We read the comments on the last blog post and you guys are so supportive. Thank you so much. It was really touching. We brought you a short snippet today as a small thank you.
Nobody said anything. We all just stared at [REDACTED] image for a long moment.
“This is not good,” Connor said.
My brother-in-law, master of the gentle understatement.
“We don’t know why he’s here or whose side he’s on,” I said.
“We will know shortly,” Alessandro said. “Meanwhile, I want to stress the risks involved. Everyone here has had extensive interaction with Augustine Montgomery, who is excellent at subterfuge. This interaction has given most of you an erroneous view of the danger an Illusion Prime poses.”
“What?” Leon frowned.
Alessandro smiled. “Exactly. Describe Augustine.”
“Stuck up,” Leon said.
“Business oriented,” Bern said. “Competent.”
“Smart,” I added. “Dangerous. Good at deception.”
“Compassionate,” Runa said.
We all looked at her.
“He is, to a degree. If it wasn’t for him, Ragnar might not be here.”
Augustine was the one who convinced me to drop everything and rush to a hospital in the middle of the night to pull Runa’s brother off a ledge with my magic before he did something that couldn’t be undone.
“Anything else?” Alessandro asked.
“Pretty,” Grandma Frida and Arabella said at the same time.
Alessandro picked up my tablet and fiddled with it. A video started on the screen showing a gym empty except for two young men. One was Augustine – tall, platinum blond hair cut short, and a face that was just a hair short of absolute perfection.
Something was slightly off about this Augustine. He seemed younger. I couldn’t put my finger on any specific detail that indicated his age. He just gave an overall impression of a man in his early twenties, just like the present-day Augustine gave an overall impression of a man in his early thirties. But it wasn’t the age. It was something else.
I scrutinized the image. He was barefoot and dressed in a simple white T-shirt and dark shorts. What was it?
His opponent, a tall dark-haired man, turned and we saw his face. Connor. For a moment I didn’t recognize him, but the blue eyes were unmistakable.
He looked like a different person.
This Connor had all the same features that my brother-in-law did, but the man in the video lacked Connor’s trademark intensity. Connor radiated menace. The man on the screen had none of it. He held himself with relaxed ease. Pre-war Connor, before the seismic shift that turned him into Mad Rogan.
Nevada turned to Connor. “When was this?”
Connor squinted at the screen. “Day after graduation. A week before I shipped out. Where did you get this?”
“That’s not important,” Alessandro said.
“Yes, it is. I don’t have this.”
Nevada looked at Bern. “Tell me you didn’t hack the MII server?”
Bern looked at her for a moment. “Of course not. That would start a war.”
“You got it from De Silva,” Connor said.
Nevada glanced at him. “Who’s De Silva?”
“He’s the one filming.”
On the screen Augustine and Connor squared off.
“Ready?” Augustine asked.
“Any time,” Connor said.
I had seen Connor and Alessandro spar. Alessandro trained in martial arts since he could walk, and unlike athletes, he didn’t practice outscoring his opponents. His training was designed to incapacitate or kill his target. He was lethal on the mat and off it.
Connor was ten years older and considerably heavier, none of it fat. He was enormously strong and almost as fast, and once he got going, he was capable of devastating power. Present day Augustine was as tall as Connor, but he had to weigh fifty pounds less. If you put them side by side, Augustine would seem almost fragile by comparison. The idea of them sparring seemed absurd. How did this even happen? Did Augustine lose a bet?
“Today, ladies,” a third male voice said off camera. “Let’s start this tea party.”
Onscreen Connor grinned. “Still waiting…”
Augustine’s hands came up. The muscles on his arms flexed.
The feeling of wrongness crystallized. This Augustine was larger. His shoulders were more broad, his arms more muscular, his legs hard and defined. Standing across from Connor, he was only slightly leaner. Oh my God.
“Augustine was buff,” Runa observed.
“He still is,” I said. “He slims himself down.”
Alessandro smiled at me, proud that I got there first.
“What?” Arabella asked.
“Pause it,” I asked.
Alessandro tapped the tablet and the image on the screen froze.
“Look at the proportion of his shoulders to his chest. Augustine we know has narrower shoulders, longer and shallower chest, and an elongated waist. Even the line of the shoulders is wrong. You can lose the muscle mass, but you can’t alter the skeletal structure of your body. He slims himself down with his magic.”
“He also gives himself two inches of height,” Connor said. “Makes him look thinner.”
Alessandro touched the tablet.
Augustine exploded into movement. His right fist hammered into Connor’s jaw, lightning fast.
“Holy shit!” Leon said.
Connor shied back, his hands up, and Augustine delivered a vicious kick into Connor’s left knee. Connor must have sensed it, because his leg came up, but Augustine still connected. The impact staggered Connor back.
“He’s fast,” Bern said, professional appreciation in his voice.
Both of my cousins leaned forward, focused on the screen. So did Arabella. Her eyes tracked the two combatants on the screen. There was something slightly predatory in the way she watched them, like a cat watching two other cats fight.
Connor leaped back and launched a low kick that grazed Augustine’s thigh. Augustine danced back. His eyes lit up. His lips stretched in a smile. “Ow.”
Connor attacked, his arm snapping out like a sledgehammer. Augustine parried crossing his arms, drove a front kick into Connor’s left thigh, and took a vicious jab to the arm for his trouble. They danced across the gym floor, kicking, punching, and growling. It was beautiful and terrifying to watch.
Onscreen, Augustine leaped. His right leg shot out like like a swinging baseball bat, aiming for Connor’s head. At the last moment, Connor sidestepped, grabbed Augustine’s leg, and jerked him down. They rolled on the mat.
“Nice,” Bern said.
Connor locked Augustine into a half nelson for half a second. Augustine twisted his face away and rolled, landing on top of Connor. Connor bridged, throwing Augustine off and hammered a punch to Augustine’s ear. Augustine snarled and kneed Connor in the face.
The mood shifted. They were playing before, aiming kicks and punches where it wouldn’t cause lasting damage. The gloves just came off. This was no longer a sparing session. This was a fight.
The view moved, bobbing closer.
“All right,” the invisible De Silva called. “On your feet. You’re done.”
They ignored him, trying to muscle each other.
Something hissed and flame retardant foam shot over them.
The two combatants broke apart.
“What the fuck, Thushan?” Augustine snarled.
“You should thank him. You’re shit on the mat.” Connor wiped the blood from his nose and flung it in Augustine’s direction.
“Fuck you too.”
Augustine rolled to his feet. He was muscled like a gymnast. His face blurred, and he was back to the younger version of Augustine we knew, elegant, lean, and glacial.
The video stopped.
Augustine had scammed us. When we had listed his attributes, the first thing on that list should’ve been “a trained killer.”
I looked at Bern. “If you had to…”
He shook his head. “He’d kill me.”
“Augustine Montgomery is a highly capable martial artist,” Alessandro said. “Most high caliber illusion mages are. They assume other people’s identities and enter dangerous situations, usually to gather information or to kill their target. Primes like Augustine can obscure their movements in a fight. He didn’t do that here, but if this was a real fight, and he had a knife…”
“Connor would still beat Augustine’s ass,” Leon said.
My younger cousin started as a shameless Mad Rogan fanboy in middle school, and he never outgrew it. As far as Leon was concerned, Connor walked on water and ate enemy tanks for breakfast.
“He blurs,” Connor said. “You think his hand is on one place, and then there is a knife pressed against your ribs, and you didn’t see it get there. I wouldn’t fight him hand to hand. I’d kill him from a distance. But Augustine will never do anything to hurt anyone in this room.”
“Did you know?” I asked Nevada.
She nodded. “They spar sometimes.”
“And you didn’t tell us why?” Mom asked.
Nevada looked sheepish. It almost never happened. “It didn’t occur to me. Like Connor said, he isn’t a threat. Connor and he had a moment a few years ago. It realigned Augustine’s world view.”
“Trust me,” Connor said. “All of his veiled threats and scary promises are bullshit. He is a friend.”
“Could have fooled me,” Mom said, her voice flat.
Connor grimaced. “He has issues.”