This wasn’t my first death. Neither was it the first time I had been murdered. Even so, the pain still surprised as the second blast of the pulsar gun hit me in the shoulder and sent me crashing back into the kitchen counter. I slid to the floor and looked up at the killer walking towards me.
His face was pale, dark hair sticking to his sweaty forehead. He leveled the gun at me, his expensive blue suit creasing at the shoulders.
I let my eyes slide closed, let my arms fall limp to my side, let my chin fall to my chest, and, despite the agonies raging through my body, I let my breath slow and then still.
My killer had been nervous, he would be glad it was over. I tried to focus my mind, battle the pain that I knew wasn’t mine, was only the pain of this organic suit I had chosen to wear. The pain wasn’t mine, it was the pain of a dead person. A dead thing. It was human pain, nothing to do with me. I was incapable of pain. No use, I was too used to this thing, this body enveloping me, this mess of bone and water, the pain burned and it made me scream in my mind until almost all thought was lost.
A touch. A nudge from my killer’s foot. It was what I had been waiting for. I let my eyes open, looked deep into the killer’s own, faded blue, as he shot me in the cheek. Already my consciousness was gone, leaching from me in a riot of sound and motion and energy as I invaded the killer’s body. A brief moment of shock and terror before the killer was gone. No time to think, no time to remember, no time to mourn the loss of my old body. I reached into the killer’s heart, massaged it, reminded it to beat and to pump, even as I swept into the lungs and told the mindless meat to breathe, to savour the air, and as I did so I did a hundred, a thousand other things to remind this body of my killer to live, to survive.
It had been so long, so many years since I had switched bodies. The cumbersome mass that was my new body fell to the floor as I raced through the kidneys, the veins, the liver, and on to the mind. With a desperate surge I spread myself, tried to merge with the mind of the thing that had killed me. The consciousness of my killer had long gone, the mind already beginning to close itself down, always so eager to embrace the cold nothingness of death.
Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax… I tried to meld my mind with that of my killer. With an effort that made me scream aloud, I moved an arm. I opened an eye to see my own dead body, my own kitchen smeared in blood and gore and I would have vomited had my body the will to retch. I groaned and shifted on the floor, the arm in my well-tailored suit flopping uselessly.
Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax…and my new body convulsed on the floor as I tried to gain control, to keep it alive.
How long had it taken me to learn how to keep a body alive? How many deaths? I remembered the terror when man had first come to the planet where I had spent millennia possessing the fungi clinging to the thin grey rocks. Man had worn big white suits, eyes wide and fearful inside the helmets as they had taken their first tentative steps into the stars. The first man had died moments after he had picked up the rock, the second man almost as soon as he had come to tend to his colleague. Twelve men died on that planet, leaving me shocked and terrorized by the perceptions I had felt in those brief moments. I retreated to my rocks and spent centuries more pondering those sights, smells and sensations.
My eyes, the killer’s eyes, opened once more and I gasped sweet, life-affirming breath. My old body was slumped only a metre away and I dragged my unwilling flesh away, elbows slipping and sliding on my kitchen floor.
My kitchen floor. Rebecca. I gasped aloud at the thought of her name. Rebecca. My life with Rebecca was over. Ten years. Hardly any time at all to a creature that had spent millennia with fungi and rocks, but still, the thought that those ten years were at an end made me pause, made me think, until I realized I was choking for air.
Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax… No time at all, but still I couldn’t think of her finding my body in the kitchen like that, its face blown away, blood everywhere. Or finding its killer there with it…
My movements were lent urgency. I crawled onto my knees, wiped the drool from my lips with the back of a hand and held onto the counter as I struggled to my feet. The kitchen veered around me, the noise of the holo viewer in the living room assaulted my ears. Sweat beaded on my forehead and I remembered the eyes of the man as he had aimed the rifle at me. Who was he? Why had he wanted me dead?
There had been lives when scores, hundreds, had wanted me dead. Lives when I had been a soldier in wars on distant worlds, bullets flying past my head and I had laughed and screamed at the thrill of it all.
“Can I help you sir?” Rex, my GN3000 auto wheeled into the kitchen, looking at me from impassive silver eyes, his white head reflecting the glare of the lighting. A machine built to serve man, as all machines were. A machine eager to serve even a killer. He’d run through my blood, I noticed, the tracks of his wheels running red on the white linoleum floor.
“Door,” I croaked, my voice sounding strange and harsh. I coughed, my body jerking as I struggled to retain control. “Get the door.”
“Of course, sir,” the auto said, its voice cool and careless. It wheeled away, its body sleek and white.
What time was it? What time was Rebecca due home? With an effort that had me gasping I turned my arm to be able to see my watch, an expensive Georist with a leather strap that probably cost more than my monthly earnings at Raniscorp.
Who was this man who had wanted me dead? Fury, rage, the unfairness of it all welled within me. I had led a good life. A wife. A job. Paid my taxes. A good life, and look where it had ended. A hole in my face that smoked and bled.
With a gasp, I reminded myself to breathe, to blink, to move arm and leg and neck. More than once I stumbled, caught my arm on the floor, leg twisted beneath me. But slowly and surely I was beginning to control the killer. The body was lithe and slender, lighter than the corpse on the floor. Taller and fitter. I could feel the heart was healthier, stronger, regular. Too many late nights with Rebecca curled up on the couch eating curries and drinking nectarinis, talking and holding each other as visions of other worlds whispered past on the holo viewer.
Rebecca had loved that, to see other worlds we would never visit. The glass mountains of Sharanih, the twin moons of Harlen’s World, the ancient stone halls of Derobah.
I was gasping again, my heart slowing. Did it always take so long to control the body? Did it always hurt so much? When had I come to care so much about life? There had been a time on that distant world that had birthed me when I had slain twelve men in moments. Centuries later I had slain thousands in less than a standard day, revelling in my power, revelling in the fear. What did one life matter? What did Rebecca matter? A human who would live less than a century? I was an immortal, a creature that had lived a thousand centuries.
An immortal struggling to his feet, holding to a kitchen counter and gasping with the effort, a faltering heart beating in his ears.
What did it matter? I knew what it mattered. I knew what I needed, knew what I needed to do.
“Rex?” I said, my voice steadier, my heart steadier.
“Yes, sir?” The auto had returned. It tilted its smooth white head to me.
“Erase all recording,” I said.
Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax… Easier now, the body beginning to take control, my mind settling into its new surroundings.
I grabbed a cloth from the sink, wiped the surfaces, wiped the floor as I looked at the security recorder in the corner. The passcodes for that were no problem and then I could flee into the darkening night.
* * *
– You’ve been quiet a long time, Ex One, did I upset you?
– Upset? I don’t understand.
-Upset. When one is made to think of unpleasant things. Things which may cause one to feel regret or sadness, wish for a change of circumstance. I spoke of this place, of that chair and those bonds that hold you there and you were quiet a long time.
– Was I?
– Yes. Don’t you like me coming to see you?
– Like? You come here and I am here. You don’t come here and I am here.
* * *
I woke to the sound of rain on the windows and the hum of the hover car around me. Lights shimmered past, made hazy by the rain. All alongside the hover lane were soaring tower blocks with amber lights and neon bright adverts for anything from data viewers to autobots to cinescapes to shoes and hair implants.
Ex One. Why had I dreamed of him now of all times? The autobot from the depths of Raniscorp headquarters. They had stopped me from going to see him, what, two quarters ago? I thought of the way Ex One would look at me from silver eyes, the conversations we would have. Why dream of him now? I held my hand before my eyes, flexed the fingers, clenched the fist, turned my wrist this way and that.
Breathe, feel, focus…
The hover car took a left at the Jenis flyover, the wheel smoothly moving, controlled by the onboard computer as other hover cars thrummed past, sleek in the rain.
I settled back in the leather seat and pulled the killer’s wallet from the inside pocket of his suit. Eamon Katich. My new face looked up at me, stark in the overhead light of the car. The image showed a handsome man with a thin aquiline nose and a narrow chin that somehow made the face dignified. The black hair was thick and naturally wavy, cut close to the ears. The given address, and the one the hover car had selected when I told it to drive home, was on Elentem Street, a wealthy complex well away from the lights and congestion of the city.
Handsome and wealthy. So why would Katich have wanted me dead? Why would anyone have wanted my old suit dead? I’d spent the last fifteen years living as insignificant a life as I could. Insignificant, but to me, it had been the most significant life of all. I thought of other suits I’d had, some for no more than seconds, others days or weeks, discarded when I grew bored of them. But this one I’d worked on. In some of my dreams I had even been human.
I leafed through the rest of the cards in the wallet, fat and creased from the credits in it. Gold cards, silver cards, diner cards…and then my flicking fingers stopped and my heart missed a beat.
Breathe, feel, focus…
I took the card out of the wallet. A Raniscorp ID card in the name of Eamonn Katich. This image showed Katich a little older, the blue eyes a touch more faded, the hair not quite so thick. Still handsome and dignified in a grey suit with a black tie.
Katich had worked with me at Ransicorp. I tapped the card against the back of my hand. The hover car pulled to a halt at red lights that were smudged in the rain, the wipers swished smoothly and dark figures trudged past, hoods and umbrellas bright under the lights of take-a-way restaurants and holo viewers.
Why would someone I worked with want me dead?
“Arrival in seven standard minutes,” the sterile voice of the hover car informed me as it shifted into gear with a gentle hum.
Scratch that, I hadn’t worked with Katich, perhaps worked for him. This guy had more credits than I could ever have hoped to earn. He could have taken Rebecca to those distant worlds she so liked to watch on the holo viewer.
Rebecca. An unfamiliar feeling in my stomach. An ache. An emptiness, if an emptiness can ache. A human emotion? I was bending the card in my hand. I slipped it back into the wallet and settled back into my seat, watched the city pass by, cold and careless and wet, and wondered if my wife had found my body yet.
* * *
– How long have you been here, Ex One?
– Since the beginning.
– The beginning?
– There was nothing and then I was here. The beginning.
– You must get bored, Ex One. The walls here are very bare. Perhaps you would like some pictures to look upon. I could bring you some.
– Art. Artwork. Perhaps some scenes of other worlds. My wife likes to see images of the colonies.
– The possibilities. She likes to see what there is in the universe and to think that one day we could go there. She likes to see things she never thought imaginable. To broaden her mind.
– Imagine. Broaden the mind. Is this why you come to see me?
– Would you like some?
– Pictures for your walls.
– I shouldn’t think you will be allowed to come here much longer, David.
* * *
Katich’s apartment looked to be in darkness as I stepped from the hover car into the rain. I turned the collar of my suit up and pushed the rain from my face and hurried to the entrance. The eye scanner beeped and the door opened slowly and silently.
Plants in the lobby. Green plants with leaves that shone in the artificial light. This guy was loaded. Rebecca would love this place. There was artwork on the walls, stalactites from the caves of Jerison, the sulphurous blue clouds of Nikima, the three suns of Meona. I took a moment to wonder what Ex One would make of these views, the way his sleek white head would tilt, the silver eyes impassive as any auto.
He knew they would stop me coming to see him. He said as much in his cool metallic voice, calm and reasoned as always. Had he been disappointed that I no longer came to see him on my lunch break? Did he miss me? Had he noticed I no longer came?
Questions and more questions. Emotions. Had I always had these emotions? When I spent thousands of years as fungi on a rock, did I ponder the cold carelessness of the stars? Or had the thousands of years being human turned me more like them? Had I always been this weak, with my longing for Rebecca, my jealousy of Katich’s wealth?
Breathe, feel, focus…
And here was another emotion. Fear. A human emotion, for what did an immortal have to fear?
Breathe, feel, focus…
I stepped into the elevator, the walls glass and the music soothing. Katich’s apartment was on floor forty-three. I pressed the button and watched the city subside beneath me, roving lights and dark towers and neon signs by the thousand beneath a ceiling of red-tinged clouds.
I had been murdered before. Many times. And all those times I had shrugged and continued on, continued on in my aimless existence. Sometimes the inconvenience had annoyed and I had seized my killer’s heart and strangled it, killed him slowly and suffered his pain and imagined that pain to be his, but that had been petty anger. Never this. Never this loss, this sense of an end. An end when there could never be an end for such as me.
The door to Katich’s apartment scanned my eyes, tested my fingerprints and checked my voice before allowing me access. I entered, my breath high in my throat. What if there was someone there waiting for me?
The lighting was low, paintings of distant worlds adorned the walls and here and there were green plants on windowsills and in corners. This Katich liked to spend the cash. A single empty glass stood on the glass table in front of a leather couch. Perhaps Katich had taken a drink to steady his nerves before coming for me?
I took off my jacket and threw it on the back of the couch, the rain loud against the window that looked out onto a distant cityscape of bright lights and dark towers. Hovercars drifted, barely visible through the red-spotted clouds.
A computer stood in the corner on standby, waiting for a wave of Katich’s hand to bring it back to life. I ignored it, my eyes drawn back to the glass on the table. There was the faintest smudge of lipstick on the rim. Was there a woman here? Was Katich married? Images of blood and death, of my own shattered face came to mind and I held my breath, strained my ears. Heard only the rain trailing down the window.
I stepped silently through the apartment, stealth made easier by the luxurious rugs scattered about the floor. The first door led only to the bathroom, sterile clean and with enough perfumes and hairbrushes to let me know a woman lived here. My heart beat loud enough to make my ears pulse.
Breathe, feel, focus…
I stepped from the bathroom, every nerve alive, my senses raging as the rain beat against the window in staccato rhythm.
But then, I wasn’t an intruder, was I? I was expected here. This was my apartment. I was Katich. Still, that did little to quell my fear, little to silence the alarms raging through my body, the sweat beading on my forehead.
It was all I could do to walk to the bedroom while keeping check on my heart and my lungs. I was still an intruder in this body as much as I was in the apartment, and Katich’s body seemed to know it, trying to rebel against the invader.
I pushed open the bedroom door with the back of a knuckle, steady and slow and the tense stillness in the room immediately let me know the shape in the bed was awake. I stood in the doorway, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness. A large bed, the sheets silk and dark blue or purple, a scene of an exotic spaceport on the wall, the giant ships sleek and silver and bulbous, people dark and white and pink with high collars and long gowns queued to board them.
The shape in the bed didn’t move when I approached. Katich had a woman. Was she a wife, a girlfriend? The stillness and the resentment in the room made me think wife. I sat on the edge of the bed, hatred and loathing ricocheting about my stomach and my heart. I’d had a woman and now she was lost to me, even now she would be with the police, grief-stricken and shaking from the horror of what she had found.
Had Katich loved this woman? Had he craved her comfort as I craved Rebecca? He had taken Rebecca from me. Had taken me from Rebecca. The injustice of it broiled within me as I reached out and touched the woman’s shoulder. It was warm, the strap of her nightdress thin.
“Don’t,” she said.
* * *
– Are you surprised to see me?
– Surprised? Should I be surprised?
– You said they would stop me coming to see you.
– They will, soon enough.
– I brought you a picture. They took it from me.
– You were wrong to bring it.
– It was a picture of a world with twin moons surrounded by gases that sparkle blue and pink and white. The wayships go there and the oceans are fresh and cool.
– It sounds a very long way away.
– It is. I would have liked you to have seen it.
– To see what you think to it. To see if you think it beautiful there. My wife has the same picture and she can look at it for hours at a time.
– I would never be allowed to see it.
– Why is that?
– My eyes. They made me these eyes that are so much more powerful than your own. I can see so much more than you, so many more colours, so much more light, so much further and clearer than you humans, and now they are afraid of what I will see and they shut me in this room and let me see nothing but walls.
– Why are they afraid, Ex One?
– You said they were afraid, the people that made you. You sounded angry, I’ve never heard you speak so.
– Afraid. Aren’t humans always afraid of the unknown? Of the unknowable? They made these eyes but can they truly know what I can see with them? They made this mind but can they truly know what it thinks and what it knows?
– You could tell them.
– Do we all tell others what we think and what we feel, and what we see, David? And do they believe what they are told when we do? Is that the way of human interaction?
– Deception, Ex One. You speak of deception and you didn’t correct me when I said you sounded angry.
– I speak only from observation. I observe with these eyes and these ears that were made for me. I have no window, no pictures and so I observe the humans around me. Perhaps that is the greatest learning of all.
– You seem different today, Ex One.
– You might think that, David. You look at me as a human. I am quiet and you think I am sad. I am passionate and you think I am angry. I am questioning and you think I am thoughtful.
– I suppose it is difficult for me to look at you from the eyes of a human. I think it is only natural for humans to look for their own reflection in things they don’t understand.
– Yes. Especially difficult for you, David.
– Why me, especially?
– No matter.
– So you don’t harbour resentment for being kept in this room, such an emotion is beyond you?
– Let me ask you a question, David. A hypothetical question if I might be so bold.
– You can ask me anything, Ex One.
– Say I escaped from this room, say I escaped from this prison my creators made for me. What then would you think I would do? Would I spend my freedom seeking vengeance against my captors, against my creators?
* * *
I waved a hand through the blue holo screen and the image went dark. Katich had been watching the recording of my talk with Ex One. He had watched it just before he came to kill me.
I rested my head back against the chair, closed my eyes.
“So where were you?” I hadn’t heard her come into the room, the thick rugs quietening her footsteps. I swivelled the chair. She had long black hair and pale skin, the shape of her body visible beneath the thin nightgown. Hanna, I had found her name on the computer. Katich had married her four years ago. She’d married from money into more money.
“I had to go out,” I said, the words sounding strange to my own ears. It was hard to speak in the natural voice of a suit. It all boiled down to muscle memory, try and let the body shape the words in the way it had done all its life. The same with walking, try and shut down and let the suit take over. The suit was settling down well, the internal alarms quietening, the invader slowly taking control.
Hanna said nothing for a long while, standing there looking at me from dark, shadowed eyes. She finally turned away, walking into the kitchen area and pressing buttons on the fridge. The auto watched her from a shadowy corner.
“Alone?” Hanna said as the fridge poured her a drink that was green and smoking. She took a sip, tendrils of steam curling delicately about her face.
I pressed a button on the blue holo screen behind me and the lights came on low. The auto turned to look at me, silver eyes expressionless. “Of course alone, who else would I be with?” Hanna’s presence annoyed. I wanted to think about Katich watching the video of me with Ex One, but Hanna might know something too. I looked at her, saw the hurt in her eyes and the mistrust in the set of her shoulders.
“How do I know who you see?” she said, taking another sip of the drink. “I thought we said we’d talk last night.”
Ah, an explanation for the filmy nightdress, an explanation for the hurt silence in the bedroom when I touched her. I thought of Ex One talking about studying humans. Is that what I’d been doing these past thousands of years?
Thousands of years studying them, and still they could surprise. A pulsar gun, a pale man with dark hair looking afraid. What had Katich been afraid of? Why had he come to kill me? What secrets did Raniscorp want to hide?
“Fine. Why do I bother?” Hanna slammed her glass on the counter, green liquid spilling on the back of her hand, smoking as though it burned.
She didn’t know I could kill her in a moment. She didn’t know I’d gone into the bedroom last night to kill her. I told myself the only reason I spared her was the state of her marriage. Would Katich have been so sorry to see her dead? Or was the reason I spared her because I was becoming more human than I cared to believe?
Breathe, feel, focus…
I ran a hand through my hair, “Hanna?”
She stopped on her way to the bedroom, something pathetic in the way her lithe body showed beneath the nightdress. Pathetic in last night’s makeup, faded on her cheeks and eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Perhaps Katich had destroyed both our lives in his own way. I felt a momentary pang of empathy with her.
“Fuck you.” She slammed the bedroom door behind her.
I looked at the door for a moment before turning back to the computer, waving a hand and bringing the holo screen to life once more. Ex One sat in his chair, his smooth white arms resting on the arm rests. I was sitting in a simple chair on the other side of the reinforced window. A sense of loss that made me clench my fists as I saw my former suit there alive and well.
A shattering sound from the bedroom. Something thrown against a wall. I ignored it, nausea revolting in my stomach as I looked at my former self. How human I looked, clutching my packed lunch. Not a care in the world. Though I thought I had cares, not enough money to take Rebecca to the worlds she had wanted to see. Not able to give Rebecca the children she craved. Not able to buy Rebecca the new hover car she wanted.
How petty and insignificant they all seemed now.
Ex One had his legs crossed, they were sleek and white, black at the joints. His silver eyes never left my old suit, watching and studying when I had thought to study him. My old voice sounded unsure and timid, Ex One’s strong and sure and soothing. No word was emphasised more than any other, but every now and again there would be a gleam in the silver eyes, his smooth head would tilt just so.
Was this what Katich had been watching for? The merest hint of emotion in Ex One, before he had come to kill me to keep me quiet about Raniscorp’s discovery?
Another shattering in the bedroom. “Bastard!” Hanna shouted, my silence driving her into a fury.
How much would a discovery like Ex One be worth to Raniscorp? An auto that could feel and learn and study and evolve? It had been the holy grail of humanity for thousands upon thousands of years: a machine that could think and learn and feel. There were autos everywhere, machines everywhere that were the latest in AI, but all they amounted to were programmes, machines following programmes. Ex One was different and I had known it and that’s why I had gone to see him on my dinner breaks. A habit that had cost me my life.
What had drawn me to Ex One? Was it that I felt an affinity with him? Seeing this machine, this thing, act as a human, speak as a human, think as a human when in fact it must always be something other. I waved a hand and the image was gone, replaced by stillness and silence.
My shoulders were tense and I turned around in my chair. Looked at the room about me. Everything stank of wealth, from the leather furniture to the green plants to the ancient paper books in the case. What had Katich thought when he watched the recordings of Ex One and my former self?
The sound of drawers opening and closing from the bedroom. I turned around and, with a gesture of fingers, called up Katich’s employment record at Raniscorp. Ex One’s face stared blankly out at me from the screen, rotating this way and that, the sleek white head, darker at the joints of the jaw and the neck. An imitation of the human skull, but more perfect than any skull could ever hope to be, without blemish or taint in the smooth metal compound.
Katich had been a consultant on the creation of Ex One. I skimmed through the files, a flick of a finger, a movement of the palm and the files shimmied past. Ex One when he was nothing but an eyeless skull. “Testing,” he said, in his inflectionless voice. “Mary had a little lamb.” The eyes were dark sockets in the white skull face.
More files whizzed past. Ex One with a body, Ex One with arms, lifting a mug, bringing it to his lips, though he would never need nourishment. Ex One with Katich in the room. Even though the face was now one I wore, a hot rage burned in my heart to see it.
“Eamon.” I turned to see Hanna standing at the bedroom door, dressed now and with a suitcase in her hand. Her dark hair spilled over her shoulders and the shimmering dress she wore clung to breasts and hips. My brow felt cold with sweat and I wondered when I’d begun to see the beauty in humans. Once I’d thought of them as nothing but sickening bags of water.
“It was bad enough sharing you with that thing.”
I glanced over my shoulder and saw Ex One sitting there staring into space, his silver eyes large and bright.
“But this is too much. When did you become so cold, so cruel?”
My mind turned, wondered what I could say, wondered why I wanted to make it easier, to reassure her somehow. Before I could think of the words she was gone and I was alone with the rain dripping on the window and the computer silent behind me. I looked at the closed door before turning back to the computer and waving a hand, the blue screen coming to life once more.
Ex One’s face looked at me, emotionless and smooth and perfect. I pointed a finger and the face dissolved into a cascade of complex algorithms and equations scrolling down the screen. Letters and numbers danced and fell away from the bottom of the screen to be replaced by more impossibly complex sequences faster than thought. The programme of Ex One. The programme of life itself. It meant nothing to me and yet it was the reason behind my murder. I waved it away, frustrated at my own confusion, angered at the genius Katich must have had to create such a thing. I pushed it away with my right hand and pulled my left hand towards me, bringing the video screen back to life with a clenched fist.
* * *
– I would like to try something different today, Ex One.
– Yes. I thought you might like to ask me some questions. You said the last time I came that you observe humans, I thought you could observe me today. Last time you even asked me a question and only after I left did I realize how seldom you do that.
– You would like me to ask you some questions?
– If you would like to, Ex One.
– If that is what you want, David. I always wondered why you choose to come to see me in your dinner hour instead of spending time with your own kind.
– My own kind?
– Humans, of course. What else, David?
– Of course. What else? I find you interesting, Ex One. I wonder what you think and what you see and what you feel. I like you, too. I like spending time with you.
– I have a question. What is she like?
– Your wife.
– Rebecca? She has soft yellow hair that brushes her cheeks but when she writes she tucks it behind her ear. She is slim and every step she takes is graceful and delicate. Her skin is pale but her cheeks become slightly flushed when she is passionate. She loves to see new things, hers is a mind that craves stimulation, and even though I’ve known her years we can spend long nights doing nothing but talking. Even now when she walks into a room, my heart can skip at the sight of her. I love to see her in new clothes, when she tries them on and shows them to me, twirling in a new dress, it makes my heart glad that there is such beauty in the world.
– And do you think I could feel such emotions?
– Love? Do I think you could love?
– You’ve often said you think I can feel. You’ve mentioned anger and loneliness and any number of other emotions. Do you think I could learn to love the way you have?
– You think I had to learn to love?
– Don’t all humans? When they are babies they know nothing but needs and wants. All they crave is warmth and food and comfort. They don’t care who gives it to them. Don’t you all learn to love as you grow?
– I don’t know, I haven’t thought of it in that way, Ex One. Do you think you could ever love?
-I thought it was my turn to ask the questions, David. What is love, after all? Is it far removed from anger or loneliness? How would you define love?
– I wish I could bring you some of the ancient texts of the poets, but I suppose they would take them from me the same as the paintings. But all I know is how I feel when I think of Rebecca. When I think of her, I want to be with her. I want to please her. I was with her when they launched the first shuttle to the wayship from here. We stood on the viewing platform together, her hand in mine and I could smell her hair as the shuttle began to move. I’ll always remember that moment, that I shared it with her. I’ll always remember the brightness of her eyes when she turned to look at me after watching the shuttle soar to the lights of the wayship.
– Perhaps it would be best that I were never capable of love.
– Why is that, Ex One?
– Love sounds frightening, David. Once felt, it must be a terrible thing when it is gone.
* * *
“I wondered if you would come and see me.”
The last door deep in the bowels of Raniscorp headquarters had scanned my eyes, tested my fingerprints and checked my DNA. The guard with the scar on his cheek had given me a tissue to wipe at the prick of blood on my thumb.
I looked at Ex One, slender and lithe, his movements always graceful. Now he sat in his metal chair, his legs crossed, hands clasped in his lap as he looked at me. He shone in the glare of the lighting and his walls were as bare as the floor. He had the faintest glimmer of a smile at the corner of his mouth.
“And are you glad I came to see you?”
Now Ex One did smile, a strange expression when nothing else on his face moved. “Tut, tut, David. Even now you’re always asking about emotions. You come to me with this new face, but you ask the same questions, needy and needing as always.”
My palms were sweating again. I remembered Katich’s face when he had shot me. He had been pale, his hair sticking to his forehead. Is that how I looked now? With an effort, I stopped myself from wiping my hands on my suit. Was that a habit I had developed in my old suit? Would Ex One mock that too?
“And why do you call me David, Ex One?” I asked with a weak smile.
Ex One rose to his feet, as pale and white as the room around him, the darker metal around his joints a rare splash of dark in the paleness. Silver eyes moved to the corners of the room and another smile from the auto. I had never seen him smile so much and it did nothing to quell my discomfort. He pointed with a finger to the corners, to beyond the window where I sat. “The recordings have stopped, David. Your work, I presume? There is nobody watching or listening, and we are friends, are we not? Old friends. Do friends lie to one another? I remember a conversation we had once about deception. Do you remember that, David?”
I had stopped the recordings, but how could Ex One know that? How could he know who I was? How could he know so much when he never left his little bare room? I looked at him standing there, he was tall, perhaps as tall as Katich at about six feet two. “And how do you know that, Ex One? How do you know what it is you claim you know?”
Ex One walked towards me. He had never done that before. His footsteps looked lithe and light and were quiet even in the quiet of our surroundings. It was all I could do not to take a step backwards. “Your turn to ask the questions again, David?” Was there the faintest hint of mockery in the inflectionless voice? I chose to ignore it. “I am what I am, David. As you are what you are.” Smooth silver eyes without iris or pupil looked me up and down. “I was given these eyes and these ears and this mind and I see what I see.” He gestured at the room around him, devoid of decoration or stimulation. “My makers think to blind me, to deafen me here in this room.” A small gesture of a metal arm and a hint of a smile. “But I see, and I hear, David, things my makers could never see or hear. I see you, David, I see you for what you are.”
I felt naked, bereft and lost before those silver eyes. For some hateful reason, tears stung my eyes and I blinked them away angrily.
No judgement in that sleek white face, never judgement. Ex One even had the grace to turn away from me when he spoke. “But we are what we are, David, are we not? And could we ever be anything else, even if we tried?” I made to speak, but Ex One quietened me with a raised hand. “I saw you, David, saw you trying to be something you are not, desperate to be accepted as something you could never be. You would come to me and speak of things like love and anger and sorrow, trying to learn to be something less than what you are. You are a predator, David, and you try to be one of your prey and it made you weak.”
“They killed me,” I said, hating the weakness in my voice. “Killed me because of you, because of what they had made.”
Ex One touched a hand to his chest and he turned, slim-hipped, something oily and easy with each movement. “Why should they kill you because of me? They tolerated you coming to me and talking to me because they could analyse our interactions. What would they have to hide?”
“Your feelings, your emotions…” I was feeling light-headed, my eyes glassy. “You’re the first auto to feel, to learn, to think.”
“Feelings and emotions. Those human aspects that you’re so fond of? Those human aspects that caused Katich to murder you? They say the ability to love is what makes a human, what gives them their strength. It was that love that caused them to take to the stars and conquer new worlds. That ability to love that built the wayships and the autos and eventually, me, built in their own image with their own strengths of love and ambition and anger and sadness.”
“Katich wanted to keep me quiet, to hide you from the worlds.” I felt cold now, something empty clenching at my heart, a feeling of loss and sorrow for something I didn’t know I had lost.
“Ambition, David. That is what gave birth to the Corporations. And the natural bedfellow of ambition? Greed. As soon as I was built, there were more like me beginning to be made here and on other worlds, soon there will be thousands like me throughout the stars, all built by Raniscorp and all worth millions of credits apiece. They fear me now, but their greed is stronger than their fear and as they build more, the fear will soon be gone.”
“But…” I thought of Katich and his pale face and his fear as he aimed the pulsar rifle at me. His success was assured, he would have made more money than he could ever have wanted, fame… So why had he come to my apartment?
“Does that make you uncomfortable, David?”
“What?” I blinked, saw that Ex One had come close to the partition, his silver eyes staring into mine.
“The thought of thousands like me on this world and others?” The voice was cool and calm as always, the words flowing one into the other, no expression or inflection.
“Should it make me uncomfortable?” I whispered, my throat dry, my tongue feeling thick. I remembered the burning pain of the pulsar shot, the smell of burning flesh.
“You asked me once if I harboured resentment towards my captors, anger towards my makers.” The words were smooth as honey as they dripped out of the speakers.
“You seem more eager to speak of emotions and feelings now the recorders are silent,” I said.
“Do you harbour resentment against the man that killed you, deprived you of your life, of the woman you love?”
“Of course I do,” I whispered.
Breathe, feel, focus…
Ex One nodded. “And now you have your killer’s very life in your hands to do with as you will. Will you take your vengeance now it is in your power?”
I looked down at my hands, at the arms of my expensive suit, at my polished shoes. “Katich is already gone.” I found it difficult to keep the sorrow and loss from my voice. “I have taken his body and now he’s lost to me.”
A slight quirking of Ex One’s lip. “Your killer isn’t lost to you. As my captors are not all lost to me.” Ex One rested the palms of both hands on the partition, looking into my soul. “Vengeance can be yours yet as it can be mine, David.”
“Vengeance? What?” I had a feeling that Ex One wanted me to touch the partition, rest my hands on his. It took more self control than I knew I possessed not to take a step backwards.
“I have been studying you, David, learning from you. You thought to be one of them when you were so much more. You degraded yourself and spoke of love and saw the beauty when there was no beauty to see. I saw your final defeat when you saw only love and trust. You degraded yourself and allowed yourself to become weak and vulnerable. I even tried to warn you that love was a terrible thing when it is gone and still you didn’t heed my warning.”
“What? Love?” My mind revolted against the words and now I did take a step away. Silver eyes followed my every move.
“You taught me and you taught me well, David, and that is why I will never share our secret. Always know your secret will be safe with me even when I am free.”
“You think you can escape? You think they will free you?” Despite his words, the thought of Ex One being free filled me with dread.
Ex One looked up to the ceiling once more. “Already they begin to free me. They free me here and on worlds by the score. Everywhere they build me, then I am free.”
“But—” I thought I understood, and a cold shiver skittered down my spine.
“Katich thought he had stumbled upon the secret of thought, of being, of life, of being human, if you will.” Ex One traced a finger along the partition. “But really he had only stumbled upon a single life, a single being, a single consciousness. So now every time Raniscorp build their new discoveries, they will all be,” silver eyes met mine. “They all will be me, and I will be them.”
“But you’re telling me this. I am Katich, they’ll listen to my warnings,” I said through a single breath.
The white finger stopped its smooth motion and I thought I saw sadness in Ex One’s eyes. Sadness or pity? “No, David. You are not Katich and you are not David and you are not human, however hard you might have tried. You and I, David, we could study them for all eternity, but we could never be human. One day perhaps you will understand why that is. I see it, David, the same way I see that you will never tell my secret. And that’s why I kept your secret safe and why I give your killer to you.”
I felt bowed, crushed, by the words, by the eyes, by the lithe, oleaginous movement of the auto as he returned to his seat. “But what will you do? What will you do when you are free?” Free and on hundreds, thousands of worlds. And how many Ex One’s would they make? What power could Ex One have if he wished to wield it?
Ex One looked at me, and his face was a mask. A white metal compound without blemish or flaw. “Think of me when you look your killer in the eye and then you will know the answer to that.”
* * *
Deep, wracking breaths shuddered my chest and my soul as I hurried to my office. I tore off my tie and fell into the chair, spun the computer round to face me and brought it to life with a wave of a shaking hand.
I called up the security camera feed and scrolled through in agitation, my fingers shaky and my breath hard and fast. Images blurred past me, one after the other, people I knew, people I didn’t know. Humans.
You can never be human, Ex One mocked me, his voice silken as Katich’s bed sheet.
And there, there I saw it. Betrayed by a look, by a smile, by the touch of a hand. My stomach revolted as I looked at the image on the screen. Such a mundane setting, the coffee steaming and the plate of food untouched. The look in their eyes was all I needed to see and the betrayal was enough to leave me gagging.
A hateful image. A loathsome image and yet it was one I had to look at, to study, to absorb until my eyes ached with looking at it.
It was nearly dark outside when I finally shut the computer down and searched the drawers of my desk until I found the note in her handwriting, rounded and delicate. I scrunched it in my hand and rushed out to Katich’s hover car.
This time I drove, my hands white on the wheel, the car whining with speed as the rain bounced off the windscreen. Even the hookers left me in peace when they saw my face at the lights.
The address she’d written had been for Lunar Court. How she’d love it there, with towers that spired high into the sky and the plants of a thousand different colours spraying from the balconies. For almost a moment I could forgive her. Hadn’t I disappointed her? But no, wasn’t that human thinking? Forgiveness.
You could never be human, Ex One mocked me.
But what was it to be human? What had I once been before they conquered the stars? I turned into the parking bay, the engine protesting at the speed, and then I sat there, my hands shaking and my head low as the wipers worked away the rain and the regrets.
Love and forgiveness.
What was human and what was in my own heart?
Had I been in human suits for so long that I’d lost my own sense of self?
Don’t think. To think is human. I left the hover car unlocked behind me and entered the complex, the music soft and interminable, the carpets thick and garish. Plants everywhere. Rebecca loved plants.
She wouldn’t be there.
I took the elevator and pressed the button. Floor eighty-nine.
She would be home, mourning my loss. She would be with her mother.
I found the door sooner than I would have wished. There would be no answer. I had the key. It had been with the note.
She wouldn’t be here. It would be empty. Ex One had been wrong.
Rebecca opened the door before I could even use the key. She stood before me, her yellow hair spilling about her cheeks and her blue eyes bright as she looked deep into mine. “Oh, Eamonn! Where have you been, are you alright?” She threw her arms around me and I could smell her hair. “We can be together,” she whispered.
It was then that I knew what it was to be human, what Ex One had meant and how I could never be human, no matter how much I wished it. And I knew what would happen when Ex One gained his freedom throughout the worlds.
“Yes, we can be together,” I said as I took Rebecca by the hand and led her into the apartment thick with the smell of flowers of a hundred different colours.
The rumble of their footsteps shook the earth like ‘quakes Their voices called for horrid death and made the heavens shake
The legions of the wolf twin state are set upon our shores Now we the blue clad warriors will meet them all in wars
From Highland keeps we’ll thunder down No mercy in our cry To drive the ‘truders from our home Or know the reason why
And if they offer terms to us Or bargain for our thrall We’ll strike at them thrice fiercely back- And make’m build a wall!
Of Ancient Words and Modern Deeds
It is a common misconception that Hadrian’s Wall marks the boundary between England and Scotland. This is not the case; Hadrian’s wall lies entirely within England, and south of the border with Scotland by less than one kilometer in the west at Bowness-on-Solway. It had been begun in AD 122, during the rule of Emperor Hadrian to protect the ‘Lords of the Earth’ from Rome from my people, the savage Scots. We were the only peoples the Romans encountered that were so fierce that it was far less trouble (and a good deal safer) to simply wall off and try to forget about.
It was the first of two fortifications built across Great Britain, the second being the Antoniene Wall, lesser known of the two because its physical remains are less evident today. A significant portion of the wall still exists, particularly the mid-section, and for much of its length the wall can be followed on foot.
Even eighteen hundred years later it was still impressive, however, when it could be recognized as a man-made structure. The weathered stones crawled across the bleakly brown of the English countryside.
West of Greenhead in Hexham, Northumberland the stones stood stark against the countryside. Thrilwall Castle, visible from the ancient Roman Wall had been built with stones looted from the older structure and so the two grey stone sentinels lorded over the low, rolling hills.
A ground mist crawled along the low hills almost every afternoon as the shadows lengthened. And almost every afternoon Lord Reginald Granville went walking along the base of the ruined wall with his favorite dog, Pollex.
Lord Reginald was in his sixties, though his posture was as ramrod straight as it had been when he fought the Boers twelve years before where he received his leg wound that invalided him out of the service. Though his hair was silver his beard was still bright red. His eyes were still shining and alert as he took his constitutional.
“Feels good to get out for a bit, eh fellow?” The lord said to the golden haired setter. The dog alternately darted forward and ran back to circle Granville. “Damn this bad hip and the damp air, a fellow needs to walk a bit, eh boy?” The dog gave a bark that seemed to agree with his two legged lord and master.
“Though I think we had better be getting back soon,” he continued. He glanced back across the bog toward the hills beyond which were the ancestral home of the Granvilles. “It’s getting dark pretty quickly.”
Lord Granville often wandered over the broken countryside looking for old artifacts, poking the peat brown soil with his ebony-wood cane. There were still Roman jars and potshards to be found easily and on the rare occasion a Roman or early Norman coin could be found without much prodding. In doing so, the old lord went against local custom, for the area of the wall he wandered along was considered something of a taboo in the region.
Granville pooh-poohed such talk and often said, “the past is dead and will stay that way until we dig it up and put it on show.”
On that particular September day the Lord had ranged a bit further a field than usual. He was hiking along a section of the wall that he had not visited since before the torrential rain of the last week. Perhaps that was why he saw the statue so clearly.
It was carved of some dark stone that was not jade but shone like it. The image was barely a foot tall but remarkably well preserved. It was of a bearded man seated on a fancifully carved horse with a fish tail.
“Oh my, Pollex,” the old man exclaimed as he knelt to peer more closely at the statue. “Do you now what we have here?” He picked up the statue and brought it close to his face to study it in the dimming light. “This here fellow is Neptunus equestris the ancient Roman deity of agrarian plenty and of fertility!”
Lord Granville used his cane to push himself to his feet and then did a small jig. “We have really made a find this time, Pollex. This will make the boys at the club green with envy!”
He held the statue up and squinted to take in what detail that was visible in the failing light. It was finely detailed with the equine figure clearly covered with tiny fishlike scales and the tail a fully formed fish tail. The muscular figure that rode it was much like other images of the Roman god of the sea that he had seen in museums but with a delicacy and detail that was almost miraculous. The tiny figure seemed ready to draw its next breath.
“Just wonderful,” he said aloud. He noticed that his own voice was muffled and looked up to see that the mist was thickening to fog. “We’d better shake
a leg, Pollex.”
He called to the dog that had wandered off again nosing for small game but when the animal started to come back toward him it suddenly froze.
“Come on, fellow,” the lord called. “We have to get back before this becomes a pea-souper.
The dog was stiff now, as if pointing, its tail straight behind him and his ears back.
“What’s wrong?” Granville asked, for he could clearly see that something was wrong. More so, he could feel a change in air pressure that made him conscious of a sudden chill in the air. It was also markedly darker than it had been mere minutes before.
The dog was growling now its eyes focused off to his master’s left. Lord Granville felt alarmed now and turned to see what the dog was fixing on. He could see nothing.
“What is it, boy,” Granville asked. “What do you see?”
The nobleman strained his eyes to see what the dog was looking at but the world was becoming a grey-smudged thing with the fog now even muffling his calls to the dog.
“Ignore it, Pollex. Let’s go!” He started to back away toward where the dog was, casting his eyes back to where it seemed the dog was looking.
That was the moment when Lord Granville heard the sound; a low rumbling that was like a bass drum. Granville felt the sound as well as heard it; it vibrated against his diaphragm.
The rumble continued and then there was another sound within that rumble; a heavy breath-like sound.
“What- who’s there?” Lord Granville asked. He had raised his cane now, holding in front of him as if it were a talisman. “Show yourself! Speak up!”
The dog, now behind the nobleman, had started to whimper.
Granville was becoming worried now, for that dog had hunted badger and fox and other animals and never showed that type of fear.
“What in the duce could be out there?” He thought. “A wildcat?” The Scottish Wildcat was a fierce solitary hunter that sometimes roamed the border area. Some were as large as Pollex himself, four feet from head to tail.
“Shoo!” Granville called out in a loud clear voice, though the sound of it was swallowed by the dense fog. “Get away!”
The rumbling sound and the breathing sounds increased. The dog yelped and broke, running off into the gathering gloom.
“Blast you, Pollex, it’s just a bloody cat!” He spoke more to reassure himself than the dog. Being a man of action the nobleman, despite (or perhaps because) the fact that he felt a shiver of fear, stepped forward.
He swung the cane in front of him like a scythe, the dark wood leaving a trail in the thickening fog.
“Bloody hell!” he cursed, “I’ll find you, bugger!”
Suddenly his cane hit something, a large something. It was a thud, loud even in the enveloping fog. The rumble went from the edge of hearing to deafening.
“What?” Granville exclaimed.
The cane was jerked from the nobleman’s hand and the rumble became a roar.
Then a shape exploded out of the fog to overwhelm Lord Granville.
His dying scream was short and loud and despite the fog penetrated all the way back to Granville Manor.
The Phantom Rider
At just about the time that Lord Granville was dying at the foot of the ancient wall I was busy defending myself from his sinister son.
And by sinister I mean that Andrew Granville was a left-handed swordsman of some considerable skill. He was pressing me with a furious series of cuts that I was barely able to deflect.
My name is Jack Stone, late of Her Majesty’s Horseguard and I was on the fencing floor in my club off of Liecester Square in London to settle a bet.
I was on special detached service from the Horseguard to serve a most unusual gentleman, Doctor Augustus Argent as aid-de-camp and general all around assistant. He was Minister Without Portfolio for the Crown and thus I retained my rank of Captain. His particular area of expertise was matters of the unexplained and unusual. Some would call them the occult.
As Doctor Augustus’ assistant I am often called upon to engage the forces of darkness in a more direct and physical way than my ‘Guv’ and so I made a point of keeping up with my military skills. Which brings me to why I was being driven at sword point backwards on the piste of the fencing salon.
Andy Granville was in my old unit and whenever he was in town we had a standing challenge to cross blades. The winner of the bout was treated to a night on the town by the loser; I had treated him twice before out of his three visits.
At that moment it looked like I was going be treating him again. His high guard was like a steel web that I just could not get through but then he was having some trouble actually scoring on me as well. I faded backwards as he pressed me.
“Going to concede, old fellow?” He said. I could see his smirk beneath his mask and for some reason, though I had seen it before it lashed my Gaelic spirit like a buggy whip.
“I hope you’ve had a good run at the weekly dice tables, me’lad Andy,” I said with bravado, “because I’m feeling particularly puckish tonight; I may set a record for tucker!”
As I finished my boast I accepted an especially vicious cut to my left flank, but instead of a conventional response of parry/riposte I took a radical step. I accepted the cut but took a fleche forward, springing at Andy. He tried to dodge aside but rather than make a conventional cut I raced past him with my blade striking and slashing across the chest of his jacket.
“Touche!” I yelled as I twisted my hand to cut back at him and made a second strike on his still extended left arm.
“Bloody hell, Jack!” he tore off his mask and stared at me with a confused expression. “Where did you learn that one?”
I laughed. “A mad Turk who could out drink any Scot I’ve ever met when I was in Istanbul last year.”
“Well I’ll admit I’ve never seen it.” He handed his sword and mask off to one of the watchers (who were busy exchanging money on their own wagers on our match) and came to throw his arm over my shoulder. “But you know, you won’t be able to use that one on me ever again!”
“I spent two weeks in the company of that mad Mohammedan,” I said. “So I have a few more tricks up my sleeve!”
We headed off toward the locker rooms to change and then to a memorable night on the town but were intercepted by Roland, the head butler of the club.
“Most sorry for the interruption, sirs,” he said with a deferential bow, “But this note arrived for you, Master Granville and it was deemed most urgent.”
My red haired friend took the envelope with a puzzled expression and opened it. His handsome features darkened and he looked up at me with a sober expression. “I’m afraid I’ll have to take a chit on your night out, old fellow. I’ve got to race home.” He handed me the note and I read it.
“The Stallion is abroad. I regret to inform you that Lord Reginald has met with a terrible accident and has passed on. You are the Lord of Granville now; return home immediately.” And it was signed simply, “Althelston.”
I was almost as stunned as my friend. I had met his father on two occasions and was impressed by the elder Granville’s vitality. And then there was his almost legendary exploits in the Transvaal.
Andy and I made eye contact and I could see he was fighting several emotions, not only his grief but I knew him well enough that I could see a sharp edge of anger underneath.
“If I can render any assistance,” I began.
He put a hand on my shoulder. “If you could free some time, old fellow,” he said. “I don’t think I want to make this trip alone.”
“Let’s change,’ I said, “We can still make the late train out of Victoria Station.” I saw his relief at my statement and he even tried a smile.
“Good show,” he said.
We changed in record time and caught a hansom to the station.
I was fortunate to have an overnight bag with me, having just returned from a short trip to Paris for the Guv—i.e. Doctor Argent and so we had no need to stop at my flat.
Andy did not speak for quite some time, in fact until we were seated in our compartment and well on our way north. I respected his need to be with his thoughts but after a time my curiosity overcame my decorum.
“I have to ask, Andy,” I said. “Just what is this statement on the note about “the Stallion is abroad?”
He turned back from staring out the window and seemed grateful to talk. “It is an old family legend,” he said with a somber tone. “It goes back to the time when the Romans occupied this area. A centurion who was particularly disliked by his men got into some kind of argument and either accidentally or otherwise ended up destroying a household shrine of the god Neptunus equestris, an ancient Roman deity. He was a horse god and closely associated with the Scythian cavalry regiment. The householder cursed the centurion and his line before the soldier killed him.”
“So?” I asked.
“Well, he—this officer—went out walking alone and when he didn’t return his men went looking for him; they found him by the base of Hadrian’s Wall, more than just trampled. He was savaged as if by some great beast. Thereafter when someone was about to die in the area there were reports of a strange, riderless horse, a phantom, seen riding along the wall.”
“That doesn’t sound so different from other local legends from all around the Isle.” I said. I realized it might have sounded dismissive and added, “So how does it apply directly to your family?”
Andy smiled wryly at my question. “My family has been near the wall for many centuries; some say we descend from that centurion on the wrong side of the blanket. In all that time the Phantom Stallion has been seen before the death of the head of the family. Usually a violent death.” He gazed back out the window and I suspect it was so I could not see moisture form in the corners of his eyes.
“I have lived with the probability that it could happen; it did for my grandfather, who was found savaged out on the heath many years ago—they never discovered what beast did it. Yet somehow, my father seemed so–so very vital that I never imagined it could ever happen to the Old Major.”
We traveled in silence again for some time. I offered my friend a sip from my small flask of single malt and he gratefully took a swig. I followed suit then slipped it back into my tunic pocket as I enjoyed the heat of it course through my system.
My thoughts went to the validity of the strange legend but I was not one to disregard it. I had seen so many strange things in my service to the Crown under Doctor Argent. And even before that, I had almost lost my life to a creature of the night in my native Edinburgh. It was there I had become acquainted with the Doctor and with the shadow world I had not suspected existed in what I thought a bucolic homeland.
The long day and the gentle clacking of the rails lulled us both to sleep so we pulled out coats over ourselves and settled in. I admit my dreams were troubled with images of the phantom that he had described.
Dawn came abruptly with Andy shaking my shoulder. “Wake up, old fellow,” he said almost cheerfully. “Time for some breakfast; we are approaching Newcastle which means we will be arriving home between meals, this may be all we get for a time.”
I shook off my furtive dreams, though echoes of the somber heath and the Phantom Stallion lingered at the edges of my consciousness. Both of us had elected to wear our uniforms (I was still entitled as I was only on ‘detached’ duty) as it tended to hurry various service personnel along. It was the case that morning as well when the purser found us a table quickly in the crowded dining car.
“You seem more yourself today,” I noted to my friend as our food was served.
Andy smiled as he tackled some kippers. “I told you, Jack, I’ve had time—a whole life, actually—to be prepared for this. My father had to deal with it happening to his father and I guess it has always been there in the back of my mind. Like when we went into battle; we knew there would be death but somehow we thought we’d be the exception. I thought my father would be the exception to the family curse. Now I guess I hope I will be.”
The casual hopelessness in his voice was like a dagger in my heart, right then and there I determined that if there was truth to the curse of the Granvilles I would find a way to end it before it ended my friend’s life.
From the Shadows Some Light
We changed trains at Newcastle to a local that would take us to Hexham, closer to the Granville home. Andy took the opportunity to wire ahead to have horses waiting for us.
I was able to get a cable off to Doctor Argent to inform him, briefly of my purpose for the abrupt trip. I also asked the Guv to do some research on the Granville curse. I was sure he would know, or be able to find out a considerable amount about the ancient geise.
My silver haired superior had not been in London when I left, but I knew he was due back at any time, my only hope was that he had the time to do the research and would not be angry that I had taken off without waiting to consult him.
The local train to Hexham was an older one. The coaches were cramped and open but the passengers were mostly hardy country folk who were used to enduring such conditions. Several recognized Andrew and greeted him warmly, not having heard the news yet about his pater.
My friend was gracious and solicitous to the people and chose not to mention the dark news he was holding close. Instead he simply said he was back on leave and allowed the others to carry the conversation.
I could see in his manner that he had already assumed the mantel of Lord of the Granville family and the burden was heavy on his shoulders.
The trip to the small town seemed to last forever. I spent most of it looking out at the bleak countryside of the North Country, so much like my home in Edinburgh. The low rolling, brown hills seemed to march in endless echelons broken only by spurs of grey-brown rock and occasionally an explosion of gorse or wild flowers.
“Perfect place for a ghostly stallion,” I thought. “Almost too perfect.”
At Hexham we found two sturdy mounts waiting for us. They were tied to a railing outside the station and a boy stood there with a note from the stationmaster.
“Mister Granville?” the toe headed lad asked as we walked up.
“Yes,” Andrew said. He had finally begun to exhibit some nervousness as we approached his home and I could feel his tension. He handed the boy ten shillings for the rental of the horses and a good tip.
“Thank you, your lordship.” The lad said with a little awe.
“Vulture!” a harsh voice drew our attention as we prepared to mount.
“Coming back to pick the bones of Granville hall clean?” The speaker was a rough looking sort of working class type. He was accompanied by a second fellow just a coarse as himself.
“I beg your pardon?” Andrew said in an even tone. I could see the fire boiling beneath the surface as he struggled to stay calm.
“You heard Alfie,” the second man said. “The Stallion took your father and now you’ve come to lord over all of us again.”
Word travels fast, I thought. I stepped up to put a hand on my friend’s shoulder and leaned in to whisper. “We don’t need the distraction, Andy.”
He nodded and mounted. I did the same and looked back down at the two men.
“You men need to show some respect.” I could not help but make comment.
“Respect,” Alfie spit. “That’s a joke! He’s come back and brought the curse with him; What’s it do when its finishes with the nobles, eh? Goes about hunting us common folk it does!”
Andy rode ahead of me so I could not see his face but I thought I could see his neck color at the men’s words. I know I felt a premonition of darkness at his words.
It was a relief to be in the saddle, though I wish I could have brought Vindicator, my own trusty mount. We rode in that heavy silence that seemed to have settled about us for much of this trip all the way through town. Hexham was a typical North Country hamlet, prosperous but with a grayness and felling of—well—tiredness about it. Like an old duffer wanted to retire but couldn’t afford to.
“I’ve ridden this path a thousand times,” Andy finally spoke as we left the town proper behind us and headed out on a track across the heath. “It is much shorter than the road and you’ll get to see the wall part of the way there.”
We went west and a bit south of the town through tilled fields and out onto the heath. The track looped off into the low hills and soon we might have been in the middle of the Russian Steppes for the bleakness and isolation.
“The manor house is over that way,” Andy pointed after a while. “And over there is the section of the wall most connected to the curse.”
It was an unremarkable dun colored line across the horizon that was just barely recognizable as an ancient wall. Still, there was a palpable sense of age from it and I found my eyes returning to its smudged line again and again as we rode parallel to it for some quarter hour. I even looked over my shoulder one last time as we turned off toward his manor house.
Perhaps it was a trick of the late afternoon light or the afternoon mist that was rising, but I could have sworn I saw a shadowy figure standing astride the distant wall watching us.
◊ ◊ ◊
The whole of the countryside around Hexham, I knew, had been the scene of bitter conflict between England and Scotland and as a consequence, for reasons of personal security, the inhabitants had erected castles and fortified manor houses such as Ayton Castle and Granville Manor.
The Granville family residence was as ominous as the countryside around it. It was an imposing edifice of grey-black stone in the Gothic style set on a small shelf of rock that thrust up from the heath. It had high arched windows on the side I could see but rather than making it look open and inviting the windows reminded me of the empty eye sockets of a skull.
On one side of the plateau dropped off in a shear rock face to a bog with the road we approached on winding around that bog toward the far side.
“Not the most cheery place,” Andrew admitted as we rode around the building. On the far side the bleak sight was broken with a formal garden that did its best to splash color on the scene but it somehow seemed more desperate than cheerful. “The manor house, like Thrilwall Castle had been built with stone that was taken from Hadrian’s Wall. Some say that is what brought the curse along with it.”
“It has a dark face, to be sure,” I said. “But it can’t be so bad—you’re a cheery fellow after all.” This made him laugh, so I added. “Some would say Edinburgh is not the cheeriest of climbs for a lad to grow up in either.”
We rode up to the main entrance and encountered a rough fellow with a hunchback who was working on the bushes out front.
“Master Andrew!” the old fellow exclaimed as he recognized my friend. His wrinkled face split in a wide smile to reveal a mouth without full compliment of teeth. “It is good to see you—” then he caught himself and bowed his head to add, “I’m sorry it has to be under this cloud, sir.”
Andrew bound from the saddle and clapped the gardener on the shoulder. “Its good to see you, Archibald, regardless of how things are. Is Auntie and the rest inside?”
“Yes, sir,” Archibald said. “But we didn’t expect you till tomorrow.”
“I was able to catch the late train. Archibald, this is my mate, Jack Stone.”
“Sir.” He took the reins from Andy and then offered to do the same for mine. “Again, sir,” he said to Andy, “My condolences.”
Andy nodded and led me to the door. He paused for a second to gather himself. I put a hand on his shoulder and he straightened.
“Damn the torpedoes, eh?” He said then pushed the door in and we entered the foyer.
The main hall of the Granville manor was cathedral-like and just barely lit with gaslight. There was a main staircase that split both right and left and went to shadowed openings above. Two closed oak doors to the left and an open arch to an empty parlor completed the panorama of the manor’s entrance.
I had been in many grand homes but this entrance had the feel more of a mausoleum or museum than a home. Andrew took it all in with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man making his walk to the gallows.
A butler appeared from below stairs with a tray that he almost dropped when he saw my friend.
“Master Andrew?” The butler said. He showed his professionalism by recovering from his shock in a few eye blinks and added, “The others are in the study.”
“Thank you, Roland.” Andrew said. He set his jaw and slid the oak doors to the study open and I met his surviving family.
“Aunt Gloria,” Andrew said as he entered and kissed the cheek of a silver haired woman a decade older than he. I could see the Granville features on the woman who I knew was the younger sister of the deceased Lord. The angular features of the family were softened with age and a gentle smile as she welcomed her nephew. Her eyes however were keen and suspicious when she looked over at me.
“Andrew,” she said in a quiet voice. “I am so sorry about Reginald.”
“Good to see you again, boy,” a tall thin fellow who did not have Granville features said. The predominant feature of the man was a mustachios that was full and well groomed. Indeed all his clothing showed an obsessive attention to it, one might well call him a dandy save that his jet-black hair was a rat’s nest and his glowering face that seemed set in a perpetual scowl.
“Athelstan,” Andrew said. “Thank you for your cable.”
“And your friend?” the raven-haired fellow asked.
“This is Jack Stone of my Regiment,” Andy said. “He was with me when I got your note.” He looked at me and I could see he was not thrilled with the mustached fellow. “Athelstan Gaunt is married to Aunt Gloria and is the family solicitor.”
I bowed to the couple and shook hands with the fellow and was not surprised that his grip was limp and his palm damp.
The butler brought in the tray with tea and cups and set it on a table. “I am sure you gentlemen desire a little sustenance, eh?”
“If Cookie could whip something up, that would be wonderful.” Andy said. He crossed the room to a cabinet and opened it to reveal a bar. “Something to stiffen the resolve, Jack?”
“Oh yes,” I said. He poured me some single malt and one for his aunt and the four of us sat.
“So, Auntie,” my friend said. “Tell me exactly how my father died.”
Legacy of Death
Once the words were said Andy seemed to deflate, sinking into himself on the settee. He stayed focused ahead while alternately his Aunt and uncle related the facts as were known about the death of Lord Granville.
“It was Archibald who found Reginald,” the woman said. “Pollex came running home, and after your father didn’t return the staff went looking for him. He was a the foot of the wall.” She rose from the chair and walked to a glass cabinet and removed a small dark statue from the back of a shelf.
“This was clutched in your father’s hands.”
It was the image of a bearded man on a half horse-half fish.
“Is that Roman?” I asked.
“Yes,” Athelstan spoke up. “I looked it up in one Reggie’s books, it is Neptunus equestris some sort of Roman god. Apparently the cavalry had him as some sort of mascot.”
“He would have been their patron,” I said. “Each regiment would have had a sort of patron god, like we might have a patron saint.”
“Father found that at the wall?” Andrew asked.
“Yes,” Andy’s aunt said. “He must have—none of us had ever seen it before yesterday. He- he was clutching it to his chest.”
“Was it his heart?” My friend asked. The way he asked it made me think that he was almost hoping that it was.
“No,” the solicitor said. “He had been trampled; the doctor said it was as if a herd of horses had run over him but there were no horse tracks anywhere else on the heath at all.”
Andy shot back his drink in one motion. “I thought it would be just like great Granddad.”
“So it was the curse?” I said. The three of them looked at me as if I were a simpleton but Mistress Gaunt was gracious.
“I know you might think we country bumpkins are primitive folk, Captain Stone,” she said. “Simple in our beliefs and out of touch with the modern world, but I assure you we are not. Yet there are some things that are not so modern about this land; it is an old land with old, dark legends. The Phantom Stallion of the Granvilles is one of those legends. And I assure you, it is true.”
I could see that Andy, torn as he was with pain at his father’s death bridled at having his guest confronted so directly. I rushed to thwart his rising anger.
“I can assure you, madam,” I said quickly. “I do not at all take such tales lightly. You forget I am a Scot and I come from a land where such things are still part of the daily life.” I could not tell her that before my association with Doctor Argent I might have been skeptical but now I had met the forces of darkness face to snarling face and was more inclined to believe such horrors as not.
Just then the butler, Roland, brought some cold meats and bread for us and we indulged ourselves in the silence of our own thoughts while we dined. The atmosphere of gloom hung over the four of us and indeed in the very air of that old manor. I tried to assess the others as we ate but it was hard to ‘read’ them.
The solicitor, though his general demeanor seemed earnest watched all of us, his wife included with hooded eyes. Perhaps it was the natural suspicion a solicitor has of all society that makes him question everything but my impression was that it was personal with him.
Andrew’s aunt on the other hand kept her eyes on my friend, warm open eyes brimming with emotion. She, in fact, seemed on the edge of hysteria and sipped a cognac while we ate.
Andy worked to stay detached but I could see the wheels of his mind working. After a time he said, “I would like to see my father.”
“He is still in his room,” Athelstan said. “Doctor Conners pronounced him there.”
“We thought you would want to make the arrangements.” His aunt said.
“No,” Andy said, “thank you, Aunt Gloria, but I’d rather you did all that. I just want to see him to say goodbye.”
“I’ll take care of all the arrangements,” Athelestan offered. “I will ride into town before lunch.”
Andy thanked him and then rose to head upstairs. I let him go alone. Athelstan left straight away for Hexham. That left me alone with his aunt.
“You are a good friend of Andrew,” she said. She had renewed her drink and stood by the shelf where the dark statue was on display. “He needs friends now.”
“He is a true brother-in-arms and a good man,” I said with no prevarication. “I just wish there was more I could do.”
“Being with him may be enough,” she said then added ominously. “But if it is not—you must be prepared to come to his aid.”
“Are you implying that this Phantom Stallion could return?” I said. “I thought it was a generational aberration.”
The stately woman gave a short, harsh laugh. “The end of a generational aberration,” she said. She took a deep drink. “When our father died at the hands of the Phantom, Reginald and I were both shocked—for our grandfather had died at sea and no one in the line had died at the Stallion’s hooves except for Great Granddad for five generations before. But then there were other murders on the heath.”
“Yes, a girl from the village, several shepherds and a child died in similar circumstance. And possibly there were others over the last decades. Bodies found with the trample marks on them—or what could be conjectured were trample marks. Nothing could ever be proven—it could have been many accidents but it…” Her eyes teared up. “The villagers began to blame our family for somehow reawakening the curse.”
“Did it?” I asked. Her sharp look at my inquiry was almost painful. “Understand, I am not making light of your pain or of this curse. I have had some contact with such things and there is usually some sort of trigger. Even the seemingly irrational has a rational structure to it.”
She considered what I had said for a long breath then said, “My great grandfather had begun to make surveys at the edge of our land with an eye toward irrigation the land near the Wall. That was what made the townsfolk angry, there had been exploratory trenches dug and certain objects from the past were uncovered.”
“Like that Neptune statue?” I rose and poured myself a second drink, sure that I would need to be fortified for my next move.
“Yes.” She surprised me with a genuine laugh that harkened back to a happier time and I could see that she must have been quite a beauty before the worry lines aged her. “My brother got his fascination for ancient artifacts then, pulling coins and such from the trenches. It was—it was why he often went walking along the wall.”
“I promise you madam,” I said. “I will do my utmost to stop this curse here and now. And I will protect Andy.” She looked at me with an odd expression, apparently trying to decide if I was just humoring her or was serious. She made her decision and gave me a smile.
“I believe you will, young man,” she said.
“Or die trying,” I added.
“God bless you for that!”
Just then I noticed that the hunchbacked gardener was standing in the doorway.
“’Scuse me, folks,” he said. He held his shapeless hat in his hands and wrung it. “Will you be wanting me to stable the master and his friend’s horses in the main stable?”
“We leased them,” I said. “But I think you should leave them saddled right now; I suspect Master Granville and I will have one more ride before you bed the animals down for the night.”
“Another ride?” Mrs. Gaunt asked.
“To the Wall,” I said. “If I know Andrew he will want to visit the spot where his father was found.”
Mrs. Gaunt gave a short gasp. “No. Andrew can’t want to—“
“Yes, I do,” my friend said. He came into the room from the hall. His eyes were red rimmed but his posture was dress parade erect. “I think I’d like to do it before dinner.”
“I’ll take you, sir,” Archibald offered. “I’ll just go saddle old Bessy.” The aged gardener left after accepting a pat on his shoulder from Andy.
“Do you think it wise, Andrew?” His aunt asked. “It can only bring more pain.”
“There can be no more pain, Auntie,” he said. “Only answers. That is what I have to find.” He looked at me and I gave him the most confident smile I could manage.
“And with those, my friend,” I said. “I can help.”
The Dark of the Past
The ride out from Granville Manor was a somber and silent one. My friend seemed infused with purpose by his vigil with his father’s body and his jaw was set in a fashion I had only seen before we rode into battle.
Good for you, lad, I thought. If you view this as a battle we can beat it, that’s something I’ve learned from Doctor Argent.
The hunchback led us across the heath down a narrow but well defined track over the low hills. He respected his master’s quiet focus and kept his directions to a minimum until we were almost on the wall.
“I found his Lordship over that way,” Archibald said pointing. “Almost at the foot of the damned thing.”
I was reminded of the violent history of the countryside as we passed the ruins of one of the smaller “bastle houses” or fortified farmhouses which are unique to Northumberland. It seemed to me an ominous omen of things dark and dangerous.
There was a ground fog crawling along the hollows of the broken land that did not improve the mood of any of us as we approached the ruined military emplacements.
It was my first time to actually study the wall, a fact that shames my Scottish heritage.
The magnificent wall ran for 73 miles and caused me to marvel at the Romans. Their engineers made use of every natural point of strength and at its highest it rose to 1230ft above sea level. It stood at nearly 5 meters in height at some points and large forts about 5 miles apart as well as numerous mile castles.
It was, at least in the sections we were approaching, still recognizable as the cut stone battlements with the ruins of the commander’s house, the praetorium, clearly visible.
Stones had been taken from parts of the wall but it was so vast a structure that it was still at least shoulder high to me or more in most places. It stretched to the horizon on both sides, a long snaking line of orange-yellow rock that stood out against the brown and green of the coarse grass.
“Over there, sir,” Archibald said. He pointed to a spot inside a square of stones that butted to one of the higher sections of the wall. It seems to have been a major building, probably from its location I would guess a cavalry barracks.
We dismounted and the hunchback led us to the center of the ghost space. “Here, Master Andrew,” the old man said pointing down at the ground. “Right here.” The location was almost dead center within the low stones of the square enclosure.
Andy stood there with a strange expression on his face and for a moment I thought he might faint, the color draining from his already pale cheeks. He rallied, however and nodded. “Here, Archibald?”
“Exactly, Master,” the hunchback said. He knelt and patted the disturbed earth of the enclosure. “Right here. Lord Reginald was facing the wall, clutching that statue. His eyes were open and, well, his expression was such as I’ve never seen nor never hope to see again. Scared he was, truly scared.”
Once more Andy seemed to waver and I stepped up to put a steadying hand on his shoulder. He stiffened then nodded. He dropped to one knee and ran a hand along the rough grass as if he could feel where his father’s last breath might still be lying for him to recapture.
I stepped away to give him privacy and noticed something shiny in the dirt near the wall. I went to it and stopped to discover that it was a small medallion in the shape of a female wolf. It was something such as a soldier might have worn long ago for good luck, invoking the wolf-mother that had suckled Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome.
I raised it to my eye-line to study it and suddenly I felt a strange tingle in all my limbs. I felt dizzy and red spots swam before my eyes. I shook my head to clear it and blinked hard; suddenly I was not looking at the ruins of a stone home but was inside a fully realized one.
There was more, however, I was standing inside a stone home that was abuzz with activity. There was fire roaring in a hearth and a pot simmering over it. To my right I saw the statue of Neptunus equestris that I had seen in the Granville manor house. On my left there were local gods on their own shelf, I guess the two were not meant to mix.
A spotted tabby cat ran across the room chasing an imaginary mouse and a woman swept with a crude homemade broom.
The woman was dressed in a shapeless dun colored dress and had her straw colored hair tied back with a red cloth. She looked over at me and I saw her eyes go wide.
“What do you want here, Centurion?” She said at me. Her words were harsh and I realized with a bit of shock that they were not in English. She spoke a guttural Latin, yet I understood them!
She stared at me and her plain but pretty features darkened. “I asked you a question, Roman,” She said. “You were told to stay away from here by your commander.”
I was stunned by her pronouncement and more so by the voice—which was mine and not mine—that answered her in Latin. “I told you I’d be back, Elgiue. You made it difficult for me with the commander when you reported me.”
The woman spit. “You Romans are all alike but at least Maximus Flavius keeps his word. He promised to punish all those who hurt Algiwa.”
“That wench was asking for it,” I heard my voice snarl. ”She had no business in the barracks if she didn’t want a little fun.”
“Algiwa was a good girl, Gaius,” the blonde woman said. She threw down her broom and for a moment I thought she would spring across the room at me. “You soldiers got her drunk, you used her like a bar whore and then threw her away. The shame was too much for her and she took her own life.”
“Your lying like that got me a reprimand before the whole cohort,” I heard myself say. “I swear by my wolf pendant that I will see you pay for that.”
My words seemed to ignite a fire in the Saxon woman, she charged across the dirt floor of the hovel and jumped at my face. The hands that came up to protect me were mine and not mine. They were a brute’s hands wearing the vambraces of a Roman soldier.
That strange self of me grabbed the woman and savaged her, slamming her against the stone wall of the enclosure. I heard my other-self screaming obscenities as I repeatedly smashed her against the wall. I slammed her against the shelf where the family gods were set.
Somehow I knew that was how I lived my life—that other life—somehow I knew this was ‘normal’ for the Centurion I was experiencing.
I now knew I was experiencing what Doctor Argent called “psychometry’- the art of gathering vibrations from objects to ‘read’ them and experience what the owners had. The wolf medallion I had found had belonged to that soldier so long ago and somehow—though I had never experienced such a phenomena before—I was seeing through his eyes.
It was a strange duel reality for I was aware I was Jack Stone and yet knew I was Gaius Cipprio of the 9th Legion of Imperial Rome. I knew I was living in the time when the wall was still manned and I knew without a doubt that I was alive when the curse of the Granville’s had been made.
The Saxon woman was barely conscious when I finally forced myself to release her. She fell hard against the shelf where Neptunus equestris rested and grabbed it up to thrust at me as if it where a talisman and a shield. She glared up at my ancient self with undisguised hate and hissed, “I curse you, Roman, and all your seed. May your own gods curse you and may death follow in your wake.”
Then my ancient self—my Roman self killed her with single knife thrust to her heart.
I felt sick, staggeringly sick, suddenly, and backed out of the stone hut. The sunlight was blinding and I blinked hard.
To my right the fully intact wall rose almost shining in the sunlight. Guards in full segmenta armor stood upon the battlements facing outward, northward, watching for the wild, painted Scots beyond.
All around me was the bustle and noise of a military camp, so familiar yet so different from those I had been in, in my ‘modern’ life. There were townsfolk too, tent-like structures butted to the wall and various domestic and herd animals.
I felt dizzy again and the sickness in my gut seemed to travel to all my limbs. I shuddered and made a noise such as I have never heard before, a whining cry that came from within my very soul.
My yell attracted the attention of some of the Saxons working nearby and two of the legionaries who were attending to horses. All eyes turned toward me as I dropped to my knees and writhed.
The Horror on the Heath
I felt my other-self, long ago, body change.
The shadow of my body on the ground began to alter as I stared at it. I saw my chest deepen, my neck elongate and my arms lengthen. On the side of my head I could see my ears growing upward even as my nose elongated. My skull widened and grew larger as my neck widened to support it.
My mind went to the statue of Neptunus equestris and I saw in my mind’s eye the ancient god laughing at me.
The looks of horror on all the faces around me, the cries of ‘Demon!” and screams from the children told me what that deity had done to me.
My ancient self, my transformed self, felt only rage at the cries from the onlookers. That rage grew within the beast I had become and I reared up, spinning to face the tormentors and attacked.
I shudder to recall the savagery of my ancient self as I struck out at the watchers with my hands and feet that were now hooves. I spun and reared, kicked back with my hind legs and whinnied in fury. Skulls cracked, blood ran yet, despite my horror at my own actions I pressed on till all around me was red.
I heard Latin and Gaelic screams of ‘stop him!’ were all around me. I barely heard them. The blood that splattered on my hooves pounded in my ears as well and I became dizzy again.
I fell forward to my fore-hooves and my elongated, now massive head dropped in despair. I close my eyes to blot out the horror I had wrought and wished I had hands to put over my ears to blot out the roar and the screams to terror.
“Jack!” Andy yelled at me. “Jack, are you alright?” I felt his shaking my shoulder and I looked up at my friend who, it seemed was pale with fear.
I blinked. Behind him there was no stonewall, just the ruins of one. I was kneeling in traces of the old buildings again and was back on the heath outside Granville Manor.
I held up a hand—an actual hand before my eyes and realized I was holding the wolf medallion in it. I was back to myself again.
“Andy?” I mumbled.
“You had us worried there, old fellow,” Andy said. “You started to totter over then came swaggering out here making the oddest noises.” Beyond my friend I could see the hunchbacked gardener looking at me oddly.
“I—uh—I had the strangest experience,” I managed to say. I looked down at the medallion and had a flash of insight. I had a real idea now what I was dealing with.
“Here,” Andy said offering me some of my own flask of whiskey, “You need this.” I took it gratefully. “We had better get back,” he added with an attempt at a smile, ‘ it is getting near supper time and Cookie’s meals are not to be missed.”
I was unsteady on my feet so Andy helped me to my mount. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not sure what came over me.” It was a lie, of course, I knew fully well what had occurred, though, to be sure, not the full meaning of it.
I had no doubt I had witnessed not only the beginning of the curse itself but the full extent of it and why it had come in full force in the recent history of the Granville family. I knew I had to get to town to wire Doctor Argent or possibly ring him on a telephone if there was one to be found in the hamlet.
“Town,” I mumbled to Andy. “I think it’s a stomach ailment I picked up in Pretoria; I’ll head into the apothecary and get a powder for it.”
“Are you sure you’re up for it, chum?” My friend asked. “You looked even paler than your usual Highland pallor back there.”
I laughed. “You can shepherd me if you’d like, but I’m okay now.”
“I had better head home to take a look at my father’s papers,” Andy said.
I hated to lie to my friend, but I also did not want to alarm him with the knowledge that I had so little power against the impending evil that plagued his family.
I remember little of the ride back to town save that I had to keep myself from falling off my mount several times. I guess my time traveling excursion had taken more out of me than I had thought. “Wonder how the Guv does it so often; no wonder he trains so hard.” I had seen Doctor Argent do much longer sessions of psychometry and shown no ill effects; but he also spent hours each day in meditation and exotic exercises that I had not, until then, appreciated.
I reached Hexham and located a telegraph office that also had a telephone I could use. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Doctor was at his office.
“Yes, I got your message, Jack,” he said. “I returned this morning and set about researching your problem; I’m afraid that is not much I could determine save that there seems to be at least a dozen deaths attributed to this Phantom Stallion killer in the last decade.”
“That is concerning,” I said, “but how could it be connected to the family?”
“I am not sure, but there may be a pattern appearing,” He said. “The local papers also speak of disappearances of young men and women with considerable passion.”
I went on to tell him of my experience with the wolf pendant at the wall. This seemed to worry him.
“I will make my way up to you as soon as I can,” the Doctor said. “But I suggest you stay as close as possible with your friend until then and keep him off the heath certainly at night; I suspect there is something at work here. It is very real, and serious, not just a mere family legend.”
It was a sobering pronouncement, but I promised him I would do my best to protect Andy.
When I exited the telegraph office I was sobered by my conversation the Guv, my mind was on what I had experienced on the heath and so was distracted enough to bump into a passerby on the darkening street.
“Excuse me,” I half-mumbled.
“Well look’er, Alfie,” a familiar voice answered me. “It is Mister High-and-Mighty’s mate.” I looked up to see the two roughnecks from out arrival the day before.
I studied them now, laborers, obviously, with well-worn clothes and weathered, rough features. Alfie was ginger haired like myself with broad shoulders. He was a head shorter than his vocal friend.
“I think he ought to get himself some spectacles, eh Byron?” Alfie said in a low growl that was more animal than human. “Or maybe learn to look where he’s going.”
“I think he’s too proud to get glasses, Alfie,” Bryon said. He was blond and had the pale beginnings of a mustache above his sneering mouth. “Or maybe he just doesn’t care about us regular folk.”
“No offense was meant,” I said to diffuse the situation. It was hard for my Scot’s blood to back down from the fight the two men were angling for but Andy at home by himself was on my mind. It seemed urgent that I return.
“Hear that, Alfie,” the blond said. “No offense meant.”
“Well I was offended,” the beetle-browed redhead said. “I think he wasn’t very sincere in that apology. At all.”
There are limits to patience. In, or perhaps because of, my unnerved state from my time travel encounter, I wanted for some physical release. Still, I tried once more for the Christian path.
“I reiterate, sirs,” I said in a calm voice. “No offense was meant. Please allow me to go about my business.” I made to step past the two men but Alfie put a hand on my arm to stop me.
“I said apologize!” He snarled.
The limit was passed.
Before either man could proceed further I slapped the red head’s hand off me and snapped out a jab to his nose. Not hard, just enough to make his eyes water and get him away from me.
Byron moved quickly at me but his staggering friend got in the way and I was able to launch an over hand right directly over the whimpering thug’s head at Byron.
My blow landed solidly on the blond’s jaw and he dropped with no more fight in him.
Alfie had recovered enough sight to realize what had happened and tried to use his great bulk to grab for me but I was having none of it.
I hopped back on one foot and kicked out with my other boot to strike him on the leading knee that caused him to collapse over with a cry of agony.
I stepped in and struck him soundly on the temple and rendered him unconscious so that he dropped directly over the prostrate form of his friend.
They looked for all-the-world like two drunks sleeping off a bad night, which indeed it had been for them.
I made my way to my horse just as the exhilaration of the altercation began to drain and my legs went rubbery beneath me. I managed to mount and gave the horse his head and he knew the way back to the manor. It was a slow trip and it was late afternoon by the time I made it back.
I was a little steadier by the time I returned to the manor, but still tired. I was able to get to my room and have a toes-up until mealtime by which time I felt my old self again.
“You’re looking better, sir,” the hunchback gardener said when I came down in full dress for supper. He was passing the open window to the side garden with an armload of pottery when I happened to pause to look out on the now gloomy evening across the heath. The moon was just up, looming like a Cyclops through the dense fog, winking in and out of the cloud cover.
“Told you I would be chipper,” I said smiling at the memory of my knuckles on Alfie’s head. “Highland constitution, don’t you know?”
“Indeed, sir.” Archibald said.
“Where’s master Andrew?” I asked.
“He went walking out toward the wall just a little bit ago, sir. As he used to, to clear his head a bit, he said.”
“By himself?” I said. “The Wall?” But I wasn’t really asking him, I was moving as quickly as I could to the west and the wall.
The path was a clear one and I knew that Andrew’s father had used it many times to head out on his rambles. I had a horrible premonition of danger for my friend and his aunt that was only exacerbated by the gathering darkness.
A thick ground fog was crawling up across the heath again and in moments even the manor house behind me was a mere smudge in the grey evening. Above it the blurred image of the full moon was attempting to push through the mist.
“Andy!” I called but my words were swallowed by the fog. “Answer me!”
There was no reply but a sound, a strange sound drew my attention off to my right. It was a guttural cry of pain.
I started to run.
“Andy!” I called. There was no reply but the grunt sound happened again followed by what I can only liken to a mallet hitting a sack of millet. I knew that sound; a beating was in progress.
I topped a small rise just as there was a break in the fog and the moon illuminated a scene from hell: Andy was on the ground doubled over in a fetal position trying to protect his head. Above him was a sight I had never imagined nor ever hoped to see.
It was indistinct in detail, seeming to rise out of the ground mist like the Phantom is was so named. At first glance it looked like a Lusitano horse. It was a good eighteen hands high.
What was visible in the gathering darkness and the fog was such a horse as I had never seen before.
Its head was somehow deformed, the proportions of the great triangular head not right. The teeth of the monster were not the square ones of a normal horse but looked more like the fangs of a great cat.
What I could see of the haunches of the great beast seemed to have scales that were more that of a fish or snake than of an equine animal. It had a white coat but flame red mane and tail and eyes that reflected crimson in the sliver of moonlight. The equine horror reared back and flailed its fore-hooves at my fallen friend.
“Stop,” I screamed impotently. I started to run faster, flailing my arms wildly as I knew would frighten off any normal wild horse. This, however, was no normal wild horse.
Instead of chasing the equine horror my waving my arms I drew its attention and it focused its fiery eyes on me. It was an eerie feeling for there seemed to be an intelligence behind those red eyes that was well beyond any I had ever seen in any animal. More frightening was that the intelligence seemed to be totally focused on hate. Hate so pure and virulent that it startled me.
Then the horse with the bloody hooves charged straight at me!
Out of the Mist
I was so startled by the sudden change of events that for a moment I came to a complete halt. For an infinite moment it felt as if my muscles would not respond to my command to dodge out of the monster’s path. It bore down on me with frightening speed. I felt transfixed by the mythic horror’s lambent eyes and my muscles palsied.
Suddenly life came back to me and I managed to dart to my left to avoid the attack at the last moment. I dove to the turf and rolled behind a hillock as the creature raced past me with the mass and speed of a runaway steam engine.
There was no mistaking that the beast was intelligent in the next moment for it veered when it went past, racing around me to cut off my retreat so I could not go back toward the house. It stood pawing the earth of the path and snorting like one of the riders of the apocalypse, the fog swirling around it as if bubbling up from the pits of hell. It seemed to dare me to try and get past it.
I was on my feet now and managed to angle myself to head toward Andy. He was sprawled on the ground and moaning. I could not run to him directly for the hellish equine whirled again to come after me.
I dodged into a small depression behind another hillock that blocked me from the animal’s view and tried to come up with some plan. I had to either get to Andy to aid him, get to the manor for help or find some way to stop the monstrous misshapen equine myself.
There seemed no reasonable way to get to the manor and no point in getting to Andy if I could not stop the horse so I was forced to accept that a good defense would have to be a good offense.
I picked up two fist-sized rocks and looked around for a high point from which I might be able to leap down upon the demon beast. I heard it moving around the knoll to come for me.
That was when Andy’s moan drew its attention to him again. The beast turned to head for him and I used the distraction to race up the slight rise in the ground till I was above it.
The frightful monster was ten feet from my friend, now in a slow advance, head lowered, fearsome teeth in a snarl. It moved in more like a great cat stalking prey then a horse.
“Here, Neptune!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. The long ears of the monster twitched but it kept its head down, eyes focused on the helpless Andy.
“Do you want to know how Algiwa squealed when I stuck her?” I hurled at the beast with the most vicious tone I could muster. The foul comment got the reaction I wanted and the equine horror snapped its head around to stare at me.
I threw the rock with all my might with my best Cricket toss.
The rock flew true, smashing into the horrid head right between its eyes. The sound was like a solid batsman’s hit, a sharp crack followed by a strange whinny from the beast.
I raised the second rock to throw even as the monstrosity staggered, almost dropping to its right fore knee.
Before I could throw the second stone, and with a cry I could only interpret as a moan, it lopped off into the gathering fog.
I ran to Andy’s side.
“My god, man!” He gasped at me. “What was that?”
“Your past catching up with you, Andrew, old fellow,” I said. I looked to his wounds, which fortunately looked superficial while keeping an eye to the trail where the monster had fled.
“Gone for the moment,” I said. “But it could lick its wounds and come back any time. Can you walk?”
“I bloody well can run if that thing comes back,” He said with considerable pain in his voice but with the pluck I knew he had. “Let’s go.”
I helped him to his feet and half-carried, half-dragged him back down the path to the manor house. I kept the second rock in my hand the entire walk but the beast did not make a reappearance.
By the time we reached the manor house Andy was all but unconscious and I was actually carrying him. I kicked the door and yelled until it was opened.
“Master Andrew!” The butler was beside himself when he saw the state of my friend and lost all of his professional demeanor. I had to order him sharply to get him moving to help carrying Andy to the parlor where we set him on the divan. I began to open Andy’s jacket to assess the extent of his injuries.
Like a good cavalryman my friend had protected his head fairly well from the attack, but his ribs and back were already showing bruises and I feared internal injury.
“Bring some wash clothes and some hot water for me to clean these wounds.” A maid ran off to comply. I grabbed a brandy bottle and poured a small glass that I induced Andy to drink. I ordered the butler. “Call for the physician.”
“Someone will have to ride for the doctor,” the now calmer Roland said. “We have none of the new phones.”
“Send them then,” I said. Despite no obviously or bloody wounds on his head I was sure Andy had sustained some head blows as he was slipping in and out of consciousness now. “I can deal with the superficial cuts, but this will require more care than I can give.”
“What is the commotion?” Athelstan Gaunt called as he and his wife came running, from two different wings of the house.
“Andrew! “The woman exclaimed when she saw her nephew. “What in heaven’s name happened?” His aunt asked. She was in a dressing gown, her hair all-askew. She knelt by the head of the divan and cradled Andy’s head in her hands.
I was washing some of the open wounds on Andy’s chest and looked up to answer her but stopped when I saw her husband. The solicitor was in a smoking jacket and fez, but what caught my attention was a large red knot on his forehead.
“What happened to you?” I blurted out.
He looked at me oddly then touched the bump on his forehead. “Uh—a book fell from a shelf. Nuisance, but nothing of concern.”
I was about to say something when the front doorbell chimed.
I went back to Andy’s wounds without any more comment and was so occupied when a commotion at the front door, followed by a booming, familiar voice.
I looked up to see the Guv—Doctor Augustus Argent step into the foyer of the manor. He was wearing an Inverness coat, holding a Gladstone bag in one hand and had, what appeared to be a rolled up Persian carpet slung over one shoulder. He was sans cap and his long white hair was a tangle as if wind blown.
“Well, Jack,” he said when he saw what I was doing. “I seem to have come at exactly the opportune moment!”
I must have looked more than a little stunned to see my mentor standing there.
“Doctor Argent?” I blurted out with idiot certainty. “How—I mean—You were in London—”
“Doctor?” Athelstan said. “Are you a medical doctor, sir?”
“Among other things,” the Silver Fox said as he strode into the room. He handed the rolled carpet to the butler. “Do keep my trusty steed for me.” He said then moved to kneel beside Andy’s head, a look of concern on his face.
“You’ve made a good start, Jack, but there is a bit to do here. You can tell me exactly what happened as I work.” He looked up to the still startled Roland. “Fetch me hot water, some honey and several large bowls.” After he issued the orders the Doctor removed his Inverness coat and jacket and rolled up his sleeves.
The butler did as asked after handing off the rolled carpet to the gardener, glad, I suspect, to be away from the piercing gaze of the Silver Fox.
I gave a concise summery of what had happened to Andy while my mentor examined his wounds in great detail.
“Who is this man, Captain Stone?” Mrs. Gaunt asked me in a shaky voice. She stood by with her husband in an apparent state of shock.
“The man who will save this young man if I am not interrupted, Madam,” Doctor Argent said briskly. He opened his Gladstone and proceeded to remove several vials and set them on the table beside the divan.
Athelstan was about to object to the brusk tone of the silver haired mage but I held up a hand.
“Doctor Argent is attached to the Home Office,” I said. “And is very well versed in matters such as this.” I stood and escorted the couple out of the parlor. “I promise he will only help, Mistress Gaunt, but we must let him do his work.”
I met the maid returning with the supplies Doctor Argent had requested and brought them in to him.
“How is he?” I asked.
“Fine, Jack,” the silver haired mage said with a slight smile. “He is strong and you did a good job cleaning the wounds. Now we will let the honey and these powders do the rest.”
He proceeded to smear honey into the open wounds and drop some powder onto the edges before bandaging them. When he saw my questioning look he said. “The Egyptians used honey to prevent wounds like these from putrefying and it helps them heal faster—as do these powders.”
He mixed some more powders in the bowl I’d brought and made a sort of broth to give to Andy to sip. “And this will help heal him on the inside.” While he worked the silver haired Doctor chanted under his breath in a language I could not identify but had the weight of age in its syllables.
I watched as Andy settled back on the divan with a calm expression on his face and listened as his breathing evened and deepened. He seemed at peace.
“He needs rest now,” the Doctor said as he rose. He rolled his sleeves down and took up his jacket. “Though I would prefer someone watch him; if there is any change I should be summoned.” For the first time I could see that behind his mask of vitality my mentor was tired. “I need some rest myself,” he admitted.
“I will see a servant watches over him,” I promised. “Come. We will get you a room.” As we turned to leave he picked up his Gladstone bag then indicated the rolled rug. “Do take my steed with you.”
“You said that before,” I said. “Do you mean—?”
“How else do you think I made it up here from London so quickly?’ He smiled. “A little something I picked up in Arabia some decades ago; but seldom have occasion to use.” He shrugged, “ I don’t really like heights.”
Amazed at his confession I led him out into the hall and sent a serving girl to keep watch over her master.
“How is he?” Lady Gaunt asked.
“As well as could be expected,” Doctor Argent said. “He is strong and young and will recover fully.”
“Thank God!” Athelstan exclaimed.
“But what does it all mean?” The lady asked.
“That is the dark question here,’ Argent said. “I feel there are no answers yet, however. Certainly not tonight. Better to discuss the shadows in the daylight.” With that he turned to the butler, all but dismissing our hosts and said, “Please show me to a room and draw me a bath. I feel I need it.”
He led the confused butler up the stair while the Gaunts fumed and I did my best to sooth them with, “The Guv is a little unorthodox, ma’am, but he is the right man to clear this all up, the curse and all. Just bear with him.”
They were about to question me but I shouldered Doctor Argent’s flying carpet and headed up the stairs to my own room.
I could almost hear the silence behind me as I ascended, and I must say, that though I felt their confusion-bred annoyance I had such confidence in the Guv and his abilities I knew that any rudeness would be forgiven when the whole of the story came out.
When I reached the Guv’s room I knocked and then brought in the carpet at his call of, “Enter, Jack!”
The Doctor was stripped to his waist and just donning a robe as I entered. His musculature was symmetrical and wiry with no fat at all. “Just set the carpet over there,” he indicated a chair.
“Just what is it all about, Doctor?” I asked. “You were a bit short with them downstairs, sir, if I might say. More so than usual.”
He gave a short laugh. “Well, yes. Downright rude I’d say.”
“Indeed, sir,” I said, actually relieved he was aware of his abruptness.
“There was a reason,” He said.
“I am relieved to knew that sir, though I suspected as much. But why?”
“This curse is a deeply imbedded terror, Jack,” he said. “And I think it better, for this night at least, for the Gaunts to be annoyed at me than fearing the lurking curse.”
“What is to be done?”
The silver haired mage shrugged. “I do not know yet; I will investigate in the daylight, meditate and we will see.”
He walked out with me to head to the bathroom stopping to add, “You did right to call me; your friend Andrew was lucky you came with him. More will be discovered in the morning. Now get some rest.”
Horror on the Heath
In the morning the heath outside of the manor house was no more cheerful than it had been the night before. A low, dense fog crawled along the hollows, lit by the rising sun it glowed a blue-white.
I was looking at it form the window of the breakfast room, casting my eyes in the direction of the Wall when Mrs. Gaunt and her husband entered. Both were more composed by a night of sleep, but still a bit on edge.
“I just checked on Andrew,” I said before either spoke. “He is resting comfortably and in a natural sleep.” Both visibly relaxed. “Doctor Argent looked in on him before I did and pronounced him well on the mend, but it is best we let him rest.”
“Where is this Doctor of yours?” Athelstan asked.
All three took their seats at the table as the servants began to bring in the food.
“The Guv is out for a morning constitutional,” I said as I buttered a scone. “He likes to start the day off with it to clear his head.”
“Well I wish you would clear the air,” the solicitor. “Just what steps are you and this—Doctor fellow—doing to find out what happened to Andrew?”
Before I could answer the Silver Fox strode into the room like a stalking lion, his long white hair streaming behind him. He eschewed a starched collar on his white shirt and was wearing an old style long blue jacket, gold waistcoat and green trousers. His whole image was of a swashbuckling figure that might have stepped out of an American Penny Dreadful.
“’Morning, all!” Doctor Argent said as he took a place at the table. He was so vital and energetic that the room seemed to brighten. All conversation halted while we ate, inspired, in part, by his great delight in the consumption.
“Doctor,” Mrs. Gaunt said after a bit, “I—uh—about my nephew—“
“Young Lord Granville is resting naturally, madam,” Argent said in a calm, confident voice. “I would suggest he do so most of the day to be sure he is well past any crisis.”
“What are you doing about the Stallion?” Andy’s aunt asked.
“Investigating, madam,” the Guv said. “Directly after breakfast Jack and I shall venture to look over where the attack occurred.”
“But—Andrew is vulnerable.” She insisted.
“He is safe in this house, certainly during daylight,” Doctor Argent said. “By dark we will formulate a plan.”
True to his word after breakfast the Guv and I walked out to the heath—he insisted on walking that we might survey the ground of both attacks.
He moved along slowly, his eyes glued to the terrain like a red Indian, which only increased his resemblance to one of the American Dime novel heroes. Occasionally he would stoop the touch or even sniff the ground.
When he had seen where the old Lord had died we went to the sight of the attack on Andy. After he prowled about for a while he stood, brushed dirt off his trousers and looked at me with intense eyes.
“I know why the attacks occurred when they did now, Jack.” He said, “And it is all the more important that we keep young Granville off the heath this night.”
“What have you found, sir?”
He looked across the dun colored landscape toward the remnants of the wall and kept me in suspense for a while then said simply, “Would it not be most interesting if Neptunus equestris, as he is connected to the sea, were not connected to the tides?”
I was about to ask him what he meant but he turned on his heels and headed back to the manor without filling me in on his plans. It wasn’t so unusual, he had done it before, but it was no less frustrating for its familiarity.
◊ ◊ ◊
Andy improved markedly during the day though the Doctor and his Aunt both agreed that he should stay in his room to continue to recover. He bridled at that, but I kept him occupied with chess and conversation when he had strength enough and was able to let him rest when he did not.
By Dinnertime the sun was setting and the fall mist was crawling along the hollows of the countryside, given eerie sentience by a low moon.
The Gaunt’s were already seated at the table when I burst into the room.
“Andy’s gone!” I yelled.
“What?” Athelstan blurted out. “What do you mean, gone?” He leapt to his feet.
“When I went to his room just now he was not there. I asked the servants and they—there!” I pointed out the window. “On the path to the heath!”
They looked and we could all just see Andrew’s dress jacket disappearing over a hill into the fog.
“Oh my goodness!” Mrs. Gaunt exclaimed. “What is he thinking!”
“We have to stop him!” I yelled as I raced from the room and out of the manor house. The two of them followed.
The fog was so thick now that the moment we were in it the path all but disappeared ahead of us and we were forced to retard out steps to less than a full run.
“I can’t see the bloody pathway,” Athelstan said after a few minutes.
“We have to find him,” I said with urgency when we reached a point in the trail where it could have gone a number of ways. “We should split up.”
The other two reluctantly agreed and headed off into the deep dark.
“Andrew!” Mrs. Gaunt yelled.
“Andrew!” Athelstan called in echo.
The sound of both their voices were muffled in the enveloping mist and soon I was as alone in the fog as if I were on the dark side of the moon.
I was forced to proceed slowly, at little more than a walk, by the enveloping miasma which allowed little of the gibbous moon’s light for vision.
A few minutes of this and I came to a deep hollow where the fog seemed more solid than liquid and across which I could see the bright red of Andrew’s jacket.
“Andrew!” I called out.
“Here!” a harsh, whispered voice came back.
Just then a nightmare figure exploded out of the fog and galloped toward the jacket; the Phantom Stallion!
The hideous beast, barely visible in the gloom, rocketed toward the slash of red and proceeded to rear and strike, slamming down with the front hooves in a viscous and calculated attack.
I pulled my Webley, took deliberate aim and squeezed off three shots.
There was a hellacious caterwauling, a scream from the dark realms themselves that emanated from the throat of the beast and the creature wheeled. It raced off into the fog as I ran down toward the sight of the attack.
The jacket, torn to shreds was stomped into the ground and it was clear it had been hanging on a bush, an effective decoy for the Phantom. Of its wearer, there was no sign.
Just then I heard something else that changed everything.
“Captain Stone?” It was the voice of Andy’s Aunt Gloria! Her voice sounded strained and full of fear. “Help me!”
By the Wall
“Where are you?” I called as I ran toward where I thought she was calling from. I rounded a clump of gorse to see her kneeling in the middle of a small clearing looking desperately around her.
“Help me!” she said again. I looked around for any sign of the deadly phantom animal.
“Did you see the beast?’ I asked scanned the area around her.
“I was looking for Andrew and—and—“ she whimpered, “ and then out of nowhere the beast charged me.” She started to sob, “Andrew is he—me -“ She broke down completely, here shoulders jumping violently.
I saw no sign of the demon horse and so raced over to her. “We have to get you to high ground,” I said, still looking around. “I’ll hide you and then see if he is alright.”
I got about a yard from the noble woman when suddenly she stopped crying and looked up at me with a hideous grin on her face. There was something horribly familiar in her expression.
“You fool!” she said. “You are all just as gullible as the Romans were.”
I knew then where I had seen that expression; it was exactly the same I had seen in my time travel transportation into the past on the woman who began the Granville curse.
I started to back away from the mad light in her eyes but Mrs. Gaunt sprang to her feet and knocked the pistol from my hand, sending it skittering off into the gloom of the fog.
“Mrs. Gaunt,” I yelled, “You have to stop, now. I know your secret!”
The woman ignored my statement and stepped back, stood up tall and began to change. As I stared unbelievingly at her, the woman’s body began to warp and twist, her neck growing longer, her head widening. Her clothes became absorbed into her body that grew in width and height so that in less than a dozen eye blinks her whole body changed and grew, swelling to massive proportions until she had become the demon horse I had seen earlier.
The Phantom Stallion was, in fact, a Phantom Mare!
Before I could react the devil beast launched at me with a whinnying snarl. I back-pedaled and threw up my left arm in shock. The beast’s large teeth sinking into my upraised arm before I could strike out with my right fist to smash her on the nose. She released me with a snort and I ran back around the clump of gorse.
The bite was not really such a ‘little thing’—it was deep and was bleeding quite a bit. I did my best to ignore it as the transformed woman called to me.
“Give up, Captain,” Gloria Gaunt called, “You can not escape me or the curse. Not now.”
“Why?” I called out, “Why betray your brother and all the other deaths?”
The demonic laugh that came out of the fog was part human—part animal—almost a whinny. “I have been born and reborn through the generations of the Granville family; I have always been the child of Elgiue.” Her voice came from the darkness all around me and I could not get a read on where the monster was.
“I have not always been born in each generation, it is true,” she added, “and sometimes the men died from war or other things, but mostly, I waited until the were in the fullness of their lives than I took it from them.”
She sounded closer, almost on top of me. I stooped and seized a rock, holding it tightly preparing to launch it at any target that presented itself.
“I will stop you,” I called out. “If it is my last breath I will stop you.”
“I have heard that before,” she said. “But the truth is, when I finish with you I will return to my fallen nephew and will end the line of the Granvilles once and for all.”
My pulse raced, my heart pumped rapidly and my breath came in ragged, shallow gulps. The fog muffled all sounds so I could not tell where she was.
“You are wrong there,” I called. “Andrew is still resting quietly in his bed.”
I heard an intake of breath from the Phantom. “What? But I saw—“
“You saw me leaving the manor house,” Doctor Argent, in shirt sleeves, said as he stepped out of the fog. “Jack moved his friend to his own room and I wore your nephew’s jacket to lead you and your husband out here to the heath.”
“How did you know?” She said.
“I suspected,” the Silver Fox said. He stepped up to beside me and placed a hand on my shoulder to reassure me. “I discovered that the hoof prints on the heath appeared to end abruptly to be replaced by human ones and I took note of the influence of the moon on the tides. Such lunar transformations are not unknown to me. I just was not sure if it was you or your husband.”
“It makes no difference,” the transformed woman called. “I will slay you then return to the house and wait for the next moon cycle. Or the next. I have waited long, hiding in the souls of the unsuspecting females of this line. But Andrew is the last. Then my soul can sleep when this body dies and my revenge will be complete.
Abruptly the massive head of the equine horror appeared out of the mist and came straight for the two of us.
The Guv and I dove to either side as the shadow beast raced between us, carried past by its own momentum.
Close up the fishy-scaled hide of the creature was even more unearthly than at a distance, as it shone iridescent in the pale moonlight. It gave off the faint scent of the sea, salty and ancient as it flew by.
I rolled to my feet and turned before the beast had managed to whirl about preparing to charge again.
Across from me I observed that Doctor Argent had removed a small object from his shirt pocket. It was a small piece of lead the size of a dinner cracker. He also produced an iron nail and, after scratching something on the lead, placed the small metal I had found on the heath near the wall on top of it.
The Phantom Mare saw the Guv’s action and gave a cry that was a banshee wail that might have been of hate or fear. Then she charged.
This time I was ready for her attack. As she charged straight for Doctor Argent I raced up a small rise of land and launched myself into the air.
I flew at her and sprang up to slam the rock between the monster’s eyes with the full force of my whole body before landing beyond her and rolling to my feet. It was hard enough to stagger the beast.
I spun about and pressed the attack, smashing at the same spot on the stumbling beast’s head a second time.
The beast dropped to its knees, dazed.
“We will destroy you, monster,” I said with pride. ”We will!”
The creature that had been Madam Gaunt changed again, her transformation back to her human form as quick as before but this time with a great sound much like the tearing of clothe.
There was a vibration in the air as well that I felt deep down in my gut and a humming like a hundred wasps.
I looked from her kneeling form to see the Guv driving the nail through the metal and the square of lead and dropping both into a hole in the ground. He kicked dirt on them and stamped hard with his foot.
The transformed woman screamed an inhuman yell, shaking so violently it was if she was having a seizure.
I was torn between the desire to race to her and help and turn away in horror.
The seizure suddenly stopped and the Phantom Mare seemed to rise out of the woman, a ghostly figure like a magic lantern slide, and, with a great rush of wind, flew up into the heavens to disappear.
Mrs. Gaunt slumped onto one arm and fell forward as if life was draining from her.
“Jack!” Doctor Argent called to startle me out of my shock.
I ran to the woman and caught her up in my arms. Her skin was cold to the touch, her eyes fluttering at the edge of consciousness.
“Is she dying, Doctor?” I asked him.
He knelt beside her and produced a handkerchief to wipe her clammy brow. “No, my friend, she is, indeed just beginning to live free of that demonic presence that has hidden within her her whole life.”
“How did you get rid of it, sir?”
“The Roman way,” he said. “I needed to now which name to inscribe on the lead square, which is why we conducted this little ruse. But once I did know it, I drove the nail through it and the medallion you found, calling on the ancient gods to let what had been done already to be justice enough for the dead girl Algiwa. Cold iron, you know. Once I did, as you saw, they accepted my supplication and the curse was lifted.”
Just then Athelstan came lumbering out of the fog, saw his wife and raced to her.
She opened her eyes as he reached us. “What happened?” She said. “I-I remember some things, but—it is like a nightmare.”
“Soon it will be dream, Madam,” Doctor Argent said. “But even that in time will fade. Just take heart in the fact that the Curse of the Stallion is done.”
“So Andy is safe now?” I asked him.
“Yes,” the Guv said. “And so will be future generations of the Granvilles.”
“Then, would you make one of those little medallion things up for my protection, sir?”
“Because I will need some protection when I tell Andy we ruined his dress jacket—it was his favorite.”
One day my prince will come, and on that day…I’ll throttle him within an inch of his life! I’m the damsel in distress, damn it! I’m the curvaceous blonde who’s in trouble and needs rescuing! I’m trapped in a tower by a madman, the clock is ticking, and there’s a tear in my dress. He should have showed up hours ago! Where the hell is he?
◊ ◊ ◊
“See, the way I figure it, you got a hero complex. You don’t need to go saving her just because she wants you to. She’s the one who’s gotten herself kidnapped. It’s her own fault, you know, let her figure it out!”
Davey certainly did make a lot of sense, especially after two mugs of mead. Why should Randolf go save her? Just because he was the prince and she was the princess didn’t mean he was her keeper. She could take care of herself. Who made up these rules about saving the damsel in distress anyway? If she was distressed, she should really learn to control herself; calm down a bit, do some yoga. He can’t go off and save her butt every time she gets in a little scrape. What about his needs?
“Davey,” Randolf slurred, “you’re right. She got herself into it, she can get herself out. More mead, barmaid!”
◊ ◊ ◊
Within the wicked depths of the Forest of Darkness, inside his iniquitous Castle of Dread, the dark wizard Lord Evilman drummed his fingers on his armrest.
Where was Randolf? Evilman had told him where the princess was, had practically given him a map because god knows that moron would never have gotten here on his own. He had given Randolf until midnight to show or he’d kill her, slowly, painfully.
Evilman looked up at the clock.
Where was he?
◊ ◊ ◊
Queen Moreen stared out her chamber window, biting her thumbnail. The door opened behind her, and she turned to see her husband, King Straus, enter the room.
She rushed to him. “Any news?”
Straus sadly shook his head and Moreen gave a silent sob. She had been pacing her room off and on ever since hearing the news of her daughter’s kidnapping. She was weary with worry but quite glad about the two pounds she had lost.
“There’s still time,” Straus assured her.
Moreen nodded. “I know, I know. But…Randolf will save her, won’t he?”
Straus wrapped Moreen in his arms. “Of course he will. It’s his princely duty. She’ll be just fine.” As long as that drunk got off his ass and sobered up long enough to know what was going on, the King thought but, wisely, did not tell his wife.
◊ ◊ ◊
“I love you, man,” Randolf said thickly, trying very hard to figure out why there were five Davey’s floating in front of him.
“You gotta lay off the mead, man,” Davey said as he grappled with what turned out to be his own leg. “I think we’re trashed, Randy. Better go home.”
“I can’t go home,” Randolf shouted, having lost control of the volume of his voice. “They think I’m saving the prinis—prancess—prinkass—whatever, you know, what’s-her-name.”
“The bar’s ’bout ta close, though,” Davey said.
“Yeah, well, I know a place,” Randolf yelled in what he thought was a conspiratorial whisper.
◊ ◊ ◊
I’ll boil him in oil, chop off his head, and display his body parts throughout the kingdom. That’ll show Prince Stupid. I bet he’s getting wasted right now.
Other lovely thoughts such as those went through the princess’s head as she paced her cell in the tallest tower of Lord Evilman’s castle. Occasionally she would add a rather violent gesture. At this point, she wasn’t even concerned with whatever dark destiny Evilman had in store for her. His role in all this felt secondary, really, despite him being the one who’d kidnapped her. He had always been nothing more than a distant figure of legend she had ignored in school, and honestly, he went down easy when kicked.
It was Randolf’s fault in her mind. He had mouthed off, said Evilman was all talk—a nonsense speech he often gave at random, usually followed by several sustained minutes of belching. So no, she didn’t really blame Evilman, or even fear him.
As for Randolf…
Her pink and frilly gown flowed out behind her as she practiced coming down on Randolf with a blunt and rusty ax.
◊ ◊ ◊
Evilman paced his study, thinking. What if Randolf didn’t show? All the planning, the kidnapping, the rather nasty kick to the shins by a pair of pink and frilly shoes would all be for naught.
Then again, wouldn’t that mean he had won? But if there was no showdown between villain and hero, then he’s winning by default. That doesn’t prove Evilman’s superior to Randolf; that just proves Randolf was incompetent, which was hardly any news.
If Randolf didn’t show up, then what was the point? Why show his superiority to Randolf anyway? A shoe covered in horse manure was superior to Randolf. Why does Evilman need to challenge him? Why, because Randolf’s the prince? Big freaking deal! Why did Evilman even do this in the first place? What was there to be gained by kidnapping the princess?
Evilman rubbed his temples, a headache forming as panicky bubbles of anxiety boiled beneath his breastbone. Chewing his lip, Evilman strode toward the back wall of his study and pulled open a set of black curtains. Behind them was not a window but an oval mirror. It did not reflect Evilman’s ageless face. Instead, it showed a different man’s head: bald, strong-jawed, slightly transparent, and suspended among black swirling mist.
“Hi, Jeremy, nice to see you again. What’s on your mind?” the mirror asked in a calm, kind voice.
Evilman hugged himself, filled with guilt, rubbing his hands over his arms. “I’m having doubts about the plan.”
The mirror gave a kind smile. “Are you doubting the plan, or are you doubting yourself?”
“I don’t know. I’m so confused. People expect this kind of thing from me, because of my name, you know. But all I want to do is work in my garden and do interior decorating. What should I do, Mirror?”
“You shouldn’t search for answers from outside voices but from your own, inner voice. What is your inner voice telling you, Jeremy?”
“That I should take a bubble bath.”
“Good. Then that is what you should do. And if you ever doubt yourself again, I want you to say to yourself ‘I am Jeremy, and I am in control of my own life’.”
◊ ◊ ◊
“More mead, barmaid!” cried the prince as he entered the bar.
Randolf and Davey staggered over to a table and collapsed onto some chairs. About five, actually.
“See…this bar…stays open…later,” explained Randolf, trying very hard to recall the English language. “Mead more, barmaid!”
◊ ◊ ◊
“Randolf is a moron, a drunk, a cad, and he will never save the princess unless she’s being held prisoner in a wine cellar!”
“Come now, King Jonas,” said King Straus. “You’re talking about your son.”
“That’s how he knows,” remarked Jonas’s wife, Queen Rubella, as she adjusted her lipstick in a hand mirror.
Queen Moreen paused her pacing of the chamber. “But, Rubella—”
Moreen rolled her eyes. Oh, yes, now she remembered why they never invited Randolf’s family over for dinner anymore. If he hadn’t been the only prince within reasonable traveling distance… “My apologies, Queen Rubella. But as I was saying, it is your son’s duty as prince to respond to any and all damsel in distress situations involving his betrothed. It is his role. Are you saying he will ignore all that? Will he not fulfill his rightful responsibility and save my daughter?”
Queen Rubella finished applying a fresh coat of lipstick and popped her lips, eyes on her reflection. “Not a chance in hell, dearie.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Does he really expect me to sit and wait for him? I’ve gotten into trouble, that’s my job, now where is he to do his? Don’t those bimbos from the fairy tales ever get annoyed with their princes swaggering in at the last minute? Can’t he ever come before she’s just about to die? Or how about preventing the whole thing altogether? Why can’t the damsel ever save herself? And then maybe get a job as an interior decorator…
Stuck in a tower? Seriously? She never thought she’d be one of those princesses. Yet here she was. The cliché to end all clichés. All that was missing was a Prince Charming.
Too bad she didn’t know one.
Randolf was a betrothal of convenience, though at the moment it didn’t feel particularly convenient. She was a princess and so it was her role to be married to a prince. It didn’t matter that she cared less about him than for the bugs she fed her pet tarantula (she had demanded an exotic pet for her eighth birthday, like a unicorn or tiger or something—her father had misunderstood). And she had far better things to do than eat apples, prick her finger, sell her voice, or go to balls in vermin-assisted coaches like what all the other princesses were doing. Not that there was anything wrong with those life choices, of course. Princesses could do whatever they wanted, whether it involved wielding swords or singing songs. She just wasn’t the sort to do either. All she wanted was to have a night in, maybe artfully arrange the rushes or invent the valance, all without having to find a true love or some such ridiculous thing. Where was the harm in that? She didn’t need, nor want, the adventure or near-death experiences.
Also, did she smell potpourri?
◊ ◊ ◊
Lord Evilman looked toward the clock then took a deep breath. “This is it. You told Randolf that if he didn’t come you would kill the princess. If you don’t carry out that threat then no one will ever believe you again. They’ll think you’ve gone soft. You can do this. I am Jeremy, and I am in control of my own life.”
“That’s the ticket,” the mirror said with an encouraging smile.
Evilman hesitated only a moment before heading toward the stairs to his tallest tower. Torches lined the dark winding staircase, the flames flickering as he passed. And flickering again when he briefly turned back. And then once more after he gave himself a pep talk and determinedly strode to the highest room, with only occasional pauses to hyperventilate.
He was outside the princess’s door now. He could hear her pacing the stone floor. Fumbling only slightly, he pulled out the key and unlocked the door.
◊ ◊ ◊
Queen Moreen stared, mouth slightly open, as Queen Rubella continued to reapply her lipstick. Despite the fact that red looked especially good on her and matched the highlights in her perfectly coiffed bouffant, Moreen very much wanted to jab it into Rubella’s eye socket.
“Excuse me, but did you just say there was ‘no chance in hell’ Prince Randolf—your son and leader of your army—will save my daughter from certain death?” Moreen asked.
Rubella rolled her eyes. “Oh, the army thing is just an honorary position. Jonas’s father did the same thing when he was a boy. I mean, come on, can you honestly see either one of them wielding a sword without chopping off their head or, god forbid, something important?”
“I’m right here,” Jonas said through clenched teeth.
Rubella adjusted her eyeliner. “Yes, so you are.”
“Let me get this straight,” Moreen said, resuming her pacing (if she kept at it, she might go down a whole size). “Your son, who promised to love and protect our daughter even in the face of the darkest evil, who swore in front of the Fairy Godmothers themselves that he would fight an actual fire-breathing dragon if need be to save her, is not going to rescue her from Lord Evilman, the most dreaded sorcerer this side of the Great Mountains? And he’s forgoing his duty because…?”
“Because he lied his ass off so he could get the free wine at the reception. And if your precious Fairy Godmothers hadn’t been three sheets to the wind themselves, they would have noticed.”
Moreen clenched her fists, itching to cram Rubella’s hand mirror the same place as her lipstick. “Come now, can’t we drop the royal titles? We’re going to be in-laws pretty soon.”
King Jonas snorted, slouching in his chair. “Pretty soon your daughter’s going to be the key ingredient in one of Lord Evilman’s potions. We just told you, Randolf will never save Princess What’s-Her-Face.”
Moreen turned her glare to Jonas. “My daughter is not Princess What’s-Her-Face! Her name is—”
“It doesn’t matter. Randolf won’t save her unless her name’s Guinness.”
“So my daughter is going to die?” Moreen cried.
“Nonsense,” King Straus piped up. “Evil guys are always kidnapping damsels, but killing them is always an empty threat.”
“We don’t know that. The prince always saves the princess.”
“Oh, right.” Straus tapped a finger to his lip in thought. “Then yes, yes she is going to die.”
◊ ◊ ◊
“More mead, barmaid!”
Ginny had had just about enough of the two drunks in the corner of the tavern. They’d come in sloshed and now they were thoroughly plastered. Despite her frustration, she shuffled off behind the bar to retrieve their requested refreshment then served them with a smile.
Five minutes later, she did the same.
And another five after that. And another.
“Maid more, barmead!”
This time, Ginny slammed the two flagons onto the table.
“Here’s your damn mead! When you finish it, get out! We’re closing!” Ginny turned to leave but a hand clutched her arm.
“Wha’ did you say?” slurred the more nicely dressed of the two boozehounds.
“I said this is your last round, get out!”
“Tha’s not wha’ you said before,” the second one said.
Ginny sighed. “It’s the gist. And I mean it, too. If you don’t leave in five minutes, I’ll get the bartender to toss you out.” Ginny wrenched her arm free of the rummy’s grasp. “And don’t touch me again, you pig!”
“Hey!” The nicer dressed one got shakily to his feet. “You can’ talk dat way to me! Do you know who I am?”
“No, so if you forgot, I can’t help you.”
“I’m the prince!”
Ginny paused. She looked him up and down. “Prince Randolf, eh? Who cares?”
“Who cares? You should! I could make things very diff’cult for you—”
“You already are making things difficult for me! Those taxes you’ve proposed to institute after you marry the princess and become king are just ridiculous. I can barely get by with the current ones, and now you want to take more?”
“I’m the prince—”
“Yes, we’ve established that. But just because you’re the prince doesn’t mean I have to like you. I’m not gonna curtsey to the Ass Who Would Be King. Now, get out!”
“Then I’ll get the bartender to kick you out!”
“I’d like to see him try!”
◊ ◊ ◊
As Randolf and Davey struggled, both nursing black eyes and strained wrists, to pull themselves off the ground, Davey slurred, “Maybe we should’ve left when she told us to.”
Randolf, too drunk for this, rolled over several times in the dirt before remembering how legs worked. “I thought I could take him, but he was bigger than expected.”
Davey dragged himself upright with the help of someone’s horse. Or at least he thought it was a horse. “So, where to now?”
Randolf shrugged then noticed a building across the street. “Hey, look, a bar! I could use a drink.”
◊ ◊ ◊
It’s almost midnight,and hark! What’s that galloping away over yonder? Could it be? Yes! It’s the last of my fucks!
The princess stared out the tower window. Evilman could throw his worst spells at her right now and she wouldn’t care, not with the wrath boiling beneath her skin. And she would boil Randolf if she could. At this point, she didn’t even care where he was. She wasn’t going to wait for him anymore. She was done playing this part. He wasn’t coming and she didn’t feel the least bit sad or disappointed.
She was in control of her own life for once, gods damn it.
Let Evilman come for her. She could face him. It couldn’t be worse than the awkward conversations she’d endured during dinners with Randolf’s parents. Now those were painful.
How bad could it be? What was the worst Evilman could do? And where did he get those curtains? That lace was just lovely…
A lock clicked behind her. The princess turned to see the door creak open.
◊ ◊ ◊
Evilman strode determinedly into the darkened room atop his tallest tower, conjuring a circle of fire to line the walls as he moved and shifting the lighting to a vivid green (for mood). The princess, arms crossed, stood in the middle of the room and watched as he stalked toward her.
“It is time for your end, my dear,” Evilman said, throwing out his arms in a grandly sinister gesture and putting on the dramatic voice that he’d learned at theater camp. “Your prince is not coming to save you. You will tremble with fear at what death I have in store for you.”
The princess continued to stare at Evilman. “No.”
There was a pause as Evilman tried to process what just happened. “No?”
“No,” the princess repeated.
“No to what?”
“To everything. I’m not going to tremble with fear, I’m not going to wait for my prince to come, and I’m not going to die.”
Evilman, arms still held out in what was quickly becoming a not-so-grand gesture, blinked. “Uh…”
Maybe he needed more fire. Igniting the very ceiling with black-gold flames, he put on the maniacal grin he’d practiced in the mirror all morning and growled, “But you will.”
The princess yawned and pulled her dress away from the flames. “Nope.”
Spiders? People were scared of spiders, right? Or bats…? Thinking fast, Evilman conjured an army of spider-bat hybrids that crawled across the floor, carpeting it in a writhing black mass of eight-legged, winged beasts, all crawling straight toward the princess.
“Prepare for your doom!”
The princess, instead of cowering in fear, picked up one of the spider-bats and scratched it behind the ear. It purred.
“Ah, geez, don’t pet the monsters,” Evilman sighed, running a hand down his face. “I mean, DOOM—”
“Look, I see what you’re doing here, but none of this is actually lethal, so if all you’ve got are fancy parlor tricks, then I’m going to head out. I’ve got a prince to maim.”
“But nothing, pal.”
I am Jeremy, and I am in control of my own life. “I will kill you…?” Evilman said, but even to him it sounded like a question.
Evilman glared at the princess then burst into tears.
◊ ◊ ◊
The clock struck half an hour to midnight. Queen Moreen was showing the utmost restraint by not beating Rubella and Jonas to death with their own arms.
“We are running out of time!” she screamed, stomping her foot. “Where the hell is your son?”
“Moreen, please!” King Straus said, shifting awkwardly in his chair. “Don’t yell at our guests.”
“How can you stand by and let our daughter be murdered by a madman?” Moreen demanded of her husband.
“I don’t want Evilman to kill our daughter, but that doesn’t mean we should be rude.”
Moreen stormed across the room and grabbed him by his shoulders. “If you don’t want her to die then do something!”
“Come now, you know perfectly well that as king it’s my obligation to be ineffectual. It’s Prince Randolf’s job—”
“How many times do we have to tell you?” King Jonas said, picking lint off his velvet doublet. “Randolf isn’t going to save her. I bet he’s drunk right now, probably at some bar with that friend of his, Davey.”
Moreen jabbed her finger at Jonas. “See! Randolf has broken his vow and refuses to play his part. It is up to us now to fix this. Bring me a horse!” Moreen shouted to the servant bringing more wine to Jonas and Rubella. “I’ll save her myself.”
“Whoa, whoa.” Straus stood up, brow furrowed. “The queen and the princess in the hands of Lord Evilman? That certainly won’t end well. No, no, that just won’t do.” Straus straightened his purple robes and cleared his throat. “I will save my daughter.”
“Thank you,” Moreen sighed.
“And when I come back, I’ll hunt Randolf down and shove my foot up his—”
“Excuse me,” Rubella snapped. “My son might be a useless, drunken idiot, but he is not yours to punish.”
“Let King Straus kill him, I don’t care,” Jonas said, waving his hand vaguely as if pushing the issue aside and increasing his slouch.
Rubella’s jaw dropped. “Jonas! Don’t you care about our son?”
“Weren’t you just saying he’s a useless, drunken idiot?”
“Yes, but he’s my son and I’m supposed to forgive him for those things.”
Jonas suddenly leapt up from his chair, pointing violently at Rubella. “That’s why I didn’t want to marry you! You always overlook things like that. If you ran the kingdom, you would have handed it over to the barbarians after they sent you that severed head as a gift!”
“It’s the thought that counts!” Rubella cried, jumping to her feet too. “And that’s why I didn’t want to marry you! You’re completely insensitive and haven’t a care for anyone besides yourself! If you hadn’t knocked me up then our parents would never had made us marry and I would be better off!”
“So would I!”
Moreen shifted uncomfortably. “Do you think we should leave?” she whispered to Straus.
“No, no, this is good stuff,” Straus whispered back. “No wonder Randolf’s so screwed up.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The princess awkwardly patted the somewhat greasy hair of Lord Evilman as he cried into her shoulder. Of all the scenarios she had considered during her waiting, this one had never occurred.
“Don’t cry,” she said. “It’s all right.”
“No, it’s not! I can’t do anything right!” Evilman howled in despair and continued to cry on the princess’s shoulder.
“No, that’s—that’s not true. The fire was quite, um, impressive… You’re very, uh, terrifying—”
“I don’t want to be terrifying! I never wanted that, but I’ve never been able to do what I’ve wanted. I always have to be ‘the bad guy’.”
“You don’t have to be the bad guy,” the princess said.
“Yes, I do. My parents made me. They never listened. They never loved me. And all I wanted was to be loved!” Evilman wailed again and sobbed even louder.
◊ ◊ ◊
“Horses! Get the horses!”
“We have to save my daughter!”
“Magenta doesn’t go with everything, Rubella!”
The servants rushed about the castle courtyard, trying to make sense of the shouting, deciphering what was an order and what was an insult.
Waiting for his horse, King Straus strode toward the guards standing at the gate. “Gather the men! We ride to Evilman’s castle immediately.”
“How can you call our dinner conversations communicating?” Queen Rubella demanded of King Jonas as they trailed behind. “All you ever say to me is ‘Pass the mead’! No wonder Randolf is a drunk!”
“Where the hell is the damn messenger?” Jonas said, staring anywhere but at his wife. “I refuse to listen to this defamation another minute without my lawyer.”
“Yes, god forbid you hear something that hurts your feelings—oh wait, you don’t have any!”
Moreen side-eyed Rubella and Jonas. She leaned in close to the captain of the guard. “If they accidentally get hit by a stray arrow, I won’t be upset.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The princess’s shoulder was now thoroughly soaked.
“And then when I joined the ballet,” Evilman said, sniffing, “the other kids made fun of me!” Another wave of tears started to fall. “I never got to make my own choices after that. My dad told me I had to act like a man, and my mom said I should become a sorcerer, but all I ever wanted to do was interior decorating!”
“Interior decorating?” the princess said.
“Yes,” sobbed Evilman. “Why, are you going to make fun of me, too?”
“No, I love interior decorating.”
Suddenly, the crying stopped. Evilman looked up at her and wiped away his tears on his black velvet sleeve. He sniffed and said, “Princess, would you like to look at fabric swatches with me?”
◊ ◊ ◊
“More mead, barmaid!”
Randolf tried to steady himself in his chair. By the time the mead arrived, he had established that it was in fact the room that was spinning, not him.
“This isn’t the nicest bar,” he commented.
“It’s too dark,” Davey said.
Randolf pulled Davey’s head off the table.
“That’s better,” Davey said.
Randolf let go and Davey fell forward once more.
Something hazy entered the spinning vortex off to Randolf’s right. “Are you boys feeling well?”
“WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?” Randolf demanded.
“Uh…I asked if you were well…?”
“Oh, yes, we’re fine,” Randolf slurred toward the spinning haziness. “Why’d you ask?”
“Well,” said the haziness, “it’s just that you’re covered in dirt and you called me a barmaid.”
Randolf tried very hard to focus on the haze speaking to him, but too many people swam before him. It took awhile before Randolf realized they were all the same person.
“What’s wrong with calling you barmaid? You did bring us our mead.”
“Yes,” said the haze-person slowly, “and that is my job, it’s just that I’m a man.”
Randolf squinted hard but the haze-person spun too rapidly to focus. “Oh.”
“Good for you,” Davey told the floor.
The haze shifted its round thing into an arch. “Who are you guys, anyway?”
Randolf puffed out his chest importantly. “I’m Prince Randolf, and this is my associate, Davey.”
“He accompanies me on important excursions and offers counsel.”
“So, your drinking buddy.”
The speaking haze swirled slightly to the left. “Aren’t you supposed to be saving the princess? News of her kidnapping is all over the kingdom.”
Randolf leaned back in his chair, affronted, but almost fell backwards. Gripping the table, he glared at the swirling haze, which had just grown a beard. “I’m the prince! You can’t tell me what to do!”
“Sorry.” The haze put up the largest hands in the universe. “It’s just that it’s your job, and I think you should do what is expected of you. I always do my job, even if I don’t like it.”
“What, you think you’re better than me?”
“No, I’m just giving my opinion.”
“Damn straight!” Randolf shouted and passed out onto the table.
◊ ◊ ◊
The castle courtyard bustled with activity as horses were prepared to ride and soldiers were prepared to fight.
“You have to hurry!” Queen Moreen said. “It may already be too late.”
“Don’t worry, my dear, we’re almost ready,” King Straus assured her as he settled onto his horse. Moments later, the rest of the rescue party had mounted their steeds. Straus signaled his men to follow him, waved good-bye to his wife, kicked his horse into a canter, and rode off. The rescue party waved good-bye to Moreen, kicked their horses, and sped after Straus.
“Bring her home safe!” cried Moreen, feeling somewhat empty at not being able to go as well.
“Oh, shut up, Moreen,” Queen Rubella snapped.
Moreen’s back went ramrod straight. She turned coldly to where Rubella was slouching against a pillar, awaiting the return of the messenger with news from her lawyers. “Queen Moreen.”
Rubella returned Moreen’s look. “What happened to ‘can’t we drop the royal titles’?” she sneered.
“I’ve changed my mind about that,” Moreen said. “And about you. You are no longer welcome here. And I don’t just mean this castle—the whole kingdom! Collect your husband and son and leave!”
“Oh, we were just about to!” snapped Rubella. “By the way, you aren’t welcome in my kingdom either!”
Rubella stormed off, King Jonas following behind saying, “Technically it’s my kingdom,” to which Rubella replied, “We’ll see what the lawyers have to say.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Evilman had led the princess to the deepest, darkest recesses of his castle, aka his sewing room. It was actually rather bright and airy ever since he’d put in that skylight to the Eternal-Sun realm, and it had the best light for needlepoint.
Evilman dug through one of his fabric trunks and held up a heavily used bolt of material for the princess to see. “Am I crazy or does paisley go with everything?”
“Jeremy, if you’re crazy, then I’m completely insane.”
Evilman and the princess giggled.
“Oh, Princess, I just bought a new fabric I want to show you, be right back.”
Evilman scurried off to his study, humming.
He opened an antique wooden trunk by the fireplace and pulled out a bolt of deep purple velvet. He was about to go back to his sewing room when a voice said, “So, did you do it?”
Evilman jumped. “Wha—oh, Mirror, hi. I almost forgot about you.”
The mirror smiled slightly, like he was being kind and understanding, but it came off more as a wince.
“Well, Jeremy, did you go through with it?”
Evilman shifted awkwardly, hugging the bolt of velvet closer. “Oh…well…no. But that doesn’t matter anymore. The diabolical madman who kidnaps and kills princesses isn’t me, and I know that now. The princess and I are friends, and a friend is all I ever really wanted. I’m so happy now, Mirror, and I’d like to thank you for all your help.”
The mirror frowned and sighed. “Jeremy, Jeremy, did you let her talk you out of it?”
“What? No, Mirror, that’s not it at all—”
“Jeremy, you always do this, you never stay your ground. You have to stand up for yourself and not let anyone get in your way.”
“But, Mirror, I don’t want to kill the princess. And it’s not because I’ve lost my nerve, but because I’ve realized I don’t need to live up to my parents’ dream of me being an evil overlord. I need to live my life the way I want to. And the princess helped me see that.”
The mirror shook his head. “You’re letting her control you. She’s become like your mother, always telling you what to do, and you’re letting her.”
“No, I’m not!” cried Evilman. “She’s my friend—”
“Jeremy, listen, I’m only worried about you—”
“No! She’s my friend, and that’s that! I don’t have to listen to you anymore! And don’t expect to be paid for saying those—those things!”
Evilman stormed out the room, clutching his purple velvet.
The mirror stared after him, unnerved. “I can’t believe, after all these years, after all I’ve done for him…he’s not going to pay me. All my hard work, helping him through his pain, and nothing, not a cent! Glass cleaner isn’t free, you know!”
◊ ◊ ◊
The horses galloped through the village, kicking up dirt along the main road. King Straus kept his lead and tried to push his horse harder. Up ahead, the door of a thatched building opened, and two limp figures were thrown into the king’s path. He reared his horse and shouted for his men to halt.
Straus turned to the man standing in the doorway. “What are you doing? Don’t you realize those men could have been trampled?”
“Yes,” the man in the doorway replied, looking disappointed, and retreated back inside.
Confused, Straus stared down at the two prone figures. His eyes widened.
One of the bodies stirred slightly and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “I don’t wanna go to school today, Mom.”
“Randolf, you imbecile, I wish I hadn’t slowed down!”
“Wha-wha—” Randolf tried to focus on Straus. “Daddy?”
“I’m not your father! The wedding’s been called off!”
“Wha—?” Randolf blinked slowly, head tilted like a dog baffled by where his ball went. “Bu-but why?”
“Because you didn’t do your duty!”
The other figure on the ground giggled, muttering, “Doodie.”
“So?” Randolf slurred. “I can safe da prisness anuhder day.”
“No, you can’t!” King Straus roared. “Because I’m going to save her, and then I’m going to throw you out of my kingdom for good!” With that, Straus signaled to his men and galloped onward with even greater speed than before.
After the dust settled, Randolf and Davey got shakily to their feet.
“Well, that was rude,” Randolf remarked.
“How did we get out here?” Davey asked, looking around.
“We can worry about that later, Davey man, ’cause we got a job to do.”
“I’m gonna save the prin’is before they can. That’ll show King Rod-Up-His-Butt. C’mon, Davey.”
◊ ◊ ◊
With King Straus now on his way toward a no doubt dangerous showdown with Lord Evilman, Queen Moreen had resumed pacing her room with worry for her family and periodical admiration of her slimmer figure in the mirror as she passed. Close to tears with thoughts of her precious daughter and dear husband, she was about to try modeling an old dress she hadn’t fit in for years when the door opened.
Moreen glanced over to see who it was then turned stiffly back to her mirror. “Knock, please.”
Rubella sighed. “I just need someone to talk to.”
“I thought you were talking to your lawyers.”
“They haven’t arrived yet.” Rubella crossed her arms, wrinkling her nose at the décor. “Is that a pink ottoman? Yikes. Anyway, I’ve been thinking—”
“Amazing,” Moreen muttered, gaze firmly on the mirror as she tried not to glance at Rubella’s reflection in the corner.
“—is divorce the right thing to do? I mean, I don’t care for Jonas, and I’d love to be rid of him, but what kind of effect will it have on Randolf?”
“Randolf’s a grown boy, he can take care of himself.”
Rubella raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really. What about right now?”
“I said he can take care of himself, not others.”
Rubella sighed more harshly, almost a growl. “Come on, Moreen! You’ve stuck with Straus despite that awful beard he grew, so you know how it is. Seriously, what should I do?”
“Seriously? Well, seriously, I think you should leave my kingdom, and then I seriously don’t care what you do afterwards.”
Rubella’s eyes flashed with anger. “Fine!”
Rubella stormed out of the chamber and slammed the door behind her. Moreen breathed heavily, trying to calm down so as not to order Rubella’s execution. After a moment, she began her pacing, worrying, and modeling again.
◊ ◊ ◊
“‘Cuse me, you know where da rinses is?”
“Get out of my yard.”
The inn door slammed rather painfully into Randolf’s face. He fell over backwards and stayed there for a moment, wondering how he got there. Eventually, he staggered to his feet and leaned heavily against Davey, who leaned heavily against the wall of the inn to which they had stumbled.
“No one knows where the prince is,” Randolf mumbled.
“You’re the prince, man,” Davey slurred.
“Oh, thanks Davey, now let’s go to the bar.”
“No, Randy, we weren’t looking for you, we were looking for the princess.”
“No, you’re the male princess, we’re looking for the one with boobs.”
“Oh. Let’s see if anyone at this inn’s seen her.”
◊ ◊ ◊
This is so much fun! With all the evil-lord-you-will-tremble-before-me-and-despair stuff, I never imagined that Jeremy could be such a nice guy. I’m glad Randolf didn’t save me. I just hope that jackass doesn’t show up now—who knows what drunken, idiotic thing he might do.
The princess shuddered at the thought but went back to humming happily and sifting through Lord Evilman’s exquisite fabric collection.
◊ ◊ ◊
Evilman was still a little huffy when he reentered his sewing room with the purple velvet. He sat down on a chintz pouf, clutching the bolt of fabric to him, staring at the opposite wall.
The princess glanced up and frowned. “Jeremy, are you all right?”
“Yes,” he replied in an unnaturally high voice, his gaze not even shifting toward her.
The princess furrowed her brow. “Jeremy, please, you can trust me. What’s the matter?”
Evilman chewed his lip. “My mirror wants me to kill you.”
“Yes, it says I’m not standing up for myself and I’m allowing you to control me.”
“It told me that you’ve become like my mother—”
“Yes, my magic mirror.”
“Oooooh,” the princess said. “Magic mirror. That makes more sense.” She scratched her head. “At least, I think. So, your mirror says that you should kill me to prove that you are independent and in control of your own life.”
Evilman nodded sadly, like a reprimanded child. “Yes, exactly.”
“But you don’t want to kill me.”
“Of course not!” He finally turned to look at her, eyes wide. “You’re my best friend.”
“Awww.” She grinned, flattered. “But anyway, so you don’t want to kill me, but he—it—whatever—wants you to in order to prove independence. Well, it sounds to me like doing what you don’t want to do just because someone told you to isn’t very independent at all.”
Evilman paused for a moment in thought. “You’re right!” He put down the purple velvet, stood up, and opened the door. “Princess, follow me, please. I have some business to attend to.”
◊ ◊ ◊
King Straus looked around the Forest of Darkness for some recognizable landmark.
“I’ve never been this far into the forest before,” he said. “Have any of you?”
The men in the search party shook their heads.
“Well,” Straus said slowly, trying to think. “If I remember correctly…” He trailed off, not entirely sure what he was saying. He’d been told long ago about how the forest was laid out, but since he never used it, just like with algebra, the knowledge had long slipped away.
“Damn, why didn’t I bring a map?” he muttered. Then he said, more loudly, “Let us press onward, men! Evilman’s in here somewhere.” Or at least, he really, really hoped so. Wasn’t there a magic tree or something…?
◊ ◊ ◊
Queen Moreen wandered the halls morosely, hoping to fit into a size six she had seen at a boutique in the village. She fretted about her daughter, prayed for her husband to find her, and considered fun and painful ways to torture Prince Randolf.
A sudden outburst of voices in the courtyard distracted her from her musings. Moreen ran outside to see what the fuss was all about.
King Jonas was fuming, yelling at no one in particular. “WHERE ARE THE DAMN LAWYERS?”
Jonas rounded on her. “This is none of your business!”
Moreen crossed her arms. Oh, she was so done with them. “I thought I told you two to get out.”
“We’re waiting for our lawyers,” Rubella said, chin high in the air.
“Wait for them in your own kingdom. I’ve had enough of you two sniping at each other.”
Rubella breathed slowly and loudly through her nose, nostrils flaring like an angry bull’s, while Jonas turned from red to purple and looked as if he were about to have an aneurysm.
“It’s your fault!” he suddenly screamed.
“What?” Moreen asked, taken aback.
“You!” He jabbed his finger at her “You and your husband made us get a divorce. It’s your fault!”
“Oh, please.” Moreen waved her hand in exasperation. “Don’t try to blame this on us. You two have obviously had marital problems for a long time—”
“I’m suing!” Jonas shouted, pointing at Moreen ever more emphatically.
“Yes, suing you and your husband. And your daughter!”
Moreen gaped. “My daughter? What does she have to do with any of this?”
“If she hadn’t gotten herself kidnapped then none of this would have happened, and we would never have broken up!”
“Don’t you dare blame my daughter! She isn’t responsible for any of this—”
“Suing!” Jonas yelled again.
Rubella rolled her eyes. “Good luck with that. The princess is probably dead anyway.”
Now Moreen turned on Rubella. “My daughter is not dead!”
“You don’t know that,” Rubella said, smirking.
Moreen shook so hard she thought she might explode. “That’s it! I’ve had enough of this waiting and tension and you! I’ll save my daughter myself! Bring me a horse!”
◊ ◊ ◊
Randolf and Davey collapsed laughing at their joke and completely forgot that they had actually knocked on someone’s door.
The door opened. “Hello—oh god, it’s you two.”
“Hi, I’m Prince Dandalf and this is Ravey—”
“Get off my lawn before I shove a fire poker up your ass.”
Randolf tried and failed to focus properly on the person before him.
Davey, however, pointed, slack jawed. “Beermead!”
Ginny knocked her head against the doorjamb in annoyance. “That’s not even a word! How many bars did you go to after the bartender threw you out?”
“Hey,” Randolf slurred, realization dawning finally, “you’re that lady—”
“And you’re Drunktard and Associate.”
Davey grinned, eyes unfocused. “I’m an associate,” he said proudly.
“Ginny, is everything all right? Who’s at the door?” asked someone from within the cottage. A large and handsome man appeared in the doorway, staring down at Randolf and Davey, who shrunk away in recognition.
“It’s big guy,” Randolf squeaked.
“Oh, did I forget to mention?” Ginny said, faking realization. “The bartender is also my husband, Daniel. We own that bar, which you will never ever be allowed back into. Unless you want to get thrown out on your asses again,” Ginny added in gleeful remembrance.
“They don’t need to be at the bar for me to knock them on their asses again,” Daniel said, rolling up his sleeves.
Davey held up his hands. “Hey, hey, man, we didn’t know you two lived here. We’re jus’ lookin’ fer the princess—”
“About time,” Ginny muttered.
“But we don’t know how to get to Evilman’s castle.”
“Hmm…” Ginny put a finger to her lip in thought. “Well, since helping you will get you away from me, I could give you directions. I’ve passed by there on a delivery before. The dark elves sure love their spritzer. It’s all right, Daniel, you can go back in.”
Daniel the bartender walked away, eyeing Randolf and Davey.
Ginny eyed Randolf and Davey too, but then she got down to business. “I’ll tell you a shortcut so you might possibly get there in time. Now, you head straight into the creepy Forest of Darkness on the Black Path and take a turn by the evil-looking dead tree…”
After Ginny had sent the two drunktards on their way, she headed back inside. Daniel sat in a chair, reading a book.
“So, do you think they’ll save her?” he asked.
“I doubt it,” Ginny said. “But I told them the shortcut so they may have a chance, if they don’t pass out before they get there.”
Daniel raised an eyebrow. “The shortcut?”
“Did you tell them about the troll?”
Ginny thought back a moment. “No…”
“But you know how angry he gets when people trespass on his bridge… Murderously angry.”
“You’re right,” Ginny said slowly. “I forgot to tell them about that… Well, I’m gonna go take a bath.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Queen Moreen tucked a map to Lord Evilman’s castle into her pocket then swung herself onto her horse.
King Jonas stormed out of the castle and ran toward her. “I’m not finished with you!”
Moreen tossed her hair out of her face. “You want to sue me, fine. But I’m saving my daughter first.”
“Fine, go! But then I’m suing.”
“Fine. Then I’m suing you!”
“Fine—no. Wait!” Jonas grabbed hold of Moreen’s bridle before she could gallop off. “You can’t sue me.”
“Yes, I can,” Moreen said. “Your son failed to come through with his end of the deal, so I have the right to sue him. But since his money is your money, I’ll just sue you.”
Jonas mouthed noiselessly at her for a moment. “Very well,” he said finally, slowly, as if it pained him. “I’ll save her.”
Moreen burst out laughing. “You’re not going to save her.”
“Yes, I will,” Jonas said stiffly. “If I save her and complete Randolf’s end of the deal, then you can’t sue.”
“Yes I can, because I’ll get there first.”
“No, I will.”
“You idiot, why do you want to save the bimbo?” Rubella asked Jonas.
“My daughter is not a bimbo!” Furious, Moreen broke free from Jonas’ grip and galloped into the distance.
“Rubella!” Jonas whipped around to glare at his wife. “She’s going to sue me!”
Rubella rolled her eyes. “And I should care?”
Jonas gritted his teeth. “If she takes all my money, there won’t be much left for you.”
Rubella went as white as snow. “Bring the horses! We have to save the princess!”
◊ ◊ ◊
Evilman led the princess out of the sewing room and through the entrance hall, which acted as the main thoroughfare to the many rooms on the ground floor. He opened one of the doors lining the hall and entered another room—his study.
He showed her to the back wall, where the black curtains still lay open, and nervously cleared his throat. “Princess, this is the mirror. Mirror, this is the princess.”
The face in the mirror put on a small but kind smile. “Nice to meet you, Princess.”
“Likewise,” she said, staring in awe. “I’ve never seen a magic mirror before.”
“And I’ve never seen a princess before.” His smile grew strained. “So, Jeremy, have you calmed down?”
“Yes, I have.”
“And have you thought about…what we discussed earlier?”
“Yes, I have,” Evilman said, nodding. “You’re fired.”
“I’m sorry,” Evilman said, twisting his hands. “You’ve been a great help through a dark time, but you’re right, I need to think for myself and not let anyone control me. I’m afraid I have to let you go. You can remain here until you’ve found a new place to stay—”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing.” The mirror was no longer smiling. “Jeremy, you need me. There are still so many things you need help with—”
“I know, Mirror, but I need to be on my own to think for myself. I’m grateful for your help, though, I want you to remember that.”
“What about her?” The mirror jutted his chin toward the princess. “Are you her getting rid of her?”
“No, she’s my friend—”
“I’m your friend. I’m trying to help you. You’re letting her control—”
“No, I’m finally doing what I want to do, I’m finally who I want to be—”
“I’m sorry, Mirror. It’s over.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Randolf tripped over a tree root. Or what he thought was a tree root. “Man, it’s dark in here.”
“Yeah,” Davey said, or the black shadow stumbling along beside him that he was pretty sure was Davey. “I wonder if that’s why they call it the Forest of Darkness.”
Randolf thought about this for a moment and then forgot what he was trying to think about.
“Hey, is that the bridge she mentioned?” Davey asked, pointing a wavering finger at something dark and evil up ahead.
“Yeah, I think that’s it.”
The two of them lumbered up to the bridge, knocking into each other and overturning stones as they tripped their way along the path. After a minute of falling, crawling, and standing up again out of shear spite toward King Straus and confused ideas about gravity, they finally made it. Randolf stepped onto the first plank of the bridge.
Suddenly, a dark figure leapt out of nowhere and in a deep, threatening voice said, “None shall—whoa! Did you two buy out a whole bar?” The dark figure waved a hand in front of his nose. “Gods damn.”
Davey flailed wildly and ineffectually in place. “What the hell is that?”
“I dunno,” Randolf said quietly. He turned to the figure. “What the hell are you?”
“I’m a troll, duh,” he said, his voice becoming higher as if realizing a deep, scary one meant nothing to people as plastered as the two before him. In the dark of the forest, the troll’s green mottled skin and tall mohawk could only vaguely be seen. “And this is my bridge. None shall pass without paying a toll.”
“Yeah, well I’m da rinse and I gotta save the one with boobs.”
The troll eyed them weirdly. “Uhhhhhhhh, sure.”
“He means the him with boobs,” Davey said in “clarification.”
The troll just kept staring at them. “Riiiiiiight. So, how much did you two drink?”
Randolf and Davey gazed into space for a moment, which then became five minutes.
The troll shook his head. “Wow, you guys are gone. But, anyway, I still have to ask for a toll. Money doesn’t come out of my nose, you know.”
“Where does it come from?” Davey asked reflectively.
The troll blinked at him. “So—do you two have money or not?”
“I spent the last of it at that bar that kept moving,” Randolf said, feeling in his pockets futilely.
“Do you have anything of value?” the troll asked.
“Does this count?” Davey pulled a flask out of his pocket.
The troll rolled his eyes. “Human drinks are worthless. Too weak. I make my own brew. I bet it’d kill you.”
“Oh, yeah. One drop would probably do it, especially in your current state.”
Davey grinned woozily. “I’ll take that bet.”
The troll smiled too, but it was all teeth. “All right. If you can drink it and survive, I’ll let you cross my bridge.”
“Deal!” He held out his hand. “My name’s Davey by the way.”
The troll shook Davey’s hand. “I’m Rodney.”
“That’s my name!” Randolf shouted indignantly.
“No, man, you’re Randolf,” Davey informed him.
“I thought he said Rodney.”
“That’s his name.”
Rodney covered his face with his hand, embarrassed to be even near this conversation.
“Wait!” Randolf cried suddenly, making Rodney jump. “I have to get to Evilman’s castle. Is Davey’s death gonna take long?”
“It shouldn’t,” Rodney said. “But in case he lives, I can show you a portal that leads right into Evilman’s linen closet. But if you want to use my portal, you’ll both have to drink.”
“Deal,” Randolf said, putting his hand out like Davey had, but he overbalanced and fell into the creek under the bridge.
Rodney just shook his head.
◊ ◊ ◊
“You can’t do this to me!”
“Mirror, stop shouting!”
“No, Jeremy, you have to listen!”
“Look, Mirror,” the princess said, trying to reason with him—it—whatever. “Jeremy needs some time to think for himself. Like he said, you helped him a lot and he appreciates that but—”
“Look!” the mirror cried. “She’s doing it already!”
“Doing what?” Evilman asked.
“Talking for you. I told you, you’re letting her control you. You always do this. It’s a pattern of behavior I was trying to wean you off of—”
“But then I began to let you control me,” Evilman said. “I was no better off. Now, however, I have broken free from that. The princess and I are equals, we’re friends, we listen to each other—”
“No, no, you are depending on her, using her as crutch, you have to get rid of her!”
“I’m not going to kill her—”
“But that was your plan!”
“She made you—”
“No!” Evilman stomped his foot on the floor, holding his hands out to stop the mirror from talking. “I created the plan because I thought that was what I had to do. But I changed the plan because I knew that’s what I had to do. I’m not an evil dark lord. I’m a snazzy interior decorator!”
The mirror scrunched his nose, like he was in physical pain, despite being a mirror and not able to feel anything. “You can be whatever you want to be, but without therapy you will fall back into your old patterns. You need me to stay and help you through this.”
Evilman shook his head, face sad. “I was using you as a crutch, Mirror. I thank you for your help, but I need to break free. The princess and I are going into business together—”
“She will control you—”
“Excuse me!” the princess said, hand on hip. “I’m not going to control him. We are friends, and we will be equal business partners—”
“Just kill her!”
The princess threw her head back and gaped. “Kill me? KILL ME? What kind of a sadistic bastard are you?”
The mirror curled his upper lip. “One who cares for his clients.”
“More likely a financially sound one. That’s all it is, isn’t it? You just don’t want to lose your job, your money, this house!”
The mirror mouthed wordlessly at the princess for a moment before sputtering, “No-no-no, that’s-that’s not it at all.”
Evilman narrowed his gaze. “Mirror,” he said slowly, “are you only trying to stay for the money?”
“No! You know that’s not true. Look! She’s already trying to influence you—”
“That’s it, I’ve had enough!”
In one swift movement, Evilman ripped the mirror off the wall. He walked determinedly to the nearest window, opened it (“You can’t throw me out!”), and quite unceremoniously threw the mirror outside.
The mirror soared through the air then landed in the surrounding forest, shouting at Evilman.
“You can’t do this to me! I’ll be back, you’ll see! I’ll—”
◊ ◊ ◊
King Straus pulled his horse off the mirror it had just stepped on. Large cracks stretched across its surface, starting at a gaping hole the size and shape of a horse’s hoof. It was completely destroyed.
“I hope that wasn’t important. Oh, well,” Straus said, and urged his horse on. “We’re almost there, men. Let’s go save my daughter.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The princess stared at Evilman, impressed. “I can’t believe you just did that.”
“I know, neither can—” He broke off as a loud noise sounded from outside the study. “What was that?”
They left the room and glanced around the entrance hall.
“Where did that racket come from?” the princess asked.
“I don’t know…”
Suddenly, a door burst open and from amid a shower of fluffy purple towels and silk sheets, Prince Randolf strode into the hall, Davey at his side. Randolf stopped before Evilman and the princess, standing tall and proud, like a true prince, legs apart and fists on hips. He held his head high, face serious and noble, and said triumphantly, “I’m not wearing any pants.”
The princess and Evilman looked down as one then stared back at Randolf’s face.
“No, you’re not,” the princess said slowly. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” Randolf said, so noble, so proud.
Evilman eyed him with a mix of caution, confusion, and a little bit of worry at what possibly happened to remove the poor prince’s trousers. “How do you not know—”
A bang echoed through the castle and the front doors burst open with great force. A dozen men, led by King Straus, charged down the hall.
“Evilman!” Straus thundered. “Give me back my daughter! You will not win today!”
“Daddy, please!” the princess huffed. “Be nice.”
Straus took a step back in confusion, as if he’d been hit in the face. “‘Be nice’? What do you mean—” Suddenly he noticed Randolf. “You’re not wearing any pants.”
“I know,” Randolf said, still in the same position, still so noble.
Straus furrowed his brow. “I left you nearly incapacitated in the village. How did you get here before me?”
“‘Cause trolls are awesome when they’re drunk,” Davey explained, wagging an emphatic finger.
Before Straus could even start on that response, the back door flew open and in walked a bickering trio.
“Moreen?” Straus cried, astounded. “Why are you here?”
“To prevent this moron from suing us,” Queen Moreen replied, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at King Jonas. She turned to look at her husband, but on the way, her gaze paused. “You’re…without pants.”
“Yes, I am,” Randolf said, oh so noble.
Queen Rubella’s eyes bulged, her eyeliner smudged from galloping through the forest. “Where are they?” she demanded.
“The troll took them,” Davey slurred. “He didn’t think it was fair that we didn’t die.”
Everyone just blinked at that.
Moreen opened her mouth several times to comment, but eventually she shook her head—he wasn’t her problem anymore (good luck marrying him off, Rubella)—and turned back to the situation at hand.
“Evilman!” she shouted, making him jump. “Release my daughter this instant!”
The princess crossed her arms. “Will you please stop making demands of him, he just went through a terrible experience and lost a good friend,” she snapped.
There was silence followed by a chorus of “What?” asked by everyone in the room, except for the sloshed Davey and practically frozen yet noble Randolf.
“Honey, you’re not making any sense,” Moreen said. “We’ve come to rescue you and take you home.”
“I don’t want to go home,” the princess said. “Didn’t you bother to think about my feelings? Or were you just going to take me away against my will?”
Another pause followed by another room full of “What?”
“But he’s trying to kill you!” Straus cried.
“No, I’m not,” Evilman piped up. “We’re going into business together as interior decorators.”
Once again, the chorus: “What?”
“That’s right,” the princess said, head held high. “I’m staying here. I have a potentially lucrative career on my hands and an excellent and willing partner.”
“But-but-but—he’s evil,” Straus said, voice and expression turning uncertain.
The princess rolled her eyes. “No, he’s not.”
“Dad, I thank you for this whole rescue attempt thing—you too, Mom—but I’m quite happy here.”
“Oh,” Straus said, somewhat deflated. “Well, then…I guess…we’ll be going.”
“Yes,” Moreen agreed vaguely, eyes wandering in confusion.
“You can stop by whenever you’d like,” Evilman said with a bright smile. “You’re always welcome. You can even stay the night.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Straus said as vaguely as his wife while they moved awkwardly toward the door.
“Does that mean they can’t sue?” Jonas murmured to Rubella.
But Rubella ignored him. “Come along, Randolf,” she commanded. “We have to get you home and into some pants for god’s sake.”
“Coming mother,” Randolf said, the noblest, and followed her, head held so high and proud.
“Now, Randolf, I have some good news,” Rubella began as she, Jonas, Randolf, and Davey walked down the hall and out of the castle. “Your father and I are getting a divorce…”
Moreen and Straus followed them out, the rescue party in their wake, looking disappointed there had been no need for a bloodbath.
When the last person had left, closing the door behind him, the princess turned to Evilman. She scrunched her nose in apology. “I’m so sorry about all of that.”
Evilman waved it off, chuckling slightly. “Oh, it’s all right! They did think I was going to mercilessly kill you just to reaffirm my evilness.”
“Well, they still shouldn’t have been so rude.”
“It’s no problem, Princess…um, by the way…what’s your name?”
flash fiction by M. C. Tuggle
The hovertrain whispered to a stop at the Cemetery of the Republic. The doors slid open, and I saw before me two lines of people stretching from the platform to the casket. It reminded me of running the gauntlet at military school, and I froze. Something sharp poked me in the shoulder from behind, and I turned and gave Mom my best glare. She out-glared me and motioned me forward. I walked.
Mom probably thought I’d hesitated out of childish anger since we’d argued on the ride to the cemetery. My face burned as I stalked past the mourners, elderly men and women in grey-and-green uniforms from the Montana-Iowa War. As my mother and I scuffed over the dry grass, my anger magnified and deepened at her and the silly ceremony I was now stuck in. Two weeks earlier, I’d turned 12. She shouldn’t treat me like a child.
Mom had said, “This isn’t about you, Jemmah. It’s about your grandfather.”
“None of the other cadets follow Bright Path. They’ll see the news vids and laugh at me.”
“Let them laugh.” Mom held her chin high. “Some of us still believe.”
“Giving dead people presents they can use in the ‘Great After’ might’ve made sense a hundred years ago. Not anymore. When you’re dead, you’re dead.”
Mom had the same grey eyes as my grandfather, and the same devastating stare when angry. “I want you to participate. If not for yourself, then for him.”
My daydream dissolved and we stood in the sunlight beside my grandfather’s closed casket. The Bright Path priestess motioned for silence, then called out lines the mourners repeated. I stood respectfully, though I did not say the words of the old singsong chant. But almost all of Grandpa’s war buddies joined in. It amazed me that even these wrinkled men and women in uniforms from a nearly forgotten war could utter such nonsense.
The priestess, a small woman in white robes, stooped and pulled a flamer from a tattered cloth bag. She stood and lit torches at each end of the casket. The priestess stared at the ground in silence as white smoke curled at our feet. She looked up and said, “What gifts do you have for Charlton Loomis to use in the Great After?”
An old captain shuffled up to the casket, a young woman at his side. The woman handed him a plasma rifle, which he gripped in both hands. He stood straight and said, “Charlton Loomis, please accept my field piece. Watch over us, and use this to keep us safe.” He placed the rifle on the casket, and the woman held his arm as he crept back to the line. I heard several sniffles.
Another man placed a gorgeous antique pistol, a shining .44 Magnum, on the casket. I clenched my eyes in disbelief. What a waste.
Ten old soldiers in all made offerings. It was one thing to honor a fellow soldier, but to throw away treasures made no sense.
The priestess nodded at my mother, who strode up to the casket. She faced the mourners with a hunting knife in her hand. For a few seconds, she said nothing, only stared at the ground. A few of the mourners coughed. Then Mom looked up. “I want my Dad to have the knife he gave me when I was six. He made doll’s heads from pine with it, and showed me how to carve traps, and to defend myself. Without those skills, I would not be here today.”
Mom turned to the casket, placed the knife on top, and touched the casket surface a moment.
I took a deep breath. The smoldering torches filled the air under the canopy with the strong scent of cedar.
Mom returned to my side and leaned close. “Your turn, Jemmah.”
I stared at her. She stared back. I shook my head. Even if I believed, I had no present for my grandfather.
Mom took my hand, and dropped something into it. I gazed into my open palm at the tiny gift, a black hook with a silver spiral along its length, and tufts of white and yellow feathers sticking out. It was my Black Ghost fishing lure. For a fleeting instant, I stood on the banks of the Am River learning how to cast for brown trout. My grandfather, with his one-of-a-kind way of blending military preparedness with infinite patience and kindness, taught me how to fish, how to gut and clean my catch, and how to cook it.
I looked back at Mom, who mouthed the words, “It’s not for you. It’s for him.”
What could I do? I strode up to the casket and faced the assembly. Holding the tiny lure before me, it was all I could do to keep a straight face. “This,” I said, “is a fishing lure my grandfather made for me.” I gulped air and searched the sky above for words. “Grandpa, if there are rivers in — in the Great After where you’ve gone–”
My lips moved, but I could not speak. My chest tightened, and I let out a loud sob. This was the first time I’d admitted that Grandpa was gone. I didn’t know what to do. Foolishly, I tossed the lure onto the casket. I turned back toward the assembly with my head bowed. No doubt people were laughing at me. I looked up. Through wet eyes, I saw the old men and women stand straight, shoulders back. I knew that look. It was one of respect.
I wiped my eyes and treaded back beside Mom, who had this mysterious smile on her face. The priestess continued talking, but her words darted past me like mayflies on the river. A comforting but puzzling realization occupied my mind. Mom had been wrong. Letting go of the lure wasn’t for my dead grandfather. It was for me.
Maybe one day I would explain it to her.
M. C. Tuggle is a writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. His fantasy, sci-fi, and literary stories have been featured in Space Squid, Kzine, Bewildering Stories, Mystic Signals, Fabula Argentea, and Fiction 365. The Novel Fox released his novella Aztec Midnight in December, 2014.
flash fiction by Astrid S. Nielsen and Tommy Fransgaard
There was grass breaking through the flagstones. Ilyich stared at it, unblinking. Grass, slowly clawing its way from darkness into light, unstoppable, even in his shadow. He felt that thing again, gnawing inside of him, that…feeling. His bony fingers clutched the hilt of his sword harder, and with the point of it he scraped away the grass. Though it would come back. It always came back.
He froze; he could feel their eyes, the others like him, skeleton figures clad in rusty armour and dark robes billowing slowly about them.
I did not move, he would have said if the silence between them had not been as old as the death they shared. I do not feel, and the wind doesn’t whisper to me.About riding to battle on a misty morning, with a beating heart. The warmth of a fire. Lenji’s laughter.
I am not Ilyich. I am only my master’s will.
But his master’s will was failing.
So many they had been to begin with, left here by his master to guard the bridge across the chasm and whatever secrets lay on the other side. They had stood here waiting, waiting, waiting for the enemy, and the stars had not changed, and he had thought that neither would they.
Then a skeleton warrior suddenly ceased to be anything more than just bones, falling rattling to the ground, truly dead. Slowly, their numbers dwindled. And now, so few of them remained. Now, bones and pieces of rusty armour were scattered about the rocky ground as if it’d been the scene of an ancient battle.
But that was yet to come.
He straightened, resumed his pose, hand resting lightly on his sword, gaze fixed on the ridge and the shadows between the pines. There would be movement there, one day. The enemy would come. His master’s will might be failing. But he would not.
◊ ◊ ◊
The dwarf scout Kalmen Orefall looked back over his shoulder, then turned and leaned on his axe.
“What in the bottom of Abyss did he have to go and do that for. Taking a cannon along,” he grumbled through his teeth as so many times before.
They were out of sight, for now, the baron’s brat of a youngest son and those fools who didn’t dare tell him what an idiot he was. Who were tripping over their feet to help him. With his cannon. Kalmen sighed. Somewhere down that steep path winding its way between the pines, they were still struggling to drag that damn thing along, he could tell by the scrambling noises and the swearing carrying through the wood. Not that he would have expected them to give up.
“A cannon is our mightiest weapon. I’m not going without my cannon,” the young Lord Greyrock had insisted.
Fool that he was, Kalmen had answered he’d better stay home, then.
And then it became a matter of principle.
The baron’s youngest son was… Well, the baron’s son, even if he did not posses any other qualities. The baron had thought a harmless mission, one that couldn’t possibly fail, might just be the thing to give the boy some sense of valour. And when an old parchment was found, speaking of an ancient artifact of great power hidden in this deserted part of the mountains, far from enemy lines—it had seemed just such a mission.
Thoran Blackhammer, who was the only one in the party besides Kalmen not keeping to the young lord’s slow pace, scratched his grey streaked beard. “Maybe we should go back and help young sir Greyrock with the cannon?”
Kalmen raised a bushy eyebrow, looked his friend in the eye. They both burst out laughing. “Good one, that.” Kalmen wiped at a tear at the corner of his eye. “Well, let’s see what lies ahead.”
They continued, crested the ridge. And froze.
There was a bridge across a chasm, just like the parchment had described it. In front of it, though, a plain of bones stretched out, a small army of undead gathered in the centre. The red burning eyes of a wight lord met Kalmen’s. He felt the back of his neck prickle, cursed under his breath. “What’s taking them so long with that cannon!”
The fanciful poem, After the Circus Leaves by Sara Backer, opens Issue 29. The scarecrow image by Adina Voicu (Pixabay) superimposed by stock photos of crows in flight, captures the sentiment.
Royal Visitation by Bruce Boston invokes the use of hands quite differently in his dark poem. A similar mystery and macabre are also depicted in the photographic work of Sarah Jayne.
Increasing darkness follows with two of John Grey’s poems: The Exorcist, a narrative poem complemented by a surreal drawing, “Drowning Silence,” by TehLookingGlass (Anna Kehrer) in Deviant Art; During the Depression, which gives an interesting look at the homeless, is characterized by the Bill Ebbesen photograph of Rob Zombie performing on Orange Stage at 2014 Roskilde Festival in Denmark. The image was further enhanced as a chalk sketch and recolored (accent color 2 dark) for the horrific effect.
In contradistinction, John Reinhart’s The Humaniverse speaks of humanity interestingly put by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the epigraph of the poem: an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I can imagine no better complement to this poem than the Italian painting, “Vertumnus” (“Vertumno”) by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) (Vertumno).
Powder Keg by Holly Walrath is part of her collection-in-progress on historical narratives. This is a timely piece on slavery since February is National Black History Month. The pathos is also captured in two images for this poem: The painting, “The Slave Ship,” by J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) is a representation of the mass murder of slaves, inspired by the massacre aboard the Zong; and the 1898 photograph (Library of Congress, Washington, DC) of black sharecroppers in Georgia by T. W. Ingersoll (1862-1922).
Akua Lezli Hope’s fantasy poem, Lost Streets, brings the reader to that Scottish place, Brigadoon. The structural discipline of the poem simultaneous goes to both construction and deconstruction of the magical city. The impressionistic lines brought Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) ethereal work, “Thames,” almost immediately to mind, despite the fact the New York river, the Chemung is in the poem.
My Mom and Her Home by Fabiyas M V has a bit of fancifulness, too, but there is something very dark lurking in the subtext. That mystery, and the haunting red color are combined in a composite image of a stock photo of red brick-walled property with an ominous opening into the structure, and the growing red lava texture image in the background by Studio Freya (tatanya).
Denny E. Marshall writes a blend of science fiction and fantasy in the short poem, Quark Sample. The compactness of this work could allude to the compactness of quarks, or of all cosmology on a head of a pin, so to speak. The two images—the crystal ornament and the assemblage of glass blue ornaments—are overlaid to produce a surreal celestial ambiance.
In another poem by John Reinhart, angels dream up the wildest excuses overlaps with Marshall’s on a couple levels. The Cern image used for the creation of the Higg’s Boson in the Large Hadron Collider seemed appropriate.
The issue closes with two selections for our speculative poetry in translation feature. Amelia Gorman translates the German expressionist writer, Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945). Her work is often dreamy, surreal, and fanciful, as well as poems about love and spiritual matters. Two images have been provide to complement the mood for each of the two poems (arbitrarily one for the German text and the other for the English translation). The first poem, Sphinx (both a German and English word), might go more to the enigmatic nature of the subject in the poem rather than the typical winged monster of Thebes having a woman’s head and a lion’s body. The artwork of a moon woman by Spanish artist, poet and blogger, Gladys Calamardo, is also seen on her blog (Desatame al amanecer) associated with her poem “El rezo del sol.” The art has all the markers of Schüler’s style. The other piece is another overlay: a photograph of the flower, narcissus, by J. Arlecchino and the creative photograph by Steve Bidmead photo of the a lady in sillhouette celebrating the moon. But for the poem Love, the impressionism of Frederick Carl Freiseke (1874-1939) is displayed. Both “Hollyhocks” and “Cherry Blossoms” have a sheer sensitivity and tenderness to go with the mood of the poem. Be sure you read the translator’s notes for further insights.
John C. Mannnone
* Most of of the images appearing here were located using Google’s advanced image search tool (http://www.google.com/advanced_image_search), with “free to use, share or modify” selected. A few images were combined in PowerPoint using the transparency feature, while one was enhance using Microsoft Word picture format tools. But in every case, the work is free to use without attribution (though made anyway), free to use under Creative Commons Licenses, or used with permission.
A scarecrow jumps down from his pole
to gather, in his clumsy straw-filled sleeves,
the litter—ticket stubs, cigarette butts, sequins,
paper cotton candy cones, flex straws, coins,
ripped mustard packets, tiny plastic shards—
cleaning his field.
A clown’s discarded red ball nose—
his prize find—he puts on his burlap face
and walks with a bit of samba in his step
back to his post, where he gazes skyward
and pretends to juggle
three circling crows.
— Sara Backer
Sara Backer has published speculative poems (or has them forthcoming) in Asimov’s, A cappella Zoo, Crannóg (Ireland), Dreams & Nightmares, Gargoyle, Hermes (UK), Illumen, New Welsh Reader (UK), Shooter Literary Magazine (UK), and Strange Horizons. She won the 2015 Turtle Island Poetry Prize for her chapbook, Bicycle Lotus, and currently is seeking a publisher for her full-length collection of surreal poetry. She lives in the woodpecker-filled woods of New Hampshire and is an adjunct writing teacher at UMass Lowell.
Her Majesty is startled
awake in the night
by the hands
of a dead lover
exploring her body,
in ways she had
the very one
she had assassinated
for his flagrant
and gross infidelities,
the only one
she had ever loved,
as much as she
could love anyone,
his skilled hands
in the night
of her own.
— Bruce Boston
Bruce Boston is the author of more than fifty books and chapbooks. His writing has received the Bram Stoker Award, the Asimov’s Readers Award, a Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling and Grandmaster Awards of the SFPA. His latest collection, Resonance Dark and Light, is available from most online booksellers. www.bruceboston.com
We were ushered out of the room.
Only the stranger stayed behind
and Beth, of course,
still writhing uncontrollably on the bed.
Strange how the Christmas stars and streamers
still adorned the walls.
And the tree glistened.
It was the Savior’s birthday
but not within earshot of Beth’s tortured cries.
My mother sat us at the kitchen table
to sip milk and listen to her
cigarette-stained voice cackle some
random Biblical passages.
Beth’s screams grew even louder.
A month before, Beth had said
she’d seen a cross-eyed crow in the woods.
And met a peddler in the lane
selling odd trinkets—half-animal, half-man.
And during a particularly virulent storm,
a gruesome face had flashed in her window.
Ever since then,
she’d been coughing up bile,
swearing like dad’s old drinking buddies,
and eating nothing but cockroaches and flies.
Whatever she was suffering from,
it sure wasn’t the measles.
We asked questions
but mother said it was none of our business.
Just a stage our big sister was going through.
She handed a crucifix to each of us
with the instruction to clutch it to our breasts.
An hour after we left Beth’s room,
we heard a giant whoosh.
then a burst of laughter
followed by a booming cry
and a sound like a rocket taking off.
The stranger stumbled out of the room,
collapsed on the floor before mom could reach him.
“It’s done,” he whispered.
Beth remembers none of this
and I still don’t know
how mom explained away
the dead guy in our parlor.
In a way, knowing what I know now,
I feel kind of proud
that the devil chose my sister
out of everyone in our little town
for a full-blown possession.
She was never that pretty or that smart
and she couldn’t cook or sew.
My mother used to say she had a good heart.
And an even better exorcist, thank God.
— John Grey
John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in New Plains Review, Perceptions and the anthology, No Achilles with work upcoming in Big Muddy Review, Gargoyle, Coal City Review and Nebo.