From Man to Monster

Part One

Behind every 'villain' is a kernel of truth. Nobody ever sees themselves as the bad guy, and people almost never do something they truly believe is wrong. Someone can stick by a choice they later come to regret if they believe it was the best option they had at the time. The truth is, neither villains nor heroes exist. The two sides simply have different perspectives. When you boil it all down, history is just a vicious, never-ending battle between opposing worldviews.

Julith Ballard
He had to turn off the viewscreen to avoid damaging it.
Lukius fiddled with his bracelets, aware that some of their dials were already turning due to the magical energy he was trying to suppress. He took a few deep breaths and let the bracelets siphon his energy to power their internal components. He had backup technology in case they were overloaded but hoped they wouldn't be necessary.
His command of his magic was deteriorating by the day. Some days were fine, and he could have his bracelets off for hours without issue. He'd recently needed to wear them even while sleeping, however. A part of him knew that any lapse in his defenses could allow his power to run rampant.
The edges of Lukius’ vision turned yellow, alerting him to an incoming notification. With a mental intent, he flicked open the visual display of his neural interface. The SimDock showed he was receiving a routed business call from Crux. He accepted it, steeling himself for whoever was on the other end of the line. "Crux Dynamico, you’ve reached Lukius Rischer."
"Is it true?" The woman on the other end of the phone asked hurriedly. "Are you really creating anti-magic tech at your company?"
"Who is this?"
"Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m Julith Ballard; I run the Numen Studies Resource Center in the city. You visited us a few months ago and left your card. I had to call you after seeing the news today to find out for myself if what they were saying was true."
Lukius felt a bit calmer at the memory of Julith. He'd visited the Resource Center to learn more about how some of the other people who struggled to control their abilities handled themselves. He'd never been to one before because his method of control relied on technology rather than help from others.
Julith specialized in medical magic, but she was also a licensed therapist who tried to bring others with similar expertise to the Numen Studies Resource Center. Her methods varied from person to person, and she described the various magical and non-magical methods she used to help others control their abilities. Nonetheless, Lukius had noted how exhausted she and the other aids, as well as the clients they served, were. His bracelets were helping him keep his magic out of his life so he could function. He wanted to share that with the rest of the city.
"Yes, of course, Julith, I remember. It is true; I’ve been developing tech that will negate numen and even suppress it if it’s out of control. "
"That’s absolutely amazing," Julith replied, "I remember how eager you were to learn about the Center’s different approaches to Rampant Numen Fluctuations. I understand that there are trade secrets and red tape that I may be violating by asking this, but is there any chance that this technology will be made available to the public anytime soon?"
"The goal is that the public will receive it first. I may need to change my timetable and see what funding I’ll have from the rest of the company, but I can promise that all of this has been for people who need help with their control."
"Thank you," Julith whispered into the phone. "Thank you so much."
Lukius’s office door burst open, and he quickly ended the call with a curt sign-off.
The man who entered was more machine than human, with only slivers of flesh visible on his face and neck. Lukius tried not to grimace at the sight, knowing exactly who stood in front of his desk. "To what do I owe the pleasure, Mr. Mallory? My day is off to a busy start, it seems."
"You’ll make the time for me," Mallory said, his voice tinny as artificial vocal cords worked over his natural ones. "Now that the people know what you’re up to, we’re going to be flooded with work orders."
"I can assure you that I’m still in the development phases of those products," Lukius said, his voice sharp. "The information you and the other shareholders leaked to the press consisted of plans, not completed products."
Mallory didn't seem bothered by the fact that Lukius knew. There was no way for anyone outside of Crux Dynamico to have known what was in development, and all goods required Mallory's approval prior to production. Of course, Lukius' bracelets were made on his own time and with his own resources, so they weren't a part of whatever plans the shareholders had obtained.
"Think of this as whetting the appetites of prospective buyers", Mallory continued. "You have to admit, it's revolutionary that the company's even starting development on anti-magic products."
"Magical suppressants," Lukius corrected, "and nowhere in my plans did I say the items were being created as weapons."
"It's implicit, and the media is running with it, especially since there are so many dangerous people with RNF out there. PALADINs can now detain them without endangering innocent bystanders."
Lukius felt his magic swell within him and tapped the dial on his left bracelet. This was precisely why he'd kept the plans secret. The contractors would want to arm their PALADIN fleets with as much magic-suppressing equipment as he could produce to neutralize whoever they wanted. For the briefest of moments, Lukius considered removing his bracelets. Even though they were not visible on his face, his emotions were running high, which made his magic much more volatile. It wouldn't take much for him to blow Mallory out of the building. He could claim that the other man's tech had finally overwhelmed whatever was natural left in him.
It would be so easy.
Instead, he walked over to Mallory, pressing a button to siphon more magic into his bracelets as he faced the pitiful excuse for a human.
"You come in here to tell me something I already know? I'm sure you'd all rush to steal the schematics if I refused to create the technology you've leaked. What is this, a shakedown?" He hissed. "Is it your goal to appear more relevant to the rest of the company? Because whatever it is, you’re doing a piss poor job at it."
Mallory raised his hands in mock surrender. "I was just making it clear how things are going to play out from now on. I wouldn't dare deny you the opportunity to become the company's anti-magic tech expert." His chrome eyes lingered on Lukius’s bracelets, a small dot flashing the electronic blue that most optics models emitted when performing a scan. "I mean, the fact that-"
In one swift movement, Lukius removed his bracelets and grabbed Mallory by the sides of his face. He surrendered the tenuous reins he had on his numen and allowed the explosive power within him to erupt to the surface. Warmth radiated through his hands as flames from his palms licked Mallory's remaining flesh. The tin man began to whimper.
"Please, Lukius, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-"
"I should take your intrusive eyes," Lukius growled. "I should turn your entire body into scrap metal for being so damn disrespectful."
"I swear, nothing registered! I promise, the scan yielded no results; the query was unsuccessful!"
"What have you discovered?" As the flames inflicted their punishment, Mallory's face began to char and soften in his tormentor's grip. "That the great Lukius Rischer is no different from the unruly hordes that require PALADINs to subdue?"
"NOTHING!" Mallory screamed. "I haven’t learned anything!"
Lukius removed his hands, the flames dissipating into smoke that filled the room. He slipped his bracelets back on, allowing his magic to be tamed once more. He smiled at Mallory, watching him feel his face for anything out of place or missing. He returned to his desk and sat in the plush executive chair, his eyes never leaving Mallory.
"This discussion never occurred. If I find any personal information has been leaked to the press, you won't have time to hide." Lukius rested his elbows on his desk and steepled his fingers. "Now, get out of my office."
"Happy Birthday, my love."
Lukius turned from his drawing and smiled at his mother. It was nighttime, and she had made the entire day special for him. He'd been free to open and play with his relatives' gifts for as long as he wanted because his mother had suspended his lessons for the day. He did get a little carried away, leaving a few scorch marks on the carpet as his numen grew to match his enthusiasm. His mother chastised him, but she didn't yell at him like his father did when he had a fluctuation. His father was already at work, which made the day even more exciting.
His mother was holding a small, wrapped package. Lukius tore open the shimmering red paper to discover a bracelet set tucked inside. They appeared to be handcrafted, with the silver bumped around the edges. The bands were encircled by turquoise-green carvings, which were inset with two large orange squares. The etchings seemed to glow when he ran his fingers along them.
"What are they?" he asked.
"Try them on," his mother encouraged. "Let me know how you feel once they’re on."
Lukius gave her a quizzical glance and hesitated, staring at the bracelets, before doing as he was told. He was able to squeeze his hands through the openings without any difficulty. The bracelets were just heavy enough that he noticed them on his wrists, but he didn't think they'd bother him. It took him a moment to realize that something felt different in him. At first, he couldn't put his finger on it, observing how the colors in the etchings seemed to flare brighter for a moment before fading again. He ran his fingers along the carvings, feeling static electricity reach out and tease his fingers.
"Well, what do you think?"
"They're cool," replied Lukius, "but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to feel. I know something has changed, but I'm not sure what it is."
His mother gave him a soft smile. "Then let's make it a game to figure out what they do. I'll give you until bedtime to figure out what's so special about those bracelets."
Lukius' face lit up at the thought. His mother knew that making discoveries on his own was the best way for him to learn, so she included it in his studies. It was like he was playing a game instead of studying, but his learning was the game. He cherished his freedom to solve problems on his own.
"You're on!" he exclaimed, sprinting to his bookshelves to see if he had any information on the bracelets. Lukius' mother smiled and gently closed the door behind her as her son began his research.
"Momma, I figured it out!"
Lukius' mother looked up from her news feed and quickly shifted her service palette out of the way as her son jumped into her lap. He was considerably more animated now, giddy, and almost vibrating with excitement. She didn't feel afraid like she usually did when he became agitated, and she could tell by the look in her son's eyes that he understood why.
"The bracelets combine rune magic and technology," Lukius began. "They've been in development for years, but they've only recently been made available to the public. The concept is like something I've read about in history books: when criminals are put in jail, they are given special cuffs that suppress any magical abilities they have." He needed a moment to catch his breath after the torrent of words; his mother couldn’t help but giggle at the sight.
"These bracelets are different, though," Lukius continued. "There are two that can alter the frequencies of numen, like allowing a person whose specialization is ice magic to use fire magic. The third is for numen absorption, which blocks someone's numen frequency from being broadcast since the strength of it fades." He looked up at his mother and grinned. “You got me those.”
"You’re right," his mother said, "And, from what I’m seeing so far, they’re working as intended."
Lukius smiled widely. "You don’t have to worry about my magic anymore, Momma! It’s all under control now!"
"So long as you keep those bracelets on, you won’t even have a small slip-up," she said. "You will be able to go out into the world and never worry about your magic being out of control."
Lukius regarded his mother with wide eyes as he realized the enormity of the situation. "Does that mean I can go to school with other kids?"
His mother nodded, tears in her eyes. "Yes, baby, you’ll be able to make friends and learn in a classroom next year. I won’t be your teacher anymore."
"I…" the young boy paused, "I’m excited, but I’m also scared. What happens if my bracelets break? Or if they fall off by accident?"
"Unless you remove them, they will remain in place. They've been programmed specifically for you and will grow with you, so you don't need to replace them unless they break. And they are practically unbreakable."
Crux Dynamico was supposed to be a company for the people. Lukius quickly realized that 'people' meant the company's owners and major shareholders. He was seething behind his clasped hands as one of the department heads presented the sales figures for the previous month. The sales meetings were held at the beginning of each month, a reason for the board members and team leaders to pat themselves on the back.
"The PALADINs, as you know, are responding nicely to the new systems we've implemented through their main databases. The crime rate is already on the decline, but these additional upgrades will bring it even lower." The department head gestured to random graphs on the projection table; Lukius couldn't even remember which department the other man oversaw.
"Excellent, thank you, Bentlae," remarked Mr. Moughtin, chairman of the board. "I'm delighted to see that our revenues have improved, as has the safety of our streets. Is there anyone else who would like to speak? If not, we can adjourn; there are a few shareholders who are looking forward to my call concerning last month's figures."
"I have something to say," Lukius stated as he stood up. His sleeves brushed against the clear plexiglass table where the department heads sat, the bracelets beneath them growing warmer.
"Of course, Rischer," Mr. Moughtin said, "Let’s hear it. I knew there were rumblings from your department, but I haven’t seen anything of note lately."
"Actually, we've been sending you regular invitations to the MagiTech Center, but you've never responded. We assumed you were too busy."
Mr. Moughtin’s brow furrowed. "I haven’t received requests from your department in months."
Lukius looked around the room; at least two other department heads were not meeting his gaze. "Then I’ll make a formal announcement here. The MTC is focused on upgrading numerous items and integrating them with the new technology. I know this tech was prevalent at Crux Dynamico years ago, but it appears that either financing or a lack of interest has caused these developments to stagnate. My research has led me to a new demographic that the company could reach, one that is in desperate need of products that combine technology and magic."
Mr. Moughtin leaned in closer. "I’m listening."
Lukius took a breath to continue but noticed the eyes of the rest of the room. A couple of the department heads appeared eager for his information, while the rest appeared displeased. He sighed, his stomach knotting with disappointment. "I’ll need to discuss the specifics with you at another time. If we could meet later today, that would be ideal, Mr. Moughtin. If you’ll excuse me."
He exited the room with a slight bow, cursing the department heads. Of course his ideas never made it to the chairman's desk – they were far too revolutionary and could derail any plans that were solely focused on the PALADIN units, or to the benefit of the other shareholders. Obviously, that was something that none of them wanted. Someone in the room was ensuring that any attempts to get the chairman's attention were unsuccessful.
He made his way to one of the executive floor facilities that was rarely used and locked himself in a stall to calm himself down. He rolled up his sleeves, allowing the recycled air to cool his skin. His bracelets were brightly glowing, his power ready to burst forth. They did an amazing job of keeping his powers subdued and he'd been able to live without fear of injuring himself or others while allowing his emotions to grow into something sharper than they'd been before. His mother had educated him how to moderate his emotions when he was a small child, and it produced a calm demeanor he's maintained his entire adult life, but there was no longer a need hide them out of fear because of his bracelets.
If two bits of metal could do so much for him, why weren’t they being mass produced? His mother had to jump through many hoops and over endless red tape to secure his pair, and they were still quickly recalled for being "too temperamental." Lukius had tinkered with the bracelets as much as he dared and found no flaws in their design, no runes that were misspelled or out of position. He kept the bracelets hidden from view from then on, ensuring that everyone assumed he simply never developed any substantial powers. And, of course, with his 'condition,' he'd be the ideal candidate to lead a company that wasn't biased toward technology or magic.
The bathroom door opened, and Lukius heard two sets of footsteps on the tiled floor.
"Well, that was definitely an interesting way to end a meeting," a voice huffed. "Should I be worried?"
"None of us should be worried about Rischer. You saw how he balked when we locked eyes; if he thinks he can outwit us with his plans, he’s got another thing coming."
Lukius recognized the second voice as Bentlae, suddenly remembering that he oversaw a division that dealt exclusively with PALADINs and their systems. With what Lukius was proposing, anyone who needed technology to suppress their powers could get it without going through the PALADIN channels. Bentlae's job would either become obsolete or he would be forced to redirect his efforts elsewhere. The pieces were starting to fall into place, and Lukius suspected that it was Bentlae's staff who were blocking communications with the chairman.
The men stopped at the urinals, and Lukius peeked under the stall door to see who the second speaker was.
"Do you want it handled?" asked the man Lukius identified as Corris. He was another board member who worked closely with the chairman on quality control issues. He appeared to have assumed responsibility for quality control in other areas of the company as well.
"No, it'll be far too suspicious," remarked Bentlae. "If anything, it has to look like an accident. Or even a suicide. Nothing in MTC is open to the public, so if Rischer was assassinated, it would raise too many questions. We need to find the right time and information to set him up. It would be better for us if he were simply removed from the company." There was a pause. "Killing him might be the best option. He's tenacious, so I'm sure he'd try to rejoin the company right up until his last day on Eivrall."
"I went through some of his personnel files. I can't make it look like something was done by another employee because they're all singing his praises from the rooftops. But there was one oddity in his past that I discovered."
Lukius cursed, knowing exactly where the conversation was headed.
"He was homeschooled until high school. His parents filed for several loans after entering the public school system, reporting extensive numen damage that had accumulated over the years due to frequency interference in their neighborhood. No one in the house had reported any abilities of note, but after a little more digging, I found this."
There was the sound of paper rustling. "A fire engulfed the entire hospital wing on the day Lukius Rischer was born. Authorities suspected it was intentional, but they were unable to find the perpetrator. Crux Dynamico was acquiring a company that made jewelry designed to suppress numen when he started high school. I know it's a stretch, but do you think...?"
"He always wears long sleeves," Bentlae murmured. "For as long as I can remember, he has always kept his wrists covered, regardless of the weather. That, or it's a hidden piercing we don't know about. Ick... Corris, if the proof is there, it's not a stretch. He has to have abilities."
"Wow… did you figure that out all by yourself, Bentlae?" Lukius had opened the door and was casually leaning against the stall's frame, a grin quirking his lips. He was surprised at how much he enjoyed seeing two board members look at him with fear in their eyes. If anything, he wanted to see more.
"How long-?"
"From the very beginning," Lukius interrupted, taking a step towards the other two men. "I knew there was a reason the chairman hadn't been receiving my memos, but I never imagined it was because you feared my tech would shake you from your perch in the company. Do I really make you that nervous?"
"Of course not," Bentlae boasted, his voice only slightly trembling. "You should be afraid of us. We know what you're hiding."
"Y-yeah," Corris stammered. "We could end you with a press release. Everything you've worked for will be undone, and your credibility will be ruined. Nobody will trust you."
Lukius’ grin grew wider. "See, that's the thing: no one seems to trust me now. What can you do that I haven't endured already?" He tugged on his left sleeve, revealing his bracelet. "Technically speaking, you're the only ones who have seen my files, right? Even now, only the two of you are aware of my bracelets." He pulled his right sleeve up, taking another step forward.
"We’ll do it," Corris threatened, "we’ll go public. You'll never be able to work here again- or anywhere else in the industry!"
Lukius smiled and crossed his wrists. He flicked the clasps on his bracelets and slid them into his hands with a practiced motion. "No. I doubt you two will ever work anywhere again."
Lukius looked around the decimated executive floor, conflicted. His power remained as erratic as ever, but he hadn't intended for anything other than the bathroom to explode. Nonetheless, he was sooty enough that no one questioned him when he feigned to be stunned, which needed little effort.
"What was that?"
"A bomb, maybe?"
"Somebody needs to call for the PALADINs!"
"Is everyone alright?"
Lukius turned to see the president rushing towards him. The other man had no traces of ash on him, so it was unlikely that he had been in the bathroom's vicinity. Good. It meant he wouldn't have heard their conversation. Slowly, as if still reeling from shock, Lukius blinked his eyes at the other man.
"There was an explosion," he muttered and fell to his knees. "I didn’t even see... But Corris and Bentlae... I left as they came in, and then-"
The chairman knelt and rested his hand on Lukius' shoulder. "Calm down, son. Take a breath."
He did as he was told. "I just... it just happened so fast."

To Be Continued...


Author's Notes

This is an ongoing side story that serves as a prequel/prologue to the main series. I will add to it as I work through his character development.

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