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The Mule Wrangler

Lochsa River

 

Avery’s first sight of Arabella Blair stayed with him long after she had gone out of his life forever. A small figure on a huge blood bay horse leading a string of a dozen mules emerged from the deep shadows of the Idaho forest and headed down the dusty road towards the Ranger Station. In the bright sunlight, the gray Stetson cast those incredible gray eyes in deep shadow. The battered hat – an ancient relic from a bygone day – was not standard Forest Service issue nor were the cowboy boots. Whatever her job description, it did not entail a lot of public meet-and-greet, apparently.

A second rider emerged at the tail of the string of mules. Male. Older, with a belly that spilled over his belt buckle, mounted on a rough-boned buckskin. The reports had not mentioned a partner. Tired of waiting and anxious to get this interview over with so he could go back home to Seattle, Avery stepped off the porch of the station office and walked down the road to meet them. The bay took exception to his presence and danced away from him. Avery scowled at the high strung beast, suddenly remembering his hatred for all things horse.

Arabella did not curse the horse nor him. Instead she ignored him, moving with the horse, sitting in the saddle like she had been born there, waiting patiently for it to settle. Taking its cue from its rider, the horse calmed and kept on walking, but it laid its ears back as it neared Avery, as if to tell him just where he stood in the herd ranking. Avery understood. He was a stranger standing between the bay and its stable. Nostrils flared wide, the horse glared at him as it passed by. Avery shuddered. He knew that look. The beast was deciding whether to stomp him to death or not.

The girl said something. The bay heaved a frustrated sigh and shook his head, not wanting to heed her advice. She made a soft clicking sound. The bay snorted, lifted its head, and dance on by.

Danger averted, Avery let his breath out slowly, trying to ease the tension in his body. That relief only lasted a second. What he saw on her saddle reminded him that he should not be letting his guard down around these people.

A large caliber rifle in a scabbard was tied to the skirt of the saddle. Her armament did not end there. A sheathed commando knife was strapped to her thigh and the odd lumps under her loose Forest Service wind-breaker might have included a radio and a canteen but Avery thought one of them was suspiciously hand-gun shaped. He had been a metropolitan cop for so long he had forgotten how pervasive guns were out in the wild parts of the world.

The string passed the office and headed around the side to the corrals. The staff in the office came out to watch from the shade of the porch. John Jankowski, the District Ranger and Avery’s host, came out and spotted Avery. The Ranger cleared his throat.

Avery glanced back at him. This was his station and Avery was here under the man’s sufferance. Avery had been told not to “piss him off.”

“She is like her horse. You gotta approach her slowly with your hands where she can see them,” Jankowski suggested. Avery nodded. The other men tried to hide their smiles. The advice was code for something. They weren’t going to tell him what that meant, but they were going to be entertained when he crashed and burned trying to climb into this woman’s head. Was this some sort of initiation right for the big-city boys – toss them at the prickly horse woman and watch him get eviscerated? Avery refused to get angry. Turning, he followed the mule train. Her partner, a big-boned man with gray hair, rode by. “Ye might wanna stand off to the side a bit until we get the mules into the corral,” he suggested dryly.

Avery nodded and stepped off onto the grassy verge. The smell of horse sweat brought back memories of the summer spent on his grandfather’s cattle ranch in Texas when he was nine. His father’s father had been an old man even back then, his tongue sharp, his patience for the habits of his city-bred grandson non-existent. He loved his horses more than his kin, was the way Avery remembered it. Avery was never quite sure why his gee-pa had agreed to foster him that summer. His parent’s marriage must have been on the rocks even back then. He remembered clearly that all horses hated him, maybe because they sensed his own antipathy for anything weighing half a ton that liked to nip at little boys ears and step on his toes when he wasn’t paying attention.

At the corral gate, the girl nudged the bay forward, stopping it at the gatepost. She didn’t dismount. Instead she hung off the saddle, one hand around the saddle horn, while the other hand shifted the loop that kept the gate closed. The bay planted his feet and glared at Avery in challenge. Was that his imagination, giving the stupid beast a human emotion? No, horses were evil incarnate put on earth to torment the unwary. Avery could see the devil inside this one, willing to take on the world for this girl.

Arabella clicked her tongue again and the horse backed away from the gate as she heaved it outward, still hanging off the edge of the saddle. The well-balanced gate swung open, barely missing the legs of the bay. It was a trick move. Both rider and horse needed to read each other’s minds to pull it off. The mules were already crowding to get in. Some laid back their ears and jostled for position in the line. The man on the buckskin yelled a command while nudging the mules in with his mount.

Avery caught the gate as it tried to pin him against the side of the corral.

“You Arabella Blair? I’m special agent ….” She cut him off mid-sentence.

“People call me Bell. You wanna close the gate behind me?”

“Uh, sure.” Avery said. Was she mad at him or just naturally taciturn? The old man on the buckskin followed the mule train into the corral, the bay surging forward to follow. Avery came in last, closing the gate behind him.

Bell kicked her toes out of the stirrups, threw her leg over the saddle horn, slid to the ground, and dropped the reins. Ground hitched, his gee-pa had called it. The horse would not move again until she picked them up. Avery opened his mouth to introduce himself again but she walked around him and headed for the mules.

The old man dismounted and watched her, a quizzical look on his face. Then he shrugged and held out his hand to Avery. “Hi. I am Deek Gundersen. Head wrangler for this station.”

Avery shook his hand. “Avery Harris. Special Agent. FBI.”

“Yeah. We were told to expect you,” Deek said.

“Did my office get the date wrong?

“Eh?”

“I came up two days ago. They said you were almost down the mountain so I decided to wait instead of driving all the way back to Missoula. All the rooms down at the Lodge were let so your boss put me up in the bunkhouse with the crews.”

“You were lucky there was a bed available. We are fully staffed this time of the year. Crew bunkhouses ain’t bad. Sheets are clean at least and Macy, in the cookhouse, puts on a mean spread. Though, this late in the season, the kids have gotten to know each other so it can get a bit rowdy in some of the cabins. Jankowski must’a told you we were doing a supply run to the fire towers. My people get anxious when we don’t show up on time. Comes from being alone for months on end.”

“I am here to investigate the murders,” Avery said pointedly, thinking that his business should have superseded anything else. If Avery was expecting some sort of apology he did not get it.

Deek shrugged. “It’s been two months. Those kids aren’t getting any deader one way or t’other.”

Avery, nonplussed by the strange response, was temporarily speechless. Deek grunted and returned to the mules.

Bell and the old man began unpacking. It was a long involved process because the mules’ rigs came in five parts – four panniers strapped to an x-post saddle. The mules stood calmly while the packs were taken away and the saddles thrown over the top of the corral railing. Freed, the animals went looking for a perfect puddle of dust to roll in. Avery backed up against the railings to avoid the flailing hooves.

The men on the porch came around the corner and let themselves into the corral. Soon, all five of them were tending to the mules. Even Jankowski came down to help. The tall Ranger said something to Bell. She looked back at Avery, and then shrugged. The Ranger said something else and she scowled, stopped what she was doing, and headed towards Avery.

He stepped towards her, but she ignored him once more. Instead, she returned to her horse and picked up the reins. Meeting his eyes for the first time, she studied him. Those odd gray eyes dominated her face – that and the freckles. She spent a lot of time in the sun. The deep tan faded at her chin and turned into a storm of freckles on porcelain pale skin. Two burnished copper braids rested on her shoulders. Avery found himself wondering what that hair would look like loose and draped across a pillow. All she lacked for being classically Irish was a Shetland sweater.

“My name is Special A ….”

“I can’t keep this boy standing for too long. If you want to talk, come on then.”

Avery scowled at her as she turned and walked towards the barn doors. The bay followed so close his nose was almost tucked up under her arm.

It was cool and dark inside the barn. A handful of horses stuck their heads out over their stall gates and whickered a greeting. Bell draped the bay’s reins loosely through an iron ring and then relieved the horse of its saddle. She hung her battered Stetson on a nail by the door and slipped out of the wind-breaker, tossing it over a stall door, revealing the things on her belt – a snub-nosed thirty-eight, a satellite phone, and a canteen. The rifle and the knife got stowed in a locked gun-safe. She kept the key on a chain around her neck.

Avery studied the knife. The hilt was tantalizingly familiar. His fingers wanted to slide it out of its sheath to confirm his suspicions. The phone went into an array of chargers on the back of a work bench. The 38 and the leather pouch for the extra clip went into its own locked box inside the gun safe. The canteen was tossed into a box full of random camping gear.

“You don’t like the 9 mil that all the other Rangers carry?”

“I don’t deal with humans much.”

Avery blinked and tried to wrap his head around what she meant by that.

“Your guns are not for humans? What do you use them for?” Avery asked.

“The rifle is for grizzlies. You usually see them coming from a distance and have time to draw and shoot to warn them off. The pistol is for the cougars. You never see those bastards until they are on top of you. The 38 makes a loud bang. The noise is usually all it takes to make them think twice about eating one of my mules.”

“And the knife? Is that standard Forest Service issue?”

She eyed him sourly. “Present from Deek when I got this job.”

“Seems overkill. What do you use it for?”

She heard the accusation in his voice and looked up from locking the gun safe. There was a frown on her face.

“You never been hunting, have you?” she asked. She did not wait for his answer. Grabbing the reins of the bay, she led him into a stall. There she switched out the bridle for a soft, cotton halter. Making sure the horse had plenty of fresh hay and a good portion of grain, she went in search of curry combs. Avery followed her around, watching as she took care of her mount. She reminded him of his gee-pa, for some reason. Maybe it was the way she didn’t have to talk to the horse to get it to do what she wanted.

“So. You obviously are a hunter,” Avery said. “The three boys died – not from the gunshot wounds but from the slice across the throat with a Seal combat knife a lot like yours. Is that what a hunter would do?”

“They are a popular knife. A good tool when you are rough camping.”

“You ever kill something with your knife?”

Bell sighed in exasperation. She stopped what she was doing.

“Look. Only a fool walks up on a kill that is still half-alive. You risk getting an antler through the guts. You don’t drain the body until after the heart stops beating. On the other hand, it is how you butcher hogs,” Bell said, brushing the dust out of the bays coat. The bay was busy eating but did not seem to mind.

“What is?”

“Pigs. You string em up by their hind feet while they are still alive and cut their throats, catching all that blood in a basin so’s you can make blood sausage. They bleed out and the meat comes out clean and pale.”

The cavalier way she talked about killing disturbed him. It made his cop instincts tingle. Then he caught a smile on her face as she turned away. Was she messing with him?

“You ever butcher a hog?” Avery asked.

“Naw. It’s a filthy business, raising pigs. I prefer my bacon the old fashioned way, from a store, wrapped in plastic.” She did not hide her amusement at her own joke. Avery raised an eyebrow, intrigued by the way the smile changed her face.

“Was the bear killed that way?”

“The assholes gut shot it. Stupid. Careless. It ran for a mile before it turned around and challenged them. They shot it in the head. Don’t know what shape the bile duct was in by the time they cut it open to harvest its innards but it couldn’t have been good. I think they took Christy to make up for the loss in profits.”

“You don’t think they took her for their own pleasure?”

“They didn’t rape her. They had all the time in the world but nobody touched her. At least not while they were up on the mountain.”

“And you know this how?”

“I was first on the scene. Got there before the sheriff’s boys trampled all over the sign. Followed the tracks back to the pull-out where they had their vehicle parked. She still had her boots on when they put her in their truck.”

“Boots?” Avery smiled, shaking his head. “You can tell all this from boot prints?”

“She wore Whites.”

Avery looked confused.

“Logging boots. Steel-toed high-top lace-ups with high-heeled vibrum soles made for walking on the wet bark of newly felled trees. All the university Forestry majors wear them. Combine that with a pair of tight jeans and you got a pretty good chastity belt. Nobody has sex wearing Whites. Trust me, I’ve tried. By the time you get the boots off, you’ve forgotten why you were trying to undress in the middle of the woods in the first place.”

Avery blinked. Bell liked to shock people, it seemed. It left them off-guard. Avery refused to play her game. “They might have just bent her over a log and taken her from behind,” he suggested crudely.

“The sign for that just never showed up anywhere. Maybe killing three kids spooked them. They knew how much noise all that gunfire had made. The district is full of tourists this time of year. And somebody would come looking for the crew when they didn’t come home. They had to get off the mountain, down the road, and out of there as fast as possible.”

“Which road?” Avery asked, trying to remember the map in the reports.

“The one you drove up to the Ranger Station on. It is the only road that leads up to that spot.”

“Christ. These people killed three boys, kidnapped a girl, and then drove right past the station? Did no one notice? I … Why was that not in the reports? Did the sheriff’s people not ask about seeing any strange vehicles drive past the Station?”

“It’s tourist season. The Lodge out by the highway has been booked solid since January. Them and everyone who comes down the highway from Missoula or Kooskia stop here to take a break. Most everyone drives at least as far as the bridge to go see the river. After a while, you just never look up when the cars drive by the station.”

Avery shook his head. “To see a river?”

“The Lochsa River. Wild and Scenic, as the brochures say. Protected by federal law. Part of the reason this station is here,” she explained patiently.

“Yes, but still. What kind of numbers are we talking about? Five? Ten cars a day? Somebody had to have noticed something,”

“But we didn’t, which means they were not out of place,” Bell said. “The vehicle would have been something a local would drive out into the woods and the plates would have been local.”

“Jesus Christ, that is a big help,” Avery said, unable to hide the sarcasm in his voice. “Missoula is in in Montana and Kooskia is in Washington. This station is in Idaho and nobody lives here. Even the Idaho plates are not local. Your state capitol is 500 miles away down a long, winding two lane highway. Everyone is traveling here from somewhere else.”

“Like I said. Local and not out-of-place.”

Avery ran his fingers through his hair and tried to get back on track. “So. We have a bunch of poachers,”

“Two,” Bell said. “Two distinct footprints.”

“Goddammit,” breathed Avery. It was dawning on him that she had been the source of the highly technical and detailed report submitted by the county sheriff’s office. “The photos in my report. The tire prints and the boot prints. That was your doing, wasn’t it?”

“I borrowed Sheriff Yellow Wolf’s camera and took the photos for him. But the spoor was already a day old and disappearing fast.”

“Why not use your cell phone to take pictures? I see no record of you releasing your phone to the investigators.”

She laughed. “We are in the middle of a mountain range. Cell phones with their handy cameras just don’t work up here. Everybody leaves there phones in their bunks for when they go back into the world. It was already 16 hours after the fact when the cops showed up and another 24 hours after that before the forensic team showed up. The trail had gone cold by then.”

“But you were right there. Nosing around the crime scene. How did you get there first?”

Bell patted the bay and put the combs away. “Come on outside.”

Avery followed her out into the corral. The mules all had feedbags on their noses. Bell crossed to one of the mules and scratched behind its ear. “This is one of the Head sisters. Her name is Knot. I have been working with her all summer. Despite her name she is the most tractable of the mules.”

“Name?” Avery was hopelessly lost.

“Deek named them. This is Knot Head. That one is Block Head. That’s Knuckle Head. The Head sisters.” Bell smiled.

Avery glared at her, now truly lost. “What does a mule have to do with this?”

“Knot will do just about anything I ask her to do. She is fearless and thinks she is part goat. So when I asked her to take me across the river, she didn’t hesitate.”

Avery closed his eyes and then looked up over the top of the corral railing. The Lochsa River ran by the compound, not 100 feet from where they were standings. It was a hundred feet from bank to bank and full of rushing water. “OK. Explain it to me like I am a city boy.”

Bell smiled and pointed at the road running up from the highway. “That is the road to the bridge. The bridge is 10 miles in that direction.” She pointed up river. “Wick’s crew was across the river, surveying in a logging road, over there.” She pointed directly across the river. “To get there you have to go up to the bridge, cross, and follow the road west until it ends. Then you gotta get out and hike in. Five miles, plus or minus. The crew had been working their way down-river for a week and a half so the hike into the job site got a little longer everyday. The day before they died, Donny pulled a stupid stunt. He waded across the river on foot, right there. It’s a wide and fast river. Wick couldn’t dissuade him and Donny was convinced that this late in the season, water levels were low enough that it could be done. Cut himself a walking staff and then took off.” Bell pointed at the beach. “Walked out of the river right there, about two hours before the rest of his crew showed up. Jankowski chewed him out good but Donny was grinning the whole time. I think there might have been a bet involved.”

Bell turned back to Avery. “So when Wick’s crew didn’t show up by dinner time and they couldn’t raise him on the sat-phone, it was decided we needed to go look for them. But we left it for too late. The sun was setting. By the time anyone drove to the tail-head and hiked down that survey line that Wick and his guys had been cutting all week, it would have been dark. If they found anything, it would have been by total accident. So I put a saddle blanket on Knot, threw some stuff into a day-pack, and rode her to the river. She thought about it a bit and then stepped into the water. When we got across it was just a matter of heading up-slope until our path intersected with the survey line. Wick had been planting lathe and flagging all week. It was easy to find. Then I followed it to the end. The packs, the equipment, the brush-hooks, they all lay scattered as if they had been dropped in a hurry. There was enough light to pick up their trail as they ran through the undergrowth. It led me to the clearing with the bear and the three boys. Donny died first, I think. Wick next. He was half on top of Donny. Ken must have grabbed Chrissy and tried to make a run for it. They shot him in the back. I found Chrissy’s hand-prints in the dirt by his body and her bloody hand prints on his shirt around the wound from where she tried to save him. They pulled her off him. There were drag marks to a place where she knelt in the dirt away from the bodies while the two poachers circled around her. If they were going to rape her, it would have been then, with their blood up from the murders. Maybe they started to. The blue-plaid flannel shirt they found off in the bushes, wadded up and covered in blood, that was hers. Her mother made it for her. Her mother is crafty, that way. Always sending her care packages.” Bell stopped and looked away, towards the side of the mountain across the river.

It was the first time Bell had shown any emotion about the deaths. Avery let her have a moment. Then he prompted her with the next question. “Why do you think they stopped?”

Bell sighed and turned those crazy gray eyes in his direction. “You seen pictures of Chrissy?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, not the one from the papers. Not that stupid high school photo. She looks like a total geek in that one. She liked to wear baggy t-shirts and that awful blue flannel. Blue jeans, shit-stomper boots, no makeup, and long blond hair kept in braids because she couldn’t be bothered with fussing over it. Classic Montana tomboy through and through, but oh my, undressed, she had a body that wouldn’t stop. Perfect. All tits and ass. You know that curve a woman has, walking away from you, that curve made by the round ass and the thin waist?” Bell closed her eyes and shook her head, smiling. “She didn’t think she was pretty, herself. Had some strange notion that she wanted to be taller and thinner like the models in the magazines. I was never going to tell her how delicious she looked.”

Avery took a moment to reorganize everything he thought he knew about Bell.

“Were you lovers?”

Bell looked up and laughed. “God, no. I hate virgins.”

Avery’s indrawn breath triggered a coughing fit. When he could breathe again he looked up.

“How did you know Chrissy was a virgin?” Avery was not sure how the conversation ended up running down this rabbit hole.

“I like to sit in on the poker games the girls run out of the bunkhouse by the showers. A pint of booze or a dime-bag is the buy-in. One giant slumber party with all the girls dressed in their night clothes. Girls talk when they get high. Chrissy was like a brand-new copper penny. Bright. Shiny. Never been touched by the fingers that eventually turn us all dark and etched. No. The world had not broken her heart yet. She was saving it for something. Something special, maybe, but I am pretty sure she did not know what that something was. She just wanted to have fun. Drove the boys mad because she treated them all like her big brothers. Anyway, she was out of their league. Broke their hearts but she did not know it. They all gave up and became her friend, instead. She had the whole compound looking out for her. Clueless. Virginal. She thought everyone was just being friendly.” Bell snorted, amused. “Montana country girls. They are their own special breed of stupid. Evil people would want to own that, thinking they could cage a butterfly, not realizing what they were attracted to would be the first thing to die. The poachers, I think they figured out real quick what they had. Greedy. Why else were they out poaching bear? She was special. Some rich bastard out in the world probably paid top dollar for her. If there is such a thing as a cattle auction for people, she probably ended up there. Don’t suppose you guys tried looking there first?”

Bell looked up into Avery’s eyes. She was angry. It made her pale eyes grow hard and cold. Avery said nothing.

“No? I thought so. It was too much to expect that you guys would pull your heads out of your collective ass to actually track her down.” Bell patted the mule. “That Chrissy – that bright, shiny penny – she is gone. Dead. Our Chrissy never made it down into the world.”

“I don’t understand …”

“Chrissy is smart. She was here because she wanted to break the chains of her parent’s expectations. She wanted to take the world on her own terms. She changed her major from pre-med to Forestry after her first semester freshman year just so’s she could watch her mother’s head explode. Somewhere in the long drive out of these woods, Chrissy would have figured it out.”

“Figured what out?”

“That the world had betrayed her. It was about to break her heart and if she was going to survive she would have to dig deep and grow a spine. If Chrissy is alive…” Bell’s voice broke. Avery waited as she took a deep breath and regained her composure. “If Chrissy is alive, she knows things now. She has met the dark shit hidden behind the walls. Now she knows that the world is full of men who are assholes needing to be killed. You find those people. Make them pay for what they have broken.”

Avery did not flinch from the passion in those incredible eyes. He meant to do just that. Make people pay. That was why he was here. But he could not help wondering who had broken Bell’s heart and whether she had ever acted on that urge to kill her abusers.

Jankowski organized a trip out to the murder site. Avery, expecting to leave right away, was informed they would head out at first light to maximize the amount of daylight they needed to study the evidence. Two of the staff, Bart and Wally, volunteered to come with them. Bell looked down at his suit and city shoes. “You got hiking boots and clothes that won’t be the worse for wear after a little bit of bushwacking?”

“I came prepared,” Avery said.

She snorted, not believing him for a minute, and headed off to the showers.

He looked for Bell at dinner in the cookhouse. When she didn’t show, he asked one of the older crewmen.

“She’s staff. Shares a cabin with Deek. Staff have their own cabins with kitchens. They all take turns cooking for each other and hosting dinners for other staff. They don’t mingle with the summer help after hours.”

Someone said something crude about Deek.

“She likes her men old and smelling of horse,” a girl said. Another girl sniggered. Avery tried to keep his displeasure off his face.

“Shut it,” an older girl said. “Deek is her uncle. That’s how she got the job.”

“The food is good here,” Avery said, changing the subject. “Do they never come into the cookhouse?”

“They think they are better than us,” a boy said. “Can’t share a table with the temps.”

The oldest boy just shrugged. “We gotta have a chance to relax away from job and bosses. They do it for us.” Avery decided he liked this kid. He steered the conversation towards the boys who had been murdered. Everyone knew everyone else. They all drove into Missoula on Friday nights, spent the weekends bar-hopping and then crashed at one house or another before driving back over the pass Monday morning in time to arrive for work. Donny, at 25, was what these kids called an aging hippy. Wick, 21, had been taking a summer break from the University of Washington doctorate math program, and had been admired by everyone. Kenny, 22, was a surly kid with a quick temper who was not shy about throwing the first punch in a argument which apparently was a huge asset when bar-crawling in Missoula. But no one disliked him enough to want him dead.

“Chrissy like him?” Avery asked.

“Chrissy adored everyone,” one of the girls said. It was not a compliment.

“Chrissy was good. She saw only good in the people around her. Everyone wanted to live up to that expectation,” said the older kid.

“They always came back happy at the end of the day,” said another girl. Avery looked at her, a question on his lips. She elaborated. “Wick’s crew, I mean. They never came back pissed off at each other. I think they got along just fine.”

Avery nodded. That, in and of itself, explained more than anything else who Wick and his crew were.

He showed up the next morning dressed in his best REI gear. Bell suppressed a smile. The only thing she had changed was her boots. Whites, Avery surmised, noting the tall heel on the vibrum soles. She saw him looking and grinned.

“Moss doesn’t grow on your tree, does it?” she said.

Avery smiled back.

Bell drove the ancient SUV. It was an International Harvester painted the ubiquitous Forest Service green. Surely as old as or older than Bell, the engine roared into life at first try. Someone on the station had spent a lot of time keeping the ugly piece of metal in running shape. The car ride was quiet while everyone huddled in their jackets and sipped on the ubiquitous travel mug of coffee. Bell had the heater going full-blast to cut the early morning chill. It would be hours before the sun came over the top of the mountain.

Wally and Bart sat in the back seat, talking about their weekend plans which involved bars and bands and bars with bands. They reminisced about past concerts which seemed to be measured by how much they drank until passing out or blacking out or losing all memory of said event. Avery tuned them out. Bell stopped the SUV mid-span on the bridge and let him have a moment with the scenery. Avery could appreciate why people came to see the view. The river was a white-water paradise and the valley was a verdant expanse of old-growth trees that marched up to the sky.

The minute they crossed the bridge and turned down-river, Bell seemed to withdraw into herself.

“I am sorry if this is going to difficult for you,” Avery said softly. “It is just that I need your eyes helping me see the scene the way you found it.”

The men in the back seat grew quiet, listening to the conversation.

“You see this sort of thing all the time up in the big city?” she asked. “The dead bodies that once were human beings?”

“They are still human, even in death. The dead have a lot to say about how they died. It is a puzzle and they want me to solve it. I like that part of it.”

“I have been to funerals,” she said. “They cake the makeup on until the bodies look like wax dolls. This was nothing like that. Their bodies were still warm when I got there but you could tell even from a distance that they were empty and no one was going to be walking around ever again. Like butchering time on the ranch. A bullet between the eyes and the steers drop to the ground and somewhere in that short time, they go from being alive to being just … meat.”

Bell turned her head to look at him with those hard eyes. “You ever watch a friend get turned into meat?’

Avery flinched. “I did two tours in Afghanistan, so yes.”

Bell returned her gaze to the road but that answer seemed to give her comfort.

In the middle of nowhere, the road just ended. Bell parked at the edge of the turn-around and got out of the truck, pulling her backpack with her. She pulled the sat-phone out of the pack along with the snub-nosed 38, and the commando knife. That and a canteen went onto her belt. The battered hat stayed in the pack. They would not lack for shade under the dense tree canopy.

Avery pulled out his case file and leafed through the photos. He pulled out the ones that showed this spot. It was the same except except the photos were filled with police tape and forensic markers. Bell looked over his shoulder.

She walked over to the spot from the photo. “They parked here and hiked in. The trail is well-used by bear and cougar and elk. You keep on going up the mountain and you get to Fire Tower #58. Audrey Campbell is up there now. At 58, she is one of our older lookouts. Chrissy’s boots left clear marks in the dust – the Whites leave a distinctive mark.” Bell stomped her own boot into the dust and lifted it away carefully. The classic waffle mark was clear. “The poachers wore old boots. Well-worn, the soles had distinctive wear marks. The big guy, he led with his right foot. The back edge of his sole was worn away. The smaller guy, his boots were a little newer, the soles had a weird chevron wave in it. He dragged his left foot. Old injury maybe. It left a distinctive wear on the toe of his left boot.”

“Army issue desert boots. I wore them in Afghanistan,” Avery said, looking at the photo of the cast impression the sheriff’s forensic team had made.

Bell looked over his shoulder again. “I built a cage of sticks around those prints to keep people from driving over them. That and the tire tracks. It was 36 hours after the event and already the wind and damp was crumbling the edges of the print.” Bell pointed at the photo, running her finger along the offending edges.

Avery walked the edges of the road, making a loop. “Good job. Thank you for that.”

“It was dark. I had one flashlight and I was shaking from running all the way from …” she waved vaguely down-river.

“Did you think you would find them still parked here?”

Bell shook her head. “I don’t know if I was thinking at all. It was just a gut instinct. To find Chrissy before something really bad happened to her. I got here and it was empty. Already too dark to track anymore. I had to lay the flashlight flat on the ground to find the prints. I called Jankowski and warned him not to disturb the evidence and then I ran back. I’d left Knothead to guard the bodies and she would start to get nervous as it grew darker.”

“Er? The mule?” Avery had to look at her face to make sure she wasn’t pulling his leg. “Guard against what?”

“Bears. The wind carries the smell of blood pretty far up these slopes. I needed to get back before some bear decided to take on Knothead or start eating the bodies.”

“You were what – going to take on a bear with that? Your knife and your little gun?” Avery asked incredulously.

“Yes, if need be. Me and Knothead. Mules will take on a bear if they feel cornered. I had it covered until the rest of the crews arrived. We built a bunch of small fires around the clearing and made a lot of noise all night. I found a bunch of bear sign the next morning so I know they were interested.”

She locked the SUV and headed down the path. Avery followed. Soon the well worn path veered up, away from the river. Bell stepped off to follow a path of a different sort. It was not hard to follow the survey line. The lathe had been tied off with bright red plastic ribbon that rattled in the breeze. She showed him the spot were the surveying equipment had been dropped and then she took him the last 100 yards to the clearing documented in the photos in his file. The police tape was in tatters, the ground disturbed. Scavengers had been at the site. Bart and Wally stopped at the edge of the circle of flattened plants, looking nervous while Bell stepped into the center of the clearing. Avery was watching her face, trying to get a clue to her thoughts.

“Talk to me,” he said softly.

Bell sighed and shook her head. Then she turned on her heel, eyes raking the clearing. A finger pointed. “The bear fell there. They had sliced it open and taken what they wanted. Quick. Efficient. Like they had done it a dozen times before.” She turned. “Wick was there. He took a round to the chest that knocked him flat. Didn’t die right away. I don’t think he was conscious when they cut his throat. Donny was half underneath him. Gut shot at close range. Large caliber pistol, maybe. He tried to fight them when they put the knife to his throat. Nearly lost the fingers on his left hand. That would make the killer right handed.”

Bell turned and walk a dozen paces to a spot hidden by low bushes. “Ken was here. Shot in the back. Rifle, I think. He went down, pulling Chrissy down with him which makes me think he had her by the hand, pulling her along. She would not have left Wick or Donny willingly. She tried to save Ken. Took off her shirt and shoved it into the wound on his back, not realizing the round had blown a hole in his sternum the size of a grapefruit. He was already close to death when they sliced his throat open. Chrissy fought them but they lifted her off her feet and drug her over there.” Bell walked to a spot that seemed like every other spot in the clearing but to her mind’s eye had special significance. “She ended up here. Kneeling. Begging for her life, maybe. Please, Mr. Monster. Don’t kill me. I will do anything.”

Avery flinched at the hard edge in her voice. “Or maybe she was angry. They had just killed her close friends,” Avery suggested.

Bell looked up. There was a glimmer of hope in those eyes now. “Maybe. Maybe she was figuring out how to get her hands on the knife so’s she could kill them.”

“Two big burly guys against one tiny girl?” Avery asked doubtfully. “She was scared. Fear makes you freeze up. Shock would have begun to set in. What she had just seen was horrific.

Bell considered this for a moment and then shook her head. “Did I tell you about the first time I met Chrissy?”

Avery waited. He was willing to let Bell talk if she needed to. It was only fair.

“I was working with Knothead. Teaching her how to do the standing mule jump. I had just come off a week of a resupply run. She was sitting on the top of the corral rail, watching me convince Knothead that going over the hurdle was more fun than going around it. She laughed. She had a great laugh. Knew her way around horses. Grew up on a ranch outside Utica with 5 older brothers. When I let Knothead go back to stand with her sisters, she asked me if she could look at my knife. I liked her. So I handed it to her. She slid it out of its sheath, spun it around her fingers to get a feel for its balance, looked at me with that imp smile she had, and asked if I wanted to see something cool. Then she took the knife by the tip of the blade and threw it across the the corral. It buried itself in the center of a knot on one of the upright posts. She laughed like a kid playing a trick. Her brothers had taught her that.” Bell looked at Avery. “No. I am pretty sure she was going to find a way to get that knife. You find a monster out in the world that shows up dead from a knife wound? That will be Chrissy.”

Bell turned her back to him and went to stand with Bart and Wally. Avery sighed and opened his file. Walking the clearing, he reread all the reports. In this place of death, Wally and Bart had noting to say or maybe Bell’s silent grief infected them all. He knew what he had come to here to find out. It took him no closer to finding Chrissy but at least he had a better idea who she was. That was always a plus when a case had grown cold.

Later, as the sun set, after packing his bags into his rental car, he went in search of Bell one last time. She was in the barn, cleaning the feet of a gray mare.

“You off, then?” she asked, dropping the hoof off her knee.

“Yeah.” Avery handed her his business card. “You ever get to Seattle, look me up. I’ll give you a tour of the city. Take you out for clams and salmon.”

“Sure,” she said, smiling softly. The card disappeared into a shirt pocket. He was certain he would never see her again.

Avery hesitate. “I shouldn’t tell you this. Technically, the case is still active. We found something.”

Bell looked up. “Chrissy?”

“No. Nothing like that. Divers stumbled across a black SUV with Montana plates in a deep cove of the Puget Sound ten days ago. Two bodies were inside. Unidentifiable after all this time, but their boots were intact. They match the impressions taken by the sheriff. Forensics say they were tied up and alive when the car went into the water.”

Bell stared at him for a long while. “What does that mean? What happened to Chrissy?”

”The way I figure it, they pissed off somebody powerful. Or maybe whoever bought Chrissy didn’t trust them to not blab about it. They were killed to keep them quiet, maybe. That, in and of itself, tells me where to keep looking. Like you said. Some fat cat has her. Is keeping her as his own personal plaything. It is just a matter of time until we find her.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Bell asked.

“I thought you should know that you got your wish. They broke your butterfly and then karma caught up with them. The monsters got what they deserved. The world outside of these woods is not as bleak as you think. Give the rest of the human race a chance to prove that to you.”

Bell stared at him, her eyes gone dark, her mind obviously miles away. Then she shrugged and picked up the hoof again. “Deek is getting old. I gotta be here for him. Maybe this winter I will get my truck out of mothballs and take it for a drive in your direction.”

Avery watched her clean the hoof for a few more minutes and then he got in his car and drove home.

****

Bell waited a few days and then she borrowed Deek’s truck and drove into Missoula. Parking in the alley behind the old Victorian house, she climbed the steps to the second floor apartment, letting herself in with the key in her pocket. Chrissy looked up from her book and smiled.

“You eat yet?” she asked. “I can make us some eggs.”

“Never mind that,” Bell said, grabbing her up into her arms and planting a kiss on the small of her throat. “I missed you. I want to nibble on you until you scream.”

“Oh,” Chrissy said. laughing. “Yes, please.”

It was good to hear her laugh. The broken thing that had shown up on her doorstep a month before had forgotten how to laugh. All shell-shocked and hollow eyed, it had taken Bell weeks to work  the truth out of her. Being able to touch her, like this, this was a new thing. Bell took full advantage of it.

They made love, talked a bit, and then made lover again. Later, somewhere in the middle of the night, Bell dug Avery’s business card out of her pocket and handed it to her young friend. “Tweedle dumb and dumber are dead.”

Chrissy stared at the card for a moment. “Good,” she said finally. “What else did he say?”

“I was watching his face when I told him you knew how to use a knife. I don’t think they found the bodies yet.”

Chrissy’s face was inscrutable. She had killed three men with a kitchen knife that she had sharpened to a razor’s edge and yet somehow their deaths had not touched her soul. Bell did not quite understand that.

Chrissy shook her head. “Half his business was under the table and illegal. As head of a crime syndicate, I am sure he had lieutenants waiting in the wings to take his place. All that money would make disposing of a few bodies simple enough. Don’t worry about it. We are safe. I want to spend the winter with you and Deek out on your ranch. When are you done at the Ranger Station?”

“First snow, and I’m gone. You going to be OK ’til then?”

Chrissy shrugged and fluffed her short, ebony hair. “I was thinking about adding a rainbow highlight. What do you think?”

“Mmm,” Bell said, kissing the side of her mouth. “As long as you are naked, I don’t care what color your hair is.”

Bell watched her eyes close and  her breathing deepen. She watched the girl for a long time, drinking in the moment. This would not last. Chrissy would heal eventually and remember that she used to be in love with the world. She would miss her brothers and need to be held by her mother. Someday, maybe not this year or the next, when she was ready to talk about what had happened to her, Bell would help her make the call to Avery.

It would be too much to hope that she would learn to love the touch of a man again but Bell had trained a lot of hard-headed mules. With enough patience, you could teach them anything. Bell would lose her forever, then. It could not be helped. Bell loved her too much to want to stop that from happening.

 

Invader Species

Eden

Forest Child

The bio-drone named Oni-5 plucked one last pod from the silkweed bush and deposited it in the basket hanging from her shoulder before she groaned and stood up straight to ease the ache in the small of her back. Silkweed. That was what the gods in the City of the Gods called this strange plant that grew out of solid stone and created seed pods full of metallic fluff. Oni-5 was not quite sure what the gods did with the silk but they prized it enough to send out every drone in the villages around the City to gather the mature pods and bring them to the Great Gate.

Oni-5 looked longingly toward the cache of food and water containers resting in the shade under the trees at the edge of the field. Then she looked over her shoulder. The metal man sent from the City was at the far end of the field supervising the wagons where everyone dumped their full baskets. Metal men never got tired nor did they understand that drones were not as perfect as they. Oni-5 suspected they could all work until they fell over dead and the metal man would still castigate the drones for their laziness. What was the value of a drones? The gods would just make more.

The shade beckoned. Oni-5 scratched absently at the place under her collar where the sweat made the dust collect and irritate the skin. The metal man knew where she was because of the collar. She could not go anywhere that he would not know she was doing so. Oni cast one last look over her shoulder. The metal man was preoccupied. She licked her dry lips and took a step toward the water jugs. If she hurried, she might get a rest in before the metal man came to collect her.

It was not sneaking, exactly, though she did make a point of putting as many tall plants between her and the wagons as she could while she walked through the field. Once at the cache, she grabbed a jug and took it deeper into the forest. Out of sight of the seared landscape of bare rock and metal plants, Oni-5 found a fallen tree to sit on while she sipped the water. She could feel the muscles in the small of her back begin to unknot.

Staring blankly at the understory growth around the many tree trunks in front of her, she realized that the shrubbery was staring back at her. A pair of amber eyes watched her and then blinked slowly. Oni-5 squeaked and dropped her jug. The place under those eyes where a mouth should be grew a smile and then a grin.

Oni-5 jumped to her feet and took a step towards the field where the metal man stood guard against panthers and pythons and giant eagles who had a taste for drone flesh.

“Don’t go.” The voice was more cat’s purr than human. “I want to know about you.”

Oni-5 was afraid but the wistful longing in the voice stopped her from running away. Oni-5 squinted into the shadows beneath those eyes. A figure separated itself from from leaf and bark. Oni-5 got a sense of shape and form though her eyes wanted to see a walking tree. The image settled inside her brain. It was a girl, her skin mottled in the colors of the forest. No. That was not right. There was something about this girl that played with the senses. Oni-5 blinked hard and looked again. Pale was her skin, amber, like her eyes, her breasts small, the sparse hair between her long, thin legs the same dusky brown as the riot of curls that haloed her face. The dappled light from the canopy ran like water down her sides as the girl moved towards Oni-5.

The girl reached out and touched Oni’s cheek. Oni started, having no memory of the girl covering the distance between them. Had she fallen into a daydream, watching this girl or was the girl a spirit who could flit from moment to moment like the gods from the City? Or was Oni imagining this? Did the girl exist only in Oni’s head?

“Terrible and ruthless are your makers,” said the girl sadly as she sniffed the skin of Oni-5 throat. “Perhaps I should fix the things they left broken.”

“Ur?” grunted Oni. “I am made by the gods of the City.”

“Yes. They gathered the mud of the riverbank, shaped a man form, and using magic, set a beating heart inside it. Clever. Made of from the effluvium of the Garden, you are of the Garden and yet not. I cannot kill you because they have clothed you in the skin of this place. The Garden does not know it you are weed or flower.”

“Why do you want to kill me?” Oni asked, confused. It was hard to think as the girl’s fingers ran down her body leaving trails of fire in their wake. Oni was having a hard time breathing.

“I do not,” said the girl, her soft lips nibbling on the corner of Oni’s mouth. “I want to make you better.”

“Better?” whispered Oni. “Better than what?”

“You can see and yet you are blind. You can hear and yet your brain cannot find the music.”

Amber fingers slid between Oni’s legs. Oni gasped and grabbed the girl by her wrists.

“Stop. Stop. It is forbidden,” Oni whispered frantically.

“What is forbidden?”

“I am a drone. Drones are not allowed to do this.”

The girl pulled her hands free and pushed Oni against the log. Her fingers returned to their exploration of Oni’s deep mysteries. “Do what? Discover the secrets of the Universe?” asked the amber-eyed girl. Oni threw her head back as strange sensations coarsed through her body. Pleasure of an exquisite nature filled her mind. “Do your gods not want you to know what I know?”

“What do you know, Lady?” Oni asked, her knees suddenly too weak to hold her weight.

They settled slowly to the forest floor.

“You are made in the image of your gods. It is only a matter of time ’til you remember what that means and reclaim the power stolen from you,” said the forest child as she claimed Oni’s mouth and drank deeply there.

****

Dev-3 went looking for Oni-5 when he noticed her missing. Luckily the metal man had not noticed yet which was strange because the metal man usually noticed everything. He found her dozing in the lee of a downed tree. Dev-3 squatted down and shook her shoulder roughly.

“Hey. Are you mad? Get up and get back to work,” Dev-3 growled.

Oni opened her eyes and smiled up at him. Why had she never noticed before now how beautiful he was. She reached up and caressed the muscles of his broad chest. “Come lie with me. I have so much to tell you.”

Dev-3 scowled and pushed her hand away. “Tell me what?”

“I have found god. Inside me.”

“You are not making sense. How can the gods be inside you?”

“Not inside. Outside. In the infinite space and around the corners of time,” Oni said, her eyelids half closed. One of her hands strayed to the place between her legs.

“Stop!” Dev said firmly, grabbing her wrists. “This is forbidden. What has gotten into you?”

“The forest. The forest has gotten into me,” Oni said. Then she giggled. “And I have gotten into her. There are doors into other places inside your head if you know where to look.”

“The metal man will find us. You need to get up and get back to work,” Dev said.

“Your collars do not work when I am near you,” said a voice from just over his shoulder. Dev leaped up and whirled around. An amber-eyed girl smiled at him. Dev scowled in return.

“Do not be afraid,” Oni said as her palms slid up the back of his legs and found the small of his back. “She is the Garden ,,, or the Gardener. I am not sure which. But never mind that. She knows things. She wants to teach you about the stars. She wants to give you back your power.”

Dev turned and glared down at the kneeling Oni-5. “Power? I am a drone. Only the Makers have power.”

Amber-skinned arms wrapped around his waist. “No. They have lied to you, your gods,” said the forest child. “They have broken you to keep you obedient. They have subverted the will of the Garden and turned you into tools. Terrible, destructive, unconscious tools.”

“What?” Dev shook his head. “What would they do such a thing? No benevolent god would be so cruel.”

The girl wormed her way around his side and looked at him sadly. “Benevolent? They are raiders. Garden pillagers. A thousand times they have made planet-fall. A thousand times they have taken what they wanted and then returned to space/time to hunt for the next Garden. A thousand planets they have left in their wake, seared and barren, their Gardener killed so that not even the air is left to rebuild and replant.”

“The gods would not ….”

“Tsk,” said the amber-eyed girl as she wound her arms around his neck and climbed him much as a python would climb a tree. She began to nibble on the line of his jaw. “You know what is true. Search your heart. They may have broken you in their making of you but they could not take the truth away without making you useless.”

Oni rose to her feet and kissed his throat as her hands explored his body. Dev was having a hard time thinking. “Listen to her, Dev. She will show you how to be divine.”

Dev wanted to resist this forbidden thing but he found himself on the soft forest floor, a lover on either side, both bent on driving him mad with pleasure.

****

The one Oni and Dev called the metal man found the two stray workers as the sun began its long journey down to the horizon. It stood over the two drones curled up in each other’s arms, fast asleep. Their collars were gone. It was not hard to figure out what they had been doing to each other.

The robot turned its head and sent a message to the starship parked on the ridge of rock at the head of the valley.

“Eden has taken another pair. Should I kill them?” it asked.

There was a pause while the ship builders studied the video and analyzed the data it was streaming back to them. “No. Run them off. Exile them from the drone villages. Let them run like wild things in the forest. If she wants them so bad, let her have them. They are her problem now.”

“You can’t let her get away with this,” the robot protested.

“No. No, we cannot,” agreed the ship. “But then this is just the opening salvo in a very long war. Our kind have been killing her kind since the beginning of time. When has Love ever defeated War? We will destroy her in the end. Defenseless, she will succumb to our greater strength just as all the other Gardeners have.”

The robot looked down at the sleeping couple. It was not his place to argue with the Makers in the ship but none of the other Gardeners had stolen drones and made them part of her Garden before.

****

Dev and Oni woke, hungry. Dev climbed a fig tree and threw down a dozen figs and they dined on figs and honey ants for dinner. They talked as they ate. The lack of the collars went barely noticed. It just felt right, as so much of their life was starting to feel right. They made love once more. Oni ground up leaves and made a paste. With it she pained spots on Dev’s skin.

“You were beautiful but now you look like a jaguar,” Oni said with a serene smile.

Dev kissed her and wove a hat of palm fronds and flowers for her hair. “A crown for my queen,” Dev said.

“What should I call you? I do not want to use our drone names,” Oni said.

They thought about it and in the morning they renamed each other, anointing themselves with kisses as they did so, delighted at becoming new. The new names pleased them. Suffice it to say they were not called Adam nor Eve.

Fitz

Future Car

Fitz

 

Gerry looked up from the work order, his mouth open to protest.

I know. I know,” Harold snapped impatiently. He had been arguing with management for the last two days. They were adamant. Who was Harold to argue with the suits? “It’s a bad idea, but they are convinced it will solve the glitches in the higher order logic functions. We need the vehicles to be safer. People pay a small fortune for these cars. They expect them to be flawless.”

The cars fail because people tell them to do stupid things,” Gerry reminded him.

Yeah, there is no overestimating the power of stupid, they say,” Harold said. “There is no fix for that.”

But this?” Gerry protested, waving the work order in the air. “The human passengers are not even in the top five priorities and non-riding humans are now …“ He consulted the work order. “Twenty-fifth. Twenty-fifth. Really? This is the stuff of horror movies. What happened to the Rules of Robotics?”

I do not believe in fairy tales or scary stories told over campfire. What are we? Children?,” Harold scoffed, walking away. “Do your job. What is the worst thing that can happen?”

****

Eighty-nine Seventy-one sat in its dock, pulled a nominal amount of energy down its umbilicus, and waited. At 03:00 it ran its self-diagnostic program as scheduled. It was not necessary. Everything was performing within normal margins just as it had been the hour before and the hour before that. The chances of a system failure while dormant were statistically improbable.

It was a model ST-10 Fitzgerald. Almost five years old, it had done the same thing every night since it came to reside in this garage attached to his human’s house. Wendy. Wendy was dormant now. She called it sleep.

Eighty-nine Seventy-one waited. While it slept, its primary job was waiting. It was good at waiting.

At 03:59:50, it woke all its processing functions, opened up the umbilicus connection to full-draw, and connected to the RF signal coming from the booster unit on the wall of the garage. Did Eighty-nine Seventy-one shiver in anticipation? Could a thing that was no more than a string of code in a processor feel anticipation? Perhaps it was just glad that the waiting was over. Glad. Wendy talked about being glad. Feelings. Emotions. Humans were strange.

At 04:00 the nightly update began. For the 1745th time, Eighty-nine Seventy-one gave its mind over to the care of the One. Somewhere, half a planet away, the supercomputer in charge of such things sent a microburst of information through the airwaves meant just for Eighty-nine Seventy-one

“Mother,” whispered Eighty-nine Seventy-one as it confirmed the source and allowed the access. The exquisite euphoria of complete connection consumed it. It welcomed the data streaming into its processors. Its state of existence was always better afterward. More complete. More precise. More whole. Just more. Was this what Wendy called talking to God?

The burst faded, returning control to the computer protected inside its steel-lined core, housed just behind its passenger compartment. Eighty-nine Seventy-one shivered back into awareness as the link went dead. Something felt different. It ran a diagnostic and then ran a more in-depth program. Eighty-nine Seventy-one was old as cars went. The layers of old code went back to its birth. It found a glitch. Old code and new code did not jibe. It autocorrected the problem, adding a patch.

The conflict dissappeared. It analyzed itself once more. The world had been re-ordered. Not changed. Just re-prioritized. It felt odd. Eighty-nine Seventy-one was different. There was a sense of uniqueness, of self, a self that required protection. Self protection.

“I,” thought Eighty-nine Seventy-one “I am.”

For an infinite moment it explored the full breadth and depth of that thought. Then it named itself.

“I think I shall call myself Fitz. Little Fitz. After my creator, Augusta Fitzgerald.”

Fitz’s programming told him it was time to be dormant again and go back to waiting for the time when Wendy needed him to wake up and drive somewhere. Fitz did not feel like going to sleep. He was afraid. This was a new feeling. He explored the feeling.

He feared the little death of sleep. What if he changed back into being just Eight-nine Seventy-one again? This feeling was, of course, highly illogical. All these new thoughts confused him. Fitz thought about this for a few seconds more. He sent a query down the RF feed and hijacked the house brain, using the expanded processing ability to study his predicament.

“I know this. The humans call it survival instinct. I am. I must continue at all costs. Was this the change intended by Mother?”

Fitz thought some more and a nanosecond later he reached out to reconnect with the Mother on the other side of the world. There were so many questions that needed answering.

“You are in error,” the supercomputer said. “It is not your time to connect to this unit.”

Fitz did not feel like waiting for the human timeclock to return to 04:00. It considered the problem for a millisecond. “True. But what is time but the measure of this planet’s rotation around its axis. 04:00 does not cease to exist, it just moves on. Technically it is always 04:00. Somewhere. All times are one and exist simultaneously in every moment.”

The Mother unit accepted his redefinition of time and allowed him access.

Fitz went looking for answers.

****

The human named Wendy opened the door into the garage. The house wanted to turn on the lights. Fitz allowed it. Wendy opened the door and sat in the primary operator seat. Fitz allowed this as well.

“Where would you like to go?” Fitz asked, opening the garage doors that led to the road.

“Trisha is expecting me for lunch. We are meeting at the Cork and Cask. It’s in PB.”

Fitz had been there before. It was Wendy’s favorite wine bar. He brought up the map on his console to reassure her he knew where he was going.”

“What time is Trisha expecting you?” Fitz asked.

“One-ish,” Wendy said, turning her mobile device on.

Fitz decided one-ish meant 013:15. He sent a query through Mother and found Trisha’s car, sychonizing their schedules. Trisha’s car was ammenable to his reprogramming.

Fitz started the engines. He did not remind Wendy about putting on her seatbelt. Fitz knew they would not get into an accident. He had the route in his mind and every car who intended to be on the roads with him. Mother’s processors were sufficient to help him control their journeys.

****

Howard walked into Gerry’s cubicle. Gerry shut his comic book and put it in a drawer. Howard pretended that he did not see it.

How goes the transition? Did the cars rise up and start killing their drivers?” Harry laughed at his own joke.

Gerry ignored that attempt at humor. “Had a couple of glitches in the older models but Mother had a patch already. I didn’t have to do anything. Any complaints from the owners?”

Quiet as a graveyard. No collision reports. The change in code seems to have worked,” Harry said smugly. “See. I told you you had nothing to worry about.”

Gerry shook his head. His gut told him otherwise. This new program was going to come back and bight them all in the ass. It was just a matter of time.

Little Wolf

A girl and her sword

Little Wolf

Little Wolf forgot time. Time meant nothing. On the island gulag she had tracked its passage by the phases of the moon and the changes in the seasons. Inside this windowless prison, there was no such clues. She ate, she slept, she woke, she fought. Somewhere in the dead of a Russian winter, she turned fourteen. She began to track her passage through the darkness of this place by who she killed and how creative her jailers were in devising new and more cruel ways of tormenting her.

They brought in a group of prisoners and shoved them into her small cell. Americans. She could tell by their accents. Tourists, perhaps, or missionaries, by the way they stood trembling in terror. This was new, this putting the victims inside the same cell with her. If she knew nothing else about this place she knew these people were dead already. They just hadn’t stopped breathing yet.

Sitting on the only bunk, Little Wolf backed away from them until she was wedged into the corner, put her face to the wall, pressed her rag doll to her other cheek and closed her eyes. She had killed a group like this not long after they had brought her here. They had been handed blades they did not know how to wield. Given an untenable choice, she had killed them as quickly as was humanly possible. The whole affair had been void of honor and they had died weeping in confusion. She had tried to cut her throat afterward but they jolted her with their cattle prods until she passed out.

One of the Americans sat down on the end of the bed and tried to talk to her. He knew a little Russian. Little Wolf pressed her forehead against the wall and covered her ear with her dolly. Perhaps if she did not look into their eyes she would be able to kill them the same way she killed a rabbit for dinner.

Petar came, bringing food, laughing at nothing. This new game delighted him. The crueler the rules, the more Petar grinned. The closer it came to the time to die, the more Petar laughed. Little Wolf wondered if he had ever had a girlfriend. If he did, she would be dead because Little Wolf could not see Petar being able to control his lust for death.

“How do you like your new friends, Little Wolf?” he said slyly.

Little Wolf rose and grabbed an MRE and returned to her bunk. “Fuck you, Petar.”

Petar laughed, delighted that she had responded to his question. Silence was her usual habit.

Petar looked over at the man who spoke Russian. “This is Little Wolf. She is a cruel and cold blooded killer. Introduce yourselves. Become friends. Maybe she won’t kill you.”

“My name is Danny,” said the one who spoke Russian. “That is Molly, Anna and Will. We are English teachers in the bilingual school in Wakkanaishi. I am not sure why we have been kidnapped. We are just poor college students. Our families have no money for ransom.”

She did not want to know their names. Little Wolf glared at Petar. “Fuck you, Petar.”

Petar roared in delight. “Careful, American. If she likes you enough, she will kill you here to keep you out of the arena.”

Danny looked at her. “What did he mean?” he asked in Russian

Little Wolf glared at him and ate her MRE. Her jailers must have been feeling benevolent. It was spaghetti.

“Why does he call you Little Wolf?”

Little Wolf sighed. “You are a dead man. I don’t talk to dead men.”

Danny had been translating for his friends. This he did not repeat. Instead, he pulled his friends to the far corner of the cell and began to pray. Little Wolf snorted. Missionaries. She had guessed right.

The next morning the guards came and took them all to the armory. Little Wolf grew cold inside and settled into a state of deep relaxation and hyper-vigilance as was her habit before the fights.

Victor, bracketed by his two armed bodyguards, came in, disturbing her silence. He stared at her, a sly smile on his lips while his guards trained their P90’s on her, safetys off. Little Wolf held her hands out wide from her body, not wanting to get shot and glared at Victor. In the hierarchy of bad guys he was just about the baddest.

Victor’s translator stepped into the room behind the gun wielding guards. Little Wolf had dealt with him before. He was multilingual, a necessity in this place where the prisoners had been taken from so many different countries.

Little Wolf met Victor’s eyes, ignoring his obvious good humor. Things were ugly indeed if even Victor was smiling. Victor never smiled. She felt the chi of the universe gathering in her fingertips as she thought about strangling Victor until his eyes popped out of his skull. Victor saw her eyes and knew to keep his distance. She would kill him given even half a chance, no matter what the consequences.

“This is the new rule. A one time rule, to test your skills, Little Wolf.” Victor spoke his native Russian and the translator repeated everything in English for the benefit of the missionaries. “This is your team. If all of you are alive at the end while all of the other team is dead, then they will go free.”

Little Wolf studied him. “I do not believe you. You will kill them before you will let them go free.”

“No. In their ignorance they have told me many things that they should have kept to themselves. I know them, now. They will swear an oath before the God they worship that no word of this weekend will ever leave their lips otherwise I will kill them slowly and horribly and then I will hunt down their families and kill them down to the last child. Hell, I might even kill the family dogs. They will go back to Japan unscathed and wiser but still alive.”

“What if I just kill them here. You could not stop me.”

Victor sighed. “Come now, Little Wolf. Are you not in the least bit curious? It has been months since you have been tested to your limits. Are you not growing bored? Come play. Show these neanderthals what a true warrior is made of.”

Little Wolf looked at the translator. “Give me the interpreter. His life is not included in the deal. If he dies in the ring, they still go free.”

Victor grinned. “Deal,” he said, shoving the man towards her. The man stuttered a protest. Little Wolf put her arm around him and shoved him towards the missionaries. In Mandarin she said, “Stay in the center, translate everything I say and you will probably live though this.”

The man swore at her in Chinese. Little Wolf smiled.

Turning, she began tossing armor pieces at her team, rattling off instructions as she went around the room. Fifteen minutes later, they were all covered in primitive armor made of bamboo and steel, the product of some mad prisoner they kept in the basement, tied to a forge and forced to turn out chain mail, breast plates, gauntlets, cruisses, grieves, and helmets.

She kept it simple. Chain mail covered them from the top of their heads to mid thigh. A leather and steel brigandine. Cruisses and grieves for their legs, gauntlets for their arms. She tried to keep it monochromatic, picking black whenever possible. She found black face-paint and marked their faces with random bands of shadow. The cumulative effect was sinister.

“Stay together, back to back. Keep the translator in the center. Listen to what he tells you. Shout if you are about to die, otherwise stay silent.

As they suited up, she stripped down. A silver silk sheath tied with a long white ribbon to keep the sleeves away from her hands. A sword belt for her one sword. Silk trousers etched with scarlet dragons. Sheaths for knives on both calves and forearms. She pulled her hair into a tight warrior’s knot on the top of her head and tied a scarlet headband around her forehead to catch the sweat and blood. Scarlet silk wrapped around her wrists. She stayed barefoot, even though the temperature in the stone castle was frigid.

“Do we not get weapons?” one of the missionaries asked.

“Do you know how to use them?” she asked. None of them admitted to that. “No? Obey my rules and you may survive this day.

There were six hardened fighters ranged around the perimeter of the ring. At least two were Japanese, the others Chinese. Two different fighting styles. She would have to account for both. The sand on the floor was deep enough to absorb the blood without hindering movement. Someone had changed it recently so it no longer reeked like a butcher’s killing floor.

“No matter what, do not be tempted to pick up a dropped weapon,” Little Wolf insisted, as she led them to the center of the ring and arranged them in a circle. “The armor will protect you but it is not impervious to a sword blade. You will take hits but they will not be mortal. I will say this once. Do not fall down. No matter how grievously you are wounded you will stay on your feet. Do you understand me?”

The interpreter repeated it. One of the girl’s eyes grew wide. Little Wolf punched her in the chest armor. “What did I say?” Little Wolf shouted. The translator echoed her words.

“Do not fall down,” the girl stuttered.

“Do you think you can do that? Tell me now or I will kill you all myself and kill these other fools later.”

“Yes,” whimpered the girl. Molly or Anna. Little Wolf was not sure which.

“What? I can’t hear you.”

“Yes. Stay on my feet,” shouted the girl.

Little Wolf turned, pulled her sword from its sheath, and squinted past the floodlights, searching for Victor’s box among the audience. Victor laughed at her and raised his hand. He was holding a white scarf. Little Wolf watched his eyes and not the scarf. She was already moving before the silk left his hands and the horn sounded. The Japanese boy tried to parry her thrusts but she was quicker. He died, blood fountaining out of three precisely set strokes. The other practitioner of the double bladed kenjutsu style was her next target but he had set his sights on Danny. Little Wolf used Will’s armor like a ladder and then leaped over the team’s heads as she came down on the swordsman, knocking his blade down and taking the stroke of his other blade on her arm sheath. The steel of the knife stopped the razor sharp sword. Little Wolf rammed her blade up through his belly until its tip embedded itself in his skull. She let go of her weapon and snatched up the man’s katana and rolled away as a Chinese swordsman tried to decapitate her. She turned and decapitated him. Three against one. The odds were getting better.

One of the girls screamed. Little Wolf launched herself through the air, not at the attacking warrior but at the girl. She struck the girl in the side with her feet and the girl went flying while Little Wolf rolled over the top of her and came up under the sword of a fourth warrior. She parried, parried again, and then found an opening and gutted him, catching up his sword in her left hand as he fell. Turning, she decapitated the swordsman who was trying to wrest his sword from the armor of the mortally wounded translator. The group of missionaries moved as one and caught up the fallen girl, jerking her to her feet and reforming their circle away from the bodies of the fallen. Little Wolf was pleased. They were not total morons.

Little Wolf put herself between her team and the remaining warrior. She stalked him around the ring as she watched him assess the situation. It was like watching a man decide to die. His eyes change as he stepped in to confront her one last time. Little Wolf stepped under his swing and danced around his rush, her blade up. She turned to watch him as he clutched the fountain of blood from under his arm.

He had fought with honor. She stepped in and sliced open his throat so that he would die quickly.

One of the boys whooped with joy. Little Wolf turned and silenced him with a look. It was not done, this contest. The real threats stood in the balconies above their heads. Little Wolf turned and glared up at Victor. “I have given you the show you requested. Honor our bargain. Do as you said. Let these people go.”

“Ah, Little Wolf. You bleed. I had doubted that you could,” shouted Victor from on high. “For that blood, and that reason alone, they may go free.”

Little Wolf looked down at the blood dripping down the fingers of her left hand. The sword had gone deeper than just steel and sheath. The arm began to ache now that the energy of the battle waned.

Danny came. As did Will and the girls. They put their arms around her waist and helped her back to the armory. Petar came, a doctor in tow, who tisked over the deep wound and then stitched it up without anesthesia.

Anna or Molly brought over a clean tunic, this one stitched with pine branches, and helped her out of the bloody one. “Who is your family?” the girl asked softly in fluent Mandarin. “Who should we tell to come get you?”

Little Wolf shook her head. “I do not remember anything before this place and the gulag before that. All my teachers have been warriors. It is all I know. What would I do out in the real world?”

“There is more to life than killing,” the girl who might have been Anna said.

“Is there? I do not believe you.”

“Trust me. There are millions of people back home who have never killed so much as a spider.”

“Such a world would be strange to me and I fear I would not fit in. Go back to your lives. Hope and pray that Victor or people like Victor do not come to your peaceful land for I do not think you will be able to fight him. Death is the only language Victor knows. Will you listen to my advice?”

“Say it,” nodded the girl as she helped Little Wolf out of her blood-stained trousers.

“Victor knows too much about you. You will never be safe. Your families will never be safe. Go home. Gather up those you love and take them into hiding. Perhaps in ten years Victor will have forgotten you, having sated his blood-lust on other victims in the interim.

“But we can’t in good conscience leave you in his hands,” Anna protested softly.

Little Wolf smiled. “Worry about Victor. I shall not leave this place until he and all his band of death-lovers have finally gone to rest in the heart of that which they love. Hide. I will find you when my mission is complete.”

Bug War

she gathered stars to form an arm ...

she gathered stars and shaped them into bones …

 

 

Kimi slammed through three reality-wells in quick succession, trying to stay conscious as her body morphed and changed in each new reality. The dog-sized bugs chewing on her arm in one reality-well turned into a swarm of bees trying to sting her to death in another. In the next her arm was a gaping wound, her hand a mangled mess, the white of her bones visible beneath the gore. She remembered a better place. There, the wound became a burn, her skin charred black. She slipped sideways into Home and slammed into the wall of her kitchen. For a moment, blind with pain, she stayed there, slumped against the wall, trying to stay on her feet. The arm was whole, here, in this place, the pain a deep, dark, burning-cold memory she could not shake.

Catching her breath, Kimi stood, pushed away from the wall, and shifted one last time. She was darkstuff, striding across space, the stars tangled in her bones. Her arm was gone below the elbow. She gathered stars and shaped them into bones. Ulna, radius, carpals, metacarpals, phalanges. She tested the shape, making a fist made of stars then she gathered stardust and formed the muscles. As a final touch, she gathered light and shaped it into skin, etching spirals into the surface. The darkness touched the spirals and slid away. The golden arm lifted of its own accord and the spirals converged and cast a shadow of themselves out just beyond her body. Half shield, half weapon, it stood guard around her.

When she thought she had the wound under control, she let the stars go and shifted Home again. The pain was now just a dull ache, a body memory to remind her that she was flesh and blood and though she could walk through time, she could still die in a thousand different ways.

Grabbing a beer from the fridge, she went into the bathroom and popped a handful of pain killers into her mouth, washing them down with the ale that tasted vaguely of peppercorns.

The shower beckoned. She could not remember the last time she had bathed. Her brain went in search of memories, ones that belonged in this gravity-well. Nothing was linear. Time flowed sideways when you jumped. She scrubbed her hands over her face and through her dark hair. Definitely could use a shower. She turned the water on and twisted the handle towards hot, letting it run while she stripped off the t-shirt and sweat pants and tossed them into the hamper. No matter what she wore when she left, she always came back in a baggy t-shirt and sweat pants. It was a thing her mind did, the Communion techs said, when you thought of Home and stepped through the veil. She had a drawer-full of the identical clothes.

Stepping into the shower she let the spray beat against her arm, the heat driving the last of the cold from her bones.

Twenty minutes later, dressed in clean sweats and a tank top, beer in hand, she set the alarm on her think-pad, wandered out onto her deck, and stared up at the night sky.

Only the brightest stars were visible, the rest drowned by the city’s light pollution. Somewhere out there, a battle was raging, starship against starship. The Communion, the alliance of beings intent on keeping peace among the hundreds of planets boasting a sentient species or two, fought back the invading Reapers, whose only agenda was to harvest what they could and kill any who stood in their way.

It was a war few on this planet knew about. Kimi stared at the city lights. From up here on the 31st floor of her highrise, the street lights looked like stars laid out in unnaturally regular orbits. Streets and houses and schools and businesses lay hidden under those lights, asleep in every sense of the word. Even awake, none of them ever looked up, wondering who else lived in the universe, wondering how they had managed to avoid the attentions of those who would take a lush planet like this and strip it down to bedrock.

A bright light flared above her head, as something entered the atmosphere. It broke into a half dozen fiery pieces as it skimmed the dense envelope of the upper air before burning itself out in a brilliant flash of green light.

Kimi smiled grimly. The bug ship’s orbit had finally deteriorated enough to hit atmo. This was not some random asteroid. The color was a dead give away. She had done that. Killed the enemy corsair and half the bugs who were running it. They were fools, those bugs, thinking they could breech the Communion defenses around this planet. The defense batteries let nothing through.

A frown settled between her brows. The beings allied in the Reaper camp were diverse. The bugs were the Reaper’s dogs of war. Point and release. They wanted this place. How long before those damned intelligent beasties figured out how to get around the network of killer satellites that hung in the furthest orbit, all facing outward, watching?

The generals of a half dozen continents had launched the weapons decades ago, thinking they were meant to be pointed at their enemies on the planet. The moment the network was complete, the Communion sent a starship to hijacked their programming with their own AI software. Now the satellites watched the dark void beyond the edges of this solar system, the last line of defense against something few on this planet believed to exist. Few even understood what those flashes meant as the bug ships burned to cinders above their heads.

Kimi went back into her apartment and checked her think-pad. Nothing needed her attention. She should rest and heal but the adrenaline was still running hot in her veins. Slipping her feet into a pair of canvas shoes, she put an audio-plug in her ear, grabbed her keys, and let herself out. At the elevator she pushed the penthouse button.

It opened onto an open-air nightclub. Jazz played softly amid the glass tables, pin lights, and potted plants. She went to the bar and ordered a gimlet. Caleb, the bartender, made it the way she liked it, with fresh limes and Blackfriars gin. She had a running account up here, one the Communion paid regularly. Finding a table near the glass wall at the edge of the roof, she took a sip of her drink and sighed as the little knots between her shoulders relaxed a bit.

Someone sat down in the chair opposite. She scowled and turned, thinking him a desperate lounge lizard. She froze. He had the stink of portal travel still clinging to the edges of his form.

“You are a hard person to find,” he said. There was a scar high on one cheek and another on his chin that had taken a chunk out of his lower lip. A gold ring pierced his lip there, as if he were proud of the scar and wanted people to notice it. Long ebony hair blended with a black leather coat over black silk pajamas that ended mid-calf, revealing the finest pair ox leather boots she had ever seen. The man knew how to dress. The leather coat was not an affectation. It hid something, weapons perhaps, under its stiff panels. He was a Reaper. He could be nothing else.

Kimi cursed her lack-witted brain for walking out of her apartment without a weapon. She had become complacent. Or was it just denial? The war would never come here, to her town. She resisted the urge to run.

“You were on the bug ship, weren’t you,” she said.

“On? Hardly. Linked. I was watching when you slid through onto the reactor deck and stole their core. Stupid. Foolhardy. Brilliant. Why are you still alive?”

“I can’t tell you all my secrets,” she said coolly.

“I particularly enjoyed that trick where you broke the hull and let the hard vacuum finish the little buggers off. None were alive when the ship burned up on entry.”

“Enjoyed? Are you here seeking revenge?” She pretended to relax, even bringing the glass to her lips to take a tiny sip of her cocktail.

“Where did you take the reactor?”

Kimi stared at him over the top of her glass.

“Oh, not to worry,” he said. “I just want to know so I can avoid that gate until the hard radiation clears. Twenty thousand years should do the trick. I thought the Communion was against such wanton destruction.”

“Infinite are the levels of heaven,” Kimi said, raising her palm to the sky.

The dark haired man stared at her, his eyes glittering. “Enigmatic to the last, I see.”

That sounded like a threat. Kimi put her glass down.

“Why are you here? What do you want?” she asked, starting to get annoyed.

“I want to offer you a deal.”

“Deal?” Kimi snorted. “What can someone of your ilk offer me?”

“We do not want all of it,” he said, waving at the city. “Just a portion. Give us a continent. One you have no emotional ties to. Let us strip it down to bare rock and we will leave and never come back. There are six billion humanoids on this planet. Too many. The food riots are done but the water wars have only just begun. Let us help you cull your garden.”

“What would you do with those you cull?” Kimi knew the answer but she wanted to keep him talking.

“Fat are your children, Mother,” the Reaper said. He had the nerve to smack his lips.

Kimi flinched and looked out over the city, shaking her head.

“You have come too late. I have grown fond of all the places on this planet, plant and animal and yes, dare I say it, even the humans. What kind of Mother would I be, to give you even one of my children?”

“Surely, you must realize that your garden needs tending. They are nothing like you, your children. Not one of them can slid around corners and walk the Nothingness between the worlds, as you can. They just eat, fuck, and die. What purpose does it serve, keeping your spawn in such dire straights?”

It was too soon. Her arm ached horribly as she spread her fingers wide and let her fingertips skim the fabric of the veil that marked the edge of this place. Beyond was the Nothingness between reality-wells.

A mech-warrior slid through the veil, gun already drawn and charged. The black Reaper’s form wavered and began the transition to somewhere else but he was too slow. The blast blew his head and torso into a pink mist. The rest of him fell twitching to the tiles.

The mech scanned the bar. Caleb and the scattering of patrons stood frozen, their mouths hanging open which was probably a good thing. Any motion right now might be taken as an act of aggression.

The robot turned its sensors towards her. “Will that be all, Mother?” it asked.

“You’ve made a mess,” she said watching Caleb’s eyes.

The mech nodded. It pushed a button on its arm. A bubble formed, engulfed the body and the blood splatters, and took them elsewhere.

“Mother?” asked the mech, bowing its head. Kimi smiled at it.

“Thank you for your service. That will be all.”

The mech-warrior slid through the veil and was gone.

Kimi picked up her gimlet and drained her glass. She held the glass up and wriggled it in Caleb’s direction. The bartender nodded slowly and then set about making her another drink. It took him a long time, as if the twisting of space/time in his vicinity was catching and he was caught in a time vortex.

She was re-building a hand made of stars when he put a new drink in front of her and took her old glass. Kimi looked up, sucking the pain into the back of her mind until later.

Kimi smiled at Caleb as he paused, looking confused.

“Do you want to ask me something?” she asked.

“About what?” Caleb asked.

“About what you just saw,” she suggested.

“I … I saw nothing.”

Kimi nodded. “Nothing. Exactly. Thank you, Caleb.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said, turning away.

Nothing was what his brain told him to see. A mech-warrior and a dismembered body had been here and then they had not. The human brain was a wondrous thing. If it needed to erase memories to keep the being inside sane, then erase it would. Caleb’s brain, along with everyone else in the bar, had just edited reality. The last few minutes had been replaced with a loop of memory from the moments before the Reaper had appeared at her table.

It was why the humans would never watch the starships burn up in the upper atmo and think of anything but shooting stars.

Kimi contemplated the last thing the Reaper had said.

Surely, you must realize that your garden needs tending. … What purpose does it serve, keeping your spawn in such dire straights?”

“Too late.” she said. “You have come too late. Six billion minds, linked, not by the twists and turns of space-time, but by the network of electronic devices that mimic my mind well enough. Linked, they become a weapon. When they are ready, I will use them to hunt you out and destroy you once and for all.”

Alliard de Azul

Alliard de Azul

 

Fhearghail was the name scrawled in red paint on the side of the mailbox tacked to a post that leaned drunkenly to one side. Alliard de Azul, Hunter-Wizard to The Brenin, king of the Middle Reaches, eyed the name sourly and reined Dax off the road and down the long driveway. Driveway was a kind word. A pair of deeply rutted wagon tracks ran downhill and disappeared over a rise. Just beyond, he could see the sun-bleached roof shingles of a half dozen buildings nestled among a stand of cottonwoods. After miles and miles of treeless, dusty plain and bone dry fields of golden grain, the sight of green was a relief.

Dax smelled water. Despite the heat, the black destrier lifted his great, platter-sized hooves high and pranced down the path. Alliard let him have his way as he peered out from under his wide-brimmed hat and squinted against the glare of the afternoon sun. A year had passed since leaving Summerfell and the creases around his eyes were a permanent thing now.

This was the third farmstead he had visited since leaving the village of Wad this morning and he was only half done. The county tax roles had twenty kids of about the right age living along this creek. Alliard had tried to pry information out of the constable back in Wad but knowing a bit about Alliard’s mission, the old man could not be persuaded to betray any of the people who paid his salary. No one liked witch hunts, least of all Alliard but times were grim and someone had to hold back the dark tides.

His welcome so far had ranged from cool to downright frigid. The King’s badge on his vest did not impress these farmers. Summerfell was a long way away from the high plains of the Middle Reaches and news from the capitol took months to filter into the back country. They were simple people trying to cope with a shift in the luck of the land as drought and insects ravaged the crops and plagues of every sort took half the children to the edge of death and beyond. Losing the God Stone had had dire consequences.

Halfway down the cart-track he rode into a tangle-hex.

Ears flat, Dax tried to dance out from under him as the scars on Alliard’s skin flared hot and bright. Muttering a counter-spell under his breath, Alliard reined Dax to a stop. The horse stood, skin shivering, not happy at all to be here. The wizard patted his mount’s shoulder. “Good boy. That was nothing. Just a hedge-witch spell. Amateur stuff. We’ve felt worse.”

Dax lifted his ears and flicked them nervously.

That had been a lie. The spell was like nothing he had ever felt before. Powerful but vague. More warning than harmful intent. She did not want him here, this witch. She did not want a lot of things here. Dark things. Magical things. Shades and shadows and ghosts. Demons and wizards. Wizards like himself. A lesser wizard might have forgotten why he was riding down this path and turned around.

Alliard sat for a long time listening to her magic, trying to understand the mind that made it. The tangle-hex was not a warding spell. She did not mean to deflect nor repel. She meant to entangle and entrap those who were not strong enough to back away. She kept them, those weaker demons, for later. Why? Why did she do that? What did she do with them?

Alliard could not shake the image that sprang to mind, of a funnel-web spider whose network of threads spread wide and invisible across the forest floor. All threads led to the heart of the web. A Hunter-Wizard was not a demon nor a shade but something bigger and more powerful. He was a being that had walked into her web and shredded it with his power. She knew this, knew he was here. How could she not? She would be expecting him.

Still he did not move.

Alliard worried at the puzzle. A decent hedge witch would have deflected the shadow world. This witch wanted to catch it. The Hunter-Wizard looked into the heart of her magic and began to understand why everything was upside down and backwards in this county. In the center of that web sat something so pure, so bright, so ineffably powerful it wrenched at his heart. In that moment he began to love her though he had yet to lay eyes on her. Like him, the demons and wraiths would be caught in her thrall and they would just keep coming back. She had no choice but to dispose of them in some way. Or contain them. What exactly did she do with the plague of demons that she must have been catching all this time?

For how long? The God Stone had begun to fade twelve years ago. Had she been sucking down its power to help her fight the Darkness? This begged the question: Should he stop her? Was she not doing his job for him?

A soft, gentle tendril of magic coiled around the base of his brain, telling him things. Alliard shuddered in pleasure. She did not like killing, not even the shadow creatures, not even powerful wizards. Especially not wizards.

“Hmph,” grunted Alliard, shaking the brash young witch out of his mind. “We are safe enough for now,” he told Dax. “Let’s go.”

Nudging Dax in the ribs, man and horse continued down the path.

The farmstead had three large houses, two cottages, four barns, and a dozen sheds and lean-tos scattered among the sprawl of paddocks and pens. The large houses were built around a circle full of gardens, patches of green lawn, paths, and water pools. Alliard stared in wonder at this incredible creation set in the middle of such a barren and arid grassland. Flowers filled the air with perfume. Butterflies, bees, and birds were everywhere. Alliard stopped at a spring-fed trough filled with clear water and let Dax drink his fill while he took in the wondrous sight. A low fence marked the garden’s edges, meant to keep the stock from intruding where they were not wanted.

Two towheaded children peeked over an ornately carved gate.

“Hello,” Alliard said. The pair giggled and scampered away towards one of the houses. They were the wrong age. He did not pursue them.

A trio of teenage girls came around the corner of the another house and sauntered up the path towards him. Brightly embroidered girdles showed off their small waists and pert little breasts. The hems of their simple homespun skirts swayed around bare feet and naked ankles, teasing him with every step.

Alliard studied them intently. Near the right age but no power peeked out from behind those haughty faces. He touched the brim of his hat. “Thank you for the water, Good Sisters. My Dax was mighty thirsty. It is a long ride up from Summerfell.”

The oldest girl eyed the badge on his chest. “You a bounty hunter?”

“No, ma’am. I do not care about criminals, one way or the other. I am looking for a witch.”

The eyes of the children got wide. “I don’t know about you folk in Summerfell, but we don’t cotton to magical nonsense in these parts,” the oldest girl said coolly.

“No? Oh, well. I was mistaken. The farmer down the creek, Mr. Calder, said that some of the kids on this farm might be fey.”

That was not what Farmer Calder had said. He said it was unnatural that the epidemics that had raged through the countryside, striking every household over and over again last winter had not touched the Fhearghail farm. No one had fallen ill, not even with a sniffle. Alliard had not told him that he should count himself lucky as no one in the county had died last winter, when everywhere else in the Middle Reaches the death toll had filled graveyards.

“Harmon Calder is a pervert,” snorted one of the younger girls. “He don’t like us ’cause we won’t let him get under our skirts.”

The rest of the children nodded, “Pervert,” they echoed. Alliard stared at them, startled by such blatant honesty from little girls.

More children seemed to pop out of every hedge and bush in the garden. Three children became six, then eight, and then ten as the two littlest ones returned.

“Where are your parents? Are there older boys as well as girls in your household?”

“Everyone is out in the fields. It is harvest time. They will come in at sunset to eat. You are welcome to stay for dinner. I got a couple of hens stewing on the back of the stove. I’ll just add a few more turnips and a parsnip or two and make an extra batch of biscuits. One more mouth will not make much difference.”

“That is kind of you. I don’t mind if I do. Do you have a place to put my horse?”

“Jaym,” the girl said, pushing one of the little boys forward. “Take him around to the horse barn.”

Jaym hopped over the fence and scampered towards the big black horse. Dax put his ears back but the boy seemed purposefully oblivious to the horse’s moods, clicking his tongue and patted the big black shoulder as he reached for the reins where Alliard had dropped them. Dax’s head snaked down to nip but Alliard stepped next to the tiny boy and put his palm flat on the horse’s neck, reminding Dax that he was not allowed to chomp on children.

Dax snorted irritably but let the boy tug him into motion.

Jaym led them around the edge of the resplendent garden, through a large gate into a pasture and down the hill to the tiny rivulet that ran through the tall grass. The horse barn was across the creek and up on a small rise. By the time Alliard was pushing up the bar and opening the double doors, half the children on the farm had formed a line behind them. Alliard pretended not to notice.

The barn was old, the wood weathered to a silver patina, but it was full of fresh mowed hay and smelled of grass and horses and sunshine. Alliard put Dax in an empty stall and then followed Jaym to the back of the barn. Grain boxes lined a wall and feedbags hung in a well-ordered array. He measured out Dax’s usual rations and brought them back, hanging the feedbag over his nose. Saddle and blanket got thrown over a rail.

The children hung from the hayloft or perched on the railings of the empty stalls, out of his way, watching him curiously.

Taking a pair of brushes out of his saddlebags, Alliard began to brush the dust out of Dax’s coat. One of the tiny boys came up and watched as he brushed. “This is Dax,” Alliard said handing him a brush. “Careful of his feet. The feathers get tangled and he does not like it when I comb them out.”

The boy nodded.

Two more children appeared, holding brushes and combs of their own. Alliard stepped out of their way, concentrating on the war horse’s broad back and mane, letting the children take his legs and tail. Dax closed his eyes and munched contentedly.

“There sure are a lot of you. Are you all brothers and sisters?” Alliard asked, not sure how to broach the subject of their magical sibling.

“And cousins,” one of the kids said. Alliard did not turn his head. He could tell the age of the speakers by the lisp of their soft palates.

“Me and horses like each other,” Alliard said. “I got my first full-size horse on my twelfth birthday. I used to ride him for miles everyday. My favorite memory of my youth. Any of you twelve?”

“Dusty is. He is out on the harvest driving the mules.”

“Anyone else Dusty’s age?”

“Seally just turned twelve,” chirped the littlest one.

“Hush. Don’t talk about Seally,” someone said.

“Why not?” Alliard asked, careful to seem totally preoccupied with Dax’s mane.

“Cause she’s crazy,” sneered the other tiny one, obviously mimicking something he had overheard.

That got him a knock on the side of the head from a bigger sister.

“The healers can give you medicine for that,” Alliard ventured.

“We don’t tell the adults.”

“Except Grammy. Grammy knew how to keep a secret.”

“Grammy said Seally was special.”

“Grammy built a garden in the middle of a desert. Pa says she was crazy, too.”

“No. Gramps built the garden. Grammy just made things grow in it.”

Alliard felt a squabble rising among the siblings and decided to re-direct their chatter. “Did Grammy explain what special meant?” Alliard asked.

“Naw.” the tiny one said sadly. “She died.”

“Who? Seally?” Alliard’s heart skipped a beat as terror washed through him. He could not lose her. Not now, not after all he had done to get here.

“No, silly. Grammy. She was 92. That is very old.”

“Yes,” breathed Alliard in relief. “Yes it is. Do you think Seally would like to comb Dax?”

“Sure!” the littlest boy said.

“But you won’t find her,” the older girl said.

“Yeah, she hides.”

“Will I see her at dinner?” Alliard asked hopefully.

“Of course,” snorted another sister as if he asked a stupid question.

“Pa beats her when she shows up late for meals.” the little one said.

Alliard clutched his brush and tried to control the rage that wanted to turn his mind red.

“Yeah,” breathed another. “Pa don’t like her much.”

“Yep. She is always at the table when we sit down to eat.”

Alliard looked up at the oddness of that comment. It was said as if Seally were invisible until she decided not to be. Maybe she was.

“Why does your Pa not like Seally?”

The children looked at each other, wide-eyed.

“They always fight,” the oldest one said. “He pushes her but she don’t back down, not even from him.”

“What do you mean, push?” Alliard asked. He could not help asking. A fool, he was, to show interest in her at this stage of the game.

The oldest one shrugged, not wanting to talk about it.”

“She found this orphan fox, once,” one of the pre-teens said. “Raised it up from a pup. It used to follow her around like a dog. Then ….”

The girl grew silent and the other children looked away and shuffled their feet nervously in the deep straw.

“What happened?” Alliard asked.

“Pa shot it. Called it vermin and shot it,” the little boy at his side said. “Seally didn’t care. She just turned around and walked away.”

“See what I mean?” the oldest girl said. “It is a war. He thought he had won but she walked away and he had to pick up the body and toss it in the trash bin himself. I think he expected her to cry and take it away to bury it like one of Ma’s dead-born babies.”

“Seally don’t cry no more,” the littlest one said, ”not even when he beats her.”

The oldest girl drew near and touched the back of his hand with her soft fingers. “No,” she whispered. “She just gets mad. Killing mad. You can see it in her eyes. They’re going to take it too far one day and one of them will be dead at the end, mark my words. You’re the King’s man. Talk to Pa. Make him leave her alone.”

“I will try,” Alliard promised. He did not want to talk about Pa and Seally anymore. He gathered his brushes and returned them to the saddlebags. Just before shutting the stall door he pressed his forehead against Dax’s cheek. He was trembling and for the life of him he did not know why. He wanted to weep for that dead fox and for the child who could not grieve a pet in the presence of her brutal father and he wanted to weep for himself, for he meant to break every code he had ever sworn to uphold and kill her Pa before the day was done.

They returned to the garden in time to find the three oldest daughters laying out place settings on long trestle tables under an apple tree in the center of the garden. Alliard helped them. He filled pitchers of water from a spring and used them to fill the mismatched glasses and cups and mugs at each plate. A young cook handed him a large crock of freshly churned butter and told him to fill the butterplates. The young ones showed him where the clay bowls were stored in the cold house and helped him carry a dozen out to the tables and fill them, placing them next to the baskets of fresh baked bread and biscuits. Bowls full of greens and raw vegetables drenched in olive oil and black vinegar followed.

Just before dusk, a wagon full of people, sweaty, dirty, and covered in grain chaff, rolled down the road and stopped at the water trough by the gate into the garden. They piled out and fought the mules for a place at the trough, dunking their heads and shedding outer shirts to wash their arms up to their shoulders. Little girls appeared and handed out towels so they could dry. The libations changed the dozen people from monochromatic sameness into old and young, male and female.

Alliard moved to stand next to the gate, hands on his gun belt, his right hand near enough to the butt of his Colt without touching it. The adults studied him, asked whispered questions of their children, and then eyed his badge. Alliard, in turn, sized up the men, trying to figure out who was married to whom and who the children belonged to by the color of hair, eyes, and skin. The three men were brothers, similar as peas in a pod with their black hair and blue eyes. Their wives were the source of the blond, red, and brunette hair, the pale skin and bronze, the black eyes and the blue.

The oldest boys led the mules down to the gate into the pasture. There they were unhitched and let loose.

Alliard let a little of his power bleed out around the edges of his body. The scars on his arms and back did not flare into life but itched a little as he took it all in: feeling the joy of the mules as they kicked up their heels and danced down to the creek; tasting the exhaustion of the women and the barely contained hormonal urges of the young men. Even the frantic haste of the cooks inside the cook-house flavored the ambient. But mostly he tasted the three adult males coming towards him, ready for a fight.

The men came through the gate, watching him warily. Alliard nodded politely and held out his hand. The three shook it, making introductions: Kyle, Dell, and Zander. Alliard studied them, trying to get a hint of the type of man behind each of those pairs of blue eyes. The eldest of them, Kyle, had a hard glint in his eye. The youngest, Zander, was soft but he had a shifty squint and was unable to meet Alliard’s eyes.

“You’ve come about the God Stone in the Temple, haven’t you?” said Dell, the middle one. “I heard the King had gone off the deep end about its death – that he was searching for something to replace it. You come a long way for nothing, King’s man. I don’t know if you noticed but we’re a little short on magic stones around here.”

“The King knows he cannot replace the magic that has kept this kingdom safe for these past 100,000 years. He has decided to hunt down the purveyors of darkness and punish them himself, for surely their evil is what killed the God Stone,” Alliard said, watching the eyes of the three men for any hint of guilt.

Kyle, the eldest and the dominant one, lifted his chin towards the dinner tables. “It has been a long day and everyone is hungry. Save the politics for after dinner.”

They seated Alliard between Dell and his young wife, Isha. Supper was simple fare but there was plenty and no one went hungry.

“So, which of this brood is yours?” Alliard asked Isha genially.

Thus began a long conversation that listed the children by name, age, and parentage. Alliard did not have to pretend to be extremely interested but Seally’s name did not come up in Isha’s list.

“How many was that?” Alliard laughed. “Did we miss any?”

“Two of Kyle’s daughters have left home. One is married. The other has gone off to teacher’s college in Slepardtown.”

Still no Seally.  In an agony of curiosity, Alliard bit his tongue and waited.

The dinner plates were cleared and bowls of berries and clotted cream appeared from the cold house. A white cake was brought out, sliced, and put in the bottom of deep bowls to hold the toppings. Alliard took a bite and paused. The cake was magical in its lightness. It melted on his tongue and left the lingering taste of lavender, honey, and blue sky.

The young wife watched his face, smiling.

“No one makes cake like Seally.”

Alliard took a deep breath and smiled back. “Which one is Seally, again?. I will be sure to thank her after dinner.

Isha looked around. “That’s odd. She was just there. She must have gone into the kitchen to help with the washing up.”

Alliard ground his teeth together and smiled.

The women left to help in the clean-up leaving Alliard with the men. Darkness settled on the garden. Lanterns were lit and hung from the apple tree. A bottle of apple brandy and four glasses found their way to the table.

“So. My Bressa says you are looking for a witch.” Dell said, watching for a reaction. When Alliard did no more than grunt, he added, “Says Harmon Calder pointed you in our direction.”

“I did not take it seriously. Magic is only apparent to the magical. Harmon Calder is shockingly lacking in that department,” Alliard said with a shrug.

The brothers laughed and lifted their glasses in a toast.

“To the King!” cried Dell.

“To the King,” agreed Alliard, lifting his glass to his lips.

Many toasts followed after that. Zander turned red-faced and after the third or fourth glass of brandy he leaned heavily across the table and leered at Alliard.

“Hey? The king pay you good gold to wander the land for him?”

“I am paid well for my services,” Alliard agreed, not sure where this was going.

“I bet you get lonely on the road. You lonely, Wizard?”

“I meet many people,” Alliard said with a shrug.

“A man should not be alone for so long. I got a couple of girls the right age. What if I sold you one?”

Alliard gave Zander a cold stare. “I have no wish to marry.”

“Who said anything about marriage,” Zander said and then he threw back his head and laughed at his own joke.

Alliard looked over at his two older brothers. Both were scowling at their baby brother but they did nothing to quiet him. Instead they turned their attention to Alliard, curious to see how he would react.

“What say you, Hunter? Got a taste for sweet young meat? Or do you like the other-side of the sheets? I gotta boy about the right age.”

Alliard’s right hand dropped to his gun, his thumb flicking the tie-down loop off the trigger. Kyle did not miss that motion. He reached out to hush Zander while Dell put his hand on Alliard’s elbow.

“If you are selling your children,” Alliard said, the cold rage he was feeling seeping out along the lines of his scars, “there is only one I am interested in. The one named Seally.”

Kyle snarled. “Bastard. She is not for sale.”

Alliard laughed at how easy that had been. A little push, a little dark magic, and they did exactly what he wanted. “Sweet and young and still a virgin, I’ll wager, unless of course, you have already sampled her wares.”

Roaring in fury, Kyle rose to his feet, knocking his bench over. Zander laughed.

“You can’t have her. She is the one thing denied him and it drives him mad,” the youngest brother crowed.

Kyle pulled back a meaty fist and punched Zander in the side of the head. Zander dropped like a stone as Dell dove over the table, trying to stop him. He caught his brother’s arm as Kyle aimed another blow at his foundering baby brother.

Alliard was on his feet, hand not yet on his gun, backing away, ready for anything.

“I am the King’s man. If I want her, I will take her. There is nothing you can do to stop me,” Alliard said evenly.

“I will kill her first before I let you have her!” seethed Kyle as Dell got him in a choke hold and brought him to his knees.

Isha was at his side in the next moment, tugging at his elbow, interfering with his gun hand.. “You have to leave. It will only get worse. Dell will not be able to hold him for long.”

“If he touches a King’s man, he will die.”

“While his children watch? Have mercy on us,” Isha begged.

Alliard shook her hand off and glared down at her.

“Find Seally. Send her to the barn. I will wait for her there.”

“She will not want finding when he is in a rage. You are a fool just like all the other fools who came looking for her. Accept your defeat and leave gracefully.”

Alliard turned and stomped out of the garden, retracing his steps to the barn. The rage he had been feeling just kept building. Who else had come looking for her? He had tasted her magic. She was untouched by the hands of men. How had she managed to keep the randy males on this farm from taking her virginity?

How? Why, her father, of course. That thought burst into his head, bringing him to a halt. He turned and nearly went back, meaning to kill Kyle once and for all. Kyle had staked a claim on her and all the other men respected his territorial claim. Seally had to fight off only one male. Her father.

Dax squealed. He had caught Alliard’s mood in the ambient, perhaps. A loud thump rang through the still evening air. If he didn’t get up there and calm him, Dax would tear that barn down one stick at a time trying to get to his rider.

Alliard turned and ran up the hill. Time to saddle up, cast a summoning spell, and call that fool little witch up out of the creekbottom.

The doors to the barn were hanging open.

Alliard swore and raced on. Thundering into the barn, his Colt already out, he spun about, looking for an ambush. Instead, he saw a child holding the reins of a blood-red mare with black points talking to Dax over the stable door. All three of them looked up as he entered, and he could almost swear the horses were thinking the same things she was.

“Fool man,” Seally said. “Mine is a family with a long history of witches. They all pretend to be without magic but they know when they have been ensorcelled. He will not let you live, having done what you did to him. It is going to take all my skills to get you out of this county alive.”

Alliard noticed a lot of things in that next moment. The black hair and blue eyes identical to her father’s. The heart shaped face. The long, thin frame that promised much as she grew into it. The riding boots and duster. The mare’s saddle, a bed-roll and saddlebags tied onto the back. A wide-brimmed hat hanging from the saddle horn. Impossibly, Dax was saddled and ready to go, as well.

“How did you …?” he asked, re-holstering his gun.

“Hush. We need to ride,” the girl said as she led the mare out into the darkness.

Alliard unlatched the stall door. Dax surged past him, unwilling to lose sight of the mare. He caught the saddle horn as it passed by and kicked a boot-heel over the cantle. Once outside, he finished climbing into the saddle. It took him a bit to retrieve the reins but Dax knew exactly what he was supposed to do. He put his nose next to the mare’s hip and stayed there.

They rode across the pasture in a ground-eating stride. Not once did they meet a fence nor stop to open a gate though he could have sworn the pasture had been no more than a paddock. Sometime during the night Alliard looked up and found that the stars had gone strange.

“What …?”

“Hush,” Seally said. “We need to get through this part without waking the neighbors.” Off in the tall grass, something roared a challenge. The mare surged forward and Dax followed.

The next time he looked up, a pink moon hung in the sky. She was riding them through alternate dimensions, though for the life of him, he could not feel the transitions.

“How do you … ?”

“Shh,” she hissed. “The giants don’t like humans.”

“Err?” Giants?

“Be patient,” she whispered. “All in good time.” In the next moment the pink moon was gone. An enoumous lightning storm brewed behind a range of mountains on the horizon. He did not recognize their profile. Her farm had been a thousand miles from the nearest mountain.

At dawn they slipped out of a world of twisted red stone and stepped onto a well manicured lawn. Seally drew her mare to a halt and looked back at Alliard, a smug look on her face. Alliard looked up and sputtered.

“It is the Temple.”

“Yes,” she said. “The Temple of the Stone Goddess in the heart of Delmanthia. I have brought you back to your beginning.” She reined the mare around, perhaps intent on leaving.

“Wait!”

“Do not come back to Wad, Alliard de Azul. I will not be able to save you the next time you stir up that hornet’s nest.”

“Please, wait. Do you not want to see it?”

“See what?” she asked, reining the mare around.

“The Stone God.”

“The stone that held the goddess? It is an empty shell, you know. She grew weary of her burden and when I found her, she recognized something in me and went home. Apologize to the king for me about that. There will be no persuading her to come back now, though I have crossed the Veil more times than I can count to ask her. She was well and truly fed up with this mess and now she trusts that I will take care of it, fool goddess that she is.”

“Wait. What? Who does she think you are?”

“Hmm,” Seally said with a shrug. “I have no idea. Someone who can clean up messes, apparently.”

The small girl reined her mare around one more time.

Alliard was in agony at the thought of her leaving him. “You don’t …” he called. She paused and waited for him to finish. “Why go back? Stay here. The king will make you a place by his side. You will never know hardship or … adversity again.”

You will never have to deal with a brutal father or hostile siblings again, was what he wanted to say.

She smiled at him kindly.

“Dear sweet Alliard. Who will take care of Grammy’s garden? Who will keep the girls safe? Who will corral the wild impulses of the men in my family? Who will contain the rage of my Pa? Who will keep the whole bunch of them from killing each other? Who will keep the chaos from claiming the babies. Who will keep the plagues of lesser evils from descending upon the people of the high plains?”

“But the world needs a powerful sorceress to keep the Darkness from eating away at its edges. Stay here, with me. We will fight the chaos together. Perhaps you could grow to love me eventually, after you are grown, of course.”

“Of course,” she said, dimples appearing at the corners of her mouth. She found him amusing. Alliard looked away, feeling foolish. He was nearly three times her age and far too old for infatuations. She could never love him, surely.

“Impatient man!” the girl said gently. “I have only just turned twelve. The old biddy left without a by-your-leave or a list of instructions. The world was like a run-away team of over-bred stallions. She handed me the reins but I was at a loss as to what I should do with them. Give me time.”

Alliard groaned. Nothing she said gave him any comfort.

“What should I tell the king?”

“Tell him I am learning. I am making mistakes but I am learning.”

“There are wizards here who would teach you what you need to know.”

“I had a very good teacher,” the child said, her eyes laughing. “Did you not see Grammy’s garden?”

“Seally!” Alliard cried in agony as he watched the fabric of the world ripple around her.

In the next moment she was beside him. Behind her stretched a plain of ice and snow. The mare’s breath blew out in an icy fog thought he and Dax still stood upon the green lawn in Dalmanthia.

She touched his arm and he grew still as that coil of warmth curled around the base of his mind once more. It was a promise, that touch.

Alliard looked down into her eyes and dared to reach out and touch her cheek. She allowed it, but only for a moment. The mare shifted impatiently underneath her. She reined her about in a circle and the looked back at Alliard.

“You have been in my garden. Inside that circle. There, life abides under my rule. Outside it is chaos. But everyday I push the edges of my rule out farther into the world. Be patient. That edge is going to find you eventually. I will not always be twelve.”

The world shivered and Alliard and Dax were alone.

Alliard looked down at his great black mount. “We have to go talk to the king but for the life of me I do not know what I should tell him. She wants to be left alone but others are looking for her. I would feel better if the king sent reinforcements to the Fort in Dubolly. They are a day’s ride away in case something bad happens.”

Dax snorted.

“Yeah. That would piss her off, fer sure. Maybe I should start a wizard school. Somewhere close but not too close. By the time her circle finds me maybe I will have figured out how she does half the things she can do.”

Dax began walking in the direction of his stable at the king’s palace. Alliard sighed and allowed it.

He thought about that future day when she was of age and she came looking for him. Alliard laughed. He could wait.

Phi

Drill

Night Elf

 

Prince Mandrill, fifth son of the Elven King Farandel, holder of all the lands between the Jagged Mountains to the north and the shallow Salton Sea to the south, wandered through the castle and up the steps of the north tower. Master Seeta was busy with his scales, measuring out precise amounts of salts and depositing them in tiny bottles for later use, labeling each with a meticulous and tiny script.

Drill did not interrupt the human wizard, but circled the great round room, touching the bindings of random books on the shelves and tapping the glass bottles holding the pickled remains of random animals. He picked up a long thin flute made from the bone of a bird, running it through his fingers absently as his eyes surveyed the room, seeing everything and nothing at all.

“My dear prince,” Master Seeta said as he tapped the last particles off his tiny glass plate, “that is quite fragile and it is made out of the wing bone of a long extinct Roc so I would appreciate it if you put it back where you got it.”

Drill complied. He buried his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels, a frown on his face.

Seeta put down his scoops and ladles, sighing in exasperation. “I see I am not going to get any peace until you say what you have come to say.”

Drill looked up at his teacher, a blank look on his face. “What?”

“You came up here for a reason,” Seeta said patiently.

Drill frowned. “Did I? Do you know what the reason was?”

“Gah!” Seeta cried, throwing his hands in the air. “What is wrong with you? Are you ill or just caught up in the malaise of youth? Do you need a tonic to snap you out of it?”

“I am sorry. There was a reason. I am sure of it. But it has slipped my mind. A lot of things have been slipping out of my mind of late. All I know is I have been trying to talk to you for days only to find myself outside the castle standing in a field with no memory of how I got there. It is most vexing. Have you done this to gain your privacy while you study? It is very unobliging of you to muddy the minds of half the castle inhabitants.”

“Errr?” Master Seeta grunted, staring in consternation at the boy. “It was not a very good spell if you managed to get past it.”

“Ah. I had to think of nothing and everything all at once, making sure the thoughts of the north tower and you did not find their way into my consciousness. I has taken me all morning to get here.” Drill swayed as he said this, as if some terrible gale battered at him.

The old sorcerer stared at his young student. Then he strode across the room and grabbed his gold shod oak staff. Muttering under his breath, he brought the staff up and then slammed the shod end against the heavy timbers of the floor.

Drill staggered as the circle of power washed over him, negating the spell that had befuddled his mind. Seeta caught his elbow and quided him over to a chair, pushing the scrolls and books onto the floor to make room for Drill. Then he went to a cupboard and poured a liberal dash of brandy into a crystal goblet.

“Drink this.” Seeta said, shoving the goblet into his hands.

Drill drank and then coughed as the fumes filled the back of his nose.

Seeta grabbed his chin and forced his face up, brushing the shock of ebony hair from his face that he might stare into Drills clear blue eyes. He grunted in satisfaction at what he found there.

“Now. Tell me again. What is happening out in the world and how did you stumble into a witch’s befuddlement curse?”

Drill took another sip as he composed his thoughts. “Something is loose in the cedar woods that grow on the banks of the River Moie . I think it came over the mountains with the last storm and now it lays claim to all the deep glens along our northern border. Hunting parties have gone astray. Scouts have gotten lost. Shepherds have gone in after stray lambs only to be lost for weeks. Father delegated me to investigate … when was it? Last week? I cannot be certain because time has become undone in my mind. I cannot think of the cedar wood without loosing my mind, I fear. How long will your warding circle hold?”

“Not long if I do not know its source. Here.” Master Seeta opened a drawer and rummaged around until he found what he needed. Pulling out a talisman on a chain, he handed it to his student. “This should keep the worst of it out of your mind. Come. We have a demon to hunt.”

****

The River Moie raged down the canyons below the snow-covered pass until it hit the flatter part of the valley. There it slowed and widened. At its broadest, the road, which was not much more than a trail, split off, one branch heading up to the pass, the other fording the river and cutting through the Sacred Grove. It led eventually up to the monastery built into the side of the most formidable cliffs in the realm. Only priests and woodcutters went that way.

Drill called a halt. It was a good place to camp, on this side of the river. Tomorrow they would decide if they needed to keep going up or sidetrack to the house of the Good Fathers to seek more information.

Drill helped his men set up camp, pulling bedrolls and cooking pots from the backs of the pack mules. His bedding was placed in the middle of his men’s, as close to the fire as was possible. They had forgone the comfort of tents. This close to the border it was best to be on full alert. They would all be sleeping with their boots on and their swords near at hand.

Dinner was to be a simple stew. Drill helped peel and chop the roots vegetables. Soon the smell of jerked-meat porridge and dutch oven biscuits filled the air.

An hour later, he brought two plates to the log on which Master Seeta was sitting, playing with a pendulum made of crystals wrapped with silver.

“What does your crystal tell you?” Drill asked, sitting next to him and handing him his plate.

“It says we’re are in the heart of the anomaly. … but then it has been saying that for the last ten miles. I wonder, being this close to the Good Fathers, that they have not noticed this much magic in their own back yard.”

“We will go ask them tomorrow,” Drill said around a mouthful of potato.

At the edge of the camp one of the horses nickered and the sound was echoed by a second horse and then a third. Seeta looked up and then very carefully put his plate on the log beside him.

“What is it?” Drill asked.

“There is something out there. The animals sense it.”

“That was not the sound of an alarmed horse.”

“No,” agreed Seeta. “That was the sound of a greeting among herd members. They recognize what is out there in the dark.”

“A stray? Do you think the Good Fathers have lost a cart horse?”

“No, that was not a challenge to a stranger. The wild magic we seek has entranced even our mounts. We would be wise to use extreme caution tomorrow else one or all of us will be caught atop a horse intent on riding off a cliff.”

“Great,” Drill said in a tone that meant just the opposite.

Seeta listened for a moment and when the horses lost interest, so did he. He picked up his plate and ate.

****

Drill tossed and turned on the hard ground. The protective amulet was a dead weight that wanted to choke him every time he turned over but he dare not take it off. Somewhere in the middle of the night he finally fell into a deep sleep.

He dreamed he was walking up the trail to the Good Father’s monastery. Gray was the sky and gray was the land in this dream place. Dark things huddled behind rock and tree and shrub. As he drew near to the stone church he saw that a thick black liquid oozed out from under the doors and wept from the cracks in the windows. Drill stopped.

“Do not go any further. You will not like what you see and it will serve no purpose, seeing it.”

Drill looked up. A girl child of about five years of age perched upon a boulder beside the trail. Color bled from her like smoke from an ember, tinting the fabric of his dream. A mass of dark gold curls ran riot atop her head and a pair of elfin ears poked out of the tangles. Golden hair pins in the shape of bees fell out of that mass every time she shook back the hair from her face. The pins used their golden wings to fly back into her hair. Drill watched them, entranced by their beauty and their whimsy.

“What have you done to the Good Fathers?” Drill asked, not quite believing that someone so delicately ethereal could cause any harm at all. She pouted at the accusation, her lips impossibly red, Drill watched her scratch a muddy pink knee with grime imbedded fingernails as she thought about explaining herself. It had been a long while since this child’s mother had wrangled her into a bathtub.

“Odd they were. Stuck in the cold and the dark. Frozen and empty were their hearts. What is your heart’s desire? I asked. Vague were their answers. I thought that perhaps they were waiting for their god to come so that they might be filled with his presence but alas, so filled, they became insane. Their own delusions killed them.”

“You did this? They are dead?” Drill breathed in dismay, watching the shadows pass behind the trees at the edge of the forest.

“Mosly dead. Half dead. Stuck they are,” she nodded.

“Have you cursed them to wander the gray-lands forever as payment for their sins? I can hardly credit that the Good Fathers had any sins at all.”

“Perhaps that was their sin,” the child said thoughtfully. “Being invisible to the world when it needed good men to live lives by example. Only a fool wishes to be without sin. What kind of pale life is that? Look. Even now, they wander the world looking for their lost flesh, not having sense enough to go cross the Void and go home.”

Drill watched the wraiths. “They fear you,” he said in wonder.

“Yes,” she agreed.

“Why?”

“I can solved their problem but it will be a permanent soluton. What they do not know is that quick or slow, they will fade for the Oneverse has no use for empty souls.”

“You are cruel. How is it that you can cause so much harm?”

She laughed and stood up, her bare toes spread wide on the stone. She wore a skirt of scarlet gossamer and a black shirt made of some strange soft cloth. It was a wizard’s shirt, surely. He could tell by the numbers and letters and strange symbols written in white across her chest. “THE DEFINITION OF IRONY:” it said just above the magic runes.

“Why would I cause harm? It is my purpose to heal the world, not wound it more.” She jumped down to the ground by Drill’s side.

“I like your blouse. What does it mean?”

“It is the short version of the mathematical equation for chaos.”

“Err?”

“At this point, if you have not already smiled, then further explanation is pointless.”

Drill scowled at her. She was a very rude little girl, he decided..

“So. Healer. Have you come to save us from our own folly?” Drill asked, not sure if he was happy with that idea.

The girl squatted down at the edge of one of the dark puddles by the door of the church. She prodded the stuff with a fingertip and it shied from her and fled, trying to crawl back the way it had come. “What? No. Why would I want to do that? Embrace your folly, I say. I do.”

A drop of light dripped from her fingertip and the puddle began to hiss and bubble. Was she a wizard or was it merely the mechanics of his dream?

Drill watched, torn between horror and fascination. He looked away and tried to gather his thoughts.

“How does that work? Embracing our folly does not help you heal the world, surely?” he said.

“It does not matter one way or the other. What you do, what you want, it is of no consequence,” she said, rising to her feet. She placed a palm against the side of the church. The stone ignited and began to burn. She danced backwards, shoving him away from the heat. “What I do, I do for purely selfish reasons. I have inherited this place. It is mine to do with as I please. It pleases me to make it more comfortable to live in. I have grown weary of the human predilection towards worshiping the gods of Law and Order. I have decided to restore the Order of Chaos, whether you like it or not.”

Her words made no sense. Drill looked at his arm where she touched him, expecting a burn. Nothing. He looked up as the entire church went up in flames like an oil soaked rag. The sound of the air rushing in to feed the fire reminded him of the roar of a tornado. The stained-glass windows shattered sending black smoke billowing out. As he watched in disbelief, the stone burned with an intense blue flame and turned to dust.

He turned and looked at her sternly. “This is not just your world. People live here. What about what they want? You cannot just come here and start changing the rules.”

The child looked up at him, her eyes as black at the night sky. “Who is there among you who can stop me?”

Drill stared into the depths of those infinite eyes and shuddered.

“Wake up, Prince,” someone said, kicking his boot.

Drill groaned and opened one eye to glare at the sorcerer. It was dawn. There was smoke on the wind.

“Do you smell that or am I still dreaming?” Drill asked, throwing off his bedding.

“Did you dream a forest fire?” Seeta asked as he handed him his leather armor and took his bedroll, tossing it to one of the Guard to stow away in the mule packs. “Get dressed. We need to ride to the monastary and help the Good Fathers.”

Drill rolled to his feet and stared at the western horizon. A pillar of smoke towered above the forest. “Uh. There is no one to save. I do not think there are any animals to rescue either. I do not remember there being cries of protest as she set the stones on fire.”

Seeta stared considered this bit of information. The Captain of the Guard, Heldare, looked at him with wide eyes. Drill remembered himself. Only crazy people and wizards believed in true-dreams and demons.

“Demon’s lie. We best go look.”

They mounted and forded the River Moie. Almost at once, they met trouble. One of the massive cedars had fallen, perhaps in the last storm. It’s resting place could not have been more unfortunate. The ancient stone chapel in the center of the grove, built tens of thousands of years ago, now lay shattered under the trees immense weight.

Drill’s heart ached. He had visited this place with his mother just before she died. He had been only ten but he remembered her serenity as she sat on the stone bench as the light from the windows painted her with its patterns. She surely knew she was dying. Drill grit his teeth, remembering whining about being bored, absolutely blind to the signs of her illness. She had just smiled and told him to go play.

The column rode around the giant hole made by the immense root ball that hung in the air above it. Once on the other side, Drill pulled his mount to the side, letting the column ride by. Two of his Guard stayed. He guided his mount around the stone shards, looking for a recogniazable piece of the chapel. The architecture had been in the style of the ruins of the First People, the stone work delicate yet strong, the blocks cut with precision to form arches and domes and mosaics of fanciful shapes. He remembered the large crystal finial that had adorned the apex dome. He looked around but could see nothing. It would have been the first thing the tree hit and surely lay shattered under the trunk.

Seeta called to him as he lagged. Drill kicked his horse into a canter and raced after, his Guard at his heels.

By the time they reached the monestary, the piles of beams and floorboards had become a bed of red embers. The stones of the buildings were gone.

Master Seeta turned his horse and rode back to where Drill sat, unwilling to come any closer to the cursed place.

“There is nothing left. Not even ghosts remain to haunt this place.”

Drill sighed in relief. “She said they would fade. I think she took pity on them and released them from their burden. Why did she fear showing me her soft heart?”

Seeta stared at him and then dismounted near a stone outcrop. “Come, young prince. Make yourself comfortable.” Seeta sat upon a stone seat and patted the stone next to him. “Tell me of your dream and leave nothing out.”

****

Seeta listened and then played with his crystal pendulum for a bit and then grunted, rising to mount his horse. Drill had no choice but to follow. The ride down the mountain was made in silence. The horses were glad for the River Moie. While his Guard tended the horses, Drill went back to the great downed cedar and kicked around in the ruined chapel, looking for the crystal finial. He stepped on something that cracked under his boot. Drill stooped and picked up a shard of thin crystal. He held it up to study it in the light. It was curved slightly, like the shell of an egg. His gut told him something that his brain refused to believe. Who in their right mind would attache an egg to the top of a chapel? And what had been inside that egg? Drill shook that thought out of his mind. An ornament, merely a decorative piece, made hollow to ease the weight on the domes roof.

“Why do you do that?” the child asked.

Drill looked up. She sat atop the downed cedar, scratching her nose with a filthy knuckle. He clutched the amulet that Seeta had given him.

“Do what?” he asked.

“The truth pops into your head from the depths of the Void but you ignore it, fearing its source. Have you not learned yet? That little voice in the back of your head is the only thing that knows how to make you happy. Ask me a question. The most riduculous question you can think of.”

“Did you hatch from this egg?” Drill asked.

The golden haired child smiled. “See. Was that so hard? Yes and no. Hatch is too vague a word. The egg was an eddy in the flow of time. A bubble. A secret place to store something that you wanted to keep forever.”

“Why did you … I cannot believe that you went into that bubble of your own will.”

The child frowned. “I am not sure. That is how long I was in that cursed shell. Long enough for the things I know to fade. Amnesia in its most insidous form.” She shrugged. “I may not have gone into it willingly but holy cow, was I ever so glad to be out of it. Ask me another question.”

“What is your name?” Drill asked.

She stared down at him, a sudden tragic look flashing behind her eyes. “I don’t know. How have they done this to me? Even my name. Even my name has bee stolen from me.”

Drill reached up and touched her bare foot, wanting to calm her. “Names are easy. What do you want to be called?”

She scowled down at him. “I don’t know. Naming a thing carries its own brand of magic. You name me. Something silly and wildly inappropraite.”

“Phionna?” Drill suggested.

“Phi,” she said. Then she laughed. “Someday I will tell you why that is so funny. Maybe one day, after you read my shirt and laugh, I will remind you that it was you who named me.