Choose Them Wisely, Guard Them Well (continued)

“Dr.Chen?

She was startled out of her reverie.

I have to stay focused. Caroline is the mission now.

She did, however, have some questions for the General.

“Yes, Lieutenant.”

“I just heard that…”

“Yes, it’s true.”

“Do you–?”

“No, no. There was nothing to be done for it.”

She looked around, then back at Harris. “For any of it, really.”

He nodded. “Are you all packed?”

“I’m ready to go, yes.”

“Follow me, please. I know you know the way, but there are clearances that  you don’t have. They seem pointless, now, I know, but everyone seems determined to embrace the comfortable until the end.”

“I understand.”

She followed him.

************************

General Williams was waiting at the dock.

“Teri, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you, General.” She straightened her shoulders. “I do have a question: if I’d requested my family be evacuated and brought here, was there anything that could have been done?”

Williams didn’t hesitate, and his own eyes clouded a bit as he shook his head.

“Nothing is going to be done for any of us. I won’t see my family again. My grandkids…”

“Oh.” She looked down, and her voice sounded small and far away. Of course others have family that are not going to see them before they go; at least you got to see yours, and you know what happened, and when, and why. There are so many others who will never have those questions answered.

He continued. “And to what end, doctor? You said it yourself, destruction is imminent. Make peace with it, Teri. With yourself, too. We’re going to need you now more than ever.

She lifted her eyes to his. “I will complete the mission, sir.”

Williams smiled. “Unfortunately, we’ll never see the outcome, but I have every faith in you.”

A faint tremor vibrated the floor beneath them.

Voices were raised, and the mood instantly grew more somber and intense, and not a little fearful.

“Time to launch, sir.” said Harris.

“Thank you, captain obvious.”

They all laughed.

“Teri?” Williams extended his arm expansively, inviting her to go aboard, as if he were the captain of a cruise ship, and not the doomed general of yet another science facility that wandered too far from its walls.

“Kyro’s already strapped in,” Harris said, extending his hand. “It’s been an honor, Teri.”

She watched him closely, but his face betrayed nothing but fondness, and a trace of sadness they would no longer be working together. Beyond that, there was nothing she could decipher. Either Kyro really wasn’t his son, or he was gifted at deceiving.

She took the proffered hand. “Same here, Ken.”

She released his hand, and turned to board. Glancing over at Kyro, his head had lolled to the side, so he was already asleep. Good, she didn’t feel like engaging an assassin. She looked out at the black, weightless expanse of dotted with white fire.

*****************************

No family. No longer a wife. No longer a mother. Just these children now. And Caroline, who will cause no end of grief on the new colony.

If it weren’t for her, I would’ve been able to join them,  see them, hold them…but she has given me a life devoid of meaning. With no one to share with, to spend time off with, to do anything with; I’m going alone.

Her evil intentions mean nothing to me, but because of her, I’m forced to go on, when all I want to do is die.

So I will stop her. I will make her pay for what she’s done to me; every day I stay alive, I will make her pay. Every memory, she will pay.

The stars blurred, and she realized she was crying. This time, she didn’t bother fighting it.

“….three….two….one….we are launched. All automated systems are functioning normally.”

“Safe journey, Dr. Chen.”

“Goodbye.”

Her voice came out more than a whisper, less than a sob; it was not just meant for her colleagues. It was to everything that had made her up to this moment.  She wasn’t just on her way to a new colony, but on her way to becoming something else.

Chapter 3:

The tremors were becoming more violent. Williams and Harris could’ve enlisted the help of others, but they’d either left or were trying to find a place to exit, though where they’d go if the ground was crumbling, Harris had no idea.

“The Naissance is ready, General.”

“Thanks, Harris. Caroline?”

“She’s in her pod.”

“Is there any way to extract her covertly?”

Harris gave him a grim smile. “She changed all the protocols, sir. You said it yourself, she’s ten steps ahead of us.”

“What I want to know is when did she have time to do all this, and if someone helped her. Have security run video from the last thirty days on all the bay doors.”

“Yes, sir.”

“If Teri can’t get to her, maybe one of the others will do us all a favor and stab her in the back.”

Harris looked away.

“I’m sorry, Harris. That was out of line.”

“What was, sir?”

Williams smiled.

Another tremor boomed, and the building swayed like an empty swing in a storm wind.

Both men lost their footing, and when the tremor subsided, they pushed themselves up along the walls behind them, the portion that remained intact. As they were in the northernmost station, it could only mean that now the entire planet was all but consumed from within.

No one knew if it would be another hour, or another day, but they all knew they were living on borrowed time now.

“General?”

Williams had gained his feet, and helped Harris up the rest of the way.

“I’m listening.”

“We still control the launch, sir. We don’t have to send them.”

“I’ve thought of that, but to kill all for the sake of one…as I said, they may do it for us, and we’ve already programmed them as well.”

“Just an option, sir. Still on the table as long as we don’t–”

An alarm blared through the station, but there was no tremor.

“What in the hell–?” WIlliams blustered.

“Naissance has pre-launched. Repeat, repeat, Naissance has pre-launched!”

Williams and Harris found the nearest com station; the young attendant was punching keys but coming up empty.

“Onscreen, young lady!”

“Trying, sir! Please give me a minute…”

Harris put up a restraining hand, and Williams backed away.

The screen flickered, went out, flickered again, and flared to life, stabilizing.

The ship came into view, and the shot of its interior showed the floor was empty.

They watched as the ship sailed over the station below, the shadow blocking out the starlight glittering like strewn gems spilled in ink.across the top,

“Retractors?”

“Offline, sir. Damaged.”

“We’re going to lose it.” The ship was past the station, clearing the harbor.

A hologram of Caroline sitting in the captain’s chair filled the screen.

“Hello, General Williams. I managed to gain access to the ship’s computers days ago, when the tremors first started.

“I programmed the ship to override the safety protocols and release the locks if the magnitude went above four-point-five. If you’re seeing this, then the ship is already loose and on its way.”

All three of them shook their heads in wonder; they’d badly underestimated her intelligence; in no way they measured it was she able to pull this off.

“I had no idea, of course, if it would actually work, but I guess I’ll know if I wake up dead,” she smiled at the weak joke,  “or if we’re still in that hellhole you call a station. And if the magnitude of the tremors is beyond that, then the creature is about to tear the place apart.

“I hope it doesn’t come after us, General, but so be it if it does. Either way, I won’t be able to send those reports I promised you.

“Farewell, sir. I’ll never forgive you for what you did to my father.”

She leaned forward, and the camera zoomed in on those dark, glittery eyes.

“Never.”

The com went blank again.

“Shoot it down, sir?”

Williams said nothing.

“Sir?”

“Check the weapons.”

The young attendant pushed more buttons.

“Nothing, sir. Offline.”

Williams felt his shoulders slumping yet again.

Outwitted by a thirteen year old girl…

Not for the first time, he wondered if he’d been wrong to sign up all those years ago.

A loud rumbling filled the hall, and things began to sway and rattle and fall and slide.

The floor bucked beneath him, and he flipped over backward, catching the corner of a moving desk, the corner cracking a hole in his skull; he could see the blood running from under his head as his vision began to fade.

I thought it was the right thing to do. ran through his mind as he passed into oblivion.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.    2015

Choose Them Wisely, Guard Them Well

“Are you sure, Dr. Chen?”

“Yes, General. All signs point to imminent destruction. We’ve done all we can to stop it, but it keeps finding ways to advance; either it keeps attacking the structures we’ve already managed to put in place, or it finds a weak spot, or it grows something to get around and find a new path.

“Those concern us most, because we can’t keep pace, and it advances most quickly when it’s unobstructed. It’s infiltrated too much of the planet, and when it pulls itself into the core, it will push outward.”

“What happens then?”

“It will be nearly double in size, but then it won’t be able to sustain itself with the depleted energy from the core, and it will push the planet’s hemispheres to either side, ripping it in half. Then it will move on to the next planet it deems edible.”

“And then?”

Dr. Chen shrugged. “It’s been an honor to work with you, sir.”

He sighed. “You as well, Teri.”

They shook hands, and he walked away, as Chen turned back to what remained of her duties, more to fill the time until the end than have any real hope of stopping the creature that was leeching on their planet’s core from the inside.

“General Williams,” Lieutenant Harris said in greeting. “They’re ready, sir.”

“And the maternal units?”

“Ready as well.”

“Hunters?”

“All of them, sir. Every facet, every child has been pre-programmed to fulfill their duties on the new colony.”

Williams nodded. “Well done, Harris. I want Teri to go with them, too. Is there room?”

“Dr. Chen, sir?”

“Yes.”

“With all due respect sir, may I ask why?”

“With all respect taken, lieutenant, you can ask away,” Williams smiled. “The need for formality is somewhat moot at this point, Harris.”

Harris visibly relaxed.

“The children are going to need a physician; she’s a medical biologist, a pioneer in genetics, and she’s got a family of her own that she won’t be able to get back in time to see. She’s resigned herself, but I don’t see the need to waste her talents and abilities. There are things she can train the children to do medically that may be needed later on.”

“I understand. But she’ll be the only adult.”

“Who said that? What about the others we were sending down to build the structures, and provide for the children until their pods were safe?”

“It’s a little hard to explain, General.”

“Then try hard, lieutenant.”

“Caroline said she didn’t want any adults, sir.”

“Caroline? She’s thirteen years old! She’s–”

“She’s going to be the planet’s ruler, sir. She’s light years ahead of the others in intellect, in potential, in physical superiority. Her father–”

“Messed with her genetics, I remember. It’s why Teri replaced him.”

“It’s also why she’s…resentful…of anything you recommend.”

“Let me talk to her.”

*****************************

The com flared to life.

Caroline’s face filled the screen. Everything about her was dark, as if an aura sculpted her form. Raven curls draped over her shoulder, caramel colored skin, exotic, dark eyes that glittered with intelligence, and something of amused condescension in her attitude toward the General.

“General Williams. It’s an honor, sir.”

“What the hell are you doing, kid?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t call me that again. That will be your only warning.”

Williams sighed. ” You’re going to need those people, Caroline. They’re going to build your homes, your roads, and provide whatever else you need.”

“We need nothing these men will provide, General. They are symbols of the old world, and simply have no place in the new.”

“How are you going to fend for yourselves?”

“Let me worry about that; the others will fall into line.”

“You’ll all be asleep.”

She laughed. “Oh, General Williams. You’re adorable.”

He heated at the tone of her voice.

“What have you done?”

“I reprogrammed my pod, sir. I will be the first to awaken, by a day, at least. I’ll report my findings to you as I go. Keep you in the loop; it’s a courtesy of course, and temporary. As the others awake, I’ll have already established myself.”

“Dr.-”

Off camera, Harris quickly shook his head.

“What?”

“Dr. Chen said you’re all ready.”

“We are, sir. I will miss Dr. Chen. And General, please don’t send them down after us.”

“Why would you think–?”

“You’ve read my file, General?”

“I have.”

“I’ve read yours as well. Never mind how.” Again, the condescending smile and tone. “If you send them, I will have them killed.”

General Williams’ shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry we elected to send you, Caroline. We really should have killed you.”

“You should have, but like I said, sir, I read your file. You’re much too ambitious. You were foolish to think you were going to get the credit for producing a prodigy like me. Now, it’s come to nothing, and you’ve given me the opportunity to thrive.

“For that much, at least, I thank you.” Her eyes scanned the ship’s systems, then she looked back at Williams. “The time is near, General, and I don’t think we’ve anything left to say, other than good-bye.”

“Good bye, Caroline. I hope your pod is the first to burn.”

She laughed again, with no mirth, her eyes never leaving his, a light in them that struck a spark of fear in his spine, and the com went blank.

**************************

“Why did you keep me from telling her about Teri?”

“We’ll have to send her down separately, sir. Caroline can’t know she’s there. Teri has to deprogram her.”

“How’s she going to do that? Caroline is about ten steps ahead of us.”

“I have someone else in mind to send, who can bring her close enough; with his help, they can isolate Caroline, and if they can’t deprogram her…”

“He’ll kill her.”

Harris nodded.

“See it done, Harris.”

“Right away, sir.”

************************

“I’m going?”

“They’re going to need a doctor, and we need you to  reprogram Caroline’s genetics. She’s growing unstable, arrogant.”

“I thought that might happen; she was exhibiting, but part of that was also being thirteen.”

“She’s only thirteen physically. Mentally, she’s beyond genius, and even physically, she trounces the kids in activities, even some of the boys.”

“That’s a shame; had she stayed within parameters, we could have had something great there.”

“It’s not over yet, Dr. Chen.” Harris said. “Our last shot to salvage her…is you.”

Dr. Chen nodded. “Understood.”

“But you won’t be going alone.”

“You’re sending an assassin in case the new genetics don’t take…”

“How did you know?”

“I haven’t been working here all this time with my head stuck in a test tube, Lieutenant.”

Harris smiled. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“You didn’t. Let’s meet him.”

The door slid open, and a young boy of thirteen entered.

“Dr. Chen, this is  Kyro.”

“Kyro,” she stuck out her hand. Kyro took it.

“Dr. Chen.”

She looked at Lieutenant Harris. “He’s a little young to be an assassin, isn’t he?”

“I thought you didn’t have your head stuck in a test tube, Teri. Kyro’s been programmed with the methods and weapons knowledge of the world’s elite assassins from the last fifty years. His options are limitless, his methods impeccable. Blades, poisons, bombs, guns, mines….”

“I get it, Lieutenant. He’s a buffet of death.”

“That’s a rather colorful way to put it, but yes.”

“I’ll go pack,” she said.

She looked back over her shoulder, saw Harris and Kyro conferring, heads close, eyes locked, but just before the door closed, she thought she saw Harris say the word ‘son.’

She went to a computer, punched in Kyro’s name, but nothing came up.

“Of course, he doesn’t exist.”

Chapter 2:

The country was in upheaval, her husband said. Buildings were already falling to the south. It was just a matter of time.

He didn’t cry, and neither did she.

“Let me see the kids,” she said.

He put them on the com; their faces were afraid, but resigned.

“There’s nothing you can do, right mommy?”

“If I could, you know I’d kill this thing to protect you.”

“We know, mom, ” her daughter, the oldest, said. “Dad’s kept us safe so far.”

“I wish we could join you, ” her husband said, “but I know they won’t send anything.”

“I could try.”

“I won’t lie to you, Teri: we’re terrified. If they can send anything, then you should try.”

The picture on the com wavered, rocked.

Her husband gave her a wan smile. “Never mind.”

“I love you,” she said. Her vision blurred and her eyes grew hot, “I love you all.”

She put her hand on the screen, and they all placed theirs on it, and they stayed that way for a moment or two, and then the picture rocked again, more violently, and her family fell away from view, her husband’s strong arms still around the kids as they crashed to the floor, and the com went blank.

She didn’t remember the rest of the day.

I didn’t do all I could to save them….kept running through her mind.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr. 2015

The War of Canticles

In the aftermath of the devastation, none of the Great Halls remained.

Stone, marble, fine cloth, weapons, and instruments from around the known world lay in smoking, shattered heaps, among lumps of broken bone and shredded flesh, littering the valley, and the smoke, still thick, roiled back on itself and grew larger, like a confused stampeding crowd. Sprawling across the cloud-strewn sky, it hid the bodies from the view of carrion birds, and small fires, safe from the coming spring rain, still burned in protected places, unchecked, but unable to do anymore damage.

******************

Singers Hall was completely destroyed.

Lorelei woke up, her throat raw from the smoke, her eyes bleary and bloodshot, her clothes torn, and her thoughts rambling. Her book wasn’t far from her, but it was singed.

Gingerly, she picked it up, lifting with her fingertips; bits of charred paper fell off and flew away, but only from the edges. The book itself was sound, its pages untouched by fire, still readable, with all of her notes in the margins.

That, and the clothes on her back, were all she had.

She was able to stand, and slowly got to her feet, not wanting to be prone in case whoever did this was searching the rubble to kill the wounded.

She took a look around, and tears not born of smoke filled her eyes…

That was good, because it caused her not to focus.

There was a general impression of carnage, of blood, of bodies broken and torn, but she didn’t look at anyone’s face, didn’t allow herself to recognize, and remember, because she’d be paralyzed by fear and grief, and there was no telling who was coming.

So she waited, and collected her thoughts, as the soft spring rain began to fall.

********************

Footsteps crunched over stone.

A fallen pillar hid her from view, but hiding didn’t occur to her.

She wanted to see if whoever it was had been responsible for what happened; what she would do then, she didn’t know.

Her throat, however, was still raw from smoke and dust, so a canticle of binding was out of the question. She had her training, but no weapons, so with the only recourse left to her, she picked up a sharpened piece of the fallen pillar.

There would only be one chance.

*********************

A boy stood on the fallen pillar, but above her.

Shielding his eyes against the rain with his hand, he scanned the remains of Singers Hall, and Lorelei used the time to observe him.

He was brown, all over, from his skin to his clothing, to the small harp in a brown case strapped to his back. She could see the burnished scrollwork at the end poking out of a corner of the case. He was a stranger in these lands, but if he’d made Musicians Hall here, he was indeed talented.

She looked some more.

He was bald, almost hairless to the point of babyhood, and had a dark gleam about him, brimming with some unknown power, but he seemed whole, and strong, and about her age; he wouldn’t need looking after then, but she was still reluctant to reveal herself.

Seeing nothing, he turned to go.

If he leaves, you’ll be traveling alone, for who knows how long, facing who knows what?

“Wait!” She stepped out from hiding.

He turned, surprised, but wary.

She scrambled up the pillar, put herself on level with him, and they stood, taking each other in.

“You survived,” he finally said.

“So did you. Did you see anything?”

“Bodies, ruin, and fire, not much else. You?”

“The same. None of the Halls are intact. I thought they might be walking around to kill the wounded, so I got up.”

“I don’t think they needed to; they were pretty efficient. And it might not have been wise for you to get up, since they would’ve killed you for real.”

“I’m no good at pretending to be dead if I’m not.”

“No,” he smiled, “me neither.”

He walked back toward her, but didn’t offer his hand.

She didn’t take offense; the Musicians never offered their hands, which they held as transporters of their craft to enter this world from the next, so they were sacrosanct, and kept untainted.

“I’m Devon.”

“Lorelei.”

“Now there’s a name for a Singer.”

She smiled, pointed to his back.

“Harp?”

“Among other things, none of which survived; this will have to do for now.”

The rain fell harder.

“Let’s find shelter, and we’ll figure it out from there.”

“We already have shelter.”

He looked at her.

“We can stay right here, under this pillar, and wait out the rain.”

“You could do that? Your friends’ corpses lay here, your teachers…”

“None of whom would mind. Is there any point to blundering about in the rain, not knowing where we are, or where we’re going?”

Besides, I’ve already mourned, in secret, where no one could see.

He opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t argue the validity.

She was already scrambling back underneath the pillar.

Intrigued by her practicality, if surprised at the hardness of her decision, he followed.

2:

The rain continued falling, steady, after dark, and they went hungry that night, though they managed to make a fire.

In the morning, the sun came out, the smoke cleared, and a herald crow sounded the breakfast bell.

They left, still dampened in clothes and spirit, and began to try to find a path out.

As they searched, she thought back to her first day.

*****************

Her teacher was a walking willow stick; everything about her was wispy, like the pink, fluffy candy of country fairs, sweetness without substance, but that was only on the surface.

  “You have been chosen as Singers; you are above the pale and beyond the norm, and this is now your home. Everything, and I mean everything, you need, or ever will need, is here.

   “There is no need to go skulking about in the woods, like trolls and brigands. The sacrifice of your voice in offering replaces what is left of your life. You no longer have families, or friends, or lovers, save those you meet here.

   “You are given no outside indulgences to detract from your training, for while you are superior, you are not yet fully formed.

   “And it is I who will form you, from now on.”

*****************

The days were grueling, the nights sometimes more so.

   Willow, for that is what Lorelei called her, was relentless, merciless, and sometimes cruel.

  Lorelei had been at turns beaten, starved, made to sleep standing up, and a few things in between, but last month, at the end of her fourth year, Willow had given her the book, Blessed Canticles. Her own copy, signed with Willow’s own hand.

   “To Lorelei, you have been blessed beyond your worth, but you have earned it, and done well.”

   She later found out, when she went to see what Willow had written for the others, that hers was the only book signed.

  Gradually, they’d fallen off, wondering what she’d done to gain such favor, when they had all been equally punished and rewarded, seemingly solely based on Willow’s whims.

   The imposed shunning hurt, the exile to a table of her own as they left at her approach even more so, but there it was.

***************

“And now, I’m all that’s left…”

“What?”

“Nothing. Nothing, Devon, just thinking out loud.”

3:

“We’ve flushed her out into the open, Lord Karis; she travels with a bard.”

“A bard? Indeed, two for the price of one. I’m pleased, Jahrin.”

Jahrin smiled; he didn’t like when Karis wasn’t pleased.

“May I ask a question, Lord Karis?”

“You may.”

“What do you want with the Singer?”

Karis looked out the window, distracted, but he’d heard the question.

“I will answer you, Jahrin. If I hear it on the lips of anyone else, your tongue is forfeit. Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes, Lord Karis.”

Karis sighed, and walked over to a table, where he took a book of white and gold, and placed it before Jahrin.

“I…I can’t read, Lord…”

“I know, Jahrin.”

Karis walked away, and began to sing, a minor key, that sounded something like a dirge, slow, sonorous, and foreign sounding, and Jahrin closed his eyes, shuddering in his seat, held by something that frightened him beyond words.

His teeth chattered, and tears leaked copiously from his eyes, and when the song ended, and he was finally released, he slumped forward.

The cover was bleary in his vision, and he clumsily wiped his eyes with an overlarge hand, breathing hard.

And the cover said,

The Canticles of War

 “Lord Karis…Lord Karis…I…I can..”

“I know, Jahrin.”

Jahrin remained speechless, reading the words over and over again, wanting to hug the book to him; he dared not touch it, and ran to the shelves, pulling things at random, reading, books and parchments gathering around him like sand.

Karis, enjoying his servant’s excited mood, stopped on his way out to give him a look.

Jahrin’s eyes were bright with happy tears.

“Now imagine what I could do, Jahrin, if I had her power.”

He thought about taking the words from Jahrin, leaving him illiterate again, but that would be cruel, even for him.

This might be actually prove to be useful, later.

He could hear Jahrin’s laughter echo in the hall, and the crash of more books falling off the shelves.

Quite useful, indeed.

Night Roads (con’t 4)

4)

 

Amia was in the garden when I walked up.

“What are you doing back here, Haskell?” She hadn’t turned around.

“Using your witchy skills, huh?”

She turned to face me then, smiling a little.

“Never you mind.”

“We need to talk. I need you to change my face, and I need to hire Alazne.”

“Yes to the first, no to the second.”

Amia stood, smoothed the dirt off her apron. She’d tied her hair back, and looked like a perfect housewife. The last thing I’d expect her to do was blow me apart with a bolt of light from her hands, but she could.

I would’ve smiled in amusement if she couldn’t.

“Alazne? She’s vulnerable, and that makes her volatile. I’m just getting her to where I can trust her. Leaving her alone in my house was the turning point. I half expected to return to find her gone and my place looted, if not a pile of ashes.”

“Maybe she is, but she has advanced stalking skills for her age, and she looks like a beggar child. I could use both to help me further your efforts in stopping the council.”

She paused to consider it.

“Come on, then. Tell me what you’re thinking, while I work on making your face be what I’ve always wanted.”

I felt my face do something between blush and blanch, which set her chiming laughter pealing.

 

***************

“How would you like to look?”

I told her.

“Close your eyes,” she said.    I did.

The blackness that my lids created began to lighten to a deep blue, the color of the sky when a full moon shines, and I felt the light scrape of her nails and the pads of her fingertips begin to caress my face.

My skin tightened, and there was some pain, but it was bearable; caught off guard by its suddenness though, I gasped.

“It’s all right,” she whispered, sending a relaxing wave across my body. “Trust me, Haskell.”

“I do.”

The light began to darken, and I was once more in natural darkness, but then I felt a slight change taking place through my body as well. I had what I would call an average build, but it seemed to be getting thicker.

She was making me more muscular, a bit wider, but not preposterously so.

“Is this all right with you?”

My laugh was sardonic.

“Did you leave me a choice?”

“No.” I could hear the smile in her voice.

Oh, Amia. What might have been…

A few moments of silence passed, and then:

“I’m done. Rest a moment. I’ll find a glass for you to see.”

I took a few deep breaths, feeling the increase of the expanse of my chest; it felt good, solid.

She’d gotten a lot stronger; her powers had increased. I should’ve been concerned then, but I wasn’t.

“You can get up now.”

I took my time, getting used to maneuvering with the larger frame.

She left me nude, and the glass showed everything.

“Madam, please,” I said with false modesty, covering myself with my hands.

She laughed again.

“What do you think?”

I took my hands away.

“This isn’t what I told you, but I’m not sure.” I looked like a pirate: curly black ringlets of hair down to my neck, swarthier than I was, and for added effect, a pale scar along the right cheek.

“How am I supposed to fit in with a face like this?”

“You don’t like it?”

“I said I wasn’t sure…”

“Close your eyes, and picture the face you want.”

“What? Amia…” my voice took a warning note, but she just gave me her ‘innocent’ look.

I closed my eyes, pictured the face I wanted, and felt the slight pull on my skin and the elongation and shortening of bones. It was a creepy feeling.

The sensations stopped, and I opened my eyes again.

More average features looked back at me, with no scar. I could be a servant or a merchant.

Just for kicks, I closed my eyes again, pictured the face of a nobleman I met once, and once again the magic crackled across my face.

Bearded, regal, with piercing eyes that struck fear in the hearts of men and made women weak in the knees, or so I hoped.

I looked back at Amia and smiled.    She returned it, pleased.

“I didn’t know you could do that, Amia. You’ve gotten stronger.”

“A woman shouldn’t be defenseless, Haskell. You know that as well as anyone.”

I did, and I was glad she was among those who could do it.

She came up behind me, and put her hands where I had mine moments ago, and put her lips by my ear.

“Let’s try this new body out, and see how it works for you.”

“Shall I keep this face?”

“No, Haskell. I like you for you.”

Changing my face back, I turned toward her, kissed her long and deep, my own hands busy before I picked her up and carried her to her bed, the place she’d denied me the night before, a deed which I promised her she was going to pay for, and she rose to the challenge..

As it turned out, the new body worked just fine.

 

5)

 

It was evening when we were done with each other.

“Where’s Alazne?”

“Out, hunting dinner.”

“She’s a scary girl.”

“I agree. One step up from feral, really. Even I haven’t gotten all of her story from her yet.”

“Do you want it?”

She laughed. “Not sure.”

We finished dressing in silence, and Amia poured some of that wine from Inkara.

The clothes were a bit tighter, but would cover me enough for now.

“I need her, Amia.”

“Why? After the power I gave you, you can fit in anywhere.”

“I need a scout though, a spy, if you will. She’d be able to get into places unnoticed.”

“I don’t know, Haskell. Ragamuffins aren’t welcome in most places; they’re the kids who get watched in the marketplaces, the ones cast out into the street. People do see them.”

“They do,” I agreed, “but only when they get careless. Alazne doesn’t strike me as careless, and she’s got a whole host of skills we don’t know.”

“How do you know?”

“She gave me the lantern, and found her way back to you in a dark forest.”

“By now she’s familiar with the path, the direction; it’s no great feat, Haskell.”

“I’m telling you, even with all that, for one of her age to go skulking about as she does, it is. I need her eyes, and I need her to gain access to places where I won’t fit in.”

“I’ll do it,” said a voice from the doorway.

“How long have you been standing there?” said Amia.

“For most of it.”

I turned to Amia, grinning, and just managed to dodge the empty wine cup she threw at my head.

 

***************

As I told Alazne of my plan, and she cooked a late night rabbit, we spent another couple of hours ironing out the details.

She helped with the logistics of where she’d be able to go, and we both agreed that Jonas provided the only real threat.

“Kill him first, or last?” I asked her.

“Let me think about it.”

“All right.”

“Haskell?”

I turned to see Amia in the doorway of her room.

“Are you spending the night?”

Alazne rolled her eyes.

“Actually, no. I need to get back to the inn, make sure everything’s intact, and where I left it.”

The door slammed so fast and hard that Alazne and I both jumped.

Alazne looked up at me.

“You’re a stupid man, aren’t you Haskell?”

I sighed, looking at the door where just seconds ago, I’d seen a vision of erotic loveliness.

“Yes, Alazne. Yes I am.”

Night Roads (con’t 3)

3)

 

Alazne led me back to the road where she met me, again in the lead, using that unerring, unnerving, confident stride she used at the start of the night, as if the sun was shining and she could see every tangled root underfoot.

 

“The inn’s about a mile that way; you’re going to need this.”

She handed me the lantern.

“And you won’t?”

She just smiled, and slipped back into the forest, the dark swallowing her up.

 

********************

The windows of the inn were dark, but the moon was beginning to set; I was loathe to knock, but I was tired, cold, and hungry, and thanks to Amia’s generosity, I would be able to afford to alleviate all three.

My knock was answered by a grizzled old man made of whipcord muscles and whiskers.

His eyes were small and mean, and he only opened the door a crack.

“I’m of a mind to leave you outside, ‘cept the missus would have m’ hide. Yer not runnin’ from the law, are ya?”

I tried a smile. “Not at the moment.”

He didn’t see the humor, and reluctantly let me inside.

“We keep a room prepared for such emergencies. Ain’t much to look at, but it will serve for the rest of the night.”

He took my lantern and led the way.

The room was as he said it would be, functional with not much in the way of luxury.

“I’ll take yer coin now, in case yer of a mind to leave earlier than we get up.”

I felt bad for his wife; left to his own devices, there’d be no inn.

His unnecessary surliness was also starting to annoy me; while it was true I woke him up, I was no beggar looking for scraps.

I paid him, and he left without another word.

Stripping down to what I would be comfortable leaving on in case of running outside in an emergency, I gave myself over to the exhaustion that had already seeped into my bones.

 

**************

In the morning, bathed, shaved, fed, and feeling relatively like a part of the human race again, I was back out on the road.

Finding a shady spot by mid-morning, I stopped and took a look at the list of council members.

Turns out I knew the first name: Jonas Noll.

He’d been a hunter of some renown in this area for quite some time; it was safe to assume that the game he once hunted was now faster and smarter, and he decided to stop before the law of averages worked against him.

Smart hunter, but dumb if he thought Amia was going to let him run roughshod over her opportunity to advance. He’d had some experiences with her as well, and probably decided there’d be safety in numbers.

He was wrong, and I would be the one to tell him so by ending his life, or die trying: older hunters grew craftier with the years. I would really have to plan where to move, and it had to be out of his sphere of influence, with no witnesses.

I scanned through the rest; some I knew casually, others were strangers. Out of all of them, Jonas probably posed the biggest threat.

It would best to work through the strangers first; there were five of them. Two lived some distance away, and while I didn’t really see why they’d get caught up in local politics in this place, it was a safe bet money was involved, probably in matters of voting or breaking bones, or both.

This would have to be a one day event; to spread it out would mean mounting suspicion, and while I was careful, if the right person was in the right place at the wrong time, it could mean the difference between life and death.

To hit them at a meeting would be the most practical; there’d be anonymity in the crowd, but it wouldn’t be a real test of my skills.

What Amia said about my taunting came back to mind; it was a cautionary tease: don’t mess this up.

I sighed, wanting to draw it out against my better judgment and Amia’s wishes.

All right. A one shot deal. I could use Alazne’s stalking skills to good advantage.

I put the parchment back in the back; the gold was secure under a floorboard in the room, and I got up slower than I remembered getting up before, to go get the layout of the town, a bit of trepidation in my step, because this place attracted a lot of travelers

Hopefully, no one would recognize me from a past adventure in a distant land; if they did, the assignment would stop before it began.

I decided I couldn’t take the chance.

Amia was going to have to help me. My face needed to change, but not drastically. It was the small changes in details that threw off eyewitnesses: a moustache where there wasn’t one, a scar, an eye patch, or just growing longer hair, could make all the difference in escaping bounty hunters leafing a town with Wanted posters.

Unfortunately, I’d learned through experience.

With everything in me thrumming with resistance, I began walking the path back up to her place. She wouldn’t be happy to see me, but she might help me, and I really did need to speak with her about utilizing her mysterious protégé.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr

The Mark of Cane

The children were crying, wrapped in chains and manacles, covered in scars from when they’d first resisted.

They didn’t resist now. They couldn’t if they wanted to; they were hungry and tired from their long journey.

The slavers let them sleep, but didn’t feed them for a few nights, though they kept them in drugged water. In days they were gaunt, bedraggled, and dejected.

After five days, they gave them scraps, and watched them pummel, kick, and bite each other for an extra piece, laughing and betting.

After ten days, when they began nearing the city, they fattened the kids who survived the fighting up with full meals to make a decent presentation at auction, and peace reigned in the camp once more, for a time.

A day’s ride out from the city gates, the slavers woke to find their sentries dead, and the children gone. A dark figure in a broad brimmed hat stood among them as they approached him in a circle, their leader stepping forward, his own knife drawn, to confront the silent intruder, who had his head down inside the hood that hid his face.

“You have until a minute ago to bring those brats back, or tell me where they are.”

The figure, his eyes hidden by the brim, gave an enigmatic smile, and then he lifted his eyes, and looked at the slaver.

The slaver’s skin sloughed off his body in a red, wet heap, and his flesh and bones sagged like sludge, collapsing in red, gory mound, spreading out in a pool of meat and guts and bone.

He heard the sound of men crying out, vomiting, shouting, cursing, praying, and finally, running.

In less than a minute the camp stood abandoned.

The figure turned to go, when the curtain on the leader’s tent parted, and a dark-haired young girl of some twelve or fourteen summers emerged. She looked at the pile of flesh that had only last night claimed her maidenhead, and left her crying and bruised, then she looked at the figure.

“Who are you, mister?”

“My name,” he said, as he removed his hat and bowed to her, “is Cane. Come with me, and I’ll take you to the others.”

Having nowhere to go now, she put out the last of the campfire, and walked toward him, stopping to spit on the red, stinking rubble of her rapist, gave her hand to Cane, and the two of them left the camp without looking back.

 

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

Soyala and the Traveler

I am new here.

Looking about, exploring, the trace of a finger on a blossom,

the parting of the river current with a dipped finger, the dappled sunlight of high summer in a shady grove, I called out to answer a whispering voice.

A rustle of branches, so slight I thought it a woodland creature, and she emerged into the clearing, saw me seated on the rock, my knife at work on an apple, and without fear she approached.

“Why are you here?”

I looked up, bemused more than startled. “Why do you ask?”

“For the sake of knowing.”

“I was…called…here…” I gestured with my knife to take in the grove in general.

“Who called you?”
I smiled. “Was it not you?”

She did not smile. “If it were me, I would not have asked.”

“I don’t know, then. Am I not welcome?”

She came further toward me, stood before me, examining, her eyes large and luminous, deep, just shy of hypnotic, but with power nonetheless, her robe was the green of a springtime lake, trimmed with gold, with symmetrical swatches of many- hued blues.

“All are welcome here.” Her eyes sparkled with many things, magic, mischief, mystery…

“Ah, good.” I sliced the apple and offered it to her on the tip of the knife. She took it with her fingers, munched awhile, looked about the grove.

“You live here?”

She seemed to give it thought before she answered.

“It is more like we live in each other.”

I began to think she might be mad, so I grew cautious.

“May I ask your name?”

She sighed.

“I have many, and they are all equally unimportant, but if you would name me, I am Soyala.”

I offered her another piece, which she also took.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Soyala.”

“And I you, Traveler.”

“How did you know I was here.”

“I heard your call. There was something in it worth seeing.”

Again, the hint of madness. “How can you see inside a call?”

She looked at me as if I were the dumbest of beasts, then smiled indulgently, and placed her slender hand on my chest.

“The heart, Traveler. The heart speaks for the soul; there is music in the call, and yours was sad. It ached with loneliness, and so I came to keep you company for awhile. ”

I looked at her in amazement, surprised to find a tear rolling down my cheek.

With profound tenderness she took the hem of her green robe, and daubed it off my cheek.

There was a stain of blue there, swirling with various shades of it, before finally deepening, and staying dark.

She looked into my eyes. “You have been alone a very long time. It is love you seek, but I cannot offer it to you, Traveler, or I would give it freely, and you could stay here forever.”

“No one lives forever.”

“But love does, Traveler.”

She pulled back, straightened, smoothed her robes, looked off into the distance, and said it again, softer.

“Love does.”

She took my hand, and led me from the rock.

“Come, I will walk with you to the edge of the grove, back to the road, and our time here together will end.”

“But you said I was welcome.”

She smiled. “I said all are welcome, and they are. But none may stay.”

We walked in silence, the only sound the random trill of birds, and the rustling of her robes, and the crunch of my boots.

Finally we emerged into the light of a westering sun, deepening in shades of amber and tangerine and persimmon, lighting the stitching of cirrus clouds afire from below.

“Will I see you again?” I asked.

She took my face in her hands, and searched my eyes for the depth of the question.

“When you love again, Traveler.”

She released me, took the rest of my apple, and walked away; I heard the rustling of her robes as she left me, and watched her disappear into the trees.

I started down the road and looked up.

The last of the sun was almost gone, and the darkening sky was blue and green, trimmed with a vestige of gold.

And the evening star slipped across the sky, a silver tear from the moon’s saffron cheek, and guided me home.