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Archive for August, 2016

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.”

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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.

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