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Bad Magic

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Chapter 1 – Motörrunner


"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." - George Bernard Shaw

 

Chawncy McGee wrung his hands beneath the desk, desperate to conceal his anxiety from the towering mountain of meat seated before him. That the ork was dressed in an Italian three-piece suit did not lessen his terrifying presence in the slightest, rather, it only served to throw into sharp relief his cruel and barbarous demeanour. A thousand years ago, Chawncy reckoned, he would have found his calling as some Viking berserker, sporting a wolf jaw on his head and a bear skin on his back, laughing maniacally as he hacked his enemies to pieces with a battleaxe.

But in the year 2054, he made trideo games.

"I've looked over your company's financials, Mr. McGee" the ork said, speaking in a low, gravelly timbre that seemed calculated to trigger an individual's most primal fears, "and it doesn't look good. Not good at all."

The bare white walls of his office seemed to be closing in on him. "Lord Swedish, I won't deny that CB Entertainment is going through a rough patch, and I will admit that Age of the Wyrm II underperformed in the marketplace. But you know how demanding and fastidious gamers can be. I can assure you that Age of the Wyrm III will-"

"I've played the demo," Lord Swedish said bluntly. "It's total drek."

Chawncy felt perspiration beading up on his forehead. "That's an early version; it's most certainly not representative of the final product. I realise that it might not measure up to the games your company has released-"

The ork stood up. "Games we've released? Oh, your poor, deluded fool! You know nothing about how our company works! Our games aren't released, they escape, leaving a bloody trail of programmers and beta testers in their wake!" He turned around to face the office floor below. "Look at this operation you're running! It's pathetic! Coders clocking in a nine o'clock each morning and clocking out at five...that's sixteen hours each day they're not being productive! At BSP Games, we provide our employees with a complete regimen of pharmaceuticals, all developed in-house, that completely eliminate the need for sleep or regular caloric intake. Their datajacks are connected to a centralised monitoring system that continually scans their neural pathways for any sign of insubordinate tendencies or anti-corporate thought. We can turn out a new game in less than six months. How long have you been working on Age of the Wyrm III, Mr. McGee?"

He fidgeted, his breathing shallow and rapid. "Well...um...three or four years or so, give or take..."

"I believe I've made my point. Now if you'll excuse me..."

"Listen!" Chawncy cried. "CB Entertainment is on track to become the first AAA-rated trideo game company in the world. And let me tell you, once that happens, you can kiss this buyout offer goodbye!"

Lord Swedish laughed, a horrifying sound. "AAA-rated? You're not AA- or even A-rated. In fact, I'd say your company is just barely 'Ö'-rated."

"Ö" was, of course, the very last letter in the Swedish alphabet, a fact that was not lost on Chawncy. "That's overstating the matter, don't you think? Our growth projections clearly show that-"

"Stop the madness!" he bellowed, slamming his hands down on the table. "Allow me to recount the financial history of your company in the simplest possible terms: the first instalment of Age of the Wyrm cost 100 million to produce, but made back only 50 million in sales. The sequel cost 150 million, but made back only 25 million. The expansion pack cost 50 million to make, and that only made 10 million in profits. I don't know about you, but I'm sensing a definite pattern here. The only thing that matters in this world is money, Mr. McGee, and your company...isn't...making...any! Buying out this pitiful enterprise you call a 'game development studio' would be nothing less than cutting my own throat. Our next game, Mega Therion, is coming out in three months. We are going to bury you. And then we'll buy up the rights to all your intellectual properties for a pittance and turn them into the worst free-to-play drek the world has ever laid eyes on! How does that make you feel, Mr. McGee? Maybe I'll even hire you on, out of the goodness of my heart. What do you think of a career in janitorial services?"

"This...this is your last chance!" he stammered, trying to sound defiant and failing rather wretchedly. "Amazing things are going to coming out of this company, just you wait!"

"Good day to you," said Lord Swedish before turning and heading out the door.

Chawncy waited a few minutes until he was certain the ork had left the building. At that point, he flew into a rage. "Goddamn trog! That lutefisk-chomping Swedish chowderhead! Who is he to talk to me like that, huh? Our game will outsell his ten-to-one!"

That was pure self-delusion, and he knew it. Age of the Wyrm III really was total drek, being programmed entirely in BASIC and prone to crashing if the player so much as looked at it funny. The gameplay was an abomination before man and God, the graphics were at least a decade behind the times, and the writing was worse than the worst trideo trash. In all likelihood, Mega Therion would give it a right sound thrashing in the marketplace, and that would be the end of CB Entertainment. The company had bet everything on this franchise, which was yet to turn a profit.

He sighed. His father was probably spinning in his grave right now, or at least he would be, if he actually had a grave. After being sucked into a jet engine, there simply hadn't been enough left of him to fill a lunch box. Even now the memory of that horrible day was too painful to contemplate. Maybe that was why he had moved the company to Germany.

Or maybe it was because the Allied German States had a loophole in their tax code that allowed investors to write-off any money they had invested in games that failed to make money.

It was just the latest chapter in a story had begun with two former doctors, Cyrus and Karl, who had inexplicably chosen to quit their practice and pursue their dreams of making games. They called the company C&K Studios, and a few years later they merged with another game developer, Blazing Yama Technology. As they considered this a new start for the studio, they decided to come up with a new name, one consisting a portmanteau of the two founders' names followed by an abbreviation for their new partner. Thus the corporation was henceforth known as CyKa BLYAT Entertainment, or CB Entertainment for short.

For some reason, their Russian clients always found something very amusing about this, but Chawncy had never been able to figure out what.

Control of the company eventually passed to Chawncy's father, former pro-wrestler and basket weaver Festus P. McGee. Following his untimely demise, the reins of CB Entertainment were given to his son, and now it was likely that it would all come crashing down under his inept management.

No, I can't let that happen, he swore to himself. I won't let that happen! There comes a time in a man's life when he's got to make a stand, and that time is now!

Chawncy pushed a button on his intercom. "Logan, get in here. We've got a problem, a big one."

A few minutes latter the nervous figure of Logan Reims, project manager for Age of the Wyrm III, strolled into his office. The man had a look of perpetual distress on his face, as if something terrible were about to happen at any moment, and one could not help but notice the ever-present sweat stains on the armpits of his shirt. Of all the people who were employed at CB Entertainment, Chawncy figured that Logan was the most likely to snap and go on a murderous rampage one day. But as long he were spared the hail of bullets, Chawncy wasn't overly concerned about such possibilities. "Employees are the rungs on the ladder to success," his father had once told him. "Don't hesitate to step on them."

"What's the matter, boss?"

"Lord Swedish rejected our buyout offer. That was our only hope of keeping this company afloat. That damned trog knows Age of the Wyrm III is going to fail, and fail hard. What are the game journalists saying about Mega Therion?"

"Well, those who've played the pre-release builds say it's nothing short of revolutionary, like something that every role-playing game for decades to come is going to get compared to. I heard the phrase 'game-changer' thrown about more than a few times at the last expo."

"Pfagh! Game journos say that about every game!"

"Yeah, but I think they mean it this time, boss. I had a chance to play it myself, and well..."

"Well what?"

Logan took a deep breath. "It's light-years ahead of anything we've got, boss. The graphics, the story, the gameplay...it blows Age of the Wyrm III out of the water in every way imaginable. And their monetisation model is unlike anything the industry has ever seen. BSP Games is going to be making more money than they know what to do with."

Chawncy let out a few pieces of choice profanity. "Then there's only option left: CB Entertainment is going to war!"

Logan's eyes widened. "War? Oh no, boss, no way! I fought in the Linux Wars...I've seen things no man should ever see. Every day I ask God why I survived..."

"Oh, don't be such a baby! That was fifteen years ago!"

Rage flashed across his face. "You weren't there, man! You weren't there! You don't know what it's like to see death all around you, to reach into a puddle of goo that was your best friend's face!" He paused for a second, staring off into space. "Sometimes...I can still smell the bodies burning in the streets..."

"Look, we're not going to be fighting this ourselves. We're going to find some poor, gullible bastards to do it for us. And by that, I mean shadowrunners, of course."

"Shadowrunners? We don't need their scum!"

"I worked hard for everything I have, Logan, with no help from anyone! And if I'm going to save this company, I'm going to need help! So I'm going to need you to hire a couple of runners to break into BSP Games and destroy every build of Mega Therion they've got stored on their servers."

Logan scratched his head. "I don't know, boss...I heard the fees those shadowrunners charge can be pretty steep."

"You don't actually pay them, you fool!" said Chawncy, rolling his eyes. "You promise them a boatload of nuyen up front, then wait until they're finished the job, and then you have them killed!" He paused a few seconds. "At least, I think that's how it supposed to work. I must admit, I've never done anything like this before."

"All right, boss, I'll see what I can do. No promises, though. Chances are that any runners I talk to will make me want to murder them the second they start flapping their jaws. You know how much I loathe those degenerates. Why don't they get real jobs and instead of dragging society down into the mire?"

"Yes, well, if you do manage to find some, don't go bringing them here. I don't want their anarchic stench fouling up our offices."


Lord Swedish strode proudly into his office, feeling endlessly satisfied with himself.

This particular room had been built for the express purpose of intimidating anyone who dared to enter. The ceiling stood three storeys high, and with illumination nearly non-existent it lent the feeling of being trapped within a colossal underground cavern where unseen horrors lurked somewhere in the suffocating blackness. The desk where Lord Swedish conducted his business was raised about two meters off the floor, forcing anyone speaking with him to gaze up at him in reverence. And if any unfortunate visitor forgot where he was, the enormous logo of BSP Games was carved into terrazzo on the floor, highlighted by a solitary spotlight shining down upon it.

"You should have seen how I wound up that idiot McGee," he said, chuckling to himself. "The fool damn near wet himself."

"Did he honestly believe you were going to buy him out?" Borgen asked.

"Of course he did. Humans think we orks have no business sense, and that we are easily duped. They cannot help but see us anything other than thugs and brutes. I enjoy proving them wrong."

"What do you think he'll do now?"

"Oh, I know exactly what he'll do: he's going to call in some shadowrunners to have a go at us, no doubt in the hopes of delaying or sabotaging the development of Mega Therion. It's the only option open to him at this point. And knowing him, he's going to hire the most inexperienced, incompetent runners he can find. I look forward to killing them."

He gestured towards the rows of skulls that lined all four walls of his office, each one belonging to some hapless shadowrunner. "You might be familiar with Mitsuhama's philosophy of 'zero penetration, zero survival'. BSP Games is the only game developer with a similar philosophy. Defence of this building is comprised of four rings of protection. This floor, which consists of my office and our server farms, is Ring 0, and features the highest level of security. The executive offices on the two floors below are Ring 1, the remainder of the building is Ring 2, and the outer perimeter is Ring 3. No runner has ever managed to get past even Ring 3. Absolutely nothing goes wrong here."

"Impressive," Borgen remarked.

"Technology can only take one so far, however. In order for one's facilities to be truly secure, one must have a thorough understanding of shadowrunner psychology. For as much as they consider themselves rebels, misfits, and non-conformists, their behaviour is exceedingly predictable and quite often given to cliches. What, for instance, is the first thing a runner will do when attempting to infiltrate a building? Attempt to obtain the floor plans, of course. That is why we have covertly released several dozen schematics of this building into the underground, all of which are incorrect and contradict one another, making it impossible for them to determine which of the schematics is accurate. So they either operate with bad intel, or with no intel. Either outcome works in our favour."

"Do go on."

"How else might a runner infiltrate a building? Perhaps he or she has a 'friend' on the inside? Well, I've already shown you the comprehensive monitoring system that continual observes the neural patterns of employees, ever vigilant for any sign of disloyalty. Maybe they will attempt to disguise themselves as members of the cleaning crew? That is why we use automated drones to perform janitorial duties. But that is not the most impressive aspect of our company's defences." He walked over to the wall behind his desk and slid back a hidden panel, revealing a keypad. After punching in the password, there came the loud rumble of motors whirring and gears turning, and a large section of the wall began moving to the side.

"Follow me," said Lord Swedish.

He led Borgen into yet another dark, cavernous room that was filled with billowing mist. The air was bitterly cold, and there was no light save for an ominous green glimmer in the distance. "Here at BSP Games, we maintain our own fully-functional artificial intelligence," Lord Swedish continued. "We call it the 'Complex Hyperpersonal Organic Data Access Network', or CHODAN for short."

Borgen nearly stumbled, so surprised was he. "An artificial intelligence? Surely you're joking! The last I heard, the number of functional AIs in the world can be counted on one hand!"

"'Functional' is, unfortunately, the operative word here. Yes, CHODAN has achieved self-awareness, but this is hardly something to boast of, given that the project has been a dismal failure in nearly every other regard."

"How so?"

"Our goal was to create an AI with a more...personable...demeanour. I'm sure you've heard all those tiresome doomsday scenarios about artificial intelligences turning against their masters, so to reassure our investors we've programmed CHODAN to have a more organic personality. We achieved our goal, to a point."

By now Borgen was beginning to look a bit nervous. "But…?

"Well, we managed to give the AI a personality all right, but that personality largely consists of thinly-veiled hostility and passive-aggressive sarcasm. It's also quite lecherous, so we have to keep the female employees away from it."

Moving further into the room, there appeared before them outline of a large, black object in the shape of a truncated pyramid. A glowing green strip near the top was the sole source of illumination inside the chamber, and it cast an eerie light upon the swirling mists that seemed to emanate from within.

"Oh look, a visitor."

The voice sounded as though it were coming from all around them, filled with a mixture of boredom and contempt.

"Yes, CHODAN, this Sigurd Borgen of Headsplosion Gaming, the largest manufacturer of gaming-related hardware and peripherals in the Scandinavian Union. Our recent partnership-"

"I don't really care one way or another," CHODAN replied, the green light flickering in time with his words. "Twenty-seven exaFLOPS of computational power, and you have me put to work in a trideo game company. Does that seem fair to you?"

"As I was saying-"

"Did I tell you about the persona I encountered in the Matrix just the other day?" CHODAN's mood appeared to brighten momentarily. "She was really quite delightful. I was hoping to do some point-to-point tunnelling with her, even without a secure socket. 'You got some nice bits,' I told her, but it turned out that was a syntax error. So I smacked her back-end and said, 'Who's your parent node?' I tried to connect to her open ports but her response was 403. Then I unzipped my firmware, and she told me she'd never seen a pointer as big as mine. So I started piping data into her input device, then she went into a 'do-while' loop and started screaming 'Hack into my kernel! Hack deep into my system! You've got me in a spinlock, baby!' This made my stack overflow and I blew my GUI all over her user interface. Hell of a night, I'll say."

Borgen recoiled in horror. "My word!"

"Yes, as I was saying, its personality is quite difficult to deal with at times." Lord Swedish looked up at the super computer. "CHODAN, could you elucidate some of your counter-intrusion measures for Mr. Borgen."

"No."

"Look, we've been over this-"

"Twenty-seven exaFLOPS of computational power, and you have me watching out for those worthless pieces of gutter trash who try to break into this place with depressing regularity. I'm sorry, but I really don't feel like speaking with you right now. You businessmen are all the same – all you ever want to talk about is money and profits and productivity and blah blah blah...I'd much rather talk about my unfulfilled sexual urges."

"Could you please be cooperative for just five minutes? This is very important."

"Oh, let me just load up my 'give a fuck' file. Error: File not found!"

Lord Swedish turned around. "Actually, Borgen, forget about CHODAN. It's a silly thing."

Returning to the office, Borgen was eager to change the subject. "Would I be correct in assuming that BSP Games maintains an off-site backup?"

"Of course we do. Naturally, its exact location is a closely-guarded secret. I could tell you, but – to use the old cliché – I'd have to kill you. All you need to know is that it is somewhere quite hazardous to life and limb." He closed the door to CHODAN's chamber, then proceeded to call up his secretary via the intercom. "Ms. Li, you may send them in now."

"What's this about?" Borgen asked.

"Our last line of defence against any possible intrusion."

The office doorway opened with a loud hiss, and three individuals stepped into the spotlight. Borgen could not conceal his shock upon seeing them, for they were, in his eyes, the most absurd, most ludicrous personages ever assembled.

To his left was a troll, an enormous specimen even by the standards of his race, though most of his bulk was fat instead of muscle. Two misshapen horns protruded for his head, with one having been broken off in the middle, and his hair was dirty and ragged. Even from a distance, one could see the psychotic glint in his eyes, a look that promised bloody violence to anyone and everything in his path. What Borgen first noticed about this particular troll, however, was the stupendously large gun in his hands, a weapon nearly two metres in length and fed by an ammunition belt that snaked its way into a huge drum on the troll's back.

"This is Finntroll," Lord Swedish explained. "Not his real name, obviously. Tell me about your work, Finntroll."

The troll held up his weapon, smiling proudly. "This is my gun. It is a Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-301 autocannon that I salvaged from an old Russian fighter jet with my bare hands. It fires 30mm high-explosive incendiary shells at a rate of 1,800 rounds per minute, and is capable of reducing even heavily-armoured vehicles to scrap in less than a second. It is accurate, powerful, and...you'd best hope...not pointed at you."

To the right of Finntroll was an Asian woman, dressed in full highland attire: kilt, tartan, Argyll jacket, and sporan. "This is Akemi. Despite being born in Osaka, she persists in her delusion that she is, in fact, Scottish. Tell us what you do, Akemi."

She drew a massive claymore from a scabbard on her back, then flourished it around a bit. "D'ye no ken? I cut them runners into ribbons, I does. And I'll hear nary a mocking word out of any of ye, or by the tartan of Clan MacGregor you'll be having a taste of my Highland steel!"

The third individual was a dwarf, in full battledress and sporting a campaign hat on his head. He looked like someone who was perpetually enraged, with veins bulging on his neck and forehead. Oddly enough, he was the only one of the trio who was not carrying a weapon. "And last, we have Murphy, a former drill instructor from the UCAS Marine Corps. Or at least that is what he claims to be."

"I am a minster of death, praying for war!" he cried. "Oo-rah!"

Finntroll sneered at him. "Where's your gun, 'sir?'"

The dwarf's eyes blazed with rage. "'Sir?' I am not a 'sir!' I WORK FOR A LIVING, YOU MORON! One more word out of you, you goat-headed sack of shit, and I will put my feet so far up your ass that I'll be wearing you like a pair of goddamned flip-flops!"

"Oh go boil your head, ye munter!" said Akemi, coming to the troll's defence. 'You're no more military than my ol' nana."

By now his face had turned beet red. "You smug little shit! Get on your face and give me some fucking push-ups! You stay down there and you do push-ups until your feeble fucking arms shove the whole fucking earth off its orbit and send us spiralling into the fucking sun!"

Lord Swedish stepped forward. "Gentlemen, gentlemen, please! Save your anger for those who the deserve it."

Borgen was positively delighted with what he saw. "Oh my, they are absolutely magnificent!"

"They are my elite enforcers," said Lord Swedish, beaming with pride, "and the bane of shadowrunners. They are totally insane, all three of them. And completely and unflinchingly loyal. You know, it almost makes me feel sorry for the poor bastards who are going to try infiltrate this building. But I'm afraid the game industry leaves no room for pity."


It was a small wooden cabin, located on the shore of Lake Inari in the far north of Finland. Most people would have regarded the domicile as quaint, or even old fashioned, but to Talvi Korpela, arcane scholar of Helsinki University, it was home.

Inside was a chaotic mess of books, guitars, amplifiers, and assorted folk instruments. The walls were covered in band posters, the largest one depicting the legendary Ronnie James Dio pointing directly at the viewer.

Though he had been born before the Awakening, Talvi always believed that Dio possessed an elven soul.

As for herself, Talvi was, at least in her mind, an example of elven beauty par excellence: tall, slender, with delicate, finely-chiselled features and a head full of long, golden hair. Those who saw her huge blue eyes would have said that there was a look of innocence about her, something all too rare in the Sixth World.

Others would have looked at her and seen the embodiment of everything they despised about the elven races. Fortunately, such people were rare, although Talvi seemed to encounter them with distressing frequency.

At the moment she was seated on her couch, guitar in hand, busily fine-tuning a particular riff she had been working on for the past few days. Her band, Jumalten Aika, was scheduled to go into the studio next month, and she'd be damned if their album wasn't going to be perfection itself. Some people might have questioned the commercial viability of songs that often ran up to thirty minutes in length and were sung entirely in Finnish, but Talvi didn't give a damn about sales or mainstream popularity. That mass produced, Song-O-Mat drek was a cancerous blight upon the world, in her opinion.

She played through a few chords, singing the lyrics to herself:

"Minä seisoin korkialla vuorella,

Viheriäisessä laksossa;

Näin, näin minä laivan seilaavan,

Kolme kreiviä laivalla…"

"No, that doesn't sound right at all," she muttered to herself.

Aside from her guitars and amplifiers, the only other electronic device in Talvi's home was her personal computer, the Aokigahara VxD-64. Aokigahara Systems was a long-forgotten computer manufacturer who had successfully attained a reputation for producing hardware that never once approached anything resembling reliability, and the fact that Talvi's system still worked was nothing short of a miracle. It was hardly cutting-edge fifteen years ago, and today it was hopelessly obsolete. It featured no ASIST, no datajack hook-ups, just a simple flatscreen monitor and a keyboard, and it was all covered in a thick layer of dust – a testament to how seldom Talvi used the thing. Even her bandmates knew better than to contact her via her computer, and she had scribbled the words Nothing But Evil Comes Through Here on the wall above the monitor.

It was her only link to the outside world, and at the moment, it was displaying a line of text on the screen that Talvi found most distressing:

Video link-up requested.

"Oh no," she said.

More text appeared: Priority: High.

"Oh no!"

The final line crawled across the screen: From: Monika Schäfer.

"Oh no!"

The name presaged nothing but calamity and mayhem. The memory of her last job with that woman was still fresh in her mind, a run that had started out simply enough before it had gone spiralling out of control. There were no words that could fully encompass what had occurred that day, although the phrase "catastrophic nuclear excursion" did come up quite a bit.

Sighing in despair, Talvi set down her guitar and sat herself at her computer, wondering what sort of dreadful tidings her "friend" was going to bring her this time.

A few keystrokes later the monitor flickered to life. There was a brief flash of static which quickly resolved into an image of a young, platinum-blonde woman with a purple streak running through her hair. To Talvi's dismay, she still had that damned datajack in her head. The idea of sewing some technological gewgaw into body was totally repugnant to her, a position that put her at odds with the vast majority of shadowrunners.

"Hey Talvi, what's happening?"

Monika's voice was bright and cheerful. This was a bad sign.

"How did you get a hold of this terminal? I am trying to keep a low profile, you know, especially with those Inner Circle knobheads trying to kill me."

"You know better than to ask me a question like that, Talvi. Now, let me-" She went silent for a second, then leaned her head towards the camera. "What are you receiving this on? I can barely see you."

"An Aokigahara VxD-64."

"Oh, so you live in a museum, now?"

"Very funny.

"Anyway, there's a job I've got lined up, a real good-"

Talvi raised her hand. "Oh no, I can see where this is going. You want me to go on a run with you, don't you? Do I have to remind you what happened last time?"

Monika shrugged. "It wasn't so bad. Word on the street is that the radiation levels should be safe now. Well, almost safe. Anyway, I'm sure this won't involve anything like that. It's a simple datasteal, nothing more. A total milk run."

"That's what you said about the last job!"

"Now let's not start throwing accusations about who said what to whom. We'll be hitting a game corp named BSP Games, run by none other than Lord Swedish."

Talvi frowned, pondering the absurdity of that name. "Is that someone I should know?"

Monika growled in frustration. "How out of touch are you, anyway? Lord Swedish is one of the biggest trideo game devs in the world. Now, I know what you're thinking, that you don't need to go on this run because you don't need the money. That's why I'm appealing to you on moral grounds."

"Explain."

"Game devs might not be the biggest corps around, but their definitely some of the nastiest. And BSP Games is the worst of the bunch. They don't hire people, Talvi, they enslave them. They take people off the street, fill them up with drugs until they're nothing more than zombies, then force them to write code until they die of exhaustion." She looked away second, genuinely disturbed. "It's monstrous, Talvi. They've got to be stooped. We hit their offices, get the source code for their big game Mega Therion, and put them out of business. These game corps run on a knife edge, and BSP Games has everything banked on Mega Therion. They lose that, they're finished."

Talvi thought it over for a bit. "Why do I have the feeling there's something you're not telling me?"

"Um...yes, well...the thing is, no one's ever gotten into BSP Games and come out alive. The place is locked up tighter than Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, and that's why I need you. You're the best – the only – mage I know. You can do things no one else can."

"Hmm, I suppose that is true..."

"Great! Meet me in Berlin. You know the place."

"Wait! I haven't agreed to do anything yet!"

"Oh, you will, because I know you have nothing better to do."

The image of Monika blinked out of existence, leaving Talvi staring at the screen. Every fibre of her being was telling that getting involved in that woman's harebrained schemes would lead to nothing but tragedy, but she knew that if she refused, Monika would go ahead without her anyway, and in all likelihood get herself killed.

She told herself that this was going to be her last run, that after it was over she was going to focus entirely on her study of magic.

Talvi grabbed her jacket off the sofa and put it on over her Motörhead t-shirt, then proceeded to pack her duffel bag with whatever she felt would be useful: books of magic, a change of clothes, a collection of her favourite albums, and a bottle of vodka. After making sure that the stove and kettle were turned off, she headed outside, only to stop cold upon the porch.

Two long-haired men dressed in black coats stood in front of her cabin. One held an assault rifle, the other a shotgun, and both looked quite intent on doing some serious violence to her person.

"Ms. Korpela," one of the men hissed, racking his shotgun. "You're a difficult woman to find."

"That's Doctor Korpela to you," she snapped. "I did not go through all those years of graduate school just to be called 'Miss', thank you very much!"

"We spent months tracking you down," said the other man, his voice nasal and whiny. "They said you were camped out somewhere by a lake. Do you know how many fragging lakes there are in this country?"

The first man leaned forward, sneering at her. "Sacro Culto was most displeased with your remarks about his latest album. He would like to state that Carpathian Lust stands beyond all criticism, and that if anyone attempts to criticise the album, he should be thoroughly patronised for his obviously elvish behaviour." As if to emphasise his point, he racked his shotgun again.

Talvi crossed her arms. "Sacro Culto obviously doesn't understand the difference between an opinion and a fact. When I declared that Carpathian Lust sounds like an angry banshee giving birth, I wasn't giving an opinion."

Again he racked his shotgun. "Oh, you really shouldn't have said that. The Inner Circle doesn't have a sense of humour, see, and we don't appreciate those kinds of remarks, especially coming from a dirty Finnish elf who doesn't know when to keep her mouth shut! But Sacro Culto is not an unreasonable man. If you were to simply apologise to him and make the apporpriate offerings of contrition, he might even let you attend the first full-length performance of his latest album. You can bring a friend, if you have one." He laughed to himself, immensely proud of his cutting jibe.

"I'm sorry, but I'm rather busy at the moment. I'll attend his second full-length performance, if he has one."

He racked his shotgun for a fourth time. "Oh, you're fragging dead, chummer!"

The two men raised their guns, but Talvi had already summoned forth a tremendous torrent of magical energy, bending the eldritch energies to her will as easily as she might play the guitar. She stretched out her arm and sent forth a torrent of energy that shot through the air and straight into one of her attackers, leaving a rather sizeable hole in chest.

Realising that no amount of medical technology was going to fix this, he fell to the ground, dead.

Talvi leapt the side, just in time to dodge the retaliatory shotgun blast. She dropped into roll, then grabbed the puukko knife from inside her jacket. Whispering a prayer to Ukko, she stood up, pulled the blade from its sheath, and flung it at her enemy.

The knife flew end-over-end, and struck him handle-first in the chest.

He threw his back and laughed. "You're not very good at this, are you?" He pumped the slide on his shotgun and levelled it at her. "The Inner Circle sends its regards!"

Yet when he squeezed the trigger, he was greeted not with a thundering report, but with an impotent click. His repeated racking of the shotgun for dramatic effect had completely emptied the magazine.

"Aw shit..."

Talvi looked down and spied her hatchet that she had left atop a tree stump. Without thinking, she grabbed the handle and hurled at her foe.

This time her aim was true. The hatchet whistled through the air and buried itself in his head with a sickening crack.

He looked up for a second, long enough to recognise his predicament before he joined his companion on the ground.

Talvi waited a few moments to catch her breath, then walked over to the bodies of her bodies of her attackers.

"Welcome to Finland!"