The Ravagers (1993)

The Ravagers

Prologue

A boy watched from a distance as the armies of the dark kingdom raped, pillaged, killed, and destroyed his village, his home and his people. Tears streamed down his face as he ran from the scene. He was the only one—the soul survivor of his people. There was none who remained alive. The dark ones had seen to that. The women were brutalized, the men tortured to death, and the children had been dashed against the walls of the burning huts until they were dead. This, he realized, would be the fate of many villages.

To the swamps, then, he thought. And to the dark forests that spawned terrible nightmares and hallucinations that haunted until death. Once there, he thought, I can search for a quiet solitude…a peaceful sanctuary. I can forget all that has happened and begin anew. What has passed, I will forget.

Turning toward the south, he started to quicken his pace. Soon, he was at a full run. By evening, he had made it to the mountains. Choosing the steepest path, he made a desperate attempt to discourage the scout the armies had sent after him. By nightfall, he’d found a cavern that was sheltered from the view of anyone above or below him. Within, he found a multitude of creatures from which to choose as a meal. None was actually that appealing, but a hungry child will eat anything…and he did eat.

Tired, he collapsed in a heap upon the cold stone floor. There, he slept till the morn, not once waking. He did not know of the kindly old hermit who’d laid the bearskin upon him to keep him warm. Nor did he know of the wolf that had brought in food for him. He only slept and dreamed.

He dreamed horrible dreams. In his dreams, he was back at his village. He was still watching the destruction, the senseless violation of innocence. He was still seeing the evil stare of the monster that commanded those armies. He was filled with the fear. He saw the soullessness of the beast that sat upon that pale horse and it disturbed him.

The scouts were baffled. The thrachna had lost the boy’s scent, but they couldn’t go back without his body. If they did, they would be fed to the draqma. But, yet, their thrachna had lost the scent. It was as if the boy had vanished. Perhaps he’d fallen into a crevice. But they had seen no crevices, and knew better than to believe that. Nor would they believe that the beasts that inhabited these mountains had gotten to the boy. They’d been in the mountains for hours and not seen a single beast.

They held no animosity toward the boy, personally. They didn’t even hold animosity toward his village. They were merely carrying out orders. And orders were orders.

Down in the ruins of the village, the commander of the dark army removed her helmet. She was a dusky woman, well built, with raven hair. Her eyes no longer had a luster to them and she no longer felt emotion. She had not felt remorse for anything she had ever done. Her heart had been turned as dark as her hair, and her soul had been lost years ago through relentless warring.

Though a mere thirty years of age, she seemed to be ageless. Her beauty belied her true self. Beneath the timeless beauty laid an evil heart that served only her masters to the south. No remorse or feeling escaped her. Her words, empty…as empty as her heart.

She was truly and completely soulless. No man could ever posses her. No redeeming force could ever save her. She was already lost.

She had been sent north to put a boy to death, and she intended to do so. Her masters seemed to fear the boy, but she did not. She feared nothing. Not even her masters invoked fear in her heart, but they feared her.

She would continue to hunt the boy down, even if she had to spend the rest of her life doing so. She had to. She could not return to her masters a failure. She would rather die by her own hand than by theirs. They were not worthy enough to execute her. No one was.

To the southwest, her scouts were having no luck of their own. The mountains did their job well, when it came to hiding people. It was as if they swallowed them up like so much nothing. Not one trace could be found of the boy; no, not one. But they could not go back without his body. Their mistress terrified them. She would kill them.

She needed the boy’s body for proof. She had to take it back to her masters. They wanted the lad dead, not just scared out of his mind. And dead, he would have to be. So they continued to search.

As darkness fell, they searched. When there was no more light to see by, they ended their search. Tomorrow might bring them

luck, they thought. Tomorrow…

The boy rose early the next morning, even before first light. He awoke to find himself covered by a bearskin that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Beside him lay the carcass of a deer. In wonderment, he began to search for wood or brush to build a fire with. In the far corner of the cavern, he found what he was looking for, and carried enough forward for a small fire. Once he had a fire blazing, he prepared the meat with a sharp stone he’d taken to use as a knife.

“Sharp stones come in handy,” a voice in the darkness said, causing him to jump, “don’t they, boy?” W-who’s there?” the boy cried out.

“Hush, or they’ll hear you. Then, where will you be? Dead, if they have their way,” the voice said, “here, I’ll come forth so you

know that I mean you no harm.”

A short man, whose beard and hair were matted and unkempt, and who was dressed in sackcloth and furs, stepped from the darkness.

“Well, boy?” he said sternly, “aren’t you going to ask me to stay for sup? I did cover you in the night, you know. Would not do for the promised one to die his death of a cold, now would it? And the wolves brought the meat. We live here together, child. We know every passage throughout these caves.”

“Please, sir,” the boy spoke, still shaken, “I meant no offense. I knew not who you were. Please do join me for sup. You say you know these caves?”

“Yes, lad,” the wild man stated, “we will take you that way so they won’t find you.”

“But I head south,” the boy began.

“Nay,” the old man stated, “you must head west first. ’Tis the only way. The promise cannot be fulfilled if you go south first. They will surely catch you if you go south first. They await you there.”

“Who are ‘they’?” the boy asked, “and why do they wish harm to me?”

“They be the Hounds of Helledes,” the old man replied, “and they do not wish you harm, they wish you death. They are an evil lot, and seek to cast the world into darkness. As long as you live, you threaten them.”

“But I head for the swamps,” the boy insisted, “surely they won’t look there…”

“Boy,” the old man interrupted, “they would catch you before you could make it there. Helledes is betwixt you and the swamps. That is beyond their lands, and they would kill you ever afore you could reach your swamps.”

The boy bowed his head. He hadn’t thought of anything more than the swamps, and now they were beyond his grasp. Those who were after him stood in his way. His plight was hopeless, or so he thought.

“I am lost,” he mumbled, “I cannot escape them. My only hope lies to the south. Now I cannot even reach it.”

“Boy,” the old man stated, “did you not even hear me? I only said that you couldn’t go there now. I did not say that you could not go there later. You must go there, just not yet. You must go west first, then north. These caves run to the west. Beyond, they open to the lands of the wizards of Carapatha. You must learn from them, my boy.”

“But what lays to the north, that I must go there?” the boy asked.

“When that time comes,” the old man replied, “you will know.”

They ate in silence from that point on. After they finished, the boy began to ready himself for his journey. The bearskin, the old man said, was a gift, a blanket to keep him warm in the months to come. Thus, he rolled it up, and using fresh sinews, tie it into a bundle so it would be easy to carry. The boy took just enough of the deer carcass to see him through the journey ahead of him. The rest, he left for his lupine benefactors and the old man.

When he had finished, the old man began to lead him deeper into the caverns. The inky darkness they now penetrated, aided by a single torch, was nothing compared to the tales he’d heard of the great wells. It was said that any who’d ventured into them had never come out. There were rumors that many a soul had even fallen to their deaths from above the wells.

At times, the boy would cast a glance to the side and notice that the floor of the cavern seemed to stop just beyond the light of the torch. His guide seemed undisturbed by this newfound discovery, and continued to move on as if driven onward toward some unseen destination. Of course, the old man was driven onward. But it was by the desire to see the boy safely to the Great Sandy Desert, where destiny had fated him to go.

Back at the ruins of the village, the dark she-devil awaited news. She was the one they called Nemesisia. Though that had not been her name at birth, it fit her now like the armor she now wore. Coram Curuch had molded her such. He, the bent and bloody one, was the overlord of the Hounds of Helledes. She was their commander, and they were her wolf pack.

The boy’s name, though meaningless to her, was Bran. His fate had been the reason she had ridden north. He had been, or so her masters thought, sent to destroy the Helledes. In their black hearts, they wanted to stop him. Yet fate, it seems, cannot be stopped. They could kill him, but they could not forestall their fate.

Indeed, fate is a cruel master and its plans are always set in stone. Never can it be outwitted. And it was not fate’s plan that the boy, Bran, would come to harm. No army would destroy him or put an end to fate’s plans. Fate would protect its chosen warrior, and protect him well.

Within the caverns, Bran and his guide had turned northward on their path. Up till then, they had been headed west. But, somewhere along their path, the old man had turned into a tunnel that headed north. He explained to Bran that death lay on west. There were great wells that blocked the rest of the western corridor. Besides, the boy’s destiny lay to the north and west with the wizards of Carapatha.

Their course slowly turned back to the west, and soon enough, they were looking out over the land of Carapatha. It was such a beautiful land. Lush greenery grew everywhere. It was nothing like Bran’s own lands, which had to be worked in order to grow anything. This was paradise!

But where was the Great Sandy Desert? Bran turned to the old man.

“Where is the Great Sandy Desert?” he asked in surprise.

“This is a part of it,” the old hermit replied, “or was until the wizards settled here centuries ago. They changed it to appear according to the hearts of those who enter. If you be wicked, it is a great parching desert. If you be good, then it is an unearthly paradise. We be good people. So we see it as it is, a paradise.” “So it isn’t really a desert?” Bran asked.

“ Yes and no,” the old hermit stated, “it is. Then, again, it isn’t. You will understand more when you have spent time here. I cannot explain it to you. All I can tell you is that this is the Great Sandy Desert, or at least it once had been. It still is if your heart is set upon doing evil. Not even the cities exist in the minds of those

whose hearts have gone black.” “And I?” Bran asked.

“If they come here looking for you,” the hermit said, “they will not find you. They will die in the Great Sandy. You are quite safe here.”

“Thank you, old man,” Bran stated sadly, “you have been kind in bringing me here.”

“Fare thee well, boy,” the old man replied, “fare thee well and save the land from the evil you have witnessed.”

Bran watched the ancient hermit vanish back into the cavern. A deep pang of regret and sorrow overtook him. He knew well that he would never see the old hermit again. Something told him that the hermit was walking into a trap. He just knew that his pursuers had found his scent again and had followed it into the cavern.

Indeed, the thrachna had picked his scent back up. It had followed him into the caverns, but had failed to turn and the scouts had lost one to the great well just beyond where the cavern split. Its master had also been lost to the dark expanse of the well. All winced in pain as they heard the splat of flesh upon the dry, hard rocks in the inky darkness below. They slowly backed away from the edge of the well and turned around, heading back toward where they had just come.

It was then that they encountered the hermit. Yet, as they tried to lay hold on him, the old man erupted into flames. As he burned to ash, his strange laughter rang through the caverns. When he was gone, the scouts could only stand and stare in awe. Never had they seen such a sight. Not once had they had a prisoner escape by such means.

After a brief moment, the scouts resumed their search. Again, the thrachna picked up the scent of the boy and took lead. This time, it took the same path the hermit had come from. To the Great Sandy it headed. Into the desert that would swallow them all…

I.

Village after village was put to the torch, the people put to death. Nemesisia allowed her male troops to do as they pleased. These people meant nothing to her. The screams fell upon her deaf ears like so many whispers upon the wind. She reveled in watching the men burn at the stake. She cared very little about the women, they were whores anyway, or so she believed. Who would care if this were the total annihilation of a people? She was doing what she was sent to do.

She took personal pleasure in leading the children to the thrachna. She took pleasure in feeding them to her pets. Indeed, she was a person with no feeling…except cruelty. Her sadistic glee found its release in watching them all die.

Why should these inferiors be allowed to breed? That was her question. If she could just wipe them all off the face of the earth, then, she would have accomplished what she had been sent to do. There shouldn’t be any left to breed. They didn’t deserve to live.

The outlying farms and homesteads were the easiest prey of all. There weren’t enough souls on and around them to put up a decent defense. It was all too easy. She was making too quick of time. Then, she faced the great city of Shaethar. Its massive walls gave her the barrier she’d wanted. This was a worthy opponent.

Shaethar stood majestic above the plains of Colfar, in the very center. The villages had been its source of food. The farmers had been vital to its existence. But, the kings had not been foolish enough to not set up great storehouses where provisions could be kept. And those storehouses were full. A siege could last for years, even decades, and they would not run out of provisions.

So Nemesisia turned her armies to the east, hoping to rid the land of the infestation that these people dared to call farmers. To her, they were more like lice. They crawled and sucked the life out of everything in her eyes. They were an infestation, a disease. They weren’t farmers; they were primitive excuses for slaves.

They were happy serving their monarchs, and that made her disgusted. How could they remain loyal to soft, foppishly effeminate nobles who were wrapped up in the running of the state? Did they not know that their betters had no clue? And exactly what armies were going to come and save them? Their naivety disgusted, no, appalled her. There were no armies coming to save these wretched creatures.

But, she was wrong. There was an army, no, there were five armies coming toward her. They all depended on these peasants for their sustenance. And there would be yet another, one which did not need these people to survive.

Right now, there were only five. The best soldier each city had to offer headed each one of those armies. And they were more than enough to keep Nemesisia’s armies busy for a few years. But she was sure that she could break them as she had done so many other armies. And she would try.

Even as the armies drew closer to her, their kings sent forth riders. To the northern, western, eastern, and southern border towns they rode; to spread word that armies were needed. The kings hoped that those to the south still existed. Each city was vital to them; each ally a great need. If they could surround this dark army, they could hold it at bay. They were certain that they would not be able to defeat it, but at least they could stop it for a short duration.

Nemesisia did not see the riders that rode southward. They had wisely taken routes that lay hidden from her view. Yet, had she seen them, she wouldn’t have given them any concern. She’d not seen any cities on her way through the southlands, why would they head there? What would they be searching for?

But there were cities to the south; along the border she’d crossed. They were just spread out over the entire expanse of it, and could easily be passed without being seen. Of course, the southern border lay across a hilly expanse of land and hid much from the view of the invaders. A great army had watched them as they came into the lands, an unseen army that had been watching them since before their first massacre. These were the Border Guard. Even as the riders made their way south, this massive army headed north in its entirety, leaving the reserve guard to protect the border.

A great war had begun. The fate of a land was about to be decided. Yet, neither one of the participants knew what the outcome would be.

“Where are those scouts?” Nemesisia demanded, “where is that boy they were sent to bring back?”

“They haven’t returned, your lordship,” a nervous voice replied, “that could only mean that they haven’t yet found the boy.”

“Roch,” she growled, “they waste my time with their incompetence. I should’ve sent better warriors to catch the boy. Now, we are behind in our work. This siege will come to naught if he is not caught and destroyed.”

To the west, the scouts came out onto the Great Sandy Desert. They’d heard tales of this place. Supposedly, there were cities out here in this desolation. But no one had ever come back from its interior. No one could ever confirm their existence. Nomads that wandered in from this wasteland never said anything. They seemed as quiet as they were deadly. Even the masters of the Hounds left the nomads alone.

But, to find anything in the Great Sandy would be a feat worthy of a true warrior…and the scouts were determined to prove that they were true warriors. And so, into the desolate wastes they began to ride. The desert would claim yet more vile men and beasts for its own. Again, the hungry sands would devour them and no trace would ever be found.

As the scouts headed into the desert, a deep sense of foreboding came upon them like a wave and tightened its grip upon their hearts. As they continued to venture deeper, their mounts began to get jittery. The thrachna even seemed to become antsy and shy at anything that seemed to move. Yet there

was no wind. All was calm. Too calm…

Bran had no trouble finding his way to the nearest city. He was unconcerned, now, about his pursuers. They were just a bad memory as far as he was concerned. They no longer existed. All that existed to him was this mirage that was his reality. This paradise had worked its charm upon him. Now, he was ready to meet his hosts.

Upon the plains, Nemesisia was screaming at her most devoted lieutenant in anger. She was growing impatient with the scouts she’d sent out, and now was threatening to send more scouts out to seek the ones who were already missing. If she could only find them! They might have the body of the boy! Then, she could raise it above her head and show these savages that resistance was futile. She could defeat the lands if she only had the boy’s body.

“Your lordship,” came the answer, “they will return. If they do not, then I will send a detachment to search for them.”

“You do that, Roch,” she demanded, “and do it soon. I want no glory hogs riding back to Helledes and stealing the prize that is rightfully mine. I will not be destroyed by the likes of those dogs! Never! Never, never, never!”

“Yes, your lordship,” came the obedient reply, “immediately.”

Roch wondered why she had ever joined with Nemesisia in the first place. Being drawn to the woman was one thing, but one could never be her lover. And that had been her intent. She’d thought that when it had been said that no man could ever have the tall, dusky woman that it left it open for a woman. But that wasn’t true either.

She only found herself riding into battles with Nemesisia and doing her bidding. There was no love in the raven-haired woman’s heart, only hatred and bloodlust. Not that battle didn’t hold its own charm for her, but Roch needed more. So she sought companionship in lust with the men. But it wasn’t the same. Her heart belonged to her commander, a woman whom she would never be able to possess.

II.

Days passed in the Great Sandy Desert very slowly. So slowly, it seemed, that even the lizards grew old in just a day and it seemed to take forever to reach any distance. The harshness of the sun dried a man out so quickly that his skin would crack and the water-deprived blood would ooze out like thick, river mud. Its deep scarlet color was a stark contrast with the steel gray of their chain mail, which was now so hot it was almost intolerable. Had it not welded itself to them in the first few hours of their presence here, they would’ve gladly took it off and rid themselves of its fire.

Their dry, parched lips had peeled and repealed long ago and continued the process over and over again as they continued to ride. They seemed to get absolutely nowhere, no matter how far they rode. Their stomachs growled with hunger as they fought to keep their stores from vanishing. Their water was already low, and their morale had gone a long time before that. They were desperate men on a worthless mission.

The thrachna was the first to die. The ravenous men could no longer contain themselves. Their hunger gripped them like a beast about to devour it prey. They stripped the carcass of all its meat, leaving only bones. Only after it had died were they no longer afraid of it. Yet, what sustenance it provided would also soon vanish.

When it was gone, they found that their hunger burned worse. As their horses died, one by one, they—too—shared the thrachna’s fate. Then, as their comrades dropped, they also became sustenance. Then, there was but one left. No food, no water, no mind left—only a drive to find. But to find what? His mission had long since been forgotten. But he had found his way back to where he’d started.

But had he really left that point? He thought he had, with what ability he had left to think. Indeed, he could remember—or had that been an illusion, too?—marching out into the desert. In the haze, he could recall the order he’d given to do so. But his mind had been stripped of all reason. He was no longer a man. He’d become a savage, a beast.

To the east, Roch sent forth a small contingent of men to search for the missing scouts and the boy. The order was to execute the scouts and reclaim the boy’s body for their commander. Thus, they headed west…to the mountains. Two thrachna accompanied them on their quest. Unsure of what they would find, they took careful precautions not to act as the scouts had.

In the cavern, they scouted every passage. They, too, soon stood at the edge of the Great Sandy and looked out upon its barren wastes. Their attention was particularly drawn to something just a ways in front of them. They were filled with nausea ass they watched the horrid sight.

They watched as the last scout, no longer aware of anything, sat gnawing on his own useless leg. Around him, lay the bleached bones of his comrades…including the thrachna. Yet, there was a thrachna and a master missing. One of the archers, unable to bear any more of the scene, loosed an arrow and put an end to their comrade’s suffering.

They stood and silently watched as the bones and their comrade now crumbled into dust, gone forever, leaving no evidence for them to carry back with them. Yet, they had learned that the scouts had not found the boy either. There had been no body of a child in the scattering of bones. There had been no trace of what had driven them to their deaths either, and the one who’d still been alive moments ago had been in no condition to tell them anything.

Perhaps there would be some clue back in the great well they’d seen in the other passage. Perhaps, too, they could find something in the desert its self. The captain gave orders to a division to enter the desert, while he sent another small division back into the cavern. He, along with the division that was left, remained at the mouth of the cavern and watched as their comrades rode off into the dunes of the haunted desert.

Hours passed and the division that had gone into the desert did not return. It was as if they’d simply vanished. The other division had returned with news that the other thrachna and master had been at the bottom of the well, and they’d brought proof of their heads and battle armor. Beyond that, they had no clue what had happened to the scouts or what had driven the commander insane.

All they knew was that they’d been at the entrance of the cavern, the only entrance, and had not seen any sign of the division they were now missing. It was as if the desert had swallowed them. They’d already ridden the entirety of the high mountain passes in the area and knew that there were none that led into the desert before them. All the passes led north and south and had easterly outlets, but had no westerly outlets. There was no other way out, but their lost comrades had not returned.

They withdrew into the cavern as the sun began to set. They didn’t know what kind of creatures roamed the desert after dark, and weren’t about to find out. They set up camp just inside the cavern, and began to bed down. Their captain, Orykthys, took first watch.

Orykthys was not a young man, nor was he completely loyal to Nemesisia. He had been at the top of his game once, but had fallen into disfavor rather rapidly when that bitch had come along. He couldn’t see what was so wonderful about her. She was a bit of a Prima Donna and not very well liked. The only admirable thing about her was her prowess in battle.

He couldn’t remember ever seeing any other female warrior fight as well as she. It was almost seductive, the way she reveled in the bloodbath. He almost loved her for that, but not quite. He almost wished that he could lure her into his tent. Then, he’d make her grow up. He would show her what other ladies already knew. Indeed, he lusted after her.

As it continued to grow darker, he began to realize that the division he’d sent into the desert would not return alive…if they returned at all. He began to plan the morrow as he drifted in and out of lucid consciousness. Then, just as he was about to lose all consciousness, one of his men came and relieved him. It was the witching hour when he made his way to the tent of one of his female warriors. Tonight, he thought. Tonight, he would seek release in one of his underlings. But, someday…someday, he would find it in Nemesisia. He vowed that he would, soon…

Bran sat in his bed, safe within the city of Paraxys. It hadn’t been far to the gates after he’d left the cavern, so he’d settled on it as his new home. For now, he was their honored guest. They were his esteemed hosts, and soon, he would meet one of the wizards. There was much to be done. Too much, in fact, for him to even imagine.

He relaxed easily. He was truly safe now. The scouts could not get him here. Protection against them was everywhere. He fell asleep and dreamed. Tomorrow was a different day.

The desert had claimed more. Its hunger knew no relief. Its thirst spread to those who trespassed into its inner wastes. The days blazed hot and unbearable. The small division that had been sent to probe its mysteries and search for the child—if possible— had fared no better than their late comrades. They had been a bit smarter, though, and it seemed as if they might accidentally pierce the interior and make it safely to the other side. But night brought no relief.

Night was just as cold as the days were hot. During the day, they burned with hunger and thirst. At the same time, they peeled and dried out. Their skins cracked, releasing the rich crimson ichor that was their thickened blood. At night, their blood seemed to freeze within their veins. They no longer had the protective cloaks that they’d been issued, nor the thick iron chain mail. They’d rid themselves of these shortly after they’d set forth.

Yet, they were being watched. The nomads had found them, and seemed to be waiting. But, for what? To attack? This was their home, and they had intruded upon the nomads.

Kythry, the lieutenant over the division, muttered a prayer to some god that the rest had long forgotten ever existed. He was not a completely evil man; he just chose his path carelessly. He had allowed his friend, who had been killed in a battle early on and was now long dead and almost forgotten, to corrupt him and convince him to join the Hounds. At that time, the Hounds were nothing more than an elite army that defended their country, Helledes. Now, they were something less honorable and yet he remained.

His faithful companion, Barga, rode beside him. How he envied her. She was so loyal and yet fearless. She fought as well as he! May the gods be kind to her, he thought, as he glanced over at her. She had always been there for him. He had never strayed from her side, nor she from his.

Now, they were riding to their deaths and she didn’t seem to be afraid. She didn’t even flinch. Perhaps she didn’t know. By the gods, he was tired. He was so tired…Suddenly, everything fell apart. The nomads attacked. He watched as his division fell around him. Yet, for some unknown reason, it seemed as if the nomads were trying their hardest not to hit him or Barga. It was as if they wanted two prisoners.

Then it was over. He and Barga were surrounded and alone. His sword, now too heavy for him to hang onto, fell from his hands. His wounds, though massive were not enough to kill him. The nomads had seen to that.

A thousand devils now jabbed him with tridents, or so it felt to him. He looked over at his lover. She was unharmed. Good, he thought, they have decency enough to be kind to her.

As the nomads carried the two prisoners away into the night, Bran was somewhere in a dream of his yesterdays—when his mother and father were still alive. Back in the cavern, Orykthys was having his way with another of his female underlings. And back on the plains, Nemesisia was finding that she was caught in a bad place.

Within the caverns, the walls came alive. No one had noticed the statuary that seemed to line the walls, and now, they were coming to life. But they weren’t really statues. Nor were they made of stone. Their skin was hard and scaly, impervious to swords, but it did not make them invincible. They were known as the hellbenders. Though they had another name, no human tongue could utter it, so they became hellbenders…even though they did not resemble the little salamanders that shared the name.

They were cave-dwelling creatures, human in appearance to a certain point. And scaly! Thick, horn-like scales covered their bodies. Their eyes were enough to terrify even the most courageous of men, glowing like embers as they stared at the soul within. Demons, some called them. But they were the inhabitants of the deepest caves, blending in with the stone.

Orykthys came out of a tent in time to witness the walls coming alive. He mustered enough courage to call his men into retreat, but didn’t have time to escape death’s grasp himself. Only one of them would make it out alive, but she would not be the same. It was her screams, unknown to her, that had awakened them. She had been their call to attack, and it had been her tent that Orykthys had come out of shortly before his death…

Out into the desert she ran, blindly. She was in pain. Her body was in ruin; her mind, a mess. She had not seen anything that had been taken place. Her tears kept her blind. Yet, she felt not sand, but grass beneath her feet. She didn’t smell the death, but rather the fragrance of life wafting up from the delicate flowers somewhere in the darkness.

A gentle hand reached out and touched her. She jerked herself to a stop and flailed out, striking blindly at the intruder.

“No, child,” a gentle voice calmly spoke, “I do not mean to do you any harm. I am here to take you to the healer. He will make you well. Come.”

She was Fayana. She had been forced into service. Her brothers had died years ago in battle, and she had been the last child in her family. She had never wanted to be a part of the Hounds, but they had threatened to kill her family if she refused. Now, she was free. There would be no more worries of men forcing themselves upon her, no more serving their evil. She knew that the masters of Helledes had already executed her family, so what was the use? She couldn’t go back now. She had to take the path now offered to her.

In the same city she was now being led to, Bran lay sleeping. His dreams were no longer troubled, and he no longer dreamed of the horrors he’d witnessed when his village had been destroyed. Now, he dreamed of happy times, memories of long ago. The healer had seen to it that this would be the case. And he would see to it that Fayana would have no trace of all that had happened to her. It would all be as if it had never happened…

Kythry opened his eyes. He lay on a travois behind his horse. Sitting upon his horse was Barga. The nomads no longer treated them as prisoners. Even more perplexing was that they were no longer in the desert…or were they? He couldn’t tell. All he knew was that he could smell the sweetest fragrances, as if they were going through a field of wild flowers. His hands were no longer bound, and had he been able to, he could’ve moved about. But, he was too weak.

“Easy,” a voice came to him, “you are among friends. We wished only to destroy those you commanded.” “Why?” he asked weakly.

“You would’ve all been executed once you returned to your master, anyway,” the voice returned, “your’s was a suicide mission. The boy you sought is protected here. This is the garden of the gods. To those of evil intent, it is a barren waste that drives them mad. Even to those who are among evil, it seems to be a

desert. But, like you, they can survive it.”

“But why didn’t you kill me, too?” Kythry demanded.

“Because your heart was not in your mission,” came the reply, “you were not evil. We heard the prayer you breathed. You still believe in the good. They did not. They only sought the end of all that was good.”

Kythry settled back on the travois and rested in thought. He’d known, by the gods, he’d known. Nemesisia was a treacherous witch. She couldn’t be trusted. But, then again, neither could the masters of Helledes. They were a shady lot, always coercing new recruits. Seemed the families of those recruits disappeared, never to be seen again as well. There were the occasional rumors, which died when those who’d actively spread them vanished.

He was relieved to be out of her service. Hell, he was overjoyed to be through with serving the Helledes. He rued the day he’d even joined the Hounds. He’d had reservations, even then. Something told him that he was making a mistake. But that was all over now. Those he thought had wanted him as a prisoner had freed him. He chuckled at his naivety. But it had been born out of old tales of such things; tales mothers in Helledes would use to keep their children scared into submission. He could even still hear his own mother.

“I’m gunna call on the nomads of the Great Sandy Desert,” she would threaten, “an’ I’m gunna lettum have ya. They’ll keep

ya till yer nuthin’ but a crispin in their fire.”

But he had to love her. No matter what she threatened him with, he had to love her. After all, she was his mother, and she did teach him to worship the ancient gods of his people…even if they didn’t themselves. That was probably why he took up with Barga. She reminded him so much of his mother. Yet, by the time they met, him mother had been dead for years.

Beyond this scene, another figure stealthily made her way toward the Great Sandy Desert. She had finally gained the resolve to leave behind the woman she loved and go out into the unknown on her own. She’d given up hope of ever winning Nemesisia’s affection, and so Roch had decided to make her exit. The boy, she knew was a lost cause. He’d escaped her former mistress’ attempts to kill him, and now, she was going to do the same. Let the warriors fight this war. She was no warrior. Nor was she from Helledes.

This was not her affair. Nor had it ever been. She had come with some hope of something she now knew never existed. Broken hearted, and dejected, she rode away into the dark. Now, she sought the boy herself, though for a different reason…

Nemesisia was too enthralled in making plans for the siege to notice when Roch left. The girl had been a nuisance to her anyway, and her loss wasn’t detrimental to the cause. Nor were the absence and possible loss of the scouts and the divisions she’d sent in search of them. They were incompetent. They were threats to her, but then, everyone was. Even that pip named Roch. She had been a distraction from the very beginning.

The only problem now was that she didn’t have anyone to yell at. Roch had been the buffer between her and the rest. Now, there was no buffer. She would have to scream at the nearest soldier when things went awry, that’s all. She could only hope that she could dispose of them if they objected.

With a growl, she flashed an evil glare in the direction she supposed roch had headed. Damned, that’s what the whole lot was; damned. They were all sons of vranacks, each and every one of them. They were worthless.

III.

Time passes quickly when you’re at war. You seem to lose track of time. In fact, time seems to stand still at times. Perhaps it’s because of all the activity. Or, perhaps, it’s because your mind is on what is at hand rather than the workings of time its self. Whatever the cause, more time seems to pass by than you know. And when it does, you can only wonder where it went.

Indeed, time seemed to stand still out on the plains where Nemesisia sat in siege of the city of Shaethar. Sadly, her hair had begun to turn gray and her skin had begun to wrinkle; the stress of it all had long since begun to show, and she had quit caring. As long as the people had hope, she could not win. As long as the boy lived, she would meet defeat.

And the boy, though no longer a boy, did live. He had long since left the wizards of Paraxys and gone north. Then, using paths that bypassed Helledes, he had drifted south to the swamps.

Every so often, another would join the small army gathering behind him. None were of the lands he had once called home, but they joined him nonetheless.

There, he roused the barbarous swamp dwellers to join him. Finally, his army now complete, he marched back north. Up into Helledes, he rode, laying waste to their evil kingdom and cutting off all Nemesisia’s aid. All troops were now engaged in fighting the invader, the boy they had tried to kill, and defend their homes. Those from the swamps were set free upon the lands of Helledes. While Bran carried out a swift and terrible justice upon the masters of Helledes, the barbarians from the swamplands ravaged the land. Yet, they were kinder to the people than the Hounds of Helledes had been to Bran’s people.

Helledes lay in ruin after he moved on. Their masters were no longer alive, their puppet kings were dead, and their armies no longer carried a threat. Their cities had been razed to the ground, and their crops destroyed. They had been conquered and enslaved. The cities were empty, but the temples—once neglected and ignored—now held a place of honor. The destruction that had visited the cities had spared the temples.

The line that guarded the border parted and let the conquerors through. Bran stopped where his village once stood and laid flowers from the garden of the gods upon the barren ground. He had remembered. He now kept his promise. Then, without hesitation, he urged his army on.

The swamp dwellers had affixed the heads of the Helledes masters and kings upon spears. These, they marched at the front of the procession to let all know that Helledes had fallen. One had to admire the barbarian mind, for it knew how to instill fear into the minds of an enemy. And Bran was relieved; knowing that these barbarians were his allies…not his enemy.

Beside Bran rode Roch. She rode there proudly, unlike her days with Nemesisia when she was maltreated and unappreciated.

Though she had not found a lover, she had found a friend. She was truly happy, and it showed in her eyes.

She had trained under the wizards as well, becoming as Bran was. She had missed the chance to be his lover, Fayana being there first, but realized that she hadn’t missed out on becoming his friend. To say that she did not find a lover would be a lie, but she did not find one in him. Her lover, a young sorceress, had met her upon the street that first fateful day she’d arrived in Paraxys. It was this same sorceress that now accompanied her and her new commander into battle.

A great cheer went up as the great army passed through each of the southern cities. Cheers greeted them as they continued going through the cities along their route northward. Word spread ahead of them that Helledes had fallen. People began to gain hope that they would see the end of the war, and the armies already engaged in battle with Nemesisia renewed their attacks and counterattacks with unequalled vigor.

It was all starting to fall apart for Nemesisia. Her war had begun to play its hand against her and there was a new threat added to her worries. The rumors of her masters’ fall had her concerned. Not that there was any love lost, but she had no one to win the battles for. She had no one to give her orders…

She had no one to give her orders! No one to threaten her with death if she didn’t succeed! No one to control her…mind! She had been freed! Or had she?

But what if the rumors proved to be false? A scream filled her ears. Silently at first, then growing louder. She wasn’t sure if it was just her, or if everyone else could hear it until those around her turned and looked at her in wonder. It was then that she realized that her mouth had fallen open in a scream, and that all could hear her.

She fell to her knees, the pain growing worse as Bran’s army drew steadily nearer. The power that had controlled her was no more. The pain of its grip was being replaced with her own thoughts. And the pain was now her own, no longer something inflicted from outside.

But that pain worsened, and the drone of her own thoughts seemed so foreign. She looked up, her eyes pleading, in time to see the procession of heads as they came into view. Fear overtook her, and she mounted her horse and fled. The Hounds found themselves without a commander as they faced Bran’s massive army. They were now caught between two forces with nowhere left to go.

They knew they would not win this war. They had already lost. But, they would fight to the death. They had no choice. They could only do as they had been trained to.

Bran led the charge. The barbarians who had led the procession just minutes before, stood where they had been halted and held the gruesome reminders high above their heads with pride. The battle was as much a massacre as had the Hounds’ attack upon the villages. When it was over, not one Hound remained alive.

Nemesisia, now free and terrified, rode blindly into the wastes to the north. Her memory drove her on, half-crazed, to a place where she felt sure she’d be safe. Safe from the dead eyes of her dead masters, and safe from the Hounds. Now, she was no longer Nemesisia. She was…she couldn’t remember her own name! They had stolen her name from her!

But she was finally free! Wasn’t that what truly counted? She wasn’t sure any more. Her thoughts were a jumble of buzzing words, droning like a thousand hornets inside her head. Thinking hurt.

She gave her horse free rein. She no longer cared where she was going, just as long as she was not at the battle that she left behind her. Her original destination no longer mattered. She was tired. She wanted to rest and forget. She wanted…

The horse took her north, then west. She had long since fallen asleep in the saddle, and no longer knew what was going on around her. Into the lands of mist, it galloped. Then, turning west, it headed into a mountain pass that cut across the mountains and took it into the Great Sandy Desert’s northern region…where the lands of mist intersect with the desert below. The horse continued on west, until it had reached the western side of the pass, then turned back south. It headed straight into the desert interior without hesitation.

No one would know what the confused Amazon would’ve seen had she been awake; for as her horse galloped on, she slept a troubled sleep. Her memory had begun to return, causing her nightmares. She could remember the decimation of her people, leaving her the sole survivor and the slave to her masters. She could remember the spells they breathed to bind her to them and to take away her soul, keeping it captive so that she would do their bidding without question. They had left her empty, almost mindless, breathing contempt for those she conquered because they felt the contempt, and without emotions other than pure hate.

She remembered her homeland, far to the south and east of the swamps. It had been an independent amalgam of tribes who fought amongst themselves when they weren’t fighting beside one another. They interacted in a mercurial way, never really bonding, yet never really repelling. They were bound in a fluid relationship, flowing between love and hate…peace and war.

She remembered her mother. The queen of her people, and commander of their tribal war band…that was her mother. Proud even in the face of death. Her fierce independence kept her from the slavery that her daughter would face. If the gods only knew, they would bring her comfort.

It was then, in her sleep, that she remembered the gods. Their benevolent guidance led their servants to victory. How long had it been since she’d made sacrifices to them, or even been allowed to do so? How long had it been? She couldn’t remember. It had been too long, that’s all she could admit, too long.

When she awoke, she was no longer on her horse but in a bed. It had been ages since she’d been afforded such a luxury, but now she was her own person. She was weak, but she wasn’t afraid. She didn’t know where she was; only that she was safe.

She raised herself up on her elbows just long enough to look out the window that opened to the outside world beyond her room. Beyond, she could see a bustling city with a bazaar and temples more grand than she’d ever seen. She could see that her room was not far from the city walls, and beyond those walls laid vast fields of wild flowers and meadows of tall grass and shrubbery of all kinds. In the distance, she could see trees; forests of them.

As she lay back upon her pillows, thoroughly exhausted, she began to believe that she had died and gone to paradise. She was still weak, too weak to really care. All she wanted right now was to rest. And ass she drifted off into slumber once more, she began to let it all go. Once asleep, she began to dream of her mother and

sisters. This time, the dream was a happy one…

Thalgar stood outside, tears in his eyes. He had brought her back, whoever she was, and given her back her life. He’d done the same for young Bran and the Hounds that had been brought to him. He had even done more for the young women, Fayana and Roch. Yet, in all his days, he had never seen one such as this. Sure, he’d heard of them; but never encountered them. To him, they had almost been a myth.

But, now, one had arrived within the garden of the gods. The prophets had been right once more, and an Amazon warrior had come to their fair city. And what a mess she’d been! She’d been delirious with fever, and her words had been incoherent. She’d been placed under some sort of spell, and her soul had been separated from her…though not destroyed. She had been made a slave without any way to resist. It was a first.

His associate approached from behind.

“How is she?” the woman asked.

“She’ll be fine, Ellyana,” he replied quietly, “she’s a strong one. Though, I must admit, the loss of her soul had a strange effect on her mentally.”

“It did, indeed,” the woman replied, “but will she be able to readjust?”

“In time,” he stated, “in time.”

He turned to go. And as his gaze brushed her, Ellyana could feel him touch her mentally. She shivered with excitement and smiled. He smiled back at her, and then left. Ellyana stood there a while, enwrapped in the feeling of his caress. He loved her and it was evident. They shared their lives and their work. They even shared their home. But they did not share their surnames.

They were a couple in every way. Yet, they had never married. They’d had children together, but never made their bond official. But things such as that did not matter here. This was a refuge for wizards and the garden where the gods came to play. It was a desert, but it had its own magic. They had done nothing. The desert did all.

This desert was a living creature. It had proven its self to be such long ago. It hungered, it thirsted, it desired, and it hid. It devoured all that was evil, causing madness to overtake its victims. It showed its true nature to those who intended evil; hiding all that was good about its self in an attempt to protect those it loved. And it did love. It loved those who were lost or alone. It loved those who fought for the common good. It loved those who were the last of their people and needed its help.

Ellyana knew this all to be true. None were allowed to find the cities unless the desert loved them. Those who lived in the desert were extensions of its personality. Though the wizards were from the outside, and the gods merely visited from time to time, the rest—the nomads, the healers, the hunters, the rangers who rode the western mountain border, and even the hellbenders in the caves that led to it just to the east—were a part of it. They were its expressions of emotion. Some primitive, others complex, but all were emotions of some kind. And often, they were sent beyond the borders into the world beyond.

It sent them forth to reawaken the lands beyond, but the lands slept too soundly. In its despair, it sought to discover the reasons for the lack of response. So it sent others to discover the whys. Then, when the Hounds had ventured into its domain, it knew. Evil had covered the lands. And that evil had created monstrosities such as the thrachna and the draqma. Now, it knew all it needed to know. Now, it would begin to build another army to destroy these evils and send it forth to heal the other lands. It would build upon the foundation it had begun with the boy, and the young man he had become would join with this young woman it had welcomed.

If it had been able to, it would have smiled. But it was forced to smile through the healers and the nomads. It was happily scheming against the evil that held its siblings prisoners. And how it schemed! It had made its decision. Soon, it would send forth its newest army to join the one that now finished the first mission. Soon, the world would be united again. Then, there would be but one kingdom, an empire that encompassed the whole of the

lands. And all men would be one with the lands…

Jesus Saves

This is not about faith, though those whose lives will be recounted here should not have placed so much in finding love. It is not about belief, unless it is the belief in the illusion of safety and the unassuming character of the villain. It has nothing to do with the power of prayer, because sometimes praying won’t save you. Or about God, because He had nothing to do with the following story.

It is about a tattoo, stating those two misleading words, on a woman’s back…right above the strap of her spaghetti strap-blouse. It is about a night in paradise. Waking up to the last thing you ever see. And death by the hand of someone you thought was in love with you.

It is about illusions and reality. It is about trust and betrayal. And making choices. To be precise, it is about the woman with the tattoo…and men. Many, many men. All of which vanished.

It is safe to say that many people won’t remember the case I am about to cite, but it happened. She was known as the Jesus Saves killer. It is strange how a singular tattoo would figure into the whole nightmare, but it was a remarkable one for such a person to wear. And so prominently.

Even fewer would have given a second thought to a lone woman in a lonely hearts pub in the French Quarter on Mardi Gras. Especially one that was as petite and weak looking as the one that would prove to be the one that would turn New Orleans upside down…along with the whole nation. Most would have thought her insane for being there, being a target, but not for wanting to find someone to love. But that was not why she was there.

Had the men who would cross her path known about her, or what lay in store for them, they would have steered clear. But you can’t always tell when something isn’t quite right with someone. You might be able to sense crazy in some, but not all. And this young lady, if you can truly call her that, was one who could hide crazy quite well. No one knew that she had been diagnosed as criminally insane, put on inhibitors, and summarily released from the protection of the system. In the ensuing years in between, she had quit taking the inhibitors and was now unfettered crazy in a docile wrapper.

Now, she wandered the streets of New Orleans alone and undetected. Her pale white skin marred only by a single tattoo: Jesus Saves. A relic from a bygone day when she had been considered sane and had been happy. Now, it was a reminder of when everything had fallen apart. Her relationships. Her career. Her future. Her life.

Now, she only remembered the pain. But no one knew her darkest secrets, those demons that had driven her insane. If she had allowed someone to know, maybe they could have helped her heal. But she kept her secrets well.

***

Mardi Gras. More precisely, after dark on that decadent day. She found her way to Lonely Hearts Pub, a relatively new establishment in the French Quarter. Normally, she would shy away from the bars. Too many witnesses to know who she was. But this night, as with all Mardi Gras nights, that was where all the men were.

Young, old, it didn’t matter. She wanted a man. She wanted sex. Why, she no longer could remember. It wasn’t that she enjoyed it, that had stopped long ago…the reasons now long lost in her dark confused past. She no longer knew why she needed a man. No.

She only knew that she needed a man. And sex. It was her reason for being. She was no hooker off the streets. She asked no money. She simply wanted what she lacked.

She whispered promises of a forever. Perhaps that was her draw. That and her sweet perfume. She whispered promises of a family, though it had been determined long before that she could never have children. But the men need not know that. If all else failed, she surmised that she could steal some child-or children-to raise as her own. Or adopt.

She acted as if she was one of the boys. She drank more than the men she sought out. She caroused with the best of them. She danced better than the other women. And she had been better endowed, physically.

Perhaps it was her ample breasts that lured the men. Maybe her promises. Or her perfume. Whatever it was, it was hers alone.

They could tell that she was no street walker. No drunken floozy. No mere party girl. She was all woman, and knew how to take control. She was a challenge. And so small and fragile looking.

Strangely enough, she knew which men to avoid as well. She could tell a homosexual from a straight with an almost uncanny precision. She knew the druggers as well. You know, the boys who drug women they-then-rape? She knew the violent drunks as well.

But any observant monkey could tell on most of these. At least that was her twisted view. And so she steered clear of these. Instead, she would gravitate toward the young, barely legal, college boys who were on their first outing. These were fresh, unused specimen of maleness. Naive enough to believe her whispers, horny enough to go home with her. And she loved their hormones. And their youth. Not to mention their stamina.

They could last all night. But so could she. And that was what she loved. Going all night long.

***

“Hi, Honey,” a young voice stated behind her, “Would you mind dancin’ with me?”

He sounded a bit gay, but what the hell. “Sure,” she answered, her sweet, soft alto almost purring, “Let’s go.”

“I saw ya standin’ there an’ thought ‘now there’s a woman!'” He remarked, using an obvious pickup line.

“I’m glad you think I am a woman,” she replied, seduction creeping into her voice, “maybe you and I can, uh, split later and go to my place for the rest of the evening.”

“Sure!” He exclaimed. “Uh, I mean, if you want to.”

“In a little bit, Baby,” she replied, “but first, let’s see where this is headed. Shall we?”

She knew that she already had him hook, line and sinker. Her natural knack for seduction had already reeled him in. Now, she had to make it so he was inexorably entangled in her web. A little dance, a little wiggle, a little flirt, and he would be hers…heart, mind and soul. She smiled to herself.

they must have danced for hours, her gentle rocking motion lulling her date into a false sense of security. All that time, he’d had her invite to her place on his mind. She could tell. His hands strayed over her back to her ass. Hell. His lips had sought hers twice.

And they had kissed. Yes, she had been aroused by it too. But so had he. She had felt him grow hard.

At closing time, they stepped out of the door. He led her to his car, groping her frantically. She could tell that he desired her. She wanted him too. More than he knew.

He drove, drunk and high. He was drunk on the liquor, but high on her. And she was making him even higher with everything she did. Maybe too high, too quick.

****

She couldn’t remember the night after the pub. She remembered the boy, but not what happened afterward. She blinked her eyes as she rolled off the couch. Had he put her here? She got up and went into the bedroom. Maybe he was still in there.

There were no pillows or blankets on the bed. Strange. She remembered making it yesterday morning, and it had been made last night when she left. Why did the men she picked up always seem to steal her sheets? And why was there a tiny smear of blood on the plastic covered mattress?

She shrugged. Oh well. She would just have to buy a new set. She grabbed the money from her sock drawer. At least she had enough money to last for a while.

But she still couldn’t figure out where it was all coming from. She didn’t work. Couldn’t. Her illness made that impossible.

She didn’t draw disability either. Nor did she have Medicaid. And she had no family or bank account. She used to have a roommate, but he had left. He had owned the condo they shared, but had allowed her to stay. Too bad he went away. He was fun.

She left the condo in search of a new set of blankets. She would have to clean the blood off the bed when she got home. But first, she needed something to eat. Whatever they did last night made her hungry.

She sat at the cafe she always frequented, eating crepes filled with strawberries. Her favorite.

As she sat there, she began to realize that she didn’t see the outfit she had been wearing last night either. Had he taken off with that too? Or was there something else going on? She had noticed that her clothes had begun showing up missing quite a lot recently. Why?

She waited for the waiter to bring her ticket, paid him, then got up. She had a new outfit and some bedding to buy. She made her way toward the department store she always bought replacement sheets and clothes at. She also needed some more perfume and shampoo. Maybe some soap.

She would go out again tonight and have more fun, but only after she got things all cleaned up. This time, she hoped she could find a guy who’d stick around.

***

As she shopped, she began thinking about things. It was strange, but her Condo was completely deserted. No one lived there but her. The neighbors across the hall had moved a year ago, no forwarding address. And worse, they had forgotten to inform the mailman.

The neighbors down the hall had moved three years ago, same thing. The Prachetts had moved before that, as had the other families who’d lived on the ground level. And the security guards had not been seen for some time either. Nor their families. She hoped they were all doing okay.

The other building had also systematically been abandoned, and the management had not tried in the least to replace the owners with new ones. She found that odd. Odd, indeed. Or had the condo been owned by those who’d left?

No matter. She kind of liked having the run of the condo. There were cool things in each timeshare. Furniture she could interchange with her own. And no one asking her for rent.

She shrugged. Even though these things seemed strange, they were still oddly familiar. Everyone in her life always seemed to leave. Most, under extremely mysterious circumstances and rather suddenly. No way to send their mail to them. Always leaving their stuff behind.

Then, it struck her. She hadn’t even seen the garbage man for months. Had he stopped coming? No matter. she didn’t make enough trash to warrant his services anyway.

She couldn’t cook, so she always ate out. She rarely got to stay home, so she generated very little trash. Besides. The condo was just her love nest.

She stopped thinking long enough to pick six excellent comforters, several sheet-sets, new pillows, and then headed for the clothing. She figured that she had enough to cover it all. She found several outfits she liked, all in her size, and put them in her cart. Now for the soap and other needs.

She had been lucky, when she went to go through checkout, that she actually had enough. The clerk looked at her strangely. Apparently, it seemed odd that she was here every week…and had been coming every week for the last three years. But, you could never have too much.

She made her way home with her new sheets and clothes. She would get these things home, then go in search of lunch. She was hungry again. All this made her hungry. And it made her want a man. At least if she had a man, he would go out and buy her all these things. And he could get all those funny looks. The only time she ever got away without those looks was when she went in for feminine care products. All women shopped for those from time to time. Or so she thought.

***

Detective Sherman had been investigating the disappearance of a whole neighborhood. Security officers. Garbage men. The families from the condo that sat nearly empty now. The owner, who had taken in a homeless girl. And now, a slew of men who ranged in age from 19 to 30. None were over that age.

All were either college students or cheating husbands. Only one was high profile. One of the mayor’s aids had gone missing. But there were no clues left behind. It was as if they just dropped off the face of the earth.

Yet, the girl still lived in the deserted condo. Had it been left to her? Or was there something else? Something he wasn’t seeing?

He got out of his car. He was striking in his fine tailored suit, fedora, and sunglasses. He shook off the feeling that he was being watched and headed for the door of The Lonely Hearts Pub. He was going to get to the bottom of this mystery, even if he had to die trying.

Stepping through the door, he headed for the bartender. He knocked on the counter. The bartender looked over, then walked over.

“May I help you?” He asked.

“Yes,” Sherman stated, taking a notebook, pencil, and picture out of the inner pocket of his suit coat, “have you seen this you man?”

The barkeep looked down and turned white. “Yes. He was here last night. Left with a petite young woman, wavy hair, about five-foot-two, dressed really sexy. Well mannered.”

Sherman took out a fist-full of photos. “How many of these guys have been in here?”

The barkeep looked through and sorted out about a third of the pictures and pushed them toward the Detective. “Only these. Why?”

“Can you remember if they left with the same woman?” The detective inquired.

“I can only remember these three,” the barkeep replied, “Leaving with her. the rest were here so long ago that I don’t really remember. A lot happens over the years.”

“Are you the only bartender here?” Sherman pressed.

“No,” the barkeep replied, “But I am the only one who works Mardi Gras. And these guys were here on Mardi Gras.”

The owner came out of the office and came to investigate why the detective was in his pub. “Can I help you?”

“Your bartender is doing a good job of that,” the detective replied, “but I would like to talk to the rest of your bar tending staff. That is, if you don’t mind.”

“What’s this about?” the owner inquired.

“A host of missing men and families,” the detective replied, “It may be nothing, but we had a complaint from Toulaine University on a few male students disappearing. The last was seen in this area last night during Mardi Gras. The other five were noticed during the week as we were celebrating. Maybe they got drunk and drowned in a foolish attempt to swim the lake, but I have to check it out, you know.”

The owner nodded. “OK. I will call in my serving and bar-tending staff. Feel free to ask them whatever you need. Just sit tight. I can have them here in minutes.”

“Need anything to drink?” The bartender asked.

“Sure,” Sherman replied, “Coffee. Black. No sugar.”

***

She scrubbed at the blood stain. With the bleach, it was coming out rather nicely. Still, who leaves a bed so messy? And without the covers.

She knew she would need a shower when she was done. She needed to be clean when she went out again. The Lonely Hearts Pub had been great, and she had met the guy she had brought home last night, but she needed a change. Perhaps she would go to the club a few blocks away tonight. She remembered going there with her roommate a couple of times, but didn’t remember what it had been like.

All she could remember was that the last time had been just before he had left. Something about some business. He should have been back by now. Hell. he should have been back a year ago. Where had he gone?

She didn’t have time to worry about him. Or then young man who’d been wit her last night. Had there been others? She wasn’t sure.

She liked the pursuit, though. She loved checking out the men. Deciding which were gay, which were married, which were liable to drug her, which were violent, and which were the easygoing drunks. She liked the easygoing drunks. So easy to get into bed.

Too bad they weren’t easy to keep around. Too bad they were so lousy at cleaning up their own messes. Too bad they always seemed to leave without even a thank you. She felt as if they were only using her.

Was there something about her that scared them away? Was she really that ugly? Was there something wrong with her sexually? What was it that drove men away.

The more she thought, the worse she felt. The more she wanted to get out and go to the club to forget her problems. The more she wanted to find another man. Maybe, this one would stay.

She continued to scrub at the stains. This last one was being difficult. Why couldn’t her dates ever clean up after themselves? It didn’t make sense.

It finally came up and she got up. She had noticed that the blood was not just on the bed when she started her cleanup. No, it had been everywhere. most of it had been cleaned, it seemed, but some trouble spots were still left. Men. So messy. What had happened in here?

After she rose, she went to the washer and threw the new sheets in. measuring the soap and fabric softener, she threw it in and closed the lid. setting the knob, she pushed the start button. She had a good 45 minutes. Enough time to take a shower and get ready for a night on the town.

***

Detective Sherman sat listening to the last server’s memory of some of the victims. Most, she agreed, had been drunk when they left. But not all. She let him know that she had never seen the ones that the Mardi Gras bartender had said he’d never seen. They were complete strangers.

But she had seen the college boy. He had been buzzed, but not quite drunk. At least not before the girl had met him. After that, the whiskey flowed freely…as did the cash. But the girl had paid for the majority of the drinks. When they left, he had been drunk. But she was sober. The server could not remember the girl ordering a single drink other than an orange soda.

Same with the others. Some had already been drunk, but the ones that had not when they met the same girl usually ended up getting so drunk the girl had to help them out to their cars. Where they went after that was anyone’s guess. Perhaps they barhopped?

“I will be going to other establishments,” the detective replied, “but yours was the first one on my way.”

“Just how many have disappeared?” The server asked?

“We really don’t know,” the detective replied, “Those pictures are just of the ones we know. There are many more possible cases linked to this. We just aren’t sure if they are or not.”

“Do you have any idea who?” the pub owner inquired.

“Not at the moment,” Sherman replied, shaking his head, “but we will definitely check out the girl.” His cell phone rang. pulling it from its case, he answered. “Hello, Detective Sherman.” He nodded. “OK. On my way.”

“Are we done?” One of the barkeeps asked.

“For now,” the detective replied, “If you remember anything else you think might be of use in the case, feel free to call me.” He handed them all his card.

“Sure.” came the reply.

***

Detective Sherman arrived at Lake Pontchartrain an hour after he left the pub. The team had already pulled the college boy’s car out of the lake and were searching it for clues. Opening the trunk, they were met by the sight of the body. He had been stabbed several times. Naked, whoever had killed him had not taken the time to dress him or even to position him. It was almost as if he’d been stabbed while in the act of having sex. Yet, his eyes were wide with shock. Like he’d awakened to see who his killer was and was taken aback by their appearance. Someone they considered close?

If he had been killed during sex, it had been one hell of a way to go. But who had killed him? The girl he left with? Someone else? And where, more importantly, had the murder taken place?

“Reilly,” he called, “can I speak with you a minute?”

An officer came over. “Yes, Detective Sherman?”

“I need you to go to this address,” he stated, writing the address to the condo on a piece of paper, “and question the only occupant. I believe she lives in number three.”

The officer nodded and left after taking the piece of paper. Sherman would have told him to be careful, but the officer had left before he could. He shook his head. Youngsters these days.

He turned to another officer. “Tell the crew to scour the whole lake. Maybe this is just the first piece to the puzzle and we will find more. Not sure about whether we will find any more bodies, but we might find some vehicles.”

The officer nodded and went to relay the message. Captain Marcel appeared at Sherman’s side. “What’s got you puzzled, Detective?”

“I dunno,” came the reply, “something isn’t quite right about this. No reason, no rhyme, no connections. well, except the bar, so far. But other than that, no other connection. Most vics are young. Between the ages of nineteen and thirty. All out to have a little fun. All wealthy, but not all from Nahlens. Some from the college, out revelin’ during Mardi Gras week. Others are three years old and cold cases that have the same M.O.”

“Which is?” The Captain was smiling.

“They all just disappeared into thin air,” Sherman replied, “This boy was lucky. After we get done with procedure, we can mail ‘im home to his parents. Not a good thing to have to do, but it will bring closure.”

“True,” the smile had faded from Marcel’s face, “I feel bad for the parents. No one should have to bury their own child. Not this way.”

***

Officer Reilly arrived at the condo forty-five minutes after leaving the lakeside scene. Though a relatively new building, it seemed eery. There was no noise. No movement. He entered warily.

Finding his way upstairs to number three, he knocked. “Police,” he called out, “Is anyone home?”

A young lady, no more than twenty-nine, opened the door. She was elegantly dressed as if she was getting ready to go clubbing. “Can I help you, officer?” she asked in a sweet alto voice that almost seemed to drip honey.

“Y-y-yes,” he stammered, his breath taken by her beauty, “I need to ask you a few questions.”

She regarded him. No, this one was not boyfriend material. He wasn’t quite her type. “OK,” she replied.

Reilly ran through the questions, listening to her answers intently. She was quite truthful in all her answers. She had only briefly been with any of those men. They had left her place quite suddenly, without waking her and had left the place a mess.She had not bothered looking for them, because she knew they were long gone. Possibly back to their lives elsewhere.

Reilly suddenly noticed that there was something not quite right. He couldn’t place his finger on it, but he knew it was there. Still, he was entranced by her. If he wasn’t married, hell. He would even be tempted to give her a try. But he was married, and he was faithful to his wife. this girl was off limits. No matter how alluring she was.

“T-thank you ma’am,” he replied when she was done, “I won’t bother you anymore.”

He left before he did something he would regret later. Heading back to his car, he couldn’t seem to get out of the condo building fast enough. It was as if he was being watched. Followed.

He climbed into his car and drove a safe distance away. Then, he called in to the precinct. And then to Sherman. He looked up into his rear view, expecting to see something. But there was nothing.

He headed to the precinct. Maybe he could shake this eery feeling. He could only hope.

***

She made her way to the club. That officer had been rather nice, but he had also been married. She made it a point never to get involved with married men. Too messy. Too complex.

She would find another to spend the night with. This time, she hoped that he would stay. But hope hadn’t worked for her before. Why?

She shrugged it off. No use feeling sorry for herself. She would just have to pick herself up and dust herself off. And try again.

Still, she hated feeling like she was ugly. She had been made to feel that way once before. Back when she had been…never mind. She couldn’t really remember. Maybe it wasn’t worth remembering.

Yes. That was it. It wasn’t worth remembering. She smiled. Now she felt free.

Tonight, she would dance with more than one man. Perhaps, she would feel them out to see if they had the quality she was looking for. And staying power. Couldn’t forget that.

Her mind was abuzz with activity. All this excitement was getting to be too much. And the police were looking for those poor boys! What had happened to them? And why was there always blood all over everything in her bedroom every morning? She just didn’t understand it. Nothing seemed to make sense.

Still, she could offer them nothing new except that she had been with them all. And that they had all left in a rush, never to call or come back. She hadn’t told the officer that their sudden leaving had hurt her so much that she felt like crying. Nor had she admitted that their leaving made her feel ugly. Just that they had left.

She smiled. But tonight was a different matter. She was out for fun. For dancing. For drinks. And for sex.

***

Captain Marcel arrived home at nine. He had been divorced for nearly a year, and had missed his wife every second. But he had to keep reminding himself that she was his ex-wife. No longer his wife. And her leaving had hurt him deeply.

So deeply that he had made himself a promise that he would never love again. At forty, he was getting too old-in his mind-to be chasing women. Hell. He was getting too old and tired to be doing the assignment Sherman had given him. Go to the club and observe. No drinks. No contact. No distractions.

Look for something out of place. Someone not quite acting right. Make notes. Follow.

Basic police stuff. A stake out, but not in so many words. There was a killer on the loose, and they had to catch them. But was it a man or a woman? Was it a random thing? Or was there some sort of motive?

Jean Marcel was a career officer. He had worked his way up to Captain with the express desire to make Detective. Still, he loved undercover work. Always had. He wanted to be the first undercover detective to make chief. Well, at some point. He smiled.

Maybe this was his ticket to detective. He would work it like it was, even if it wasn’t. He loved his job. He loved catching the bad guys. But it wasn’t always easy. Still, he loved the challenge.

he slipped out of his uniform and into jeans and a nice dress shirt. He had to look the part. Slipping on his dancing shoes, he headed for the door of his apartment. He was off.

slipping down the stairs to his car, he got in and drove toward the club. He hoped they could catch whoever it was. They didn’t need a long, drawn out case. He wanted a nice short one for a change. Something to make the precinct proud.

As he arrived at the club, he smiled. He would enjoy this assignment. He parked his car and went inside. Walking to the bar, he sat down and turned so he could watch the crowd.

“Gimme a soda,” he requested, “I’m on duty.”

The bartender nodded and complied. “They gotcha pullin’ duty tonight. Too bad. Lots o’ pretty women’ll be wanderin’ the floor.”

“Hey, Mac,” Marcel began,pulling a picture out of his pocket and showing it to the bartender, “ever see a woman that looks like this in here?”

“Yes,” he barkeep admitted, “A few times with a solid patron, oh, about three years ago. The last time he ever showed up was about the third time she accompanied him. he was supposed to go out of town on business, but never made it. At least that was what his business partners said. But you prolly already know about that.”

“Yeah,” Marcel remarked, “His partner called in and reported him missing. We have been looking for him ever since.”

He stopped talking when she entered. He glanced down at the photo. She was here! Why?

***

Sherman’s cell rang. He answered. “Hello?”

On the other end was one of the servers from the pub. She had suddenly remembered something odd. A tattoo on the young woman. Jesus Saves. She thought it odd, because she had not seen too many customers with such a tattoo. In fact, she couldn’t remember ever seeing any.

The oddest thing was that the woman had what the server called a strange allure. She seemed to have a strange effect on men. Made them want her. Desire her. He hung up after thanking her.

Shit. He had sent an unprepared Captain to observe. His phone rang again.

“Hello?” He answered. It was Reilly. “Yes?”

“Sir,” Reilly was saying, “There’s somethin’ not right about that girl you sent me to question. Something totally out of place.”

“What do you mean?” He was now on edge.

“Sir,” Reilly continued, “She seemed vacant when she answered my questions. Almost too innocent. Like she really didn’t remember something that had actually happened in her apartment. She claimed they left without warning. Without letting her know.”

“Reilly,” Sherman ordered, “If you are still driving, turn your car around and head to the club where Marcel is. You need to warn him.”

“Yessir!” Came the response.

“Damn!” He breathed as he hit the off button on his phone. He dialed a precinct number. “Yes. Evidence, please.”

“Evidence.”

“Yes. This is Detective Sherman.” He paused. “I need you to look up a file. One with a woman who had a tattoo. Yes. The tattoo is Jesus Saves. See if there is anything in the past, solved or cold, with that tat.”

“Yes, Detective,” came the response, “and we’ll get the information to you as soon as we can.”

***

Marcel fell quickly under her spell. He remained sober, but he had forgotten all about his assignment. She was so hypnotic. So entrancing.

He watched her move through the crowd. The bartender tapped his arm. “The lady sends you a drink.”

“I don’t drink on the job,” he halfway mumbled.

“It isn’t alcoholic, Captain,” the bartender replied, “just a simple soda.”

“Give her my thanks,” he replied, taking it.

He did not see Reilly enter the club. Or the signal the officer tried to give him. He was too deeply entranced by her. She had taken over his thoughts.

***

Reilly froze when he saw her. He hurried outside and called Sherman. “Yes. She’s here. Marcel is in distress.” His message was simple. He only hoped that Sherman would get there on time.

Sherman’s car squealed into the parking lot and he hopped out. The two officers conferred over new evidence, all on the woman inside. Evidence had called the detective back and had given him a lot. The woman in question had been the victim in a rape-murder case. She had been raped, her fiance murdered. Whoever had done it had thought she was dead as well, but she had not died.

After the trial, she was put in the psychiatric ward of the hospital and evaluated. Without healthcare insurance, she had been set free with medicine to help her. For a while, she had disappeared. But she had reemerged when the owner of the condo, the whole complex, took her in. And that was when the disappearances had begun.

Now, they had to extract their colleague, somehow. He was under her spell and they were sure they would lose him. Sherman cursed himself for setting this whole thing in motion. He had given Marcel this assignment without realizing who they were dealing with.

While they talked, Marcel exited the club with her. But they weren’t alone. There was a third. Another man. Marcel had agreed to help her get her friend to her apartment, but he was really hoping for something more. And she knew it. She could tell.

And he was single! Perhaps both men could give her what she needed. What she wanted. She smiled. She had what she came for.

***

Moments later, she showed Marcel into one of the other condos. As he waited for her, he explored his new surroundings. Suddenly, he began feeling woozy. Had he been drugged?

He laid down. He was awakened by the sudden feeling of his pants being pulled off him. Opening his eyes, he saw her as she got on top of him. He smiled. Finally. He would have a little piece of paradise. Then, he saw it.

Sherman and Reilly rushed up the stairs as fast as they could. They had to save their friend. At the very top, they heard his gun go off. Were they too late? They didn’t know.

They busted in the door to her apartment. Going from room to room, they found no sign of her or him…but they found the body of the third person. Had she talked him into shooting the poor man? Reilly inspected the body and shook his head. The man had been stabbed.

Blood had been splattered all over the bedroom. A stream of drips led from the bedroom to the hall. Following them, they came to the door down the hall. Busting it in, they found the trail leading into the bedroom. There, they found their friend…a butcher knife sticking out of his chest. Upon his chest, still holding the knife, was the young lady. Both were dead.

“Oh God,” Sherman moaned, “we were too late.”

Reilly looked over at the detective. “Better call precinct.”

Both left the room. While Sherman called precinct and waited inside, Reilly left the building and went to see if he could find any evidence on the property. Opening the dumpster, a wave so sickening hit him. He had found the other bodies. The bodies of those who had once lived in the complex.

In the months that followed, Reilly and Sherman quit the force. Neither could continue on, knowing that they had been too late to save their friend. They even went so far as to move from New Orleans to get away from the memory. But some ghosts never stop haunting those who have been affected by them. And some memories never fade.

The Meaning Of Life

1.

Nighttime settled in slowly. At least, it seemed to settle slowly. Too slowly. But then, I am not a day person. I don’t think any wizard is.

Especially not in the current socioeconomic climate where we wear targets on our backs. Ever since the rise of the religious right, we have become the hunted. We dare not venture into the daylight. Night is now our domain.

And I waited for the night. My time. I am Thoreau Banning. Sorcerer Supreme. Magnificent Mage.

Want to be wowed? I am your man. Want a simple love spell? I am still your man. I can do whatever your heart desires, except hurt people. Or give you immortality. You want those things, go to a Black Mage.

All magic has a price, though. Black magic requires your soul. White magic merely requires fidelity. Sort of like anything else that is of a faith or spiritual nature. Funny how that works.

As soon as night fell, I was out on the streets. Not that the police or anyone else could see me. Of course not. I traveled in style! As a wraith among men. A whispered spell and I was out of sight, out of mind.

I was on my way to the meeting of the local Wizards 203 to pledge another year of membership and to blow off about what new spells I had learned. Oh, yes, wizardry is a lifelong learning event. You can never know it all. Most maybe, but never all.

As I walked, I noticed a happy little fellow following me. I found this odd because he would turn every time I turned, stopped when I stopped, and turned away to act as if he wasn’t doing what he was doing. And it was beginning to annoy me. By all rights, he shouldn’t have been able to see me, let alone follow me. Thus, I made up my mind. I was going to slip into an alley and lure him into following me.

So, the first alley I came to, I slipped into. Like clockwork, he did the same. Now, he could not turn away. He was not on the street. I had him where I wanted him.

I whirled around and grabbed him by his collar. “Why are you following me?” I asked.

“Why are you following me?” He parroted.

Oh, great. Someone had set a doppelganger loose on me. But why? What had I done? Who had I pissed off? I couldn’t come up with any answer.

“Is this some sort of nasty practical joke?” I asked.

“Is this some sort of nasty practical joke?” He aped.

I allowed my powers grow and search him out for a signature. Every wizard, every witch, every warlock, and every voodoo priest has their own signature that is imprinted into each of their constructs. Which is what a doppelganger is.

Sadly, doppelgangers do not necessarily look like the person they are sent to plague. Those kinds are sent specifically to mess up spells, wreak havoc, incriminate innocent wizards and/or humans in crimes being perpetrated by a rival, or to simply cause a rival to go insane. NO, most doppelgangers are sent to attach themselves to and follow their intended victims, and most are harmless, except in cases like mine where they could possibly give me away and get me caught before I could reach the relative safety of the union hall.

Ah, there it was. The signature I had sought. But wait! Why couldn’t I recognize it?

It was ancient. Far more ancient than those I was familiar with. I am relatively young at a mere three hundred years old, so I know few of the elders. I have not yet met them, and so I have not had the privilege of learning their signatures.

2.

Let me tell you a little about wizardry. First, you are not born a wizard. Not even as an adept. You develop into an adept. You are born a human. A spiritually sensitive human, but human nonetheless.

The signs of being an adept becomes apparent very slowly, over time. At the age of one, it is usually apparent that the child can see…well, what others cannot. Their eyes follow the movements of things no one else can see. At two, they begin gibbering languages that no one else can understand.

At four, they tend to develop what adults term “imaginary” friends. But the friend id not really imaginary. They are just beyond the average human’s visual range. Sort of like the soul, but more like ghosts and monsters.

Beyond that, it is a gradual manifestation of energy sensitivity. Followed by telepathic awareness. Empathy. A deep interest in things arcane. Followed by the sudden manifestation of the actual raw powers themselves.

Talk about something that scares the crap out of an adult. There isn’t anything like the sudden thrust of invisible hands that send them careening into walls when they anger their teen. Or being literally tossed, hard, into the ceiling. Or flames shooting from rooms.

Most parents, by this time, have called for the exorcist claiming demon possession. But there is only one cure for this, and it isn’t the exorcist. It is being sent to another wizard for training. Still, parents will be parents.

I had wonderful parents, though. My mother was a witch and pops was a wizard. No horrors growing up here. Mom and pops knew exactly what to look for and when I was old enough, they apprenticed me themselves.

Life growing up was fun. Very memorable. Definitely a learning experience. My awkward attempts at temper tantrums were thwarted by counter spells. Or by my own actions turned against me by a wily father. My trickery was equally thwarted by a savvy mother.

I could never lie. They could always tell, even when I used the “fibber’s spell” to make myself look innocent and truthful. But, despite this, I had a charmed life compared to those who had non-magical parents. They often had to be rescued from psychiatric hospitals, prisons, or at the last minute from public hangings or executions of other sorts.

I learned, early, that one had to remain home in the daylight and only leave at night. Many who had no magic in their families learned this rule the hard way. Ordinary humans tend to hate anything that is different. No one can be different. Or think different. Or believe different.

To ordinary humans, those of us who “practice witchery” are evil. Satanic. Demon lovers. Their gods’ worst enemy. I term it gods because they really do not believe in a single one anymore. No, they worship physical wealth, material objects, outward appearances, or power and prestige–not God or Allah. And definitely not Christ or any other singular god, prophet, or Holy man. And still, they have the gall to call us pagans.

I say all this because it is true. They wage war for the sheer profit of it, but make up cover stories like “war on terror” or “free the Holy Land” when it is nothing more than a race to obtain and control something that was never theirs and was never Holy. Promised at one time, maybe, but never Holy. Nothing is Holy. Nothing is sacred. Bones and body parts should be buried and long forgotten.

Anyway, back to wizardry. Wizards, once taught the ground rules, are taught the basic spells from musty tomes that are millennia old. If you are lucky enough, they are the same tomes your parents used. If not, you have to learn from a fellow wizard’s books. Some of the first things you learn are how to conjure.

Conjuring a doppelganger is easy. just think of who you want to plague, and presto! Then you send them out to plague your rival or rivals. Or simply to play a nasty practical joke. Which was what my current predicament was beginning to feel like.

3.

There I stood, holding my doppelganger by the shirt trying my damnedest to get answers. I was not ready for what happened next. As I stood there, trying to get answers, the silly thing began to dissolve!

“Beware!!!” It muttered urgently as it turned to dust.

“Who would want to warn me of anything?” I muttered, awestruck.

Voices approaching caused me to step back into the shadow and do my disappearing act once more. Couldn’t risk being seen. Even at night. Not even by less scrupulous wizards. Never know who is working as a paid snitch anymore.

I remained in the shadows as the voices drew closer. “We’ve got to do this quick and without any warning,” one was saying.

“But why all the secrecy,” another interrupted, “if nobody will know who did it?”

A third laughed evilly. “Because you never know who is listening, or where they are.”

I recognized the third voice. Charlie Whitlock. The most vile and corrupt of the Wizards union. He had been the only wizard to be investigated for ethics violation by all three wizards and magic councils. And twice, he had been stripped of his powers…though I never understood how a wizard could be stripped of his natural abilities. Suddenly, I remembered the wizard’s memory gizmo in my pocket and rubbed it to start it recording the memory of this occurrence.

“I want to cause so much trouble,” Charlie continued, “That the councils are forced to disband and the wizards’ union elects me its leader for life.”

“But how you gonna do that, Boss?” came a fourth voice.

“Templeton,” Charlie replied, “I am going to start by sending out doppelgangers to reveal the most powerful in the world. And then, I will unleash the pucks from their prison to cause misery and grief among those worthless humans. Just enough to make them come to me to take over their leadership as well. When things seem that they can’t get any worse, I will unleash trolls and all sorts of creatures so that it seems as if the wizards are declaring war.”

He went on to outline a catastrophic war where he would personally wipe out all the wizards of renown. What I did not understand was that you cannot kill a wizard with any human weapon. Not even cutting off their heads would kill them. Only magic can kill a wizard. But to use magic would betray Charlie as a wizard as well. And even Templeton, named-I only guess-after the rat in the children’s’ classic Charlotte’s Web, could not understand this. NO matter how Charlie explained this, it still made no sense. It was as if he wanted to get caught, not take over.

I slowly inched my way out of the alley as I listened. Once out, I ran on to the meeting…after I turned off the memory gizmo. I approached the bench of the president and set my gizmo on the desk in front of him. He looked up at me.

“What is this?” He demanded.

“I caught every word of a plot to start a war between wizard and humans,” I stated, matter-of-factly, “it’s all there, your lordship.”

Laughter filled the room. Apparently, they thought I was being funny. But only until the gizmo was turned on and they heard the whole plan, along with the ethereal specters of the three conspirators seemingly ignoring me. The president looked at me.

“And what were you doing in that alley at that specific point in time?” He demanded.

“I had a doppelganger following me,” I replied, “and had to get rid of it before I was betrayed to any human out for the evening.”

“And who would send a doppelganger to haunt you?” Atticus Brood said with a snide tone.

“I really don’t know, Atticus,” I replied truthfully, “Whoever they were, they are far older than I and wanted me to receive a message.”

“Oh Really?” Atticus was still being the eternal ass.

“Atticus,” I turned to him, “Nobody cares about your assumptions and insinuations. Go back to conjuring your wet dreams and leave me be.”

At that moment, a dark figure appeared from the back and walked toward us. “Let me introduce myself, Thoreau,” he began, “I am Ramus Letreux. I am the one who sent the doppelganger. I intended you to be in that alley at that very instant. Forgive me for playing God, but I needed a second. I knew that Atticus was too much of a showoff and loud mouth to trust, and the rest would be too tempted to try to take on the trio and prevent the whole thing before there was any proof.

“You see, I knew your father, I knew him to be a good man, though a little incompetent in his teaching of you. Your mom loved him too much to insist on a professional tutor for you.”

“How do you know me?” I was flabbergasted. “I have never even heard of you!”

“No,” he agreed, “no, I suppose not. I wouldn’t suppose that your mother or father would ever mention me. I was not a close colleague. But I did observe all from a distance. I also know you to be both a good man and honest. Even if these fools do not think so.”

“Hold it!” The president insisted. “What is the story on this so-called plot?”

“Oh,” Ramus smiled, “This is no so-called anything, Mr. Clavus. It is a bonafide plot. And it is three of the most evil wizards in all history scheming. My archenemy is at the helm.” he turned and looked at me. “And, no, it isn’t Charlie. He is a mere puppet.”

“But what can I do about it?” Clavus inquired. “I am merely president over the union.”

“Apparently,” my benefactor smiled, “you couldn’t do anything without consulting the union manual.” He picked up my memory gizmo. “Come, Thoreau. Perhaps the Council will listen.”

4.

In a flash, I was off…and not of my own freewill. Ramus had hijacked me for the night and I couldn’t do anything about it. So, in true passive tradition, I decided to simply allow him to do as he wished without causing him any trouble. I didn’t want to end up landing on my head.

We appeared, next at the Council of Magic.

“What is the meaning of this?” Councilman Richtus demanded.

“Council members,” Ramus began, “Thoreau and I have uncovered a plot.”

Richtus raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Indeed,” Ramus mused, “have any of you heard of Thrutus Avarati?”

A gasp ran through the council. I took that to mean that they had. And what they had heard was not good. I waited for an explanation.

“You dare utter that name here?” Richtus demanded.

“Oh, please,” Ramus sighed, disappointed at the demand, “It isn’t like his name has any special powers. Evil wizards are a dime a dozen. Avarati is just one of fifty more noted.”

“OK,” the lead councilman acquiesced, “What of him?”

“He is gathering a small group of lesser wizards,” My benefactor replied, “Lesser evil wizards, that is, to try and overthrow the councils and take over the union.”

“Your proof?” Richtus was now interested.

Upon this, Ramus produced two memory gizmos. One was mine, the other was his. He turned his on first. the image flickered then became intense enough for me to see.

“This was a message I received a few days ago.” He turned back to the image, which began to run. By the time it was done, there was no doubt about the complexity and scope of the plot. Or even who was involved.

“Who sent you this?” Councilman Cudera asked.

“Siampus Crin,” Ramus replied, “He may be a black wizard, but even this is too evil for his tastes. His betrayal could mean his life, though. So If you are to search for him, hope you find him alive.”

“And what is on the second cube?” Richtus demanded.

“Glad you asked.” Ramus grinned. “I set Thoreau, here, up. I sent him into an alley I knew three of the conspirators were going to enter.”

“How did you know the three were going to be there?” Richtus pressed. “And exactly how did you send Thoreau into the alley?”

“Why, Richtus!” My benefactor exclaimed mockingly, “I am hurt! How could any on the Council of Magic not know that I have second-sight? I see the future, Ric. I saw them enter the alley long before they actually did.

“As for how I lured poor Thoreau into that self-same alley, I merely pawned a doppelganger off onto him with a simple hissed warning of ‘beware’. And I really am sorry for involving him, but I needed this proof.” He turned on my gizmo.

After my recording had ended, a murmur went through the council. They muttered amongst themselves for what felt like hours. Then, Richtus turned back to us.

“Permission granted to seek higher council,” He granted, “Be careful. We know not who to trust now. Perhaps there might be a traitor amongst those we used to call allies.”

5.

For once in my life, I found myself in the middle of a conspiracy. For some reason, Richtus and the Council of Magic seemed to think there could be enemies within one of the higher councils. It was at this precise moment, I began wondering about the true meaning of life. so far, in my own life, I had ceased to be unimportant merely because I witnessed a meeting of rogues.

For some reason, I felt as if I very well might have a target now drawn on my back. With a mounting list of enemies, what I really needed now was a healthy supply of friends. All I knew at that moment was that the man I was now bound to through the commonality of the burden of proof was the only one I could call friend. I had only been tolerated in the union, which all wizards and witches are supposed to be members of, because I am not as adept as the rest of my peers.

I believe that they claim that I am awkward. Clumsy. Bumbling. Incompetent.

I was not, and am not, a good wizard. Pops was killed by Zufra the Magnificent, a charlatan of a wizard who could not cure a simple case of athlete’s foot. Mumsy died shortly after of a broken heart. Unlike regular humans, wizards mate for life. And rarely mate outside the realm of magic.

Anyway, whatever happened next, I knew I would soon learn the meaning of life. Ramus would be sure to show me. Or die trying. I only hoped we both lived through it.

Streets: Hand-Picked To Raise Some Hell

Streets

I am Joseph Streets. I was born poor. I have lived poor. I have struggled all my life to get somewhere and accomplish something. But I have not made it anywhere. Not by hard work. Not by trying.

I can honestly tell you that the American dream is nothing more than a Vegas illusion. At least, the one where anyone can make anything of themselves. I know. I have been working since I was nine years old. My pops thought that the only useful child was one that was rakin’ in the dough. Unfortunately, there aren’t many jobs a nine year old can do.

They aren’t old enough to drive. They’re too young to babysit. They are often seen as too young to run lawnmowers. Too young to be paid a proper wage.

Pull weeds. Pick up sticks. Small jobs. That is the lot for nine year olds. Five dollars an hour. No more, no less.

I had heard all the exclamations. “Why don’t you scoop walks of a winter?” “Why don’t you mow lawns?” “Why not” this, “Why Not” that.

I tried the lawn mowing. The only account I had was a no-pay. Well, not a no-pay. But having trouble cashing a check is as bad as a no-pay. Everyone else wanted it all done for free. And I don’t do free.

At least, I didn’t. I was afraid to. I was more afraid of my pops than I was of anyone else. So I declined non-paying jobs.

Alvin Streets. That was my pops. Staunch Republican, NRA supporter, gunsmith, factory worker, confirmed asshole, religious fanatic. In public, he was the loving hubby and father. In private, he was a nightmare of insanity.

He married mummsy because he felt he had to. He had gotten her pregnant, and was trying to be a man about it. I give him an ‘E’ for effort. Everything else gets an ‘F’.

He thought you could raise a family on a single man’s budget. Ridiculous. A single man can barely live on a single man’s budget. How the hell are you going to feed a family? Let alone, clothe and provide the necessities.

He became embittered by his failure to realize the ramifications of beginning a family. I took away from the attention he got from mummsy. I took too much money to raise. I took too much time to teach. It was so much simpler when I had not been a factor.

Of course, we must not forget my dear sister, Leandra. I should say, my half-sister. Not sure which half was my sister, because both halves were beyond jealous of me. And she wasn’t afraid to show her resentment. But I will get into that in a few.

I had only two allies before the age of five. My mummsy and gramps. Gramps came to live with us before I could remember, But he was there until he died. A wonderful man, he was.

Heck Streets was a kindly old man, a relic from a bygone time, who had seen a colorful life. In his youth, he had been everything from a soldier in World War I to a journeyman carpenter. It was as the latter that he collected most of his stories. Some made for good Halloween stories while others were just bits of humor or family history. I would sit for hours and listen to them all.

But that all came to an end in the fall of my fourth year. One day, gramps was there, the next he was gone. Death is funny that way. And I was left with a single ally.

Less than a year later, we were moving from the small town where we lived. Though I didn’t know at the time, it was never meant to be permanent. We would have remained to this day had fate not taken a hand and our house burned down.But we moved to the farm. Mumsy and pops had planned to renovate the house and finish the basement, then we were going to move back in. But a coal oil furnace caught the house on fire and we lost nearly everything. I had to learn to adjust to strange kids I did not know and lose touch with those I did know.

From that point on, pops became even more bitter. Our landlord when we lived on the farm supposedly kept raising the rent. Five years, we lived there. Five long, lonely years. Five years I would grow to hate with a passion. For in those five years, I would learn how family could betray innocence.

This is where my sister’s animosity against me comes into the picture. To her, I started out as a punching bag. From the age of five until the age of eight or nine, I was only there for her to take her anger out on. Then, somewhere around nine or ten, she molested me. My life changed from that point on. I was a dirty little secret that my sister would forever try to hide from. Ignore. Deny.

She would hate me for her crime from that moment on. And I would become both socially awkward and very sexually awakened. Horny. But shy. Addicted to something that makes one feel both dirty and fulfilled.

Though this would lead to a brief bout of alcoholism in High school, I would overcome it a little at a time. But, again, I am jumping ahead. The molestation would open up my curiosity where sex was concerned. And though I would have explored it with any girl who showed that kind of inclination at the time if I felt comfortable enough, I was way too awkward and shy to approach anyone about it myself.

Socially Slow

As I said, I was socially awkward. I suppose you could say that I was socially slow. Though now sexually turbocharged, I was still too-too naive-to explore it aggressively. Sure, I was drawn to certain girls. And I think a few were even drawn to me, though I never really understood why. I thought myself ugly. Unimpressive. Weak. Without importance.

But, then, that was pops speaking in my young mind.

“You ain’t worth a dime,” he would throw at me, or, “You’re worthless.Can’t you do anything right?” On occasion, he would even say such things as, “I am ashamed to call you my son. What the hell were you thinkin’?” Or “Watch where the fuck you’re goin’, boy! What you wanna do git ran over?”

His verbal abusiveness was endless. It was worse than any beating any child could survive because there were nights I would climb into bed and wish he had just slapped the shit out of me instead of using his tongue. But he was good at cutting people down verbally.

“What’s that?” He asked at one point, after I had drawn what was a halfway decent human being. A monster? We don’t draw monsters in this house.”

Then there was: “Quit that noise! Singin’ ain’t gonna pay the bills! you gotta do somethin’ else in order to get where you wanna go.” Followed by: “I will read one of your poems/stories when you are published. Not until then.” And then, upon the publication of my first poem: “I won’t read it. You didn’t use your own name.”

Well, of course not. The Streets name had already became synonymous with religious fanaticism and being a jackass. And the saddest part of it was that he never knew that those he counted as his friends, those very ones who were advising him on how to deal with his family, were laughing behind his back and calling him things like prick, idiot, fanatic, and dope. Oh, they had other names, but I won’t repeat them. None were nice, and all had to do with the person he was and had been guided to become.

I can remember a few of the girls I secretly had crushes on. One was the neighbor’s daughter and I thought she was the cutest I had ever seen. I even kind of had a crush on another neighbor girl, but I found her a bit overbearing and clingy. And then there were a few that were in my class. Oh, yes, I wanted to be a ladies’ man in the worst way. But I was too shy. too insecure. Too awkward.

So I went through those years on the farm wishing and a wanting. Wishing I had enough guts to ask and wanting to know how it felt to be truly loved. And possible other things were also fantasized about. But being too shy and awkward to do either.

And then, we moved again. This time, it would be the last move. My sister would end up going to Colorado, then to Coon Rapids, and then to Omaha to get away from the troubles she made for herself. And then, she would return home. By the time she returned, I towered over her. But, then, I towered over pops and mumsy as well.

Over the next seven years, I would begin to grow. So would my curiosity. And yet, I would remain socially Awkward. Too awkward to test those grounds. I would have two friends vanish. One went back home to Mexico, the other to rehab. Or so I was told.

I would learn to box, but be forced to quit by a jealous pops because “I don’t have the money to pay for your ABF card.” Money was always his excuse. Even on the things that offered me a ticket out of the hell known as poverty, “I don’t have the money.” Or “if you can find a way to get it from me, you can have it.” There was never any moral support. No Encouragement. No “atta boy” or “way to go”.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

My pops seemed to think he was military. His idea of a good haircut was to shave it all off and make you bald. For many years, I never knew how it felt to have hair any length but ultra-short. I grew to hate the naked feeling of a newly shaved head. I did not like the cold on my neck. I did not like the sunburns of summer on the top of my head. I came to detest the flat top, onion head, crew cut, and other hairless haircuts that he seemed to enjoy giving me

I was both the object of ridicule and the object of scorn. My perpetually short hair was my Mark of Cain in society, And a child should never have to be the object of ridicule or scorn. It damages their psyche. It tears their fragile minds into shreds because they learn that their peers see them as less than a peer.

I probably should have learned to grow a thick skin, but I was constantly assailed from all sides. On the bus. At home. At school. From those professing to be my friends. From those who should have loved me no matter what.

But life, it seems is always cruelest to those destined for greatness. And it makes them intolerant of bullies. And willing to fight for all they have. But bullies do not realize this and make life intolerable.

And you might say my life was hell. Pure hell. There were times that I just wanted to curl up and die. Or hide. But I had neither.

And I had a sex drive that made life even more intolerable. Girls turned me on. More than I really cared for. At least until I was twelve or thirteen. Being curious made it hard to go to school. All those girls, and me being so shy.

But as I grew into a not-so-strapping, some would say frumpy, teen, I became even more interested in girls. And I had a few that I secretly had crushes on, just like in fifth grade.

Instead of acting upon my desires, I began writing. And writing, especially song lyrics, became my ticket to acceptance. and so, I pursued the life of a writer. Seen as every twitterpated teen girl’s hero, I wrote more love songs than any other lyricist. Probably.

Goin’ Away

I went to college right after high school. I thought it was a good way to get away from him. Of course, I thought I was ready as well, but…no. I was not ready. And it is never a good idea to flee from your problems.

I was there for a semester. Of course, I probably would have lasted all four years had I gone for English or creative writing. But, no. I was naive and went for music. Looking back, I made a lot of mistakes early on.

Coming home, I found the same hell I had left. Mumsy had tried to tell me that pops had changed, But I saw no real change. He was the same mean-spirited, self-righteous ass I had tried to get away from. He thought he was doing me a favor by connecting me with my first job. As far as he was concerned, I had no choice but to accept. He had done all the legwork to find it, I had to accept to save face for him.

Oh, I had went out in search for work, but found that his reputation preceded me. His reputation due to name recognition. Eyes rolled back into their heads at the mention of the last name. It made me sick. I was an unwanted commodity because of him. I could not prove myself because he had already made his mark, his indelible mark, upon the wall that was employment in Southwest Iowa. It was enough to make one want to scream.

Of course, I was not, and am not, him. I was a different person, entitled to a different treatment. And a chance to prove myself without prejudgment. But there was a ready-made prejudice because of his thirty years of being with this company or that one. I didn’t stand a chance.

After finding myself allergic to the new awning cleaner that my first boss changed over to, I came home after acquiring a cooking job. This would be the first of four cooking jobs I would work at. I found myself still considered an outcast and failure.

I married my first wife, feeling a bit pressured to get out of the house once again. It was doomed from the word go. I just didn’t want to admit it. Constant meddlings from her mother and brother drove a wedge between her and I. I was kicked out more than I was ever at home. And all on the word of her mother or brother.

I really think that her infidelity was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Though I turned a blind eye for as long as I could, I could not ignore it for long. It ate away at what trust I had left in her. It ate away at my love for her. Destroyed my respect for her.

By the death of our son, I no longer really gave a damn. I only stuck with her, during her time in the sanitarium, out of duty. I was there as moral support. Encouragement.

Then came divorce number one, and a promise never to turn back. A promise I have faithfully kept ever since. No matter how many times she calls me at midnight asking if I will take her back.

Fast forward two or three uneventful years and we come to my second marriage. Another flop. Another one of those “I shoulda known it wouldn’t last” kind of deals. But I always trust too deeply. I always seek the right things from the wrong women.

I must state that, ironically, both marriages lasted six years. Exactly. Both women came in having kids from previous relationships. And I had accepted all three kids as my own. Unfortunately, they were the first to be caught in the turmoil of every spat, whether they were actually involved or merely observers.

Both women proved to be many things, but loyal was not one of those. Both were too immature for a real marriage relationship. Both had the attention span of a gnat. They flitted from man to man, taking only temporary interest in any. Both thought that a relationship was one-sided. They did not think they had to work at anything. It was all just supposed to fall into place, and happiness would sweep them off their feet and take them to a permanent relationship-type heaven. Never mind that all relationships take a lot of hard work and working together to make them last.

Back Home Again

For the three years I found myself fighting free of my second relationship, I ended up back at mumsy and pops’ house…again. I had never intended to go back home, but I always ended back there. And I was always jobless and penniless. A side effect of both relationships.

I did not know that this time would be different. I had no clue that pops was on the last leg of his race through life. But the September after my return, he collapsed in his chair. In the time it took to get to the hospital, it was all over for him. His hard life had caught up at last.

His was the second of three deaths in the family that would happen in that year. It would end with my aunt’s, but began with my Uncle’s. One of my previous bosses would die that Thanksgiving as well, but I am focused on family.

It is amazing how everyone wants to be your friend when you are the executor of your father’s estate. Everyone seems to think they are entitled to something. Even my sister thought that she had to have something, even though she was not biologically entitled. Being nice, I honored her request. I would regret it later.

That winter, I would record three songs, publish my fourth and fifth books, and pretty much find a new love. As always, I seemed destined to fall in love with someone I could possibly never have. I had given up on American women, having been burned three times…the last one, conning me out of money.

And now, we fast forward a little more. After finding love, I thought I had lost it again. My Love had disappeared. I was contacted by her once again, but she was then in the hospital after a failed poisoning by her kidnappers. I was livid. It seemed my life was destined to be lived alone and without the one I loved. The kidnapping had put us back at square one. I could no longer afford trying to get her to the states. I was jobless, penniless, and frustrated.

I took on a job driving a cab, but it brought in very little, though at first, it was enough to send her $50-100 every two weeks. Still, it did nothing to solve our being apart. It only made us frustrated.

Then, circumstances took me off the road and made me unemployed again for about six months. When I returned to driving a cab, it was under the express understanding that there would be no more extremely long days. Unfortunately, this meant a severe cut in pay.

Mumsy found a new love and moved out, letting me have run of the house even though I still had no way to meaningfully sustain myself. Alone in my loneliness, I struggled to make things work. As times began to get harder, thanks in turn to a new bunch of legislators who only thought about how to make existing things worse,I began wondering how I was going to make ends meet.

The job market in my area had never really bounced back. Those jobs left went through temp services and you were lucky to get ninety days. Most were lucky to get more than a paltry handful of days, a lot less than the ninety. And I knew that I could never sustain myself long on that.

All along, I had been trying my hand at getting acting jobs, start a show of my own, and to sell my stories. I was also trying my damnedest to build my own business, but was finding myself confounded on that as well. I was seemingly destined to die of starvation. A failure, once again.

Mumsy’s new love became the second person to tell me I needed to go into politics. Hating everything that politics stood for, I resisted. I really wanted no part of their game of corruption and deceit. I simply wanted to enact change.

But, as they say, you can’t change the world by not getting involved. So I wrote a paper that told what I stood for. What I would fight for. Who I would fight for.

Hand-Picked To Raise Some Hell

I sent copies to the DNC as well as the Iowa branch. I never expected to be contacted back Nor did I think they would ever take me seriously. But they did. And soon, I was talking to their director.

As I outlined my plan of attack, my strongest beliefs, I noticed that she was paying extra close attention to my every word. My reform ideas made her flinch. I talked of shredding the traditional held view that the representatives were worth a yearly salary when they only did seasonal work. I outlined unplugging the billionaire class form corporate welfare and reinstating their fair share of taxes to ensure a balanced budget.

I wanted to ban lobbying, that great cesspool of legal bribery. I wanted gun control, responsible gun ownership. Sane gun ownership. I wanted to clean house, literally. put the banks and Wall Street on notice. Stop the privatization of schools.

Basically, I wanted to wage war on political corruption. Everything that was wrong, I wanted to fix. And no one was going to talk me out of it. I was a determined man. A poor man willing to work his ass off to change the system.

And I would not stand to be bullied. I held the same philosophy as Teddy Roosevelt: “Talk softly and carry a big stick.” In essence, I would take my trusty baseball bat with me if allowed, or asked, to go to the state house. I would definitely make a point that none would forget.

She smiled at me. “I like what I hear, even though many of your views are radical. What would you ask if we called upon you?”

“Just a couple interns and enough money to get myself out of the hole.” Was my answer.

She nodded. “I understand that you have been trying to start your own business. Is that another term?”

I looked at her. “A request, maybe. A term, no. I do not want to be beholding to anyone. I simply want to be given a chance to change a few things.”

She got up. “I think we have an agreement. I will be in touch.”

No more than two days later, my interns showed up. True to her word, I was in like Flint. All I had to do was wait. And I would find that that was not going to be a long event.

But while we waited, I had my interns do some intense research. Namely pulling every law from the Bible. I had a point to make. While one did that chore, I had the other pull all the references to the fulfillment of that law from the New Testament as well as the references to Grace being the only thing that can save a man through faith. I had a war to win, and a few points to make clear. I understood the Bible. I also understood almost all the other holy books used in the world. I read everything.

Once they were done with that work, I had them gather all the information on The Salem Witch Trials, The Colonial with hunts, and the McCarthy era communist witch hunt. I had them list all those whose lives had been ruined in every conceivable witch hunt and print as many copies as they could. While they did that, I compiled a little history lesson of my own on the original Tea Party participants as well as those who fought the Revolution of the 1770s,80s, and 90s. I wanted no doubt as to the heresy, treason and dishonor these people had created.

I was being called to raise a little hell, and I was ready to raise as much as I had to in order to get my point across. I smiled. I looked forward to getting this all under way. I looked at my interns.

“You girls about ready?” I inquired.

“Yes sir, Mr. Streets,” came the joint reply.

I smiled. “Call me Joe.”

Prelude To Madness: Another De Luca Adventure

Prelude: So. Where Did We Leave Off?

It seems that things get crazier, the more sane you need life to be. Take my life for instance. I am your average hit man with your less than average family. I married my last target after our little gun battle with her husband and his Moll. The whole episode reminded me why I hated the small-time Mafiosos. All mouth, no brain. They think money rules everyone.

I haven’t taken on any more jobs since. I no longer have the stomach for it. We have disappeared, for the most part, from that life. De Luca has retired. I want nothing more than to live quietly with my new wife and our slowly growing family. Something I have always wanted.

She wanted one, too. But that monster she had been with only wanted to play the part of the Godfather. I am surprised he didn’t get whacked by his boss. I know I would have. Pricks like that don’t deserve the power they’re given.

Nine months after our marriage, which was a good three months after the warehouse incident, just long enough to appear as if she had mourned long enough, Philip was born. Cute little bugger. Well, actually, six months after we married. Hey. Nothin’ says we had to wait. And we didn’t.

But what we did is of no consequence. At least not what we did privately. In fact, that is of no interest in what I am about to relate. What is was the incidents that would alter the course of my retirement. As I said, I have not taken any jobs since the warehouse gun battle. But just because I no longer take on jobs don’t mean I ain’t a target still.

In fact, many wannabe clientele try to push me into jobs by threatening me with violence. Only makes me ignore them that much more. And they hate that. They hate it so much they actually try different things. I have had my car blown up, My house shot up, my mailbox rigged with explosives, and what have you. I had to laugh. Tactics used when I was working-the same tactics meant to keep me from fulfilling my jobs in the past-now became tactics to push me into taking jobs. Seemed you just couldn’t please people.

I felt insulted. They fought, so long, to get me out of the business. Now, they wanted me back. Just how far would they go? Perhaps I really didn’t want to know. But, like always, I would find out…whether I wanted to or not.

Still, I would enjoy the quiet while it lasted. However long it lasted. Knowing many of those wanting me back, that might not be for long. Then, again, Might take them forever. Who knew? They might’ve wanted to bore me to death.

OK, not really. I know, sarcasm is the sign of a bad sport. But I hate it when I am enjoying my life and someone decides that they want to ruin it for me. And I was enjoying myself. Maybe a little too much. But being a daddy does that to a sane man. And I was saner than I had ever been.

I loved waking up with a clear conscience every morning. I was overjoyed about not having to drink myself into oblivion every night. Hell. I was in heaven having someone who loved me as I was, warts and all. And having time to study the arts. I love the arts. Who knew I was so good at playing the guitar? I didn’t.

Anyway, I felt I had earned my respite. But many thought differently. Too many. Even the police began getting suspicious with my idleness.

Of course, one disgruntled wishful client is too many. And hundreds are the start of a small nightmare for any assassin. Including me. And I no longer had the heart for it. I’d had enough.

I no longer wanted to see another dead body for as long as I lived. At least not one I had killed for money. Self preservation was a totally different matter, though. I figured they come gunnin’ for me, I would be waitin’. Little did I know, I was going to have to defend more than my life, I would have to defend half the damn city as well. All because a small army thought I ought to kill again.

So This Is How Things Roll…

It all started on the coldest day in winter. Meucolo was a midsize Mafioso. I say midsize, because he still had a boss over him that also had to answer to the Godfather. His only problem was that he wanted to be the big boss. He hated being someone’s lackey.

It started with a letter. He had apparently put a lot of thought into his plot and sat down to put it into detail on a page, sending it to me. And he wrapped it all up in a request for my former services. But he had also apparently forgotten that I was no longer in the game…or an ally. Not that I had ever been an ally to him. I had not.

Hell. The only reason I had never turned him over for his past hits was the fact that there is always client confidentiality. And I was the only hit man who had such a thing goin’ when I was in business. Others would have sold his scabby butt to the highest bidder after the first high profile hit. I simply didn’t want to be responsible for a mob war. And I knew that there would be if I sold him out.

Now, I could care less. Except that I would unleash angry mob bosses upon an unsuspecting city, and I couldn’t do that to the innocent people of the metropolis. Not that they were all that innocent. They weren’t.

But a mob war was the last thing the city needed. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that there was going to be one anyway…by the time it was all said and done. Right now, though, I was in no hurry to stir that nest of hornets. Let the rumors stir it later. I was content in turning down a cool million.

I spent a lot of time on the rejection letter. I wanted to word it so as to make him understand that I was no longer a commodity. Hell. I wanted him to know that I was not even a threat. The idea was to make him realize that I was basically out of commission for eternity.

Unfortunately, My intents were met by his thick headedness. Thick, as in arrogant and pushy. Condescending. Irritating. Maddening.

Why stop there? Hell. He was just plain ignorant and insistent. Have I already mentioned how much I hated dealing with Mafiosos? They are the worst.

Especially the new breed. They have no sense whatsoever. They just want power and money. They don’t care how they get it. Kill. Steal. Selling illegal goods. Racketeering. Blackmail. Usury. Extortion.

I longed for the old days when they were just rum runners and extortionists. At least then, you knew where you stood with them. Not now. they were unpredictable. Almost to the point of being a holy nightmare. For everyone.

And now I had one of those nightmares bearing down on me, wanting me to pick up a gun and go hunting again. And I was in no mood to go hunting. Just the thought of killing made me sick to my stomach. Even though it would bring a cool mil.

Sure, I could use the mil. We could. But I was not interested in doing that anymore. I had promised Sara after we married, that I would never hire myself out. Although I trained her in the art, neither of us used it. She merely learned in case our enemies were ever to find out. Instead, we had started a bodyguard/private eye firm that went under S & D Services. We hired thirty other floaters and began taking on clients.

With hundreds of clients, we were not hurtin’ for anything. Unlike hits, it was a steady income and an honest trade. And I liked it better. Although we trained our staff the shoot-to-kill method, we also admonished them not to do so unless they had no other recourse. And usually, they never had to. Rarely, our gumshoes would have to shoot their way out of certain situations, but our guards were simply intimidating enough to dissuade any ne’er-do-well from their intent.

I had put the whole hit outta my mind after sending off my rejection that it surprised me when I arrived at the office a few days later to find Meucolo sittin’ behind my desk like he thought he belonged there. He was just gettin’ annoying now. Who did he think he was? I had not invited him in. I did not want him in my place of business.

“Nice family,” he smirked, “would hate to see anything happen to them. Gianni’s wife, right?”

“Git outta my chair and out from behind my desk,” I glared at him, “an’ don’t go about threatening my family. And that last bit ain’t none of your damn business.”

“I have my ways o’ findin’ out, De Luca,” he sneered,”Anyway, not here to talk about them. But the hit, that is another matter.”

He rose and walked around to where I stood, still glaring at him. He knew I was not scared of him and it bothered him. It was more than his little ego could handle. He gripped my shoulder and I looked at his hand, then continued glaring at him.

“There are other Hit men, Meucolo,” I stated coldly, “I ain’t in business anymore.”

“Yer in business because I said you were,” he retorted, “Besides.You are the only one who had that client confident-chiallity thingy where you wouldn’t talk.”

“You must have somethin’ wrong with your ears, Mack,” I turned away from him, “I said I was through. I don’t take orders from the likes of you. I never did. But, then, that is the problem with you Mafiosos. Always think you own everybody when you don’t. You may scare those weaker than you, but you don’t scare me. No one scares me. Not even the Don.”

“Maybe that’s yer problem,” he sneered, “You don’t scare.”

…And So It Begins

It irked me to find that Meucolo was unable to take a hint. I could have kicked myself for not training a replacement early on, but that would have meant adding to my competition. And I was out to be the best. And being the best meant being one-of-a-kind. And being one-of-a-kind had made me in-demand. Damn.

Still, I had to give him cudos for being persistent. But his idiocy was starting to get on my nerves. And the nerve! He thought he could intimidate me. Even though my reputation was of being unshakable. Unable to be frightened.

I could tell that there was going to be a showdown between him and me. Sooner or later, he would overstep his authority and try something stupid. I had to shake my head. What had possessed the Don to give this moron a position of authority in the first place? I wouldn’t have. In fact, I would have had him removed permanent-like. And quick. Can’t afford to have one of his kind even working for you. They soon try to have you killed so that they can have your position as well.

I picked up the phone. “Yes,” I began, “Don Carlo, please.”

“Bon giorno?” Came the Don’s voice.

“Yes, Don Carlo?” I returned, “This is De Luca. You have a slight problem.”

“What is it, De Luca?” He asked, “to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Don,” I began, “as you know, I quit doin’ hits. Now, I find one o’ your boys in here wantin’ a hit done. Not only will he not take no for an answer, he has the chutzpah to demand that I go back into business. I am not happy. I made a very special lady a big promise and I mean to keep it.”

“How is Sara?” The Don asked, genuinely interested.

“Fine,” I replied, “But your boy seems to think my family is a bargaining chip.”

“Which boy?” The Don asked.

“Meucolo,” I replied, “his position has gone to his head, and now he is aiming for a higher one. Don, you really need to take him down a peg or two or he will be gunning for your chair.”

There was a silence, then a deep sigh of disappointment. “Who’s he going after?”

“Manny Cuolo,” I replied, “I hated to hand the information over to you, but if I don’t do something, you won’t have an organization left.”

“I understand,” came the sad reply, “and what of your stance?”

“Don,” I reminded him, “I am not for sale anymore. I will only take action if action is taken against me. If my boys are made into targets, or my family, I will go after Meucolo. And anyone else who gets in my way.”

“I will hold a meeting with my guys,” came the sad reply, “and we will come up with a way to take care of the…problem. Give my god-babies kisses for me.”

“I will, Don,” I promised.

“And thanks for the warning,” the Don concluded, “I appreciate you not holding it back. We’ll see that you are protected.”

“Thank you, friend,” I replied.

“Don’t mention it,” he said, “Besides. You’re practically a part of the family.” He hung up.

I hung up my phone. I figured that Meucolo had possibly bugged it, but I had to risk it and alert my old friend. Now, I waited to see what reaction I got. I hooped that what I had done would cause the Mafioso to tread a bit more carefully. After all, my wife was the Don’s niece. You didn’t threaten, or even imply a threat, toward any of the Don’s family. It was a taboo. Almost a declaration of war.

I doubted that Meucolo would attack my clients or staff. That would be pointless. I was who he wanted, not them. He was determined to push me into breaking a promise, but failed to understand that love is stronger than the draw of money.

Gone With The Wind

I returned home to find a package on my doorstep. Good God! I was glad Sara had not picked it up and taken it inside. No telling what was in it. With a determined Mafioso, it could very well be a bomb. Had she taken it in, he could have blown the house sky-high.

I took out my pliers set. The one with the snippers. I carefully removed the lid. Slowly. Slowly.

After getting the lid off the package, I looked in. As suspected, it was a small, homemade bomb. Shit! There was no real trigger wire! Damn!

Now, what? What could I do but throw the damn bomb as far as I could? I looked around. The manhole! I made sure I wasn’t being watched, then lifted the cover. I dropped the bomb in and waited until I heard it splash down in the sewage. Then I returned the cover to the manhole. Then ran. Fast.

There was a small explosion that turned half dozen toilets into fountains for about two hours, then all went quiet. I heaved a sigh of relief. The first attempt. Luckily, it was a dud.

I went inside. “Honey, I’m home!” I called out.

“In the loo,” came the reply, “something strange has happened, and our toilet has become Ol’ Faithful.”

I tried not to laugh. I went in to take a look. “I hope you weren’t sitting on it when this began,” I mused.

“No, Babe,” she responded, “I was actually getting ready to clean it out, but hadn’t begun. Why?”

“Oh, nothing,” I replied, “Woulda been a nasty surprise is all.”

“Yes,” she smiled, “It would have. What exactly do you know of this? And what was that sound?”

“I don’t know much about this,” I stated, gesturing to the toilet, “But the sound was just a reminder of a disgruntled wannabe client.”

“What kind of client?” She asked, turning to face me.

“Remember the letter?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, then shock registered on her face. “Oh my God!

“Don’t worry,” I tried to comfort her, “I called the Don. He now knows. Said he would deal with it. But until he does, we will have to put up with the determined proddings of a dense Mafioso.”

She collapsed into my arms, weeping. I knew that she was worried. I was too. But I would not be scared into submission. Nor would I allow an idiot to endanger my family. I went to the closet and found the gun-safe that held my Rugers.

“No,” she touched my arm, “you mustn’t.”

“I am only going to start wearing them,” I consoled her, “and keep them loaded for self defense. I ain’t goin’ back to that life. I promised you. I will not stand by and let a man–no, a monster–threaten my family.”

“Then I will begin wearing mine as well,” she stated.

“Just make sure you do not accept any packages that you have not ordered,” I replied, “and even those you might have. You never know what Meucolo will do.”

When At First You Don’t Succeed

I took my restored Edsel to storage. No need to allow them to destroy three years’ work in their stupidity. I took the old warhorse, my old Caddy, from storage. I knew well that they would probably destroy her, but I was willing to retire her in that fashion. She had been a good car.

In the mean time, I would look for an old government issue armored Caddy to replace her. Should the need present itself. And I knew it would. It always seemed to when there was an idiot involved.

And who knew how many more idiots he had working for him. Knowing him, as I did, he had at least six blindly loyal henchmen. One would be the bomb maker. One would be the heavy. Maybe two. And the others were his lackeys.

They roamed around doing his errands for him. Extorting the money. Selling his drugs and hot merchandise. Fencing what goods he knew he couldn’t sell himself. Running his rackets. Blackmailing whoever he decided needed to be blackmailed.

Or plain trying to terrorize me. And I was getting tired of it. Things had gotten serious. Too serious. He had gotten careless.

And all because he thought he had the right to force me back into the business that I had left behind. I may have been a patient man, but I was swiftly running out of patience. If he thought he was being funny, I was not amused. I did not like being toyed with.

I pulled the car up outside the house and got out. I went back inside. I was gone for less than a minute. But that was long enough for them to plant their next bomb.

I drove down to the pier to take care of some business. Getting out of the car, I went to the warehouse where I had a meeting. A short time later, the car exploded. I shook my head. Would he never stop?

“Need a ride, Boss?” Tommy, one of the men at the meeting asked.

“Seems that way, Tom,” I replied.

“Have a pest problem?” He grinned.

“Yes,” I nodded, “one that just doesn’t take a hint. That makes his second attempt.”

“Need help dealin’ with them?” He motioned as if the problem was just outside the door.

“I may need some soon,” I averred, “but not right now. Thanks anyway.”

“Well,” he concluded, “when you do need help, lemme know. I’ll crack a few skulls fer ya.”

“Thanks, Tom,” I smiled, “I will call on ya when I need ya.”

He gave me a ride home after the meeting. I thanked him, and went inside. This was getting old really quick.

“I wish Meucolo would just vanish,” I muttered.

“What happened this time?” Sara asked, looking up from her book.

“They blew up the Caddy,” I replied, disgusted, “and I don’t have anything to replace it. Yet.”

“Well,” She smiled up at me, “at least we still have each other. So what is your thoughts on this?”

“I am going to be forced into a showdown with him,” I looked at her, “Sooner or later. Probably sooner, if he keeps blowing shit up.”

Try, Try Again

I lay in bed beside her, mulling over the whole affair. This was just ridiculous. Nobody could be so damn stupid that they couldn’t take no for an answer. Nobody. Okay, almost nobody.

Meucolo was an exception to the rule. His mama should have aborted him and saved the world some heartache. Even his teachers gave up trying to teach him anything. All he did was mooch until he felt that he could do the job of his boss, then he would hire a killer to get rid of his boss. And that was why he had sent the letter to me. He had mooched enough to weaken his current overlord and wanted me to do the hit. And I had refused.

So now, I was battling his demented little attempts to get me to do what he wanted. Suddenly, it hit me. I got up and went down to the housekeeper’s room.

“Sedelia,” I called, “Can I speak with you for a moment?”

“Sure, Mr. Rothschild,” came the answer, “Just a minute.”

“Just come out into the hall when you are decent,” I admonished.

“yes, Sir,” she replied.

There was a rustling of garments, then she emerged.

“Can you do me a favor tomorrow?” I inquired.

“Why, sure, Mr. De Luca,” she nodded, “what can I do for you?”

“I need you to take a message to the Don,” I began, “I need him to meet me here. with as many of his people as possible.”

“But why don’t you just call him?” she asked.

“Because I don’t know whether the person involved has bugged the phones or not,” I replied, “besides. You will have a chance to go visit your sister. She does still work for the Don, doesn’t she?”

Sedelia nodded. Then smiled. “Thank you, Sir.”

“You’re welcome, Sedelia,” I answered her.

I watched her go back into her room. Then I returned upstairs and climbed back into bed beside Sara. she rolled over.

“Where’d you go, Baby?” She asked.

“I asked Sedelia to go to the Don’s tomorrow,” I answered, “I need to talk to him.”

“OK,” came the muffled response.

I lay back down on my side, cuddling up against her, and put my arm around her. She pulled my hand down and took it in her own. We drifted off to sleep.

Mail came early. I stood at the door and watched as the mailbox was tuned into a rocket by yet another attempt to press me into service. I shook my head. Would he never give it a rest? I doubted it.

“I hope the light company ain’t worried about getting their payment for a while,” I quipped, “Because I think the bill just got sent into orbit.”

As I stood there, Sedelia squeezed by me. I watched her disappear in the direction of the Don’s mansion. I felt bad, putting her in harm’s way. But there was no other recourse.

It was ten when the Don finally arrived. I had already found the letter from Meucolo and had it laid out, waiting. My old friend sat down facing me. I saw the worry lines on his face. They seemed deeper. More pronounced.

“I assume this is important,” He began.

“Yes,” I responded, and motioned to the letter, “There is the letter I received about a week ago from Meucolo. With it is my response.”

“Let me take a look at it,” he replied, leaning forward and gently taking hold of the papers, “mmmhmmm. Mmmmhmmm. I see Chico won’t be happy.”

“Chico?” I inquired.

“That is Mario’s nickname,” he replied, “Just like we call Niccolo ‘Nico’. And seeing how Meucolo is wanting them both dead, That is not a good thing. I wonder if they know.” He looked up at me.

“I doubt it,” I shrugged, “I don’t know, though.”

“You didn’t tell them?” he peered at me, studying my every reaction.

“No,” I admitted, “Because I refuse to do the hit.”

“Good man,” came the response.

“But I am telling you.” I smiled sadly. “I am also telling you that I am getting tired of Meucolo’s stupid bombs. I want him to stop.”

The Don shook his head. “I’m afraid that there is only one way to stop him and his crew.”

“That is?” I inquired.

“You are going to have to take him out,” came the response, “I have already warned him to cease and desist.”

Damn. That had not been the answer I wanted. I had wanted the Don to promise to break Meucolo’s arms and legs. But instead, he put the responsibility on my shoulders.

“Alright,” I relented.

“Of course,” he continued, “his refusal to listen is a declaration of war as well. We will handle his crew, but we will need your expertise. Your gun.”

Sara walked in to hear the last part of the conversation.

“No more hits, Uncle,” She objected.

He smiled at her. “No, no more hits. this is a war, Honey. All hands are needed. Even yours. The two of you will have to face Meucolo. This is not a hit, but rather, a fact of your survival. And mine.”

Down In The Boondocks

It took a week for the Don to track Meucolo down. When he found him, he was in the slums. Of course, he had a girl there…Susie, I believe her name was. Just another crack whore he used for his own fix, while she paid him for the rock he supplied her. I wasn’t at all surprised to see that he also used the shit. Explained his erratic behavior. And his peculiar twitches.

Marco, Luigi, and Simon were the only hoods still with him. Simon being the bomb maker. Philo, Ricardo, and Dom were nowhere to be found. They must have been his runners. NO matter.

Sara and I entered the small apartment. His girl remained where she lay as he launched himself off the bed toward his shotgun. My guns flashed from their holsters and spewed their lead. I emptied both clips into him as he kept comin’. Sara took out Marco. The Don took out Luigi. Simon took his gun and stuck it in his mouth, pulling the trigger. He’d always been a coward, preferring distance to face-to-face.

It was all over in a flash. The cleaner came and removed the bodies and cleaned up the blood, making the apartment look as if nothing had happened. Sara had noticed, through it all, that the crack whore had not moved. She checked for a pulse.

“Damn him,” she uttered, “Gave the bitch an overdose. Barely alive.” She took out her cell phone and called 911.

While she was on the phone, the Don and I parlayed a deal. I would do his investigations and supply him with a couple bodyguards, and he would never ask me to pull a job. It was a perfect deal.

“If I supply a guy,” he began, “Would you train him to do hits like you used to?”

“Under one condition,” I smiled.

“What’s that?” He asked

“That he never be used against me,” I replied.

“You know I would never use anyone against you,” he replied.

“I know you wouldn’t,” I nodded, “but you would have to make it known that no one else could either. Especially after these last two weeks.”

“Luc,” He assured me, “I would be the only one who had access to his services. No one else would have the chance.”

The Price You Pay (Inspired By A True Story)

He rode into the yard, his clothes dusty. He looked as if he had been on the trail for weeks, the yellow dust looked that thick. The tin star was well hidden by the dust and grime, so the ranch owner did not know that he was seeking answers. Many men had come up missing. Able bodied men. Cowboys that seem to be missed when they do not return.

One or two would not peak anyone’s interest. But fifty men, all mysteriously disappearing, is enough to alert even the least astute lawman. And it had come to the attention of the territorial governor that cowboys were coming up missing. Fifty, to be exact. Twenty of the best.

Oklahoma territory was a large one, but good men just did not disappear. Not into thin air. Not in the 1880s. Only one thing could explain it. Foul play.

***

The Governor had called his best lawman. Carter Cree. Six foot five inches of pure hell on wheels.

The Governor had frowned that day when he spoke. “Carter, we have a problem.”

Carter had shrugged, but not with apathy. “What is it Governor Johnstone?”

“We have a murderer on the loose, Carter,” came the response, “our ranchers are growing concerned because whoever is doing the killing is killing our best ranch hands. It is getting so no hands will come into the territory. Superstitious lot those cowhands.”

Carter had nodded in agreement. “Yes, and disappearances-even the usual-seems to mean somethin’ bad. But I have to agree with you. There ain’t nothing usual about twenty men disappearing over a year period of time.”

The Governor looked at his man. “The last ranch they were seen at was the Double-Bar-Kay.”

Carter snapped his head up, surprised. “But that’s Bert Kirkland’s spread!”

The Governor nodded. “And he is the only rancher not making a fuss about the missing cowboys.”

Carter’s eyebrow rose with interest. “Since Amelia’s death, he has been a bit of a loner. Not venturing far from his ranch.”

The Governor looked away. “Each cowhand that has disappeared has been sent to town by him to pick up grub stakes and supplies. A week later, they each mysteriously vanished off the face of the earth. All within a single year. And not one cowboy outside the territory has seen any of the missing cowboys.”

Carter shook his head. “And nobody has talked to Kirkland?”

The Governor shook his head. “Nope. He never leaves his spread. Kinda hard to talk with a man when he is never in town.”

Carter pursed his lips. “True.”

The Governor grabbed Carter’s arm. “Be careful, son. We don’t know what to expect.” He handed the Marshal a list of fifty names. “Here are the missing cowhands, Carter. Do what you will with the list.”

So Carter Cree rode east, then back west. He wanted to interview all the ranchers within the territory before heading to the Double-Bar-Kay. He wanted to know everything he could find about the missing men. He learned, from nearly every town, where the men had worked in that area and had ridden to meet with each rancher.

“What can you tell me about these men?” Had been his first question.

Each rancher had filled in blanks left by the others, until Carter had a nearly full history of the missing men. All except who their families were. Or where they were originally from. He continued on by finding other drifters who’d known the men.

Nothing in his investigation pointed to any reasonable need to kill any of the twenty. In fact, they had all been honest, reliable hands. Though often only short term help, they did their jobs and always picked up their pay before they left. Never had they left behind an honest week’s pay.

Carter was left scratching his head as he dug deeper into the past. In Texas, he found a rancher who could vouch for at least three men’s families. He’d had to write at least two while the hands were down sick. And one had his pay sent home to his mother. The other forty-seven were complete mysteries.

From Texas, he rode back north. Toward the Double-Bar-Kay. “Just you ‘n me kid.” He leaned forward and patted his horse. The palomino whinnied. Then blew.

Good horse. Carter’d had the palomino for four years. Not once had he ever bucked or thrown him. He patted the horse again.

He kept his eye on the ridges as he rode. One never knew where the next shot would come from. And he had made enough enemies in his days as a Marshal that he had to watch even closer than most. And the west was full of dry-gulchers.

Lord how he missed the Legends, Breeds and Jacks! But they were in Colorado or Back in Iowa and Nebraska. Old Thom had to be getting up there in age. Maybe a bit too old to be riding the trails. But Lucas Legend…there was a lawman. Fancy Marsh had ridden with him for a time, before striking back out on his own. Ah, Fancy. There was another good lawman. And quick as a rattler, too.

He’d been where Carter had begun, Fancy had taken the strapping young nineteen year old and made him into a man. Showed him how to use a gun and when. Of course, the legendary lawman with the buffalo gun had also showed him how to honor and respect the badge. And he had never strayed. Not like Strahan in Tombstone. Nor like D.M. Druspin.

***

Carter now approached the Double-Bar-Kay. His duster was covered in dirt and sand from his long ride, hiding his badge. He nearly reached up to touch it, but stopped. Kirkland stood out near the well watching his approach. Best not give himself away. He would have to take the badge off and slip it into his pocket as soon as he had some privacy.

Kirkland tried to act as if he had just noticed Carter as he rode into the yard. “Been riding long?”

Carter smiled beneath the beard and dust that covered his face. “Long enough. Know of any work in these parts?”

Kirkland smiled. “Yes, got some fence that needs mending out by the creek on the south forty of my land. You lookin’?”

Carter nodded. “Yup. Always lookin’. Every hand needs a little work from time to time.”

Kirkland looked up. “Where you from?”

Carter kept the charade going. “El Paso. And Corpus Christi. But before that, I was from Denver and points north.”

Kirkland shrugged. “Any family?”

Carter shook his head. “Nope,” he lied, “none that would miss me.”

Kirkland squinted. “Good.”

Carter turned quickly and looked at the old rancher. “What was that?”

Kirkland shook his head. “I said ‘oh.'”

Carter knew what he’d heard, and it hadn’t been oh. He knew he’d heard the old man say good. It had been as plain as day. He swallowed.

He turned away. “Mind if I ride up to the south forty and take a look at that fence?”

Kirkland glared at him. “No need. We’ll git out there soon enough. I have other things here that need a bit of mendin’ as well. Don’t go gettin’ nosy.”

Carter shrugged. “Alright, then. Whatever you say.”

The old rancher turned away. “The name’s Kirkland. and you are?…”

Carter looked the old man in the eye. “The name’s Mackey. Simon Mackey.”

The rancher pointed. “Over there’s the bunkhouse. Go put your gear away and come to the main house for a bite. The ride had to make you a bit hungry.”

***

The bunkhouse was small, but cozy. Enough for a small group of hands, but he seemed to be the only hand. Where were the others? In one corner, he saw fifty bedrolls. Beside them lay fifty dusters. The sight made him very uneasy.

He made a mental note. He would have to look in the tack house and see what surprises were hidden there. Would he find fifty saddles and bridles? And what of the horses?

He shook off the sense of dread, setting down his tack near the bunk. he rummaged through his saddle bag and found his roll of writing paper and small well of ink. He began writing down what he had found. He replaced the stopper in his well and waited for the paper to dry. Testing the ink and finding it dry, he rolled the paper back up and put it back into the saddle bag.

Putting aside the feeling he was beginning to get, he headed for the main house. On his way, he mentally counted the horses in the corral. fifty-five. Normally, a rancher had four horses. No one, unless they had a huge spread and a lot of hands, needed any more than that. But Kirkland had no hands. Not one. Yet, he had fifty horses more than was right. Unless, of course, he was a horse rancher. But Kirkland raised cattle. Had for years. and hated Horse ranchers unless he needed a horse to replace one that had gone lame or had been stolen.

One horse caught Carter’s attention. A steel blue roan. Beautiful. The same color of horse one of the hands had ridden. There was also a strawberry roan. Another missing man’s horse. An Indian boy flitted out of the shadows, stopping when he realized that Carter had seen him. He looked at the lawman. Carter motioned to him to approach.

Carter looked the boy. “Who is the law around here?”

The boy looked defiantly at him. “Cherub Frieze. Why?”

Carter smiled and patted him on the arm. “Meet me in about three hours at the bunkhouse. I want you to run a message to him. I’ll make it worth your while. If he gives you any guff, just mention the name Fancy Marsh. He’ll stop instantly.”

The boy’s eyes lit up hopefully. “Are You Mr. Fancy?”

Carter shook his head and smiled. “No, but I know him well enough to use his name as a threat. Now go stand in the shadows and wait for me. I promise I’ll bring you a biscuit and mehbe a piece or two of chicken…provided he eats chicken.”

The boy nodded eagerly. “Yes, sir.”

Carter chuckled. “You don’ have to call me sir. Carter’ll do. But not in front of Kirkland. Don’ want ‘im knowin’ who I am.”

The boy nodded. “I know. I heard the name you gave him. Mackey. Another person you know?”

Carter patted the boy on the back. “You might say somethin’ like that. Now, you better git before he notices me talkin’ to you.”

The boy nodded and disappeared in the direction he’d been directed to go and wait. Shortly after, Kirkland appeared at the door of the main house. He disappeared again as Carter got closer, leaving the door open. He entered and shut the door.

“In here,” Kirkland’s raspy voice called, “Don’t keep it a-waitin’!”

Carter followed the voice to the dining room. Three places were set, but he knew that only two people would be eating. Even more disturbing was the fact that Kirkland had made enough to feed an army. He looked at the old man.

Kirkland motioned. “Well, sit yer arse down and git ready fer grace. You do say grace, don’ you?”

Carter nodded. “Why, yes. Lessen I am on the trail. Then I just chew a piece of pemmican. No need of gittin’ down an’ huntin’ fer nothin’ on the trail.”

Kirkland ignored his answer. “You a religious man, Mackey?”

Carter looked him in the eye. “Yes. You?”

Kirkland shrugged off his reversal of the question. “Good. Hate to think you’d lie to an old man. Or be takin’ advantage.

Kirkland said grace, then allowed Carter to fill his plate. Kirkland also filled his plate. They began to eat. The silence made the room stuffy. Almost unbearable.

Carter stopped. “C’n I take some to the bunkhouse with me? I would hate to intrude any longer tonight. Not on your personal time.” He glanced up at the corner and saw something equally disturbing there. Without investigating it any further and making the old man angry, he waited for an answer.

Kirkland shrugged. “Sure. Take all you want. Ain’t no one here but me ‘n you. Don’ know why I cook so much.”

Carter thanked him and collected the rest of the biscuits and the chicken into one container and headed for the door. As he neared the door, he saw yet another disturbing sight. Fifty guns hung on the hat rack near the door with fifty hats. Without giving any clue that he was bothered by the sight, Carter exited the house.

***

He sat in the bunkhouse watching the boy eat. “You can take the rest to your family.”

The boy looked up. “Thank you, Carter. Be careful of Mr. Kirkland. He’s crazy. Pa said the old man went plum loco after his son was shot to death in a shootout in town. He killed his wife and youngest son, but his daughter escaped him and fled back east. She has not been back since.”

Carter scratched his head. That explained the mummified body he’d seen in the corner of the house. “What can you tell me of the fifty who were last seen working here?”

The boy looked up, scared. “They went out to work on fence to the south but never came back with him. But their horses did. Carter, sir, he hunts my people like coyotes. He is crazy. Leave while you can.”

Carter opened his duster and showed the boy his badge. “I am here searching for those missing men.” He held his finger to his lips. “Tell no one.”

The boy’s eyes went wide. “You’re Carter Cree!”

Carter nodded. “Yes, and I am here on the orders of the Governor. But I do not want Kirkland to know. I already have a hunch how those men disappeared. No living cowhand or drifter leaves his roll, hat or guns anywhere when he leaves. Nor his horse.”

The boy nodded. “What do you need me to take to Cherub?”

Carter removed the roll of paper from his saddle bag with his pen and inkwell and began writing a short letter. Finishing, he waited for the ink to dry and then folded it and handed it to the boy. “Tell him that Carter Cree sent you. Make sure he understands that the message needs to be sent on to the Governor.” he took a couple of silver dollars out of his money pouch and tossed them to the boy. “Now go. Before Kirkland gets suspicious. When your family is done, bring the bones back and I will put them in a corner here.”

“Yessir, Mr. Cree, Sir.” The boy rushed out the back door of the bunkhouse and into the night.

***

Cherub looked at the message the boy had handed him. “Carter Cree, eh? The Governor sent the best. Thank you, Thomas. Damn. Who knew Kirkland could be capable of such a thing? He was always such a strong pillar of this town in the past. Until Matthew came to town and got into that scrape. Amy died only days later, along with Arvel. Michelle fled. Why was never explained, nor asked. Until now.”

Cherub lived up to his name. His unusually youthful, fat face and stocky build made him appear like his namesake. His naturally easygoing personality belied his no-nonsense approach to the law. Both hid the fact that he was lightning fast and deadly accurate with his guns. Like Carter, he had ridden a while with Fancy. In fact, both had been the legendary gunman’s deputies at the same time. he had taught them both. Now, Cherub’s old friend was possibly in trouble. He had been sent by the Governor to see about some missing men, and he had landed in the nest of rattlers known as the Double-Bar-Kay. And though there was just one rattler left there, He was deadly and unpredictable.

Thomas, the boy, waited for Cherub’s reply. “Any message going back?”

Cherub scratched his head. “He wanted this to be sent to the Governor too?”

“Yes.”

Cherub looked over at Thomas. “Yes. Tell Carter that we have his back. But be careful not to become a target for Kirkland yourself.”

Thomas nodded, then left. After a few minutes, Cherub got up from behind his desk and headed for the telegraph office. He felt almost like he was calling down the thunder, sending this message to the Governor. But, if Carter wanted it sent, he had no choice but to send it. He sighed. Turning at the door of the telegraph office, he entered.

Dolph looked over from where he sat at the toggle. “Da, Cherub? May I…Hep you?”

Cherub smiled uncomfortably. “Yes, Dolph. It is a matter of life and death. But not mine.”

Dolph got up and went over to the counter where Cherub stood. He took the message and read it. He looked up surprised. “Herr Cree ist here?”

Cherub Nodded. “Yes.”

Dolph hurried back to the desk. “Then I get right on this, Da?”

Cherub chuckled, despite himself. “Yes, Dolph.”

***

Kirkland arrived at the bunkhouse and saw the pile of chicken bones laying in a pile off to the side of the door. He scowled. Vile drifters. Couldn’t even bury their own chicken bones.

Carter emerged from the bunkhouse with a shovel. He acted surprised to see Kirkland. “Oh. You’re just in time to watch me git rid of the bones from last night. The remaining chicken and biscuits made a wonderful breakfast. Best I’ve had in a long ride.”

As if he wasn’t bothered by the old man’s expression, he began digging a small hole, then scooped the bones off into it. Piling the dirt back on top of the bones, he stamped it down with his foot. Probably a sight more than Kirkland gave the drifters, Carter found himself thinking.

Kirkland’s scowl still remained. “Come. We have work to do. You gotta earn yer keep. You do want paid, don’ you?”

Carter grinned. “Of course. I don’t ‘spect to stay for free.”

He followed the old man to the tack house. Inside, he saw all fifty saddles, all fifty bridles, and fifty pairs of chaps. “Grab the harness.” Kirkland seemed impervious to the realization that he had just bragged about killing fifty good men.

Carter grabbed the harness. A shiver went down his spine. Suddenly, he got the feeling that he was in for it. Kirkland whistled and one of the horses came to the corral gate. The old man harnessed the horse.

He turned to Carter. “Well? What ya waitin’ fer?”

Cree shrugged. “Where we headed?”

Kirkland glared at him. “North end.”

Carter nodded. “OK.”

***

Speck Denvers and Ram Horne were the first two deputies to step foot in the Governor’s office. William Kidder wasn’t far behind. Will was a gambler, when not on duty. Horne spent most of his time in the local brothels. Speck was the only one who seemed not to have any vices. Hell. he didn’t even take chaw.

Speck was the leader. He looked at the Governor. “You called, Sir?”

The Governor nodded. “Yes. Your boss, Carter, went to find out what happened to those fifty drifters. I just received a message from him through Cherub Frieze. He knows who killed the missing men. he also thinks that he may be a bit out of his league. He asked me to send you to the Double-Bar-Kay. And to send Simon Mackey with you.”

“Simon Mackey?!?” All three answered at the same time, shocked.

“Why Simon, Sir?” Ram raised an eyebrow. “Carter knows that Simon can’t be trusted.”

The Governor cleared his throat. “I don’t think this has anything to do with whether Simon can be trusted or not. Carter is using Simon’s name while he is working on the Bar-Kay. He wants to actually put Simon at the scene for the sake of the case.”

Speck looked around. “But where will we be able to find ol’ Simon?”

Will grinned. “I think I know.”

***

The odd thing about Simon Mackey was that the drunker he got, the straighter he walked…and shot. And he seemed to pick up a bit of speed as well. Though he couldn’t be trusted to stay sober, he could be trusted to shoot anyone who tried to kill his friend Carter. And that was why Carter now wanted him. He was a crack shot, drunk or sober. But he was deadlier when he was on a hangover. Or on a withdrawal. And Carter wanted him on a withdrawal.

After three hours of searching every saloon in town, they finally found Simon with his whore, Serenity. She knew he would never marry her, but it didn’t matter. As long as he remained loyal to her, she would remain loyal to him.

“What the bloody hell are you three doing to me?” He protested as they dragged him down to the street, half naked, and sat him on his horse.

Speck looked at the comical sight. “Your friends need you, Simon. We’ll give you these back once you’ve sobered.” He motioned to the drunk’s pants, guns, and shirt.”

Horne chuckled. “Yeah. We don’t need to fight with ya right now.”

Will gave a lopsided smile. “I’ll lead yer horse if’n ya want me to.”

Simon frowned. “What the deuces! Hell! you’d think I was hepless.”

Speck looked over at him from atop his own horse. “Hell no, Simon. We just want to make sure you arrive where we are going. Don’t want to leave Carter all on his own, now. Do you?”

The drunk looked at his three friends. “Heeelllll no. Where’s that li’l rat?”

Horne smiled. “He’s at the Double-Bar-Kay, Simon.”

Simon hiccuped. “What in tarnations is he doin’ at that crazy hole?”

Speck shrugged. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

***

Even though it had been three days, Carter refused to let his guard down. Too much evidence made it clear that Kirkland had turned killer. Like a rabid coyote, he had killed his family, hunted down the local Indians as if they were wolves, and murdered innocent drifters who’d just stopped for a little honest work. Fifty men had come. Fifty men had been senselessly killed. But how?

He hoped that Cherub would show before he had an opportunity to find out. Or maybe his reinforcements. He could use the real Simon Mackey right now. If for nothing else, then just simple advice. But they would take days to get here. He only hoped he had days.

For days, Kirkland had done small jobs around the ranch. Nothing had been done on the south forty. The barns had been where they worked, mostly. And one in particular. And it was huge! It had to be a good 60×100 foot! And the stalls were huge! And in multitude! All with mangers! He swore that he had counted upward to three hundred stalls! Why? Had this once been a horse ranch? Certainly, Kirkland had not been the original owner!

But there was a peculiar odor in the barn. Almost as if death was there. And Carter knew the smell of death. He’d been in its presence before.
He only hoped he wouldn’t be for a while longer. No need in dying for no reason.

But something gave him the feeling that Kirkland had already planned his death too. But when? Where? How? And most of all, Why?

He patiently worked for the old man as if he suspected nothing. Every night, he looked for Thomas. The boy would come and run messages to town for him for what food the lawman scrounged from Kirkland’s table and a couple silver dollars. The instructions were always the same. Cherub was to send the mounting evidence on to the Governor.

On the fifth morning of the third week, Kirkland appeared at the bunkhouse. This time, he wore his guns. He waited for Carter to bury his bones, then began to lead to the corral. “Bring your saddle.”

Carter went back into the bunkhouse and grabbed his saddle. Heading to the corral, he called his palomino. Kirkland called a buckskin mare. Carter looked at the old man. “Where we headed?”

Kirkland scowled. “The south forty. The missus mentioned that a piece of fence there needed some work.”

Carter almost froze in his tracks, but kept moving. Kirkland had said that the missus had mentioned a piece of fence needed mending. His missus had been dead for a good three or four years. He realized that the slip had been code for I’m going to kill you, Mr. Mackey. The same chill ran down Carter’s back that had hit when he’d been in the barn. His fingers began tingling. Itching. He could almost feel the cold of the trigger on his index finger.

***
Denvers, Horne, Kidder and the real Simon Mackey met Cherub just a few miles from the Bar-Kay. Cherub looked them over. “You look like you been ridin’ hard.”

Speck grinned and nodded. “Only way to keep Simon, here, from stopping long enough to get drunk.”

Cherub looked doubtfully at the alcoholic gunman. “I wonder why Carter wanted him along. He ain’t dependable.”

Horne smiled. “Nope, but he’s a damn good shot, drunk or sober.”

Will smirked. “And deadly unpredictable.”

Cherub shook his head. “Alright.”

Simon ignored the conversation as if it were about someone else. “So what’s the plan?”

Cherub smiled. “We will go to the main house. if they ain’t there, we go to the south forty. Seems to be the one spot all the victims had in common. each one was supposed to be working on a stretch of broken fence there.”

They talked as they rode onto the ranch-grounds. Mackey looked over at the corral and counted the horses. “How many horses does a rancher usually have?”

Cherub looked. “Normally, they have four. Plus one per hand. Kirkland should only have…four. But he has fifty-three. Damn!”

They suddenly noticed that the main house and bunkhouse were both eerily silent. Horne dismounted, drew a gun, and entered the main house. “Dear God Ahmighty!!!” Came his exclamation from within. He came rushing out. “They’s a couple of mummies in there! And Kirkland’s guns is missin’!”

Kidder came out of the bunkhouse. “Carter’s gone too. But he has his guns.”

Cherub whipped his horse toward the south. “Mount up. we have more riding to do. Our friend is in trouble.”

***

Damn his ugly luck. He now found himself out near a creek. They were somewhere south of the houses and he had yet to see any cattle. Or any animals at all. Not even a stray was to be seen. But there was fence. Lots of it. they stopped.

Kirkland’s saddle creaked. “We stop here. The fence needs tightened before the cows git out.”

Carter knew what was about to happen. He smiled sadly. “Alright.”

He dismounted and walked to the fence. He looked at the creek. Bones. Human bones. And bits of cloth. he heard the drag of the old man’s gun on the leather of the holster. In one fluid motion, he whipped around and drew, firing as the gun was in position. Kirkland’s gun went off harmlessly, his eyes wide with surprise. “No…one..ever..got…the…drop…on…me.” The old man fell to the ground, face-down. A growing stain of blood grew on the ground under him.

Carter went and turned the old man over. “Why?”

Kirkland smiled. “It doesn’t matter anymore. I just need to know who you really are.”

Carter frowned. “I am the state Marshal, Kirkland. My Name is Carter Cree. Simon Mackey is my friend. I used his name to get in. I knew you wouldn’t know him from Adam.”

Cherub and the rest appeared at Carter’s side. Kirkland smiled. “I can now come clean. I killed Amelia. I killed Sammy. Hell. I killed Matthew. I drove him to that street. That duel. I pushed the boy too hard, Cherub. From that point on, it all spiraled out of control. My guilt. My anger. My loneliness. It all contributed to my killing those drifters.

“There ain’t just fifty, Cherub. But fifty is all you’ll find. There has to be about a hundred. half are bits and pieces in the creek. Fifty are buried in the barn. I suppose I wanted to be caught…or I wouldn’t have picked Cree by mistake. I wouldn’t have mistaken him as a drifter.” The old man took his last breath, stiffened, then went slack.

Carter looked at Cherub. “We need to give these poor hands a proper burial. Find what you can of those he put in the creek. We will have to dig in the barn to find the rest. How many coffins can you conjure up?”

Cherub scratched his head. “Maybe a hundred, if we’re lucky.”

Carter nodded. “Even if you can get a few less, that’ll be fine. just as long as there are more than fifty. even if the fifty others from the creek have to share a single coffin, it’ll work.”

Cherub smiled sadly. “Alright.”

Carter looked at his friends. “Denvers, Horne. Go help. If you need more help, send Thomas to get Kidder and Mackey. In the meantime, Mackey, Kidder and I will begin digging in that huge barn.”

***

In the months that followed, word finally leaked out about where the horses of those who’d been killed first had gone. A Horse rancher, thinking nothing of Kirkland’s invite to buy stock, had bought fifty horses a year from the old man. This, he said, started in the months after Amelia Kirkland’s death and had continued on until just prior to Carter’s arrival. He admitted that Kirkland had contacted him about another fifty horses, but he had turned the old man down, citing he had more horses than he had been able to sell.

The rancher said that the real reason he had stopped buying Kirkland’s horses was that he’d begun noticing that the horses looked an awful lot like horses he’d seen drifters riding through on mere weeks before. It had been partly his doing that the Governor had been alerted, and Carter sent to investigate. He said that he had only wished that he had caught it all sooner. Maybe a few of the drifters would have avoided such a horrible end. Carter tried to reassure the man that he had done all he could.

While digging in the barn, Carter’s team found well over two hundred bodies. All missing drifters. They finally gave Amelia and the youngest Kirkland child a proper burial in Boot Hill, along with each body they found. Plus the bones of a possible one hundred more.

Fin

dedication: To Evelyn Birkby, who said I should write this story. Thank you for the inspiration. It is always an honor and a privilege to work with of talk with you.

Note: The basis of this story is true. There really was a ranch in Oklahoma where the reclusive rancher had killed many drifters and cowhands that he hired. The original story was of a man named Noland. The story was passed down to my dad by his father who worked as a journeyman carpenter in Oklahoma and around the US during the early 1900s. The story was told to him by a young lady whom he called “Jane”.

Doomsday

All souls were now damned. Salvation had been lost. God had finally turned His mighty back on mankind. All offers had been retracted and now, man was finally on his own.

Man, that great mistake of a creation-as selfishly arrogant and self-absorbed as ever-had long since turned his back on God, and God’s current decision was the result of this. Oh sure-there were groups that claimed fealty and spouted horrid amounts of hate, prejudice, and twisted prophecy in His name-but there were none who truly believed. No one really cared what His word really meant. Nor did they care that He had sent His only Son to save all.

They had spent millennia heaping upon the pious staggering amounts of physical expectations. Physical rites and ritual became more important than what should be done inside. Color of skin and opinions mattered more than faith and brotherhood. What everyone else chose to do in their private lives became more important than what they, themselves, did. Power and self-worth was their true god.

They claimed to have cornered the market, to have the only line on the truth–or to be the only true believers. They omitted lines when it served their purpose, spouting the “damnation” verses to justify their own devices. They ignored the lines that damned their own actions preferring, instead, to think of themselves as perfect and pure. Their evil spread far and wide, engulfing an otherwise bright and wary populace, until not one believed in the God they professed to believe. Their lips claimed fealty, but their hearts sought personal gain and power.

So God simply turned His mighty back, shrugging His mighty shoulders in defeat. He simply gave up on mankind, preferring to disappear from earth’s daily doings. The devil had won. He figured Satan could have earth and all that existed there, He would create a new world. One that would appreciate all he did for it. And a new race.

And so, Hell rose upon the face of the earth, swallowing mankind and blotting out the sun and any light. All hope had vanished. All reason to exist. Only sorrow and pain remained. Hopelessness.

And yet, man-for all his wisdom-still did not see. Nor would he hear. He believed he was right in all his hate and his prejudice. His twisted religions gave him false hope. False strength.

And so, now truly free in his bondage, man began to fight the first of many wars. With war, came disease. And lack. And rage. And savagery.

A third of all mankind died in that first war. Scores more died as a result of the aftermath. Disease. Famine. Pestilence. Lawlessness.

Then, war broke out again. And another third was destroyed. Followed by scores more through the ravages left in its wake. And even more at the hands of returning soldiers.

War after war ravaged the lands, until only four were left to each continent. Where America once was there remained one black, one white, one Native, and one Asian. In the other lands, it was much the same, except with a slight variation. Gone were all reasons to fight. Gone were all the religious leaders and agendas. All that was left were four people to begin life anew and rebuild what the devil had destroyed.

Civilization was no more. The illusions had been destroyed. Man had been reduced to how he had began: a single pairing, though two pairs per continent. But instead of a garden, they had reminders of the hell they had created.

For all his greed, all his arrogance, man had lost it all. Now he was left humble and alone, the devil no longer interested in what he had won. Now, he cried out to God. But would God listen? After all, Man had abandoned Him first. Why would He believe man would ever want Him back again?

Bonus Story #2: “Metal Gods” (Badlands Saga, Part Three)

George sat at the console of his Star-Strafer, fighting to keep it under control. He had been a member of the Outlander unit of the Badlands Defense. He had risen to the heights of being a top commander in just two years. In those two years, he had proven to be a formidable foe to any who thought the Badlands to be an easy target. His mastery of the Strafer was uncanny. No one within the Outlander unit could handle the unwieldy star fighter as well.

“Base,” he began coolly began, “I won’t be in as soon as I would like. I am going down. I have been hit, and bad.”

“Affirmative, Commander George,” came the reply, “What are your coordinates? We will send a rescue team.”

“Forget the rescue,” he grunted, “I will be lucky to escape this alive. I am going down hard. Maybe for the last time.”

Do not say things like that, Brother, Macy’s familiar voice commanded in his head, I will make sure you are safe.

But I don’t even know where I am now, he mentally objected, my instruments no longer work. My Strafer is in flames in the cockpit, and I am being cooked alive. I am running out of strength, and you tell me not to think of death. Sorry, but I am in bad shape, Sis.

Use your psy-power, she admonished, what harm can it do? You must fight and come back to me.

With a sudden surge of strength, he pulled hard on the emergency control stalk. He felt his ship bounce, not once, but twice. The fire had subsided, but the pains from his burns had not. He knew he was in bad shape, but to convince Macy would be useless. Being psy-queen had distanced her from the realities of war.

As he lost consciousness, he thought he could see angels. Then darkness took him.

“Our patient is waking up,” he heard a male voice say, “maybe now we might find out why he was sent to us.”

“Where am I?” George inquired, trying to raise himself up.

A hand gently held him down. “Relax. You’re in no shape to be getting up. Those are nasty burns you have.” A face wavered before his eyes. “You are safe within the halls of Tharne. Our people are dedicated to the healing arts and pursuing peace. And you are?”

“I am Commander George,” he began warily, “of the Outland Units.”

“Ah,” the voice averred, “The prestigious Badlanders. Dedicated to the defense of the innocent and the keepers of the peace. How is your Psy-queen? Well, I hope.”

“She is fine,” he replied to his unseen caretaker, “She saved me from complete oblivion.”

“I see,” came the reply, “and why did you land here on Tharne?”

“I really had no choice,” George stated, “I would have never made it home.”

“No,” came the agreement, “Of course not. And why were you out this far?”

“We chased pirates into this sector,” he tried to explain, “But lost our way trying to get back home. As we began our retreat back to our own sector.”

“He is telling the truth, Your Honor,” another voice replied, “There is no need to test him further. His thoughts are pure and hold the record of the firefight that shattered his craft. The pirates struck without warning and he sacrificed himself for the sake of his unit’s retreat.”

“Then we can use his help, can’t we?” the first voice inquired.

“What kind of help are you needing?” George inquired.

“We will fill you in when you are well enough,” came the answer, “until then, rest and heal.”

***

Macy sat upon her throne. This was the first time her most prized commander had not returned. Now, she worried. He was her brother. Her only brother.

He had saved her life twice. Until now, he had fought valiantly for the cause they had both taken up. Now, his thoughts were blocked from her…but not by choice. Where was he?

Your Highness, her skelwoulf advisor began, Brother George will not betray us. Rest easy.

I do not fear betrayal, old friend, she replied, I fear his death. None has such power or can command so well. Most fear me too much to be effective. He fears no one.

The skelwoulf bowed in acknowledgement of the fact she had just stated. All respected George. None dared dishonor him. Nor doubt his honor.

He was also a psy-warrior. That fact, alone, made him formidable as both a commander and an individual beyond the military. He could guide diplomatic missions with ease, gaining the best treaties ever founded. It had been his doing, the peace among all who inhabited the Badlands. Even those who’d been mortal enemies since the dawn of time.

His word was thought of as law, second only to that of their chosen queen. He was royalty. The home where Pasha and their mother had lived had become a shrine after their deaths, inhabited only by George when he was not off fighting pirates or the corporations. It was his home. It would remain thus until he was dead.

Macy could remember the day she learned of her mother’s death. It had been George who found their bodies and the holographic messages that had been left. But Both of them had felt every bit of the torture their mother endured. That had been what had alerted them both that something terrible had happened.

The killer had been a psy-dead. Someone who could not be detected by psy-warriors. He had snuck in under their psy-net and attacked. But George had picked up his signature. His mind-print.

And though the man had been psy-dead, George found a way to invade his mind. And he did. By the time he was done, the killer was little more than a vegetable…useless to any as anything more than a test subject. And after he’d finished with the killer, he went for those who’d ordered the hit. One by one, he took them down turning each into what he had turned the killer. And he became feared by the corporations. Hated.

But, then, all psy-kind were. And for good reasons. They were the most powerful of all humans. The most dangerous. The most advanced.

***

Three days had passed before George was well enough to sit up. In those weeks, he had been privileged enough to meet his hosts. The Tharnians were a hearty race, endowed with the natural power to heal all things. Disease and injury were nearly nonexistent.

“I see our esteemed guest is awake today,” the Tharnian male grinned, “which means that you are well enough to be told our plight.”

“If I am to help you,” George began, “then you must do one thing for me.”

“Healing you is not enough?” The Tharnian seemed started.

“It is not that,” George replied, “it is just that my sister, the psy-queen, will be worried about me. I am, after all, her best commander. I need you to contact her and tell her I am fine…and let her know when to expect me back in her service.”

“Very well,” came the reply, “Alucius, go. Contact our guest’s sister.”

George cocked an eyebrow. “You’re psy as well?”

“How else would healers heal?” came the rebuff, “We have to touch the mind as well as the body. It is the only way to heal all the patient.”

“I see,” George said thoughtfully, “then you already know that I am also psy.”

“Of course,” came the response, “we had to block your delirious psy-messages while you were being healed. After all, you were in pretty bad shape when we found you and we did not need your enemies, or our own, to find you or us.”

“So what is it you need help on?” George was now interested in their need.

“We need your diplomatic expertise,” his host replied, “to help us in securing treaties with our lifelong enemies.” The Tharnian saw the wonderment in George’s eyes. “Oh yes. Your fame as a diplomat has preceded you, and it was one of our enemies that attacked your ships to begin with. Perhaps believing that you had been sent to spy on them.”

“I see,” George smiled, “a challenge awaits. Let me call this truce through psy-projection. Is there a neutral planet or moon that we could use as a place where we can meet for this summit?”

“Indeed,” the Tharnian answered, “Talosan. Third moon of T’cholo.”

***

A psy-image stood before Macy. Oh queen f the Badlands, give ear. We of Tharne are caring for your brother-commander. He is healing quite well. It is our pleasure to be his hosts. It is not often that we get one of such reputation or of such high standing. If it pleases you, we shall only request one thing of him–that he help us end the blood feud that has stood between us and our neighbors. In return, we will ally ourselves with you and yours.

Agreed, she replied.

So George was well. Or, at least being treated well. He had found a people who could help him heal. That was good. She had heard rumors of the Tharnians. They were supposed to be healers. A welcomed asset to the alliance.

She would have to tease George when he returned. She smiled. But the message did not explain why she had not heard from her brother. Only that he was well on his way to recovering from his injuries, whatever they were. Still, no need for stewing over little things. George would explain anything she needed to know once he returned.

She smiled. Her commander would be coming home soon enough. That was all she needed to know. And he was aiding the cause of the growing alliance.

***

The Cairnes were the first to arrive on Talosan. A tall wispy race, they seemed distant and cold. The Ainan were next. George got the feeling that these had been the ones who’d downed his fighter. They kept eyeing him suspiciously.

The Thrognan came next. Like the Cairnes, they seemed indifferent. the last to arrive were the Vril. Heavily armored, they seemed to be less inclined to want peace…unless offered something else to pacify their warlike nature.

“You wonder why I brought you all together,” he began, “in this summit. You have been enemies since time immemorial. You hate, but without real understanding why. And there is no reason for such to go on.”

“Why should we listen to an outlander?” The Vril rasped.

“Because,” George continued, “I can offer you something in return for you agreement to the peace being offered.”

“Like what, outlander?” The Vril was still hostile.

“As warriors, you are feared,” George stated, “and for good reason. you love war. But there is a greater war being waged. One against pirates. One against the corporations of earth. There is a need for warriors such as you in that war.”

“We do not fear you puny humans,” The Vril hissed.

“But you should,” George maneuvered.

“Why?” came the response.

Because, George mind-spoke,the corporations are like a disease. They spread. They kill. They rape. They pillage. They destroy.

“Your mind-speak doesn’t scare us, outlander,” The Vril stated, “but your words do. We would not wish to share the fates of those your words implied have long since been stripped of their birthright. We are now willing to listen to your talks of peace.”

George noticed that the Ainan had stopped looking at him with suspicion and were now sitting up and paying attention. Even the Cairnes and the Thrognan had begun to show interest. As he began the talks, all were now paying attention to his every word. At this rate, he knew he would have a peace forged between these races before much longer.

“What will be needed is a council,” he heard himself saying, “A senate that contains delegates from each planet and their subsequent moons. All races within the control of your governing bodies should be included. Fair and balanced by equal representation. Instead of conquerors and conquered, you will all be allies. Autonomous, but working together for the benefit of all.”

He could tell that most had governing bodies already somewhat similar to what he was asking them to create. And at least two were from a confederation of races that worked together.

“We see no problem with this,” The Cairnes replied.

Their response garnered agreements from the Thrognan and the Ainan. Only the Vril remained quiet.

“I do not expect you to make instant changes in behavior,” he continued, “But reforms should be planned and enacted over a definite period of time. And you will be more than welcome to send representative units to serve with the Outlander units if you want. But you will want to hold the majority of your forces to protect your own territory.”

“How many?” The Vril interjected.

“Excuse me?” George inquired. “How many what?”

“How many units do you desire?” The Vril inquired.

“For the representative units?” He queried in return.

“Yes.”

“At least two divisions should be sufficient,” He responded, “But as I stated, that is really to be determined by you and the council you establish.”

“Fair enough,” came the agreement.

***

It was done. Five races had been unified into one confederation. He had even helped them build their governing council. Even more, he had won the respect and admiration of the warrior race of the Vril. He had done well.

Dratyxx, the delegate from the Vril approached him afterward. “I hear your fighter was recently destroyed.”

“Yes,” he replied.

“Come,” the Vril motioned, “I have something for you.”

He followed the Vril warrior. The warrior led him to where the diplomats had left their personal ships. Stopping next to a strange looking fighter, the Vril turned to face him.

“This,” he motioned, “is known as a Skree. It is the star fighter of my people. Extremely well built and powerful, there is no ship in existence that matches it. As one warrior to another, I now present mine to you. Since I am now to be a member of the council, I will no longer need it.”

“Are you sure?” George asked.

“Of course,” came the response, “And if I do need a fighter, I will be issued one of the larger Thrids.”

“I am honored,” George replied, “thank you.”

Bonus Story # 1: “A Ride In the Wrong Cab”

I don’t normally ride in cabs. Never really need to. Usually, I am familiar with my surroundings enough to get where I need to go by foot. But I had never been to Baltimore, and so I was forced to take my very first cab. Who knew it would also be my last.

It wasn’t bad enough, with it raining and storming as it was. But to add insult to injury, when I opened the cab door, I got a strong sense of foreboding. Still, even with a tug of hesitation, I got in just to get out of the storm.

“Where to?” A hollow, almost dead, voice asked from within the hooded cloak that sat up front.

I looked at the driver’s ID. Grimm, it said. Grim, indeed. I shivered and looked out the window. In all my acquisitions, I had never encountered such a scene.

I would have laughed if it wasn’t for that instant sense of dread I felt emanating from the front seat. That persistent chill continued to walk up and down my spine.

“Tattle Tale Books,” I replied, “Since when does Death drive a cab?”

“You realize,” his hollow voice began, devoid of any emotion, “that there is more than one of us, don’t you?”

“No,” I responded, “I was taught that you were-you know-like God. Omnipotent. Omniscient. Omnipresent. Everywhere like the air.”

“Sorry to disappoint, but Death is a job that requires an army. One could never be everywhere at all times. After all, there is a death every second at every point in the world and one could never be in all places at all times.

“But, to answer your question, yes, Death always drives a cab. It is a mandatory job so that we are always able to show compassion and understanding. We also learn how to differentiate between the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. Some of us tried working in hospitals, but found that we usually scared the patients to death. Many before their time. So, we were banned from the medical profession.”

I was beside myself. “Oh.”

there was an awkward silence for at least five blocks. Then, as if nothing happened, we began talking again.

“Wanna know my favorite clients?” He was eager to share.

I smiled. “Sure.”

“I think the ones I like going for the most are the corrupt. They tend to believe that they can buy their way out of dying. But, like everything else, we are forbidden to take bribes. The last Death that took a bribe has been in hell for the last millennia.” He turned the car toward my destination, then continued. “Criminals and politicians are my second most favorite. Lawyers come in third. I hate going after little old ladies, though. They are almost always such sweet people, and so giving! I also feel bad about going after children. They are always so innocent.”

“What about men?” I was now interested in his thoughts.

“No, can’t say as I have a problem with most adults. Although it depends on their age and what they have done with their lives.” He chuckled at some private joke. “The more violent or the more they have wasted their lives with nonsense, the more eager I am to do my job. Why allow someone to waste perfectly good living with mindless drivel?”

“I see.” I was now regretting asking.

Another awkward silence followed for several blocks, ended by the sharp odor of brimstone.

“My apologies,” my cabby’s hollow voice mumbled, “burritos always give me gas.”

“I didn’t know you ever ate!” I exclaimed.

“Oh yes,” came the answer, “just not as often as I would like.”

“But you’re nothing but bones!” I exclaimed in awe.

“Now you know why,” came the cool, hollow answer.

***

It had taken an hour for us to reach my destination. For the first time, I had never been so glad to get to where I was going. The second I stepped from the cab, the feeling of foreboding lifted from my shoulders and I suddenly felt a sense of relief. I turned back to the cab, despite my urge to run away as fast as I could.

“How much?” I asked.

“One hundred-fifty dollars even,” came the hollow answer.

“Kind of high, ain’t it?” I asked.

“Hey, Mack,” he answered, “I just read the meter. I don’t tally the cost.”

“Fair enough,” I replied, I handed in the fare. “Here.”

“Take care, Now,” he replied, taking the fare from me, “and thank you for riding along. I will see you in another sixty years, if you behave.”

I withdrew my arm and turned toward the publishing house I had acquired, then turned to wish him a good day. But I found he had vanished into thin air. I shook my head. Never again would I ride in another taxi. I had seen my fill of them with that single ride.

NO OTHER RECOURSE

1.

The damage had been done. The battle had begun. The war, only starting. And I had been the fool. My dark hatred of my foe had driven me to do the unthinkable. I had sold my soul for victory over my rival.

An empty victory it was, too. One that heralded a dark accounting for my wrong. But I was reveling in the glory of my victory. My self- glorifying victory.

Though I had insisted that I had been in the right, and had demanded satisfaction, I had also realized that I was starting a war I would lose on my own. But I cared not. If I could win a victory over the Council, I could wage the war as I saw fit.

I, the king, had to show them that I was in control. And so I argued the point. The enemy had already set his armies at our borders, I told them. Our spies and scouts had confirmed as much.

20 leagues from our first village, I pointed out, stood four legions of the enemy’s best fighting men. His elite. We needed to send our Wolfhounds to guard our people. We had to muster an army twice that size.

And I had won the day. Little did I know that we had a traitor in our midst that day. Count Riglio was always treacherous. Always. That day was no different.

I knew not that he had already pledged his loyalty to my enemy. Nor would I until I rode into that first battle. And by then, I would realize that he had taken half the Council with him. That left me with only half my kingdom standing behind me….and no allies from the outside.

Thus, I sought allegiances with my neighbors. Thornovia declined. They, too, were in the midst of a war. Vylea also declined. Rovia claimed neutrality. Zolodia, alone, offered their aid…but at a price. A big price.

And I, like a fool, as desperate as I was, agreed. In one pen-stroke, I sealed the fates of half of my subjects. All due to their lords siding with a traitor. Or because their lord was the traitor.

2.

I should have known that Zolodia’s lords would ride through the rebellious duchies, putting all in their path to death. They had ever been barbaric in their ways and ruthless as mercenaries. Agents of the Devil himself, they were. Burning the land, raping the women, slaughtering the men and children.

Weakening my kingdom. Making it ripe for their own conquest. Destroying what inner peace my kingdom had known. And I was to blame.

And so, I watched helplessly as they destroyed the lands of those who had rebelled. And as they rode on to do battle, where I awaited their arrival, they continued their path of destruction. Weakening our economy, destroying our crops, and taking all they felt was theirs.

And my people moaned under their oppression. Their flagrant misuse of freedoms granted them in my treaty with them. Yea, even the misappropriation of powers I had not ceded to them. And so, I would have to account for that bargain once the war was over.

I had not given them free reign. I had not even given them instructions to punish the people for the sins of their masters. Nor had I told them to put torch to my land’s food supply. They had never once been given permission to touch our women or children.

They had been told that those who had been guilty of treason would be given over to them to punish as they saw fit after the war was over. But this, I suppose, in their barbaric minds, allowed them to rape and pillage like the mindless hordes of the southern wastes.

And so, to make right the wrong, I called unto the King of the Dark. To him, I

vowed to render my soul. For victory over both my allies and my enemy. In desperation,

I committed another unforgivable sin. A sin against Heaven and my kingdom. I had sold myself, my own soul and freedom for an unholy victory.

3.

On the eve of the first battle, I turned my armies toward the approaching allies and struck treacherously against them. With legions of unholy demons at my command, I was unstoppable. Soon, the lords of Zolodia fell to me and I took their king prisoner. It seemed a boon that he had allowed his only son and daughter to ride into battle with him at the time, and I made good of the opportunity that had been presented.

I forced him to give his daughter’s hand to me in marriage as my first stroke at his power. Then, I made him watch, after sending the daughter away from camp to my dungeons in the capitol, as I impaled his son for his share of the crimes committed against my kingdom.

I later sent word to his queen that her husband was dead and that she was expected to give herself to me in marriage. The girl, I set aside for my own son who would succeed me to the throne. But she would slowly be integrated into our lives in the palace when the war was finished. At the moment, she was a prisoner and a prize of war. And her father was still living.

Once the deathblow had been struck at Zolodia, I turned my unholy armies toward my enemy and those who had treacherously sided with him and Count Riglio. The battle was glorious. As a blood-red sun sank in the west, I knew I had won the day yet again. I felt glorious.

As the sun rose, blood-red, in the sky the next morning, I readied to do battle once more. Riglio had been defeated and lay near death in the enemy camp. Those who had rebelled were now abandoning the enemy’s camp and returning, penitent, to mine. Unforgiving, I condemned them all of treason and sent them to languish in my prisons. Their soldiers, I added to my own armies and carried the fight to my enemy once more.

Riglio died as I struck the final blow. No more could I punish him for his treason. Yet, in my mind, someone had to pay. So I stripped his family of their land, unjustly, and forced them into exile.

As I smashed the armies of my enemy, I saw him fall as well. I watched to see, with some hope that he would, if he rose again. He did not. He, too, had died a warrior’s death and my need for vengeance was stoked against his armies. Yet, they had done nothing but follow his commands.

I rode, victorious, into his capitol city and took his throne as my own. I demanded the hand of his widowed queen and was awarded it as spoils of war. His son was thrown into the dungeons under the very castle he had called home, never to emerge alive.

His borders upon my own lands were dissolved. His throne destroyed. His legacy forgotten. His heirs, slaughtered like lambs.

But my legacy had just begun. Or so I thought. Once I took his kingdom for my own, as well as his widowed queen, I rode toward Zolodia. I had to claim their kingdom as my own as well, as payment for the crimes of their king and their soldiers.

Behind me, I left a string of carcasses impaled upon spires of ash to warn all what would happen to those who betrayed me or waged war against me. Among them, I left the king of Zolodia and all his soldiers. I also left those who had betrayed me.

4.

Somewhere behind me, judgment for my own soul rode in the form of my own son and the Wolfhounds who were loyal only to him. As they followed, they took down those I had impaled and burned their bodies, giving them a warrior’s funerary rite. With him rode the archangel Gabriel with his horn which would call legions of angels to their aid against the demonic armies I commanded.

And I would deserve whatever judgment he would pass upon my soul. I would deserve the death he would deal unto me. I had no more right to live than those I had executed as traitors. I, too, had betrayed my people. Not once, but twice.

But to Zolodia I rode. Behind me, the queen-widow of my enemy hung herself in shame for entering herself into unholy marriage with me. Her daughter, on the other hand, would not suffer such a fate. My second son would see to that.

The daughter of the Zolodian monarch would not suffer either, for she would fall in love with the son who now nipped at my heels. And he would love her as well. Not that this at all mattered to me, for it did not. I had been intent on punishing and defeating. And I did.

What had been done to my own kingdom, I meted back to the people of Zolodia…burning, looting, raping and murdering. I was fulfilling the “eye for an eye” of vengeance and it mattered not that these were now my people as well. I had taken the crown held by their king. It was now mine.

And so, I rode on to the capitol of Zolodia. I had yet another wife to take. Not that I didn’t already have one, but I was the conqueror. I deserved the new wife. I had won her from her now deceased husband, the king. Of course, there was nothing physical about the marriage. No, it was merely political and symbolic. While I was married to their queen, I was their rightful king.

And so there was a grand fete. So grand it was, that all those who had refused to ally themselves with me marveled at the spectacle and wonder of it all. But it was just show. And the marriage bed would never be shared for I had to return to my own kingdom the victor and resume my own kingship.

Thus, I rode for home. Reveling in the glory being showered upon me, I had forgotten who and what had helped me conquer all that I now possessed. And I neglected to realize that I still had an army ahead to face, an army I could not win-even with Hell’s legions-against. An army led by my pure-hearted son and heir.

5.

So this was what I had sold my soul for. My redemption would be found at the hands of my son. My sins would be cleansed by the judgment he passed upon me.

Yet, I would not emerge victorious. Nor would I emerge alive. For my sins, I would have to die a traitor’s death. Not one meted by man, but one meted by Heaven above. I would no longer be in league with the Devil, nor would I be allowed into Heaven. I would be condemned to wander the earth a ghost, a harbinger of evil, an ill omen to the living until my penance was fulfilled according to the judgment passed.

But I rode on blindly toward my fate, unaware it would be so costly. Basking in the glory I had earned myself, lavishing upon myself the riches plundered from the fallen. Congratulating myself for conquering and destroying my enemies. Not once had I realized I had allied myself with my worst enemy of all. I had sold myself to the one who destroys all hope of redemption.

Nor did I realize that I had fated myself for life in Hell. I had given up my salvation for a fleeting earthly victory. I had refused to accept the mistakes I had made. I had committed the ultimate sin and the ultimate betrayal.

But, I had run out of time. Now, before me sat the armies that my son led. At their head, he sat beside Gabriel whose horn was ever at the ready. His sword drawn, my son was ready to lead the charge. And charge they did, Gabriel’s horn blowing the advance and legions of angels joining the battle.

So this was what I had sold my soul for. A hollow victory of a meaningless war that resulted in my conviction. Another war I could never win, even with the unholy armies I now led, and who was now abandoning me or vanishing from existence. For a small infinity where my soul was now being asked of me for the victories I had won…

Not I, but the hordes of demons now fleeing from battle. Those demons who had since been vanquished by the light of Heaven. My own earthly armies had long since abandoned me, unable to fight beside the unholy legions. My subjects had long since begun to shun me for what I had become. But, blinded by the illusion of victories won, I had fallen to my own delusion of being a savior and a hero. I was neither.

Now stripped of my mighty army, I saw myself for what I had become. A miserable wretch. Unholy. Unclean. Loathsome. Evil. Empty.

Out of nowhere, the Devil appeared.

“‘Tis time,” quoth he, “to pay your price. ‘Tis time for you to render your soul unto me.”

“Wrong, Old Goat,” quoth my beloved son, “he owes you nothing. For he has now seen the wrong in his bargain and God calls for the rightful judgment now. Get thee gone, old dragon, and let him suffer whatever fate Heaven holds in store for him.”

With a puff, the great deceiver was gone. No spiked tail, nor cloven hooves had he. But looked as one from Heaven above. All illusion, I know, but enough to lure the purest of hearts in times of trouble. I smiled in relief.

“Smile not, father,” my son admonished, “for Heaven hath decreed your death by my hand. But yet, the punishment you shall be given will be placed upon you as a great chain that must be slowly worn away over time as you do penance for your sin. Never shall you see Heaven until each link in the chain is gone and all who are sent to you are changed, heart and soul, through your help and guidance. Only then will Heaven allow you to enter.”

“But, My Son,” quoth I in protest, “this punishment is too much to bear. How will I ever overcome it?”

“Faith, father,” quoth he, “in mercy, you were released from your treaty with the Devil. Not by his hand, but by the hand of the Almighty alone, whom he cannot deny any prize. For before you fell, you were truly a great man, valiant and true. Full of goodness and mercy. Kindness and empathy. And faith. Whence did you lose that faith? When thine enemy stood at your gates? Or when thine ally proved to be unjust?”

I bowed my head. It had been before that, when I had learned of the betrayal of a handful of Counts and Dukes. It had been when I had seen the sneer upon the lips of Riglio. That had been when I had lost faith. Not only in Heaven, but in my own people. I had betrayed my own people through not showing any faith in them.

Now I saw it. I could have raised armies from my people beyond imagining. I could have defeated the Zolodian armies with my own army. I could have defeated the combined armies of the traitors and mine enemy as well. But I had lost faith in my people and, thus, snatched true victory from myself and the kingdom by relying on an army of lies and illusion. Of evil.

“Draw your sword, father,” he commanded, “I will not strike down an unarmed man. ‘Tis folly to choose the coward’s way. Be brave once more and do proud battle with me to pay for your redemption at my hands. It was I who pleaded for the release of your soul from the contract, that unholy treaty, that you signed with Hell. It was I who bought you your freedom from eternal punishment and sought for you something much more merciful. And now it is I who must free you of your earthly living existence so that you
may begin your penance.”

Without a word, and only a half a heart for battle, I drew my blade. It would be his soon, not that it mattered. For what he had done, I loved him all the more. No other son would have pleaded for his father’s soul and won, but this son…his heart was pure and he sinned not. He gloried not in war, nor in the sufferings of others. But he loved all and desired that all share that same love.

And now, out of mercy, he was to set me free. He had already paid my ransom. Now he was giving me my freedom.

“The widow-queen you left behind you took her own life in shame, for she knew what you had forced her to do was wrong. The one you are now leaving has done the same. All because you have lost faith and have done what is reviled by our laws and the laws of those you have destroyed.

“Is this the way you had wished it to be, father?”

“Nay, My son. If I could but do it over, I would have chosen faith. But it is too late for that now, I can see, so make mine end quick and release me from this living hell I have made myself.”

“So be it.”

His blade slid down my own. I felt it bite into me and slide deep. I knew the end had come. I looked into his eyes, relief in my own.

“Thanks be to you for this act of mercy, to allow me to die the death of a warrior. May our people sing your praises until our kingdom exists no more. May your memory last forever.”

He smiled back sadly as I slid off his bloody blade. Darkness overtook me and death was swift indeed. As I stood free of my earthly shell, I looked at how peaceful I had come to look. I watched as my son stooped and closed the lids of my eyes.

“Leave him lay,” I heard him command. “He is not to be buried. It is his fate to wander the earth. Burial will give him rest. His is an existence of penance now. Never shall he know sleep. Not until Heaven decrees that he has paid for his crimes.”

6.

Over the resulting millennia, I watched as kings came and went. All three kingdoms were divided, one of my descendants taking each throne, and ruled wisely for centuries. Then, the kingdoms ceased to exist and new kingdoms rose to take their place. Somewhere, names changed, citied vanished only to rise with new names, and my descendants ceased to rule.

I watched in sadness as my house died out and was replaced with strangers who knew nothing of me or the tale of my downfall. I watched as they committed heinous crimes in the name of power and law. Law. In them, there seemed to be no law. As I had lost all sight of it in my final days.

I was sent a person, from time to time, to teach harsh lessons to. And I was able to do so. But I knew that these were not the worst of the offenders and I wondered why those had not been sent to me. But I soon learned that those who I had wanted to teach would need something harsher than anything I could instill into them. They were beyond me.

Thus, I made do with those I was sent. Much like you, they wondered at the fate I had been given. And like you, they were told the story. It is a part of my punishment, to relate how I fell and why I have been trapped here. It is also a part of that punishment to be forced to watch as those around me die, while I live on—a ghost forced to wonder through eternity. Yes, I must warn countless generations of the peril they put themselves in as they dance with the Devil, getting ever closer to signing the same pact that I had signed simply to gain something they did not really need or could do if they just had faith.

END