“Don’t be fooled by their piss-stained shorts or senseless ramblings,” Sergeant Abrams said. “These guys are the real deal.”
The ready room’s projector hummed to life as it generated a three-dimensional depiction of downtown St. Petersburg. A grid of blue wireframe buildings began to rotate slowly as the sergeant approached. He gestured upward and the map shifted to a top-down perspective, revealing a cluster of red pips in the heart of the city.
“We’ve been scouting this op for a while now. Each of you has been handpicked to complete the job. Y’all represent the best hope A.C.E. has to stop the mounting threat of unsanctioned paranormals, and your first test begins here,” he said. “We will arrive at the business district right before dawn, when most of these monsters should still be asleep, inebriated, or some combination of the two.”
“Well damn,” Corporal Medan chimed in. “If they’re drinkin’ this should be cake, eh? Might even bring a flask of my own.”
The Sargent’s scowl deflated any levity brought about by Medan’s alcoholism. “Can it, Corporal,” he barked. “If I wanted you to offer up an introduction I’d have placed a help-wanted ad.”
Arcane Containment and Enforcement was a new outfit, pulling from the best occult specialists Earth’s militaries had to offer. The organization was tasked with policing the emergent population of sorcerous citizens.
Any spellslinger who didn’t register with A.C.E. ended up on the agency’s most-wanted list. With registration, however, came the burden of mandatory conscription should an operation call for their talents.
Hunt or be hunted was a daily routine for individuals boasting mana-infused capabilities. Many refused to deal in such absolutes, let alone betray their own kind, which only served as job security to those who willingly enlisted.
“Now’s as good a time as any to go over mission assignments, so listen up.” Abrams flicked his wrist to dismiss the tactical diagram. “Funnyman here is our sniper. He’ll be our eyes and ears, perched on top of Progress tower. Don’t worry – his aim is better than his sense of humor.”
“It’s true. Nobody seems to laugh after a jolt bolt stuns the snot out of’em,” Medan said.
“Moving on,” the sergeant continued, “Priscilla is our cover. She’ll shroud us in one of her illusions, convincing any bystanders that we’re a crew of street sweepers. Not too far from the truth, I suppose.”
Priscilla nodded underneath the shelter of her grey hood.
“Our primary objective is to apprehend this coven without casualties,” Abrams glanced toward the back of the room, “and Private Deixi’s hypnotic suggestion should be our best bet. That is, if our targets’ minds are coherent enough to be susceptible.”
“If not, I can help ‘scilla hide us when shit hits fan,” Ypo Deixi said with his heavy Greek accent. “Civilians will panic if city workers assault the derelicts.”
“Only if it comes to it, private. Try not to cause any brain damage this time.”
“Come now, sarge, that was accident.” Ypo was new to A.C.E., this being his third field assignment. Unlike Priscilla his tricks were internalized, rewriting memories in real-time rather than projecting phantom images.
Sergeant Abrams cleared his throat. “Our last team member couldn’t be here today. She’s still en route from her last mission, but you’ve all heard of her. Agent Juniper will be taking point tomorrow. Just be sure to stay behind her when she’s working.”
“I’ll be running interference, attempting to disrupt any spells these bums manage to throw at us. Once we’ve got them subdued I will tag them for transport,” he said. “Speaking of, Glyph will be jumping us into and out of the extraction zone. Eat light tonight… better to have an empty stomach than to have to empty your stomach on-site. Dismissed!”
The four mages filed out of the briefing room silently. Medan winked at Abrams as he exited.
Glyph’s teleportation incantation manifested as a bolt of lightning, two of which struck St. Petersburg early Sunday morning. Priscilla, Ypo, Juniper and Abrams appeared at the top of a parking garage not far from where their marks were known to congregate.
“What’s this smell?” Ypo asked, gasping for breath.
“Ozone,” Juniper said. “You get used to it after a few rides. Let’s move out.”
“They’re right where we figured,” Medan remarked over the radio. “Everything looks clear from here.”
“Stay sharp and remember, team, we don’t know what tricks might be waiting for us.”
“You got it, sarge. Medan out.”
The streets were all-but empty save for sporadic sunrise joggers and dog walkers. Three blocks later the group came to a halt.
“You’re awfully quiet up there, corporal,” Abrams radioed. “Sit rep?”
“Mum’s the word down there too, boss. Four of’em are passed out in the alley behind the Kress building, and another two are stumbling around seeing who can fireball a squirrel. I’d start with them, and maybe spare that bottle of Jack they’re carrying around.”
“Empty your flask already, hotshot?” Juniper asked, ignoring Medan’s answer. “I’ll try and make this quick.” She took off her jacket, tossed it to Ypo, and sat down. Her shoulders started to rise up and down to the tempo of deep, drawn-out breaths. Everyone else backed up a few steps.
“Maintain our disguises no matter what, you two,” Abrams said to Priscilla and Ypo. “There’s no room for suggestive reasoning with these dipshit squirrel hunters, if their imprecision is any indicator.”
“How am I to conceal her?” Priscilla pointed to Juniper, who was hyperventilating spastically.
“Just make her look like one of them,” Abrams answered. “These civilians should be used to ignoring deranged behavior by now.”
Dark smoke drained out of Juniper’s eyes, ears and mouth. It slithered around the corner, passing the squirrel as it dodged yet another burst of flame. Neither hobo cared to notice the darkness approach as they passed their whiskey back and forth.
Right as the shadowy tendril was in reach of its first mark, four bolts of light brought the operation to a halt as Abrams, Juniper, Priscilla and Ypo collapsed. It was only then that the two homeless wizards took notice of A.C.E.’s presence.
Lightning hit across the street and Medan emerged from its static discharge.
“Thanks, Glyph,” he said into his headset. “I’ll take it from here.”
“That them?” asked one of the hobos, casually tossing a fireball that reduced the squirrel to ash.
“Yup.” Medan pulled out his flask. “They should be stunned for a few hours. Take’m to the warlock and tell him everything’s going as planned.”
“One last thing,” he said, “… I’m gonna need that bottle.”