A novel of boundless imagination, wonderful characters, and fast paced action.
Darkness covered the city, flowing down the streets and collecting in the alleys.
Silence sat heavily on the sleeping town - thick fog swathing the buildings or pooling in faintly orange, liquid puddles under the occasional street lamp.
The town drunk stumbled down a cobbled road, his head spinning from recently guzzled pots of ale. Reaching the nearest alley, he slumped against the wall and slid to the ground then threw his head back and began singing loudly off-key. A brief flash of light a few feet further down the alley startled him and he peered into the darkness. “Who’s der?” he slurred, trying to make out anything in the inky blackness. No answer was forthcoming, so he shrugged and went back to singing.
The reason for the flash stood silently several feet away, his eyes adjusting to the sudden darkness. He wrinkled his nose at the putrid smell of rotting garbage and tried not to throw up. Wonderful, he thought sourly. Backwater planet in the middle of nowhere and where do I materialize? In the middle of their garbage dump! He closed his eyes and settled his nerves. Well, it could be worse I guess. I wonder just how primitive these people are.
He picked his way through the darkened alley, avoiding the larger concentrations of refuse. By the time he reached the street, the drunk was happily snoring in the stupor produced by the ale.
Well at least, he thought as he pulled the drunk’s tattered cloak aside to study the man’s ratty attire, I look like they do. A frown darkened his expression as he glanced down at his seamless black jump suit. But I’ll never fit in, dressed like this.
He dropped the cloak then stood, gazing around the street.
The fog drifted past swirling in the faint breeze.
Satisfied things were relatively safe; he stepped out of the alley and started up the deserted street while trying to stay well out of the light, hugging the rough brick wall of the buildings as he slunk past silent storefronts. The town ended after less than a minute and the street turned into a lane running out into open land.
The man stopped, sighed, and turned around. Better and better. Backwater planet, primitive culture, local inhabitants who appear to have the civility of poorly bred pigs and now this. When I get my hands on the idiot who opened that warp… He stared at the few buildings visible through the fog. Maybe the town’s bigger if I go the other way. I need clothes. Light spilled out of a doorway a few feet ahead of him as he started back up the street, and he froze.
A couple strolled out, waving behind themselves at a crowded, smoke filled room, and then wandered off down the street.
The man waited until they were lost in the fog before breathing a silent sigh of relief. Clothes, he reminded himself. And food. And sleep. Retribution later. After my powers come back. He glanced around for more signs of life, and then continued up the street.
As the alley came back in sight, he spotted a dark figure bent over the drunk. It drew a knife from a sheath and cut the strings of the drunk’s pouch.
As the thief opened the pouch and began rummaging through it, the man narrowed his eyes. Trained reflexes took over and he advanced, little more than a shadow. He flung one are around the thief’s throat, grasped the knife hand with the other, bent the smaller man backwards and forced his hand open.
The knife hit the ground with a dull thud.
The man twisted his prisoner’s arm up behind his back.
The thief struggled but stopped when pressure tightened around his throat.
“You know, for a thief you’re not very observant,” the man growled, his voice low. His captive struggled, but remained silent. He applied more pressure to the arm.
“Not only that, but your choice of targets is lousy.”
“Let me go!”
Language will evidently not be a problem, he thought with a small feeling of satisfaction. That’s one positive aspect to this. “Let you go?” he asked in a low, dangerous voice. “And then what? Wait while you pick up your knife and try to kill me? I think not.” He increased the pressure on his captive’s throat.
“No! Just let me go and I swear I won’t….”
“You’re right, you won’t.” The man’s voice was dark and threatening. “Because you won’t like what I’ll do if you try. I’ll let go, but if you move, you die. Understand?”
“Yes.” The thief managed through tightly clenched teeth.
The man released his grip and the thief stumbled forward, whirled around, and then stood uncertainly, rubbing his wrist.
The fog drifted past behind the tall, dark-haired man, diffusing what light the street lamp shed and giving him an unearthly backdrop. The thief stared up into a pair of brown eyes that appeared faintly to glow and gulped, his blood running cold.
The man crossed his arms, bent his head, and stared down at the thief. “Your name?”
“Why?” came the hesitant response.
“Because I asked.”
After a pause…. “Kheri.”
The man nodded and picked up the knife
Kheri’s eyes darted to the street but prudence kept him from moving.
The man handed back the knife. “You can call me Dale.”
Kheri took the knife, sheathing it quickly. “So now what?” He stared up at someone who towered more than twelve inches over his slight, five and a half feet.
Dale pointed at the drunk. “First, give him back his pouch. Second, you just became my guide to this place. To start with, I need other clothing. You’re going to help me find some.”
Kheri opened his mouth to protest, noticed the expression that flickered over Dale’s face, nodded once, and then dropped the pouch next to the drunk. His gaze wandering over Dale’s strange attire. “What kind of clothes do you want?”
“Normal stuff. What any average, working man would wear.”
Kheri stared at Dale’s jump suit while frowning in thought. After a moment, “All right. I know where you can get something but… we’ll have to leave town. The only stuff around here is either on someone’s back or in a store, and those’re locked.”
“And stuff outside town isn’t?”
“Well....” Kheri fidgeted and tried not to feel frightened. “My aunt’s got a farm a ways out. I can try to get you some of my uncle’s old things… unless you object to a walk?”
Dale caught Kheri’s eyes and held them until younger man shivered and looked away. “All right, which way?”
“Uh….” Kheri stammered, his heart pounding, “Th… this way.” He moved cautiously past his captor, stepped out of the alley, and then started up the street toward the center of town.
Dale followed silently behind him.
Kheri’s thoughts raced as he walked past the wooden buildings. The desire to dash off into the fog filled him and he fought it down, certain he would fail in the attempt. His arm still ached and he had no desire to find out just how strong Dale really was. He rubbed his throat and shivered. Clothes... he thought, trying to control his overly active imagination. I gotta tell her something.... Maybe I can offer to clean up... He pictured the ancient steamer trunk locked away in his aunt’s attic, full of his uncle’s rotting clothing, and then shook his head and frowned. She’ll have it locked. I gotta get her to give ‘em to me.
The brief events in the alley sprang back to the front of his mind, overpowering his shaky attempt at planning. Forcing himself to swallow, he took a deep breath and tried to consider what his aunt might accept. He was still deep in thought when the last few buildings came in sight. Dale dropped a firm hand on his shoulder, shattering his concentration, and he jumped.
“Stop,” came the soft command.
Kheri froze and glanced around. A movement in the shadows a short way up the street caught his attention and he flattened against the wall next to Dale, holding his breath.
A figure detached itself from the shadows and crossed the street, visible now as one of the town guards.
They stood motionless, waiting while the guard glanced around and then made his way on down the street.
“All right, let’s go,” Dale hissed after the guard had vanished into the fog.
Kheri looked curiously up at the taller man as they started walking.
Dale returned his gaze while lifting an eyebrow in question. “Yes?
“How’d you know he was there?”
“I heard him.”
Kheri blinked. “You heard him?”
A shiver ran up Kheri’s spine and he stopped, then took a deep breath and turned to face his captor. “Who... I meant what...,” he stammered, unable to translate thoughts into words.
Dale looked down into Kheri’s eyes. “Are you sure you want the answer to that question?” His voice was soft, yet full of hidden threat.
Kheri nodded, his eyes locked on Dale’s face.
Dale’s voice lightened, the threat less noticeable. “At the moment, I’m just a stranger who would prefer not to be noticed. You get on my bad side,” his voice took on a harder tone, “I might turn out to be your worst nightmare.”
Kheri shivered and fought to swallow, unable to turn away.
“You do as I ask and behave,” the tone lightened again. “And I may turn out to be a valuable friend,” Dale continued, still holding Kheri’s gaze with his own. “You want more explanation than that, earn it. How far is it to your aunt’s farm?”
“Uh....” Kheri shook his thoughts free from the frightening flight of fantasy they’d taken. “About three… four miles… not far. A couple hours walk.”
“She get up early?”
“Usually, yes. And this is market day too. There’ll be traffic coming into town in a while.”
Dale watched the younger man squirm for a few seconds. “In that case,” he said softly, a flinty edge to his voice. “I suggest you turn around and we get going.”
Kheri broke into a sudden sweat and turned quickly around, leading the way out of town.
Night stretched thin, surrendering to the dawn, as they left the town. Released by the dissipating mist, furrowed fields of muted brown unfolded to the horizon, the scent of newly mown hay drifting on the breeze. A smile tugged at the corner of Dale’s mouth.
This might not be too bad, he thought as a colorful swath of wild flowers came into view. I could almost feel at home here, if it weren’t so primitive. Still, it’s pretty.... I could be stranded somewhere a whole lot worse. He looked up and watched the clouds shade from delicate pink to rich gold before turning his attention to his captive.
Kheri’s straight blond hair dangled in a rough cut a bit past his collar. Icy blue eyes looked out of a face wrapped in pale skin dusted with freckles and he moved with the practiced ease of someone who traveled exclusively on their feet.
Dale nodded to himself. Early twenties, I think. Not very muscular and very inexperienced. Might have decent potential, given enough time. We’ll see. He broke the silence. “What do most people use for transportation around here?”
Kheri blinked, and then shook himself back to the present. “Horses mostly. Mules sometimes. Carts or wagons for hauling. Why?”
“Because I asked.”
Kheri gave an uneasy nod and returned to working out an excuse to get his uncle’s mothballed clothing away from his aunt. Five minutes later, he sighed, shook his head, and stopped walking. “Look,” he turned to face Dale, struggling to keep tension out of his voice, “I’m not really sure this is such a good idea.”
Kheri shivered and picked nervously at a fingernail, unable to determine what his captor’s tone meant. “Yeah, my aunt… well she’s pretty sharp and… she’s gonna want to know why I want my uncle’s clothes, you know?” He forced himself to meet Dale’s eyes. “And well I can’t…” he stopped as Dale crossed his arms. “Uh…” his knees threatened to give way and he gulped. “I… uh… I can’t think of… of…” He dropped his eyes and stood trembling, staring down at Dale’s feet.
Dale sighed, used to dealing with much more hardened individuals, and fought with his own impatience. “Kheri, let’s just get to your aunt’s farm. We can deal with what to tell her once we get there.”
Kheri sagged and nodded in resignation. “All right,” he replied unhappily, as he turned back to the road. “But don’t say I didn’t try to warn you.”
As the sun rose above distant mountains a short time later, its light painting the land with every color of creation, the birds broke into a riotous chorus of welcome as its first rays began to warm their nests. Dale found to his surprise that he was smiling. I might actually enjoy this. If I can get past the hurdles of no clothes, no money, no food, and no idea when my powers will return. The thought was sobering and dulled the promise of the new day.
They walked in silence for the better part of an hour, each wrapped in his own musings. Dale kept a sharp eye out for any approaching traffic but the road remained deserted and at last, a farm came in sight.
It was a small place, with a tidy yellow house set back from the road and a chicken yard nestled against one fence. Tall rows of corn stood neatly to the side, golden tassels waving atop fat ears. A low mooing drifted towards them, accompanied by the jangle of cowbells and the scent of manure.
Kheri glanced toward the barn. “She’s probably milking the cow. It’s about that time of the day.”
“And your uncle?”
“Dead. Been dead for nearly thirty years. Got drunk one night, thought he could fly, climbed a tree to try it. Didn’t survive the fall. No loss.”
Dale lifted an eyebrow at Kheri’s back.
“My aunt says life got three hundred percent easier after he died,” Kheri shrugged, rambling from the tension he was under. “I dunno though, I didn’t know him. He was already gone by the time I came here to live after my parents died when I was six.”
Right, Dale thought, scanning the farm. “So your aunt lives here alone?” he asked as they neared the front gate.
“Yeah. Just her and the animals.” Kheri put his hand on the gate, and then paused and looked up at his captor. “Dale, don’t do anything to her, Okay? Please?” He stood motionless, his eyes locked on Dale’s face.
“Is there a reason I should?”
Kheri took a deep breath and shook his head. “I hope not,” he muttered. He opened the gate, lead the way up the path and around to the back of the house.
His aunt stepped out of the barn as they rounded the corner, a heavy metal pail in one hand and a basket in the other. She caught sight of her nephew walking across the yard, set the pail down, and put her hands on her hips. “I suppose there’s something you want, isn’t there. Well it can wait. I’ve got eggs to fetch and breakfast to cook and chores to do.”
“We just want....”
“It can wait till later,” Dale interrupted. “And we’d be happy to help you with your chores.”
The aunt peered at Dale, looking him up and down. “You sure are dressed outlandishly. Where’re you from, boy?”
“A fairly long way off, ma’am.”
Kheri’s aunt pursed her lips then nodded. “Must be. You ever collected eggs before?”
Dale stared at her, a blank expression on his face. “Uh... “ He shook his head. “No, I haven’t.”
“Didn’t rightly think so.” She held out the basket. “Kheri, take this and go get the eggs. Take your friend with you. I’ll be in the house.”
Kheri bit his lip as he took the basket to keep from laughing at Dale’s reaction. “Come on,” he jerked his head to the side. “The hen house is this way.”
His aunt shook her head while watching them walk off, and then picked up the pail of milk. “City folk,” she muttered. “Ain’t never done a useful lick o’ work in his life mos’ like. Well the hens’ll give ‘em some exercise.” She lugged the milk into the house, the screen door slamming behind her.
A wire fence circled the chicken yard and hen house, enclosing them both in an unbroken ring penetrated by a single gate. Kheri paused before the gate. “Chickens are kinda funny. They can’t fly, but they’ll try to run out the gate. Don’t let ‘em or we’ll be chasing ‘em all day. Also, the hens don’t like it when we take their eggs, so they get kinda nasty. Oh, and watch out for the rooster.”
Dale surveyed the birds milling around inside the yard. “All right. What’s a rooster?”
Kheri’s eyebrows shot up and he stared at Dale. “You don’t know....” He pointed to a rather large, imposing chicken with brilliant blue, curved tail feathers and shining brown wings. “That’s the rooster. He’s the only male in there and he thinks it all belongs to him. He’ll think we’re invading his property once we go in there. He likes to pick fights and that beak’s sharp. So are those spurs on the back of his feet. He’ll cut you wide open if you’re not careful, so watch out for him.”
Great. Dale studied the rooster as it strutted around the yard. One more thing to add to the list. No clothes, no money, no food, no access to my powers, and now I’m about to be a sparring partner for a bird with a bad attitude. I can’t wait to see what else is lurking in the wings! He grimaced before nodding at Kheri. “All right, let’s get this over with.”
Kheri opened the gate and slipped inside, shutting it quickly behind him.
Dale glanced at the rooster then followed suit.
The chickens scattered, squawking loudly, as Kheri strode toward them swinging the basket.
The rooster jerked around and gave an angry crow. Flapping his wings, he drew himself up to his full height, stretched out his neck and charged.
Kheri fended him off with the basket and sprinted for the hen house, disappearing inside with the rooster in hot pursuit. A second later, he dashed back out of the hen house with the basket over his head and the rooster close behind. He vaulted over the fence, caught his foot on the top, and landed in a heap on the ground.
The rooster, satisfied he had driven off the intruder, strutted away to take up sentry duty among the hens.
“I see what you mean,” Dale snickered, trying not to laugh as he gazed at the pile on the ground. “Did you get any eggs?”
A muffled sound came out from under the basket and Kheri pushed himself up on one arm. “No, I didn’t get any eggs! Here!” He tore the basket off his head and flung it in Dale’s direction. “Let’s see you do any better,” he growled, his temper frayed beyond control.
Dale caught the basket with one hand and shrugged. Moving cautiously, he made his way across the chicken yard, trying to avoid scattering the hens as Kheri had. The rooster eyed him with suspicion, but seemed content not to react since the hens appeared unruffled. He reached the hen house without incident, opened the door, and then slipped inside.
The hen house was small and rather dark with the door shut. The smell of chicken hung heavily in the air, mixing with the scents of dust and old straw. Dale blinked a couple of times while waiting for his eyes to adjust, wondering where the eggs were located.
Nesting boards had been nailed around the hen house walls, and several chickens were currently nestled on top piles of straw, contentedly snoozing. Peering curiously into a pile that lacked a hen, Dale spotted several white objects. Ah, he grinned. So this is where they come from. He retrieved the eggs, placing them into the basket. Working quickly, he collected eggs from the rest of the empty nests, and then stood back considering the dozing chickens.
The basket was almost full and the possibility of raising a squawk, and then having to dodge flying rooster, outweighed his desire to check under the hens. He cracked open the door and glanced around the chicken yard.
The rooster was busily worrying a bug in the grass on the far side of the yard, and didn’t appear to notice him.
Dale stepped outside the hen house, shut the door, and then made his way to the gate. He half-expected Kheri to have fled, and was pleasantly surprised to find this wasn’t the case. He opened the gate, stepped through it, and then handed Kheri the basket, an innocent expression painting his face. “What was so hard about that?”
Kheri frowned at the basket, glared at the rooster, and then stalked off toward the house without responding.
The smell of something cooking drifted from the house and Dale’s stomach growled. He winced in pain, trying to forget the fact that he hadn’t eaten in over two days before following Kheri into the kitchen.
Kheri held the basket out to his aunt. “Here’s your eggs.”
“Put ‘em on the counter,” she replied without turning around from the sink. “You and your friend go wash up and fill the water barrel. Bucket’s by the pump. Get a move on or breakfast’ll be cold ‘afore you’re done.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Kheri set the basket on the counter, and then headed back outside, running solidly into Dale who had just stepped through the door. He hit the floor, landing on his backside on the tiles.
His aunt glanced over her shoulder, shook her head, and went back to peeling potatoes. “Clumsy. How many times I got to tell you t’ open your eyes and look where you’re going?”
Dale winced from the impact. Reaching down, he grasped Kheri’s arm then hauled him to his feet and stepped back outside.
Kheri followed, rubbing the back of his neck.
“You know,” Dale said as they walked to the pump. “Walking through solid objects is a skill I don’t think you’ve had much practice with.”
Kheri glared at him, then grabbed the pump’s handle and pushed it down sharply. “Yeah well…,” he picked up the bucket and set it under the pump to catch the water. “If you weren’t so slow coming into the house, you wouldn’t have been in the doorway.” He worked the handle viciously until water gushed out, missing the bucket completely. He snarled at the bucket, adjusted its position, and shoved the handle down again.
“No,” Dale steadied the bucket under the stream of water Kheri was forcing from the pump. “But if you were more observant, it wouldn’t have mattered where I was.”
Kheri glowered at the pump and shoved the handle down again. “Lay off already, okay? I’ve never been very good at this farm stuff.”
“Which is why you’re trying to make a living in town stealing from drunks?”
A loud crash sounded from inside the house.
Kheri jerked his head up, a furious retort ready, and froze, staring at the house.
Black smoke billowed out of the kitchen window, accompanied by the crackling of flames.
Dale whirled around and ran for the back door. He jerked the door open then threw an arm over his mouth as smoke flowed out. Slapping a control on his belt, he sighed with relief as his force field shimmered into place. “Small favors gratefully accepted,” he said to no one in particular before plunging into the kitchen.
Flames shot out of the top of the iron cook stove, the curtains over the sink were blazing, and part of the countertop was burning. Kheri’s aunt lay crumpled on the floor next to one of the round, metal stove lids, a nasty bruise purpling the side of her face.
Dale knelt swiftly, lifted her in his arms, and carried her outside. “Kheri,” He commanded sharply as he lay the unconscious woman on the ground. “Water! Now!”
Kheri jumped, startled out of the catharsis that had held him immobile, hefted the pail and lugged it over as rapidly as possible, spilling half of it in the process. He set the bucket down, and then stood there looking lost and confused.
Dale stood up, grasped Kheri by both shoulders, and caught his eyes. “Get your aunt away from the house. How close is the nearest neighbor?”
Kheri blinked as Dale’s question sunk in. “The Tuckers. About half-mile.”
“Get her out of the way,” Dale repeated, gesturing at Kheri’s aunt, “and go get help.” He picked up the bucket and headed back into the kitchen.
Dale hurled what little water remained in the bucket at the flaming curtains, and then dashed back out to the pump. Kheri’s aunt was still lying on the ground where he had left her with Kheri nowhere in sight. He dropped the bucket and picked her up, then ran to the barn. Laying her down gently, he paused long enough to make sure she was still breathing before dashing back. He snatched the bucket from the ground, shoved it under the pump, and pushed the handle down as Kheri had done.
The pump creaked in protest, but nothing happened.
Dale frowned, grasped the pump handle firmly, and tried again.
The pump resisted his efforts for several seconds, but at last, water began to flow. These people need to discover electricity, he thought, working the handle vigorously. As soon as the bucket was full, he hurried back inside, trying not to spill water on the way.
The fire still shot out of the stovetop and the curtains were fully ablaze, the wall behind them smoldering with rivulets of flame crackling across the paint. He dumped the bucket of water through the open stovetop, drowning the wood inside, and then raced back to the pump. What I wouldn’t give for a hose right now, he thought, fighting with the water once more. Come on! Work! He put other concerns aside, focusing only on the job of filling bucket after bucket of water, and carrying them into the house as rapidly as possible.
The fire danced around the kitchen, dodging his efforts as if it were a living creature, scorching the walls and ceiling in the process.
Dale fought back, slinging the water in wide arcs. He was so absorbed in the task that he dumped two extra buckets into the kitchen before realizing the fire was out.
Gasping for breath, he stood in the middle of the drenched kitchen and looked around. The floor was swimming under black water a quarter of an inch deep. The walls and ceiling were dripping, the counter top charred. His arms ached, his legs felt like rubber, and as adrenaline stopped flowing, he started to shake. He stumbled out of the kitchen, flopped down on the top step, and dropped the bucket on the ground. Reaching for his belt, he barely managed the strength necessary to deactivate the force field then closed his eyes and fought the waves of dizziness crashing over him.
The sound of hoof beats reached him a few minutes later and he opened one eye enough to see Kheri ride through the gate, followed closely by two strange men on plow horses.
Kheri swung down from the horse, ran to the barn, and knelt next to his aunt.
The two men reined their horses and dismounted. The older one joined Kheri while the younger ambled up the back steps into the house.
Dale scooted to the side as he passed, then leaned against the doorframe again and closed his eyes.
A short time later, the man exited the house and stood nonchalantly on the top step. “Fire’s out,” he observed around the piece of straw he was chewing on.
Dale nodded silently without opening his eyes.
“Kitchen’s a mess.” The man took the straw out of his mouth. He peered at it then flipped it away into the grass and stuck his thumbs under his suspenders.
Dale glanced up at him and nodded again, wondering if the yokel was capable of noticing anything that wasn’t blatantly obvious.
“Jerad,” the older man called from the barn. “Come over here and help me.”
“Comin’,” the hayseed drawled. He descended the stairs and moseyed across the yard.
Kheri watched helplessly as the two men picked his aunt up and carried her into the house. He walked over to Dale and flopped down on the ground, dejected.
“Who are they?” Dale asked.
“The neighbors.” Kheri picked at a blade of grass. “Paw Tucker and his son Jerad. I hope she’s going to be all right.”
“She should be,” Dale assured him, his voice barely above a whisper. “She’ll have a bruise for a while from that stove lid,” he took a deep breath before closing his eyes again, “but I don’t think anything’s seriously wrong.”
“Yeah, well…” Kheri trailed off. “She’d be dead if you hadn’t been here.” He turned away, his cheeks burning with embarrassment.
Dale opened his eyes, and raised an eyebrow at Kheri’s odd behavior, but said nothing.
Jerad stepped out of the door a few seconds later. He looked down at Kheri and jerked his head toward the kitchen. “Paw wants you,” he drawled before wandering back into the house.
Kheri glanced up at Dale then levered himself up off the ground and followed Jerad inside.
Dale sagged against the doorframe, yawning deeply. He fought to stay awake, unwilling to fall asleep in what was essentially enemy territory, but his energy was gone. He’d expended most of it in a two day, non-stop struggle to close the space warp that had finally claimed him. That, combined with fighting the fire, had depleted his reserves. His body gave up the fight of its own accord and he passed out, sitting on the back steps.
Kheri walked hesitantly into the bedroom behind Jerad, afraid of what he might find. The sight of his aunt awake and sitting partially up in bed sent a thrill of relief through him. The knot in his stomach loosened and he visibly relaxed.
His aunt smiled at him and patted the covers. “Well, son, guess it’s a good thing you came to visit this morning, ain’t it.”
Kheri walked over to the bed and perched on the edge of it, tears glistening in his eyes.
“Oh now, stop that,” his aunt chided him gently. “It’ll take more’n a little bump on the head to do me in. Paw Tucker tells me the kitchen’s a downright mess. I need to nap a spell, but I’ll get up n’ wash up, and make you boys lunch in a couple hours.”
Kheri shook his head. “It’s gonna need more than a washing. It’s pretty burnt.”
“I’ll round up the others and we’ll get ‘er fixed,” Paw Tucker drawled. “You just rest easy, Matilda.”
“Yep,” Jerad put in. “Be good as new.”
“I can’t thank you enough, Paw.” Kheri’s aunt smiled at her neighbors, and then shooed them away with one hand. “Go on now, I need to sleep. Oh, and Kheri,” she peered at her nephew. “Whatever it was that that young man who’s with you wanted, long as it’s not my cow, he can have. Go on now, shoo.” She closed her eyes and slid down under the covers, pulling them up over her shoulder.
Kheri bent over and gave her a hug, and then stood and followed the others out of the room, shutting the door softly.
“Welp,” Paw Tucker declared. “Guess we better get started. We’ll be back in a while.”
“Yep,” Jerad nodded. “Back later.”
They strode through the kitchen and rode off on the plow horses without even a glance at the man sleeping on the steps.
Kheri followed them to the back door, his thoughts spinning around in circles. So much had happened in such a few short hours. He glanced down at Dale and his hand strayed to his knife handle. He’s sound asleep. I could slit his throat and dump the body somewhere. He’s not from around here. No one’d know he was gone. His fingers tightened around the hilt for a second but he forced his hand away. I can’t do it. My aunt’d be dead and her house destroyed if it wasn’t for what he did. He struggled with his emotions for several seconds then reached down and touched Dale’s shoulder. The result was not what he expected. Within the blink of an eye, he found himself pinned flat on the ground on his stomach, with Dale kneeling over him. “Hey!” he managed to holler around a mouthful of grass.
Dale shook himself awake, rolled Kheri over onto his back, then stepped away. “Did I mention it’s a bad idea to touch me if I’m asleep?”
“No, but I’ll keep it in mind,” Kheri groaned, sitting up stiffly.
“Sorry.” Dale reached down and helped the younger man back to his feet. “What did you want?”
“I was just going to tell you my aunt’s okay and suggest you go sleep on the couch instead of the back porch,” Kheri replied, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Before, or after, you tried to slip your knife into me?” Dale asked, watching Kheri’s expression.
“Uh....” Kheri flinched and paled under Dale’s gaze.
Dale crossed his arms. “How hard was it to talk yourself out of that?”
Kheri shrugged and met Dale’s eyes defiantly. “Pretty hard.”
“You’re honest, at least. A word of warning, don’t try it. I react much differently to a weapon when I’m asleep.” Dale locked gazes with Kheri. “And currently, while I could easily rip you into several pieces before I had time to wake up, I do not have the ability to put you back together again.” He paused for a moment to let his words sink in. “Understand?”
Kheri’s face turned ashen. His heart attempted to escape from his chest, his mouth became drier than old dust, and darkness rapidly descended. He swallowed, tried to speak, and finally managed a whisper. “Understood.”
“Good.” Dale rubbed his eyes. “Where’s that couch?”
“In... inside. I’ll show you.”
Kheri’s legs shook worse than his voice. He forced himself to re-enter the house and lead the way to the living room, watching as Dale collapsed onto the couch. He stood silently for several long minutes, staring at his unconscious nemesis, and thinking. The unpleasant possibility of Dale exploding into action and ripping him to pieces ran through his mind in graphic detail. As his imagination ran away from him, he slowly backed into the kitchen away from the terror that had taken over his life in the dark hours of the morning and bumped into the table. He jumped, whirled around, and then stood staring in silence at the results of the fire.
The curtains were gone, turned to ash by the flames. The curtain rod had become a scorched bit of wood dangling over the sink. Smoke blackened the window, the counter had been completely ruined, and soot covered the walls. The ceiling above the stove was charred, the floor drowned under filthy water, and the entire room stank.
He turned slowly around taking in the damage before glancing back into the living room. The memory of Dale carrying his aunt out of the house to safety and spending himself to save her home collided with the horrible fantasy his imagination was building. He dropped his head into his hands and attempted to think.
“Either he’s evil, or he’s not. He can’t be both.” He gazed around at the destroyed kitchen before shaking his head. “He can’t be evil. Evil would have let her die, let the house burn. But,” he turned back to consider Dale’s unconscious form stretched out on the couch. “He’s not human, that’s for sure. And he terrifies me.” His imagination took flight again, conjuring up horrifying possibilities. Fear gripped his stomach and turned it into knots. He knows what I’m thinking. I know that much. My aunt said he could have what he wanted. Well he wanted clothes. Maybe he’ll take ‘em when he wakes up, and leave.
The sound of the rooster crowing drifted in through the open back door.
Kheri shook himself back to reality. I can’t just stand here. I need something to do. Attempting an escape while Dale was asleep flashed through his mind but he shook his head firmly. I’m not leavin’ till I know she’s gonna be ok, and I’m not leavin’ her here alone with him, anyway. No tellin’ what he’d do to her if he woke up and found I was gone. Besides, he glanced back into the living room. He’d probably find me if I did, anyway.
...You get on my bad side, I might turn out to be your worst nightmare... Dale’s words echoed through his memories and he shuddered. ...do as I ask and behave, and I may turn out to be a valuable friend...
Kheri shivered, nodded to himself, and took a deep breath. “Might as well get as much of this soot out of the kitchen as I can,” he muttered, and went searching for a mop and bucket.
Quite some time - and all of his aunt’s clean rags later - Kheri stopped scrubbing, stood up, and looked around.
The kitchen still needed work, but the damage didn’t appear as bad, and the smell was no longer over-powering. Sunlight sparkled on the window glass and while the counter top was useless, the ceiling had survived with only a slight charring. The walls, too, were no longer black - though they needed a new coat of paint. He bent backwards, allowing his back to pop, and then squatted down in front of the stove and set about the unpleasant task of cleaning it.
As he stepped outside with the last of the waterlogged wood, Paw Tucker, along with most of the neighboring farmers and their wives, drove in the gate. He dumped the wood on the ground beside the steps and stood in the kitchen door, watching the noisy crowd as it arrived.
Paw pulled his wagon up next to the back steps and hopped down. Turning, he extended his hand to help an elderly man dressed in a long black coat out of the wagon. “Watch the step, Doc,” he cautioned as the man climbed down.
“Thank you.” The man felt around under the wooden seat. “Now where’s my bag?”
“Here.” Paw pulled a black bag out from behind the seat and handed it to him.
“Thank you,” Doc repeated, taking the bag. He started for the back door. “Ah, Kheri,” he sneered as he caught sight of the young man, a malicious glint in his eye. “Back for a visit eh? Or did you get tired of life as a street rat?”
Kheri’s face tightened noticeably. “I’m not a....”
“Where’s your aunt?”
Kheri bristled. “In her room.” He turned and stalked through the house, led the doctor to his aunt’s room, opened the door and stood aside. “I’ll be in the living room if…”
The doctor brushed past him and closed the door firmly in his face before he could finish.
Wizard's Bane is the first book in the Sojourn Chronicles series - an epic adventure that follows Dale and his struggles against both a planet full of magic that seems determined to destroy him and the Gorg, a race of high tech aliens bent on destroying said planet. Along the way he collects a motly crew of friends and associates, all tangled up into the adventure of a life time.
The fate of the world hangs in the balance and Dale must some how, bereft of his powers, his equipment and access to his home base, save it.
or die trying.
Wizard's Bane, and the rest of the Sojourn Chronicles are available in print and e-book format. E-books can be purchased from Smashwords.com here: