The cab dropped Kyle off in the parking lot of the Steel Dragon dojo about half an hour after he finished practicing. Kyle looked through the window and checked out as many shadows as he could before he got out. It had occurred to him on the way over that the dojo might be guarded. He’d spent a fair amount of time there, and paranoia just seemed healthy by that point.
“Your destination has been reached, sir,” the cab prompted while Kyle scanned dark corners of the lot. When he didn’t respond it asked, “Do you have any additional instruction?”
Kyle sighed, “No, use the usual billing data.”
“Billing processed, have a nice day.”
Kyle opened the door and stepped out. The cab took off. Kyle wondered if it moved a little faster than they normally did. That wasn’t strictly impossible. There was no such thing as functional AI, but he could believe enough nuts rode in cabs that someone had taken the time to program an “if the rider is acting odd, peel out before they key you” routine.
He didn’t get jumped walking across the parking lot, which was a relief. When he arrived at the door to the small store it was locked, and the main lights were off. The mirror glass of the windows reflected only his own face, and at first he thought maybe Jan Shen had decided to stand him up. Kyle wouldn’t have blamed the man.
When he leaned against the window and shielded his eyes with his hand he saw a light back in the back room, so he hammered on the glass of the main door. In his urgency, he hit it harder than was necessary for catching the attention of someone who was waiting for him in an empty building late at night.
A figure in the building blocked the light of the back door for a moment, then crossed though the main space of the dojo and unlocked the door. When he opened it enough light spilled in for Kyle to see Master Shen clearly.
“Step in,” Shen instructed and Kyle did so.
Shen started to turn on the light, but Kyle stopped him. “Let’s go to the back.”
“OK, but why do you worry?”
“Let’s sit, I’ll tell you the whole story.”
They crossed to the back room, and Kyle shut the door behind them. It was a relief to be out of sight, but there really wasn’t much room for sitting. The room probably violated several fire codes; there was barely room to move around between the stacks of pads, practice bags, and weapons. There was even a collection of things that didn’t belong at all: some broke, or half broken, office furniture, and disassembled shelving units from when the storefront had housed a more traditional shop.
“You should clear this place out,” Kyle remarked.
“You should leave your poor old Karate instructor to sleep through the night and not bother him about getting magic he probably doesn’t even know.”
“Yeah, I suppose. Let me rephrase that, if you ever need help cleaning this place out I’d be perfectly happy to come by and carry things for you.”
Master Shen smiled with one corner of his mouth, “You’re a good student. Now tell me how you got into trouble.”
Kyle sighed a little and thought about that. It was sort of a long story, and he didn’t want to tell Shen too much because he wasn’t certain how far the conspiracy to hide the tekhnikós from public knowledge actually went. Would telling Shen the true nature of his spell put him in some sort of danger?
Shen took a seat on a beat up, but mostly functional, old office chair next to a desk of similar quality while Kyle thought through the problem. Kyle sat on a pile of pads between a stack of aluminum shelving and some nunchaku.
“Alright, I’ll start at the beginning, but what I’m telling you may be dangerous. For your safety, don’t pass it on.”
Shen held up a hand in a sort of ‘stop’ gesture, “How dangerous? I don’t want to wake up with a horse head on my pillow.”
“Well, it’s not the mob, but I wouldn’t want my enemies for enemies.”
“You are helpful. Fine, tell me secret. I won’t talk.”
“Do you know what the non-scalar law is?”
“Yes, controls everything. All the really good stuff is expensive. Some people think it only applies to magic.”
Kyle thought about that and decided it was as good an explanation as anything. It sort of stripped away the science, but it had believability on its side. “Right, well, I found a way around it.”
“Oh, that’s good. You get me more time sleeping and more money, right?”
“It only works on magic.”
“You are no longer my favorite student.”
Kyle raised his eyebrows, “I was your favorite student?”
“No, Elisabeth is my favorite student. She always wears very tight workout clothes when she practices. However, if you had been, you would have fallen from grace. So what did you do with your magic trick?”
“I tried to break into illusion and failed. It turns out that illusion magic is dominated by one guy: Thomas the Illusionist.”
“The name should have tipped you off,” Shen said.
Kyle sighed, “I suppose. At any rate I, uh, tried to sell my spell, but no one would buy. So I tried to work with my spell and he framed me for magical patent violation. I tried to patent my spell, and I learned it’s actually a very old trick. Then he tried to kill me and he’s kidnapped my friend.”
“I take it this is new enemy I get if I blab about spell.”
“I will keep the secret. So now what? You call cops? Get SWAT team to bust down door shout, ‘On the floor!’ a bunch of times, save day?”
Kyle shook his head, “He’s too connected. No one can touch him.”
“Your PR says that’s not a problem in America.”
“Well, I can bring him down. He’s not really untouchable. I think I can get details on illegal things he’s done, report them to the press, and he should have to let my friend go.”
Shen frowned, “Or maybe kill her to cover up the kidnapping.”
“Well… Wait, I didn’t say ‘her.’” For a moment Kyle wondered if Master Shen was somehow in on it. It made no sense, but Jessie also hadn’t seemed like a spy.
“You’re asking for combat magic. You’re going to charge in there and try to save her like some crazy samurai. I know she’s a she and I know she’s hot. Well, I suppose I don’t. Maybe you like hot boys.”
“No… I… Yes, she’s a she.”
Master Shen gave his broadest and most enigmatic smile.
“It’s still not like that.” He paused and tried to remember where they were, “OK so I don’t run directly to the press. Maybe I tell Thomas what I’ve got first, or I go to the police. Right now I’ve got no leverage. There’s information I need at my office, but it’s certain to be watched. I’ve got to get something to defend myself with while I go in after it. Anything I can get quickly and cheaply will be overused.”
Shen nodded. “And what makes you think I’d have some combat magic I could teach you?”
Kyle gestured at the room which contained literally piles of weapons. “Plus I’ve seen you demonstrate a Chi Punch. You can gather a very solid magical charge. A lot of the old martial schools never realized chi and magic were the same thing but plenty did. You’re telling me you don’t know any old half-forgotten spells from secret sects and advanced ranks?”
Shen steepled his fingers and then spent a long moment looking at them. As he did so, his face grew more serious. At length, he spoke, “You are asking me to commit a crime. This dojo is not licensed to teach magic. That’s a separate thing you know.”
“No one will ever know,” Kyle said. He realized, only after the words left his mouth, that as arguments went it really didn’t deal with any potential moral objection. In fact, it was exactly the wrong thing to say if Shen had a moral objection. Still, he was committed so he continued, “I’m a mage. I know all kinds of magic. I actually know dozens of spells that can kill. Most industrial magic is dangerous just like shop tools are dangerous. I was also being literal when I said I need something to defend myself. I need a defensive spell, not an offensive one.” Shen continued to look at Kyle without saying anything, “No one will think I’d need anyone to teach me magic. I mostly don’t, I just don’t have the time to find it on my own.”
Shen nodded. “Time is another problem, you know. This isn’t a movie. Most things I know, they take real time to learn, and more time to learn to use right. You learn sword spell, fine, now you have great big crystal magic sword, how do you swing it?”
Kyle winced. That wasn’t exactly a surprise. It would have been what he’d expected if he was dealing with any other area of magic, he’d just hoped that combat magic would be special because it had to be used quickly, and people had been fighting for so very very long. He started to stand, “I understand.”
Shen held out a hand to stop him. “I said most.” He sighed and something in his expression changed as he came to a decision, “All my life, I have helped people fight back. Bullies? I teach little kids to fight. Thugs? I teach old people to fight. Abusive spouse? I teach wives to fight; well I taught a husband once too- a big woman with a pan is no joke. I think, maybe, there should be a better path, but I am not the sage. So I teach people to fight because, that’s the best way I know. Maybe I will come back around again after this life and I will know something better. I don’t do this just for the money.” He hesitated and smiled, “That’s good, because it’s not such great money.” He clapped his hands together, “I’ll teach you a spell that will do you some good.”