Bounty

by Paul A. Ogilvie

 

It was a good day to be indoors. The storms that had been glowering in the north had finally come south, sweeping up the mountain valleys in a fury of wind and sleet.

In Alenton, the sky was black with cloud, though it was only early afternoon. Icy sleet and rain churned the streets to muddy chaos. The tall, dark pines that pressed in all around the town rocked and creaked in the gale.

Not much happened in Alenton, a flyspeck logging town halfway up one of the great wooded valleys of the far north. One wit in the tavern said so little happened in the place, folks would be talking about this storm for the next forty years. But he was wrong about that.

The tavern was busy and the fire was high. Little work could be done on a day such as this, so people had come to the tavern instead—to drink, and eat, and gamble. That was the way of things in small towns in the middle of nowhere.

Regardless of the weather, Davad Kins was having a good day. His purse was heavy, his belly was full, and just two days ago he had finally gutted the damnably tenacious sheriff who had been following him since Temple Cross. What particular crime the man had wanted him for, Davad neither knew nor cared. It could have been anything. He had been a busy man in Temple Cross.

The red-haired barmaid came over to his corner table with another tray of drinks. As she leaned over the table, Davad’s thin lips twisted into a smile. Idly, he reached out one meaty hand and gripped her backside. The girl froze, but kept her eyes on the table.

“Ah, but you’re a fine looking strumpet, eh?” Davad said, squeezing her buttock through the thin cotton of her dress. Across the table from him, Tor giggled and Anders sighed, rolling his eyes to the ceiling.

“There’ll be a silver piece for you if I find you warming my bed tonight, lass. Gold, if you bring a friend.”

“I can’t do that, sir,” the girl said. She still had not looked at him.

Many nights spent in places such as this had given Davad a sensitivity to what went on in them. He felt eyes on him.

Sure enough, when he looked over the girl’s shoulder there was a big lad sitting at the bar, glowering, face red, at Davad. This lassie’s sweetheart, no doubt.

Ah well, if the lad had sense in him he’d see the dawn, otherwise Davad would slit his throat. Davad meant to have this girl.

“Can’t, is it?” Davad said, pinching her backside and twisting the flesh. The girl gasped in pain. “Well, we’ll see about you and your can’t, missy.” There was Tor giggling again, and even Anders smiled this time. Fine mates the two of them were, just smart enough to realize how much smarter Davad was.

He’d have to get rid of them sooner or later though, Davad knew. They found murder too easy, and used it as another might use harsh language. Davad wasn’t adverse to a bit of murder himself, but there was a time and a place for everything. The more or less random violence of Tor and Anders tended to attract attention.

The heavy pine door of the tavern swung open, and through it came a flurry of rain, the howl of the wind, and a man.

A boy, Davad corrected himself as the stranger pushed back the hood of his sodden cloak. A frowning boy with chalk-white skin, black hair, and dark eyes that slowly scanned the tavern. The boy’s gaze settled on Davad’s group in the corner. Davad sighed in irritation, then gave the girl’s backside one last squeeze and pushed her back toward the bar.

“Another one,” Davad muttered as the boy walked slowly across the tavern.

“Eh?” Tor said. Anders was the more clever by a small margin, and had pulled his long knife from his belt. The boy stood, perfectly still, his dark eyes calm, some five yards from the table. Not too many folk had been sitting near Davad anyway, and those that remained moved away.

“What is it, then?” Davad said, pouring some wine into his pewter cup. “Did I kill your father? Knock up your sister? Offend your god?”

“No, none of that,” the boy replied, his voice easy enough that Davad examined him more closely. A boy? Perhaps not. The pale skin was smooth enough, but the eyes, those dark eyes were not young, not young at all.

“Then what?” Davad said, leaning back and lifting his feet up onto the table. Across from him, by the wall, Tor and Anders were all but quivering with violent anticipation, waiting for the word from Davad.

“Did I steal your horse?” Davad said. “I’ve seen a man do a lot of things for the sake of a stolen horse. It must be something, anyway, because you’ve the look of a killing grudge about you. I’ve seen it before, boy. I’ve seen it lots of times. I’m still alive.”

“I have no grudge,” the boy said. “You’re worth money.” He pulled the pin from his cloak and the garment dropped onto the floor behind him. Beneath, he wore dark clothes of a simple cut. A long sword hung in a leather sheath at his hip, the ornate silver of the hilt shining in the firelight.

“Oh, marvelous,” Davad sighed. “Another bloody bounty hunter. I’ve seen a lot of those too, my boy.”

“Davad Kins,” the young man said. “Tor Bailey. Nilheim Anders. I assume the dead fat man I found with the sheriff’s body was Augustus Murphy.”

“What’s it to you?” Tor snarled, his hand gripped tightly around the hilt of his short sword.

“His head’s worth forty gold,” the bounty hunter said. “As is yours.”

Tor leapt forward from the bench, his blade flashing into his hand. Anders was half a step behind, his heavy hunting knife clutched tight.

The bounty hunter’s sword flicked out with great speed, slashing across Tor’s throat then darting back to thrust through Anders’ heart. The bounty hunter reversed his sword and slid it back into the sheath before the bodies hit the floor. The combat had taken perhaps a second and a half. He looked down and stepped back from the blood soaking through the sawdust on the floor.

“They’re only worth anything dead,” the bounty hunter said to Davad, unbuckling his sword belt. It fell to the ground with a clatter. “You’re worth more alive.”

“Well, thank the gods for that,” Davad said. He threw the pewter cup at the bounty hunter’s head. The young man swayed to one side, and Davad leapt over the table, a knife jumping into his hand from the hidden sheath on his wrist.

The bounty hunter was fast. He dropped backward as the knife flashed toward his face; the blade leaving only a thin mark on his left cheek. The bounty hunter hit the floor and rolled backward, his feet lifting up into Davad’s chest and then kicking out to throw him further in the direction he was traveling. Davad crashed into a table, spilling bottles and cups over the floor with a clatter of broken glass.

He scrambled to his feet and spun around, but the bounty hunter was already standing and closing. Davad thrust with his knife. The bounty hunter stepped back and kicked one foot up into Davad’s wrist, sending the blade flying free, and carried on the motion, spinning round and slamming the heel of his other foot into Davad’s throat. Davad stumbled back, suddenly unable to breath. A punch so fast he did not even see it slammed into his gut, then a sharp knee hit his groin and he collapsed to the floor in agony.

Davad Kins was a tough man. He rose to a crouch and reached for a broken bottle, but then a blow hit the back of his neck and he slumped forward, his eyes closing.

* * * * *

The storm had blown itself out during the night, and the next morning the wooded hills and valleys around Alenton were wet and still. To the south, the early rays of the dawning sun turned the jagged peaks of the White Cloud Mountains a fantastic pink. The sky was clear. The air was cold.

Two riders moved slowly along a muddy track that wound up one of the hills. The bounty hunter rode ahead of Davad Kins. Davad, bruised and aching, had his hands manacled together. He glared at the man ahead of him.

“You. Hey, you,” Davad called. The bounty hunter turned slowly in his saddle. The cut from Davad’s knife was a dark line on his pale cheek.

“What?” he said.

“What’s your name, boy?” Davad said.

The bounty hunter stared impassively at him for a few seconds, then shrugged.

“Inkin Navarro,” he said.

“Navarro.” Davad said. “I’ve heard of you. Didn’t think you’d be so young.”

“Most old people don’t,” Inkin said, turning to face the path ahead.

“Old? I’m barely thirty!”

“You’re thirty-eight,” Inkin said.

“Am I?” Davad said, astonished. “Hmm,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “I suppose I might be, at that.” His eyes narrowed. “How in hell’s name do you know how old I am?”

“As hard as it may be to believe, Kins,” Inkin said, “you have become quite famous in the south. You’ve been rampaging through these lands for the best part of a decade. Did you think no one would notice? The daring rogue with a heart of gold and a ready quip for all occasions. Always willing to help the poor and the needy. And ladies in peril, of course. Everyone is very clear about that part, the ladies in peril.”

“You’re taking the piss,” Davad growled.

“No, actually,” Inkin said. “We’re far enough from the capital and all the bored nobles that what you do seems romantic, seems heroic to them. Some fool even wrote a poem about you.”

“Really?” Davad said. “Was it any good?”

“I don’t know,” Inkin said. “You’d have to ask a poet. But the man did some research, anyway, and checked the parish records in Jirkin. So now all the court knows that you were born in the year 385.” Inkin looked over his shoulder and smiled a tight smile. “The year of the rat.”

“Is that where you’re taking me, then?” Davad said. “The capital? Is that why I’m still alive, to be paraded in chains in front of all those powdered poofs and tarts? A barbarian freak from the north?”

“Perhaps,” Inkin said. “I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m just to hand you over and collect my money.”

“You could at least tell me where we’re going,’’ Davad said. “And you want money? I can get you money. A big stash of gold and gems I got from a Buranti caravan three years back. Did you hear about that? Was that in your poem?”

“I think it might have been, actually,” Inkin said.

“Well, I got all this beautiful gold,” Davad said. “And emeralds, and sapphires as big as duck eggs, and buried it all on this wee island over on the west coast. Only I know where. You and me, Inkin Navarro, we’ll go get it and live like kings.”

“You have the wealth of kings but choose to stay in flea-bitten hovels at the backside of nowhere?” Inkin said. “I don’t think so, Kins.”

“Well, times have been hard,” Davad said. “I was just about to head west and stock up on cash when you found me. So, what do you say?”

Inkin ignored him.

Twenty minutes later, Davad noticed the bounty hunter swaying erratically in his saddle, and smiled with satisfaction.

“You alright there, boy?” Davad called cheerfully. Inkin swung his head round and stared at him, a sheen of sweat on his face.

“Fine,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, you just look a bit queasy, that’s all. Must be something you ate. Terrible sicknesses you can get in crappy wee places like Alenton. What they put in their food—well, best not to ask, really.” Inkin turned away. A minute later he swung clumsily down from the saddle and knelt in the wet grass by the path. He vomited.

“That’s the ticket,” Davad said. “You throw it all up. Better out than in, as my dear ma used to say. ’Course, she died of the pox herself, so what the hell did she know?”

Inkin barely heard the words. He was cold, colder than he could ever remember being. Every muscle and tendon in his body seemed to be tight and shivering. His head felt heavy and thick, and there was a slow numbness spreading across his face from his cheek. His cheek. Where Davad had cut him the night before.

Somehow he managed to lurch to his feet, and spun round to face Davad, who sat grinning atop his horse. Inkin tried to draw his sword, but got his legs tangled about the scabbard and fell to the grass once more.

“Figured it out, have you?” Davad’s voice seemed to be coming from some impossible distance. “Gidso blossom, it is, from the far lands of the east. Enough to kill a whale, or so I’m told. Ah, you’re a bright one to work it out. Shame it has to end when you’re still so young, eh?”

Inkin tried to spit out a curse, but darkness was closing in fast about him, smothering the spark of his young life.

His vision blurred and dimmed, but still he could see Davad swing down from the horse, his hands still manacled together, and walk toward him.

Davad crouched down over Inkin, and Inkin could feel his big hands searching Inkin’s pockets and pouches. Looking for the key to the manacles.

“I’ll tell you, son,” Inkin heard Davad say—heard, but barely understood. The final darkness was close now. “Sometimes you have to cheat,” Davad Kins said, and Inkin Navarro knew no more.

 

The Changelings

by Rachel Ross

The Corrigan walked to the last marked house in the town. She moved much slower than she had that morning. Her pockets were almost empty, and she had used up too much energy for silly games, too tired for all the tricks the humans played when they saw her. Small crying sounds came from the basket she carried and she walked faster.

She stopped outside the door to listen, hoping this one was only a false alarm, that just once her watchers might have been mistaken. But they weren’t mistaken, and the Corrigan was just in time.

“Look at it, Brenna, it’ll never walk, and I’ll swear it’s eyes weren’t that color when it was born—” It was a woman’s voice, old, scratchy and shrieking.”

“All babies’ eyes change color.” Another female voice, but younger and more tired. “What can we do about him? If he’s not ours… and Fionn isn’t even home yet. Let me wait until then. Please?”

“I tell you, girl, it’s because you didn’t baptize him when I suggested it. I knew it would happen, and look at you now, holding a cast off elf brat instead of my beautiful grandson. I told Fionn he could have done better than you, but did he listen? Here, let me hold it, I know what to do.” The old woman snatched the child from his mother’s arms. “Yes, there we are, little beast. Into the fire with you.”

The Corrigan heard Brenna’s horrified scream and the infant’s cry, sighed, opened the sturdy oak door, stepped under the lopsided horseshoe hanging over it. Brenna was pushing the old woman away from the fireplace with one arm, the other arm reached for her child. The blanket wrapped around the baby caught fire and blazed, sending swirls of smoke toward the ceiling.

Shifting the weight of her basket, the Corrigan removed the last small, wooden token from her pocket and went to the fireplace. Both women started, saw her, shrank away. The old one crossed herself and muttered, “I told you, I did, I said I was right…”

The fire in the hearth died and the faerie knelt, picked up the child and lowered it into her basket with the others. She dropped the wooden token into Brenna’s lap. Brenna clutched it reflexively, her eyes glazing as she looked down at the flawless child now in her arms.

The old one smiled triumphantly as the Corrigan left the house. “They brought my grandson back, we made them do it. You just wait until Fionn gets home and sees his son, such a healthy, strong baby…”

The Corrigan’s basket was heavier now, though the crying had stopped. She walked, away from the town—away from all the families and their little wooden babies that would grow into wooden adults.

She walked until she was home and smiling, skinny, perfect children took her basket from her aching arms. A small boy with a hunched shoulder held the door, and the girl with the harelip limped as she took babies from the basket and put them to bed. Some of the perfect children were missing limbs, were blind or covered in rashes, but all of them called her Mother.

 

This story has been previously published in the small-press anthology Triangulation 2003: A Confluence of Speculative Fiction.

 

Everybody’d Eat Steak

by Diane Arrelle

Miss Eloise O’Banion leaned against the white wooden railing that encircled her porch. Sighing, she watched as the dying summer blooms seemed to wave their withered heads at the children as they walked and skipped past the old Victorian house.

“I wish,” she mumbled. “I just wish.” She shook her head covered by thin bluish-white curls and sighed deeply once again. “If wishes were fishes…”

Turning away, she grasped her walker with tight fists of anger and hobbled stiffly over to the wicker rocking chair. She backed painfully into the seat and slowly relaxed, watching the boys and girls make their way to the school two blocks away.

Here it is, the Tuesday after Labor Day and everyone is going to school, she thought bitterly. Everyone except me. She felt tears of frustration slide from her eyes and work their way down the network of wrinkles that were her cheeks. Embarrassed by this display of frailness, she let the tears stay, rather than wipe at them while outside in public view.

“I’m only 69,” she said to the dove splashing in the birdbath on the front lawn. “If I weren’t so crippled, I’d be greeting my new class right about now. Instead they retired me with a thank you and a luncheon. Is that fair?”

Too depressed to enjoy the warm September sunshine, she slowly pulled herself up and inched her way into the house. She put on the kettle for tea and then sat and waited for Mrs. Hillery who was due at 9 a.m. Eloise shuddered at the thought of the old biddy coming over to help her. “Imagine coming to this,” she muttered. “ A nurse-maid in the guise of a housekeeper.” She sighed heavily once more. “I wish I didn’t have to put up with any of this nonsense!”

A sparkle outside the window caught her attention and she turned to see what it was. Coming through the fluttering yellow curtains was a platter-sized globe filled with glitter like the children used on Christmas decorations. She watched as the sparkling bubble touched the floor, gaping dumbly as it exploded in a shower of gold confetti.

There, on the checkerboard linoleum, stood a beautiful young woman. Feeling more curiosity than fear, Eloise studied the intruder, taking in the layers of taffeta on the white and pink dress, the gossamer wings sprouting from her back, the long strawberry blonde hair topped by a jeweled tiara. She decided that the bubble and woman were too absurd to be a threat and said, “It’s terribly rude not to knock, my dear.”

The apparition waved a silver wand complete with a large star and said, “I am your fairy godmother, Eloise O’Banion, and I heard your wish.” The lovely fairy stopped and stared at Eloise in shock. “Oh my stars, Miss O’Banion! I thought you were dead!”

“That’s a nice way to greet your old fifth grade teacher, Mary Margaret Holmes!” Eloise snapped. “I always said that you were a flighty girl.”

“M-M-Miss O’Banion,” Mary Margaret stammered. “I’m sorry, I was just so surprised that I just didn’t think.”

“Hurrumph,” Eloise hurrumphed. “You never did use your head enough. Why I remember how you used to get Tony Lewis to do your homework for a kiss on the cheek. I wonder what ever happened to that foolish boy?”

“He’s a database manager,” Mary Margaret said then stared wide-eyed at Eloise. “Why Miss O’Banion, how did you know Tony did my homework?”

“Never mind that,” Eloise said and shifted slightly in the hard chair to look directly at the girl. “Why are you dressed up like Glinda the Good Witch, and as much as I enjoy visits from my students, why are you standing in my kitchen at 8:45 in the morning?”

“Miss O’Banion, I’m a fairy godmother. Your fairy godmother. I’m going to grant you three wishes.”

“Mary Margaret, did you join a cult or did you just get involved with drugs?” Eloise asked in disgust.

“No, no, Miss O’Banion. It’s my job. I was enlisted in the F-G Guild six months ago. You see I was having a hard time finding a job so I went to the ‘Dreams Do Come True’ employment agency. Now here I am, gainfully employed. In fact you’re my first solo assignment,” Mary Margaret said as she studied her reflection in the mirror that was hanging on the wall in the next room.

“You are such a vain girl, look at me when you address me,” Eloise said sternly and hid a smile. Children grow up, but they just don’t change, she thought with an absurd teacherly satisfaction.

“Sorry, Miss O’Banion,” Mary Margaret said and looked her in the wire-rimmed glasses.

“That’s better. Now my dear,” Eloise said. “I don’t know how you pulled off the bubble stunt, after all you never paid any attention to your science lessons, but I think you’d better go home now. By the way, how is your dear mother, are you still at home with her?”

“She’s fine,” Mary Margaret said automatically then frowned and added, “Miss O’Banion, I really am your fairy godmother and I have to grant you three wishes.”

“Mary Margaret, if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. If wishes were fishes everybody’d eat steak.”

Mary Margaret smiled, “I remember, Miss O’Banion, I remember.” Gazing at her with a perplexed almost cross-eyed look, Mary Margaret said, “I never understood what you meant.”

“I know,” Eloise said smugly. “You’re a nice girl but a little on the dense side. All looks and a little short on the smarts.”

Mary Margaret looked hurt. “What does it mean?”

“Never mind, I’m more concerned with your delusions. Fantasy is fine in books, but this is the real world.”

“Please Miss O’Banion, this is for real. Make a wish, not a small one, and I’ll grant it,” Mary Margaret pleaded.

Eloise snorted, feeling bitter and angry. The nerve of this cruel girl, coming back into her life to taunt her. Just the thought of being granted a wish filled her with longing and regret. “Young lady, I wish you would leave. Right now!”

In a huge puff of gold fairy dust, Mary Margaret vanished. The sound of her despairing wail echoed in Eloise’s ears.

Eloise sat immobile, staring at the spot where Mary Margaret had vanished. She was so lost in thought that she didn’t hear the teapot screaming for attention until Mrs. Hillery let herself in.

“Miss O’Banion! My goodness, you’ll ruin that kettle,” the housekeeper scolded as she fluttered around the kitchen like a hyperactive butterfly.

For once Eloise didn’t mind the company, it helped to take her mind off her disturbing visitor. Still, thoughts did creep in… What if it had been real? Never! But what if I could return to a fruitful life? Stop torturing yourself…

That evening, after Mrs. Hillery made dinner and left for home, Eloise was standing in the hall looking out the screen door when the bubble reappeared. Mary Margaret poofed into being in front of her. “Please Miss O’Banion, don’t say a word,” Mary Margaret said in a breathless rush. “You’ve already wasted one wish. Don’t waste another.”

Eloise shuffled slowly to the overstuffed sofa set in the corner of her dark living room and plopped down. “I have always secretly worried that a student would come back and haunt me,” she muttered shaking her head from side to side. “All right, Mary Margaret, what will it take to get you to leave me alone?”

A silvery tear trickled down from Mary Margaret’s right eye. “Oh, Miss O’Banion, why are you making this so hard? You always were too demanding and strict,” she said in a quivery voice.

Anger flared through Eloise, all feelings of despair dissipated, “You impudent girl! First you burst into my home, then you have the gall to criticize my professional techniques. How dare you!”

Mary Margaret held up her hands as if to ward off the verbal blows. “Miss O’Banion, you called for me! You made a wish!”

Eloise saw a gleam appear in Mary Margaret’s eyes as her voice softened. “Now, please, Miss O’Banion, don’t carry on so. After all, this is my first assignment, and you wouldn’t want people saying that one of your students failed in life because of you, would you? You don’t want me to be an unemployed failure?”

“Mary Margaret,” Eloise said. “After teaching over a thousand students, I’m sure many turned out far worse.”

She watched Mary Margaret give up rational debate and start to weep. Giving in, Eloise smiled kindly at the pathetically whimpering woman and said, “There, there, Mary Margaret, stop blubbering. I’ll let you grant my wishes, although I don’t believe in any of this foolishness.”

Her face brightening through the tears, Mary Margaret smiled. “Oh, Miss O’Banion, thank you! Now make a really good wish!” she bubbled.

Eloise abandoned good sense and said without hesitation, “I wish to be working again as an able-bodied educator. Now let’s see what you can do girl.”

Waving her wand, Mary Margaret said, “Granted.”

Several minutes passed, both women silently watching each other when the phone rang. Eloise got up and walked over to it. Picking it up on the second ring she froze, turned to Mary Margaret and stammered, “I… I walked!”

Mary Margaret grinned. “Yes, you did. Now answer your call.”

Eloise listened to the male voice over the receiver and finally said, “Yes sir, oh yes, first thing tomorrow morning!”

Hanging up, she skipped over to Mary Margaret and grasped her hands. “My dear, I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time. My Lord, I can skip! Thank you.”

“You have one more wish, you know,” Mary Margaret prompted.

“I don’t need it!” Eloise said with a laugh. “I’ve got everything I want. That was Mr. Jordan, Superintendent of Schools. They need me! I start tomorrow.”

“I told you, I could do it, now that other wish,” Mary Margaret urged. “The rules are clear cut, I have to grant three wishes.”

Eloise stopped hopping with joy and sat back down on the sofa. “I have everything I want. A wish is quite a responsibility, you know.”

Sitting, deep in thought, Eloise’s old, worn face suddenly creased into a grim grin. “It’s time that I practice what I have been preaching all these years.” She looked Mary Margaret directly in the eyes. “This will be a real test for you. I wish for an end to world hunger and war.”

Mary Margaret grew as white as her crinoline gown. “Miss O’Banion! Surely you don’t really want to wish for that.”

Eloise eyed the pale young woman coldly, “Too much for you? You were always an underachiever.”

“Wishes are supposed to be selfish. That’s human nature,” Mary Margaret reasoned. “Don’t you want to be young? Don’t you want a husband, children? How about wealth, security for your old age?”

Laughing, Eloise said, “Youth? God forbid! I’ve lived my life and I’m satisfied. I couldn’t stand another fifty years. As for a husband, it would have been nice… but… And I’ve had over a thousand children to mold and to love. No thank you, my dear. You’ve already granted me wealth.”

Silence filled the room. After a moment Eloise said, “I wish for an end to world hunger and war.”

“But Miss O’Banion, that’s impossible!”

Being firm, Eloise used her most teacherly voice. “Not a very effective fairy godmother are you? Maybe I’ll just wish for your superiors.”

“Come on, Miss O’Banion,” Mary Margaret pleaded. “Look, it’s not that I can’t grant your wish, it’s just that it would be wrong. You can’t go around changing the whole world.”

“Why not?” Eloise demanded, taking immense pleasure in tapping her foot.

“Because fighting is a human trait, it’s human nature to fight, and hunger is part of living on this earth. You can’t change human nature and not alter all of humanity.”

Smiling at her ex-student, Eloise exclaimed, “Now that’s an astute argument, Mary Margaret! You please me when you use your deductive reasoning. In fact you’re the perfect example of your argument, but I can’t accept that the world was meant to be such an unhappy place.”

Mary Margaret tried one more time. “Miss O’Banion, you’re going to put us out of work. People need to have things to wish for!”

“So, you’re just being selfish. Well, my wish stands. Grant my wish!” Eloise demanded, her cheeks flushed with anger.

Mary Margaret bowed her head sadly. “I’ll talk to my supervisor,” she mumbled and vanished. Eloise noticed the gold fairy dust looked duller as it settled on her dark carpet.

Three days later Eloise sat at her kitchen table shaking her head in annoyance while marking papers. A noise distracted her and she looked up. Standing before her was a very morose Mary Margaret.

“Watched the news earlier this evening, there’s still a famine in Africa,” Eloise said matter of factly. “And those Middle Eastern countries are still trying to blow themselves up.”

“Miss O’Banion, I’ve learned something very disturbing.” She hesitated then blurted, “Your time’s almost up!”

Eloise stared at her fairy godmother in shock. Trying to control the wild pounding of her elderly heart she asked, “You mean I’m going to die?”

Mary Margaret started crying. Sobbing, she blubbered, “Soon.”

“So, why are you telling me this?” Eloise asked, already accepting the inevitability of living and dying.

“I thought that you could use your last wish to extend your life. After all, your first wish has caused this. The strain on your heart from all this mobility.”

Mary Margaret looked embarrassed as she added, “You see, most wishes have a catch, that’s why we give you three so you can counteract the negative aspects.”

Eloise laughed bitterly, “So that’s it, still trying to save your job!”

“No, no!” Mary Margaret gasped. “I’m trying to save you! You’ve only got a few days.”

“Well,” Eloise said philosophically. “I’ve had a good long life, longer than all those young boys I taught who went off to war and died. My last days were made happy with your help, so…”

“Miss O’Banion, help yourself!” Mary Margaret wailed.

“No, all I can wish for now is to have an end to hunger and war. I’d like to die knowing that I helped mankind.”

Mary Margaret asked, “Is that it then?”

“Yes.”

“Believe me, Miss O’Banion, you’re making a terrible mistake. Please don’t make me do this!”

“Mary Margaret, if wishes were fishes, everybody’d eat steak. Well I want to know that nobody will have to go hungry. I don’t care if they eat fish, steak, or broccoli!” Eloise said. Turning back to her papers, she added, “Nice of you to visit.”

Weeping uncontrollably, Mary Margaret disappeared with a spray of tear-soaked gray ash instead of gold dust.

A few days later Eloise was marking math papers in front of the television when the broadcast came. A giant asteroid had apparently appeared out of nowhere and was hurtling to the earth at an astonishing speed.

Eloise clutched her hands in prayer and wept. “You really can’t change human nature,” she cried out, realizing her unyielding sense of righteousness had doomed humanity.

Carrying that burden, all she could do was look up at the darkening sky. Guilt heavy on her conscience and tears wet on her cheeks, Eloise joined the rest of mankind in wishing for a miracle.

 

On How To Be Human

by Erik Cotton

The fires burned brightly as thick oily smoke raged into the copper-colored sky. A constant din filled the air. The screams of the damned, suffering their fates, added to the turmoil. Adrenesh was hunched down overlooking a conical pit filled with naked souls. A great bronze demon with gold eyes and huge tattered wings that flapped idly as he went about his job. At the bottom of the pit was a monstrous thresher that eviscerated those unfortunate enough to be caught in the steel tines. The bloody ribbons of flesh then sluiced through a rusting pipe and dumped into another pit, bubbling over with sulfurous tar. Once there, the remains slowly congealed back to the damned who then, red raw and tender, crawled out of the pit alive with the agony of molten tar. It was Adrenesh’s job to snatch the souls and toss them back into the grinder pit. Repeatedly. For all eternity.

Adrenesh sighed as he grabbed a female who had just emerged from the tar.

“No, please…” she cried, “wait, I could…”

“Could what? Make it good for me?” Adrenesh asked.

The girl nodded uncertainly and attempted to smooth out her tar-streaked blonde hair. “Yes,” she stuttered, “we could… be good for each other.”

Adrenesh barked out a short bitter laugh and stood up. His great phallus hung limply between his legs. “You are wasting your time trying girl, it’s ornamental, I too am in Hell.”

The girl’s smile faltered and her body tensed, anticipating the pain that would follow. “What if, if you just stopped for a moment, just a moment,” her words came out in a rush, in a desperate attempt to hold off the inevitable, “just let me heal up a bit more, just a little more, what would it hurt? I mean, a little moment, you’ve got forever right? What’s an extra moment?”

Adrenesh digested her words. She was, in a way, right. What did it matter in the long-term view? Truth was, he was getting sick of this. Of course he was a demon, and this was his assigned fate, but there had to be more to existence than this, this, drudgery.

He put her down on the ground. “I probably shouldn’t do this,” he said, “but what the, ah, hell.”

“Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou,” the girl sobbed, collapsing to her knees.

Others in the tar pit had noticed and looked up at Adrenesh. He sighed once again, “Very well, you too.”

They climbed delightedly out of the pit and did their best to shake, scrape and wipe off the burning tar. Five, ten, twenty souls emerged and uttered multiple gratitudes. Adrenesh was taken aback. Never had he heard such emotions issue forth from the damned. It was odd, it was, was… pleasant? Yes, pleasant. Adrenesh enjoyed hearing the sounds, the relief that even for a moment, the damned were not in pain and their punishments were not forthcoming.

More souls emerged from the tarry mass and they too, were thankful.

“What now?” asked Adrenesh.

The souls looked at one another uncertainly.

“We wait for the rest from the other pit?” asked the girl.

“Fine. Then what? What comes after that?” Adrenesh continued.

There were no answers forthcoming. Adrenesh sighed, “You see what you have wrought upon yourselves? A moment’s respite, but with no clear thought of your actions and consequences. Eventually I’ll have to throw you back into the pit and now that there are many of you milling about, some may escape my grasp. Perhaps run deeper into Hell, and that cannot be allowed.”

The girl came forward. “Why do you even have to start throwing us back? Why can’t we just… just…” her words faltered again.

“It’s not up to me girl, everyone has an assigned fate, even I, and we dare not contradict it.”

A man stepped forward to stand beside the girl, “What if we don’t go, huh? You can’t catch all of us.”

Adrenesh’s movement was as swift as lightning. In the blink of an eye the man was snatched up and held dangling over the thresher. Just a hair’s breadth from the tines the man could see the gobbets and sweetbreads churning. “You underestimate my abilities human.” The statement by Adrenesh was flat and final.

“Uh, uh, no I mean I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way, please put me down, no, put me back on the ground.”

Adrenesh casually tossed the man beside the girl. “It still leaves the question unanswered, what am I to do with you now?”

Before anyone could answer, there was a tremendous crash, the ground shook and two great demons appeared beside Adrenesh. The female demon, was as tall as Adrenesh, the male demon, taller.

“So,” barked the female, “what have we here, hmmm? Are you derelict in your duties Adrenesh?”

Adrenesh appraised her. He had not encountered her before, but judging from the skeletal wings, massive trident and cloven hoofs, she could only be one entity; Lithranki. If so, then her partner had to be His Infernal Majesty’s Right Hand; Slayart.

“We are resting, Lithranki. There is no harm in a moment’s respite,” replied Adrenesh.

“I see you know my name demon, then you know who he is,” she said, casually pointing at Slayart, “and why we are here.”

The souls off to the side, bunched together and backed up ever so carefully, towards the tarry pit. The response was immediate. “Move not, ye damned, lest a worse fate shall befall you!” roared Slayart.

The damned ceased moving.

Adrenesh wasn’t sure what to do but before he could fully rationalize his thoughts, he spoke aloud, “Leave them out of this Lithranki, they are of no importance. You are here because of me, not because of them.”

For a moment Lithranki wore a mask of rage and her grip tightened on her trident. Then her expression softened to a smirk. “Still fighting for the underdogs, Adrenesh? It will be your undoing.”

Adrenesh knew a head-on approach was not going to work with these two, they enjoyed their job far too much. “I’m not ‘fighting’ for anyone Lithranki, you are already attempting to change the subject and twist the situation to your advantage. Your reason for being here has yet to be stated but it is certainly not about my past.”

“You play with words well, Adrenesh. I concede your point. Very well, we are here because He sensed a disruption. He pinpointed it quite easily to this place. We were dispatched to fix the problem and we are quite capable of seeing where the interruption lies—at your feet.”

“An eternity of damnation, a moment’s rest and suddenly you are ready to render Judgement? Even in Hell tolerance can be found.”

Lithranki’s eyes narrowed. “Tolerance? You speak of tolerance? What do you know of such matters?”

“I know enough to know that these souls,”—he refused to use the word “damned”—“have nothing to look forward to for the next thousand millennia except pain, torture, burning tar and my visage. A little tolerance would go far here.”

“Hypocrisy!” cried Lithranki, “You, of all in Hell, should well know this!”

“You bring my past into the present. I will have none of that. The past is dead and buried. Even one such and I, or you, can change. And my change is for them.”

Lithranki appeared uncertain of this new approach. Slayart merely looked bored, his was not the realm of words, but of action. “Change? Tolerance? Pity? I do not know you Adrenesh, you’ve been corrupted, willed into slothfulness by your station. It is time to cleave that sickness from you.”

Lithranki motioned to Slayart. At her command, he raised his hands into the air and howled in an ancient tongue. A storm rose about Slayart suddenly and he was thrown to the ground.

All three demons looked about in confusion. The ground started shaking in synch with the beat of footsteps. At the top of a nearby hill, a man appeared. At first it looked as if he was on fire, but as he neared the demons, it could be clearly seen that he wore a crown of thorns and it was that crown that was ablaze with golden light. As he walked, his sandals scorched the ground and the ash left in his wake retreated, as if in fear.

All three demons were stunned and paralyzed in fear as the man reached them. Some of the damned dropped to their knees and started to pray.

When he spoke, his voice was gentle, but the land shook with his words. “Something is not as it should be here.”

Lithranki and Slayart took several steps back. Lithranki clutched a symbol she wore around her neck. “Master, give me strength in the face of mine enemy.”

The man spoke again, a softness on his features, “I am not your enemy Lithranki, you have but only to open your eyes to see that. Adrenesh, I do not believe you need to be here any longer. Your time in this place is at an end. Come with me, come Home.”

Adrenesh started forward, and then stopped, “I cannot.”

Everyone involved looked surprised.

“Why not my child?” inquired the man.

“What about those I was charged with overseeing? I cannot leave them here.” Adrenesh’s tone was firm.

The man’s features hardened, “They suffer their punishments for an allotted time, no more, no less. They will stay until their time is done.”

“Then I too, shall stay, they have suffered enough. It is not right that I go while they stay.”

The halo around the crown of thorns flared into a blinding light forcing Lithranki and Slayart to shield their eyes, “And what of the other damned here? Shall you suffer for them as well? Enough Adrenesh! This is foolish behavior, you will come with me.”

Adrenesh stood his ground, “No, I will not! I cannot change the course of fate for the others in Hell, it is not within my power, but I have influence over these,” he gestured to the huddled mass, “and as long as they are my charges, they will be afforded my protection.”

All at once the halo around the crown winked out. The man showed a smile the likes Adrenesh had never seen. “Very well done my child, very well done. You have passed the final test, you have shown compassion and principles. Your wish shall be granted, they will come with you.”

The man gestured, and a beam of pure white light appeared out of the sky and struck the ground. A golden door opened and a bright white staircase was revealed. “You have but only to take the first step beyond the door and you will be Home,” said the man.

Lithranki made to move toward the door, but the man’s gaze held her firmly in place. His face was full of sorrow and remorse, “No Lithranki, yours is not yet time, perhaps one day you will see the errors of your ways and then I will be here.”

The damned started a rush towards the door. Despite its apparent size it easily accommodated all of them. When there were no more the man looked at Adrenesh, “Come.”

Adrenesh looked down at his huge form, naked and grotesque, “I cannot meet my Father like this.”

The man smiled, “And you will not. Your Father will see you as he made you.”

And Adrenesh stepped through the doorway.

 

Wanted

by Ron McClung

Part 1: Dawn On Dwindlelight

She sat on a hilltop on a remote world, in the western forest of the northeastern continent, in the far reaches of the galaxy, alone and scared. She sat in peace, however, for the first time in a long time. The pre-dawn wind ran through her once-beautiful, now-soiled blonde hair, waving in the air like yellow flame from a raging solar flare. They called this world Dwindlelight because at certain times of the year the star at sunrise had a strange flickering property like none other. The rising sun at those times appeared as if it were a dwindling candle, flickering rapidly then returning to its original state.

Maronim Galactic Researchers had an automated research station in orbit monitoring this phenomenon. She had just come from that automated station. Yet, another grungy job, in a long line of rag-tag jobs, she thought. It was the best she could do while she ran and hid from whatever wanted her dead. In all her travels, all her hitching rides on dilapidated freighters, stowing away on space-liners and a series of other horrid and unspeakable things she had to do to stay on the run, she escaped death many times… too many to count. Others weren’t so lucky. Sometimes they were simply victims in the way of a stray blast, while others who got too close to her became victims of circumstance. She shed a tear at those memories. She remembered the odd and sad feelings she felt as she watched them die, as if she could feel their soul drain away. Some people just wouldn’t turn away, no matter how hard she pushed.

For every tree in this forest below her, she could come up with a face or a name of a bounty hunter or assassin that had tried to kill or take her. Or a face of an innocent that got in the way.

She only knew that she was different. She had never shared just how different to anyone, and it only manifested at points of high trauma or stress. But that wasn’t reason enough to put so much effort into killing her. Who wanted her dead THAT badly?

She raised her hand and extended her index finger. It flared with fiery light. She wrote her name in the night air with that light: Diara Lynwyn Lightwind. It hung in midair for several minutes like a neon sign, before she waved it away.

Diara looked at her hands—greasy and calloused from hard labor, her dirty and tattered coveralls that of a remote system service person—and grimaced. To think, she had been a noblewoman at one time. She thought of all the other disguises she had worn and the skills she had to learn. Her special talents didn’t seem so special then. From an evening gown at a royal gala, to a stolen police uniform, to a male Corvanian’s envi-suit, to full-combat powered armor on a mercenary ship. Now she wore the coveralls of a deep space technician. At least she had a ship. She looked through the trees in the direction she had come, where she had landed her small one-man repair/scout vessel. She couldn’t see it because it was still at least four kilometers away, but she knew it was there, safe and sound. It was no bigger than a shuttle, but it got her from jump-point A to jump-point B. And as long as B was farther away from the Core, she had no problems.

Diara had stopped crying and wondering why years ago. At least she thought she had. She wiped away a tear. She was a tired 28-standard-year-old woman, tired of running, tired of not having a normal life. She began to cry again…

“SEVEN YEARS!” she screamed.

The sorrow turned to fury quickly, which welled up deep inside of her, powerful and uncontrollable. Diara closed her eyes, and all she heard was a thunderous clap. When she reopened her eyes, there was nothing around her but scorched ground… for a three-kilometer radius.

Damn, I knew that would happen… she thought. She was glad she parked her ship far enough away this time. Why me?

She had heard the authorities sometimes hunted down people with Psi abilities because of what they could do, but she had never heard of anyone with abilities like hers. The most she had heard of was a person who could move a pen across a table or start a small fire. Nothing like what she could do. She looked at the devastation around her. Nothing like this! With all the technology in the galaxy—matter transference, terraforming reactors, sentient machines and hundreds upon thousands of ways to kill one another—she had not heard of anything being able to do what she could do.

Something flickered in the smoke and the darkness of the night. Cloak field. She reached for her tool bag where she kept her blaster pistol. How did they find me this time?

“You shouldn’t leave such an easy trail, Lady Lightwind,” came a voice.

The cloak field dropped to reveal an armored figure walking towards her through the flame and smoke. It lifted from the ground, obviously using an anti-G belt, and produced an assault rifle. The figure drew closer, landing only meters away on a scorched and smoldering tree trunk. There was no place to hide, thanks to her outburst, so she knew he could see her plainly.

This was where some wavered.

She watched as his rifle dropped ever so slightly. He too found her irresistibly attractive. Yet another part of her power, a power she didn’t understand.

The figure, obviously male and human, tried to stay strong, “You are a threat to someone very important.” Another waver. “I am here… to kill you.”

Diara stared into his faceplate intently, seeing beyond it, seeing his face—a blonde young human male, probably younger than she. He was weak and very easily manipulated.

“Who wants me dead? Who wants you to kill me?” she asked as she stood up. The commanding voice was yet another power of hers. But something was resisting her.

Diara could not count the number of times she asked the question, or the number of times she felt the same resistance when she asked it. But this time, she hoped she was far enough away from the source that perhaps she could make this one crack.

The resistance was strong, but not as strong as in the past. The weapon dropped even further as he felt his mind being probed.

“I… can’t tell you, that, pretty lady…” Blood started to drip from the boy’s nose behind his mask. The resistance wavered at that moment. She lashed out with her power and suddenly the rifle was gone.

It was weaker this time.

The bounty hunter grabbed for his pistol, “Oh, no you don’t, bitch…”

KILL HER!

She heard an unfamiliar voice within his mind—one that had similar command powers to hers. Who was he?

“You don’t want to die, do you?” she said to the boy. “Look around you, you think you can kill me?”

He could only stutter and step back, pistol wavering in his hand as he felt the power of others surging through him. “No… I can’t… You must die…”

“I feel doubt in you, strong doubt.”

KILL HER!!!

“But she is so beauti… aaaaaaaahhhh!” With a blood-curdling scream the boy grabbed his helmet and fell limp to the ground.

“So, that’s how it ends now?! Your power is not strong enough to control your minions out here, so you kill them?! Show yourself!” Her voice boomed like thunder, boosted by her powers.

The bounty hunter lurched one more time and rolled over. Maybe this one carried a clue. He looked over-confident, perhaps to the point of ignorance. Diara began to strip his clothing and search his body. She looked at the armor, it was just her size. She smiled. He must have a ship nearby.

On the horizon she could see the flicker of the morning light… Well, at least I got to see it.

 

Part 2: The Cyber-Mutant Underground of Kara’Kresh

Gadaron Port Authority believed her to be the bounty hunter easily enough, with the help of her powers. The boy was too over-confident. He had left a data trail light years long, leading to this backwater world, where he was hired in the first place. And what a world it was…

Gadaron Space Port, on Kara’Kresh, was a seething city on a hot world that had seen way too much corporate development in its time. Over-industrialized, over-populated at one time, it was finally forgotten after the Second Karian War. It had now become a wet, polluted, hopeless world where the rejects of Expanse came to hide, to make a living or to scavenge the ruins of industrial plants of old. It was a pinnacle of technology at one time but was now a wasteland of obsolescence.

However, there was one thing that thrived on Kara’Kresh: the techno-underground, where anyone could get anything for almost any ruinous price. From illegal cyber-ware or enhancement drugs, to hard-to-get experimental bio-ware or booster-nanites, anything was there.

The young dead bounty hunter, Harming Ellos—former soldier from the cyber-brigade turned AWOL, now dead—turned out to be heavily modified himself. With bio-ware implants for strength and agility, and cyber-implants for just about everything else, he would have been formidable if he hadn’t been so weak minded. The problem with having that many implants was that it weakened the mind and the soul. One needed both to be able to resist her powers.

It was raining. A stinging rain, with a slight chemical smell to it. Diara was glad for the armor suit. It helped her avoid any skin burns. Damn acid rain. In the mist caused by the rain, hover-skiffs and repulse-bikes flew by above, while ground vehicles battled their way through traffic below. This was the busiest city on the planet because it had the spaceport.

Diara spotted what she was looking for. It’s always a bar. Why is it always a bar? One of the drawbacks of her physical assets was the harassment she constantly received when she walked into places like this. Thankfully, she was wearing the bounty hunter’s armor and helmet this time. But there was no telling how popular this guy was here either. Standing a block away from the bar, she took a deep breath and reviewed the facts in her mind.

She had a name: Jarus Nell. He was the contact person the boy dealt with. Nell was a cyber-demon—a street term for a heavily mutated human with cyber-ware. Mutations were another problem on worlds like this. Over the last several centuries—since the Terran Expanse discovered FTL flight and started colonizing and terraforming worlds—mutations had grown worse and more radical. Kara’Kresh seemed to have been the extreme of that, perhaps because of the terraforming and re-terraforming that had occurred throughout its colonial history.

Nell paid Ellos half up-front, and would pay half on proof that Diara was dead. Diara knew from Ellos’s logs that Nell had four bodyguards at all times, all cyber-demons of one kind or another. Most members of his entourage were addicts to tree’deshian spice also known as Tree-Dew, including Nell himself. She had heard of the degenerative effects it had on its addicts, from the addicts that existed in the noble courts back home. Initially, the buzz is a slow one, but as time goes on and the user becomes an addict, the buzz is instantaneous, and debilitating. Tree-Dew normally comes in liquid form, to be injected intravenously or dropped under one’s eyelids. However, a very rare and potent powder form existed, and that is what she had.

Very few people knew the effects it had on the mind’s eye and on the internal defenses most sentients had against her power—their sense of reality and unreality, their willpower and their soul. This, coupled with the amount of cyber she hoped Nell had, would make him an easy source of information.

The bar was called the Grinding Stone, a hole-in-the-wall place set near a dark alley lit by neon light and a single street light. Several beings stood outside. One was a bouncer/guard-type. He was Untharian, a huge multi-limbed hulk of a beast with a carapace-like skin and a head somewhat reminiscent of a rhino merged with an insect. Perfect for his job. And there was no telling how much cyber this one had, or if he was a mutant.

Diara had to play it cool, in hopes that Mr. Ellos didn’t frequent this place as often as she suspected.

“Not you again, hot shot!” came the reverberating voice of the Untharian.

Damn. Diara disguised her voice the best she could. “I have to see Nell. I have what he needs.”

“Oh, really? Hmmmm…” the creature scanned her with it’s antennae. “Leave your cannon at the door as usual and keep the rest holstered this time. We’ll be watching you, hot shot. No funny business.”

Diara removed the assault rifle from her shoulder and handed it off at the check-counter by the door. She then walked into the smoke-infested room and was assaulted by the collage of smells, sounds and sights of the Grinding Stone. It was a haven for cyber-demons, nitro-geeks, transients and addicts of the area. It lay in the midst of what was once the industrial zone. The overall industrial theme of the bar cast a dark and dreary tone.

It was pretty crowded, with assorted aliens from all corners of the region, some she didn’t recognize. Who she didn’t see was Nell. She had seen a picture on Ellos’s logs, so she had an idea what she was looking for—short, slouched, grayish skin and cybered with second clone-tech. Her first instinct was to go to the bartender.

“You again? I thought Nell said not to allow you back until you had what he was looking for…” the gruff towering beast of a bartender grumbled.

“Maybe I have what he was looking for…” disguising her voice again. The bartender stopped and raised an eyebrow… or what would pass for one if he were human.

In a matter of minutes the word had spread around fast. She was soon accosted by two large thugs and escorted to where Nell resided on busy nights. They took her upstairs and across noisy catwalks to his office, hidden in the latticework of girders, catwalks and ladders.

Nell hated crowds; some said he even feared them. His “office” was indicative of that. The smoke seemed to get thicker as she was brought into the office area. The smells became even worse. Her distinguished nose was never meant to come this close to any of the sights and smells she was experiencing here. How things change for a noble woman.

Nell’s room was as attractive as the rest of the place, with a little more leather and fewer steel girders. It was a small room with a barred back door she spied in the shadows. Nell was surrounded by four female “beings” behind an old office desk and his bodyguards were spread out around the room. Assorted old furniture was littered around the room, a pool table in the far corner.

“Well, if it isn’t little Ellos himself, already back from his adventures… She scare you away, boy? She is said to be rather persuasive.” Nell blew a cloud of smoke from his gor’an-weed cigar. Yet another vice.

Diara scanned the room with her inner senses and detected others behind a wall, listening in—two others, armed and anxious. She focused on them for a short minute while she spoke in her Ellos-impression. “I have what you want…” She held up a leather satchel. Inside was something she wished she hadn’t had to bring, but the bounty hunter’s data insisted that the evidence of the kill was her severed head. Thank the gods that the bounty hunter was blonde. It might buy her more time.

Diara heard the quiet thud that told her that the hidden two had fallen asleep, just as she wanted.

Nell dismissed the females, who reluctantly left. He looked intrigued, but disgusted. She knew his type couldn’t stomach a severed head. He probably won’t even take it out of the bag. He opened the bag slightly and peered in. He made a face as he saw the bloodied blonde hair, “Did you have to be so messy?” As she suspected, he didn’t pull the head out, only saw the hair.

“I’m changing the deal,” Diara said abruptly. This drew the attention of the bodyguards. She instinctively moved her hand closer to her holstered blaster pistol. That move was followed up by the sound of a sword being unsheathed, the mechanical hum signifying a slight modification to the blade—vibro-sword. Probably mono-edged as well. That thing would cut through this armor like hot Ow’oonga fat.

“Easy now, gentlemen. Let’s hear the whelp out.” Nell eased back in his desk chair as if it was his throne.

Diara’s senses told her that the one with the sword was inches from taking her out. Adrenaline surging in her veins, she found new levels of control and strength in her ability. She conjured up a little surprise for the swordsman and stored it in the back of her mind, just in case things got nasty.

“I want to take it to your benefactor myself. In return, you can keep half the bounty.” She figured he was already keeping half, but now he’d be getting three-quarters of it.

That got his attention. He leaned forward in his chair. “And all you require of me is the identity and location of my benefactor, is that it?” She couldn’t glean it from his mind that easily. That part of her powers was not completely developed. But she did sense he knew something she could use.

She also got the feeling he wasn’t giving it up so easily.

“Well, to be honest, boy, I am not authorized to give you that information…” His cybered left eye gleamed at her. She knew he had that information somewhere in those extra data-chips he had installed in his left lobe. She just had to get in there, past his natural defenses. She gripped the small bag of Tree-Dew powder in her hand. She just needed a moment.

He leaned closer. “Did you hear me? Hand over the head and walk away. You can pick up your pay at the door.”

Diara had to make the move now. He was close enough that the powder would lower his defenses just long enough for her to pick his brain. It was a complicated invocation, but she learned that non-organics were easier than organics to pull information from, if you knew how to read it.

Diara leaned closer and sensed the bodyguards’ heightened awareness. She had the closest one covered; the rest would probably get one shot off, at most. She took her chances.

The cloud of reddish dust exploded from her hand with a thought, and Nell was suddenly thrown in a daze. She searched hard and as soon as she knew she had found it, she triggered her next surprise.

The blade in the hand of the bodyguard suddenly vanished. The bodyguard then abruptly went rigid. Blood began to pour from his mouth. The bodyguard then grotesquely split in half, vertically, and the sword fell out from between the pieces. The sword had re-materialized inside him.

Nell slouched over in his chair, blood seeping from his nose. The cloud was probably too potent for him. He would probably OD before she even left the room. Diara was not hanging around to find out. One blast struck near her as she dove over the desk. She lashed out with her power, again.

Two bodyguards had moved in and were in close proximity to each other. Big mistake. In a flash, the still-hot blaster in the one guard’s hand exploded. The fiery eruption engulfed them both, killing at least one of them and incapacitating the other. That was going to attract attention from the outside, she thought, picturing the lumbering Untharian already running from the door to the back.

Another blast struck her in the shoulder, knocking her back. The armor absorbed most of it. Diara lifted her blaster and fired back. Two quick blasts felled the oncoming guard. She looked at her blaster. Conventional means are not beneath me, she thought and smiled for a moment.

Diara got up, the burn from the shoulder wound telling her the armor didn’t absorb as much as she thought. Nell was still in his chair, twitching and drooling, as the powder wreaked havoc on his neural system. She removed the helmet to show Nell her face. She knew some part of him could register the sight. She saw in his eyes that it had.

“Sorry, partner… Deal’s off.” Diara searched his body and his desk for any credits. She found his half of the bounty. “You can pick up your share at the door…”

Before the Untharian came bursting into the room, she was out and through the back. She left a small surprise for the Untharian however—in the form of a small detonator in Nell’s hands. As soon as his neural systems shut down, which she guessed would be soon, the device would drop out of his hand, the spoon would be released and BOOM.

She was a block away when she heard the explosion.

Damn, that was some potent stuff.

 

Part 3: The Psychotic Psi-Casters of Bedlam

The data she had taken from Nell’s neural pathways was encrypted. It took her three days sitting in Ellos’s ship while in orbit around Kara’Kresh’s second moon to translate it. All she got was what she liked to call an “astral image” of the data, which she had to translate into real data and let a machine decrypt it. It turned out the ugly cyber-demon could only afford a cheap operating system and encryption algorithm for his implants, making her work only slightly easier.

But now she wished she wasn’t able to decrypt it so easily.

The data gave the name of Gram Bellington as the person that had contacted Nell. That transmission was heavily encoded, but with some work was traced back to a relay-sat orbiting a planet called Bedlam. The transmission itself originated from Bedlam.

Of all places in the region, it had to be Bedlam.

Bedlam was claimed by the Expanse Fleet at the end of the First Karian War and set up as a special military training facility. Its existence was said to be one of the causes of the Second Karian War. It seemed the Karian apes didn’t like the humans experimenting with the psionic sciences. It scared them.

And Fleet didn’t think of the drawbacks to all their experimenting either. Now it had become a special asylum for the Fleet’s special projects and “prototypes”—projects that revolved around the powers of the mind. Psi-Casters. It was rumored that the military spent considerable time studying the sciences surrounding psionic powers, attempting to boost them, find new powers, and discover new ways to use them. They found that overuse tended to fray the human mind. Hundreds upon thousands of sentients that had enrolled in the program had gone insane. They and their children and their children’s children now resided on Bedlam and were watched over by a special division of Fleet.

Bedlam was a harsh world. Fleet attempted to terraform it once and regretted it. The storms only got worse. Now, the eight cities on Bedlam existed only because of transparent-steel bubbles over them or, as in two cases, because they were underground. There were roughly twenty other cities, built on the gamble that the terraforming would hold, but all those were abandoned.

All eight cities were guarded asylums for some faction of the Bedlam-Psi society. Without special Fleet permission no one was getting into any of the cities of Bedlam.

However, Diara had her own way in. Her mother had died there when she was a young girl—admitted just after Diara was born. She still had her free passage codes to visit her mother’s grave. All she had to do was cover her trail once she was in. She had developed her hacking ability over the past seven years to be able to crack even the best Fleet security systems.

No one ever explained to Diara why her mother was admitted into Bedlam. She remembered very little of her mother, being raised by her aunt and uncle in the Noble Courts of New Avalon. She was told the circumstances of her conception when she was eighteen. A Terran soldier had raped her mother during the Second Karian War. That’s all she was told.

But what did that have to do with anyone wanting her dead… and this badly. This Mr. Bellington had better know.

A few more hours of hacking into a local Expanse Fleet node found that Bellington was not an inmate, but a member of the Fleet “Psi”-chiatric Staff on Bedlam. Dr. Bellington, actually. To find him, she had to go to the city of New Arkham—one of the smaller ones, underground and near the coast.

The trip to Bedlam would take three weeks in void-space. Diara had time to rest. She climbed into the sleeper pod, after engaging the void-engines.

* * * *

In her dreams, she heard her mother’s voice, saw her mother’s face. So kind, so gentle… And then it was gone, replaced by a demon. Diara felt her body being ripped to shreds, her organs thrown to the four winds. Sounds of a horrid battle could be heard behind the scene. A single man standing at the top of thousands of bodies, holding a sword in one hand, her mother’s head in the other.

That’s the biggest problem with sleep pods. No matter how badly your psyche wants you to wake up, you can’t. People had been known to go insane while under pod-induced sleep.

She awoke on the edges of the Bedlam System. Instead of locking onto the guidance beacons of the system, she took the ship in herself. The beacons would log her presence. She would be expected, however she didn’t want to knock on the front door quite yet.

The flight from the system’s outer edge to orbit took another three and a half weeks, at full thrust. Fortunately, it was a small system.

* * * *

The city of New Arkham was a dark and morbid place. Attempts to make it look like a normal city, with normal citizenry, were corrupted by the occasional mad scream or pointless babble from a wandering passerby.

It was a twisted place that she didn’t want to be in for very long.

As Diara walked the streets, she felt something strange, like she was being watched. More than watched… scanned. But from where?

Something else made her nervous. Diara thought that maybe it was because she had never been to this city, her mother’s grave residing in New Providence. However, it seemed to her that there was a deficiency in regular personnel.

Diara walked to the place where the transmission originated—an Expanse Fleet office complex. She could see its tower from a distance and, as she turned a corner, saw the entrance.

The entrance was ransacked. Expanse Fleet symbols were defaced, the front gate and door destroyed, the front foyer burned out by fire. This happened a while ago. Diara drew her pistol. It appeared that the staff was no longer in charge of the asylum. At least not this one. No telling how many others had been taken over.

She looked around nervously as more faces appeared out of the darkness of alleyways, street corners and windows, all looking at her. She turned on the night vision visor on her helmet and saw more faces in the darkness.

Diara started to run. A shower of debris came from upper level windows of buildings as citizens of New Arkham started screaming and howling. She turned down an alleyway that had fewer windows and found a “bunker” of garbage to hide behind, taking aim down one direction of the alleyway. She kept one eye on the other direction, not really sure where it ended. All she saw was darkness.

The screaming and the howling stopped. If the city could get any more ominous, it did in that moment.

Diara suddenly heard a chorus of hums coming from down the other end of the alleyway. She shifted her aim. She saw movement but waited to see what it was. Four figures, all dressed the same, came into the light, followed by four more, followed by four more. All in formation, dressed in black and brown leather tunics and pants with eyeless leather masks straight out of a bad S&M vid. They were all humming the same monotonous note, never changing it. She felt the pressure on her mind, as if the chorus was penetrating it. She fought back, pushed against them.

The chorus and the formation stopped. Oh? No one has ever done that before, have they? she thought as she sensed the bewilderment in their minds.

Diara lowered her pistol in their direction and fired. The blast struck just in front of the left-most lead man and deflected. Damn, Psi-shield… these guys are good.

The man looked in her direction—first one to do that—and lifted his hand. A blast of force hit her and, in an explosion of garbage and debris, sent her sliding down the alleyway. The blow nearly knocked the wind out of her but her armor absorbed most of the force.

She fired again as she got up. The blast was deflected and went wild. The chorus of hums started again as they began to march towards her. She needed more time than she had to drum something up with her power. She thought of something small and released it.

A ball of flame launched from her hands and exploded at their feet. Diara gambled that, with all the garbage in this alleyway, there had to be something flammable on the floor. There was. Flames engulfed the formation of leather-bound men, obscuring them from her vision.

Diara smiled at her minor victory.

Movement from within the flames told her just how minor it was. The formation marched on, in full force, despite a few charred members. They released another telekinetic ball of force, which she dodged. It went across the street, toppling the small building there in a cloud of dust and smoke.

The humming continued.

She ran down the street, across it, not looking behind her. In her rush, she attempted to conjure up some of her own defenses, which deflected a few of their attacks. Diara turned a corner, down another alleyway, just as the walls of the building she passed erupted. She was covered in a shower of brick dust.

She stopped only for a moment to catch her breath when she saw a figure in the alleyway, dressed in what looked like a lab coat, waving to her. She wasted no time heading in that direction. Anyone not wearing leather had to be better than these goons.

The figure was gone before she could reach it, but a door stood open. She went into the door and closed it. Inside was darkness. She moved to switch on her night vision but a whisper stopped her. “They will sense that if you turn it on. We have your essence covered as long as nothing else gives us away.”

She heard the humming approaching. She also heard the whimper of someone else as they got closer, someone in the room with her. She sensed that there were several people here, but did not reach out with her power to find out. The leather boys could probably sense that too. The humming soon faded.

A few minutes afterwards, a candle was lit.

In the small cramped room, no bigger than a broom closet, were a dozen ragged figures and a single male in a lab coat, with the letters “GB” stenciled on the pocket. Any Fleet symbols that might have been on the coat were gone. “Gram Bellington?” she asked.

He looked shocked. “You know who I am? How?” He looked suddenly suspicious, reaching into his pocket. The group of people in the room suddenly cowered.

“Whoooah, wait. I’m a newcomer here. I got a transmission from here that had your name on it and I have a few questions for you.” Being careful not to reveal too much of herself, Diara removed her helmet. Her blonde hair fell loose over her shoulders, sweat beading from her forehead.

Bellington’s twelve “disciples” all gasped at her sight. Bellington removed his hand from his pocket and produced a handful of medicine bottles. He opened one and began passing them around to each of his disciples. They devoured the substance as if it were food.

“The only way to keep the upper hand around here—take advantage of their addictions. It’s one of the few things he can’t seem to overcome.” Bellington said as he passed out the last of the meds. Bellington looked as though he could use some of the therapy that he was handing out.

“What? What’s going on here?”

He paused a moment and gestured to the group around him… “These kind folks are what’s left of Ward 19. They were in isolation before he took over. He killed most of them, but I was able to save these twelve. They are my only defense against him and everyone else he controls, like those guys out there—the Hummers.” He gestured back to his group of addicts. “Meet the Maskers.” The group of twelve grimy faces smiled and snickered as they saw the look of approval from Bellington. He snickered back. “They don’t talk much though.”

“He? He who? What the hell is going on?”

Bellington looked shocked. “You mean you don’t know? I thought you got my distress signal. You’re not Fleet here to save us? Oh god, who are you?”

She was tired of the games. She put her blaster to his head. “What the hell is going on?!”

Bellington froze. “I don’t know what transmission you received, but whatever it was, I didn’t send it. I only sent a distress signal a few months ago. Could he… Is he that powerful?”

“WHO?”

“Patient 991-09-1009…We call him the Sovereign. We have no other name. His records were lost in the fires. He took control a few years ago… about seven, I would say. He keeps the other administrators out by controlling everyone, somehow, and making them believe New Arkham is operating normally. New Arkham is one of the least visited cities here on Bedlam because of the strange cases it gets.

“Since then, I’ve survived. I was only recently able to get into the offices and find that transmitter. Oh god, what did he do? Did he change the transmission? How could he? His power must be getting greater. No one has been able to manipulate EM waves at that level, let alone hyper-EM transmissions… Oh god, help us.”

“The Sovereign?” Who was he? Is this who wanted me dead? Why? Was I a threat to him while he was here in this asylum? Why?

Her only choice was to find him, to go to him and present herself to him and ask why. And if possible, kill him. “Take me to him.”

The entire group cowered at the suggestion. “What? We can’t. You must be crazy.”

“I am Fleet and I am here to kill him. You must take me to him.” A slight glint of hope flared up inside Bellington’s mind. But he was hiding something also, and she sensed it, even past the psi-shield the other twelve were still forming.

“But it’s suicide. He is all-powerful. There are rumors that he even controls parts of New Providence. You can’t possibly go alone.”

She stared sternly into the doctor’s eyes, one of which was obviously cybered as a medical scanner. “Let me worry about the dangers. Debrief me on what you know of the threat on the way and I will deal with the rest,” she said in her best gung-ho-military tone. She had learned that from the mercenaries.

The doctor sighed. “We’ll have to take the tunnels. There are only a few citizens there, and we can hide from them.” He looked at the twelve of Ward 19. They all nodded that they would go along and help. “The Hummers are just some of his minions, and they are the least dangerous.”

Great. She rolled her eyes. Who was this guy?

* * * * *

The tunnels turned out to be old service tunnels used by the staff to avoid the regular population. It seemed to Diara that the staff was more imprisoned than the regular population.

The doctor continued to speak as they walked down the hallway. “The Sovereign took over by first controlling some staff, then some inmates. No one knows how he did it. Unlike most of the population, Fleet didn’t make him… well, not entirely.”

“How long has he been here?”

“Too long. Before I started, that’s for sure. They say he’s been here since the Second War. That’s at least thirty years or so, isn’t it?”

“And he wasn’t one of the Fleet’s toys?”

“Not in the paranormal sense, at least at first. He was a regular soldier who lost it on the battlefield during the Second War.” He paused. “I can’t remember much else, other than that when he was brought in he showed signs of paranormal abilities beyond anything anyone had ever seen.” His thought was interrupted by a sound down the hallway. “Damn…” The twelve disappeared in corners, cowering in fear. “I should have seen where we were. Ward 32 – Pyrokinetics.” Bellington hid in another dark corner near his twelve.

Diara stood alone in the dim light of the hallway. She heard the noise again, like something being dragged across the floor. She smelled something burnt, like scorched meat. Her mind raced to conjure something up. She tapped deep into her reservoirs to find the right ability.

A hulking beast of a man turned a corner as Bellington spoke, “They’re very powerful. I would be careful. Oh, and they’re cannibals.”

The beast-man, muscular and dark skinned dressed in tattered and charred clothing, pulled an inert body, presumably lifeless, along with it—a young female, with one leg gnawed on already. Diara’s senses told her it was dead, but not totally useless to her.

The pyrokinetic beast-man roared as he saw Diara. The air around her warmed as his rage built. She felt his fire building up inside him. She prepared a defense as she looked at Bellington. “Find cover. This is going to get a little hot.”

The man roared again, as flame built up around his mouth. Oh, he likes to breathe fire, does he? Probably the only way he knows how to use his powers. How one-dimensional.

The beast bellowed as a fireball launched forward from his mouth, striking Diara dead center. Steam erupted around her as she withstood the blast. The fire cleared and she stood unmarked. Her defenses held. She summoned up her own attack, while at the same time attempting to conceal her power from Bellington. She pointed her gun at the pyro-beast and manipulated its power with her own to create a much more powerful blast. Diara fired. The blast was met with another blast of flame, deflecting it.

Going to have to try another tactic. Diara thought as she prepared another defense. She started to feel fatigued from over-use of her powers. She couldn’t let this next strike hit her. She waited, shifted to the side behind a pillar just as the second attack came.

She had just enough strength to try one more thing. The body. She left her defenses up and concentrated on the body, attempting something she had never tried but had a gut feeling she could do. She felt its limpness, its empty shell. She then separated her own self from her physical body. Part of her filled the emptiness, and soon it had life again.

The beast was lumbering forward to get a better angle on Diara’s body. Diara, now giving the corpse temporary life, caused it to stand. She waited for her moment. As the beast angled closer to Diara’s body she waited until she knew another fireball was welling up. When it did, the corpse moved.

As the beast was about to release the fireball, the body of the young girl grabbed the beast’s head and kissed him, blocking the flame. Her last action was to blow back into the beast’s mouth. Then Diara was out, and back in her own body.

She ducked as both heads exploded in a ball of flame. The smell of burned flesh filled the hallway.

Bellington came out of the room amazed. “She must have not been completely dead. Pretty crazy sacrificing her life like that.”

“Yeah, well, this is a crazy place.”

* * * * *

They crawled out of tunnels into what Bellington said was Ward 99, the special cases ward.

“He was one of five that stayed here. He killed the other four in the first few weeks of his takeover.”

“What else happened here? What did they do to the special cases?”

They walked into an atrium, where they could see multiple levels of hallways, like the central area of a prison. “Well, I’m not really at liberty to say. It’s all top secret.”

Diara turned and grabbed him. His twelve disciples, already scared to be there, turned and ran. Her power welling up inside, she roared at him, “What happened here!?” He shriveled in her grip in fear.

“That voice… I know that voice, that power… you’re one…. You have that power…” the doctor cowered in fear. He scanned her with his cyber-eye. “Yes, I see it now, surging through you. You do have his power. You are another one…”

With her voice again, Diara flared, “Tell me!”

“They experimented. Did everything to him, short of killing him, to determine his power.” They tortured the special cases, beyond any being’s imagination, with test after test, she realized.

Suddenly Diara doubled over in pain. Flashes came to her mind. Imagery of a battlefield. Dying soldiers. Horrid scenes of death and destruction. Screaming Karian ape-men being slaughtered by an unknown force. Tortured soldiers on pikes. Heinous war crimes beyond anything anyone had seen. A voice calling to her. Come to me, child.

And another voice pushing her away. NO! Run, Diara, run away and never return! She recognized this voice. It was her mother’s.

She still gripped the cowering doctor. A roar of thunder came from above. They were showered with debris from an already faltering ceiling. “Take me to him!”

* * * * *

The Sovereign resided at the top level of the tower of Ward 99, overlooking the underground waterway that led out to sea. The room at the top was a dark and dank one, solid cement walls, with restraints lining them. When Diara saw it, she could only think it looked like a dungeon. But what shocked her the most was the Sovereign himself.

He lay upside-down, suspended in the air by chains and steel cable, spread eagle, in the center of the room. His body was wrapped in leather restraints and connected to electrodes that were long dead. His face was covered in a horrid clinical mask. Only the rise and fall of his chest told her he was alive. He was a big man, a warrior, with a lot of rage and anger inside of him.

She could tell he was insane. Insane from all that he saw in battle and the nightmares that haunted him afterwards. Insane from the torture and pain the scientists put him through. So insane that his body was nothing more than a shell and all that was left was his power, small fragments of memory and his insanity.

But she could tell something else. This was her father.

This was something she had suspected since she arrived, but something she denied as well. She had felt her mother’s spirit pushing her away, but she knew she had to face him. This was where she got her power, the originator of it all. And the one that wanted her dead so badly.

How can I be a threat to you like this? This is hell. Why would you want to protect this? Are you controlling more than I know? Maybe you have your own little empire already. Is that what I threaten? She realized he wasn’t protecting anything.

She sensed something else in him. An implant left in his brain by Fleet. A small array of memory, enough for him to use as a journal. They never saw it, but she did. She captured that data image and stored it away. Then turned to the doctor.

Diara could hear her father talking to her now, and she understood why. She looked at the doctor. In an instant he was dead on the floor, a twisted ball of flesh and bone. Her rage continued to flare up. Anger not toward her father, he who had chased her down and tried to kill her uncountable times. Not at him for all those that died trying to kill her or trying to protect her. She had lost friends, family and lovers to this, but that didn’t make her angry anymore.

She was angry with those that did this to her father and would have done it to her.

The anger was at a boiling point, higher than it had ever been. She walked away, not tapping it until she was well outside Ward 99. She was twenty blocks away before she finally focused it.

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it, Father?”

In a flash, the Ward and all twenty blocks around it suddenly disintegrated to dust.

A final release.

* * * * *

She decrypted the journal on her way back to New Avalon. Most of it she had guessed. Her father considered himself not of this universe, but from another with different laws of physics. He had powers beyond what this universe would allow, and it drove him insane. His life was a living paradox. What he brought into this universe of technology and science was what some people would call magic. The forces that rule what was right and wrong, what was real and unreal, battled against him, even as he battled against the Karian enemy during the Second War. It drove him insane but never destroyed his inner compassion. Even though he had no control over his own actions, deep down he knew what was right and wrong. When he raped her mother in one of his fits of rage, he knew that a child would be conceived. When they put him in Ward 99, his inner self could only hope that his child would be nothing like him.

As they experimented, he sensed that the child was different. Through the years, he worked hard at his powers, even as they poked and prodded him. No matter what happened, he never wanted another person to live through what he had—the insanity and the experiments. When her mother was admitted he got a name and a location. It turned out that her mother was a psi-talent Fleet had been watching. She too went insane.

So his quest to kill her was to save her from a life of insanity and a life of Fleet experiments. But what he didn’t realize was that she was a child of this universe. The axioms had reformed to fit her into this universe. She belonged to this universe. And she had made sure no Fleet doctors knew of her existence. She was no longer wanted and she could lead a normal life again.

It was over…

 

Metlhead

by Erik Cotton

The sun was already well into the sky when Kerry, whose real name was Nathaniel Bright but insisted that everyone call him that, awoke. The clock, barely visible under the piles of clutter on the nightstand, flashed 12:00. Of course, it always flashed 12:00, Kerry had never bothered to set it after the last power outage. He didn’t have to really, school was out for the summer and he didn’t have a steady job.

He lazily reached over to the stereo and pressed play on the tape deck. Instantly the room was filled with noise. Megadeth was hammering out their cover of “No more Mr. Nice Guy.”

I got no friends ’cuz they read the papers, they can’t be seen with me and I’m getting real shot down and I’m feeling mean.

Feeling mean indeed, Kerry thought. The only way to be. He sat up and attempted to guess the time and day. Sunday he thought, parents probably in church or out socializing. He tried to recall the prior night… right, party at the Slammin’ Watusis. Lasted well into the morning too. Mac, the owner, had managed to get Running Wild to play there. Kerry didn’t care for their current pirate motif, but back when they were black metal they had some killer albums.

In fact, somewhere amidst all the clutter, Kerry had their first album Gates to Purgatory autographed by all the members. Feeling somewhat nostalgic for their sound, he half-attempted to find the album, but gave up and headed for the shower instead.

Later, back in his room he dug through his closet for something to wear. Buried beneath Exodus posters and a Cradle of Filth backpack he found his old Destruction tee-shirt, from the ’85 Bestial Invasion Tour. He slipped it on and grabbed his only pair of leather pants. Pitch black and encrusted with spikes, studs and chains, they matched perfectly his worn out leather biker jacket. On the back was a huge monocled grinning skull. Above it was the word “Cyclone”, a Belgian thrash band, and below the phrase “Inferior to None.” He also pulled out his best combat boots. Made from Spanish leather and German steel, the New Rock Gladiators had set him back several hundred dollars. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he’d had to bribe his geek brother to order them off the Internet. But it didn’t matter, these boots would last a lifetime. Looking at the back of the jacket that’s just how Kerry felt today. Today was the big day. His band, “Wardance” had lined up and audition with an out of town record exec from Combat Records. The label was a subdivision of Metal Blade, and was primarily a showcase for up and coming talent. Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica had all debuted on Combat. Kerry wanted Wardance to be mentioned right alongside the Big Three.

Today was also the day Kerry was going to buy his dream. A used but in good shape B.C. Rich “Rich Bitch” Warlock guitar had showed up at the local pawn shop. Black, with a custom head, just like Blackie Lawless used. Sure W.A.S.P. was a little light for Kerry’s musical tastes, but there was no denying that Rich Bitch looked good in Blackie’s hands. Kerry had slaved for months as a dishwasher at Hank’s Bar-B-Que to save up enough cash for a new guitar and fortune had smiled upon him with the Warlock.

Exiting his room, he snatched his Walkman and his inverted cross from the bathroom counter. Slipping them on over his greasy way-past-the-shoulder black hair he mashed down the play button on the tape deck. Sanctuary was in mid-chorus of “Die for my Sins”

…As you fill the lies hypocrisy chokes the life from you Die for me, die only for me…

Downstairs his younger brother was hunched over the computer, deeply involved in a game. On his way out the door, Kerry pulled the power cord.

* * *

At the pawn shop, Kerry was waiting impatiently behind some old lady trying to foist off her family silverware. He wasn’t really listening to the discussion going on between the owner and the old lady but he could tell it wasn’t going her way. Instead, Kerry cranked his Walkman even louder as Annihilator’s “Word Salad” was reaching its crescendo.

Woken up from death, nausea. Catatonic stupor, anoxia. Remaining still I hold on to a sense of permanence. Negativistic fear of pain, algophobic life sentence.

Kerry was so caught up in the thrashing end of the tune he didn’t realize the old biddy had left until the owner had tapped him on his shoulder. Kerry slipped the headphones off his ears, “Yeah?”

“What’cha need buddy?” asked the owner.

“Right, I want the Warlock over there.” Kerry pointed to the black guitar.

The owner looked at Kerry skeptically, “That’s a lotta cash pal.”

“Yeah yeah,” nodded Kerry absently, his eyes locked on the Warlock. He fumbled in the inner pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a wad of bills. “There’s four hundred there.” he said as he shoved the wrinkled bills toward the man.

The owner looked at the crumpled and sweaty bills as if they might contain some hidden curse. Wiping his hands on his stained shirt, he slowly started smoothing out and counting the money.

“Yup, that’s four bills awright, but the tag says four-fifty.”

Kerry looked right at the guy, “So negotiate, it’s not that much difference.”

The owner thought about it a moment and shrugged, “What the hell. Here.” and handed Kerry the guitar.

Grasping the Warlock in his hands Kerry knew today was going to be special. The guitar felt natural in his hands, felt right, like it was made for him. He put the strap over his shoulder and ran a quick succession of chords over the fretboard. Yup, it was even in tune. “Right on, absofuckinlutely right on!” Kerry grinned.

* * *

“Where the hell is he?” complained Set.

“Aw man, you know Kerry, that fucker is never on time,” said Thoth.

“You know it pal, he’d be late for his own funeral,” replied Leviathan.

The three band members, dressed to a man identically in black leather and spikes, were sitting on ragged cast off furniture at their rehearsal stage. Actually, to call it a rehearsal stage was overly optimistic. It was a run down studio loft in a very iffy section of town. But between the four band members, it was all they could afford. In the background “Soldiers of Hell” was playing.

You see the ranks beside you, and their long black hair, Soldiers of Hell, Soldiers of Hell.

“Hey man, do you think the exec will know how to get here?” asked Thoth.

“Kerry’s supposed to meet him someplace, Hank’s I think,” said Set.

“Do you think it’s wise for Kerry to talk to him without us around?”

“Doesn’t matter, it’s his band after all, besides the guy’s gotta come here and catch us play before he’ll sign us.”

If he signs us.”

“He’ll sign us, we’re the best.”

“Shit, we’re the only metal band in this town.”

Leviathan got up and lumbered over to a window. “Hey, here he comes now. But I don’t see the exec!”

Kerry opened the metal door, “Hey guys, you seen the exec yet?”

“Shit no, man. We thought you had him,” spat Set.

Kerry shrugged, “I was supposed to meet him at Hanks, but he didn’t show.”

“Maybe he’s lost?” suggested Thoth.

Before Kerry could respond a man appeared at the far end of the loft, “I’m sorry gentlemen to keep you waiting, I had a few other duties to attend to.”

The band turned and looked at the man. He was tall, taller even than Thoth, who in his combat boots was over six four. The man was also very thin, with dark black hair slicked back and wore a very expensive red and black suit.

“S’okay,” said Kerry, “yer here, that’s what matters.”

“Indeed,” said the man. “Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Mr. Louis Seefer.” He smiled and raised his eyebrows, as if in expectation.

Kerry started, “Uh right, I’m Kerry lead guitar and vocals, the tall one over on my left is Thoth, our bass player. Leviathan, the big guy here is our drummer, and that’s Set, rhythm guitar.”

Mr. Seefer smiled, “So pleased to meet you, I’ve heard much about you and your band.”

Kerry grinned, “Really? Yeah man, we’re the best!”

The others nodded in agreement.

“Well now, that’s what I have come to determine. You certainly have the looks down.”

Kerry and the others nodded in unison, “Yeah, we’re a black metal band you know? Gotta have the look to back it up—inverted crosses, a few goat horns here and there, songs about death and Satan and hell and stuff like that.”

“But you are named ‘Wardance’, hardly a black metal name,” posited Mr. Seefer.

“Yeah, but neither is Venom, and they’re the kings. Originally we started as a straight thrash band, but our lyrics drifted into the black metal realm so we changed our looks to match,” chimed in Set.

“And your names…” said Mr. Seefer.

“Well of course, gotta have a stage name, can’t hit the road with names like—” said Kerry.

Mr. Seefer cut him off, “Like Nathaniel Bright, Warren Allison, David Little and Martin Stanley.”

The band was silent for a moment. “Hey, how’d you know our names?” asked Kerry.

“The same way I know your birthdates, your past, future and deathdates. It is my job to know these things.”

The silence was deafening. “Deathdates… how in hell would—”

“How in hell indeed, gentlemen,” intoned Mr. Seefer. “Would you like to see how?”

Mr. Seefer made a grand gesture and the room darkened and shifted. The roof disappeared and flames rose around the band, screams and the smells of sulfur and brimstone assaulted their senses.

* * *

The choir’s last notes of “Glory Be” were trailing off as Pastor Jones approached the podium.

“Friends, I wish to talk to you today about Repentance.”

Pastor Jones overlooked his flock. Most of the town was there, listening attentively to his speech. Pastor Jones took his job seriously, the job of saving souls after all should not be taken lightly. He was about to go on when the double doors at the front of the church banged open.

Four figures stepped in and for a moment, Pastor Jones thought they were demons. But as his eyes adjusted to the sudden bright light, he could see they were four youths, dressed all in black, with scruffy long hair and wild shirts.

“Ye… Yes?” he stammered out.

One of the youths stepped forward, “Pastor Jones? My name is Nathaniel Bright and my friends and I are in dire need of salvation.”

Pastor Jones smiled, “Then you are in the right place, my sons.”

 

Heavy is the Head

HeavyIsTheHead_MikePhillipsFinalCandidate

Illustration by Mike Phillips

by Robert E. Waters

 

An impish voice whispered in Palanor’s ear, muffling the bitter screams of his father. “Are you going to sit there and take his insults… again? Kill him! Kill him now!”

Palanor scratched away the voice, then drew his sword from its sheath and swung it wildly at his father’s neck, catching the old man in mid insult and knocking him off his horse.

Oh, the blood. Spurts and flows covering the road in deep crimson. His father’s blood. The king’s blood. More blood than Palanor had ever seen. His stomach turned. He looked down from his horse, down upon his father’s gurgling, moaning form.

“What will you do now?” There was that voice again. “Look at him. Even now, choking on his own phlegm, he mocks you. Finish him!”

Palanor jumped from his horse and raised his sword like an ax. Eyes wild, he brought the blade down into the gaping wound of the first cut, then again and again, until the head popped off like a ball and rolled across the road and down the gully wall.

Silence, save for the rustle of the head rolling away in the distance beneath the brown and red leaves. Palanor pulled a rag from his belt and wiped the blood from his sword. “You’re dead, Father,” he hissed, hovering over the beheaded man. “And you will never hurt me again.”

He tossed the bloody rag to the ground and stepped over his father, toward the gully where the head had rolled. A heavy suggestion of snow lay in the wind’s voice, whistling wetly through the trees, bringing to Palanor’s ears the first hopeful sounds of his life. Your father is dead and you will now rule, he thought to himself. No more shameful times. No more embarrassing moments in the courtyard, his father belittling him before his own mother and brother, his own countrymen, raising doubts about his mettle. No more feeling worthless. “Now you are the embarrassed one, Father, the weak one,” Palanor snarled at the head lying somewhere below. “You’ve lost your head, and your guard isn’t here to fetch it for you.”

Palanor stumbled down the muddy gully wall, supporting himself with the sword. His heavy boots scooped out dark cuts in the ground. Only now was his blood cooling in his face, though his heart was still beating strongly. As he descended, he wondered: How will I make it look? How will I convince everyone that we were jumped and I fought valiantly to save the king? He looked at his arms, his legs, seeking signs of struggle. None. The decision to kill had come quickly, per the advice of that tiny little voice, the meek whispery tickle on his ear that most assuredly had been his inner demon, his own conscience. No struggle except that which was now building in his mind, replacing the promise of the wind with screams of inner panic.

He reached the bottom of the gully and began poking through the leaves. It couldn’t have rolled far, being so fat and bumpy, like an over-ripe apple from a tree, popping off its branch and cracking on the roots below. He swept the leaves left to right, moving the broad blade of his sword like a broom. Where is it? He moved further down the gully, into the shadows where the ground was dark, so dark that he could only hope to feel the meaty thump! of his blade against the sallow flesh of his father’s head. His heart beat faster, forgetting the delight of a moment ago. Palanor dropped to his knees and started fishing through the sea of leaves.

“Are you looking for something?”

A childish voice from behind. Palanor’s head popped through the canopy of leaves. He whipped his body around to face the voice.

“Please don’t stop on my account.” There it was again, this time from the side and up in the trees. “But I can’t help but wonder if what you’re looking for is this…”

Palanor held his sword forward and braced for a threat. His face wild, he said, “Who’s there?”

“I’m up here,” the voice said. “Up here sitting pretty.”

Palanor turned right and looked up into the dark shadows of the twisted trees, up into a faint glow of magical light he hadn’t noticed before. And there perched his father’s head, delicately on a branch, swaying in the wind; lips crusted with drying blood, swollen, pudgy face, mangled white hair glued to a dead white brow. And eyes, covered in thick, ashen lids, accusing, mocking lids of eyes that could no longer pass judgment, but could still stir Palanor’s insecurities. The sight of his father’s face was too much for the prince to bear. The only thing that saved him from screaming was small legs crossed and resting on the bridge of the nose.

A brightly dressed pixy sat on the king’s head, subtle elfin-like lips parted devilishly, smoking a small pipe, blowing rings, swinging little legs, bouncing tiny shoes off cold flesh. Palanor fell back in terror, eyes fixed on the little imp. The pixy inhaled a long thread of smoke from the pipe, tossed his head up, and blew the smoke away. He seemed very content.

Finally, the pixy said, “Is this what you’re looking for?” It rapped its knuckles on the balding skull like knocking on a door.

Without thinking Palanor nodded.

“I thought as much,” said the pixy, cradling the pipe in its left hand. “I thought you’d come after it.”

Palanor finally gained his strength and stood. He looked around the base of the tree, searching for a way up. The steep, coarse trunk of the tree rose before him, its black roots peaking out of the eroding soil like serpents. Steps up. Palanor leaped for them, scrambling with hands and feet, pulling his way up the roots towards the little devil. His moves were violent and rash, clumsy and unprepared. It took several minutes to reach the branch where the pixy sat, but when he got there, the imp and the head were gone.

“Psst,” a voice from behind and up. “Over here.”

Palanor turned and looked up. The grinning, contented face of the pixy sparkled in the shadows. “It’s no use to try to catch me,” the pixy said, fluttering thin wings, “so I recommend we negotiate a deal.”

Breathless and dizzy, Palanor stumbled back down the tree and rested against the gully bank. Something about the pixy’s voice was familiar, but his mind could not place it. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“What do I want, you ask? I want what all men and fairies of good conscience want: World peace, a warm meal, female companionship, and a place to rest my weary head.” The pixy giggled. “But seriously, I’m no one special, and I don’t really want anything. I was just working my way through these woods, in hot pursuit of dinner, when I heard hooves on the road. My dinner spooked and ran off. Frustrated, I slipped up to the road to see who was coming and to my amazement, I saw the King of Trunkheim and his heir trotting along. I thought to myself, ‘Lucky me, I finally get to meet the great king and the prince.’ Well, you can imagine my surprise when suddenly I see you draw a sword and lop the old man’s head off.”

“You saw nothing!” Palanor screamed and flung a glob of mud.

The pixy ducked. “Not only did I see something, I felt it too. The king’s head flew right into me and knocked me down. It pushed me into the mud, it did. See…” The pixy stood up and turned, revealing a mud-streaked pink vest and wings. He sat back down and giggled again. “A pixy goes through his whole life thinking nothing like this will ever happen to him, and then it does. I feel like I’ve been hit by lightning.”

Palanor bared his teeth. “You saw and felt nothing, you miserable whelp. Now give me my father’s head.”

The pixy rubbed its chin and considered. It shook its head. “No, no. That won’t do. I think we need to talk a little more. Get to know each other better.”

“I said give me—”

“Shh!” The pixy put its hand out and pressed it down. “Don’t talk too loud. You don’t want anyone to hear you, do you?”

Palanor shut up quickly. He had forgotten the way voices carried in these woods. A childhood memory flashed in his mind: he and his brother running through the gullies, each casting his voice to confuse the other. Find me! Find me! They’d scream. Over here! No here! And then the booming voice of their father or a court aide calling them home, ending the fun. How many times, Palanor wondered, have I gone through this very gully? How many times had he climbed these very banks and flung this very mud?

Palanor breathed deeply and said, “Okay, what do you want?”

The pixy knocked the tobacco out of its pipe. “Like I said, I don’t want anything. The big question is what do you want? Political assassination and fratricide is a big step in a young prince’s life. Was it worth it?”

Tears welled at the corners of Palanor’s eyes. “He was a hateful man. He deserved it.”

The pixy nodded, tucking its legs away, still perched on the head. “He must have been. But it must have been equally hard for you to deliver the last blow…”

“Not at all.”

“…and it’ll be even harder for you to explain how it happened.”

That realization hit Palanor hard. He had forgotten that small detail in the scuffle to find his father’s head, and how he searched for excuses. “Self defense.”

The pixy shook its head, yanking a long strand of white hair from the king’s scalp. “I didn’t see any struggle.”

“The struggle wasn’t physical. It was internal and brought on by years of abuse.”

“I see,” said the pixy. “So you’re the victim in all this, huh? Please tell me more.”

“My father was ruthless,” Palanor began. “All my life he treated me and my brother like dogs, shaming us before our mother and our countrymen. When we were young, he would beat us and laugh. How many times did he call me ‘worthless’ or ‘unfit to govern’ or ‘wasted seed’? And for years I took the abuse. For years I let him humiliate and shame me. But not anymore.”

Palanor dropped down and began to cry, a cry of many years, a cry that wailed through the trees, echoing back like the howls of a lost banshee. And while he cried, the pixy flossed its teeth with the strand of white hair. “Yeah, it sounds like he was a bad man. I never knew that about the king.”

Palanor sniffled. “Few do.”

“Well, how are you going to cover it up?”

“Oh, I don’t know. We were attacked by thieves. How’s that?”

The pixy shook his head. “I don’t remember any thieves.”

“Nobody knows that.”

The pixy smiled. “I do.”

Palanor jumped up, his wild, sweat-soaked hair smearing his vision. “You little rat bastard. I’m the king now. I order you to bring down my father’s head.”

By this time, the pixy was lying on its stomach and reaching over and pulling up one eyelid and then the other, left, right, left, right. The cold, glossy eyes beneath, each time they were flashed, drilled holes into Palanor’s soul. Oh, what have I done? What have I done? Your eyes, Father, know the truth. I killed you in cold blood.

The pixy reached for the bloody mouth and pried the lips apart, opening and closing, opening and closing the hollow, dark mouth. “You are a bad son,” the pixy said, casting his voice lower, mimicking the king’s voice, opening and closing the jaw with each word. “You killed me and you will pay.”

“Shut up!” Palanor’s words bounced through the wood. He flung another glob of mud and this time hit the pixy square and sent the head tumbling down through the branches. But the pixy had disappeared again, flying into the shadows. Palanor scrambled forward, trying to catch the head before it struck the ground. He lunged and grabbed a handful of hair. He hit the ground hard, the weight of the impact knocking out his wind. But he held his father’s head firmly. Palanor brought the bloody orb to his chest and hugged it like a doll, lying in the mud and weeping loudly.

“I’m sorry, Father,” he whimpered, stroking the white hair. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean—”

“You know,” said the pixy from somewhere behind, “I think you ought to come clean on the whole thing. You’re the king now. What can they do?”

Through his whimpering, Palanor saw the truth in the pixy’s words. It’s right. What can they do? I’m the king now. Mother cannot even touch me. Suddenly, fear and despair were replaced with hope and optimism. He cracked a smile.

“You’re right,” Palanor said, turning his father’s head around to stare defiantly into the wrinkles. “I am king now, Father. It doesn’t matter who killed you. I can’t be touched.”

“That’s right,” trumpeted the pixy, suddenly appearing on Palanor’s shoulder with a flutter of wings. “They can’t touch you. And judging by how terrible he was, you did Trunkheim a favor, wouldn’t you say?”

Palanor’s eyes beamed with delight and he looked at the pixy, forgetting his desire to crush the little imp in his hands. “Yes.”

“Sure. Why I wouldn’t be surprised if they—” The pixy stopped and turned his ear to the wind. “Do you hear that?”

Palanor listened. Faintly, the sound of clinking hooves and jangling armor came from the road above, faint and distant, but growing stronger.

“The body!” Palanor said, suddenly remembering that his father’s corpse was lying alongside the road. He tossed the head aside and scrambled up the gully, like a dog, clawing at the mud and leaves. He reached the top and crawled to the body. Up the road, in the direction he and his father had been riding, came a single horse. On the horse was a man, a man of equal height and build as Palanor, but younger. A man of equally brief facial hair, but sharper. A man Palanor knew well.

His brother Roth.

Palanor rose up on his knees, but he didn’t try to hide the body, nor did he show remorse. What purpose would it serve anyway? Roth had experienced the same shame and humiliation at the iron hand of father. Surely he of all people, Palanor thought, would understand and give thanks. On his knees, he smiled faintly and watched his brother ride up.

Roth looked down from his horse, shifting his eyes from father to brother. His chest started heaving violently, his handsome face growing red with anger. “What is this? What have you done?”

Palanor spoke proudly, “I’ve killed the old bastard. I’ve killed him.”

Roth jumped from his horse and drew his sword, moving close. The sun was setting fast behind him. “I came looking for you because Colonel Gregor had sent his falcon forward with word that you and Father had slipped away from the knight’s tourney early this morning without the protection of his guard. I’ve been looking for you and this is what I find. Are you insane?”

“Roth, it’s over,” Palanor said. “Our misery has ended. I am king now.”

Roth lowered his sword, and Palanor rose to his feet and laid a hand upon this brother’s back. The young man began to weep.

Palanor pulled him close. “It’s all right, Roth. It’s all right. We’ll make it right.”

Through sobs, Roth asked. “How? How are we going to do that? What are we going to say?”

“We’ll carry the body back,” said Palanor. “We’ll tell Mother that we were attached by brigands and Father fell fighting bravely.”

Roth nodded. “But what about the absence of the guard? Why weren’t they here? Why were they left behind?”

Palanor shook his head. “I don’t know. Father slipped into my tent this morning and ordered us away. When I asked him about why we were leaving, he told me to shut up, so I didn’t press him.”

“You know,” said the pixy, setting down upon Roth’s saddle and coolly filling his pipe, “I witnessed the entire thing, and I don’t recall any brigands.”

The brothers stared at the imp on the saddle. “No one knows that,” said Palanor.

The pixy smiled, lighting his pipe. “I do. And besides, what with the story about your father’s ruthlessness that you explained to me, everyone will immediately assume that it was a conspiracy: Brothers conspiring to kill their father.”

“Wait,” Roth said, pulling away from Palanor. “I didn’t kill my father. There was no conspiracy.”

“No? Please forgive me.” The pixy stared deeply into Roth’s eyes. “Am I to assume, then, that the bag of gold you gave me two days ago had nothing to do with your political aspirations?” It giggled and patted the velvet bag tied around its waist.

“What’s it talking about, Roth?” Palanor asked, raising his brow.

Roth turned and threw up his arms in confusion. “I’ve never seen this imp in my life. It’s lying.”

“Lying?” The pixy’s little face wrinkled as if wounded. “Then I guess that knife you’ve hidden in your boot is for show and not for your brother’s chest.”

Palanor grabbed Roth’s leg and tugged down his leather boot to reveal a long blade tied to the calf. He pulled the knife out and pushed Roth back.

“Palanor, believe me,” Roth said, trying to calm his brother. “I always wear that knife. Always.”

“I’ve never seen you wear it,” Palanor snapped, throwing it to the ground. “I trusted you, Roth, and now I see that you planned the whole thing. Conspiring with Colonel Gregor to somehow lure Father and me away from the tournament early, leaving me alone with him out here in the woods, knowing full well that I’d be the center of his wrath, hoping that I’d lose it and kill him. And then you’d come looking for us and sob and weep and act the understanding brother. And when the moment was right, you’d kill me and take the throne.”

Roth backed up and raised his sword. “You treacherous bastard. You’re insane. You’re the one conspiring with Colonel Gregor, not me. You and Gregor and this pixy, luring me into a trap.”

“Me? Why you—” and Palanor raised his sword.

Roth braced and met Palanor’s attack. The swords met again and again, clanging violently in the waning light of the sun, filling the woods with the clamor of battle. The brothers moved over their father’s body, stepping on loose parts of the royal robe, stubbing their toes on his stiffening flesh, stumbling over his legs and arms. Arms stripped with cuts, legs weak and waning, the brothers cut and thrust and swung their blades, all in the presence of a small pixy humbly perched on Roth’s saddle.

He smoked his pipe.

And like before, a tiny voice entered Palanor’s ear and guided his sword home, deep into Roth’s neck at the vulnerable spot. Another blow, and another, and Roth’s head popped off his neck like a dandelion. Palanor dropped his sword and fell to the ground, chest aching for breath. More blood, even more than before, covering his father’s drying blood like a second coat of paint on a fence post. Palanor could not stop his tears.

A small body with a flutter of wings set upon the prince’s left shoulder. “You know,” whispered the pixy, “this is quite a mess we have here. In more ways than one.”

Palanor felt the pixy’s breath on his ear. “It’s you, isn’t it? You’re the voice I’ve been hearing. This is all your fault.”

The pixy nodded and smiled, shoving his smoldering pipe into his velvet bag. “It’s true, I must admit. But I’m merely a small player in a very big game.”

Right then he should have grabbed the imp and crushed him. But no. Doing so would not bring his father or brother back, nor douse the pain in his heart. He’d killed them. He, Palanor, the Prince-cum-King of Trunkheim had cut off their heads. And now lying in their blood, he didn’t have the strength to be angry.

“It’s over, isn’t it?” Palanor asked the imp. “I can’t be king now. What would I tell my mother? How could I show my face to the people with so much blood on my hands? So much shame. What do I do now, Imp? Tell me what to do.”

For a moment, no answer came. But then it did, not as a voice but as Roth’s knife, floating up from the ground and hovering before him, suspended in a magical white light. Palanor stared at the knife, and a little voice whispered in his ear, “Take the knife, my good prince. Your father commands it. Take the knife and finish the job.”

Palanor snatched the knife from the air, turned the blade toward his chest and drove it home.

* * * * *

In the dim light of the setting sun, the pixy rolled the severed heads up to Palanor’s head and arranged them in descending order. Father, Palanor, Roth. Oldest to youngest, left to right. It crawled up onto Palanor’s forehead, lit its pipe, and drew deeply. The warm smoke felt good curling down its throat. It took the chill off the bitter wind. It crossed its legs over the prince’s nose, smoked, and waited.

In time, a steady, slow clapping of horse hooves came up the road from behind. The pixy knew who it was. It could smell her perfume.

Without turning, it said, “It’s a tragic tale, isn’t it? An ancient one of hate, jealousy, greed, lust, and pain. Father sires son; son grows up weak and wanting; father hates son; son kills father; brothers kill each other. Makes you want to weep, doesn’t it?”

The clapping of hooves stopped. “Spare me your drama, Imp. I’m not in the mood. Did you have to arrange them like that? Right next to each other? So morbid.”

The pixy chuckled. “I thought you’d like to see them all together one last time, my lady.” It jumped up and faced the queen.

She was wearing a black robe with a thick hood clasped tightly at her neck. She was beautiful in black, it thought, admiring how her green eyes accentuated the darkness of the fabric cupping her face. It studied that face for some sign of remorse, some measure of guilt. Yes, yes, perhaps there it was. A flash of red in the eyes? A spot of tear on the lash? Was she, too, a victim in all this, it wondered. But that was a silly question, for it knew the answer to that already.

“My husband accepted your plan to lure Palanor here and pick a fight?” the queen asked.

“Yes,” said the pixy. “Once I convinced him that his sons were conspiring to seize the throne, he couldn’t wait to get Palanor alone. And when the moment came, I locked his arms against his side with a simple lock spell and he couldn’t defend himself.”

The queen looked down at her son’s bloody chest. The hilt of Roth’s knife stuck up like a tomb. “Palanor did what you told him? No troubles?”

The pixy sniffed, feeling the chilly air, fighting back the growl in its empty stomach. “Clay in my hands, your Highness. Clay in my hands.”

“And Roth’s knife. It was where I said it would be?”

The pixy nodded. “That was a nice touch.”

“Thank you,” the queen said smiling.

Men riding up halted their discussion. Ten mighty warriors of the royal guard lead by Colonel Gregor. They pulled up to the edge of the dried pools of blood and stared at the bodies. Gregor, garbed in the silver and red of the Trunkheim army, rode forward, eyes fixed upon the queen. She stared back. Gregor nodded politely. The queen responded in kind. Then together, they leaned forward over Palanor’s body and kissed.

The pixy cleared his throat. “Pardon me for interrupting this warm and cuddly moment, but we had a deal, your Highness. I do you a favor, and you do me one.”

The queen pulled away from her lover’s lips. “Very well, Imp. Name your price.”

“Full access to your royal grain stores and wild game reserves. Plus, if it won’t be too much trouble, a comfortable rat-hole somewhere in the castle. Winter this year, I fear, will be harsh.”

“Access to my grain? My animals? My castle? Impossible!” She looked at Gregor for support.

Gregor nodded carefully… very carefully. “It seems fair, my love.” The colonel then looked at the pixy. The little creature gave Gregor a quick wink and a smile that only the colonel could see. This tragic tale, the pixy knew, was far from over.

The queen shook her head, but said, “Okay, Imp. You have a deal.” She pulled the reigns of her horse, turned around, and motioned toward the three dead bodies, two headless. “You men clean this up,” she ordered, “and forget what you saw here today.”
Trotting up the road, the queen and the colonel held hands. The pixy flew between them, coolly smoking his pipe. “You know, my lady,” it said, “I wouldn’t be too concerned about giving me access to your food supplies. After all, there are three less heads at the dinner table now.”

Behind them, a guardsmen picked up the king’s head and placed it in a leather bag.

 

Minaret of Necromancy

by Hope Evey

 

She stands in the top chamber. It’s too open to call it a room. The decorative swirls that give the minaret shape define the space. From a distance, it’s beautiful. Closer, horror creeps over you. No one element stands out as wrong, but the sense of wrongness builds. Beautiful, yes; and as unnatural as the woman standing in its summit.

“I hear you behind me. You know the cost of my turning.”

“All who see your face, Lady, die. It’s a risk worth taking.”

“I wear no veil. Should I but turn, your life is forfeit.”

“Are you so sure? What if my knife strikes before you turn? There are no guards to stop me. They say you are old. Perhaps you are slow… and necromancy does not touch the quick.”

He froze there, knife raised, unable to draw back or to strike.

“You began dying the day you were born. And I rule all that is dead. But I am surprised at how fully I can control you. I wonder…” her voice trailed off as the would-be assassin’s eyes went wild. Her mouth twitched at the corners as he fell to the floor gasping. “Be glad I only stopped your breath. Fill your lungs, child.” She paused, but drew no breath. “Does the wind carry the scent of flowers tonight?”

“What does it matter!?” he spat at her, gasping for breath as he rose.

The sound had to be a laugh. It couldn’t be anything else. Her dry cackle would curdle milk in the breast.

“That is why I can control you.” She turned then, faster than anything should move. In a blink she stood lover-close to him. “I cannot smell the breeze, nor even feel it. I gave that up for power.”

“You gave it up for vengeance. But neither of us can smell the flowers.”

He ran, then. Even after he shot past the edge of the floor, he still ran, racing to shatter his empty shell.

 

The Red Tower

Cover#12SMALL

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Chris Miller

 

She reached the edge of the forest just past dawn. With the sun climbing behind her she sat on her horse and watched the morning spread, made out the hazy outline of the tower at the base of the hills on the horizon. Her breath came in thick puffs through the face-grate of her helmet and the leather straps of her saddle and her kit creaked in the early cold. A cloud of mist and steam shrouded the tower. She had thought it would be taller.

Past the last tall pines of the forest the ground was blasted and burnt-over in a semi-circle, with the tower in the center of the crescent. Piles of white and gray ash covered the ground like a quilt. Black stalks of destroyed trees poked through here and there over the empty expanse. A handful of exposed rocks and boulders, charred from fire, dotted the landscape. She noted a big boulder cracked and cleaved in thin rivulets, the skeleton of a tree like a post. Thin plumes of ash, stirred up by a weak wind, whispered by, and the ground smelled acrid and burnt. She tipped up the visor of her helmet, scanned the ruined piece of land, and sighed.

She wore the greenish, shingled armor of the kingdom’s knights. Grieves buckled up over her shins and over the insteps of her clay-caked boots, and a set of dented, intricate bracers protected her from her knuckles down the backs of her hands and wrists and up past her elbows, where they ended in sharp points with cutting edges. Her helmet was mashed in at the right temple, and the metal ridge that ran from the center of the face-plate up over the forehead and back to the crown was chipped and broken in several places. The wolf’s-tail plume that had hung down her back from the nape of the helmet when she had left the capital was reduced to a fuzzy stub.

On her breastplate the silver wolf’s head with ruby eyes of her father’s house was soldered over the heart. The head was tarnished now from the journey and one of the eyes was gone. Her horse, a tall roan mare, whinnied and shook its buttery mane. Deftly she leaned forward in the saddle and patted its thick neck. At her left hip her long sword flapped against her thigh.

It had taken her several weeks to travel to the red tower from the capital, through the farmlands and the lakelands of the kingdom and out into the wilderness. Even clearly marked as a knight she had been attacked by highwaymen, then harassed by a bear, and finally delayed by an ambitious wizard. The empty plain and the cool sunny morning seemed an unusually quiet ending to her journey. Except for the burnt ground the place seemed quiet and still and peaceful, not the home of a dragon she had imagined.

She had seen the dragon attack, however, outside a village called Hammen. Hammen was the last settlement of the kingdom before the woods began, and she had rested there and restocked before traveling into the woods. Her brothers, the villagers said, had passed that way but had not returned. She said she intended to follow and they frowned at her sadly, resignedly, until she had described the peculiar nature of her plan.

The dragon had come to Hammen’s outlying farms on a cloudy night. First lengths of gold fire streaked down onto the fields, then the silhouette of the dragon had appeared, flying low on its massive wings and yanking up cattle and goats two or three at a time and biting them in half as it flew, dropping the uneaten parts sizzling and still kicking to the ground. From the village square she watched the fires burn high and bright.

The day after the attack survivors from the farms came into Hammen singed with soot and with burnt hands, feet, and faces. Their raggedy horses wreaked of scorched hair. They said after the dragon had destroyed their herds he had fanned the flames with his wings, moving the fire in different directions like a game. First he steered the blaze towards a grain silo and a henhouse, then abruptly turned the flames on a cottage. One family had run into a creek, the survivors said, and the dragon had boiled them alive where they huddled together in the water.

She took off her helmet and tucked it under her arm. It was painful for her to sit in the saddle now for any length of time, and she kept herself rigid in the stirrups. Across the back of the saddle a bow of bone, sinew, and horn was strapped next to a half-emptied quiver of arrows. A knife with a blade as long as her wrist and as wide as her palm was stuffed, hilt out, into her bedroll, and a shield with a heavy iron boss set in the center of a circle of rusted and dented studs covered her back. The items of her kit—a skillet, a wedge of cheese, a few mouthfuls of meal, flint and steel, some scraps of tinder, a roll of bandaging, and a needle and thread—clinked and jangled as she dismounted with a grunt. She took a swig from her canteen, rinsed out her mouth and spit the water onto the ground, wiped her lips with the back of her hand.

A large chest with an iron lock was strapped securely to the horse’s rump. The chest was waxed against rain and inlaid with silver filigrees, reinforced with iron ribs across its top and bottom. The wood was lacquered a light shiny red, almost pink, and feminine fairies and flowers were etched into the lid. Unlike the rest of her gear the chest was clean and undamaged, as if it been carefully cared for as well as unused. She put her hand on the chest’s clasp and patted it like a pet.

With several yanks she ripped her fingers through the tangles of her long dark hair until it hung frizzily over her shoulders. She scratched at her scalp while she dug around inside her kit for the piece of cheese. As she ate she walked her horse out onto the ashes. The ground sank softly with each step. She spit out a pungent wad of cheese and belched. Slowly the red tower came into focus.

The tower stood among the rocky outcroppings at the base of the hills. Wisps of steam and smog rose from the cracks and fissures in the stones, climbed in a thin steady sliver of black like smoke from a chimney. The blocks of the tower’s upper parapet were crumbled, gone entirely in places, and the whole structure, no more than three or four times her height, slumped on one side as if it could not support its own weight. Dead vines, all of them blackened and none with any leaves on them at all, twisted round the tower like veins and near the top she could make out where centuries of bird droppings had left calcified streams down the stones. The wide gates that had guarded the entrance to the mines below were gone. A soupy square of darkness was all she could make out of the inside through the portal. She fed the last palmful of cheese to her horse and tied her helmet to the bridle.

As they walked across the waste she kept one hand on the pommel of her sword and the other on the reins of her horse, checked the sky every few steps or whenever the shadow of a cloud passed by. She realized there was a splatter of blood across the rim of her shield and wondered absentmindedly if it was hers. She noticed a stream, gurgling out from a crevice in the rocks not far from the base of the tower, and she cut for it.

The banks of the stream were, like everything else around the tower, blackened and burnt. However the spring was clear and fast and she cupped her hands and drank deeply. The water was cold and it braced her as she splashed it up over her face and on her natty hair. Alongside her her horse dipped its head to the water and sniffed at it, began to drink. The water had a slight sulphuric tinge, she noticed.

She stood up from the bank and studied herself in the reflection of the water. Her sword hung at her side and her armor, although in poor repair, was still sturdy and solid. Staring up at the tower she stepped to her horse and checked her kit. Her bow was taut, and her shield, although showing splinters and rents in several places, was still sound. She thought of her skill, her prowess as a knight. In her palm she gripped the hilt of her sword and drew it halfway, felt the weight of the armor on her shoulders and down her arms.

Then she felt the sting inside her and looked back at the blasted, destroyed land. No green sprigs poked through the ashes. There was no sign there had been any life there at all. She thought of the survivors at Hammen, and of her brothers. She also thought of the list of villages and towns destroyed by the dragon, a list so long that the end of the scroll dropped to the floor when the vizier read it before her father. She imagined the last thing her brothers, both of them knights as skilled and powerful as she herself, felt was the steel of their helmets melting onto their skulls. She let her sword slip back into its scabbard.

She removed the lacquered chest from the saddle straps and set it down gently by the stream. Then, deliberately, she took the saddlebags, her bedroll, her canteen, and all the rest of her equipment and piled them on the ground. Then she cut the saddle and the bridle and the reins from her horse and tossed them aside. She cut a thin string of leather and tied it loosely around the horse’s neck, attached a small tube with a cork top from her belt to the strop. Her horse stared at her confusedly but patiently with its dark eyes.

On a small square of parchment with a stub of charcoal she scribbled out a short note: Father, I have reached the red tower. No sign of Pitor or Mattias. But the woods here have been unnaturally burned and I am sure this is, as you suspected, the lair of the wyrm. I go now to fulfill my duty as a Royal Protector of your kingdom. I pray that when this message finds you vengeance has been granted to our great house. She paused and read what she had written. She added: To anyone finding this message, please care well for this horse, who cared well for me. Princess Kathrina Tantris, Knight of Lachlanan. After marking the outside of the note with the wolf’s head crest she added the cross-and-star sign that designated the message as royal correspondence. She rolled the note into a tight cylinder and dropped it into the tube slung on the horse’s neck, popped the top on. Gently she turned her horse away from the tower, back over the scorched land towards the woods. She stroked the horse’s flank one last time. Then she smacked its rump.

“Go!” she shouted. “Go! Go home!”

The horse jumped, sprinted out away from her, and galloped back across the ashes. She watched the mare go, faster now that it was unloaded. She realized she had expected the horse to pause, at least to look back at her, but it did not. After a few moments it was only a shape among the pines, then only the soft clomp of its hooves on the needles reached her, then nothing at all. For the first time since she had left the capital she felt fear. A hollow formed in the pit of her stomach and she thought she might vomit up the cheese but instead the lump moved to her throat. She swallowed it back down and waited a long second for the feelings to pass through her, as she had been trained. When the fear disappeared all that was left was her strength, will, and a sharp rage. She glared at the tower.

She unlocked the lacquered chest with the key tied around her neck. Raising the lid she peeled back the red velvet lining, and sweet, soft smells floated up at her. Inside a pair of scented soaps wrapped in pastel papers lay on top of textured washing cloths. Vials of perfume, jars of ointment, tubes of cosmetic clays and powders were all packed neatly under the soaps. Silver bracelets and necklaces, including a comb and pins for her hair, were coiled together in a corner of the chest and a dainty pair of slippers with pointed toes rested on top of a mirror with a gold handle. On the bottom of the chest was a long, light-green gown of sheer satin with a silk hem and cuffs and silver threads sewn into the gown’s curves. She picked up one of the soaps in her gauntleted fist and sniffed at it.

She undressed. First she unfastened the straps of her bracers, then the clasps of her shin grieves. She had to sit down to pull off her boots and was amazed at how moldy and rotten her feet smelled as she wiggled her bruised and grimy toes. Finally she twisted herself around enough to reach the fasteners and hooks of her breastplate, shook it off with a series of clangs. Her undergarment had not been washed since she left Hammen and it was filthy with sweat and grime. Ovular holes were worn through the fabric in the small of her back where she had sat in the saddle and along her side where the armor had rubbed.

She stacked her armor camp-style next to her kit and equipment, the sword across the top of the breastplate. Trying to lift the undergarment over her shoulders the fabric came off in clumps in her hands. She shrugged and tore it off completely and threw it up into the air where it sailed over the stream before crashing a few paces away against a mound of ash.

Naked at the bank of the stream she let the soft wind blow over her. Her body was bruised and scraped in many places and a nasty scar ran up the back of her left calf. Black and blue marks dotted the small of her back and her skin was thickly calloused at her ankles, elbows, and knees. Worse was the stench that came up off of her body, a mixture of smoke and sweat and something rotten.

In the cold water of the stream she washed herself. She used up one entire bar of soap and much of the second, turned the washing cloths black with the dirt that came up from her skin. Leaning back on the pebbles she scrubbed at the scum and lint that had formed a thin film along the backs of her arms, down the insides of her thighs, and over the bottoms of her feet. She soaked her hair in the water and combed it out a hundred times with each hand. Once satisfied that at least there were no more lice or twigs in her mane she considered trying to trim her bangs with her knife but decided against it. Then she washed herself again entirely until there was no soap left at all and her skin was glowing pale pink.

When she was finished cleaning herself she sat on a rock by the bank. She rubbed into her calluses a couple of the vials until the cracked, hardened skin softened some. Gingerly she yanked out her dead toenails and bit down the jagged tips of her fingernails, smoothed them down on the edge of a stone.

As she had been taught by the palace courtesans, she lifted her hair away from her face and used the silver pins to clasp it at the nape of her neck. She powdered her face and shoulders, even used a little to mask the scar on her leg. With her fingertips she applied shadow to her cheekbones and color to her lips and her eyelids, started to pluck her eyebrows but then gave up after seeing the results in the mirror. She did like, however, the way the pins and combs accented the bright blue of her eyes.

She daubed herself with perfume, again how the courtesans had taught her—along the ridge of her collarbone, on the insides of her wrists, at the backs of her knees, around her ankles, and with just a touch at the base of her spine. When she was finished she sniffed herself and thought she smelled like a fruit pie.

Carefully she unfolded the gown and flapped it out a few times in the fresh air. The garment felt so unsubstantial in her strong hands it seemed almost ethereal. She slipped it on over her long arms, unrolled it down over her hips, and tugged the shoulders down. The material was translucent and light, showing the outlines of her body clearly through the fabric but, she saw, hiding the blemishes and bruises nicely. Although the cloth was warmer than she expected she felt as if she was still naked and glanced longingly at her armor. She clasped on the bracelets and necklaces, finally stepped into the slippers and thought they felt like little pillows around her feet.

In the mirror she studied herself. Her legs looked lean and shapely, her backside luscious if still somewhat flattened from the saddle, her breasts small but nicely cupped by the gown. The column of her neck was firm and smooth as marble, and her face looked vibrant, with full red lips and her bright eyes. Her straight nose, accented by the cosmetics, looked inviting and defiant at the same time. Even her hair, festering for so long under the helmet, shined. She practiced her expressions in the mirror for a few moments: coy, alluring, charmed.

Her preparations complete she turned and faced the tower. During her bath the sun had moved over the top of the hills and the tower cast a long shadow. With a last look to her weapons she strode confidently towards the portal, remembered only with her final few steps to walk less like a warrior and more like a killer.

* * *

Inside the tower the sun disappeared. Ankle-deep smog rolled over the ruptured flagstones of the floor and a wet, pungent heat permeated the air. The shapes of broken beams and what she imagined were the debris of ancient tables, carts, and barrels were strewn about. Walls separating the individual rooms and alcoves of the tower had collapsed and half of a stairway to the upper levels hung in the air, its bottom steps gone. She blinked away tears brought on by the smoke, worried that the heat would make her powder run. From a passage across the floor a hazy red light glowed and she made her way towards it. The heat grew hotter and the glow grew brighter until she saw a stone stairwell, leading down. A sound like a lit hot stove rumbled from below. She gritted her teeth as she descended, tripped once on the hem of her gown, and forced her face into the most becoming smile she could manage. The heat intensified with each step.

At the bottom of the stair she stepped out into a huge hollow with a wide expanse of floor and high, domed ceiling cut from the rock. The same eerie red light as above glowed here, but much brighter. Smog made a false sky against the roof of the cavern, roiling like storm clouds with their undersides lit a gruesome red. In the flickering shadows along the bases of the walls she could make out piles of rubble where the mine tunnels had fallen in, but also several still open, with one or two wide and high enough to accommodate a dragon. She sensed the danger in the place and instinctively reached for her hip. Not finding her sword there, she took a breath and smoothed out her gown, walked slowly to the center of the room. A hint of hot slime wafted through the air.

She saw a pile of gold, much of it melted together in a shimmering puddle, in a clump at one of the mouths of the collapsed tunnels, realized that the pile was only a slight spillover and the entire tunnel behind the pile was packed with a solid mass of gold, silver, and gems all melted together. Across the cavern not far from the steps to the first level she saw a spiky mass of swords and spearpoints glittering malevolently in the red light stacked loosely on a foundation of hammerheads and wrecked shields and armor. She squinted at them closely, spotted one triangular shield bent in half but with the wolf’s head still visible, another cracked down its center like an onion slice with the same iron boss as her own shield. She whispered her brothers’ names and swallowed a mouthful of quiet fury.

The reptilian stench grew around her until it was all she could smell. The heat rose. The puff and hiss she had heard at the top of the stairs rose loud as a forest fire. Then the walls themselves seemed to squirm and slide as if they might melt. She felt a warm wind come at her from all directions at once.

The dragon’s head was massive and red-scaled, with two huge gold eyes. Dripping flames poured from nostrils as big as her thighs. Two curved horns like scimitar blades protruded from the flat, ridged forehead and a wall of teeth, each as long as her entire body, formed a terrible smile that shined wetly in the hot glow of the dragon’s body. As the dragon sniffed her his eyes rolled over her from head to toe and his nostrils flared. She braced herself. The dragon’s leathery lips rose the corners amusedly. His voice boomed over her like a bell.

“You smell somewhat familiar,” he said. “Do I know you, perhaps, little one?”

Calmly she batted her eyelashes and folded her hands at her waist demurely. She made her voice husky but smooth, smiled at him with her eyes as she lowered her chin.

“I do not think so, great one,” she said. “I am sure I would remember you.”

The dragon chuckled. It sounded like trees falling and echoed through the cavern.

“Yes,” the dragon said. “I’m sure you would, at that.”

He circled around her, staring and sniffing at her flanks, her haunches, and her legs as each of his steps shook the floor. She pushed her breasts out, slightly, against the gown. The dragon paused behind her and she watched the spiked tip of the tail twitch in front of her as she felt the noxious breath move up her spine.

“So,” the dragon continued, “I am sure you know who I am, at least. But you are?”

“I am Kathrina,” she said. Then added, “My lord.”

“Well, Kathrina, and why have you graced my chamber with your lovely form this afternoon?”

She tried to make herself blush, as the courtesans had shown her.

“I am here for you, my lord.”

“For me? Whatever do you mean?”

“Yes, my lord. For…” she paused for effect. The tail flicked before her, curved around the wall. The logistics of the situation suddenly occurred to her.

“Go ahead,” the dragon said.

“For your pleasure,” she said. “If you would only spare my village, great one.”

“Hm. Yes. How noble. I suppose you’re a virgin then. Too bad. I have no real interest in virgins. So dull, really. Perhaps I’ll simply devour you. I so rarely consume human females.”

She cocked a hip, looked over her shoulder at him, and shot the dragon a smoldering glance.

“I am,” she cooed, “not quite so inexperienced as you might think, my lord.”

The dragon’s head whipped around back in front of her, fast enough that it blew the fabric of her gown taut against the back of her legs. His face, so malicious and so close, made her want to scream. The dragon’s fangs arrayed themselves in a smile.

“Oh, really?” he purred. “Do tell.”

“I have been trained, great one, in the arts of the night. These skills, I am told, are sometimes of interest to more discerning dragons?”

The head and the sharp face dipped and weaved through the haze and smoke as the dragon studied her with this new knowledge. She put all of her weight on her back leg and pouted her lips, dipped her chin.

“Do I please you, perhaps just a little, great one?”

“Yes. But still…”

“But what my lord?”

“Something about your scent. Tell me, Kathrina, you are from this piddly little kingdom?”

“Yes my lord. I am from a small village, just beyond the wood. Hammen, it is called.”

“Hammen, eh?”

“Yes my lord.”

The dragon chuckled again. She winced.

“I can’t ever remember the names, you know. They come to me—mages, knights, priests, mayors and elders—decked out for battle or offering bribes. They say the names so proudly: I represent this or that vale or hillock or grotto or league or guild! Then they promise me death or tribute. As if, as if. I often try to recall where exactly they said they had journeyed from after I’ve destroyed them. I never can.”

He laughed again.

“However none of them,” he hissed. “Have been as original as you, Kathrina.”

He paused and looked at her. A steaming red tongue slashed across his scaly lips.

“Let us see if I will remember the name Hammen, shall we?”

With three thundering steps backwards the dragon disappeared into the shadows and mist. Kathrina caught her breath and relaxed slightly from her performance, saw again from the corner of her eye the remains of her brothers’ armor. Then, through the smoke where the dragon had gone, bursts of silver and golden sparks blazed. The sparks outlined the dragon’s form, demarcated his tail and horns and claws with fizzles and little pops of flame. Then there was an explosion of white light, and the sparks reappeared in a roughly humanoid shape. Slowly the sparks dissipated and the darkness and smog returned. She waited.

After a moment a soft, almost human voice emanated, a low groan from the shadows. She watched as the smoke parted and a thin, naked man stepped to her. He had long, fiery red hair and a sharply angled face, skin pale as a pearl, and beautiful golden eyes. Despite herself she found him attractive until he smiled at her and she saw the row of razor-teeth curled behind his thin lips. He stepped to her and touched her cheek with the back of his hand. His fingers were hot. Then he kissed her and steam rose from his lips. His hands were smooth but firm as they slipped the gown from her shoulders.

They made love in the center of the cavern on the stone floor. He was deliberate and attentive, and in the red light his body, however unnatural, was beautiful. Kathrina had expected a rougher, more monstrous experience, but remained focused on her mission. She kissed the dragon repeatedly and deeply, held him close to her, and coaxed him along. She jangled her jewelry and used the tips of her fingers to stroke his flanks, nibbled on his earlobe, and gyrated her strong fighter’s hips. All of the strokes, caresses, and kisses the courtesans had taught her she employed. She lost track of time, was impressed by his stamina. He turned her body about in his strong arms and she let her limbs go slack as he twisted and contorted above, below, and behind her. He held her tightly against him, his breath pouring down her neck like the contents of a hot pot spilled.

At one point he lay stretched out underneath her, his red hair a blaze on the glowing stones. The golden eyes were shut tight and his mouth, smoking slightly as if he held a hot coal under his tongue, was a screwed-up grimace of pleasure. A fine sheen of sweat glistened on his limbs. In Kathrina’s mind combat postures and fighting techniques raced and the possibilities of her situation, her position, seemed too perfect to ignore. She was, she thought, doomed to die one way or another, and preferred to take this last chance at glory than to waste away. In an instant her hands were locked tight around the dragon’s neck.

As she pushed her thumbs down hard against his windpipe she locked her knees against him, shoved all her weight down through the muscles of her arms, and pressed onto the vulnerable throat. She let out a growl that rose into a scream, filling the cavern with a single note of rage. Under her thumbs she could feel the windpipe begin to give. She was amazed at how easy, how simple, the destruction of the great dragon, seemed to be. She howled in triumph.

Then the dragon opened his eyes and she saw the fire flicker there, and as he opened his mouth she saw the teeth. There was no fear on his face and he did not even lift his arms, just sucked in half a breath and let it go. The last thing she felt as the dragon loosed his flames over her body was a heat hotter than anything she had ever imagined. A final scent of burnt hair reached her and then there was nothing.

With an effortless shove the dragon smacked Kathrina’s blasted body off his waist and onto the stones, where her torso, crisped and smoldering, broke into several black chunks. Drips of fire poured over his lips as he morphed, slowly, back into his true shape until again he filled up the cavern with his scales and claws and tail. He exhaled a noxious cloud. Lowering his head to Kathrina’s remains he gobbled most of her body in a series of quick chomps. He noticed something gamy about her flesh, where it was not burned through. He ascribed this to so rarely eating human females. When he was finished he looked at the little pile of ashes and bones that was all that was left of Kathrina. A few filaments of her gown floated through the air like dust.

“A shame,” he said. “You looked so much better than you tasted.”

A few ingots of silver were scattered where her jewelry had melted and he swiped at them with one of his front feet, nonchalantly knocked them towards his treasure piles where they bounced and rolled among the pools of gold and baubles like marbles. A charred legbone lay on the floor and the dragon picked it up in his claws, snapped it in two, and cleaned his teeth with the tip.

* * *

Some days later attending to his toilet the dragon admired himself in the shine of a huge mirror he had fashioned from the armor of a tall knight he had killed carefully, so as not to melt the plates. He turned his head to the left and to the right, admired the ridges of his jaws and flared his nostrils. He extended his wings and checked them for any blemishes, then inspected each claw for cleanliness. He posed in front of the mirror. He narrowed his eyes menacingly and then grinned at himself.

“Dashing,” he hissed. “Simply dashing.”

Putting the mirror down the dragon paused to relieve himself down an empty mineshaft. Neatly he tucked his wings along his spiked back and whipped his tail out straight behind him. Then, as his water began to flow, he felt a sharp, bright pain move through his groin. The pain was more intense than any spearhead or sword that had ever managed to pierce his hide, more consuming than any spell he had been subjected to. In agony he screamed as the mine shaft flooded below.

Panting and feeling raw through his groin he staggered backwards. A sting settled in there and did not fade. Glancing about the cavern as if he might spot an invisible enemy there he spied the splintered legbone he had been using of late as a toothpick, next to scrap of green satin gown coiled on the floor. At first he ignored them, then something in his ancient genius brought him back to them. Brusquely he snatched the bit of gown up on the tip of a claw and sniffed at it carefully and repeatedly. Just barely, veiled by the soaps and perfumes, he made out the scent of the fatal infection left there from Kathrina’s loins.

The dragon howled out in a mad rage that carried up through the tower, across the burned-out plain, over the pine forest, and reached the little village of Hammen, where the farmers’ wives at work in their huts and fields glanced towards the sound first with surprise, then with devious smiles. A few of the men shuddered at the handles of their plows.

RedTower Plain

Illustration by S.C. Watson

 

The Last Guardian of Everness (excerpt)

by John C. Wright

John C. Wright’s book The Last Gaurdian of Everness (Tor Books) can be ordered at Amazon.

 

Chapter One: The Forgotten Wardens of the Dreaming

I.

Upon a midnight in midsummer, in an unchanging ancient house upon the coast, in the year when he was a boy no more and a man not yet, Galen Waylock heard the far-off sound of the sea-bell tolling slowly in his dream.

Galen woke. His eyes were wide with terror and astonishment, and he had clawed the bedsheets to either side of him into sweat-stained knots. The moonlight fell across the bed from the diamond-shaped panes of his bed chamber window. The roof and walls were all dark wood, hidden in shadows. Outside, came the soft and restless crashing of the sea-waves on the cliffs below the house.

The melancholy peal was silent, now: his waking ears heard only earthly noises.

“It hasn’t really happened!” He muttered feverishly to himself. “It hasn’t really, honestly, finally happened! Not after all this time! Not to me!”

If tradition were to be trusted, fifteen centuries and more had passed since the First Warden of the Order fell asleep beneath an oak tree in Glastonbury, mistletoe and ivy growing in his hair, to await the warning voice of that elfin bell echoing, mystical and furtive, across the star-lit waves of oceans only dreamers know.

Galen kicked away the covers and felt around for the lantern.

His fingers brushed it, and he heard it topple, and roll away across the night-stand, to drop to the floor. With a grunt of disgust, he reached down to where his jeans were crumpled on the floorboards, and found the pocket with his electric flashlight in it.

He sat for a moment on the edge of the bed, flashlight gleaming in his right hand, left hand cupped to catch the light. He was staring at a tiny burn-mark in his palm. He sat for a moment, breathing hard, flexing his fingers and wincing at the tiny pain, eyes wide with astonishment.

Then he leaped to his feet, called out.

A moment later, Galen ran breathlessly into the parlor downstairs, where his Grandfather Lemuel sat before the fireplace where two logs crackled, blazing. All along the mantle-piece, a dozen candles were burning. Above the mantle, carved in stone, was a shield bearing the sign of a winged horse rampant above two crossed keys. A motto inscribed below bore the words: “Patience and Faithfulness.”

Across the room, facing the escutcheon, was an old oil painting of a dark-haired, dark-eyed man wearing a black frock and conical black miter. On a chain of office he wore a heavy gold key. In the figure’s lap, an equine ivory skull with a single spiral horn was resting. The painting was done in a stiff, formal style, heavy with shadows.

Grandfather Lemuel stirred and put aside the book in his hand. “Shut off that light. If you must creep at night, use the lantern. Ever since you came back from college, you have become most lax and careless about the Rules of the House.”

Galen snapped off the flashlight and the circle of light at his feet disappeared. Impatiently he said, “Grampa, listen!”

Grandfather Lemuel said heavily, “Your father also never understood why our family lives this way. He never believed, never had faith. A man can be perfectly comfortable without modern plumbing, or electricity.”

Anger interrupted Galen’s urgency. “I wish you wouldn’t talk about him like he was dead! All he did was join the army and move out.”

“It is not I, but higher powers, who account your father’s lack of faith as a treason to our family’s ancient promise. He never believed the time would come…” Grandfather Lemuel’s head drooped, his mouth pursed into a sullen frown.

“Grampa! It’s come!”

Grandfather Lemuel straightened, blinking. “What’s that, boy?”

“I heard the sea-bell.”

“Wh— ?!”

“Just now. This evening. As I stood my watch along the Outward Wall.”

No expression showed on Grandfather Lemuel’s features, but a hard glint of suppressed excitement came into his eye. “We must be cautious. In your dream, did one of the Seven Signs come forth from Vindyamar?”

“I saw a Sign and received a Summons. The image was a sea-bird carrying a lantern.”

Lemuel muttered. “A lantern? Lantern..? Hm. Mm. Rod, Ring, Wand, Bow, Titan, Grail… Horn? Odd. Perhaps a torch could symbolize the titan’s blood, but… a lantern…? A lantern is not one of the Seven…” Then, straightening up, Grandfather Lemuel said to Galen: “How do you know this was a true dream, come through the gate of horn? Did you perform the Three Tests?”

“Flying; Reading; Observing your hands. Grandfather Lemuel, you know I know the tests! I was in the Deep Dreaming. It was a true dream. And I heard the alarm we’ve been waiting for, for all these years. I heard it. I heard the sea-bell.” All this came out in one excited rush of words.

Grandfather Lemuel raised his hands. “We mustn’t be too hasty. In the time of the Third Warden of Everness, Alfcynnig, he thought he heard the alarm ring out, and he called the Unsleeping Champion away from Rome to defend the Tower of Vortigern in Wessex; and this allowed the unguarded city to fall to the Goths of Totila. The Sixty-First Warden, Sylvanius Waylock, called up the Storm-Princes to whelm the Armada for Elizabeth, and we were cursed out of England for that presumption, by the White Coven whose charge we had usurped, and had to move this house, stone by stone, to the New World. When the Seventy-Ninth Warden, my Grandfather Phineas Waylock, heard the sea-bell, he raised the Stones and rendered the High Summons. But the sound was no true call; it was only the tumult of a leviathan tangled in the phantom nets of Vindyamar, whose lashing tail shook the crystal bell-tower, and set the bell to swinging. The Stones of Everness were angered to be roused from slumber for so light a cause, and my Grandfather lost his sight in the struggle to force the stones to quietness again… Had he sent to the Queens for word, his eyes might have been spared…”

Galen drew himself up, and, young though he was, now he spoke with snap of authority in his voice, not unlike that in his Grandfather’s. Their expressions were the same. “Grandfather! I know the difference between petty dreaming and true. I know them as well or better than you. The dream-colt comes every time I’ve called her, every time! And I’ve called her more than three. And I know the true sound of the sea-bell. I’ve heard it this night on the sea.”

Grandfather Lemuel did not look displeased, but neither did he smile. Perhaps he welcomed a show of spine from this young man. Nonetheless, his voice was cold. “That may be. But the reins have not yet slipped from my hands. You are not the Guardian of Everness yet, no matter what your talents.”

“Grandfather, I heard the sea-bell. The time is come. The time to blow the Last Horn-Call is at hand.”

Now Grandfather Lemuel did smile, but it was a sad, weary smile. “Patience and faithfulness are the virtues mortal men must practice when they stand watch against immortal foes. Galen, every single one of us, all the way back to the Founder, we have all thought, or hoped, or feared, that the Time of the Horn was at hand. But it never was. A lifetime of waiting seems too much to bear, when you’re so young, doesn’t it?”

Galen started to speak again, but Lemuel held up his hand: “Patience! We will do everything in due order, but only if (and I said ‘if’!) this latest alarm turns out to be the Sign for which we have all been waiting, all these long and weary years. There have been so very many false alarms before.”

Galen’s demeanor shrank, and boyish uncertainty once showed in his face. “OK. So now what? What do we do now? The old warrant papers say we’re suppose to warn the King or the royal governor at New Amsterdam. So where the heck does that leave us? Am I supposed to call the President? We don’t even have a damn phone in this moldy old museum!” In frustration, Galen struck the wall beside the door with the side of his fist.

“First,” said Grandfather Lemuel calmly. “You will sit down. Here, opposite me. Then you will recount all the particulars of the dream in detail. Don’t slouch.”

“I heard the bell from beneath the sea. Something’s coming. It’s going to try to rise up through the Mist.”

“In what part of the house were you?”

Galen turned and stared into the fire. A haunted, deep look came into his eyes. “Outside, along the wall overlooking the sea, where we always stand. The dream version is bigger, of course, and the huge blocks of stone glisten in the moonlight.”

“How were you dressed? In modern garb?”

“I don’t recall…”

“It may be important. You know the dream-things know no modern forms. If you have trouble remembering, recite the first exercise in your mind. Picture the circle of time. Say the key to yourself. Raise the Tower and build the mansion…”

Galen closed his eyes…

II.

He dreamt he stood upon a wall of thick black rock, wet with spray, and he wore a coat of silver mail and carried a tall spear tipped with a glint of starlight. In the black, wide sea below him, he dreamt he saw a cavalcade of sunken horsemen, armed and armored in mother-of-pearl. These dimly-lit shapes passed silently from the deep sea toward the shore, and the hair of their steeds floated green in the water as they came. The mouths of the drowned knights were open as if they were singing, though no sound rose above the waves, and from their mouths floated clouds of blood.

To the left and right of the cavalcade, slippery black forms, sleek and playful, darted through the gloomy deep, and smiled with white teeth, as starlight shined from their black eyes.

Far, far to the rear, enormous shadows in the moonlight loomed. With black ocean-froth churning at their knees, and tumbled storm-cloud parting at their shoulders, taller than any creature of the world, strode giants.

The night sky above was torn with flying banners of silver-edged black clouds, rushing in the storm winds. The whole sky seemed to ring and tremble with the echoes of the great bell, tolling, tolling…

Black as a scrap of midnight storm-cloud, a seagull black as pitch whirled down from dark heaven. In his claws he carried a lantern of the elfs, burning like a small star.

A voice like a man’s voice came from the black seagull: “By token of this light I bear, know ye, Lemuel, Guardian of Everness, Last Guardian to be, I am come from He whose name we speak no more, who founded your order, whose blood and title and oath you bear. I summon you beyond the world’s edge, to Tirion, to Wailing Blood, for there are secrets touching the Emperor of Night, our ancient and undying foe, which you must know before the Towers of Acheron rise from the sea. Do not go to Vindyamar, nor elsewhere, but come at once at mine command.”

And he dropped the light from its claws to Galen. It plunged like a falling star, and the flame was silver, and did not move, or breathe, or flicker, even as the lantern spun and fell. Galen tried to catch the lantern but it burnt his palm, and fell from his fingers, so that the light was lost.

Below, with a roar of several voices, shining knights drenched in filth, and dark, smiling shapes rose from the sea. Giant forms with eyes like lamps came behind them, with arms as tall as towers, sea-water flooding from them, reached for the stones at the base of the wall…

And the warning bell tolled on and on…

III.

There was a small old book, sent to him as a present from his Grandfather Lemuel’s library, which Galen had begun to read as a child. It was made of hand-tooled leather, with a symbol of winged horses dancing on crossed keys on the cover. Galen remembered a poem was inscribed on a page illustrated with interlocking figures of fairies and mermaids, one-eyed giants, and winged horses. The old letters had faded with time, and the first letter of the poem was so decorated with curlicues that young Galen could hardly decide which letter it was supposed to be.

Ware the toll of a single ring
Night-mare her single rider will bring
Woe if twice the great bell tolls
For fire-giants and fell frost trolls
Storm-princes rise at the sound of three
The fourth ring brings the plague Kelpie
Five for Selkie, Six for Hate
Seven for Doom, Death for Eight
And if the toll sounds nine withal
Wake the Sleepers; Nine worlds fall.

If there were more to the old poem, Galen never found out.

When his father came upon Galen reading the book in secret, under the covers with his Boyscout flashlight, Galen’s father ripped the book out of his hands, beat him till tears quieted his loud protests, and took the book away. Presumably, to the trashcan.

IV.

“How many times did the sea-bell toll?” asked Grandfather Lemuel gently.

Galen’s eyes snapped open. “Many times.”

“More than nine?”

“Grampa, it was all night long. The bell was ringing continuously.” Galen’s eyes were troubled. He looked around the parlor, as if for support. High roof-beams; thick walls of oak; a floor of fitted stones, covered with oriental carpets, handwoven, faded. To one side stood tall French doors, open, admitting the smell of sea-brine. The murmur of the waves against the cliff below hung like a backdrop behind the other noises of the night.

Outside, beyond the weeds of the overgrown gardens, Galen could see the tumbled stones and cracks of the little wall overlooking the bay. It was, of course, much smaller in real life, and overgrown with moss. Galen suddenly felt the urge to do the repair work Grampa was always on him about.

“Gramps,” said Galen. “I think I might be scared. What do we do?”

Grandfather Lemuel took out an old pipe, and stood up, reaching for his tobacco pouch atop the mantel-piece. “Think, eh? I know I am. But a little fear is like wind in the flowers, you know? The flowers bow for a time. The wind passes. The flowers straighten up again.”

“This is no time for your little sayings. Shouldn’t we be doing something?” Galen knew the old man wanted him to leave. He knew Gramps knew he couldn’t stand the smell of tobacco. Galen rose reluctantly to his feet.

Grandfather Lemuel smiled calmly. “First thing; you go back to bed. I will go to the Chamber of Dreaming to sleep. Tonight I will dream of Vindyamar. I will dream of the Three Fair Queens whose charge is to guard the Great Bell, even as we are charged to guard the Horn, and discover if it rang for a true cause. There was something strange about the sign you saw.”

Galen said in a sullen voice, “You don’t believe me. But look at this…”

And held up his left hand. There was a tiny blister in the palm, a burn. “We were summoned to Tirion. Here is the mark of the star-lantern I touched. The Founder is in Tirion.”

Lemuel looked carefully at the mark in the young man’s palm. He took a candle from the mantelpiece, and held it closely, peering. Even thought the air was still in the room, the candle-flame flickered.

Lemuel nodded slowly. “Its magic. Only the Blood of Everness can reach across the barriers like that, and allow a dream-flame to create a waking burn. Whatever else was in that dream, the Raven came from the Founder, sure enough.” He straightened up and shook his head. “But that doesn’t change a thing, boy. We do not answer each and any summons which come to us out from the night-world.”

“But Grandfather…!”

Grandfather Lemuel’s look of amusement died. “We don’t follow voices out of the night-world. That black sea-bird could have been a selkie wearing a gull-skin. And yes, that lantern you touched was the Founder’s handicraft, no doubt. So what?”

“So! The Founder called me to Tirion.”

“No. He called me. And I’m not going. And the Founder does not live in Tirion; he is beyond the rim of the world, hanging in the darkness, in a cage. He betrayed his oath.” Lemuel pointed with his pipe-stem at the motto inscribed in stone above the mantle. “Maybe he was unfaithful. But maybe he was only impatient.”

Galen understood the hint, reluctantly he turned to go.

But then at the door he turned again, a young and rebellious spirit in his eyes:

“Where is the Horn, Grandfather Lemuel? Don’t you think it is time I knew?”

“Patience. Its not time for you to know.”

“What if you don’t come back? Who will be left to blow the Horn?”

“You are not the Guardian yet. Now you go back to sleep. But do not answer the summons of the black sea-bird. Do not dream about Tirion. Recite the lesser key, and go through the gate of lesser dreaming to some nice visions. Cockaygne, perhaps? Luilekkerland? Schlarraffenland?”

Galen straightened. Wounded pride was clear on his face. “Schlarraffenland? That place is for kids! Grandfather Lemuel, I’ve have been places no other Guardian has ever dreamed. I have seen the trees of Arcadia and the groves that grow in the shadow of the Darkest Tower, I have tread the peaks of Zimiamvia and tasted from the ever-falling waters of Utterbol whose fountains are by the sea! I am the greatest dreamer this family has ever produced, and you know it! I am not afraid of the shadows of the dead. I can go to Tirion and return safely. The summons came to me!”

Not without kindness, Grandfather Lemuel said, “You are talented. But, all boasting aside, you are still very young, Galen. And you know that fairy-tales depict the rules in the dreaming the same way science describes our rules here. And no hero in any fairy-tale ever ignored his Grandfather’s warning and escaped unpunished. Do not go to Tirion. Do not go to speak to the Founder. Is that clear?”

And he lit his pipe with candle he held.

Galen retreated to the door, defiantly snapped on the flashlight, and clomped away upstairs, muttering.

Grandfather Lemuel’s smile faded as soon as Galen was out of the room. “A long flight tomorrow night…” he whispered. He stared up at the carved image of the winged horse. “And a dangerous one. Will the dream-colt come for me, this time, now that the bell has tolled? Vindyamar tonight. But where tomorrow..?”

His gaze crossed the room to look at the painting of the stern-eyed man who held the skull. “Will you talk to me this time, old friend? And let me go again? Its so cold beyond the world’s edge, and I am so old…”

He tamped out his pipe against the mantelpiece. He was not in the mood for a smoke after all. His thoughts were somber. “Suppose you do not let me back through the mist to the sunlight this time? If I don’t wake up, who is left? One frightened boy?”

V.

Galen, who had made a deal of noise clattering up the stairs, knew his Grandfather Lemuel’s habit of talking to himself, and had crept quickly and quietly downstairs again, flashlight extinguished. He was crouched in the hall beside the parlor door; and was in time to hear his Grandfather Lemuel’s last comment.

Later, laying awake in bed, and watching the play of the shadows of branches in the moonlight above his bed, Galen came to a stern resolution.

“The first of the watchers is still being punished for his dereliction of duty,” Galen thought to himself. “But Gramps still goes to talk to him. He risks it. It put him in a coma when I was in sixth grade. I remember that’s what the doctors called it. A coma.” He grunted to himself. Contempt was all he felt for modern doctors.

“The First Watcher’s summons came to me. Me. The dream-colts come every time I call, but they have only come three times for Grampa. He might not even be able to get to Tirion.

“And if I go tonight, and brave the danger myself, he won’t need to go tomorrow.”

In his mind’s eye, he drew the circle to build the Tower of Time his Grandfather Lemuel had taught him how to keep in his mind. He inscribed the four wings, placing a different phase of the moon in each, a different element, and a different season. About it, he erected statues and symbols, gardens and arbors, walkways and walls, each with its own name and hidden meaning. In a few moments the imaginary mansion was as real around him as the mansion he slept in. He whispered the Second Secret Name of Morpheus, and stepped into that mansion, rose from the body on the bed on which he slept there, and walked out the doorway which represented today’s phase and season.

In an imaginary garden pagoda, a torch made of narthex reeds held up a light of pure white fire. An imaginary vulture on a stand was gnawing a driblet of red liver. One arch of the pagoda led to stairs which climbed up to the huge black sea-wall to the East. Inscribed on the pagoda walls to either side of this arch, in letters of silver, burned the words of the spell to call a dream-colt from the deeper dreaming.

He looked at the words, wondering whether to speak them or not. Even now, he was still only half-asleep: he could feel the heaviness in his limbs, dimly sense the pillows and bed sheets around him, like a little mountainous country-side of folds and wrinkles. Grandfather Lemuel had taught him never to call even a lesser power of the night without someone standing by to wake him up in case of trouble.

And a dream-colt was not one of the lesser powers.

“Gramps will notice in the morning if I’m not back by then,” Galen tried to tell himself.

He had one last thought before he drifted off to sleep, forgot his slumbering body, and entered fully into the dream:

“I’m not a frightened boy.”

Chapter Two: A life for a life

I.

A husband and wife sat in the sunlight. He sat on the bed and held her hands in his. She sat back on the pillows, eyes bright and cheerful as always. He was a big, burly man with thick black eyebrows and a forked black beard.

Where he was large and bulky, she was small and graceful, and her face was always in motion, now smiling, now blinking, now pouting thoughtfully, now glancing back and forth with a curious gaze.

“I’m so sad!” She was exclaiming cheerfully. Her voice was as bright as a bubbling stream, and those who heard it felt refreshed.

“Aha. And what makes her sad, my little wife, eh?” He tried to smile, but there was an undercurrent of sorrow in his deep voice. He had a thick Russian accent.

“All the stories seem to be going out of the world. Drying up!” She held up her hands, fingers spread, and shrugged, as if to indicate a mysterious vanishment. “No one listens to them, or tells them any more. They just watch TV. My Daddy calls it the ‘Boob tube’. I don’t know if that’s because of shows like Baywatch or if only boobies watch it. Except sometime mothers read books to their children to sleep.” She sighed, and suddenly looked very sleepy herself. Her eyelids drooped. Like a light going out, all the animation seemed to leave her face.

He leaned forward, his face blank with fear, and touched her forehead with the back of his hand. “Wendy?” He whispered.

Wendy’s eyes opened. “Tell me a story,” she said.

“I am not good with the stories, my wife. I only know the one of my father, and that one I told to you long ago, when we were engaged. The night on the lake, you remember, eh?”

She sighed and snuggled down into the pillows more deeply. “I said I’d marry you because you were the only man I ever met who was in a fairytale story. It was such a good idea! I’m so glad I thought of it.”

“You thought..? It was I who asked you, my wife.”

“Yes, well, and a long time you were getting around to it, too!” She laughed in delight, and then said, “Tell it to me again!”

“Well. Father lived in the Caucasus mountains and hated the Russian government men with a deep hatred…”

“No, no, no! That’s not right! It starts with, ‘I am Var Varovitch, which means Raven the Son of Raven in your language. This is the story of how I came by this name’. “

“Hah! Who is telling this story, you or I? Now be quiet and let me talk to you. I am Var Varovitch. In your language I am called Raven, the son of Raven. This is the story of how I came by this name.”

“Almost right,” she allowed. “The next part goes, ‘My father had climbed throughout all the mountains, in places even the goats did not go, and such was his fame as a trapper and trails man, that…’ “

“Quiet, now. When the government people wanted a guide, they came to my father and offered him their paper rubles, which were worthless, for they had no gold to back them, and a government order from the Georgia S.S.R. apparatchik, which was also worthless, but which had the guns and soldiers from the Tbilisi garrison to back them. For himself, he had no fear. But for me, he had fear. For I had taken my mother’s life when I came into this world, and there were no doctors to save her, for she was Georgian, not Russian, and had no friends in the capitol to have a doctor assigned by the government. And I was but a babe in the crib at this time, and had never seen the green grass, since I was born in the winter and the spring had not yet come.”

“I love that part.”

“Quiet. Father feared they might burn the village if he refused to take the expedition up the slopes of Mount Kazbek. He knew the place where they wished to go, even though it was not the place shown on any of their maps. But he asked them why they could not wait till spring? Did they not recall how the Russian winter had destroyed the invasion of Hitler’s armies less than a handful of years ago? But no, they must go to the spot where it said on their maps. The scientist there in charge of the expedition said they must go, since the glory of the Soviet peoples commanded it, and only a traitor would cause delay.

“Well, father said he could not leave his little baby with no mother, since he had only the milk to drink of wild she-wolves father caught in the snow…”

“That’s you! I bet you were cute. But you forgot a part. ‘The winter was so bitter that winter that the cows gave ice, and the bird song froze in the air, and it was not until spring thawed the notes free that all the birdsong sprang up over the green earth…’ “

“No, that is from different story. So, now. The expedition had been traveling for many days, blinded by snow, on short rations…”

“Wait. The government scientist made your father take you with him. You were bundled up on his back in a wrapper of wolfskin.”

“Yes, that too.”

“And you forgot about the part where they all laughed at him for carrying a bow and arrows when they had guns, and then later their guns froze.”

“That part is coming. Where was I? There was nothing in the sky but one black vulture, and all about them ice crags and chasms of the mountains. Father pointed at the black vulture…”

“You forgot something.”

“Yes, yes. The-stupid-scientist-thought-they-were-lost-and-the-soldier-sthreatened-to-kill-father. OK? OK! Listen: Father pointed at the black vulture and said they need but follow the bird to find what, in the midst of the empty mountains, that bird found to eat.

“He led them to where there was a naked man chained to the mountain, a man so tall that he was taller than the steeple of a church. He was chained with chains of black iron, and frost clung to his chains, and red icicles spread like a fan from the great wound in his side, all down along the bloodstained cliff where he was chained. His face was calm and grave, like the face of the statue of a king; but all full of suffering, like the face of a saint in an icon.

” ‘What do you see?’ asked my father. For he knew the Russian men were not like those of us from Georgia, and cannot see what is right before their faces.

” ‘I see ice,’ said one soldier.

” ‘I see rock,’ said another soldier.

” ‘What do you hear?’ asked my father.

” ‘I hear nothing but the wind,’ said one soldier.

” ‘I hear your brat squalling!’ said another soldier.

“But the scientist looked up, and said, ‘I hear a great deep voice, asking us to shoot the vulture which torments him.’

“But the soldier’s guns had frozen, and could not shoot the great black vulture.”

Wendy chimed in happily, “But your father shot him with the bow!”

Raven nodded. “Exactly right. Down and down the great bird plunged, and the great voice told my father that, even though the bird would live again as soon as the sun came up, for that day, the torture had been stopped. And because he had done this thing, he could ask for any wisdom in the world.”

Wendy said, “But the scientist made him ask…”

“Yes, yes. The scientist made my Father talk to the titan. ‘The Americans have a bomb which they have made from splitting the atom. This is a fire too dangerous for mortals to control, unless it is the Supreme Soviet.’ This is what the scientist made him say.”

“And about the rockets.”

“Yes. ‘The Americans have taken the German rocket scientists from Peenamunde. And they will learn a secret of the fires of heaven, which is how to launch a great missile, greater than the V-1 and V-2 rockets. We must launch a satellite before the Americans, to show the glory of Soviet science to the world. Our great leader Stalin has commanded this thing.’ “

Raven paused. “You are not too tired for this story? It is almost time when time is up.” He looked at his watch and frowned.

“What happened next?”

“The giant looked down at Father with wise and sad eyes, and said, ‘Son of the mountains, I will tell these men who have enslaved you all you ask of me. And yet in my heart I hate all slavery, for man was not created to be a servant. You know this is true. Creatures made for servitude, cattle and sheep, who crawl with their faces forever in the ground, they do not yearn for liberty; only mankind. I will tell you a secret thing unknown to all others, upon your promise never to tell anyone, not even your own son. For there is a way out of these mountains, across to the other side, past all the patrols, over the walls and past the guard posts, into the lands of freedom to the west. I will tell you this way, if you will promise instantly to take it, and go.’

” ‘What must I give you in return, eldest grandfather?’ asked my father.

” ‘To be free, you must give up all fear. Neither you nor your son shall ever know fear again. To begin life anew, you must give up your old name. You may call yourself Raven, for he is a wise bird, and he knows the boundaries between life and death; and if any ask you how you climbed down the impassible mountains, or escaped past the guards and fences, you may tell them you flew as a Raven.’

“And that is all my father told me of how we came to this country when I was a boy, and I never learned the truth of it, though I know he would not tell a child the names of those who had helped smuggle him out, and that only secrecy would keep the way open for others. All he would say is that he flew like a Raven, away from a land filled with death and corpses.”

II.

Raven was silent a moment, and took his wife’s hands in his. “And then I came and fell in love with you, my beautiful strange little Wendy…”

III.

At that moment, the nurse came in to give Wendy her medications, and Wendy would not speak about a dream or tell a secret story in front of a stranger. The nurse also gently reminded Raven that visiting hours were over, and that the other patients in the terminally ill ward might be disturbed, even if the door was shut, by his voice.

Wendy was made sleepy by the medicines. “I remember all sorts of weird things that I forgot from before,” she said. “And such funny dreams!”

Raven leaned forward to kiss her goodbye, but whispered. “I will sneak back in tonight by the loose window I found. They cannot keep me from you, my little one…”

“Don’t be sad,” she said softly back. “I can feel I might be going to a better place. I can see it in my mind some times, when I’m half asleep, like a light, filled up with warmth. If I can stand it, you should be able to, you big man, you. And stop worrying! You’ll make me worry if you do…”

And Raven fiercely hugged her, afraid to take his face away from her cheek, since he was ashamed to let her see his sudden tears.