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Ante Up Chapter 1

Shuffle Cut and Deal

Ante Up

Game of Freedom Book 2

A WarSpell Novel


Chapter 1—The Repo


New nations come into the world like bastard children—half improvise and half compromise.

Benjamin Franklin, from the play 1776

Baja, Mexico, Merge World

June 19, Merge Plus 173


Donatella Alvarez felt the feet on the deck at a subliminal level, but didn’t wake up until the engines started. She looked over at the clock in the forward starboard cabin she shared with her fellow boat bunny, Susan Washburn. It was four in the friggin’ morning and Manuel had come out to test the engines after she only had two and a half hours of sleep. She grabbed her pillow and pulled it over her head.

“What is that crazy man doing at this time of the morning?” Suzi complained sleepily.

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s just testing the engines for the hell of it?” Dona answered hopefully.

Just then the boat started to move. “Oh, fuck!” Dona threw off the pillow and grabbed her clothes while pushing her thick black hair out of her eyes.

Suzy was doing the same with her shorter blonde hair, bikini bottom and tight tank top. It took them a couple of minutes because they knew better than to show up sleepy-eyed in the public areas of the boat. Drug lord Manuel Rodriquez expected them to be presentable at all times.


The Dona Maria was a hundred yards into the bay and moving at eight knots before the girls showed up on deck. “Who the hell are you?” the guy at the wheel squeaked. The guy was wearing a captain’s cap, looked a bit rumpled, and he had that well groomed, well exercised, but soft look that was common in bankers and lawyers.

“That’s my line, asshole!” Suzi said and turned to a chest, where she opened up a drawer and pulled out a very serviceable-looking pistol.

“Hey now, wait a minute,” the guy said. “This is . . . a perfectly lea— ah, legitimate . . . repossession of the boat in compensation . . .”

“Are you nuts!” Dona asked. “Do you have any idea whose boat you’re repoing? Manuel Rodriguez is going to have your ass flayed alive when he catches you.”

That was for sure. Manuel was generous both in salary and little gifts like diamond earrings, but he wasn’t a man to cross and he was possessive as hell. He killed people who got in his way. Dona had seen the bodies a couple of times. In a way, that was part of the attraction. He was exciting and dangerous.

“Well, he’s got to catch me first, and that’s going to be harder than you think,” blustered the guy in the captain’s cap.

Suzi waved the pistol back and forth. “Not hard at all, asshole. Now step away from the wheel so we can take the boat back, before I pop a cap in your ass.”

Suddenly, there was a thump on the deck behind them and captain’s cap smiled. Suzi started to turn and a voice said, “Hold it right there, girl. You’re covered.”

Suzi’s body stopped turning, but her head didn’t. Dona saw Suzi’s eyes widen as she saw whatever was behind them. Meanwhile captain’s cap drew his gun and Dona noticed for the first time that it was an antique ball and cap six shooter, not a Glock or Mac 9. On the other hand, antique or not, the gun in the captain’s hand had plenty of knock-down power.

“Like I said, miss,” captain’s cap continued, “he has to catch us first and that may be harder than you think. You might want to put that pistol back in the drawer before an accident happens.”

“He promised me a million bucks for getting him and his boys out of the joint,” said a voice she almost recognized. “This is my million bucks. As for you, I didn’t know you’d be on the boat. Look, Suzi, Dona, I can take you back to Columbus with me on the next trip, and you can call him to come get you.”

“Johnny, is that you?” Suzi asked. Now Dona recognized the voice. It was Manuel’s druggie wizard, John Graham.

“Yes, it’s me. This is a disguise spell. It’s not like I can run around after they flashed my face all over the news.”

“Johnny,” Dona said, “you are in some shit, mi compadre. Manuel was already pissed at you for running off like that. Now you’re stealing the Dona Maria and kidnapping us. Are you loco?”

“He owed me,” John repeated, sounding like a spoiled five-year-old, “and he was going to keep my ass locked up until I died. Now, do you want me to drop you off in Columbus or not?”

“Which Columbus?” Suzi asked.

“Never mind that,” said Dona. “You know what Manuel will do to us if we come back without the Dona Maria. ‘They had guns’ isn’t going to cut a whole lot of ice.”

“Oh, shit. You’re right. We are royally screwed.” Suzi put the pistol back in the cabinet and went and sat down. “John, you fucked-up asshole, you have gotten us all killed. Manuel has a scryer. You know he’s been collecting magic users since the Merge. He can find us anywhere on Earth.”

“As it happens, ladies, we won’t be staying on Earth that long. Just long enough to transfer the rest of the gear to the yacht and for John here to craft world sailing. Then we’re heading for Twir’s world. Have you been following that blog?”

“Which one is that? There are a lot of blogs about game world adventures these days.” Dona thought about it, trying to place the blog in question. The Merge had gone both ways and often enough there had been at least information about the other side of the merged where the characters suddenly had the player’s memories.  Then the rest of what John said penetrated. “John, you know world sailing? You told me you’d never learned it.”

“Well, I can work it out from the book. I’ve read the spell and practiced a little. I think I can get it.”

“Oh, crap,” muttered the guy in the Union Army blouse.

“You’d better, you asshole, or we’re all dead,” Suzi said.

“Look, it’s going to take us awhile anyway,” captain’s cap said. “John, you get the rest of the gear. Ladies, call me Cap. If you wouldn’t mind too much, please help Sam here stow the stuff as it comes in. We have a load of gear for Half-orc Bay and we need to get it put away while John crafts the sailing spell.”

“Either that or we drop you in Georgia to wait for Manuel to find you,” John offered.

The look Suzi gave John at that point would have killed him on the spot if she had the evil-eye.

The next trip brought a woman named Maggie Huston and more supplies. She said, “Frank is going to wait at the storage unit and come with the last load.”


“So. You didn’t tell me you were picking up dates, Cap?” Maggie asked, looking around the boat and giving the girls a once over. Early twenties, she’d say. There were calluses on both girl’s hands. So bimbos, maybe, but workers too. Pretty girls. Not magazine pretty, but nice looking. They fit with the boat. It was nice too, a lot nicer and a lot bigger than she expected. But the decor was that sort of “over the top” garish style that to Maggie’s eye came with more money than taste.

“They were on the boat.” Cap at least had the grace to look embarrassed.

“And you didn’t know that because . . . ?”

“Well . . .”

“Because he is stealing the boat from a big ass drug dealer who’s going to kill us all when he finds out,” the blonde Maggie thought was Suzi said.

“It’s not stealing,” John said. “He owes me a million bucks.”

Maggie looked back and forth between them, thinking it through. John Smith, John Graham. “Would this big ass drug dealer be Manuel Rodriguez, who escaped from the . . . what was it . . . correctional facility in Texas a couple of months after the Merge?”

“That’s him!” Suzi said with apparent satisfaction.

“That would make you John Graham, not John Smith, correct?”

“Well, yes . . . but you see, I didn’t really have any choice.”

“He promised you a million dollars for translocating him out of prison?”


“Did you know that contracts to commit criminal acts are automatically void?” Maggie asked, feeling her lips twitch in a smile.

“Cashi seemed to think John had a valid case,” Cap insisted. Cap was referring to one of the game world gods, the god of trade and deals in the WarSpell pantheon. Since the Merge, the pantheon of the WarSpell game had become common knowledge.

“No doubt. However, I doubt Justain would, and I am sure that the police in Mexico and America wouldn’t. This boat is hotter than a firecracker anywhere on Earth.” Justain was another of the WarSpell gods, the god of law and justice. Accent on the law.

“Then it’s a good thing that we’re planning on leaving Earth, isn’t it?” John said sourly.


Marina Docks, Mexico, Baja Coast


Carlos saw a motion out of the corner of his eye and looked over. There was a sailing cat moving away from the dock. It took him only a few seconds to identify the Dona Maria even at this time of night. It was the third biggest sailing cat in the marina. It was running without lights and that was very much against the rules.

On the other hand, it was owned by a Manuel Rodriguez and noticing when he broke the rules could get you dead. Besides, Carlos knew that the crew was on board. He knew that not because they kept that sort of track of the yachts, but because Carlos Fernandez kept that close track of pretty girls who ran around in bikinis.

With Suzi and Dona on board there couldn’t be anything wrong. I’ll radio them when I get back to the shack, he decided. And mention that they forgot to turn on their lights and I’m forgetting to notice it.

Fifteen minutes later he got on the radio and called to confirm that nothing was wrong.


Pilot House, Dona Maria


Doña María, es el Club Náutico de Hidalgo. ¿Has olvidado a usted luces encender todo está bien?”

Cap Donaly cursed his luck as the Spanish came over the radio. He recognized Hidalgo and Dona Maria and nautico was probably nautical. Other than that, he was totally lost. Not that it mattered. His was the wrong voice to answer the question.

Suzi and Dona were stowing gear. He yelled, “Suzi, Dona, get up here.” Then he looked at the controls. There were three flat screen computer monitors arranged in a horseshoe configuration, with the engine controls and the winch and rigging controls in the base of the horseshoe. At the moment, the forward screen was showing a camera view from the top of the main mast. The left was showing engine power, fuel level, battery charge and usage, as well as other such stuff. The right was showing a sonar view of the bottom of the marina. The windows above the computer screens weren’t showing much at all. Even most of the lights in the marina were off at this time of night.

The girls came up. It wasn’t far. Cap pointed at the radio, where the voice was starting to sound concerned.

“Well, what the fuck do you want us to say?” Suzi asked.

“Whatever the fuck you want to,” Cap said. “Tell him we’re kidnaping you, if you want. I won’t know the difference, but if this turns into a firefight, you’re not going to be in a good place.”

Dona went to the radio, picked up the handset and started talking. Cap had no idea what she’d said, but she had sounded calm enough. The voice that came back sounded calm too, and it had a wheedling tone. Then she turned to Cap. “Turn on the running lights.”

Cap looked at her and shrugged, then turned on the running lights. “What did you tell him?”

“She told him it was Manuel’s business and he didn’t want to know about it,” Suzi said looking at Dona with disgust. “What she figures is going to happen when Manuel finds out, I don’t know.”

“I figure I’m going to be on Twir’s world, owning my own island, and won’t care. Since the Merge, there are places to run. Lots of places to run, if you can get there.”

“Yeah, great. We own our own island, have orc servants even, but no telephones, no microwaves, no airplanes or movies, or computers or anything.”

“Hey, I have my laptop in the cabin. And they have that base set up there, so we can have internet access.

“Ladies,” Maggie said, leaning in the door. “We have cargo to stow.”

“How much cargo are you guys taking?”

“As much as we can,” said Cap. “All this stuff is worth a fortune on Twir’s world, everything from the fabric to the gun barrels. In fact, with you two and the party stuff on the yacht, we’re going to be a bit overloaded.”

“It took us three days to get all the gear marked and prepared for the translocation spells,” John said, coming in.

“Shouldn’t you be memorizing that spell?” Cap asked.

“I’ve tied off the part I have finished, and it’s not exactly memorizing. It’s more like making something. There is a real thing when you’re done. It’s just that a non-magic user can’t see it or feel it. But you will be able to tell it’s there once we start moving between the worlds.”

“How does that work?” Dona asked.

“Never mind. Ask him later,” Maggie interrupted again. “Work first, grouse later. John, hadn’t you better go get the last load and Frank?”

“Who is Frank?” Suzi asked.

“He’s the boss,” John said.

“And once we get there, he will be Baron Frank Johnson,” Cap added. “And you will probably get lands in his barony, wherever it is.”

“So why—”

“Ladies, to work!” Maggie said. “John, go get Frank. As things have worked out, we need to be gone from this world just as soon as we possibly can.”

John looked at her, shrugged, and disappeared.


Storage Unit, Columbus, Georgia


Frank Johnson stacked the last two crates in the storage locker on top of each other, and tied them together. Then he looked at his watched and wondered what was taking John so long.

There was a slight pop and there was John, standing in the pentagram he had painted on the floor.

“Where have you been?” Frank asked.

“I was working on the world sailing spell while the gear was being stowed.”

“That can wait ’til we’re on the boat. There’s no great rush, after all.” Frank took another look around the storage locker. It was a standard ten by ten unit,  fifty bucks a month. This one had been loaded with barrels for making black powder guns, seeds, fabrics and whatever else Frank could think of and afford by using his savings and hocking his pension. Now it was empty except for the last two crates that were painted with the recognition patterns John had added. The magical equivalent of bar codes, making it easier for the spell to grab them. “Never mind. Let’s go.”

John walked over and took the other handle of the two crates, made a gesture, and said, “Florvorkisy.”


There was a soft pop and Dona looked up. Standing in the main cabin of the Dona Maria was John and a large black man in combat fatigues with an M16 slung over his shoulder and an ammo belt around his waist. He was wearing a black baseball cap with jump wings. She could tell they were jump wings from the little ice cream cone that the wings surrounded. These wings had a star with a wreath around it above the ice cream cone and a little gold star on the ice cream cone. She didn’t know what that meant, but when she looked at the man’s eyes . . . well, he wasn’t soft. No, not soft at all. This man was dangerous as Manuel, maybe even scarier.

He looked at her and said, “Ladies, who invited you along?”

Suzi piped up. “We weren’t invited. We were kidnapped.”

“That’s right,” Dona said. “You’re white slavers. You beast!” She batted her eyes.

The big black man—he had to be the the Frank that everyone had talked about—looked over at Maggie. “I told you to stop that white slavery operation, Maggie. It’s way too much trouble since the little green aliens left.”

Dona almost laughed.

Then he continued in a cold voice. “Now, would someone like to tell me what’s going on?”

Everyone started talking at once and Dona tried to keep track of what was going on. After a couple of minutes, Frank held up his hands. “John, go start crafting your spell, would you, while I try to figure out what to do about this.”


John Graham licked dry lips and buried his head in the spellbook. He’d lied about knowing the world sailing spell. He knew that they needed to move out of this world as quickly as possible, because Manuel wasn’t going to be happy when he learned that his yacht was gone. John felt justified, resentful, and scared. It wasn’t the best state to be in while crafting spells. But he was a combat wizard in his game world. He was used to crafting under pressure.

He read through the spell. In a way it was like translocation, but there were differences. There was that loop in the second section . . . it would repeat and repeat, over and over again, until certain conditions were met and it was like a translocation spell that only moved you a fraction of an inch. John reached out with his left hand and formed a pattern with his fingers, thumb touching little finger, and the other fingers half curled, as though holding a ball. At the same time he imagined a reddish-green ball superimposed over his hand and watched the swirl of magic as it responded to the position of his hand and the mental imagery. He adjusted the color of the ball, tied off the shape, and went onto the next step.


Three hours later, Frank was still trying to figure out what to do about grand theft yacht and Johnny Graham was still trying to craft world sailing when Cap called.

“Frank, someone has figured out that something is wrong. I have Manuel Rodriguez on the horn, threatening to kill us all slowly. That’s if we don’t come in on our own. He promises to forgive all, if we just return his boat, the girls, and John.”

“Don’t believe him. He has to kill you. If you get away with this, it will make him look weak,” Suzi said.

Frank looked over at the blonde. “That much I’d figured out. What sort of force can he bring to bear?”

“What?” Suzi asked.

Dona spoke up. “He has a chopper, four person, and he has machine guns.”

Frank felt his lips twitch in an almost smile. Things are about to get interesting. He knew it was the adrenaline junkie he’d gotten from Francisco in the Merge, but it felt good anyway.


John was barely aware of the commotion. He was lost in his spell crafting and even his need for a fix had mostly faded to an irritation, making it only a little harder to concentrate. He had the spell crafted, but he was rechecking every piece of it to make sure he had it right. First-time crafting of a high-level spell was a very risky time in a wizard’s life.

He pulled up a structure. It was an ovoid, spotted with red, green, and magenta with a dozen short bulbous arms sticking out. John rotated it, checking its effect on the flow of magic, checked it against the notes in the spellbook, then put it back and pulled up another virtual object.


“Frank, we have a Huey incoming from shore. It has armed personnel on board.”

“Sam, what about that Sharps fifty cal of yours?”

“I have it, but we are still in Mexican waters. If we shoot first, we can’t ever come home.”

“Hell, Sam, the way these idiots have arranged things, we probably can’t ever come home, anyway.” Frank gave Cap Donaly a hard look and Cap just shrugged.

Meanwhile, Frank got out the AR15 that he had converted to fire auto. “Cap, try to warn them off.”

“Right, Your Lordship. But don’t expect it to work.”

“I’m not a lordship yet, Cap, and I won’t be until we get to Southland County. Hell, it’s not even my boat. Come to think of it, I haven’t knowingly been a party to any criminal acts yet. You think I should just turn them over to the law, Maggie?” Frank checked the load on his rifle while he talked. He was shooting half-and-half, ball and tracers. The tracers to help him find the target and the ball for when he did.

“My son died of an overdose ten years ago, Frank. I would much rather blow this asshole out of the sky than give him anything.”

“I didn’t know that, Maggie. I’m sorry.”

“It was a long time ago, and it’s part of the reason I’m leaving Earth. I don’t ever intend to come back, anyway.”
“That’s what I figured.” Frank climbed out and took a look around. Sam was doing basically the same thing.

“Cap, turn us about fifteen degrees left. I want them coming as close to straight in on us as possible.”

“Fifteen degrees port, aye!”

“Just turn the damn boat,” Frank shouted. We’re getting ready for a firefight and Cap’s giving sailing lessons. Jeez.

Dona laughed out loud. Frank looked over at the willowy brunette. She had gotten out of the line of fire by stepping inside the lounge and squatting behind one of the crates, but her head was poking out. Frank decided she was probably safe enough, climbed the ladder and took a prone position behind the couches on the upper deck. In the distance, he could see the black dot coming up on their rear.


There was the sound of gunfire, and John almost lost concentration. He was still on his recheck, and had spotted and fixed two minor errors. He wasn’t sure how important they were, but he had fixed them. And who knew what bugs were left in the damned spell?

Then a round found its way through the ceiling and lodged in the table. At that point, John didn’t care that much about getting everything just so. He stopped the checks and cast the spell.


The chopper started firing at maximum range and they weren’t firing to warn. Frank ripped off a burst that went low, then another that still went low. He heard the deeper boom of Sam’s Sharps and fired again. Apparently one of them hit the chopper, because it started shifting back and forth. Bullets were splashing down all around the yacht and some were hitting, though apparently no major damage was done yet.

And then . . .

. . . the world faded and turned gray.

Frank looked around. He could see the yacht with no difficulty. Everything was clear, even the water right around the boat. But a few feet beyond the edge of the boat, the world turned into a shifting mass of gray fog.

“We seem to have escaped?” Frank asked the world at large.

“Looks like it,” said Sam.

“So where is the wind coming from?” Frank asked, looking at the still billowing sails.

“I don’t have a clue.”

Frank stood up looked around at the grayness and climbed down the ladder.

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