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'Why, thank you, my dear,' said Mandrake the magician.

He nodded at the young lady by his side and Jedda handed the cane back to him with a slight smile, her brown eyes bright with mild amusement. The canes unexpected slide to the floor, from where it had been resting against the wall had momentarily disturbed the conversation in the main room. But after everyone (except K'shin who was too engrossed in the game on the computer) had turned to see what had made the noise, the gentle murmur of conversation continued, seemingly just as before.

Jedda turned away, the smile growing wider. And he knew what she was thinking: “Poor old Mandrake!” He had no need of telepathy to understand that! Ah, the conceit of the young. Youth always found amusement in the fate of the old. How little they understand.

Mandrake watched Jedda as she glanced at Rick, who was sitting on the other side of the room, deep in innocent conversation with his father, Flash. But it was clear as the magical crystal in the tip of his cane that those teenagers were planning something. And considering all the potential possibilities, Mandrake had decided that there was just one likely answer. But sneaking out of the mansion without the other, older Defenders knowing was not as easy as it looked.

Flash, Lothar and the Phantom had been discussing the day's events with the usual intensity, and the children had played along. Mandrake had watched them that evening, the tiny glances between Rick and LJ, and conspiratorial smiles. K'shin was oblivious, too young to be interested, and too distracted by the Zuffoid and the new computer games to care. Jedda knew. Whether she was part of the conspiracy or not, Mandrake hadn't been sure of until she had returned his cane. That confident smile, the way she had looked straight at him. It was obvious.

The conversation in the room ebbed and flowed, and Mandrake let the words wash past him, wondering instead exactly what they had planned. Clearly, the children would have to sneak past Dynak. Rick would be clever enough to think of something. He had become increasingly good at subverting the very programming he had designed in the first place. Flash and Lothar tried to keep up, but the younger Gordon was always at least three steps ahead of everyone else when it came to computers. Rick would have most likely rigged up some sort of alarm as well, to alert them in the event of an emergency. After all, Ming could not be relied on to leave them in peace.

The thought made Mandrake uncomfortable; it was their unacknowledged fate to be controlled by the machinations of Ming the Merciless. They were the Defenders of the Earth; they were always ready. They had to be always ready. The fate of the world, and sometimes the fate of the very universe itself was in their hands. No wonder the children wanted an escape, even if it was just for an evening out. All of them craved a way out, but the ultimate way out, the final defeat of their enemy, was always beyond them.

Rick and LJ were listening with forced interest to the conversation of their elders. Jedda was stroking Kisa, her black panther “pet”, gently around the ears.

The ornate clock on the mantelpiece above the fire ticked relentlessly.

And the final thought lingered, laden with temptation: All of them craved a way out.

At last, the children made their move. Jedda leaving first, giving a very obvious yawn after she kissed her father on the cheek. A few minutes later, both Rick and LJ claimed excessive tiredness after another hard day of fighting the evil Emperor and left as well.

Mandrake rose just afterwards. The Phantom, Flash and Lothar barely looked up from their discussion of spaceship engines, thrust, torque and tactics as he moved away from the seats. The magician paused in the doorway, swinging his cane slightly back and forward in front of him, making the crystal sparkle in the artifical lights of the room, listening to the tick of the clock, and the murmur of dry conversation.

Yes, he thought Yes! All of us crave a way out. A thin, smile passed over his face. Tonight.

Turning on his heal, he started towards the stairs, bidding the older Defenders a calm, casual goodnight over his shoulder. No one paid him very much attention. He climbed the stairs two at a time, heading straight to his rooms at the back of the mansion.

Tonight would be the ideal opportunity then to take a short break from the mansion himself. The thought ignited a roaring anticipation that rushed up through him. How long had it been since he had done this? How long had it been since he had escaped from carrying the fate of the universe?

There was a whisper of magic from the back of his mind. It was always there, of course, but there were times he found it easier to ignore than others. It would be ok, the magic told him. It would be ok to leave. It would be ok.

He chose his times carefully. His abilities gave him the edge over the others. He could see the future, sometimes more clearly than others. Sometimes there were the dreams, but more often it was just the feeling that leaving that night was a good idea. It would be safe. He wouldn't be missed. No one would know. It would be ok.

Over the years since Ming's first attack he had only absented himself from the mansion on a handful of occasions. Last time had been a number of months ago, and he had become a little too careless. The black eye from the bar brawl had forced him to maintain a very tiresome illusion for a good week before the bruising had subsided and the cut had healed. This time he would be much more careful.

He reached the door of his rooms and slipped inside, throwing the cane on the bed and pulling off his cape and his waistcoat even before the door swung shut behind him. Anticipation built faster, his heart was thumping as he stripped off the rest of his clothes and started to get changed into the less formal wear he kept at the back of his wardrobe: a thin, black shirt, blue jeans, sneakers and a well-worn leather jacket.

After he had changed clothes, Mandrake looked in the mirror. The man that faced him was still the suave Illusionist. He shook his head at the reflection.

'That will never do,' he said out loud.

He ran his fingers through his black hair, ruffling it and pushing it upwards, then he rubbed his moustache slightly, blurring its customary pencil-point accuracy.

'That's much better,' he said, casually flicking a lock of hair out of his eyes. 'Yes. Much better indeed.'

His reflection nodded in agreement.

Mandrake the Magician: Urbane. Cultured. Refined. How many more synonyms could he think of? That was the man he became every morning when he woke up. He was a Shadow Lord, keeper of the crystal orb of Konos; a Master of Illusion. How people did not realise the greatest illusion of all, Mandrake could never understand. Perhaps over the years he had simply become too good for the part he played!

But it had not always been this way. In the days before the Defenders formed, before even meeting Lothar, he had run wild. His smile grew. In his youth, he had lived for adventure, for danger, for the feeling of being alive rushing though his veins. And it had been so easy! Under Theron's impeccable tutelage his powers had grown at a most alarming rate, as had his arrogance and taste for new experiences. There was no one who had been able to keep up with him.

Except... a wide, indulgent smile spread over his face. Atascadero. How could he not smile when thinking of her? Together, they had shared a taste for adventure, for danger, they had tasted life at the very edge of living. And she had not only been able to keep up, she had taken him to places he had not even imagined could exist. A day never passed without thinking of her, without wondering where she was, if she was safe, if she was thinking of him, even though he had left her.

The answers were already there before him.

His powers were enough. He knew he could do anything, if he wanted to... the words spoken by Dark suddenly came to his mind, 'You cannot use your powers to alter destiny, Mandrake.' Dark had been right, of course. But for the wrong reasons. He would not use his powers to change what was meant to be. The death of K'shin's grandfather, no not even that, to spare the young boy the pain of yet another loss. He could, but he never would. He knew the difference between risk and certainty when you played with the Future.

The stakes were always high; always too high. The fate of the universe itself lay in the balance when the ignorant and the foolish started to try and tame magic and change the decision of Destiny herself. He would never try. The cane still sat where he had left it, lying on his bed, the crystal orb of Konos twinkling with hidden magic. He would never try. He knew what would happen if he did.

Yet another secret. Yet another burden. Yet another danger to the fate of mankind. Tonight the thought of his responsibility as both a Shadow Lord and a Defender made him more anxious to be gone from here.

As if summoned by the thought, there was a chorus of heavy footsteps along the corridor. The other three Defenders were also turning in for the night.

Mandrake glanced at the clock beside his bed. These thoughts of his life before the Defenders had eased the passing of more than half an hour. And with their parents no longer in the main rooms of the mansion, Rick, LJ and Jedda would not wait for long before putting their plan into practice. They, or rather Rick, were too impatient to wait until the others were asleep.

If he was going to leave, now was the time to go.

He closed his eyes, feeling magic once more. It was ok, it would be ok to go out, just for a while. He could leave if he chose. No one here was a prisoner, except to obligations. Or loyalty. Or friendship.

It was an ugly truth, but Mandrake didn't care. He glared at his reflection.

'More to the point,' he told himself, 'it is my house, after all! And I can leave it when I choose to do so!'

He turned to go, glancing once more in the mirror, and straightened the collar of his shirt before turning off the lights. He might be going out on the town, but there were still some habits he had no desire to change.

There was no movement anywhere.

He would have to wait for a few more moments. He couldn't go strolling around the mansion like this. Not now. Not yet. But Mandrake chaffed to be free of the constraints he had set himself, and found it difficult to settle. It would be easy to leave right now, and to avoid any unpleasant confrontation with his fellow Defenders. No one would ever suspect him of sneaking off under the cover of darkness. The corner of Mandrake's mouth twitched into a smile. There were obviously exceptions. Dynak knew, no illusion would work on her sensors. Sometimes he thought Lothar suspected; he was, after all, Mandrake's closest friend. But Lothar never mentioned it, and their friendship was such that Mandrake was sure he would have said something if he had known; most likely he would have wanted to come too.

There was a movement from the corridor ahead and Mandrake paused. A moment later he heard the sound of claws scratching on carpets. Kisa!

He watched as the sleek panther lifted her head, listening to the tiny sounds. Nonchalantly she walked towards Mandrake and rubbed against his legs like a giant tabby cat, instead of a wild animal. Mandrake petted her carefully, stroking around her ears and down over her neck. Within a minute Kisa, satisfied that she had had enough attention padded off, back towards Jedda's room, her long tail flicking restlessly in the air behind her.

Of course, thought Mandrake. Kisa knows as well.

From one of the rooms further down the landing, there was the unmistakable sound of a handle turning. Mandrake took a step to the left, out of the direct light.

The door opened and out came Rick first, then LJ. They looked excited and started towards the stairs, pulling the door closed behind them.

Mandrake watched from the shadows as Rick and LJ tried in vain to move quietly down the hallway. There were loud whispers and shuffling feet. In the darkness, Mandrake tutted. They really were quite hopeless at this sort of thing!

Inevitably, the noise grew louder and Mandrake watched in amusement at the efforts of the younger Defenders to sneak around the mansion. They had almost reached the top of the stairs when there was another noise. More footsteps. The two boys looked at each other.

Abruptly a door to the right jerked open and Flash Gordon, resplendent in a red dressing gown stood there, his hands on his hips.

'RICK!' he roared.

Within a few moments, other people appeared and the noise suddenly grew much louder. This was the perfect time to leave!

Mandrake moved backwards, away from the main stairs, and towards the window at the end of the hallway. He opened the window, the argument between fathers and sons covering any noise it would have made.

Carefully, Mandrake climbed out of the window, and down the side of the house, using the drainpipe that was conveniently located within easy reach. He jumped down the final foot and dusted the cobwebs and dust off his hands and jacket.

Even from down there, the magician could hear shouting. Chuckling, he walked around the edge of the short-cut lawn, avoiding the sensors and the laser traps as he went.

As he reached the gates, Mandrake checked his watch, looking at the hands, watching the seconds tick past. He had tonight to be free of this. In six hours time he would be back here, back in his own room, his own bed sleeping, when Lothar came to knock on his door.

Six hour of freedom, to be whomever he wished to be.

He thought of Atascadero; he thought of the other beautiful ladies he had loved and turned away from. Looking out to the lights of Central City, he thought of the ordinary fellows that worked from nine to five and were home in time for a cooked meal and a trip to the pub.

Tonight he could be whatever he wanted to be, and there would be no illusions or tricks of the mind to help him. He would be free of it all.

Mandrake stepped into the darkness of the night.


= The End =