tony asked.

"I want you to gather up some facts, Tony, not just statistics," Sam answered. "How is the Merge affecting people? Are they still themselves? Madeleine Redbear just said that the gods of the game world came across too. I don't like this, not at all."

"It's game worlds, sir, plural," Tony corrected. "From what we have so far, very plural. There are thousands or hundreds of thousands of them, each with its own pantheon."

"Fine, Tony. Game worlds, then. Go ahead and pick nits. That's your job. But don't lose sight of the big picture. I was struck by how careful that airman was in answering the question about the newsman's son. And this phone call from Jeff brings up more questions." Jeff was a significant contributor to Sam's campaigns, as well as a contributor to many other causes. Sam had appeared on his show several times. "Would you still be you if you were given another person's memories? It is a kind of possession, now that I think about it. Tony, find out what these Merges are. I want to know if they really are possessions. Yes, I know it sounds strange in this day and age. But enough weird stuff has been going on that we have to be sure."

9:15 AM PST, Dec 31

Los Angeles CA, Home of House Minority Leader Missy Hartman

Missy Hartman flicked through the cable news channels looking for anything new on the event. Maguey seemed to be bending over backward to accommodate the invaders. And Missy suspected that was what they were. Alien invaders, pod people, taking over and using the magic bullshit as a cover. It damn sure made more sense than magic working. It was technology of some sort, and since she was confident that no one on Earth had the tech, that meant aliens. Possibly interdimensional. Possibly just from a long way away. But in either case, it was an invasion. Why else the scam about magic from a nerd game?

And Maguey, that self-righteous moron, was buying it hook, line, and sinker. Missy toed the party line as necessary, but on a personal basis she hated James Maguey passionately. Four years ago, when she was running against him for the party’s nomination, the campaign got rough. Really rough. He said she was a crook, a phony liberal, and an ideologue, all at the same time.

She ran into a rerun of the transformation of Carla Jackson. There were changes, actual physical changes. Missy paused the TV and tapped a button, bringing up her phone. "Call Willie."

A short pause, half a ring, and William Larson's voice came over the sound system. "Yes, ma’am?"

"Willie, I had a thought. I was watching Carla Jackson's transformation and I wondered if she changed enough so that facial recognition would catch it."

"Ma’am?"

"If she walks through an airport and you have her face from before the transformation plugged in, is facial recognition going to tag the new version? Also, if you tweak the program, can we use facial recognition to recognize the transformed?"

Willie started to say something, but Missy touched the button again and went back to watching the news. If they could ID the transformed, find the aliens, they might have a chance. At least they might be able to make some sort of deal. It was darn sure the military wasn't going to be able to help. The idiot warmongers never solved anything, and now that there was a real threat, she bet they were going to be the first taken over by the aliens.

05:45 PM EST, Dec 31

Post Housing, Ft. Benning, Joshua Everett's Home

Josh Everett had really fallen in love with his wife after they married. It hadn't been an arranged marriage, exactly. But he and Eleanor were both considered an acceptable match by their respective families. He was black and she was black. He was a West Point graduate; she was the daughter of wealthy parents and had recently graduated from Howard. They got along, it was expected, so they got married. The marriage happened two years after his graduation from West Point, when he was promoted to First Lieutenant.

One of the things they eventually discovered about one another was that they both played WarSpell in high school. Neither ever bothered to mention it during their courtship. It was a happy discovery, one of the many they made over the years since.

Josh started playing again during a tour in Afghanistan. When he'd come home, and sheepishly admitted his hobby, Eleanor joined in the games. She preferred the role of Game Master. She loved building worlds and had a knack of inserting jokes into the structure of the world. Once, when Eleanor was pregnant with their first child, she introduced twin goddesses in the campaign they were running.

The kicker was that the goddesses were twins who didn't get along. One was the goddess of child rearing and the other the goddess of nature. They and their sects didn't care for one another, so two of the party ended up as their intercessors and were always arguing the merits of Nature versus Nurture. Josh somehow ended up as the intercessor of Nurture during that campaign. Sometime, somewhere along in there, without really noticing it, Josh began to fall in love with Eleanor.

He continued his fall through the rest of his military career. They played RPG's, mostly WarSpell, the way other couples played bridge. They kept it up, through a daughter, a son, and a second daughter. Through wars and bases all over the world, the family still kept playing. All three of their children played WarSpell, at least some. Mom and Dad did it, so they wanted to see what it was about. Only Carol, their oldest daughter, really got into it.

Josh was so busy that he only had time for one phone call, but he already knew things were going to be different at home from now on. Eleanor's favorite character, by far, on those rare occasions when she played rather than game mastered, was an Elven wizard sage named Nollage. Eleanor was bright and witty, but Nollage was scary smart. She was one of those people who had trouble even talking to other people. Probably because she tended to use five syllable words, even if one or two syllables would do fine. It was Eleanor's voice at the other end of the line, assuring Josh that he should take care of business first. But the vocabulary belonged to Nollage.

✽ ✽ ✽

Josh was worried about his family. He needed sleep badly, but the consequences of the Merge on his family must be faced. Resigning himself to too little sleep, Josh got out of the staff car and waved the driver away. He walked up the old-fashioned brick walkway, and opened the door. The living room was deserted, but he heard voices coming from the kitchen.

"Anybody home?" he called, just to let Eleanor know he was back.

"In here," came the muffled voice of his wife, "in the kitchen."

Josh walked in and found everyone seated around the table, sipping coffee and eating cake. "What's going on?"

Eleanor's eyes were tired as she explained, "Carol woke us all up screaming from what we thought was a nightmare. It wasn't until you called and told us about the Merge that we realized it was real. Carol was remembering something that happened in the game world. The funny thing is I put so much of my personality into Nollage, and was so concerned with Carol that I hadn't actually realized that I Merged till you called. We've been up ever since, talking and trying to figure things out."

The small television on the counter was set on CNN. Josh was distracted by the vision of a golden dragon sitting in what was apparently Central Park.

"We've been watching ever since one in the morning, Dad. Is it just WarSpell magic or something else?" J.J. asked.

"At the moment we think it’s WarSpell, mostly, but there's no telling yet," Josh answered his eleven year old son. J.J. hated being called Junior, and refused to answer anyone who called him that, starting when he was seven. "We had two people who Merged with characters from a different game, but they had converted from WarSpell. So, they might have Merged based on the original WarSpell characters. We're not sure, though. They appear to be the same level as their new characters and have memories from the other campaigns. What's happened here?"

"It's been an interesting night," Eleanor answered. "I've got memories from Nollage, but I think I've got a lid on her vocabulary. Mostly, at any rate. The knowledge might be helpful. I think magic works based on an energy field that responds to or reacts with complex chemical organization." At Josh's blank look Eleanor blushed. "Ah, life, I mean. Maybe I don't have that big word syndrome completely under control. Anyway, Carol seems to have . . . what did you call it? Merged? Carol seems to have merged with Elly, a thirteenth level wizard. J.J. has the champion of Justain he played way back when he was seven. And Janice has an intercessor, an intercessor of Mars, god of war, from that Greco-Roman game we played a couple of years ago. So, dear," Eleanor looked into Josh's eyes and smiled, "how was your day?"

COLLAPSE

About the Authors

Paula Goodlett

Paula Goodlett is a New York Times bestselling author, a retired Air Force master sergeant, former editor of the Grantville Gazette, and creator of universes.


Gorg Huff

I like writing because I am one of those people who thinks of the right thing to say hours, weeks or even years, too late. That sucks in day-to-day life, but in writing you can go back and do a rewrite.

Also, because I like creating stuff. A story, a painting, drawing, virtual object in a computer, an invention, a doorway, a doggy door, a cake or loaf of bread. The process takes me out of myself as well as reading or watching the tube does. And when I'm done, I have the knowledge that there is something new in the world. Which is kinda cool.  Or I have a cake, which is kinda fattening.

Historically, I have been a student, a paratrooper, a construction worker, a clerk, a cashier and so on. And for varying reasons, not overly good at any of them. What I never really thought I would be is a writer. Wanted to be, yes. Thought it possible, no.


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