Authors: Jonathan Moeller
A WIZARD OF THE WHITE COUNCIL
FIND ALASTARIUS ON EARTH
Those four words have driven ARRAN BELPHON through the dark places between the worlds to Earth itself. Somewhere on Earth, he knows, the last Wizard of the White Council is waiting.
And so are the enemies that destroyed his world.
ALLY WESTER finds herself haunted by dreams she cannot remember. She wishes to forget her fast. But her past has not forgotten her, and the darkness yearns to devour her.
THOMAS WYCLIFFE'S ascent is complete, his wealth and power unassailable. The United States, and the world itself, is his for the taking.
Unless the black magic he wields first consumes him.
And the power he has summoned may even destroy the TOWER OF ENDLESS WORLDS...
Other books by the author
The Third Soul Series
The Blood Shaman
The High Demon
The Burning Child
The Outlaw Adept
The Black Paladin
The Tomb of Baligant
Computer Beginner's Guides
The Ubuntu Beginner's Guide
The Windows Command Line Beginner's Guide
The Linux Command Line Beginner's Guide
The Ubuntu Desktop Beginner's Guide
The Windows 8 Beginner's Guide
The Linux Mint Beginner's Guide
The Ghosts Series
Child of the Ghosts
Ghost in the Flames
Ghost in the Blood
Ghost in the Storm
Ghost in the Stone
Ghost in the Forge
Ghost Dagger (World of the Ghosts novella)
Ghost Aria (World of the Ghosts short story)
The Demonsouled Series
Soul of Tyrants
Soul of Serpents
Soul of Dragons
Soul of Sorcery
Soul of Skulls
The Dragon's Shadow (World of the Demonsouled novella)
The Wandering Knight (World of the Demonsouled short story)
The Tower of Endless Worlds Series
The Tower of Endless Worlds
A Knight of the Sacred Blade
A Wizard of the White Council
The Destroyer of Worlds
$1.99 Dark Fantasy
Driven and Other Stories
The Devil's Agent
Angel Sword and Other Stories
Copyright 2012 by Jonathan Moeller.
Cover design by Clarissa Yeo.
Ebook edition published June 2012.
All Rights Reserved.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the author or publisher, except where permitted by law.
Chapter 1 - The Creature at the Window
Anno Domini 2012
Ally Wester awoke in her dorm room with a scream.
A dream. A nightmare, one she had dreamed before. A man with swords of fire faced down things of shadow in a corridor of stone as Ally ran for her life, her brother Lithon clutched in her arms. Usually the dream ended when the shadow-things ripped apart the man with the burning swords and charged in pursuit of Ally, hissing her name, whispering for her blood…
But this time, something different happened.
The dark man drew a crimson sword that burned with white flame, and he charged through the shadow-things, cutting them down with every step. He fell through a door of stone, vanishing as the shadow-things shrieked their fury. And then…and then…
The memories of the dream faded from her mind.
She looked around her dorm room. It was deserted, save for her possessions. Her roommate of two days was gone, no doubt getting drunk or stoned or both. She heard the distant noise of music and parties, but the room was otherwise silent.
Ally lay back down and tried to get some sleep.
Images of a burning sword flickered through her mind as sleep took her.
The night after her strange dream, Ally dug through the side pocket of her backpack, fumbling for her keycard. Mosquitoes buzzed around the lights illuminating the dormitory’s front door. One landed on her neck, and she flicked it away with annoyed grunt. At last her fingers found the card, and she grinned in triumph, pulled it out, and swiped it through the lock.
It beeped, but nothing else happened.
Ally squinted at the little green digital readout on the lock. “Card failure? What does that mean?” She swiped the card again.
The lock beeped, flashed red, and then went dark.
Ally groaned. Why couldn’t the dorm’s front door use a good old-fashioned metal key? Those didn’t fritz out every time the power flickered. One week of college behind her and she had already been locked out of her dorm twice. She shoved her keycard into her jeans pocket and left, making for the dorm’s side door.
The August night hung hot and muggy over the campus, and a light sheen of sweat glistened on Ally’s brow as she walked. Despite the heat and the darkness, the campus bustled with activity. Students stood in the doorways and around the lampposts, laughing and smoking. A tall man in a leather jacket swaggered past, each of his arms around a young woman.
She blinked. For a moment she had the memory of a huge man in a leather jacket, red light glimmering behind his dark glasses. Fear filled her at the recollection, and then she pushed it away. She had never seen anyone like that. She just had an overactive imagination. Maybe she should follow in Katrina’s footsteps and write a book.
Thankfully, the card swipe on the side door worked and Ally let herself inside. She climbed the steps to the fifth floor.
The smell of microwave popcorn, ubiquitous to college dormitories, hung in the air and mingled with the scent of perfume, air fresheners, and aromatic candles. Doors lined both walls of the hallway, covered in a variety of posters or various forms of handmade art. Other doors stood open, and Ally saw girls sitting on the beds and chairs, talking, arguing, or checking Facebook on their phones. Quite a few had male visitors.
“Hey, Ally.” Kelly McBrian, the floor’s RA, leaned in her doorway. She stood barefoot, wearing a white V-neck t-shirt and a short black skirt that displayed both her legs and cleavage to good effect. “You’re in late.”
Ally shrugged. “Late? It’s only eleven.”
Kelly grinned, exposing brilliant white teeth. “For you, that is.”
Ally laughed. “Tomorrow’s Saturday. I can sleep in. I don’t have to be at work until two.”
Kelly nodded. “That must be nice. Listen, I have to tell you something.”
Ally frowned. “What is it?”
Ally scowled. “Lucy?” Even after one week, her wild roommate had been a constant vexation.
“Yeah. She left.”
Ally blinked. “How come?”
Kelly laughed. “I thought she was a cokehead. Turns out I was right. Her rich daddy caught her snorting in the back seat of his Mercedes with a couple of guys. All three of them were naked.”
“Wow,” said Ally.
Kelly laughed again. “Sure knew how to go out with a bang, didn’t she?”
“I’ll say,” said Ally.
“Or with a banging,” said Kelly. She laughed at her own joke. “So, it looks like you get your room to yourself. Unless you want another roommate? You can sign up if you want.”
“Nah,” said Ally. “Some peace and quiet would be nice.”
Kelly rolled her eyes. “In a dorm full of freshmen? Not going to happen.” She grinned. “At least when you bring your boyfriend up, you can have some privacy, right?”
“Yeah,” said Ally. “Boyfriend.” That part was unlikely. She simply had too much work to do. And she had to admit that most of the men in her age group, by and large, were simply not that attractive.
“Hey, Kelly!” A male student in a T-shirt and a pair of ragged jeans shorts swaggered into sight. “Haven’t seen you all summer!”
Kelly shot him a grin. “Hey, Luke.” She turned to Ally. “Gotta run. If you change your mind about the roommate, let me know, okay?”
Ally nodded. “Okay.” She walked down the five doors to her room, dug out her keys, and unlocked the door. At least the school didn’t use the keycards for individual room locks. Ally would wind up sleeping in the hallway .
She flipped on the light and blinked. Lucy’s dresser stood bare, the drawers hanging open. Ally peered into the cramped little closet, and saw that Lucy’s clothes had been cleared out. The room looked bare without Lucy’s myriad possessions.
Ally didn’t mind.
She dumped her backpack on her bed and dropped into her chair with a sigh. She had bought the overstuffed black leather chair at a garage sale for eleven bucks after she had gotten back from Europe. It smelled a bit of mildew, but regular sprayings with air freshener took care of that. Ally considered changing into some nice clothes and going out to meet people, but decided against it. She wanted to sleep.
Her iPhone rang.
Ally sighed and pulled it out of her pocket. “Hello?”
“Well, you’re up late. Shouldn’t you be in bed by now?”
Ally rolled her eyes. “Dad. It’s only eleven.”
“Twelve past eleven,” said Simon.
“Big difference,” said Ally.
“So how was your first week?” said Simon.
“All right, I guess,” said Ally. “Remember what you said about my roommate?”
Simon grunted. “Oh, yes. Little rich girl. The one who showed up and started complaining about closet space?”
“That’s her,” said Ally. “She left school.”
Simon snorted. “I figured that would happen sooner or later.”
“Just not so soon, right?” said Ally. “Apparently her dad caught her snorting something in the back seat of his car.”
“Not surprised,” said Simon.
“With two other guys. Also naked,” said Ally.
There was a pause. “I admit, that caught me off guard. Two guys? Glad she left, then. She would have been a bad influence on you.”
Ally laughed. “Should I bring home a guy, then?”
“Well, grandchildren might be nice,” said Simon.
“Dad,” said Ally, irritated.
“Yeah, okay,” said Simon. “Wait until you graduate, anyway.”
Ally grinned. “Well, if you want grandchildren that bad…there are a lot of really lonely guys wandering around tonight.”
“Hell no,” said Simon. “Grandchildren. God, I can’t believe I just said that. I’m not that old.”
Ally snickered. “You’re getting up there.”
Simon grumbled. “Don’t remind me.” Someone said something in the background. “Mom says hello.” He paused again. “She also says that if any…um…fool guy gives you trouble, you should break bones until he leaves you alone.”
Ally laughed. “Will do. Is Lithon still up?"
Simon snorted. “No. He has a baseball game in the morning. And I have to get up and drive him there.”
“That’s awful,” said Ally. “I’ll remember that in the morning when I roll over and go back to sleep.”
“You’re as bad as Katrina,” said Simon. “Okay. Listen…is there anything you need? I have to stop in tomorrow anyway…”
Ally laughed. “Dad, I’ll be fine. You work here, remember? You can stop by any time you want. And I’ll see Mom at work tomorrow anyway.”
“Yeah,” said Simon. “Um…Ally. If you see anything…weird, or if something comes up that you can’t handle, be sure to call me or your mom right away.”
“Weird?” said Ally. “What do you mean, weird? UFO landing or something like that?”
“Well…you know, just weird,” said Simon. “I should let you go now. Sleep well, whenever you get around to it.”
“Okay,” said Ally. “Love you, Dad.”
“Love you too, kid,” said Simon. “Bye.”
Ally hung up and looked over the half-empty dorm room. A wave of loneliness tugged at her. She had spent very little time away from her family. And she knew her close-knit family was a blessing, after she had seen the miserable home life of Mary and others. And she missed Lithon. She still felt responsible for him. But Katrina and Simon could look after him. Yet she still felt the need to watch him, as if someone had handed him into her care long ago…
For an instant she remembered a lean old man, a pair of swords at his belt and a crying child in his arms. An arched gallery of red stone stood high over them…
Ally shook the image away. “Overactive imagination. I need some sleep.” She got up, opened the windows, and closed the curtains. Fresh air blew through the room, but did not alleviate the heat. The dorms had no air conditioning. The University of Constantina had a new $30 million football practice field, but the dorms had no air conditioning Ally shut off the light and stripped down to her underwear. She climbed under her blanket, listened to the faint sound of talking voices rising from the ground below, and soon fell asleep.
Something tapped at the window.
The dorm room lay dark and quiet around Ally. She rolled over, pawed at her iPhone, saw that it was three in the morning. She sighed and pulled the blanket closer, snuggling against the bed. The humidity had abated somewhat, and the sheets, warmed with her body heat, felt good against her bare skin.
The tapping came again, louder.
Ally levered herself up on one elbow. She was on the fifth floor, so it seemed unlikely that someone was trying to break in through the window? Had a bird perched on the windowsill? She climbed out of bed, walked to the window, and pushed the curtain aside.
A scream rose in her throat.
A hideous face pressed against the screen, bits of leathery gray flesh bulging through the mesh. Red eyes burned like livid coals, and crooked fangs bulged over its lips. Long pointed ears rose over its head, framed by greasy black hair. The creature snarled and pushed harder against the screen.
Ally stumbled back, her arms rising to cover herself, stark terror seizing her. The monster was going to break the screen. It would crawl through the window and it would be in here with her…
Then brilliant white light flashed.
The monster at the screen wailed and fell, and Ally heard a bone-crunching thump. She inched back to the window and peered out, and caught a glimpse of a misshapen thing fleeing into the bushes. A ragged man in a dirty camouflage jacket stood on the sidewalk, a steel-headed cane in his hand. He looked up at her, dark eyes gleaming beneath a shock of greasy gray hair, and gestured with his left hand.
A wave of fatigue swept through Ally.
She turned, staggered back into her bed, and soon fell asleep.
Ally blinked, sunlight seeping around the edges of the curtains. She sat up, pushing her hair from her face. She heard birds chirping through the window.
Ally remembered. “Oh, God.” She jumped out of bed, her feet rubbing against the thin blue carpet. She stared at the window for a long moment. Then she pushed the curtain aside and looked outside.
The sidewalk was empty, the morning sunlight casting long shadows over the pavement. Ally’s eyes darted back and forth. She saw no sign of the nightmarish beast or the strange old man with a cane.
Ally closed her eyes. “Just a dream.” Maybe Mary was right about the nightmares. Maybe she should see someone about them.
Like that would go well.
A wolf whistle cut into her ears, and Ally’s eyes popped open. A male student in cargo shorts and a Bulls jersey had come around the corner and stood grinning up at her. What was he smiling at?
She looked down at herself and remembered that she had worn her underwear to bed.
Ally shrieked and pushed the curtain shut, heat flushing into her cheeks. She pushed the curtain open a crack and peered outside. The student had gone on his way, no doubt with an amusing story to tell his friends.
Maybe she really should see someone about the dreams. If this kept up, she would wind up running naked across the football field.
“Just dreams,” muttered Ally, digging through her dresser.
She wanted a shower.
Ally pushed open the door and looked down the hallway. It stood empty and quiet, the fluorescent lights casting faint shadows along the walls. She tucked the thick envelope under her arm and started down the hall, reading the nameplates on the door. “Dr. Wester, Dr. Wester…”
She spotted Simon’s office door towards the end of the hall. Brass letters gleamed on an impressive-looking black plaque, and Ally rolled her eyes and knocked. “Dad? I got copies of those scholarship forms you wanted.” No one answered, and Ally knocked again. “Dad?” He usually went to school by eight on Saturday mornings, but perhaps he and Katrina had gone out to breakfast. She slid the envelope under the door and turned to leave.
“Pardon, young lady, but can I help you? You seem lost.”
An elderly woman leaned against the wall a few doors down. She wore jeans, a white blouse, a leather vest, and hiking boots that looked as if they had seen many thousands of miles. A thick gray braid hung over her shoulder.
Ally shook her head. “No, I’m not lost. I just needed to drop some stuff off.”
The old woman nodded. “If you’re looking for Dr. Wester, he’ll be in by ten. I tell him to take Saturdays off, but he never listens to me.”
“He’s good at that,” said Ally. “But it’s no big deal. I just had to drop of these forms.”
The old woman titled her head to the side, thick braid sliding against her vest. “If you don’t mind my asking, are you an exchange student? I can’t seem to place your accent.”
“What?” said Ally. “Accent? I don’t have an accent. At least, I don’t think I do.”
The old woman nodded. “You do. It’s very subtle, but it’s there.” She tapped her lips with a callused finger. “I can’t quite place it. It sounds almost English one moment, then more Irish or Gaelic the next.” She chuckled. “Well, it’s hardly my business. Pardon the inquisitiveness of a curious old archaeologist.”
Ally laughed. “That’s okay.”
“I’m Heloise Francis, at your service,” said the old woman.
Ally blinked. “Dr. Francis? My dad talks about you all the time.”
Dr. Francis smiled. “Should I be alarmed?”
“No, no. I’m Ally Wester.”
Dr. Francis smiled. “Well, well. So at last I get to meet Simon’s famous adoptive daughter. In fact, I thought you looked familiar. Simon has about fifteen photographs of you, his son, and Katrina in his office.”
“And my dad talks about you a lot,” said Ally. “I had to help clean up my grandmother’s old house this summer.”
Dr. Francis smiled. “It’s such a lovely house, too. Still needs quite a bit of work, but I finally have room for all my books.”
“It’s a big house,” said Ally. “You must have a lot of books.”
“That I do,” said Dr. Francis. “I almost forgot. I left my hot plate on. Would you care for some tea?”
Ally nodded. “Sure.”
“It really is a very nice house.” Dr. Francis opened her office door. Bookshelves lined all four walls, stuffed to overflowing with books and papers and notes. Stacks of still more books and notes covered the floor. Dr. Francis sat a desk buried beneath papers and fiddled with a hot plate on the windowsill. “Still, I wish I could figure out what makes that noise.”
“Noise?” Ally looked at the guest chair. It held a stack of thick books with Latin titles.
“Oh, feel free to put that on the floor.” Ally obeyed and sat down. “That noise. Every now and again I hear the oddest clanging coming from the woods behind the house.” Ally shivered as she remembered her own odd experience in those woods. “I suspect there’s a sewer main running under the trees. It would be just like the city of Chicago to forget about one and let it back up…are you all right, dear? You’re shivering.”
Ally smiled. “I’m all right. The air conditioning’s just a little high in here.”
Dr. Francis looked at the ceiling. “It is at that. And they don’t turn it off until October. Then the heat stays on until the end of May.” She poured the tea into two small green cups. “Here you are.”
“Thanks.” Ally took a sip. “That’s good!”
Dr. Francis beamed. “Thank you, dear. I learned the recipe from an old Buddhist monk in New Delhi in exchange for an Urdu translation of the Septuagint.”
“Really? That’s quite a story.”
Dr. Francis chuckled. “Actually, I got the recipe off the back of a package of oatmeal a few years ago. But that’s a much more boring story, wouldn’t you say?”
Ally laughed and took another sip. “I suppose so.”
“Pardon my asking again, but you were adopted, true?” said Dr. Francis.
Ally nodded. “That’s right.”
Dr. Francis thought that over. “Do you know if you were adopted from a foreign country?”
Ally shrugged. “I…don’t think so.” Something shifted in her mind, some buried memory, and she pushed aside the sensation. “To tell the truth, I don’t really remember. I think my parents found my brother and me and took us in. They keep promising to tell us the real story someday, but they don’t like to talk about it.”
Dr. Francis nodded. “That’s understandable.”
Ally frowned. “Why is it understandable?”
Dr. Francis hesitated. “I seem to have talked myself into a corner.” She refilled her cup. “I myself know very little about the circumstances of your adoption. It was shortly after Simon and Katrina were engaged, and right after he completed his dissertation, I believe. Yes. It would have been just over ten years ago. Shortly after that both Simon and Katrina were hospitalized for some time.”
“What? How come?”
Dr. Francis sighed. “Apparently there was some sort of home-invasion robbery.” She raised a gray eyebrow. “At my new house, no less. Your father had some cuts and bruises, but your mother suffered several broken bones, the loss of considerable blood, and needed several months of physical therapy. Thank heaven she was still on insurance from her old job.”
“Senator Wycliffe,” said Ally. “My parents used to work for Senator Wycliffe.” She remembered what Katrina had told her after the honors dinner. Katrina and Simon had used to work for Wycliffe. Had he sent thugs to hurt them? What if her adoption had something to do with Wycliffe?
“Are you all right?” said Dr. Francis.
Ally blinked. “Yeah. I was just thinking. Wycliffe was still sort of a nobody when my parents worked for him, right?”
Dr. Francis sipped at her tea. “As much a nobody as a United States Senator can be. He was a billionaire back then, I believe.”
“Yeah,” said Ally, “but he was just a Senator. Now he’s going to be vice president.”
Dr. Francis sighed. “Depressing prospect, isn’t it? Almost every president for the last fifty years has been a millionaire.” She clucked her tongue. “Well, I must apologize. I shouldn’t have gone dredging into your past, digging up things that are none of my business.” She gave Ally a crooked grin. “Sins of an old archaeologist, I suppose.”
“It’s okay,” said Ally. “I’ve…thought about most of this stuff before, anyway.” But she had never suspected her adoption linked with Senator Wycliffe at all.
“It’s just your accent. So very strange. I’ve never heard anything quite like it before, you know, and I’ve traveled on all of the continents except Antarctica.” She set down her tea cup. “Nothing to dig up there, you see.”
Ally laughed. “I suppose not.”
“So you’re a freshman, I assume?” Ally nodded. “How has your first week been?”
Ally thought of her former roommate. “Um…mixed.”
Dr. Francis laughed. “Very diplomatic.” She leaned forward. “I’ll let you in on a little secret. The first year of college is almost always an ordeal. The Campus Life people don’t like to admit that, but it’s true. Away from home for the first time, new people, new influences, new ideas, all of that.” She smiled. “I’ve seen freshmen enter as conservative Christians and graduate as liberal atheists, and I’ve seen liberal atheists graduate as conservative Christians. A lot of people experience major changes in college.”
Ally nodded and finished her tea. “So now you’re going to give me advice.”
Dr. Francis looked surprised. “Oh?”
Ally grinned. “You’ve just warned me of all the perils and pitfalls, and now you’re going to tell me how to avoid them, right?”
Dr. Francis chuckled. “Your father always had a smart mouth. It seems you’ve inherited it. But I’ll give you advice anyway.” She rapped her knuckles on her desk. “College is all bunk.”
“All of it?” said Ally.
“Exactly right. All of it. Every last bit of it. Don’t listen to all those people telling you to get out and plan your career and life right now. I’ve seen quite a few of these people, and they usually wind up divorced and embittered by thirty. Just do what you like. Me,” she waved a hand at her overloaded shelves, “I like digging through the ground looking for old stuff. Archaeology in a nutshell. Just do what you like, what you love. You probably won’t make a lot of money, but you’ll be happy.”
Ally handed her the empty tea cup. “What if you don’t know what you love?”
Dr. Francis put the tea cups away. “Then you’ll find out. You seem like a bright kid. You’ll figure out what you love to do. Or what you need to do. Sometimes they’re the one and the same.”
Ally nodded. “I’d better get going. I have to be at work by nine.”
“Where do you work?” said Dr. Francis.
“Quinn’s Martial Arts Studio,” said Ally. “I’m an instructor.”
Dr. Francis lifted her eyebrows. “Instructor of what?”
“Tae kwon do and karate,” said Ally. “I have black belts in both.”
Dr. Francis lifted her eyebrows. “Well, well. I’d caution you with my usual speech against walking alone across campus at night, but it seems you don’t need it. Take care, young lady. Perhaps we’ll speak again.”
Ally nodded. “Maybe we will, since you are three doors down from my Dad’s office.”
Dr. Francis grinned. “I am at that. Take care.”
Ally left. Her mind chased itself as she walked to the bus stop. Just what had been the circumstances of her adoption? Was that why her parents had panicked at the dinner with Senator Wycliffe? Unsettling memories threatened to break free of her subconscious. She pushed them aside, intending to ask Katrina and Simon when she saw them.
But by the time Ally had arrived at the studio, she had forgotten about it.
Chapter 2 - The New World
Anno Domini 2012
Arran fell face-first across the ground.
He spat out dirt and leapt to his feet, his Sacred Blade flashing in the sunlight as he spun to face the open door. The children of the void pursued him across the gallery, their maddened whispers pulling at his mind. Arran yelled, gripped his sword’s hilt in both hands, and prepared to take their charge.
Then the door swung shut.
The runes carved on the black marble flashed with emerald light, and the whispers howled in frustrated rage before going silent. The door shimmered, grew translucent, and then faded into nothingness. Arran stood frozen for a long time, his sword trembling in his hands, his heart roaring in his chest.
At last he lowered his sword and stepped forward, reaching for where the door had been. Grass rustled beneath his boots, and his hand brushed empty air. He swung his sword in slow arcs.
It met no resistance.
“Gods,” muttered Arran. The door had vanished without a trace. “It looks like I’m here to stay.” He took a few more steps and began to laugh. “I made it.” He looked at the small clearing and the trees and laughed harder. “I made it, I made it, gods above, this is Earth.” He fell to one knee and leaned on his sword’s crosspiece, the laughter shaking his body. After some time, he regained control of himself, slid his Sacred Blade into its scabbard, and climbed to his feet. The trees and the grass were a welcome change after the wastes of the Crimson Plain and the stone corridors of the Tower. The air felt hot and muggy, and carried a strange smoky smell. But at least it did not smell of death, as the Crimson Plain had.
Strange. He had always thought of Earth as a world of fire and smoke and torment, a dungeon where slaves toiled in hellish foundries to produce guns and bombs and liquid fire. But these woods were little different than the forests of Carlisan and Rindl. Perhaps the guns and the bombs and the jeeps came from another part of Earth.
“So this is Earth.” He looked around the woods. “Now what?”
He had been so focused on reaching Earth for so long that had never given any thought to what he would do if he reached Earth. It had seemed impossible that he would even survive the journey across the High Kingdoms and through the Tower. What was he going to do now? He was alone and lost on a strange world. Arran walked to a nearby tree and sat down, his back against the trunk, and began to think.
His stomach growled, and he pulled a piece of jerky from his pack and ate it. After the long sojourn through the Tower, even the dry meat tasted good. He took a long draw from his water skin, the leather smooth and worn against his fingers. The water skin had been Siduri’s. She had taken it with her when she had left the Hold of Clan Hadazer to show him the way to the Oracle of Time. Arran had found it among her scattered possessions after Khan-Mar-Dan killed her.
He grimaced and hooked the skin back to his pack. “Find Alastarius on Earth.” His doubts faded beneath the resolution that had driven him across and the High Kingdoms and through the Tower.
He had gotten to Earth. Now he just needed to find Alastarius. It might take him years. But he would find the Wizard. Then perhaps he would have some answers.
He stood and surveyed the small meadow and the surrounding woods. This place would make a good campsite, but he needed to first scout the surrounding area. He glimpsed a half-overgrown path leading into the woods. It seemed as good as any other direction. He paused long enough to reload his guns and set off for the path.
The trees ended at the base of a low hill. A white house perched on top of the hill, standing beside a smaller building. The house was large, perhaps the home of a lord or a wealthy merchant. Maybe the inhabitants could provide him with information. He strode up to the house. A path of gray stone led from the smaller building, intersecting with a road of black stone. Arran climbed up the steps to the back porch, the boards thumping beneath his boots. A pair of strange-looking chairs, constructed of metal tubes and interwoven straps, stood around a white metal table. Arran knocked on the back door and waited. No one came. He walked to one of the windows and peered inside. Bookshelves lined the walls of a large room, holding hundreds, perhaps even thousands of books. Arran had never seen so many books gathered in one place. But the house looked deserted. Perhaps it had been abandoned, or perhaps the inhabitants had left.
Arran frowned as he walked up the broad path of gray stone to the black street. Had he arrived in a sparsely populated region of Earth? It would not help his search…
He froze as he reached the road of black stone, his eyes wide. Jeeps lined both sides of the road of black stone, gleaming in the sun. Tarrager’s jeep had been green and boxy, but these jeeps were sleek and lean, looking like strange molded sculptures. And they were painted many different colors. Arran saw blue jeeps, red jeeps, gray jeeps, black jeeps, and even a jeep painted bright pink. He counted at least fifty. Was this place a stronghold for Marugon’s associates on Earth? Or did other people on Earth own these jeep machines?
He heard chains jingling. Arran turned, his hand dropping to a gun.
His jaw dropped at the bizarre sight.
A fat woman in middle age walked along a path of gray stone that paralleled the black road. She wore short pants that only reached to her knees, bright white shoes, and a shirt that left her arms and a large fraction of her chest bare. Pale white fat jiggled with every step. Why was the woman walking about in her undergarments? Even the whores in Marugon’s camps wore more clothing. A small gray-furred dog trotted before the woman, a chain leash around its neck. The woman held the dog’s chain, humming to herself as she walked.
“Pardon,” said Arran as the woman approached. She slowed and gave him a scornful look.
“What are you supposed to be, the Unabomber?” she said. “Halloween’s not till next month, buddy.”
“The…Unabomber?” said Arran. What in hell was a Halloween? “I do not know what that is. But I would…”
Her nose wrinkled. “When was the last time you had a shower? Oh my God, you smell like you’ve been living in the woods for the last five years.”
“Closer to ten,” said Arran. “But I have just arrived at this…place, and I would like to ask some questions…”
“Oh my God.” The woman’s ruddy face paled, her eyes fixed on the holsters at his belt. “Oh my God. You’ve got a gun.”
“I do,” said Arran. “I would just like…”
“You’ve got two guns!” she said, her voice rising to a terrified squeal. “And a freaking sword!”
“A what sword?” said Arran, confused. “I just want…”
“I don’t have any money!” babbled the woman. “My husband doesn’t let me take any money with me when I leave the house because I sometimes spend it all! I just wanted to take an afternoon walk…”
Arran spread his hands. “Listen. I mean no harm. I want to ask…”
“Don’t you touch me!” said the woman. “My dog will maul you good. Pepper!” She jerked the dog’s chain. The pathetic little dog growled at Arran, showing its teeth.
“That dog could not maul a mouse,” said Arran. “But that doesn’t matter. I just…”
“Don’t you touch me!” Her voice rose to a shriek.
Arran’s temper flared. “Damnation, woman, can I ask you…”
She screamed. “Run, Pepper, run!” She managed a waddling sprint down the gray path, the dog running behind her and barking.
Arran stared after her, annoyance and amusement battling in his head. This must be a wealthy area of Earth, perhaps home to some nobles or prosperous merchants. The woman looked as if she had never gone hungry a day in her life. And that ridiculous dog had no other use other than as a toy for the wealthy.
“What is a Halloween?” Arran shook his head and continued down the gray path.
Jeeps buzzed up and down the black street.
Arran stood on a green lawn and watched the jeeps, shaking his head in wonder. He had started counting jeeps after his encounter with the half-clothed fat woman and her small dog. After five minutes and three hundred and ninety-six jeeps, he gave up. Countless more jeeps drove or stood parked on the black streets. Arran had seen no horses or mules, and very few people walking. He supposed it made sense. If the people of Earth had such ready access to the wondrous jeeps, why should they bother with walking or riding?
“Hey! Get the hell off my lawn!” Arran looked at the house behind him. A stout man wearing a ragged white shirt stood in the front door, his puffy face twisted with anger.
“Pardon?” said Arran. “You are the master of this house?”
The stout man gave him a weird look. “This is my goddamn lot. Get off my lawn. I just had it treated.”
“Certainly.” Arran stepped off the lawn and onto the gray stone path. “But might I ask you some questions? I am new to this…region.”
“What do I look like, the tourist information board?”
“Please.” Arran stepped forward and raised a hand. “A few questions, and I shall be on my way.”
“Go to hell.” The man’s bloodshot eyes widened. “Oh, God. Oh, God, no.”
Arran looked over his shoulder. “What?” He saw nothing but passing jeeps.
“You’ve got a gun,” said the man, his voice dropping to a whisper.
“Not again.” Arran scowled. “Are you people so frightened of the weapons you yourselves have wrought?”
“You’ve come for the money, haven’t you?” said the man. His voice rose in a screech. “I told Eric I would pay him off in another week. Okay?”
Arran raised his hands. “I want no money. I just want to ask…”
“Here!” The man fumbled in his pocket, pulled out a small bundle of green paper, and threw it at Arran. “Here’s the down payment, all right? I mean, I just had some bad luck with the last couple of games. It’ll turn around. Tell Eric I’ll finishing paying him next week, after my next paycheck.” The man slammed the window shut and pulled the curtains.
Arran muttered a string of curses. “Is everyone on this world a damned fool?” He scooped up the roll of green paper and examined it. Each one of the small sheets displayed a portrait of a fat-faced bearded man, a number of odd symbols, and strings of characters in an alphabet he did not recognize. “This doesn’t look like money.” He shrugged and tucked the roll into a pocket. Perhaps they were letters of credit. In any case, some of Earth’s currency would serve him well. His supplies would not last forever.
He kept walking, trying to make some sense of everything he had seen.
“A city of some sort,” he said, looking at the rows of houses, speeding jeeps, and smaller buildings that stabled the jeeps. Yet he had never seen a city such as this, with trees and grasses mixed among the houses and roads. Even the lords’ quarter of Carlisan had not possessed so much natural beauty. And how big was this city? Arran had walked for a half mile and seen nothing but houses. Where was the market square? Where did the inhabitants of this city buy their food?
Arran sighed. He needed someone to give him answers. Yet every inhabitant of this city had responded to him first with contempt and then fear…
An odd thought occurred to him, and glanced down at his guns. The people had only become frightened after seeing his guns. Why would they fear the guns? They had made them, after all. But perhaps it was taboo to carry weapons in public. Among the tribes of the Wastes, it was impolite for a man to enter another man’s home carrying weapons. And Arran had yet to see an armed man on Earth.
He unloaded his guns, undid the belts, and tucked the holstered weapons into his pack. He left his Sacred Blade at his belt and Luthar’s over his shoulder. The swords had only garnered glances of amusement.
Arran kept walking.
A moment later he overtook a stooped old man walking down the gray path, a cane of brown metal in his hand. Wisps of white hair ringed his bald head, and a thousand wrinkles creased his face. A pair of lenses rested over his watery eyes, held in place by metal frames.
Arran cleared his throat. “Sir? Might I ask you a few questions?”
The old man glanced at him. “Yeah? If you want.” He squinted beneath his lenses. “You look like you’ve spent the last fifteen years sleeping under a tree.” His eyes took in the swords. “Or you’re going to one of those Renaissance fairs or something.”
“Ah…no,” said Arran. “I have spent much time in the wild.”
The old man grunted. “You foreign? I’ve heard a lot of accents in my day, and I don’t recognize yours.”
Arran did not think it wise to tell the entire truth. “Yes. A far country. A long ways from here.”
The old man pointed down the gray path. “You going this way?” Arran nodded. “Well, then, walk with me and I’ll answer your questions. I can’t be wasting time standing about on the sidewalk.”
“Sidewalk?” said Arran. He looked down at the gray path Of course – it ran along the side of the black street.
“So, what do you want to know?” said the old man. “You a reporter? You’d better not be a reporter. Every time someone dies or gets tore up in a car crash, the damn reporters are coming around and asking questions. How do I feel about this, or how do I feel about that.”
“No,” said Arran. “I’m not a reporter, whatever that is. Just tell me. Where am I?”
The old man raised a gray eyebrow. “You lost?”
“Not entirely,” said Arran. “I know this is Earth.”
“Goddamn!” The old man cackled with laughter. “This is Earth. Funniest thing I’ve heard all day. This is Earth!”
Arran felt his stomach sink. “You mean this is not Earth?” Had he survived the perils of the Tower only to reach the wrong world?
The watery eyes narrowed beneath their lenses. “You right in the head? Of course this is God’s own green Earth. What, you think you’re from Mars or something?”
“No. I am not from Mars. I am…was from Carlisan.”
The old man cackled. “Hell with it. You’re probably one of those smart-mouth young comedians with a hidden camera. So what’s your next question?”
“What city is this?” said Arran. “Of what kingdom?”
“Kingdom?” The cane’s tip scraped against the concrete. “This ain’t no goddamn kingdom. This is the United States of America. We fought a war to throw out that old tyrant King George. Course, that’s just what they teach in the schools.” He spat. “Wouldn’t surprise me if the CIA tried to assassinate old King George, that’s what started the war.”
“I see,” said Arran. “So this nation is called the United States of America?” The old man nodded. “What is the name of this…city, then, if this is a city?”
“Hell, you are lost. We’re in Cicero.”
Arran nodded. “So this is the city of Cicero?”
“Sort of. Cicero’s a suburb of Chicago.” Arran frowned. “You know, a suburb? A little city attached to a big city.”
“Ah,” said Arran. He nodded. “So this is the city of Chicago in the United States of America.” The information was not much, but it was better than nothing.
The old man’s brows creased in a deep frown. “You’re serious, aren’t you? You’re not pulling my chain?”
“You have no chain to pull.”
The old man shook his head. “You must not be right in the head. Are you sick? You lose your mind?”
“No,” said Arran. “I’m looking for someone.”
“Two people, actually. A boy named Lithon Scepteris and an old man named Alastarius.”
The old man grunted. “Never met either of them, so far as I remember.”
“Then I will continue to look.”
The sidewalk intercepted with a broad black road. The old man stopped, staring at metal pole topped with a glowing red light on the far side. The light looked like the burning eye of a winged demon, and Arran’s hand twitched toward his sword. The red light winked out and a green light lit up beneath it. The old man grunted and started across the road.
“You a vet?” said the old man.
“You know. A veteran.” His voice thickened. “My brother and me, we were in Vietnam together. I came back with a bullet through my knee.” Did the people of Earth fight wars amongst themselves with guns? “But my brother didn’t come back at all. I was lucky. A lot of guys got it worse than me. Never learned to deal with it.” He gave Arran a fixed glance. “You look like a vet, one of the guys who never learned to deal with it. Were you in Iraq or Afghanistan?”
Arran closed his eyes. “I do not know any of these places. But yes. I have been in war. More than I care to remember.”
The old man grunted. “Here.” He handed another of the small green letters of credit to Arran. “Buy yourself something to eat. And a shower. You really could use it.”
“What is this?” said Arran.
“Twenty dollars,” said the old man. “You really are addled. You want to come with me? The hospitals are a joke, but there are places where they can help you.”
“A dollar, you said,” said Arran. “What is a dollar?”
“It’s…you know, a dollar. A hundred pennies. You buy stuff with it.”
“So it is money,” said Arran. “Listen. I am not quite what you think I am. But thank you for the aid. And for the answers. It is more than anyone else has given me thus far.”
The old man gave him a sad nod. “That’s how it is for us vets. We have to stick together.” He held out his hand, and Arran shook it. The old man shuffled down the sidewalk.
It seemed the people of Earth had likewise suffered from the guns and bombs.
Arran watched the old veteran go, and then resumed his exploration.
Chapter 3 - Regent
Anno Domini 2012
“Right. Um. So…right. Where was I?” The instructor, a young grad student in jeans and a ragged t-shirt, paged through the notes piled on the lectern. Ally rolled her eyes. “Now…uh…the science of the art of appreciating music. Music is, uh, an art. So is listening to music, too. But it’s a science...ah…also. A precise one. Like making a clock that…um…makes noise.” He turned a page and managed to spill his notes all over the front of the lecture hall. “Oh…damn, damn it.” Those few students still paying attention laughed. The instructor squatted and began scooping up his notes.
Ally made up her mind to drop the class.
She suppressed a yawn, fighting her heavy eyelids. She had stayed up too late last night finishing an assignment. The second week of school and she already had homework.
She wondered how Mary was doing. Mary had found part-time work at a bookstore. At Katrina’s recommendation, Mary had gone to a tech school for systems administration. Granted, Mary didn’t know anything about computers beyond solitaire and Facebook, but maybe she would learn.
The grad student restarted his lecture, and Ally gave up trying to stay awake. She closed her eyes and began to doze.
Images flashed through Ally’s mind, one after another.
She lay bleeding in a courtyard of cold stone, flames rising up all around her. Pain shot through her body in agonizing waves. A winged nightmare of shadow and wickedness landed above her, iron claws reaching for her…
Ally groaned and shifted in her seat.
She stood on a dead plain of gray stone and dust. A colossal tower of black stone loomed over the plain like a citadel of nightmares. An old warrior walked besides her, two swords hanging from his hip, a small boy riding in his shoulder harness.
The image changed.
Ally ran, clutching the boy in her arms. Legions of demons chased them through a vast vaulted corridor. A door of black stone loomed before her. Fear hammered in her heart. She had to reach the door…
The dream blurred.
Now she stood in a kitchen. Katrina and Simon sat at the table, Katrina younger and Simon thinner than she remembered. A grim-faced man in a suit stood over the table, leaning on a long black staff. Ally could not take her eyes from that staff. Power crackled just beneath the black wood, and words of white fire crawled up its length.
The kitchen door exploded. The man whirled, raising his staff. A great dark beast leapt through the door, claws digging grooves in the linoleum…
Ally gasped and jerked awake, sweat beading on her face. The students had begun to file out of the lecture hall.
Ally had slept through class.
She climbed out of her seat, dug a drop form from her backpack, and walked to the podium. A long line of students had formed up by the desk. The instructor scribbled signature after signature. Ally joined the line.
She reached the instructor and put the form before him. “My reason for leaving is…”
The instructor scribbled a signature on her form and handed it back to her without looking up.
Ally went on her way.
At least had gotten out of class ten minutes early. That meant she had time to get to the administration building, drop off her form, and eat lunch before her next class. Though the necessity the drop form annoyed her. It was 2012, for God’s sake. Couldn’t the university let her do this over the Internet?
She wove her way through crowded sidewalks of the University of Constantina’s campus. Students on bicycles zigzagged through the press, sometimes darting over the lawn. A male student on a battered red moped that looked as if it had been manufactured around 1973 chugged past. Ally crossed the street, hurried up the front steps to the expensive-looking administration building, and went inside. University employees in suits and polo shirts walked through the corridors of the administration building, many of them tapping on iPads in a self-important fashion. A long line of students stood at the door to the registrar’s office. Ally sighed, got in line, and waited.
Fifteen minutes later she got to the head of the line. A young woman with a severe ponytail in a black business suit sat at a computer terminal. Her nametag proclaimed that her name was Suzie and she worked for the registrar’s office. “Can I help you?”
“Yes,” said Ally. She handed over her drop form. “I’d like to hand this in, please.”
Suzie took the form and laughed. “Oh, yes. Him. I used to date him, you know.”
“You did?” said Ally. “I’m sorry.”
“Biggest mistake I ever made,” said Suzie. She typed on her keyboard. “Let me just verify this in the system and you can go on your way.” She worked on the computer for a few moments and then frowned at the screen.
“Something wrong?” said Ally.
“You are a student here, right?” said Suzie.
Ally nodded. “Yeah. I’m a freshman.”
“Okay.” She typed for a while more. “Um…sure you’re a student here?”
Ally gave her a weird look. “I just came from his class, didn’t I?”
“Right,” said Suzie. She gave Ally a suspicious look. “You’re not showing up in the system.”
“Did you spell my name right?” said Ally. “It’s Ally Wester.”
“Is Ally a nickname?” said Suzie.
“No, it’s my name,” said Ally. “Ally Wester.”
Suzie typed some more. “I’m sorry. You’re not showing up.”
“Why not?” said Ally. “I mean, I’ve got a schedule, I’ve got a dorm room, I’ve got an ID card, I’m taking classes, I have the meal plan, why am I not in the computer?”
Suzie picked up a phone. “I’m going to have to call tech support.”
Ally sighed and waited.
A portly man in jeans and a flannel shirt entered ten minutes later. He walked around the counter, looked at the computer terminal, and grunted. “Problem?”
“Yeah,” said Suzie. “Her record’s not coming up in the database software.”
The IT guy grunted again. “You sure the monitor’s on?”
Suzie rolled her eyes. “Yes, I’m sure the monitor’s on.”
“Okay. You typed the name correctly? It looks kind of complicated.”
Suzie glared at him. “I typed the name right, okay? There’s something wrong with the computer.”
The IT guy grunted. “All right. Let me look at this.” He typed for a few minutes, grunting to himself. “Here we are.” He squinted over his thick glasses. “Ally Wester?”
“Yes,” said Suzie, sighing in irritation. “The name on the form.”
The IT guy emitted yet another grunt. “Here we go. Someone deleted her records.”
“What?” said Ally. “Why would someone delete my records?”
The IT guy muttered something. “Let’s see who performed the deletion before I restore the records from the backup.” He tapped a few keys. “Ah…um…this is interesting.”
“Interesting?” said Ally, craning her neck to see the screen. “Why is it interesting?”
“Unauthorized network access at three AM Saturday morning,” said the IT guy. He scratched at his flannel collar. “That’s…um…not good.”
“So someone hacked into the network Saturday morning to get at my records?” said Ally.
The IT guy shrugged. “To delete them, I guess.”
“Why?” said Ally. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“How should I know?” said the tech man, still typing. “Do I look like Sherlock Holmes?”
“No,” said Suzie, rolling her eyes. “You really don’t.”
“It’s weird, though,” said the IT guy. “Hackers usually try to get at the financial stuff, or professors’ hard drives for test answers. No one ever tries to delete their records.” He gave Ally the evil eye. “Unless you wanted to delete some test scores or something.”
Ally rolled her eyes. “Oh, yeah, sure, that’s it. I hacked into the network to delete my test scores. That’d be quite a trick, because I’ve only been here a week and haven’t taken any tests yet!” The IT guy swallowed and glanced at the monitor. “Uh…your records do confirm that you’ve been here for only a week. So I guess you’re cleared of suspicion.”
Ally scowled. “Yes, the records must be correct, because they’re so secure, right?”
“Um.” The IT guy licked his lips. “Um…I’ll head back to the office, let the network guy know about this.” He beat a hasty retreat out of the registrar’s office.
“What an ass,” said the Suzie. “Tech guys and music guys. They’re all asses.”
“Sure,” said Ally. “Could you process my form now?”
Suzie nodded and began typing. “It should work now…there we go. You’ve officially dropped Music Appreciation.”
Ally smiled. “Thank God.”
Suzie put the drop form into a metal basket. “We might have to call you later. I think having your records intentionally erased is a federal offense.” She shrugged. “The tech guys will probably pass it off as a system hiccup.”
Ally nodded. “Thank you.” She headed out of the office, looked at her watch, and groaned.
So much for lunch.
Ally took a deep breath, smelling the coffee and the bagels.
Rows of booths lined the coffeehouse’s walls, while tables stood strewn about the floor. A long bar ran the length of one wall, covered with an impressing array of gleaming coffee-producing machinery. Students sat at the booths and tables, books, notebooks, and papers spread out before them. Dozens typed on laptops.
Ally had never seen so many berets, goatees, and pink-striped hairdos in one place.
She made for the cash register. A bearded student in a black polo shirt ran the register, multiple earrings glimmering in his ears and lips. Ally shuddered. She hated needles, and had never even gotten her ears pierced.
“Can I help you?” said pierced student. He frowned. “Are…you okay?”
Ally stammered. “It….those lip rings…”
A memory of iron claws ripping through flesh shot through her mind…
The cashier grinned. “You like them?” He fingered a lip ring with a red stone. “I just had this one done last week.”
Ally shook her head. “How can you do that to yourself?”
The cashier rolled his eyes, his eyebrow rings glittering. “You sound like my parents.”
“I mean, just…just the feeling of metal ripping through your skin. How can you stand that?” Ally began to shiver.
The cashier looked frightened. “You sure you’re okay?” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Is it a bad trip? Are you having a bad trip?”
Ally’s unease vanished with a laugh. “Oh, God, no. I’m sorry. Just a long day, you know?”
The cashier grinned, his lip rings gleaming in his beard. “Amen and hallelujah to that. So…um…you doing anything later?”
“Yes,” said Ally. “And I’ll take a grilled cheese sandwich, an apple, and a regular coffee.”
The cashier sighed and took her order. A few moments later she took her tray and navigated through the crowd. She found an empty two-person booth in the corner and sat down, dropping her backpack and the tray on the table. Ally sighed and put her feet up. She had to stop skipping meals.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if I may have your attention!” A male student in a dark suit stood atop a table, waving his arms. He had Wycliffe/Jones and Gracchan Party campaign buttons on the lapels of his coat.
“You and I are the future of this nation,” said the Gracchan student, his eyes wide and fervent. “We will, one day, be the United States of America. And our future has been mismanaged. Greedy businessmen and corrupt politicians are bankrupting the country, destroying the environment, and plundering your natural resources.” He sounded like many of the other campus radicals Ally had heard in the last few weeks. “Are we going to just sit back and let them despoil our future? I urge you, in the name of all that is good and right, to join the Gracchan Party Students’ Organization.”
A few students cheered. Most ignored him. Ally shivered and huddled deeper into her booth. She remembered her conversation with Dr. Francis and what her parents had told her about Wycliffe. Perhaps Wycliffe had been involved in Katrina’s stay in the hospital or perhaps not.
She didn’t want to think about it too much.
Ally glanced up. The Gracchan student stood over the table, his eyes gleaming with intensity.
“Yeah,” said Ally. “I’d prefer to stay that way, too.”
“But it needn’t be that way,” said the Gracchan student, leaning forward. “The Gracchan Party can build a better future for America.”
Ally rolled her eyes. “Oh, that sounds splendid. Are you going to break out a little red book now? Quotations of Chairman Wycliffe?”
His eyes narrowed. “Senator Wycliffe and Senator Jones are great men.”
“Sure,” said Ally, another retort on her lips, and she froze.
A shadow writhed around the young student, dancing around his head. The echo of Wycliffe’s voice, strong and powerful and resonant, rang through Ally’s head for an instant. She jerked back into her booth, revulsion spreading through her.
A puzzled look came over the student’s face. “What is it?”
“Just go away,” whispered Ally. The student hesitated. “Go away! Just leave me the hell alone!”
The Gracchan student cringed, fearful of making a scene. He turned and hurried away. Ally sighed and pressed the heels of her hands into her temples. A sharp bolt of pain dug through her mind and then faded away. The dreams were bad enough. But if she was starting to see things in the daylight…
Maybe she really was crazy.
Or maybe she had a brain tumor.
Or perhaps she was only hungry.
“God. I really have to stop skipping meals.”
She devoured the rest of her lunch. Ally wanted to go back to her room and close the door to keep out visions and Gracchan Party members. She pulled on her backpack, dumped her garbage, and hurried out, ignoring the press and babble of the crowd.
The early September sun shone bright and clear over the sidewalk. Some of the trees had started to turn, a bit of red and orange threading into the green leaves. A bus stop rested on the corner of the intersection, the bench empty. Ally dropped onto the bench with a sigh. The bus wouldn’t come for another ten minutes at the earliest. So she opened her backpack and rummaged for her homework.
A gaunt man stood nearby, leaning on a steel-headed cane. He wore scuffed jeans and a ragged army camouflage jacket. A thick mane of gray-brown hair encircled his head, mixing with his bushy beard. The beard almost hid a scar running down his face, and dark eyes gleamed beneath his bristling eyebrows.
For a moment Ally was sure she had seen him someplace before.
“I don’t have any money,” said Ally.
The man coughed out a laugh. “Money? I don’t want money.”
“I don’t want to buy you supper, either.”
The man gestured with his cane. “Actually, I just want to sit.”
Ally blinked. “Oh…um, sure. Feel free.”
The man settled besides her. “Damn me, but it’s good to get off that leg.”
“You could have just sat,” said Ally.
The man smiled. “It’s not polite. At least, not where I come from. And if an old corpse like me sits next to a beautiful young woman, well, I’m liable to get arrested.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Ally.
“Why is that?” said the man.
Ally grinned. “Because if you tried anything, you’d have to trade in that cane for a wheelchair.”
The man cackled. “That I would. Tae kwon do, I assume. Or karate?”
Ally blinked. “How did you know?”
The man tapped his cane against the pavement. “Way you move. You can see it, if you know what to look for.”
Ally frowned. “Do I know you? I could almost swear we’ve met before.”
He gave her a sad smile. “Do you remember me?”
Ally thought about it. “No. I don’t think I do.”
“Then we’ve never met before,” said the man. “You can call me Regent, if you want.”
“Regent. Well, Mr. Regent, you can call me Ally.”
Regent nodded. “Miss Ally, then. You did good, telling that Gracchan bastard to go to hell.”
Ally closed her backpack. “You saw that?” Regent nodded. “You were following me?”
Regent spread his hands, cane tucked between his knees. “I was following that little shit. Let me tell you something. The Gracchan Party’s a sham and Wycliffe’s a monster.”
Ally swallowed. “I’ve…heard things to that effect.”
Regent scowled. “They’re all true. Wycliffe is a murderer and a criminal of the worst sort. And he does business with worse people, people who make him look a mild-mannered nun. Let me give you some advice. Stay far, far away from anything that has to do with him or the Gracchan Party.”
Ally bit her lip. “I’ll…do that.” The half-mad intensity in his eyes frightened her. “I have to go.”
Regent looked at the street. “But the bus isn’t here yet.”
“I’ll walk,” said Ally. She really wanted to get to her dorm room and shut the door. “Good-bye, Mr. Regent.”
She hurried down the sidewalk.
Kyle Allard slid out of the coffeehouse’s doorway, his eyes on the young red-headed woman. He walked to the bench and sat besides Regent. “So. How did it go?”
Regent snorted. “What do you think?”
Allard craned his neck, watching the young woman as she crossed the street. “What do I think? Why didn’t you ever tell me that she was so hot?”
Regent gave him a flat look.
“I’m serious,” said Allard. “My God, Regent. She has a superb ass. You sure were right when you said she was special.” He winked. “And those legs. I wish to God she had been wearing shorts.” He grinned. “Or nothing at all…”
“Allard,” said Regent.
Allard swallowed. They sat in silence for a while, watching the traffic roar up and down the street.
“She didn’t remember me,” said Regent, adjusting his grip on the cane.
Allard frowned. “What, you’ve met before?”
Regent nodded. “Once, long ago, when she was still a child. I’m not surprised. We were both under a great deal of stress at the time.”
A pair of young women in tank tops and shorts strolled past, cigarettes in hand. Allard turned himself around. “Hey!”
The young women gave him amused glances. “What the hell do you want?”
“Don’t smoke,” said Allard.
“Are you the Surgeon General or something?”
“I’m serious,” said Allard. “Those things…those things are extremely bad for you.”
He knew that firsthand.
“Everybody dies,” said one of the women, walking way.
“Not everybody,” said Allard. “Sometimes you’ll wish you were dead.” They ignored him. Allard sighed, guilt flooding through him. “I am such scum.”
“What the hell’s so funny?”
“Son, you’re an idiot.” Regent tapped his cane for emphasis. “But your heart’s in the right place. Usually.”
“So this Ally Wester doesn’t remember you,” said Allard, wanting to change the subject. “Good thing or a bad thing?”
“I don’t know. It’s damned strange, Allard. Alastarius Prophesied about Lithon. It’s Lithon that Marugon wants dead. Yet…there’s something special about Ally.”
Allard grinned. “I’ll say.” Regent glared. “Sorry, sorry.”
Regent’s hands clenched his cane’s handle. “Damned if I know what it is, son. But there’s something around her…like a fire trying to explode. But it’s locked away within her. Maybe that’s part of her memory loss.” He rapped his cane’s tip against the concrete. “Goddamn it, Allard. I don’t understand.”
Allard lowered his voice. “Do you think Marugon is looking for her?” He swallowed. “After the incident with her door room and the…changelings.” The memory of chasing the ghastly changeling through the campus chilled him. And the guilt. The changelings only existed because of his mistakes.
“I still think that was a very unlucky coincidence,” said Regent. “If Marugon knew she and Lithon lived, he wouldn’t send a changeling to kill her. He’d send a winged one. Or that old demon Goth-Mar-Dan. Or Marugon would come himself.” He shook his head. “It’s damned lucky we deleted her records when we did, though they’ve probably been restored by now. And damned lucky I was able to confuse that changeling.”
Allard remembered Regent standing tall and strong beneath the dormitory, his cane lifted high, white light flaring around him. The changeling had cowered, terror in its red eyes, and fled. “I don’t think you told me the truth completely.”
Regent lifted his bushy eyebrows. “Oh?”
“I think Marugon ruined you, not Wycliffe,” said Allard, his voice quiet. “I think you have some white magic. I think you’re from Marugon’s world, not from Earth.” He winced and waited for the explosion.
Regent laughed. The older man reached out and tapped Allard’s temple. “You know, son, you’re an idiot, I’ve always said that, but sometimes, just sometimes…you amaze me. You’re right. I’m not from Earth. But I can’t tell you anything more than that.”
Allard nodded. “For my own safety.”
“Damn straight,” said Regent. “So. See if you can amaze me again. What do you think we should do now?”
“I don’t know.”
Regent grunted. “Didn’t think so. We keep her safe, son, that’s what we do. We keep her and Lithon safe. And if Marugon is looking for her, we make sure he doesn’t find her.”
Allard grinned. “Guardian angels. We should call ourselves guardian angels.”
Regent snorted and climbed to his feet. “Don’t make me hit you.”
Chapter 4 - A Demon In A Van
Anno Domini 2012
Arran stood on the corner and watched the traffic, the leg he had broken in the Desert of Scorpions aching.
Two massive black roads, with eight lanes each, crossed before him. More of the glowing lights hung from posts over the road, cycling through red, yellow, and green. The flow of jeeps had increased as the sun had climbed higher in the sky, until a never-ending river of multi-colored jeeps sped past him. Did every last peasant on this world own a jeep?
Across the street stood a small building beneath an enormous round sign. Rows of blocky metal racks waited in the building’s courtyard. Arran watched as jeeps pulled up to the racks. The drivers climbed out, detached a hose from the racks, and plugged it into the sides of their jeeps. Perhaps this place sold the fire water needed to power the jeeps?
A red jeep shot past, music blaring from its back seat. He found the music of Earth bizarre, filled with screaming voices and thundering drums and stranger noises. And he had seen stranger things yet in his few hours walking.
But he had yet to see anyone carrying a gun.
A stone bench stood on the corner, beneath a blue sign marked with odd symbols. Arran paced to the bench, sat down, and tried to think. Where had Lord Marugon gotten the guns? Arran had known the guns came from Earth, but had never given it any more thought. Perhaps the rulers of the United States had sold Marugon his guns, or perhaps the local nobility of Cicero and Chicago. But that didn’t make any sense. Plainly the people of Chicago had a taboo against carrying weapons in public, or perhaps the rulers had forbidden the people from purchasing guns. But if that was true, why had they sold guns to Marugon? Or maybe some local merchants had sold guns to Marugon, without the permission of the rulers of the United States.
And just how was he supposed to find Alastarius?
Perhaps Arran should hunt down these gun-merchants, whoever they were, and kill them. They had sold Marugon guns. They had caused horror and torment and carnage on his world. They deserved death.
No. Arran could do nothing yet. This world, this city, was a mystery to him. He did not know enough of its customs to make his way. Arran needed a guide.
As he thought, a pair of young women stopped near his bench. Like many of the other women he had seen, they wore clothes that left their arms and most of their legs bare. They did not seem so different from the young women that had once populated the royal court of Carlisan. Except the women of Carlisan had worn more clothing, of course. An old man wearing a striped shirt stood near the women, followed by a boy in a red shirt and trousers of blue material. What were they waiting for?
A large, boxy jeep pulled up to the bench, smoke belching from a pipe on its roof. It looked large enough to hold forty or fifty people. A pair of doors on the side of the jeep opened with a loud hiss. The people piled inside, putting coins into a machine near the drivers’ seat. The boy glanced at the bus, shrugged, and sat beside Arran on the bench. He produced a curious rectangle of glass and metal and began to press it, images flickering over the glass. The boxy jeep’s door hissed shut and it roared away with a cloud of smoke. Arran watched it go, intrigued.
He turned his head. “Boy. My pardon, but could I ask a question of you?”
The boy glanced up from his glass rectangle. “Yeah, sure.” He looked about eleven or twelve, sunburned with blue eyes. “Dude, nice cape. Are you supposed to be Batman or something?”
Arran glanced at his cloak. It had acquired tears, threadbare patches, and even quite a few bullet holes. “It has seen better days, I’ll warrant.”
“It’s only September 29th. Halloween’s not for another month.”
“What is Halloween?” said Arran.
The boy gave him a strange look. “You an immigrant or something?”
“Yes,” said Arran. “I am.”
Arran thought it over. “Iraq.”
“You don’t look Iraqi. There’s an Iraqi kid in my class, Abdul or something like that, and you don’t look like him.”
“My family is from an obscure region of Iraq,” said Arran. This was not going well. “But I am new to Chicago. And I would like to ask you some questions, since I am unfamiliar with this city.”
The boy nodded. “Okay. It’s not like I have anything better to do. The stupid bus is late, again.”
“That jeep that pulled up to the curb a few minutes ago,” said Arran. “What was that?”
The boy scowled. “Jeep? I didn’t see any jeep.”
Arran tried to explain. “That large box-shaped jeep. The doors opened, people put coins into a machine, and then the jeep drove away.”
“Oh! That’s not a jeep. You must really be from a foreign country if you didn’t know that. That was the bus.”
“Bus.” Arran nodded. “What is a bus?”
“It’s…you know, the bus. You get on, pay two dollars, and then ride the bus until you get where you want to go. Sometimes you have to get off and change buses. It’s a real pain. I wish was old enough to drive.”
Arran thought this over. “Could you take me on a tour of this city, this Chicago?”
The boy rolled his eyes and looked back at his glass rectangle. “Dude, I got better things to do with my time than to take a smelly old guy on a tour.”
Arran dug in his pocket. “Wait.” He pulled out one of the dollars that the drunken man had given him. “In exchange for this dollar, will you show me the customs of the buses?”
The boy’s eyes got wide. “You’ll give me fifty dollars to show you around on the buses?”
“No, it’s just one dollar.”
The boy snatched the dollar from Arran’s hand. “Right. Sure. Okay, mister, you got a deal. If I went home I’d just have to mow the lawn. I’ll show you how to use the buses. But you better not be a kidnapper or a pervert or something like that. If you try anything I’ll kick you in the balls until they burst.”
“That sounds unpleasant.” Arran spread his hands. “I just want to find my way around the city.” If he could learn to use the buses, they would be an invaluable aid to him. “What’s your name?”
The boy thought about it. “You can call me Robert.”
Arran nodded. “Arran Belphon, at your service.”
“Okay, Mr. Belphon.” Robert scratched his arm. “Stupid mosquitoes. We’ll wait for the bus. We might have to stand, since it’s Saturday and everyone’s going shopping.”
“Saturday?” said Arran. “What’s that?”
“You know. Saturday. I get off school and my parents get off work.”
“A day of rest, then,” said Arran. Robert had to be the son of a noble or a scholar. No one else could afford to attend a university.
“So where do you want to go?” said Robert. “Are you visiting relatives here or something?”
“No,” said Arran. “I’m looking for two people. An old man named Alastarius and a boy named Lithon Scepteris. Lithon would be two or three years older than you, I think.”
Robert shrugged. “Never met either of them. Are they friends of yours?”
“No.” Arran stared into the street and watched the jeeps drive back and forth. “Alastarius was a…a friend of woman I knew in my homeland. She told me to find him before she died.”
“Was she sick?”
Arran shook his head. “No. She was killed. I saw it happen.”
Robert’s eyes got wide. “Wow, Mr. Belphon. That sucks.”
“Indeed.” Arran closed his eyes and thought of everything that had happened since Marugon had returned from Earth.
They sat in silence.
Robert jumped to his feet and craned his neck. “The bus is coming. So where do you want to go, Mr. Belphon?”
“Just show me around the city.”
Robert grinned. “It’s a big city. That might take a while.”
A bus stopped at the intersection. “Then show me the important places. The market square, the residences of the lords, places like that.” Perhaps he would find Marugon's gun-merchants there.
“I think we’ll go downtown, then,” said Robert. “We’ll take the bus, and then switch to the EL.”
“Here.” Robert handed him eight small coins. Arran gave the coins a dubious glance. They did not look like real silver. “Since you gave me fifty dollars, I suppose I can pay for your bus fare. Put those coins in the machine. The driver will give you a ticket. Then we’ll go find a seat, if there’s one free.”
The bus ground to a stop before the bench, and the doors hissed open. Robert bounded up the steps and put his coins in the machine. The driver, a large black-skinned woman, handed him a small piece of paper. Arran followed Robert up and put his coins into the machine.
The driver gave him a dubious look. “You can’t be taking those big swords on the bus.”
“My swords?” said Arran. “Why not?” He was relieved he had hidden his guns.
“They’re just painted plastic,” said Robert, leaning back. “My Dad's taking them to school with me so we can use them for the play.”
“All right.” The driver pushed a pedal on the floor, and the bus lurched into motion. Arran grabbed at a support pole for balance. “But you cause any trouble, I’ll be calling the cops on your sorry ass faster than you can blink.”
Robert led Arran through the crowded bus. No one spared them a glance. Robert claimed an empty seat, and Arran sat beside him.
“Charming woman,” said Arran. The bus’s vibrations made him feel queasy. “And I’m not your father.”
“Like, duh,” said Robert. “What was I supposed to tell her? That you’re some crazy guy I met? She’d probably call the cops.”
“The cops?” said Arran.
“Yeah, the cops. You know, the police.”
Arran nodded. “You mean the city guard. So we are going to…Down Town, you said? Where is Down Town?”
Robert laughed. “No, downtown. The center of the city. There’s a lot of cool big buildings there and stuff. Maybe we’ll go to the Willis Tower. I think it’s open today. Yeah…then you can see how big the city is for yourself.”
“How long will it take for us to reach downtown?” said Arran.
“About half an hour, I think.”
Arran blinked. “Half an hour. In this vehicle?” He felt his stomach twitch. “Just how big is Chicago?”
Robert grinned. “You’ll see.”
“Astonishing,” said Arran, watching the elevated train shoot away. “I have never traveled that fast in my life.”
Robert laughed. “Airplanes are faster. This way.” He led Arran across the crowded train platform and down a broad set of stairs to the street below.
“An airplane?” said Arran. “What is that?”
“You know, an airplane? Wait. You probably don’t. It flies in the air from place to place.”
Arran blinked. “You mean there are machines that can fly?” He could not fathom such a thing.
Robert laughed. “Yeah. I’ve been on one. My parents took me to Disney World when I was nine.” He seemed to find all these marvels commonplace.
Arran frowned. “Disney World? Did…you travel through the Tower?”
“The Tower of Endless Worlds,” said Arran. “Is that how you reached this world of Disney?”
“No, we took a plane. Disney World’s in Florida. That’s way south of here. I’ve never heard of this Tower of Infinite Planets, or whatever you said.”
Perhaps most of the people of Earth did not know about the Tower. After all, the door had vanished as soon as Arran had stepped through it. Perhaps a few merchants had discovered the Tower and used that opportunity to sell guns to Marugon.
“Mr. Belphon, you okay?”
Arran nodded. “I’m fine. Just thinking.”
Robert grinned. “Well, if you like towers, wait until you see this close-up. Remember those things you thought were mountains?”
“Yes.” He had glimpsed them through the window of the marvelous vehicle Robert had called an elevated train. They looked like strange, angular mountains. “So what about them? Are they truly mountains?”
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
Jeeps buzzed up and down the street, while men and women on foot hurried along the sidewalk. Almost all the people wore dark clothes, the fabrics gray or black. The women wore dresses with jackets, though the skirts still seemed high to Arran.
“So these mountains,” said Arran. “They are the strangest mountains I have seen.”
Robert laughed. “They’re not mountains, Mr. Belphon. They’re towers. You know, buildings.”
That was astonishing. “Buildings?”
“Yup,” said Robert. They turned a corner. “Look at the Chicago skyline for yourself.”
Arran froze. “By all the gods that ever were.”
Dozens of huge towers stood clustered in the heart of the Chicago. Some were brown, some gray, others a gleaming black. They were not as large as the Tower of Endless Worlds, of course, but forces unknown had reared that Tower. “Men built these things?”
“Yup.” Robert’s laughter redoubled. “Mr. Belphon, you’d better close your mouth. A bug’s going to fly in there if you don’t.”
Arran shook his head. “What are these towers used for?”
“Business, I guess.” Robert shrugged. “They’re called skyscrapers.”
“I can see why. You mean merchants’ guilds?”
“Maybe.” He pointed at the biggest of the towers, a colossal black building crowned with two white spires. “That’s the Willis Tower. It used to be the headquarters of Sears, a place that sells clothes and drills and stuff. But now my dad says the Japanese own that building.”
“If you say so.” Arran stared up at the great black tower. “Do you know how many people live in Chicago?”
Robert grinned. “Say. If you want to see how big Chicago really is, then come with me.” He crossed the street and headed for the Willis Tower, Arran following. Robert steered his way through the crowds with deft skill. They passed a number of shops, their front windows stuffed with all manner of exotic merchandise. Food smells filled the air, and Arran's stomach grumbled. He would stop and have some jerky after Robert showed him the Willis Tower.
They soon reached the front doors of skyscraper, a massive edifice of polished glass and gleaming steel. Robert led him into a front gallery, polished stone gleaming beneath his shoes. They stood in line for some time, and Robert paid some money to a clerk at a counter.
“You’ve been here before,” said Arran, staring at the strange architecture.
“Yup.” Robert handed him a small piece of stiff paper. “Here’s your ticket.”
“Ticket?” said Arran. “Ticket to what?”
“The observation gallery. It’s a good view. You can see the city for miles. We go this way.” They walked down a corridor illuminated by lamps set in the ceiling. “Here we go.” A row of black metal doors stood in the wall. Robert pressed a button and waited. One of the doors slid open, revealing a small gray room.
“What’s this?” said Arran.
Robert walked inside. “An elevator. Aren’t you coming?”
“Very well.” Arran stepped inside. “But I thought we were going to the top of the tower…”
The small room lurched, and Arran grabbed at the wall for support. “What’s happening?”
Robert laughed. “Did you think we were going to take all those stairs up? It’s a long walk.”
Arran’s ears popped. “So what is this thing?”
“An elevator." Arran gave him a look of incomprehension, and Robert sighed. "It’s a big box that’s pulled up and down a tube by a metal cable. Beats taking the stairs for a hundred floors.” He gave Arran a strange look. “You’ve never seen an elevator before, have you? You must have come from a really foreign country.”
Arran grunted. “You haven’t the slightest idea.”
The black metal door slid aside, revealing a carpeted room with floor-to-ceiling windows. Robert stepped out.
“Here we are,” said Robert. He pointed at an odd-looking machine mounted on a metal post. “You can put a quarter in that telescope. But that’s stupid, paying a quarter. I usually bring my binoculars, but I didn’t know I was coming here today…”
Arran didn’t hear a word.
The city of Chicago stretched away in all directions. Arran staggered to the railing and stared out through the windows. He saw countless houses, more skyscrapers, endless roads, and thousands and thousands of jeeps. He saw the spires and domes of churches, the curve of a vast arena, and thousands of other buildings.
“My gods,” said Arran.
“Oh, yeah,” said Robert, grinning with delight. “I remember. Mrs. Lawson made us memorize stuff about Chicago in social studies class. I think…there are three million people in the city.”
Arran stared at him. “Three million?” Carlisan had been the greatest of the cities of the High Kingdoms, vast and rich and powerful, and it had held only a quarter of a million people. “Three million people? You must be jesting.”
“Um…I don’t know what jesting is, so I don’t think so,” said Robert. “But I learned that in school. And if you add all the people in the suburbs, then it’s eight million. Or that might be the metropolitan area. I’m not sure.”
Arran shook his head. “Eight million? My gods. Chicago must be the paramount city of your world.”
“The biggest, the greatest,” said Arran, his eyes fixed on the spectacle of Chicago.
“Oh, no. I think there are two bigger cities in this country. Um…Los Angeles is bigger, I know that, and so is New York.”
“Gods,” said Arran. He saw a broad expanse of blue stretched beyond the edge of the city. “Is that the ocean?”
Robert laughed. “No. That’s Lake Michigan. I saw the ocean once. Well, technically the Gulf of Mexico, but that’s part of the ocean, so I guess it counts.”
Arran shook his head, staring at the city. A sense of amazed hopelessness fell over him. Eight million people? How could he possibly find Alastarius among such a multitude? And Robert had said that the United States held larger cities. The lords of the United States must hold sway over uncounted millions of people. He considered asking Robert the United States’ population, then decided against it.
He really did not want to know.
“Um…you okay?” said Robert.
Arran nodded. “I am. It’s just…overwhelming. I have never seen a city this large, never dreamed of it.” What was he going to do now? “Let us go. If I stare at the city much longer I shall lose my mind.”
“Let’s go get some supper,” said Robert. “I’m hungry.”
“Very well.” They walked back into the elevator. Robert pressed a button, and it descended with a lurch. “Is it customary for a child your age to wander about alone?”
“Probably not,” said Robert. “But my parents are both at work all day and won’t be home until late. So they don’t know. I don’t think they even care, so long as I don’t get myself into trouble.”
“Are your parents noble?” said Arran. “You seem well-educated enough to be a son of the nobility.”
Robert blinked. “I don’t know what a noble is, but my mom's a copyeditor and my dad's an ad executive. So I don’t see them much.”
“Ah,” said Arran, wondering what a copyeditor was. “So you’re like the son of a preoccupied high lord…free to wander the streets of the city while your father is engaged with high matters.” He blinked, a long-forgotten memory rising to the surface. “I used to be like that. Even when I became a squire. When my duties for the day were completed I would get myself into trouble.”
“A squire?” said Robert. “So you’re like a knight or something?”
Arran grunted and tapped the hilt of his Sacred Blade.
“Cool.” He hesitated. “Can…can I see it?”
The door slid open, revealing the lobby of the Sears Tower. “When we’re outside.” He looked at the people walking through the lobby. Many of the men were fat and looked unused to toil or hunger. The women had a sleek, haughty look in their gray skirts and coats, but Arran suspected they would run screaming at the sight of a bared weapon. “I doubt this crowd would react well if I drew a blade in their midst.”
Robert laughed. “You can say that again.”
They walked outside. “More people than before.”
Robert shrugged. “It’s five o’clock. Everyone’s probably going home from work.”
Arran saw a bench by the curb. “Let’s sit there. I can have something to eat and you can see a Sacred Blade.”
They sat. Arran rubbed his leg, some of the ache fading.
Robert looked curious. “So you going to show me it or not?”
“Of course.” He drew the Sacred Blade, the steel flashing crimson in the sunlight. A few passers-by gave him strange looks.
“Wow,” said Robert. “I’ve never seen a real sword before.”
Arran flipped the hilt to face him. “Here. You can hold it, if you wish. Take care, though…it will likely be very heavy.”
Robert snorted. “It doesn’t look that heavy.” He grasped the hilt. His eyes widened and the tip of the blade bobbed towards the ground. “It…is heavy. What’s this made of? Lead?”
“No.” Arran rummaged through his pack and pulled out a piece of jerky. “It’s part of the way the blade was fashioned. It will only feel light and balanced in the hands of a Knight. And a Knight can only wield one Sacred Blade at time.” He thought of Sir Liam. “Well, usually.”
“Why do you have two?” said Robert, the sword wavering in his hands.
“Two?” Arran touched Luthar’s sword, still slung over his shoulder after all these miles. He had forgotten about it. “This was my brother’s. He was…killed in a battle a long time ago, right in front of me. I couldn’t leave his sword for our enemies, so I took it with me. I’ve had it with me ever since.
Robert’s eyes got wide. “So you’ve killed people with this?”
Arran took a bite of jerky. “More than I can remember.”
“Why is the blade all red?” said Robert. He touched it with a tentative finger. “Is…is that blood?”
“Yes,” said Arran. “The woman I told you of earlier?” Robert nodded. “It’s hers.”
Robert’s face screwed with revulsion. “You killed her?”
“No.” Arran shook his head. “No. When she was killed, I dipped the sword in her blood. I used it to slayer her killer. But the stain of the blood stayed. I suppose it serves as a reminder.” He considered telling Robert of the white magic and decided against it. The people of Earth seemed to have no Wizards or Warlocks. He looked up at the towering skyscrapers.
They didn’t need Wizards. Their machines could do things no Wizard could ever do.
Robert handed back the sword. “That’s sad.” Arran slid the sword back into its scabbard. “Dude. What is that stuff you are eating?”
“This?” He swallowed. “Jerky. I think it’s beef. Or possibly pork. After a few months, it’s hard to tell.”
Robert lips twisted up. “That is disgusting.”
Arran took another bite. “Not really, if the choice is between old jerky and starvation.”
Robert hopped to his feet. “That looks like it was made from a cow’s butt.”
Arran eyed the jerky. “It most likely was.”
“Hang on for a minute,” said Robert. He pointed at a shop across the street, its windows marked with the sigil of a golden arch. “I’ll get us some food better than that stuff.” He jogged into the street.
Arran sat up straighter. “Watch where you’re going!” Robert dodged the jeeps with deft speed and crossed the street. Arran grumbled and gnawed at the jerky, trying to tear at the stiff meat with his teeth.
Robert reappeared a few minutes later, a brown paper bag marked with the arch sigil in hand. In his other hand he carried a tray containing a pair of paper cups, each adorned with the same arch sigil. “Here we go. Fast food is kind of gross, but it’s definitely better than that stuff you’re eating.” He handed Arran the bag.
Arran frowned. “Fast?” Robert reached inside the bag and handed him a cardboard cup holding some kind of fried potatoes and a warm paper-wrapped lump. “The food is...prepared quickly, I take it?”
“Yup.” Robert unwrapped his own paper-wrapped lump. Inside was a sandwich.
“Fast food?” said Arran. He unwrapped his own sandwich. “Well, I suppose you did return rather quickly.” He gave the sandwich a dubious glance, shrugged, and took a bite. Warm, greasy meat filled his mouth. “Not bad.”
“Better than the jerky stuff?”
Arran nodded. “Far better than the jerky stuff.”
“Here.” Robert handed him one of the paper cups. A straw stuck through the top. “I didn’t know what you wanted to drink, so I got you a Coke.”
“I’d prefer about a gallon of wine,” said Arran, “but this will do.” He frowned. “Coke? You…mean coal? You drink coal?”
“Huh?” said Robert. “That’s not coal! That’s soda.”
“Oh,” said Arran. “How I am I supposed to drink this?”
Robert gestured. “Well, suck through the straw. Or you could take off the lid.”
Arran grunted, lifted the straw to his lips, and took a long drink. Cold, sweet liquid sloshed through his mouth. He coughed and almost dropped the cup. “Gods.”
“What?” said Robert, grinning. “You don’t like Coke?”
“What is this?” said Arran. “Sugar water?”
Robert thought for a minute. “Basically. And some caffeine. That makes you hyper.”
Arran took another drink. Some of the weariness faded from his limbs. “This is like…the horsemen of Antarese used to have a drink they called kaffa. It gave them energy. It was black and tasted foul.”
“Oh, you mean coffee,” said Robert. “My mom and dad drink that stuff all the time. It really stinks. And my mom, she’ll get these fancy coffees beans from some place downtown…actually, I think it’s just over that way.”
Arran sat back and chewed on the beef sandwich, listening to Robert prattle. He felt a pang of regret. Had he married, his own children would have been only a few years younger than the boy.
Had Marugon not returned from Earth, much would have been different.
“You okay?” Robert spoke around a mouthful of the fried potatoes. “You looked like you were going to fall in the street for a minute there.”
“I’m fine,” said Arran. He ate some of his own fried potatoes. “Just thinking.”
Robert took a drink from his paper cup. “I guess you have a lot to think about, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
Robert waved his hand at the skyscrapers. “Well, you said you came from a foreign country, and it sounds like a lot of bad stuff happened to you there. And now you’ve come here to look for your friends, and you’ve seen all this stuff that you’ve never seen before. If I were you, I would have quite a lot to think about.”
Arran laughed. “Quite right. I suppose I do, do I not?”
They ate in silence. When they had finished, Robert took the papers, wadded them up, and tossed them into a nearby green-painted metal can. “I should really be getting home. My parents are going to start wondering what happened to me, sooner or later.” He made a face. “Probably later.”
The sun had started to go down. “It has been a long day.”
They got up and walked to the elevated train’s platform.
“Well, this is my stop.” Robert hesitated. “Do you know…um…how to get where you want to go?”
Arran nodded. “I shall ride the bus until it reaches the corner where we first met. I can walk the rest of the distance.”
Robert reached up and pulled a yellow wire running along the windows. A bell rang, and the bus pulled up to the curb. “I've got to go. You take care, Mr. Belphon. I hope you find the people you’re looking for. What did you say their names were?”
“Lithon Scepteris and Alastarius.”
“If I see them, I’ll let them know you’re looking for them,” said Robert.
Robert grinned and patted in his pocket. “No, thank you for the fifty dollars.” He turned, trotted down the aisle, and disappeared out the bus doors.
Arran watched him go. It would have been useful to stay with Robert, but the risks to the boy would have been too great. Marugon and his agents were on this world. Sooner or later Arran would find them, or they would find Arran.
Anyone around him would suffer when that happened.
He rode the bus until it came to the corner. He reached up and pulled the yellow cord. The bus stopped, and Arran walked to the doors.
“Hey, mister.” The bus driver, a burly man with dark skin, leaned forward. “You take care, you hear? A lot of crazies out there tonight.”
Arran nodded. “But no crazier than I.”
The bus driver gave him a look.
A quarter hour’s walk brought him back to the white house and its sunken woods.
Lights burned in the house’s windows, and a blue jeep sat in the driveway. It appeared the house was not abandoned after all. He crept to one of the windows and peered inside. He caught a glimpse of an old woman with a thick iron-gray braid sitting in a chair, a stack of books on a low table besides her. He watched the woman for a moment, and then crept away through the darkness, making for the sunken woods. The old woman looked like a scholar - hardly the sort of woman to go hunting through the woods at night.
He slipped through the trees and found a comfortable-looking spot not far from the invisible door to the Tower. A few insects chirped, but the woods lay quiet otherwise. Arran wrapped himself in his cloak and lay down, trying to get comfortable. He closed his eyes, thoughts and plans whirling through his tired mind. Should he try to find Alastarius first? Or should he seek out Marugon’s agents? Perhaps finding one would lead to finding the other.
Arran contemplated hunting Marugon himself, but rejected the idea. The last of the Warlocks would crush him like a gnat. Siduri had been right. He had to find Alastarius…
Arran fell asleep.
The next day he explored in a different direction. He had developed a sense for the buses, and used them to speed his explorations. His clothing and swords elicited many strange glances, but Arran ignored them, taking in more of Chicago. His path took him to a vast indoor marketplace with a glass roof and multiple balconies, its walls lined with dozens of shops, each one equipped with a garish sign of glowing glass over its entrance. One shop sold metal boxes with glass eyes that showed moving images. Another shop sold countless shoes and boots, and still another held more books than Arran had ever seen in his life.
He stood on a balcony and took in the sight while the crowds flowed around him. Neither Sir Liam nor Siduri would have believed such wonders. The people of Chicago had such bounty. No wonder so many of them were fat and slow and timid. A courtyard attached to the indoor marketplace boasted dozens of food merchants, and Arran used some of his dollars to buy food.
He ate, caught a bus, and continued on his way.
A few hours later he walked down a desolate-looking street. Large brick buildings lined both sides of the street, ringed in fences of barbed wire and metal. Arran guessed they were warehouses of some sort. Tired-looking laborers sometimes walked past, their clothing and faces stained with sweat and soot. Arran disliked this part of the city. It had a grim aspect…
His Sacred Blade jolted.
Arran’s hand clamped around the weapon’s hilt. He looked around, his eyes scanning the warehouses and road. A boxy black jeep sped down the road, its sides painted with lettering. Arran caught a glimpse of a hunched, bearded figure at the wheel.
An electric jolt of rage shot through Arran. He recognized the shape behind the wheel. The winged demons often adapted such disguises when they walked among men. “Winged ones, there are winged ones on Earth.” He shouldn’t have been surprised. Had not Kaemarz mentioned that wicked and ancient Goth-Mar-Dan himself had come to Earth? Arran drew his Sacred Blade, the crimson steel glimmering with blue light, and set himself in a guard position…
The black jeep shot past, and the winged demon did not spare him a glance. The creature must not have seen him or sensed the white magic in his Sacred Blade. Arran started to run after the jeep, sword in hand, until he realized the futility of the action.
“Holy hell.” A grimy young workingman squinted at Arran. “Was that thing glowing?”
“That jeep,” said Arran, “that black jeep. Did you see it?”
The workingman frowned. “I didn’t see no jeep.”
Arran’s anger boiled over. “Damnation! That black vehicle! Did you or did you not see it?”
The workingman raised his hands. “Hey, cool down, man. That black van? Yeah, I saw it. See them driving past all the time.”
Arran realized he had raised his sword, and he rammed it back into the scabbard. “The lettering on the side? What did it say?”
The workingman looked confused. “Yeah…I think it said ‘the Gracchan Party. Vote Jones and Wycliffe in November’.”
“What does that mean?” Something clicked in Arran’s mind. “Wycliffe. I know that name.” He remembered the Ildramyn’s second vision. He had seen a short, fat man named Wycliffe talking to another man named Kurkov about selling things to Marugon. “Gods damn me for a fool. I knew it the entire time. This man Wycliffe is the gun-merchant.” The workingman looked frightened. “Wycliffe. Do you know the name?”
“Yeah,” said the workingman. “He’s a Senator. He’s running for president, I think. Or was it vice-president?”
“Senator?” said Arran. “What is that?”
“You know…he gets elected to the Senate. They sit around and pass laws and raise taxes.”
Arran grunted. “So the United States is a republic.”
“I always thought we were a democracy.”
“Thank you.” Arran started forward. “You’ve been helpful. But I warn you! Stay away from Wycliffe and his men. They are dangerous beyond anything you can imagine.”
The workingman grunted. “I stay out of politics anyway.”
Chapter 5 - Stalkers
Anno Domini 2012
Ally woke up.
“What?” she muttered, lifting her face from the desk. Her dorm room lay dark and quiet, the faint glow of the floodlights seeping through her curtains. Ally yawned, ran her fingers through her hair, and looked at her iPhone.
“Oh, man.” It was three in the morning. She had started studying for her chemistry test at about ten. About midnight she had gotten up to get some coffee. The empty mug sat on a corner of the desk, atop her lab notebook. After that she couldn’t remember a thing
Ally sighed, flicked on her desk lamp, and tried to sort her notes into a semblance of order. She had a good grasp of the material, but she wanted to go through it one more time. Perhaps she should just go to sleep. A tired mind did not write good tests.
Ally closed her eyes. She did not want to go to sleep.
The nightmares came then.
She tried to study for another ten minutes, her exhausted brain refusing to absorb any more material. Equations and electron levels blurred before her eyes in an incomprehensible mess. She gave up and flicked off her desk lamp.
More books and papers lay strewn across her bed. Ally grumbled, scooped them up, and dumped them on the floor. She considered undressing, decided it was too much work, and crawled into bed.
Sleep came almost at once, and so did the dreams.
Again she lay on the courtyard floor of cold stone, red-lit smoke billowing over the dark sky.
Ally gasped for breath, blood welling in her throat. Her side and back burned with agony. She tried to stand, but her trembling muscles refused to obey.
Terror flooded her.
She remembered what happened next.
The dark shadow dropped from the sky, its vast wings blotting out the light. An iron-clawed hand plunged towards her chest. She shrieked as the iron claws ripped through her skin, plunged into her chest, and curled around her heart…
The world shattered with her unending scream.
“Wake up,” murmured a deep, sonorous voice. “You must wake up.”
Ally stood in a vast corridor of dark marble, a green glow illuminating the black stone. A half-buried part of her mind remembered what would happen next. The black things would boil from the walls and overwhelm the old man with two swords. She would flee for the rune-carved doors, Lithon in her arms…
But instead a younger man trudged down the corridor, his face weathered and grim, his dark clothes worn and dusty. Tangled hair and an unkempt beard masked half his face, and a sword and a pair of automatic pistols hung from his belt. He moved like a hunting cat, despite his obvious weariness. The weathered man stopped in a domed chamber. His eyes widened, his hand flying to his sword…
“You must remember,” whispered the deep voice. “You must.”
Ally floated in a dark space. “No.”
“You must. Else he will find you before you are ready.”
“No!” She tugged harder, trying to escape. “I don’t want this, I’m tired of the dreams, just let me sleep, let me sleep…”
Ally flew backwards. For a moment she glimpsed all of Chicago spread out beneath her, lights glittering and shining in the night. Then she plunged down, soaring over a park not far from the campus. She saw the old man with the camouflage jacket and the cane, a stern expression his face. A hideous thing with leathery gray skin crouched behind a bush, its red eyes burning with madness.
She turned and fled, the city blurring around her.
Something pulled on her, drawing her over the crumbling brick warehouses in the South Side. Winged monstrosities, iron claws dangling from their fingers, circled in the night. Ally’s terror rose to a fever pitch. She tried to flee, but something pulled her down. A vast warehouse complex loomed before her, lights burning in the night. Slouching thugs with bushy beards guarded the entrance. Ally swooped before a large warehouse, marked 13A in red paint. She fell through the floor and found herself in a large library, books resting in handsome dark wood shelves.
A man in a black robe sat in an overstuffed chair, his head bowed. A dreadful cold seemed to radiate from him, like the blast of a blizzard wind. The man lifted his head, his face pale.
His eyes were bottomless black pits into the void.
Ally shrieked and fled, speeding through the city. “No, no, it’s not real, it’s not real, it’s a dream, it’s a dream…”
She woke up, her legs thrashing in the blanket.
“It’s just a dream!” Her last word rose to an angry shriek.
She blinked, cold sweat dripping down her jaw. Ally groaned and looked at her iPhone. It was six-thirty. She sighed and huddled back into her blankets. Her test wasn’t until two-thirty. She could sleep through her morning class and study some more in the afternoon.
Someone knocked at the door. Ally rolled out of bed, shuffled across the carpet, and pulled the door open. “Yeah?”
Kelly McBrian stood in the hallway, still wearing her sweatshirt and yoga pants from her morning run. “Hey, Ally. Sorry if I woke you up. Some of your neighbors said they heard you screaming. You okay?”
Ally pushed her hair out of her face. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Just some bad dreams, that’s all.”
“You want to talk about it?” said Kelly.
Ally didn’t want to tell anyone about it. “No. I…just have a pulled muscle, and a lot going on with school, and…”
Kelly nodded. “Yeah, I know what you mean. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.” She grinned. “I think I’ll go take a shower. I probably smell real ripe.”
Kelly rolled her eyes. “Well, thanks! Later, Ally.” Ally shut the door and collapsed back into bed. She fell asleep almost at once.
No dreams tormented her this time.
Ally walked across campus, fallen leaves crunching beneath her shoes. The test had gone well, which brightened her mood. She wanted to get to her room, change, and get to work. She had a night class to teach with Katrina at the studio. Perhaps she and Katrina could go out to dinner after the class. Maybe she could tell Katrina about the dreams.
Something moved behind her.
Ally turned, her eyes narrowing. She saw nothing but the usual students talking on their cell phones. Ally shrugged and went on her way. But the feeling of someone following her refused to go away.
She whirled without breaking stride, just in time to see someone dart into the bushes. Anger overrode her common sense, and she stormed into the bushes. A man knelt in the dirt, looking at a smartphone. He wore jeans and black sports jacket, and a number of earrings glittered beneath his unkempt dark hair. He peered through the leaves, squinting.
“Why the hell are you following me?” said Ally.
The man jumped to his feet. “Oh, shit.”
Ally stalked towards him. “I said, why the hell are you following me?”
The man stammered. “I…um…I’m not following you. I work for…um, the museum. I’m trying to capture bugs…”
“Crap,” said Ally. “I thought someone’s been following me for the last few days. It’s you, isn’t it? Why?”
“Um.” The man blinked, turned, and ran for it.
Ally caught him before he’d gone five steps. She seized his arm, twisted it behind him, and slammed him against a tree. “Ow! Hey, stop that. That hurts, that hurts…”
Her anger grew. “Why are you following me? Tell me or I’ll…”
“Let him go, please.”
A scruffy old man with a gray beard and a steel-handled cane stood behind her. “What do you want?” Something tickled in the back of her mind. “Wait a minute. I remember you. You’re that old man I saw a few months back. What was your name?” She snapped the fingers on her free hand. “Regent, that was it. Regent.”
The man she held against the tree whimpered. “Regent, hey, help me out here.”
Regent raised his free hand. “Could you kindly let my associate Mr. Allard go?”
Ally glared at him, but let Allard go. He staggered away, watching her with a half-terrified expression. “Associate? You mean you work with this guy?” Regent nodded. “Then you were following me the other day, at the coffeehouse.”
Regent lifted his free hand. “You have to understand. We weren’t following you. We had to…”
“Bullshit,” Ally snarled, her temper building to a fever pitch. “What are you, some kind of stalkers? Kidnappers? Or just a pair of perverts?”
Regent’s eyes glinted. “It’s nothing like that.” He hesitated. “I may have to tell you some things…”
“I don’t want to hear anything from you,” said Ally. “Stop following me. Do you understand? Stop following me. Or else I’ll call the police.” Her temper burned hotter. “No, forget the police. If you keep following me, they’ll need to call the police once I’m done with you. Understand?”
A bit of anger burned in Regent’s eyes. He pointed his cane at her. “Damn it, listen to me…”
White fire blazed in Ally’s mind
She moved faster than she had ever thought possible. Her left hand clamped over Regent’s cane. She twisted, wrenched the cane from his hand, and leveled the tip at his throat.
Regent raised his hands, his face very still.
“Holy shit,” said Allard.
Ally’s hands trembled. “No, you listen to me. Stop following me. Understand? Stop following me!” The cane felt warm beneath her hands, its surface seeming to vibrate. She scowled, threw the cane to the ground, and stalked away.
After a moment she looked over her shoulder.
No one followed her.
Allard winced, rubbed his arm, and began picking pieces of bark from his cheek. “Why are the hot ones always psycho?”
“Allard,” said Regent.
Allard nodded. “I know, I know. I’m an idiot.”
Regent smirked. “Smart lad.” He grimaced, hobbled a few steps, and retrieved his cane.
“God, she’s fast. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone get the drop on you,” said Allard, picking the last piece of bark from his cheek. “At least she didn’t break the cane over your head.”
Regent sighed. “She almost did.”
“So are we going to stop shadowing her?” said Allard.
Regent picked some dead leaves from the handle of his cane. “Don’t be absurd. We don’t dare leave her alone, not with the way those changelings are prowling the city. And sooner or later we’re going to have to tell her everything.”
“And hope we don’t get any bones broken in the process.”
They returned to the sidewalk, Regent’s cane tapping against the concrete. “Marugon’s looking for her.”
That stopped Allard in his tracks. “What? How? That’s impossible. You said Marugon thought she was dead.”
“I might have been mistaken,” said Regent. “Marugon thinks Lithon is dead, I know that much. He must not have known about her when I…when Lithon’s death was faked. But think about it, son. What have we been doing every night for the last two weeks?”
Allard shuddered. “Hunting changelings.”
“Aye, son. Hunting changelings. And those changelings are looking for someone. I can feel the Voice of the black magic on them, compelling them to search. We’ve seen more winged ones flying overhead at night. And sometimes I can sense Marugon’s power hanging over the city. They’re looking for Ally.”
“Okay,” said Allard. “Then how does Marugon know about her?”
“He must have sensed her,” said Regent. “Whatever’s locked away inside her is getting stronger. It probably plays hell with her dreams. No wonder she’s so irritable. My skill with the white magic is feeble, and even I can sense it without even trying. Like letters of white fire written on her brow. Marugon must be able to sense her from five miles away. The changelings and the winged ones are creatures of the black magic. They must be able to sense her as well.”
“So why hasn’t he found her yet?”
Regent snorted and raised a bushy eyebrow. “Give me a little credit, son. It’s because of us. Marugon would have killed her and her entire family months ago if it were not for us.” He rapped his cane against the sidewalk. “But I think things will come to a head soon. Alastarius’s Prophecy is going to come true.”
“How do you know?” said Allard.
“Wycliffe’s going to win the election,” said Regent. “We both know it’s going to happen.” The thought made Allard sick, but he could not deny it. “And if we know anything about that scheming soulless black-hearted bastard,” his voice rose in anger, “then he’ll be president in short order. William Jones is either a fool or a patsy. Or both. And Alastarius Prophesied that Lithon would bring him back. Something has to happen soon. Maybe Ally has something to do with it. But I’ll tell you one thing, son. My old bones know a storm’s coming. I’ve lived through quite a few of them in my life, and I know something’s going to happen soon. We’ve got to be ready.”
Allard swallowed. “What are we going to do?”
“Keep following her, of course…at a safer distance.” Allard rubbed his aching arm. “But sooner or later, we’re going to have to tell her the truth about who she is. I don’t think she remembers. Not surprising; I don’t want to remember my own past most of the time. But we’ll have to tell her.”
“She won’t listen to us,” said Allard. “She thinks we’re stalkers.”
“Well, we’ll make her listen,” said Regent.
“Why not talk to her parents?”
Regent froze. “What?”
Allard stammered. “Um…well…from what you’ve told me, her parents know. They’ve never told her the truth about herself, right? Or to Lithon?”
“We could let them know just how much danger they’re in. Then they could tell her. Maybe she’d even work with us. We could take her someplace safe.”
Regent remained silent.
Allard groaned. “It’s a bad idea, isn’t it?”
Regent laughed. “Not by half. Sometimes you surprise even me.” He sighed. “We’ll talk to the parents, but not quite yet.” He stared off into space. “They’ll be rather surprised to see me.”
Chapter 6 - A Rescue
Anno Domini 2012
Night fell as Arran hurried back to the sunken woods where he had made his camp, thinking over his encounter with the winged demon driving the black van.
He had been right – one of the United States’ rulers had made an agreement with Marugon. Or had Marugon raised the man to power? No matter. Tomorrow Arran would begin his hunt. He would ask about this Senator Wycliffe and his associate Kurkov. With luck he could learn more about them.
A new question rose in Arran’s mind. What had happened to Lithon and this unknown girl after they had arrived on Earth? Had they had gone through the door marked with Marugon’s sigil? It likely led to Senator Wycliffe’s citadel. And Wycliffe would have turned the children over to Marugon.
Arran shook his head. Speculation would only drive him mad. He needed more facts. But he did know that Wycliffe consorted with Marugon and winged demons.
If Arran found Wycliffe, he would kill him on sight.
Arran approached the large white house as a blue jeep pulled into the driveway, its lights flashing over the lawn. Arran caught a glimpse of three men leaning against the garage.
Curious, he came to a stop, taking care to remain unseen.
The blue jeep came to a shuddering stop, and the old woman with the thick braid he had seen yesterday climbed out. The men stepped out of the shadows of garage and approached her. All of them wore masks that left only their eyes and mouths uncovered.
“Thieves,” muttered Arran.
He hurried forward.
The old woman stopped. “Might I ask,” she said coldly, “what you are doing in my driveway?”
“Yeah, you can ask,” said the man, “and I’ll answer. Your purse, your car keys, your house keys, now.”
The old woman turned to run, but another of the men circled behind her. The lead thug reached into his jacket and pulled out a gun. “Don’t even think about screaming. Or running.” He jerked his head at one of the other men. “Tie her up and tape up her mouth.”
One of the men slammed the old woman against the car, his hand clamping over her mouth. Her eyes widened and she kicked the thief in the stomach. He growled and slammed her again. “Damn it, just shoot the bitch…”
Arran’s hands worked in smooth motions as he loaded one of his pistols. These men were no different than Marugon’s soldiers, murderers and thieves and rabble.
Arran stepped out of the shadows and leveled his gun. “Let her go now or I’ll kill you all.”
The thug with the gun turned. “Who the hell…”
“A witness!” said the thug holding the woman. “Kill him, quick…”
The thug raised his gun, but Arran was faster. The thief screamed as Arran’s bullet exploded his hand in spray of blood and bone. The second thug lunged at Arran, a knife flashing in his hand, and Arran shot him in both knees. The third thief released the woman and ran for the street, at least until Arran shot him in the back of the leg. The thug shrieked and fell to the ground, writhing.
Arran considered killing all three of them. Then again, killing them would likely draw the attention of Chicago’s rulers, something Arran did not want. He shrugged and dropped the weapon back into its holster. “Madam. Are you injured?”
The old woman shook her head, her eyes very wide. “No…no, I’m well. Just a bit queasy, I’m afraid. I’ve seen men shot before, but…it’s never a good thing.”
Arran nodded. “I understand.”
“You came at a good time,” said the old woman. A piercing wail cut the night air. Arran turned, his hand dropping back to his gun butt. “What is that?”
“A siren,” said the woman. “Someone likely called the police.”
“Police,” said Arran, remembering what Robert had told him. “The city guardsmen. Damnation. I must go.”
“Wait,” said the old woman.
“It would be best if they did not see me,” said Arran. “I have committed no crime, at least not on this world. But they would not understand.”
“Then…can you hide yourself?” said the old woman. Arran nodded. “Then hide. I wish to speak after the police leave. You did save my life, after all.”
Arran considered for a moment. Could he trust the old woman? He needed someone to tell him about Earth, and he suspected she was a scholar. Her knowledge might prove very useful. “Very well.”
He looked around, slid under the back porch, and waited.
A few minutes later several white jeeps, bright flashing lights on their ceilings, screeched into the driveway.
One of the police officers bent over, holding a black cylinder in his hand. A beam of bright light shone from the cylinder’s crystalline top. Arran remained motionless, wrapped in his cloak. The policeman swept the light from his cylinder under the porch, grunted, and then walked away. Arran sighed in relief and twisted his head to watch the driveway.
“So you’re unharmed, ma’am?” said the commander of the policemen, a stout older man with thinning brown hair. Other men in blue uniforms with white crosses on their arms had appeared in a boxy white jeep. They bundled the wounded thugs to metal stretchers, treating their wounds.
“Yes, I’m quite well,” said the old woman, her arms folded. “Thanks to the timely intervention of that young man with good aim.”
“So you’ve no idea who these men are?” said the commander.
The old woman shook her head. “No. I’d never seen any of them before.”
One of the younger policemen walked up and whispered in the commander’s ear. The older man grunted. “I thought so. The descriptions matched. Group of home-invasion robbers. Shot a woman in the leg a few days back. List of charges is about a mile long.” He scratched his hair. “So you have no idea about this fourth man?”
“None,” said the old woman. “I’d never seen him before in his life. He shot the hoodlums and disappeared right away.”
Another of the younger policemen approached. “We’ve checked the house, the yard, and the woods. No sign of this shooter. He’s probably fifty miles away by now.” Arran rolled his eyes.
“Well, I certainly didn’t shoot these men myself,” said the old woman. The blue-suited physicians loaded the bundled thugs into the boxy white jeep. “I don’t even own a firearm.”
The commander spread his hands, a gold ring flashing on his finger. “No one’s doubting that, ma’am. You’ll want to testify, I assume?”
“Oh, yes,” said the old woman. “I don’t take kindly to hoodlums.”
“I have to say,” said the commander, tucking a notepad into his jacket pocket, “you’re taking this remarkably well.”
The old woman gave him a thin smile. “I was held captive in Syria for two weeks some years back. Armed men, regrettably, are nothing new to my experience.”
The commander’s watery eyes widened. “Must be a hell of a story. We’ll keep a cruiser in this area in case you have any more trouble. Doubt you will, though.” He chewed his thick lip. “As for this fourth fellow, I’ll bet he was a disgruntled associate. Or some old grudge. Something like that, I’ll bet.”
“If I see anything, I’ll let you know at once,” said the old woman.
The commander plopped his cap onto his head. “Thank you, Dr. Francis. We’ll be in touch.” He and his underlings walked back to their jeeps. The whole caravan of vehicles pulled out into the street and pulled away one by one, and soon Dr. Francis stood alone in the driveway.
She walked over to the porch.
“You’ll want to come inside, I assume. Be careful. They probably have someone watching the house.” She climbed the steps and opened the back door. Arran crawled from under the porch, gathered his cloak about him, and vaulted over the railing in a dark blur. He rolled into the house, and Dr. Francis shut the door behind her. Arran stood and looked around the kitchen. The counters gleamed, while polished pots and pans hung from iron hooks in the walls.
“This way,” said Dr. Francis. She strode into a large dining room, lit from a glowing lamp suspended from the ceiling. More stuffed bookshelves ringed the room, and books and papers covered the surface of the table. Dr. Francis moved with confidence and assurance, despite her brush with death. And her eyes held a keen, razor-edged intelligence he had not seen often on this world.
She reminded him of a Wizard. Perhaps she could answer some of his questions.
“Quite a collection,” said Arran, looking over the tomes.
“Thank you.” Dr. Francis cleared the papers from two of the chairs. “I like to read. Please, sit.” Arran sat, and Dr. Francis sat across from him. “I suppose I ought to introduce myself. I am Dr. Heloise Francis.”
Arran nodded. “Pardon my ignorance, but is ‘Doctor’ your name or a title of some sort?”
She frowned. “A title.”
“So you are nobility, then?” He had come to believe that this world, or at least this nation, did not possess peasants and merchants and nobles as he thought of them.
“No. The title is earned through scholarship.” She rolled her eyes. “Well, in most cases. I could name some egregious exceptions. But what is your name?”
“Arran Belphon.” He saw no reason to lie. “Why did you not tell the policemen about me?”
Dr. Francis folded her hands and put them on the table. “For one, you probably saved my life.” Arran nodded. “Second, I do not trust the police.”
“They are corrupt, then?” said Arran, thinking of Senator Wycliffe.
“Not always.” Dr. Francis looked up at the ceiling. “I’ve traveled to many countries, Mr. Belphon, and the Chicago police are better than most. But the police have power, and power almost always corrupts.”
“Agreed,” said Arran, thinking of the guns’ power.
“And I don’t think you would want to be found by the police,” said Dr. Francis, pointing at his belt, “the way you carry those guns so openly.” Arran nodded again. “So, this leads to my third reason. I wanted to talk with you. You piqued my curiosity. You are quite unlike any man I have ever seen before.”
“Indeed?” said Arran.
“As I mentioned, I’ve traveled to many foreign countries. Yet I’ve never met anyone who walked as you did, spoke with your accent, or displayed your mannerisms and behaviors. And your swords. I’m something of an expert in archaic weaponry yet I’ve never seen blades quite like yours.”
Arran touched his Sacred Blade’s hilt. “Would you like to see it?”
Dr. Francis’s eyes gleamed. “May I?”
Arran slid the sword from its scabbard and presented the hilt to her. She took it in both hands, almost dropped it, and regained her grip. “Surprisingly heavy.”
“It would feel that way in a hand not meant to wield it.”
She turned the blade under the light, examining it with a critical eye. “I’ve never seen a sword quite like this.” Her voice was hushed with awe. “The crimson color of the blade. Is that blood?”
“Yes.” Arran closed his eyes, memories of Siduri flickering through his mind.
“You’ve killed people with this?”
She returned the sword to him. “You must have quite a story, Mr. Belphon. I’d like to hear it, if you’re willing to tell it.”
Arran took a deep breath. “As you wish.” If anyone on Earth could help him find Alastarius, a learned scholar could. “I can’t tell you everything, you realize. It would not be safe. And you very well might not believe everything.”
Dr. Francis nodded. “I understand.”
“I come from a far country,” said Arran. “The name is not important. Very few in your…nation have heard of it. There was a war that concluded about…seventeen, eighteen years ago, fought against a dangerous enemy. My nation triumphed. But Lord Marugon, the leader of the enemy, fled to your nation, to the United States. Apparently he met a man named Thomas Wycliffe…”
Dr. Francis sat up straighter, her eyes widening. “Thomas Wycliffe? The Thomas Wycliffe? Surely…surely you don’t mean Senator Wycliffe?”
“Yes, I mean Senator Wycliffe. Do you know of him?”
Dr. Francis scowled. “Everyone in the United States knows of him. He’s running for vice president.”
“Vice president?” said Arran. “I am not familiar with the titles of your land.”
“I gathered,” said Dr. Francis. “The office of vice president is the second highest in the government.”
“Like a vizier, or a lord chancellor,” said Arran.
“Well…close,” said Dr. Francis. “Except we vote for the president and vice president every four years. Wycliffe is running for vice president. All odds indicate that he will win. Do you know something of him?”
“Very little,” said Arran, “except what I have observed. Marugon returned to my nation a few years later, armed with guns and bombs and liquid fire. I believed he purchased these weapons from Senator Wycliffe in your nation.”
“Dear God,” said Dr. Francis. “There have been rumors linking him to the Russian Mafia…um, an organization of criminals.” She shook her head. “My God. Simon and Katrina. What did they find out? ”
“Who are they?” said Arran.
“Friends of mine,” said Dr. Francis. Her face tightened. “Please continue.”
Arran hefted his sword’s scabbard. “We had nothing to match Marugon’s guns. He swept through my nation and its neighbors in a tide of blood. I fought for years, striking from the shadows, retreating, striking again. Eventually I was mortally wounded, and would have died but for the efforts of a woman named Siduri.” Arran swallowed, the memories hovering behind his eyes. “She was killed. Before she died, she told me to find Alastarius here.”
“Alastarius?” said Dr. Francis. “Who is that?”
“He is…” Arran’s mixed feelings about the Master of the White Council churned in his mind. “He is, or was, a great man of my nation, a mighty and wise scholar. He was supposed to have been killed. I saw Alastarius’s grave.”
“So if you knew this Alastarius was dead, why did you come all the way here?”
Arran closed his eyes. “Because there was nothing else I could do. Marugon was won. My nation lies in chaos and ruins. I could come here and search for Alastarius, or I could despair and die.”
“I see,” said Dr. Francis. “Do you know why Siduri told you to find Alastarius?”
“So what are you going to do now?” said Dr. Francis.
“I am unsure,” said Arran. “I will look for Alastarius, of course. And for one other, a boy.”
“Sir Liam Mastere, the head of my order, took the boy here when he saw my nation would fall.” Arran grimaced. “Alastarius told him to do it. The boy’s name is Lithon Scepteris. He is heir to the throne of my nation. He would be about fourteen, maybe fifteen, years of age by now.”
Dr. Francis leaned forward, the gray braid swinging across her chest. “What did you say his name was?”
“Lithon Scepteris,” said Arran. “Do you know of him?”
Dr. Francis shook her head. “No…no. I thought the name sounded familiar, that is all.”
“And there is one other thing I intend to do while I am in your nation,” said Arran. “I am going to kill this man Wycliffe.”
Dr. Francis remained silent for a long time. “That is extremely dangerous. He will have bodyguards surrounding him at all times. If you killed him, the authorities would launch a national manhunt. In fact, I am breaking the law by not reporting you for threatening his life.”
“He destroyed my home for his own aggrandizement,” said Arran. “I will kill him, if the gods grant me the opportunity.”
“How do you even know for certain it was him?” said Dr. Francis.
“I know.” Arran thought of the Ildramyn’s second vision. “I am certain of it. Nothing say can convince you, but I am certain of it.”
Dr. Francis blew out a long breath. “So I have a potential presidential assassin sitting in my dining room. What I am to do with you?”
Arran shifted, his muscles tensing. “You will not report me to the authorities, will you?”
Dr. Francis shook her head. “No. Nothing for the sort. You did save my life. And I think betrayal is the worst of all sins.”
Arran thought of long-dead Rembiar. “You are right.”
She bit her lip, eyes glassy with thought. “I can help you, I think.”
“How?” said Arran.
“Many ways.” She waved a hand at him. “Look at your clothes, your weapons. You clearly are not an American. I can help you, give you clothes and money. Where have you been sleeping?”
“In the woods behind your house,” said Arran.
Dr. Francis blinked. “No wonder you happened to chance by. You can stay here, in a real bed. And I have friends who know how to search for people. We can have them look for Alastarius and Lithon Scepteris.”
“You will aid me?” said Arran. Dr. Francis nodded. “Then I am grateful.”
“But first things are first.” She wrinkled her nose. “You are in dire need of a bath.”
Later, after Arran had fallen asleep in her guest room, Dr. Heloise Francis sat in the dining room that served her as a study and pondered.
She knew Arran had not told her the entire truth. But his story rang true. He had spoken with such simplicity and directness in his exhausted voice. She had always suspected Senator Wycliffe of corruption, and even warned Simon about working for him, years ago. But arms sales to a Third World country across the globe? Was that how Wycliffe had built his huge fortune? The very thought chilled her.
Simon and Katrina Wester’s mysterious experience with Wycliffe’s organization made sense now. Had they learned the truth about him? And what about the injuries they had suffered? Had Wycliffe tried to silence them? But that had been years ago. Simon and Katrina had children now, the girl Ally and the boy whose name Dr. Francis could not quite remember…
She gasped and leapt out her chair so fast her old knees creaked with protest.
“Oh my God.” She hurried across the room and scrabbled through a stack of papers. She pulled out a Christmas card from the Westers and pulled it open.
“Seasons Greetings,” she read, “from Simon, Katrina, Ally, and Lithon Wester.”
Dr. Francis sat back down, the card clutched in her hand. Simon and Katrina had adopted the children soon after quitting Wycliffe’s organization. She had spoken with Ally a few weeks ago. She remembered the girl’s strange accent.
It matched Arran Belphon’s.
Ally was eighteen or nineteen. That would have made her about ten when the Westers adopted her. Had she been born in another country, that was more than enough time to acquire a lifelong accent.
“Simon, Simon.” Dr. Francis leaned her forehead against the table. “What have you gotten yourself into?” Was he sheltering the deposed child monarch of a foreign nation? Was that why he had quit Wycliffe’s organization, to keep this Lord Marugon from finding the child?
Dr. Francis knew she was in far over her head.
She considered telling Arran Belphon about Simon and Katrina, but dismissed the idea as too dangerous. Despite his story, she knew little about the battered wanderer. He might wish Simon and his family harm. Yet Arran had saved her life, like some medieval knight rescuing an old woman from a pack of bandits.
Dr. Francis stood, returned to the card to the shelf, and made up her mind.
She would wait and see. She would not tell him about Lithon Wester, but would aid him in his search for Alastarius. Dr. Francis thought Arran a good, if hard, man, but would need more proof before she told him of Simon’s family.
Her mind settled, Dr. Francis returned to her books and notes. She had a lecture to prepare for tomorrow.
And then she would take Arran Belphon shopping.
Chapter 7 - A Stranger With A Sword
Anno Domini 2012
“There,” said Dr. Francis, stepping back. “You look a far sight better than when you first crossed my path, Mr. Belphon.”
Arran stared into the shop’s mirrors.
He hardly recognized himself.
His hair had been close-cropped, as was the fashion on this world, and his beard trimmed down. Dr. Francis had also purchased him new clothing, one of the dark suits so common to this world, with a white shirt and a tie of some sort of silk. The clothes felt strange, but loose and comfortable.
The tailor, a fat little man who smacked his lips, examined Arran with a critical eye. “Satisfied, sir?”
“Quite,” said Arran. He looked respectable, at least according to the standards of Earth. Perhaps he could move about unnoticed through Chicago.
The tailor picked up a bundle wrapped in brown paper. “Your old clothes, sir.” He looked disgusted. “Shall I burn them?”
“No,” said Dr. Francis, taking the bundle. “We’ll take them with us, thank you. And I’ll also take three more suits just like this, measured to his specifications.” The tailor brightened. “Have them delivered to my address once they’re ready.”
The tailor bobbed his head. “Yes, ma’am. This way, ma’am.”
Arran followed Dr. Francis into the street. “Thank you for the clothing, Doctor.”
Dr. Francis smiled. “Some clothing and food is a small price to pay for my life.” She glanced around. “Now where did we park?”
“Dr. Francis?” Arran pointed. Her blue jeep sat by the curb. “Your jeep is here.”
“Oh, of course.” Dr. Francis strode to the driver’s side and unlocked the door. “And it’s not a jeep.”
Arran nodded and opened the passenger door. “It…is a car, an automobile.” Dr. Francis had explained that to him. Apparently a jeep was only a certain kind of car.
“Quite right.” Dr. Francis started the vehicle. “Unless you’re in the Army, a jeep is only an expensive toy.” She pulled into traffic, and Arran watched the cars and vans drive past, like ants running the maze of the city. Dr. Francis reached down and turned a dial, and a voice issued from hidden speakers in the car.
Arran jumped. He still could not wrap his mind around the concept of radio.
“…Senator Wycliffe.” Arran listened to the female voice coming from the radio. “The latest poll indicates that Jones and Wycliffe have astonishing twelve point lead over their closest challenger. Most experts agree that Jones and Wycliffe are the frontrunners to win the White House. Election Day is one month and six days, and it looks like William Jones and Thomas Wycliffe have a good chance of becoming the first third-party President and Vice President of the…”
Arran growled. “That man is a murderer and a villain. He built his fortune on the blood of my nation.” He gritted his teeth. “That he should be loved by the people of your nation makes my blood boil. They are being deceived.”
“Politics, regrettably, is often the art of deception.”
Arran reached into the back seat. His Sacred Blades lay across the seat, while his guns had been hidden on the floor.
“What are you doing?” said Dr. Francis.
Arran fiddled with the gun belt. “If I adjust this, I believe I can conceal it beneath my coat.”
Dr. Francis’s fingers drummed against the steering wheel. “Is that really necessary?”
“Yes.” Arran slid out of his coat and looped the holster over his shoulder. He grunted in satisfaction. “Marugon’s agents are in this city. I will not meet them unarmed.” He reached back and pulled his Sacred Blade into the front seat. “I can claim this is a cane…”
The weapon trembled in his hand.
Dr. Francis glanced at him. “What is it?”
Arran spun around in his seat, scanning the traffic. Cars and vans and trucks of all descriptions shot past. The Sacred Blade’s trembling faded. He sighed and tucked the sword between his knees.
“What is it?” said Dr. Francis. “You look as if you’ve just seen a ghost.”
“It…” Arran chewed his lip. He knew from speaking with Dr. Francis that she did not believe in spirits or magic or a higher divine power. It was a delusion common to many on Earth, he had noticed. She would think him mad if he told her the truth. “There…was one of Marugon’s minions nearby. I’m certain of it.”
“How?” said Dr. Francis, frowning.
Arran closed his eyes. “They are called the winged ones, though the people of my land call them the winged devils. It is an apt description. For they are devils, wicked and murderous and lustful. The winged ones kill for pleasure, torture for entertainment. And women.” His hands clenched as he remembered the horrors he had seen. “There are no women among the winged ones. They kidnap women instead and rape them. Once the child is born they kill the woman.”
Or, more precisely, the newborn winged demon tore its way free from its mother.
“That’s absolutely dreadful,” said Dr. Francis.
Arran tapped the hilt of his sword. “I’ve killed two of them with this blade. And I almost died from my wounds the first time.” He looked her in the eye. “That is why I cannot go unarmed. For my protection, yes, but I am bound to fight the winged ones wherever I might find them.”
Dr. Francis stared out the window. “People have been disappearing, you know.”
“Always women, almost always poor. A single mother with four or five kids. Or a prostitute. Sometimes a homeless woman, or a visitor from out of town. The police think it’s a serial killer, someone like the Cleveland Strangler or Jack the Ripper.” She shook her head, expression angry. “But the police aren’t any good. They’ve never been able to catch this killer. Or killers, if you’re right.”
“The winged devils are predators,” said Arran.
“If you’re right, if Wycliffe brought these people here…God. To think he’s going to be vice president.”
They drove in silence for a while.
“Where are we going?” said Arran.
“My university,” said Dr. Francis. “It’s Wednesday. I have a class to teach this morning, and one in the afternoon yet.”
“Perhaps I should attend,” said Arran. “I might learn more your nation.”
Dr. Francis laughed. “I doubt it, unless you wish to observe the habits of lazy students. All my classes deal with ancient history, most of it on other continents.” Arran considered attending anyway. He wondered how this world had come to have guns, cars, radios, soda, cash registers, and the countless other wonders he had witnessed. But he could indulge his curiosity later.
“I shall go exploring,” said Arran, “and see if I can learn more of this man Wycliffe.”
Dr. Francis sighed. “Just try not to kill anyone.” She braked, signaled left, and turned. “But I thought your main task was to find Alastarius?”
“It is,” said Arran. He thought for a moment. “But I have not the slightest idea where to look. I can find Wycliffe. He is famous and well-known. And if I find Wycliffe, perhaps I can find Alastarius, and maybe even Lithon.”
Again a strange look came over Dr. Francis’s face. “Do as you think best.”
Dr. Francis watched Arran as he strode away, swinging his sheathed sword like a cane. He did not seem like an evil man. Perhaps she should tell him about Lithon and the Westers. But she remembered the way his eyes had blazed when he had spoken of the winged ones.
She slammed the car door and started the walk to her office. Arran Belphon might not be an evil man, but he was a violent one. He had come a long way in search of Alastarius and Lithon. Who knew what he would do once had found Lithon? Would Arran kidnap the boy and try to take him back to their native country?
Dr. Francis didn’t know.
“A little longer,” she muttered under her breath. “I’ll watch him for a little while longer. Then I’ll decide.”
Arran wandered through the grounds of Dr. Francis’s university. He talked to many students about Senator Wycliffe. Many people supported Wycliffe, and Arran did his best to conceal his anger. They did not understand the truth of the man.
He found no sign of either Lithon Scepteris or Alastarius.
Though he did discover the location of Senator Wycliffe’s Chicago business, a warehouse complex in the midst of the city’s South Side.
Ally trudged up the sidewalk to her dorm, her head pounding and her arms and muscles sore. The morning class at the studio had been exhausting. Some of her students were fat and slow from too much junk food and too much TV, but others brimmed over with energy. They challenged her, to say the least. Four hours of sleep a night did not help matters. Nineteen years old and she felt ancient. At least it was Saturday, and she could sleep all afternoon.
The dorm hallways were quiet and still. Ally wondered how many residents spent their Saturdays sleeping off their hangovers. Ally unlocked the door, kicked off her shoes, and collapsed onto her bed. She considered eating lunch and dismissed the idea. She wanted to sleep, not eat. She didn’t care if it meant a thousand nightmares, she wanted to sleep.
She closed her eyes, and her iPhone started beeping
Ally glared at it, and almost muted it. But Simon had lectured her more than once about ignoring her phone. She sighed and lifted it to her ear. “Hello?”
Ally rubbed her eyes. “Yeah, that’s me.”
Ally grinned. “Mary?” She sat up. “How have you been?”
“I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday,” said Mary. She laughed. “Well, sort of.”
“What do you mean, sort of?” said Ally, laughing back. “You going to wish me a happy birthday or not?”
“Your parents keep telling me that October 1st wasn’t your real birthday,” said Mary. “And they won’t explain why.”
“Oh. That.” Ally rubbed her forehead. “When they adopted us, they didn’t know when our birthdays were. So they picked. I got October 1st. Lithon got November 1st.”
Mary giggled. “That makes sense, I guess. Why both of them on the first day of the month?”
“Easier to remember,” said Ally, “at least, that’s what Dad always said. And I went first because I’m older.”
“So how does it feel to be nineteen?”
Ally snorted. “You tell me. You turned nineteen back in August.”
Mary thought it over. “Well…it feels a lot like eighteen. Except my back hurts. But that’s because I’m working more. But how do you feel to be nineteen?”
“You know, I’m not even sure I’m really nineteen. I could be twenty-two, for all I know.”
Mary laughed. “You could be old enough to drink.”
Ally rolled her eyes. “Big deal.”
“Yeah. You’re right. You could wind up with a guy like Nathan if you did that.” She hesitated. “Did you hear about him?”
Ally frowned. “No. God, Mary, don’t tell me you want to get back together with that bastard…”
“No! I’m not that stupid, Ally. It’s something else. He disappeared.”
Ally blinked. “He disappeared?”
“Sometime over the summer, I guess. He just vanished one day. The police came and interviewed me about him. I told them I wouldn’t mind if he got run over by a cement truck, but I don’t know what happened to him.”
Ally grunted. “He was supposed to have his sentencing in the first week of September, wasn’t he?”
“He probably ran for it. To the Yukon, if he’s smart.” Ally paused. “Except he’s not smart. So he could be anywhere.”
“Yeah, but he didn’t take any of his stuff with him,” said Mary. “The police told me. His stereo, his magazines, his clothes. That crappy old truck of his was still there. He just vanished.”
“Wow.” Ally thought about it. “You know what? I bet he went someplace by himself and accidentally overdosed. They’ll probably find his body in forty or fifty years.”
“I hope he did,” said Mary. “Good riddance.”
“Yeah,” said Ally, remembering their fight on that May night. And that strange flash of white light that had overpowered Nathan. “Good riddance. I guess a lot of people have been disappearing. You be careful.”
“You too,” said Mary. “But I don’t have to tell you that. Anyone tries to kidnap you, they’ll get a broken arm for their efforts.” She giggled. “Isn’t this just awful? I called you up to say happy birthday and we wind up talking about Nathan and kidnappings and drugs.”
Ally snorted. “A happy birthday, indeed.”
“Oh! I almost forgot. Are your parents doing anything for your birthday?”
“Yeah.” Ally shifted the phone to her other ear. “We’re going out to eat sometime this week. Thursday night, I think, after Dad’s last class.” She hesitated. “My parents don’t mind that you’re still living with them, do they?”
“What?” said Mary. “Oh, no, no. It’s great. It’s…a better home life than I’ve ever had. You’re really lucky, Ally.”
“I know,” said Ally.
“But you know, I thought they would be getting irritable by now,” said Mary. “But they’re not. Just between you and me, I think your Dad secretly wants another daughter, but your Mom doesn’t want to have more kids.”
Ally laughed. “She has a horror of childbirth.”
“And I think they really miss you, too,” said Mary. “So I guess it’s empty nest syndrome or whatever. Your dad talks to me all the time. And your mom gives me stuff from her books to proofread.”
Ally looked at her empty dorm room. “I miss being at home. I thought I’d really like living in the dorm…but it hasn’t worked out that way. Maybe I’ll move back home after this semester.”
“That would be cool,” said Mary. “Oh! Before I forget again. Let’s go out to supper.”
“Tonight?” said Ally. “All right. I don’t have anything I have to do tonight. Do you know where I live?”
“Yup,” said Mary. “I’ll be by at…six? Is that okay?”
“That’s great,” said Ally. She could get five hours of sleep. “I’ll see you then.”
“Bye,” said Ally. She ended the call and promptly fell asleep.
Ally waited in front of the dorm’s front doors, humming to herself. She turned, examined her reflection in the plate glass of the door, and checked her hair. She had showered and changed after her nap, putting on khakis, a white buttoned shirt, and a denim jacket. Mary wouldn’t care what she looked like. But Ally hadn’t gone out and had fun for what seemed like an eternity.
Besides, sometimes it was fun to look nice.
Shoes clicked against concrete, and Mary walked up the sidewalk, squinting at the dorm.
Mary looked up, grinned, and hugged her.
“Ally! Happy birthday!”
“Thanks,” said Ally.
“Do you really live on the fifth floor?” said Mary, stepping back. She still looked too thin, having never gained back the weight she had lost over the summer. But she looked stronger. Having a job had done her good.
Mary made a face. “That must be a pain, walking up and down those stairs every day.”
“Not really,” said Ally. “Good exercise, keeps you in shape.”
Mary snorted. “Like, whatever. You’re in such good shape that you don’t need to keep in shape. Let’s go, I think I’m parked illegally.”
Ally laughed. “Then we’d better hurry up. Campus security is anal about parking." A huge old Buick stood double-parked in the lot behind the dorm. “That’s your car?”
“Yup,” said Mary. Ally let herself in and sat down on the frayed upholstery.
“You’re fifty years too young to be driving a car like this.” She pointed at the radio. “I feel like we should be listening to Lawrence Welk or Bob Hope or something.”
Mary snickered. “Well, yeah, but it’s in one piece, it was cheap, and it runs well.” She stuck the key into the ignition and tried to start the car. The engine roared and failed to turn over. “Well, pretty good shape.” The car coughed to life, and Mary pulled into traffic. “Where do you want to go?”
Ally shrugged. “Wherever you want is fine.”
Mary shook her head. “No, no, it’s your birthday. We’ll go where you want.”
Ally rolled her eyes. “We did this all through high school, remember? I’d say that we can go where you want to go, and you’d say we can go where I want to go, and it’d take a half hour before we could decide.”
Mary giggled. “I remember! Bill would usually complain until we went someplace.” She frowned. “How is Bill, anyway? Have you heard from him?”
“Yeah,” said Ally. “We talk on Facebook a lot.”
“How’s he like it at…where did he go?”
Ally laughed. “MIT.”
“I knew that.”
“Well, he absolutely loves it. It’s super competitive, but you know how Bill thrives on that sort of thing. He goes on and on about stuff like Boolean logic and Moore’s Law and Aristotelian syllogisms as related to programming architecture.” Ally paused. “I have absolutely no idea what any of it means.”
“Sounds like computer geek heaven.” Mary laughed. “What’s he studying for?”
Ally thought about it. “He explained it to me once. I have absolutely no idea.”
Mary laughed again. “Okay. So, we better decide where we’re going. I’m driving in circles here.”
Ally shrugged. “You decide.”
Mary gave her a look. “Ally Wester, it’s your birthday, and you’ll decide.”
Ally rolled her eyes. “Fine! Turn right at the stop sign coming up.”
Mary complied. “Where are we going?”
“There’s this coffeehouse I go to every now and then,” said Ally. Thankfully, the Gracchan student had not returned since. “It’s pretty nice. They have good food, for a coffeehouse. And it’s cheap, too.”
Mary nodded. “I’m entirely in favor of cheap.”
“So Bill really has a girlfriend?” said Mary.
Ally opened the coffeehouse door. “Actually, he’s had two in the last month.”
Mary looked astonished. “Two? You have to be kidding me.”
Students at the coffeehouse’s tables in groups, studying or typing on laptops. An empty booth on the far wall caught her eye. Ally led Mary through the crowd and they sat down.
“Is it always this crowded?” said Mary.
“I don’t know.” Ally looked over the crowd. “I’ve never been here on a Saturday before.”
“Do we order at the counter?”
”Yup,” said Ally, and they ordered their dinner and returned to the booth.
“Two girlfriends?” said Mary, reaching for her ham sandwich. “You have to tell me more.”
“What? Oh, Bill.” Ally unwrapped her sandwich. “I guess he met his current girlfriend at an all-night Dungeons and Dragons tournament. Or something like that, anyway.”
Mary laughed. “Figures. Maybe they get together and play Warcraft.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” said Ally.
Mary hesitated. “So how have you been?”
Ally blinked. “Me? I’m fine. I pulled a muscle at the studio the other day, but it’s getting better. At lot of stuff with school’s a pain,” she thought of the incident with the registrar’s office, “but it’s all going well. I don’t think I’m going to flunk anything, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Mary fidgeted. “You look tired, that’s all.”
Ally shrugged. “Welcome to college, right? You’re only going to school part-time, but Katrina tells me you sometimes stay up till one finishing stuff.”
“Yeah, but that’s different.” Mary bit her lip. “I could go to sleep if I wanted to.”
“So could I.”
Mary shook her head. “I think you’re having those dreams again, worse than before.”
Ally sat up straighter. “I am not!”
Mary looked her in the eye. “I think you are. You even had them when we were in Europe. Sometimes you would stay up reading or watching TV or something, but I knew you didn’t want to sleep.”
Ally looked away. “All right. So maybe I do have nightmares. So what? Everyone has nightmares. You had a few big ones after what happened with Nathan.”
“I did,” said Mary, her voice gentle, “but I got over it. Maybe you should go talk to somebody about them…
Ally felt her teeth grind together. “I don’t want to talk about it with anyone, okay? I don’t!” Her voice rose to a shout, and Mary flinched.
“I’m sorry,” said Mary. “I’m just worried about you.”
Ally sighed. “No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. It’s just…the dreams scare me, you know?”
“I understand,” said Mary.
Ally shook her head. “No, you don’t, not really. It’s like…it’s like they’re memories from somebody else’s life. Bad memories. Sometimes…I think some of it is stuff I’ve forgotten from when I was a little kid. Before I got adopted. And sometimes I’m flying over the city. It’s like having visions.”
“Maybe you’re psychic,” said Mary. “Like Bill always said, right?”
“I don’t know,” said Ally. “I really don’t.”
“Maybe you need a boyfriend,” said Mary.
Ally gave her an incredulous stare. “What?”
“A boyfriend,” said Mary, grinning.
“I can’t believe you, of all people, are telling me to get a boyfriend,” said Ally. “I’d have thought you would have sworn off men forever.”
“Well, you know,” said Mary. “But not all men are like Nathan, thank God.”
“I’d hope so, anyway,” said Ally.
Mary swirled her soda with her straw. “I think a lot of men are like Nathan. But there are good men out there.” She smiled. “Maybe that’s what you need. A good man.”
Ally rolled her eyes. “God. I can’t understand why people think that way. Next thing I know you’ll be telling me to get married and have two or three kids.”
“Maybe you need to get out more,” said Mary. “I mean, what do you spend all your time doing? Homework, work, homework, work. That’s got to get boring after a while. Go out and have some fun.”
Ally grinned. “Isn’t that what we’re doing right now?”
“Yes, but do it more often,” said Mary. She waved her hand at the crowded tables. “Here’s a challenge for you.”
“Go up to any guy, any guy at all, and hit up a conversation,” said Mary.
Ally frowned. “Why?”
“Something new, something different,” said Mary. “Who knows? You might even meet someone you like.”
Ally rolled her eyes. “That’s the worst idea I’ve heard all night. You remember what high school boys were like? College boys are just like that, except they drink more beer.”
“Oh, come on,” said Mary. “It’s not like you have to give him your phone number or even your name. Just talk to him.” She pointed. “How about that guy? The one in the blue shirt.”
“No,” said Ally. “He’s with three other girls.”
“Okay, then,” said Mary. She gestured at a lone student sitting in a booth, reading a book. “How about him?”
“No,” said Ally. “He’s probably doing homework and doesn’t want to be interrupted.”
Mary snickered. “I never thought you would be timid. How about…” She frowned. “No, not him. He looks a little old.”
“Who?” Ally frowned.
Mary waved her fingers. “That guy. The one who just came in.”
Ally peered into the crowd. A man in his early thirties strode with a slow step to the counter. He had close-cropped dark hair and wore a new suit.
“What a weird-looking cane,” said Mary.
“I’ll say,” said Ally. The cane looked like a medieval sword in its scabbard, the wood and metal gleaming and polished. An odd itch tugged at the back of Ally’s mind. Both the cane and its owner looked familiar, though Ally did not recognize either.
“Ally?” Mary leaned forward. “You okay? You’ve got that weird look again.”
“I do not get weird looks,” said Ally. Her eyes remained fixed on the man.
He stopped, as if he felt her gaze, and looked in her direction. His face was lean, almost gaunt, and dark eyes glittered in deep sockets. He looked weary and weathered, yet an intense light showed in his eyes. Ally met his stare without blinking. He watched her for a moment, then turned away.
“God,” said Mary. “That was weird.”
“I’ll say,” said Ally. Odd memories flashed across her mind. She remembered an old man with a child in a harness across his back. He carried two canes…
No, not canes.
Swords that burned.
“I hope you’re not thinking about talking to him,” said Mary. “He’s kind of handsome, yeah, but he looks nuts.”
“That cane,” said Ally.
“What about it?”
Ally stood. “I’ve seen it before. I don’t know where. And it’s not really a cane at all.”
“What is it?”
Mary’s eyes got wide. “You mean that’s really a sword? Jesus, Ally, then that guy is nuts. Don’t go talk to him.”
“I have to,” said Ally, starting across the room.
“Oh, God.” Mary climbed to her feet and followed her.
Ally strode to the counter. The man stood before the register, leaning on his false cane. He turned at her approach, his face expressionless and calm.
“Hi,” said Ally.
“Greetings,” said the man. He had an odd accent. “What do you wish of me?”
“Your cane,” said Ally.
The man almost smiled. “It is not for sale.”
“I don’t care,” said Ally. “I know it’s not a cane. It’s a sword.” The man’s eyes did not leave her face. “And I want to see it.”
“Sir?” The cashier held a tray out to him. “Sir, your food’s ready.”
The man considered her, his eyes and face unreadable.
“Sir?” said the cashier, annoyance filtering into his tone.
“Very well.” The man tucked his cane under his arm and took the tray. “Come with me.”
Mary hurried to her side. “Where are we going?”
Ally followed the man through the crowd, her eyes fixed on the sword cane. “I’m going to see his sword.”
Mary rolled her eyes. “Oh, God, Ally. Don’t tell me you actually walked up to him and asked to see his sword. That’s an opening if I’ve ever heard one.”
The man settled in a booth, and Ally sat across from him. Mary squirmed in besides her. The man picked up an apple from his tray and took a bite. “And why are you so adamant about seeing my sword?”
Ally had never seen the weapon before in her life, but it seemed so familiar. A dozen contradictory thoughts warred in her mind. “I…I don’t know. I just have to.”
The man took another bite and swallowed. “As you wish, then.” He tucked the scabbard between his knees, drew the sword, and laid it flat on the table between them.
“My God,” muttered Mary.
Ally’s eyes wandered over the leather-wrapped hilt and the crosspiece. A deep crimson stain marked the blade. “That’s blood.”
“Oh my God,” said Mary.
“Aye,” said the man. A glaze seemed to come over his eyes. “The blood of a dear friend.”
Ally swallowed. “So you’ve…killed people with this?”
“More than I care to remember.”
Ally’s fingers curled around the hilt. “It feels so warm.” A faint heat seeped through the metal, and she lifted the weapon. “And so light.” Her father was an ancient historian and her mother taught martial arts. She had handled swords before. But she had never held such a well-balanced blade.
A flicker of surprise went through the man’s face. “You can lift that?”
“Yeah.” Ally set the sword down. “It’s not that heavy.”
The man leaned forward, his dark eyes keen with curiosity. “Who are you?”
“Don’t answer him, Ally,” said Mary. “He’s carrying around a bloody sword. This guy’s crazy.”
The man’s lips quirked in a smile. “Quite right. But you’ve just told me her name. Ally.”
Mary groaned. “I am such an idiot.”
“It’s okay,” said Ally. Something about this man was so familiar to Ally. She could not place the memory, but she did not think he would harm them. “Who are you, then?”
“I am Arran Belphon.”
“Where are you from?” said Mary, eyes narrowed. “You’ve got a funny accent.”
Arran unwrapped his sandwich and took a bite. “A far country. You would not know it.”
“Try me,” said Ally.
Arran set down his sandwich. “Very well. Carlisan, greatest of the High Kingdoms.”
Mary hesitated. “Isn’t that in the UK?”
“Carlisan,” whispered Ally. A memory hovered at her fingertips, just out of reach. “Carlisan. I’ve heard that before, haven’t I? I must have. But I’ve never heard of it.”
Arran watched her. “You know of it?”
“I…I don’t know.” Ally shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Arran leaned closer. “What of the other High Kingdoms? Rindl. Narramore. Antarese. Amnisos. Do you remember their names?”
Every one of the names tugged something deep within Ally’s mind, a pang of sorrow and regret and pain. “I don’t know.” She rubbed the heels of her hands against her forehead. “There’s something…why I can’t I remember?”
“Stop it,” said Mary, glaring at Arran. “Do you know her?”
Arran blinked. “No. I’ve never seen her before in my life.”
“Then stop asking her those stupid questions,” said Mary. “She’s never been to Carlisan, or wherever you’re from, so she wouldn’t know about it.”
A thousand images swirled in Ally’s mind, merging and clicking and fusing. For a moment she saw him walking, trudging across the length and breadth of a continent, laden down with weapons. Had she seen him in one of her dreams? “What do you want?”
“What do I want?” said Arran. “You approached me, did you not?”
Ally shook her head. “No, no. Not that. Why are you here? You came a long way to be here, didn’t you?” Arran gave her a slow nod. “So why did you come?”
Arran hesitated. “Do you…know of a man named Senator Thomas Wycliffe?”
A jolt went down Ally’s spine. She remembered what her parents had told of her Wycliffe. Now this dark man with a bloody sword had appeared, asking about him. “Some. Everyone in the country knows about him. He’s running for vice president.” She remembered hearing him speak at the honors dinner, the way his voice had grated on her ears. “There’s something not right about him. Maybe he’s a criminal. I don’t know.”
“A criminal.” Arran’s voice was bitter. “Yes, I would say he is a criminal. He sold guns to rebels in my homeland.”
“What?” said Ally. Senator Wycliffe was an arms smuggler?
“Yes,” said Arran. “He sold guns and bombs to a…criminal from my nation, a man called Lord Marugon…”
Ally almost fell out of her seat.
“What did you say?” she whispered.
An electric twist of memory shot through her mind. She felt herself sweating.
“Ally?” said Mary, gripping her arm. “Are you okay? Ally!”
A thousand images blasted through her mind in rapid succession. She remembered the dream of the iron claws ripping her flesh. Other memories danced through her mind. There was a van chase, winged nightmares, and a man in a black robe. The man’s face, pale with bottomless black eyes, flashed before her mind. She had seen him in her dreams.
She had seen him in the parking lot of a conference center, the night her parents had told her about Wycliffe.
“Is she ill?” said Arran to Mary.
“I don’t know,” said Mary. “Ally? Are you okay?”
Ally shuddered once, folded her arms around herself, and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Really.”
“You’re really scaring me,” said Mary.
“I scare myself,” whispered Ally. She had to ask her parents about her past. But some part of her, a large part of her, wanted the past to remain buried.
“I apologize,” said Arran. “I have caused you distress.”
Ally gave him a wan smile. “It’s not your fault. I have the distress within me, I suppose.” She shivered. “Marugon. I have never heard that name before in my life.” The torrent of images threatened to break free. “But I know it…I know it.”
Arran slid the sword back into its scabbard. “Perhaps you heard the name in your youth and have forgotten it since.”
“I suppose that it’s possible,” said Ally. She thought of the forgotten years of her life and pushed the thought away. “But…but I don’t know when.”
Arran leaned forward, his dark eyes glinting. “Who are you?”
“Don’t tell him,” said Mary, looking back and forth between them. “I still think he’s nuts. I still think we shouldn’t be talking to him.”
“I’m…Ally,” said Ally, pushing a lock of hair from her eyes. Arran’s intense gaze did not waver. “Ally Wester.”
“But who are you really?” he said, searching her face.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“There’s something about you.” Arran shook his head. “I don’t know what. You should not have been able to lift a Sacred Blade. And you recognize me. I see it in your face.” He grew more animated as he spoke, a light coming on his eyes. “I am searching for some people. You might know one of them.”
Ally shook her head, trying to sort through the terrible confusion. “I don’t know you. I’ve never seen you before in my life.” She did not look away. “But…but you’re right. I do recognize you. I just don’t know how.”
“Oh, God.” Mary’s hand tightened around her arm. “I used to fall for that kind of thing all the time. We should go.”
“Wait,” said Arran. “Two men. Sir Liam Mastere and Alastarius. Have you ever met any of them?”
Mary frowned at him. “Sir Liam? We don’t know any knights or lords or anything like that.” Her scowl deepened. “Leave her alone. You’re upsetting her. Can’t you see that?”
“Sir Liam,” whispered Ally. A deep surge of grief filled her at the name. “I don’t know…I might have…I…I can’t really say…”
A muscle in Arran’s face trembled. “Do you know where they are?”
“That’s it.” Mary slid out of the booth and pushed Ally to her feet. “We’re going. There’s something wrong with this guy. I don’t know what it is.”
“Please.” Arran came to his feet in a single fluid motion. He would, Ally realized through her daze, make a splendid martial artist. “I must speak with her further. It is vital.”
“No goddamn way.” Mary waved a finger in Arran’s face. “She saved me when I got stupid over a guy, and I’m going to do the same for her. You’re bad news. I don’t know who the hell you are, carrying around a bloody sword, but you’re nuts. It wouldn’t surprise me if you had a gun under that coat.” Arran flinched. “Come on, Ally, we’re going right now.” She took Ally’s arm and pulled her towards the door.
“Wait,” said Arran, stepping towards them.
Ally stared at him. But her muscles had no strength in them. Mary pulled her outside and into her car, and they drove away.
Ally stared out the back window. She saw Arran staring after them.
“Are you okay?” said Mary for the thousandth time, pacing the dorm room.
Ally rolled her eyes. “Mary, I’m fine,” she lied. “And stop pacing. You’re going to drive me crazy.”
“Sorry.” Mary sat down on the empty bed. “Sorry. It’s just…I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I’ve never seen you like that, Ally.”
“What do you mean?”
Mary picked up a pen from the desk and fidgeted with it. “You just went all to pieces when he said those strange names.”
“Sir Liam,” said Ally. Again the strange grief tugged at her. “Alastarius. Marugon.” A deep dread filled her, soaking into her very bones.
Mary sighed. “You’ve always been the strong one. And…I’ve never seen you like that. It really scared me.”
Ally gave a lazy shrug. “Maybe I really do need a boyfriend.”
Mary gaped at her. “Don’t…don’t tell me you were attracted to that guy?”
“He is handsome,” said Ally. “But I could care less.” She stared at the blue carpet. “There’s something about him, though. He’s…scarred, I think, in mind and body both. I’ll bet he’s been through a lot.”
“Whatever,” said Mary. “Just promise me you won’t fall in love with him or something, okay?”
Ally laughed. “Okay, okay, I promise.”
“Who do you think he was, really?”
“I don’t know.” Ally didn’t lift her gaze from the floor. “I really don’t.”
“Maybe…maybe he was someone who knew you from before? You know, from before your mom and dad adopted you.”
Ally had never considered that. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen him before.”
“But you said you recognized him,” Mary said. “And you don’t remember anything that happened before you were ten or so, right? Maybe…you knew him when you were a little kid.”
“I might have.” Ally blew out a sigh.
“Maybe you should ask your parents.” Mary’s voice was gentle. “You never did ask them about your adoption, did you? Then maybe it’s time.”
“Maybe,” said Ally.
They sat in silence.
Mary got to her feet and picked up her purse. “I’d better go. It’s past midnight and I have early work tomorrow.”
Ally got up. “I’m sorry.”
“That the night went so bad. You went to all this trouble and we both wound up freaking out over some stranger in a coffeehouse.”
Mary laughed. “It’s not your fault.” She gave Ally a hug. “Happy birthday.”
Mary stepped back. “And you take care of yourself, okay? I worry about you.”
Ally nodded. “I will. I promise.” Mary smiled one last time and let herself out. Ally stared at her iPhone. She could call her parents right now and demand the truth. They had been promising to tell her for years. Her trembling hand picked up the iPhone. Memories flashed through her mind, the strange visions that often haunted her sleep.
Ally put down the phone, dressed for bed, and went to sleep.
She didn’t want to know.
Chapter 8 - Night Hunting
Anno Domini 2012
“Thank you, driver.” The bus driver nodded, and Arran stepped into the night.
Crumbling brick warehouses stood all around the dark street, the only illumination coming from a few scattered streetlamps. Rusted chain-link fences ringed the warehouses, and tangled shadows lay like weeds in the darkness. Arran climbed over one of the fences and landed besides a pile of splintered crates.
He pulled out his sword belt from beneath his coat, lashed it through his Sacred Blade’s scabbard, and buckled it around his waist. He holstered one pistol on his left hip, keeping the other hidden beneath his coat. He paused long enough to check his weapons and his ammunition, and then started moving.
Arran slipped into the darkness, sliding from shadow to shadow. He wore a long dark overcoat in the fashion of Chicago instead of his cloak, but the coat mixed well with the shadows. He had donned his worn old boots, though, since the shoes Dr. Francis had purchased him made too much noise against the concrete.
He planned to remain unnoticed.
Arran darted from shadow to shadow, his thoughts chasing each other in a tangled whirl.
Who was the young woman he had met at the house of the coffee merchant?”
A group of young men walked towards him, laughing and talking. Arran slid behind a lamppost and waited for them to pass. They took no notice of him, and Arran shook his head in disgust. The people of Chicago were oblivious to their surroundings. He could have walked up those young men, drawn his weapon, and killed them all before they even looked up.
They had grown too used to peace and prosperity.
No wonder such a man as Thomas Wycliffe had grown so powerful among them.
Arran hurried along the deserted lanes of Chicago’s warehouse district, trying to keep his thoughts on the task before him. But his mind kept returning to Ally Wester. He had no doubt she was an unusual young woman. Lovely, true, and her eyes held the same glint of intelligence that he had seen in Dr. Francis. But that was not unusual.
Yet she had lifted his Sacred Blade without any apparent effort.
Only a Knight of the Order of the Sacred Blade, anointed and sworn, could lift a Sacred Blade. A true Wizard could lift a Sacred Blade as well, through their studies of the white magic. Yet neither explanation made sense.
Who was she?
Arran had never seen her before, yet she had recognized him and his Sacred Blade. He had seen the tortured confusion on her face. Could she have come from Carlisan? Perhaps she had been abducted as a child, taken to Earth, and then escaped through some accident?
Arran crept along a brick wall as he tried to think.
It had been almost eleven years since Marugon had unleashed the horrors of Earth’s weapons on the High Kingdoms. Ally Wester looked about twenty years of age. Perhaps she had been abducted at the age of nine or ten?
Arran stopped. “Sir Liam.”
She had reacted to his name, even if she had claimed not to recognize it. How could she have known him? Sir Liam had perished in the Tower…
His breath hissed through his clenched teeth. He remembered standing before the spectral caretaker in the Chamber of the Dead, the endless sarcophagi stretching into the darkness. The caretaker had told him that Sir Liam traveled in the company of a mortal girl. She had vanished through the doors to Earth, carrying Lithon in her arms. But that had been years ago. The mortal girl would be a young woman by now…
Arran nodded to himself.
Could Ally Wester have carried Lithon to Earth? She had recognized the Sacred Blade, she had reacted to Sir Liam’s name, and he had seen the terror on her face at the mention of Marugon’s accursed name.
His mind burned with the conclusion. She knew where to find Lithon Scepteris, the King of Carlisan.
He turned, intending to rush back the house of the coffee merchant. Someone there had to know her. He would track her down. And if that failed, he could have Dr. Francis use the strange machine she called the “Internet” to find her.
But suppose she did not want to be found? Senator Wycliffe and his minions lived in Chicago. Winged demons roamed the streets disguised as men. And Lord Marugon himself was in the city, somewhere. It had been Sir Liam’s entire plan to hide Lithon on Earth, to keep the King safe from Marugon’s dark grasp. Suppose Ally had traveled with Sir Liam long enough to learn his plan? Yet Sir Liam had been slain in the Tower, and a girl and a toddler could not survive on their own. Someone must have taken them in and hidden them away, keeping them unnoticed under Wycliffe's and Marugon’s very noses.
No wonder he had frightened Ally. She must have thought him one of Marugon’s servants, despite his Sacred Blade.
He turned once more and continued towards his original destination. He would track Ally Wester down, but with greater care. Perhaps he could speak with her adoptive family or her husband. Most likely her family, since the women of Earth often married much later than those of Carlisan.
Arran stopped, his face hardening.
The warehouse complex of Senator Thomas Wycliffe had come into sight.
It sprawled over dozens of acres, crouching behind a high brick wall crowned with barbed wire. Electric lights cast swathes of illumination over the warehouses. It was past midnight, yet Arran heard the hum and clang of machinery through the walls. A huge truck pulled up to the gate, its lights flashing. The gate slid aside with a chattering clang.
Tarrager had described “Earth” as a huge room filled with boxes. This place must be it, must be Marugon’s stronghold on Earth, a fortress built to defend the door to the Tower of Endless Worlds. Wycliffe brought the guns and bombs here, and Marugon took them back through the Tower.
Arran wanted to storm forward, guns blazing, and rip this vile place to shreds. But he would fail. Wycliffe’s retainers would defend the fortress, and the winged demons lurked in the shadows here. And perhaps the complex housed even Lord Marugon himself. Arran could not hope to stand against such dark power.
He turned, hurried across the streets, and slipped back into the shadows.
No, revenge for the High Kingdoms could wait. He had come here to spy.
The warehouse across the street was abandoned, its windows broken and boarded. In fact, the entire district surrounding the complex seemed empty and desolate. Arran climbed up the abandoned warehouse’s wall, finding handholds with ease in the broken brick. He reached the roof and spread himself flat, staring at the warehouses. Arran reached into his coat and retrieved the binoculars he had purchased at a sporting goods supply store. He had purchased many useful items at the store, including a sharp knife, a good whetstone, and an ample supply of bullets for his weapons. He pried the lens caps from the binoculars and raised the device to his eyes.
The binoculars still amazed him. They were not magical, the merchant had assured him, but a simple arrangement of powerful lenses. Arran had seen a telescope in his youth, a huge brass thing brought on a ship from the south. Yet this device had many times the magnification power of the brass telescope.
Arran swept his binoculars over the complex. He saw stacks of crates and pallets strewn around the warehouses, workingmen in dark coveralls using machinery to move metal boxes, and trucks rolling back and forth. The complex had to handle an enormous amount of freight. All the stories he had heard agreed that Wycliffe had made his wealth as a shipper. No doubt he used his legitimate businesses as cover for weapons smuggling.
Arran wanted to slip inside and look around. A guard booth stood at the side of the front gate. The front gate was no doubt guarded, but perhaps he could find an easier way into the complex…
Arran froze. A winged demon sat in the guard booth.
It had disguised itself as a man. A huge bushy beard covered its face and its yellow fangs. Dark mirrored glasses hid its burning eyes, and jacket of black leather hid its wings, though the demon sat with a marked slouch. Arran shifted the binoculars’ gaze to the well-lit complex. His stomach tightened. He saw more of the winged demons in their slouching disguises, patrolling the complex’s grounds. So much for creeping into Wycliffe’s complex. Human security, even with the machines of Earth, did not daunt him. But the winged demons were dangerous foes. At least Arran now knew beyond any doubt that Senator Wycliffe served Marugon…
His Sacred Blade jolted in its scabbard.
Arran dropped back to the roof, his hand clenching around the sword’s hilt. He scanned the sky, looking for winged shapes, but saw nothing. He considered drawing his sword and decided against it. The sword’s glow might draw unwanted attention.
Something scraped beneath him.
Someone was in the abandoned warehouse. A man-sized hole yawned in the roof, perhaps a dozen yards from where he stood. Arran dropped to his belly and crawled to the edge of the hole, taking care to remain silent. He reached the hole and peered over the edge. There was not much light, but Arran saw a hulking winged shape standing beside a stack of crates. It was only a short distance to the ground. Arran could spring from the roof, land behind the creature, and plunge his Sacred Blade through its chest before it even turned…
The winged demon turned. “So. Did you find the miserable bit of trash?”
Two more hulking shapes strode into sight, their burning eyes glaring in the gloom. “Gah.” The voice was gargling snarl. “We have hunted for three hours. I found no sign of the wretch.”
“I as well,” said the first winged demon. “We shall not find the vermin. There are ten thousand places to hide in these warehouses, as we well know.” A vicious chuckle rose up from the demons. “Let it terrorize the humans of the city. I cannot fathom a better use for it.”
The second winged demon hissed. “I fail to see what use Lord Marugon has for them.”
The first winged demon stepped forward, its wings spreading in a menacing shadow. “You question King Goth-Mar-Dan?”
The second demon growled like a mad wolf. “The King does not care for the stinking beasts any more than we do. I think Lord Marugon created the creatures as an experiment, but he has no use for them. It’s that mewling Lord Wycliffe that uses them.”
“Lord Wycliffe. Bah!” The first demon’s eyes flared, illuminating the pale skin of its face. “That wretched schemer is no more a Warlock than I.”
“A fool,” agreed the second demon. “It is amusing, though. He does not realize he is naught more than Lord Marugon’s patsy.” The creature growled. “Yet Lord Wycliffe thinks to give us commands! Why King Goth-Mar-Dan permits it, I shall never understand.”
The third winged demon spoke. “Yet service on this world is not so onerous. We have all the flesh and all the women we could ever desire. And there are no Knights or Wizards here to persecute us.”
The first winged demon chuckled. “Aye, there are no Knights here,” its laughter rose, “because we slew them all!” The winged demons roared with laughter, and Arran’s fingers tightened against his sword hilt.
“Let us hunt,” said the second of the winged demons. Two of them disappeared into the shadows of the warehouse. The third flapped its dark wings and took to the air, soaring for the hole in the ceiling. Arran flinched as the demon rocketed past him, climbing into the sky. He tensed, ready to leap to his feet and draw his Sacred Blade. But the winged demon did not notice him. It banked to the left and disappeared over the city. A few moments later the other two appeared in the sidewalk.
Arran blew out a long breath and got to his feet. He climbed down the side of the warehouse, wrapped his coat around him, and made for the bus stop. Part of him wanted to hunt down the winged demons, even as they hunted the people of Chicago. But he knew it was folly. He could not fight them all. And if he tried, they would recognize his Sacred Blade. Marugon would know a Knight had survived, and his hunt for Arran might well lead him to Lithon.
Arran hopped a fence and crossed the abandoned yard of a crumbling factory. Something moved, and Sacred Blade trembled in its scabbard.
Arran froze, his eyes scanning the wreckage. Had one of the winged demons followed him? He drew his sword and waited, the weapon giving off a pale white glow. The sword usually burned brighter at a creature of black magic’s approach.
A dark shape crept out from behind a rusted machine and shambled forward.
The thing had leathery, gray skin, claws dangling from the ends of its spindly arms and legs. A long black tongue lashed at the air, rubbing against twisted fangs, and its eyes burned with a faint red glow.
“What manner of devil are you?” said Arran. He drew one of his guns, fitted it with the silencer he had purchased, and leveled it at the creature.
The creature lunged at him, claws slicing at the air.
Arran squeezed the trigger. Three shots smacked into the creature, and it gibbered in pain and stumbled back. Arran took aim for the head and fired again. The bullet slammed into the creature’s forehead.
It staggered, shook itself, and lunged at Arran.
He cursed and hopped back, bringing his Sacred Blade up. The creature flinched from the blade’s glow, and Arran whirled and launched a blurring slash at the thing’s neck. It tried to dodge, raising its hands to block, but Arran’s blow sliced two fingers from its hand. The creature wailed in agony, clutching its maimed hand. Arran raised his sword for the kill, but the creature turned and fled, moving with incredible speed. Its agonized gibbering rose into the night He cursed, looked down at the ground, and froze.
Human blood stained the concrete. The creature had bled human blood. He remembered the seeking spirit he and Sir Liam had fought in the Mountains of Rindl. The Warlocks could use their dark powers to transform men and women, changing them into hideous beasts of black magic.
Had Marugon done the same on Earth?
Arran continued for the bus stop, eyes scanning the darkness, hands resting on his weapons.
He had found some answers, but many more questions.
Chapter 9 - Subcontractors
Anno Domini 2012
“Ha!” said Schzeran, slapping his hand on the table. “Straight flush.” He grinned, his teeth yellow in his unshaven face. “None of you has anything to beat that.”
Bronsky grunted. “Fold.”
Dr. Krastiny leaned back in his chair. “So sure, Mr. Schzeran? Since I am a generous man, I shall give you one last chance to fold, though it is rather against the spirit of the rules.”
They sat in an unused conference room in Senator Wycliffe’s office compound. It was well past three in the morning, but the sounds of rumbling trucks never ceased. The single fluorescent light cast sputtering shadows over the walls and ceiling.
Schzeran gaped at him. “Fold?” He muttered a stream of obscenities in Russian.
“In English, please,” said Krastiny. Much to his annoyance, both Schzeran and Bronsky’s English remained terribly crude. Not at all professional.
Schzeran rolled his eyes. “Fine. In English, Doctor Krastiny, sir. You don’t have anything to beat a straight flush. I’ve been counting the cards. The highest you can have is a full house. The laws of probability dictate that you must fold.” Schzeran had been a mathematician before entering the KGB.
Dr. Krastiny smiled and laid his hand out. “Royal flush.”
Schzeran sputtered, staring at the cards. “Royal flush? That’s not possible.”
Dr. Krastiny sighed. “What did Christ say? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe? Something like that, I think. But you, my dear Schzeran, have seen and yet you do not believe.”
Schzeran glared at him. “Bullshit. I was counting the cards. The queen of spades is in the discard pile. There’s no way you could have a royal flush.”
Bronsky laughed. “Maybe you don’t count cards as well as you think.”
Schzeran leveled a finger at Krastiny. “You were cheating.”
Krastiny rolled his eyes. “I am shocked by this baseless accusation. Besides, we all cheat.” They had been playing poker together for years. Cheating was permitted, so long as you got away with it. It added a new level of strategy to the game. Besides, it made for an excellent mental exercise.
Schzeran waved his hand. “Roll up your sleeves.”
Krastiny grunted. “I find your lack of trust utterly appalling.” He rolled up the sleeves of his green sports jacket. “See? No hidden cards. Nor will you find cards hidden in my shirt, my pocket, or my shoes. Or even rolled up in the barrel of my gun.” He had used that one for years until they had caught on.
Schzeran groaned. “Fine. Take it. You win.” He waved a finger. “But do not rest on your laurels, Doctor. Sooner or later, I will figure out how you keep winning.”
Krastiny shrugged and pulled the pot towards him. “Oh, no doubt.”
He had affixed false labels to the fronts of several cards, disguising them as cards of a different suit. Neither Bronsky nor Schzeran had noticed the alterations. Once the pot had gotten large enough, Krastiny had removed the labels, tucked them under his watch, and claimed his prize. He figured they would catch on in a few weeks.
Schzeran grumbled and collected the deck. “Baldy.” He elbowed Bronsky. “Your turn to deal.”
Krastiny patted his own bald pate. “I find that rather offensive, you know.”
Schzeran snorted. “You’ve been hanging around Americans too long. You’ve soaked up all this nonsense about…what do they call it?”
“Political correctness?” said Krastiny.
Schzeran snapped his fingers. “Yes, that’s it. Load of shit. Man’s fat, he’s fat.” Schzeran smirked and ran a hand through his hair. “And a man’s bald, well, he’s not me.”
“Funny,” said Krastiny.
Schzeran leaned forward. “So…I hear Kurkov’s finally found a freighter for the bomb.”
Krastiny looked around. “A moment. Check the room for bugs.”
Bronsky stood, the cards forgotten. The three men rose and scoured the room with efficiency honed by years of practice. They found no bugs and sat back down. Bronsky resumed shuffling the cards as if nothing had happened.
“Yes, he’s finally found a freighter,” said Krastiny. “The authorities wrapped up their investigation in Vladivostok. Apparently they had quite a success. The organization lost millions of dollars.” Kurkov had been in a rage. “But the bomb was well-hidden. They never came near to finding it. It will ship out next week. For what Wycliffe’s paying for the bomb, it will make up the organization’s losses.”
“Well, good,” said Schzeran. Bronsky began to deal.
Krastiny raised an eyebrow. “I’ve never known you to be overly concerned with the organization’s financial health.”
“I’m not,” said Schzeran, looking at his cards. “So long as I get paid. But the sooner that lunatic gets his bomb, the better. Kurkov goes back to Russia, and we go with him.”
“I rather partial to the United States.”
Schzeran grinned. “So am I. All the booze I can buy. But I’m sick of that lunatic Marugon…and…Jesus, Krastiny. Those winged things, whatever the hell they are. We’ve seen a lot of weird stuff here.”
Krastiny grunted. “You haven’t the slightest idea.” Schzeran hadn’t seen Marugon transform those five men and women into nightmarish monsters. “Still, you aren’t turning squeamish now, are you?”
Schzeran scoffed. “When have you ever known me to be squeamish?”
“True enough,” said Krastiny.
“But…ah, hell. I don’t know what it is. It’s just not right. Not natural, you know?”
Krastiny nodded, thinking of the changelings. “I know.”
“Kurkov’s sold a lot of weapons to a lot of different people,” said Schzeran. “It’s never bothered me before. But Marugon’s…Marugon’s nuts. No, he’s more than nuts. It’s…it’s…” He pounded the table. “I don’t have a word for it, in English or Russian.”
“I know,” said Krastiny. “Marugon’s otherworldly.”
“Otherworldly?” said Schzeran.
“Dark. Ill-fated. Ill-omened.” Krastiny looked at his cards, grumbled, and folded.
“Yeah.” Schzeran nodded. “Yeah. Ill-omened. What you said. Hell, it’s like that man’s the devil.”
A cold voice cut into their conversation.
“Speak of the devil, and what does he do?”
Krastiny leapt to his feet, whipping his gun from its holster.
Marugon stepped out of the shadows in the corner, wrapped in his dark robes.
For a moment they stared at each other, guns leveled at the black-robed shape.
Marugon’s eyes flickered over the guns. “You may as well put down your weapons. They will be of no use.”
Krastiny didn’t budge, nor did Bronsky and Schzeran. “Lord Marugon. You startled us.” Marugon remained silent. “If you’re looking for Kurkov, he had to fly to Los Angeles, to make arrangements…”
“Yes, I know.” Marugon walked to the window. Cold power seemed to hang over him like a shadow, an icy aura that made the hair on Krastiny’s arms stand on end. “I am most pleased. The delays of the last few months were interminable.”
“Yes,” agreed Krastiny. “Senator Wycliffe is in the bunker, if you wish to speak with him.”
“No, I do not wish to speak with Senator Wycliffe.” Sarcasm entered Marugon’s tone. “He is most preoccupied.” He turned away from the window, his eyes like bottomless black pits. “No, Dr. Krastiny, I wish to speak with you and your men.”
“Us?” Krastiny slid his gun back into its holster, and the others followed suit. “Why us? We are just hired hands.”
“Ah.” Marugon sat at the head of the table. “But you are skilled hired hands, are you not? And that is why I have come. I wish to hire you.”
Krastiny sat on the other end of the table. “Hire…us?” Schzeran and Bronsky followed his lead and sat. “We’re already hired. If you have a task for us, speak to Mr. Kurkov and …”
“I have already hired Kurkov,” said Marugon, “through Wycliffe, to procure the nuclear device for me. No, I wish to hire you directly, Dr. Krastiny.”
“Might I inquire why?” said Krastiny, mind racing. Marugon had been obsessing about that nuclear bomb for months, but lately he had been complaining about something else. “The girl. This red-haired girl you think you saw at the scholarship dinner. You want us to find her.”
“I did not think I saw her,” said Marugon, his voice cold. “I saw her, the white magic burning within her like a flame.”
“Why do you need us?” said Krastiny. “Surely Senator Wycliffe could find her with far greater ease, given his resources. And in another few weeks, he’ll have the full power of the American government at his command. He can find this girl much quicker than we ever could.”
“Senator Wycliffe,” said Marugon, “does not care.”
“That hardly seems fair,” said Krastiny. Marugon did not blink, and Krastiny shoved aside his unease. A professional maintained a cool head. “He has looked for this girl, but you’ve provided no name, no age, and only a vague description. How can you expect him to find her with such limited information?”
Marugon’s expression did not change. “Senator Wycliffe does not care because he does not understand. He has never encountered a wielder of the white magic. He does not understand the threat this girl poses. She has such potential…such strength. If she is unleashed it could ruin everything.” Marugon smirked. “But our busy Senator, he does not understand that. He spends his time with polls and analysts and his pathetic puppet President. So he has performed a few feeble searches and acts surprised when they turn up with nothing. Meanwhile he continues with his campaign for the Presidency.” His dark eyes bored into Krastiny. “Would you agree, Doctor, that this is a fair assessment?”
Krastiny swallowed, trying to ease the dryness in his throat. “Yes. But I don’t understand. I saw you create those devil-creatures. Should they have not found the girl by now?”
Marugon scowled. “They should have. Yet she continues to elude them. Something baffles them.” His scowl darkened into a snarl. “I have come to believe that this girl has protectors.” He shook his head. “I do not understand. I destroyed my enemies, killed them all. But they were clever. Some of them must have hid from my reach. They must have found this girl, hidden her even as I destroyed them. They plan for her to challenge me one day, no doubt.” Marugon grinned a wolfish smile. “But I shall not give her the chance.”
Krastiny watched the Warlock, fascinated in much the same way a ticking bomb would fascinate him. A half-dozen emotions had flickered over Marugon’s face in as many seconds. Was the man going insane?
And if he lost his mind, what would he do with his power?
“So,” said Krastiny at last, folding his hands, “what do you want of us?”
“Find the girl,” said Marugon.
Krastiny shrugged. “If Senator Wycliffe failed to find the girl, and if your…creatures failed, then how could we succeed? The Senator is rich and powerful, and you…have skills that I cannot understand. My partners and I are merely men. How can we succeed where you have failed?”
Marugon leaned forward. “You are killers, no? You are hunters. You track down your prey and kill it. You enjoy it. I can see it within you.”
“With all respect, Lord Marugon,” said Krastiny, “we may enjoy our work, but we don’t work for free.”
Marugon chuckled. “Indeed not. And you do not wish to work for me, do you?”
Krastiny remained silent.
Marugon smirked and leaned forward. “I know you despise me. What is the Earth saying? You cannot put your finger on it? Yes, that is it. You cannot put your finger on it, you cannot decide why, but you fear and loathe me.” His smirk widened. “I am most unnatural, am I not? So are the winged ones and the…others you have seen. So, you are not doubt wondering why you should work for me?”
“The thought had crossed my mind,” said Krastiny.
Marugon leaned back in his chair. “I could compel you, if I wished. I could send the black magic into your minds and bend them to my well.” Bronsky and Schzeran began to slide their guns free. “But, fear not. I shall not. Instead, I shall offer you a deal. Find the girl and I shall pay you five million dollars. Each.”
Krastiny blinked. “Five million dollars? Each? Does Senator Wycliffe know you’re spending this kind of money?”
Marugon snorted. “I have my own resources. Senator Wycliffe’s interests have been…drifting from my own, let us say.” His hand clenched into a fist. “So. Five million dollars each. Think of what that will let you do. You can break free of Kurkov’s organization.” He smiled. “You will not have to deal with me any longer. What do you say?”
Krastiny wanted to refuse Marugon. But his partners’ eyes shone with eagerness. Krastiny already had his millions, but Schzeran and Bronsky did not. And the prospect of disentangling himself from Marugon did appeal to Krastiny. Perhaps he could convince Kurkov to take the same course. “All right.”
“Good,” said Marugon. “I have done some searching myself. The girl was a member of the 2012 graduating class. She was an honors student. That should narrow your search significantly.”
“True,” said Krastiny, “but that is still several thousand people.”
“She has red hair, dark eyes, and stands about five feet and six inches tall,” said Marugon. “And you will know her when you find her.”
“Very well,” said Krastiny. “We shall start at once. When we find her, shall we kill her?” The thought did not faze Krastiny. He had killed many people in his career. Most had deserved it, but some probably had not.
“No. You will tell me where she is. Then I will deal with her.”
“As you wish, Lord Marugon.”
Marugon rose and left without a word.
Schzeran grinned. “God. Five million dollars. I could buy a dacha on the Caspian Sea and retire. Or a condo in California.”
“Yes. Well.” Krastiny sighed and rubbed his temples. “We had best get started at once. Schzeran. Can you hack into the Chicago school district’s computer system?”
Schzeran rolled his eyes. “That’s insulting. It’s a school, for God’s sake. Of course I can.”
Krastiny drummed his fingers on the table. “Bronsky. Can you do your reporter act?” The big man nodded. “Start investigating the school system. Interrogate principals, teachers, that sort of thing. Ask about honor students. Tell them you’re doing a story on the success of the school system. The public schools in this country are such a mess, I’m sure they’ll jump at any chance for a positive story.”