[Please note: This is very much a near-first-draft of this story, so take that into account when reading it. It will be far from perfect.]
Sooner or later, the hammer drops on everyone.
This was the thought running—sometimes repeatedly—through the mind of the man in the long, faded yellow duster and the black hat as he walked through the desert, somewhere between Texas and California. It wasn’t really a mantra; it was more of a truth that he’d gleaned through a life that so far had entailed more than its share of dropping the hammer on others. He had always been good at dropping that hammer—uncannily good, right from the start. It was good to have a talent, he supposed, but it was a shame that it had to be a talent for killing.
If he thought about it, he was sure he could recall the first time he had dropped such a hammer on anyone. And, indeed, as soon as the notion of his very first killing came into his mind, images flashed up from the occurrence. He’d been very young—still a boy, really. He’d been old enough to be smitten with a not-as-young woman who had treated him kindly, even despite his lack of status and prospects. He’d been innocent and naïve enough to think he was protecting her when he’d picked up the gun of a man that he’d presumed had been assaulting the woman—the man had been otherwise occupied, and his gun was not at his side—and had shot that stunned man.
He hadn’t known at all what he’d been doing, and yet…and yet it had felt only too perfectly natural and instinctive when he’d fired the gun, and it had apparently struck some vital organ, presumably the man’s heart, right away, when he’d pulled the trigger after forcing back the stiff hammer of the revolver. There had been no time for the man even to cry out in pain before he had dropped to the ground, twitching only a few times before he became still.
The young woman, on the other hand, she had made noise. She had called him a murderer, she had sworn that she would see him—then just a young boy to whom she had been kind, and who had thought to protect her from a man who, apparently, had been her lover—hanged for what he had done. She had cried while raging, bereft and hateful at once, and the poor boy he had been was at a loss. But he had seen a hanging before, had watched a man twitch and struggle at the end of a rope, and he had no doubt that it was a horrible thing. And he did not want to die. So, in panic, in desperation, and in horror, he did the one thing that, from then on, had felt natural and all but effortless for him. He had turned the gun on the young woman and had killed her as quickly and easily as the man.
Her death was better than hanging, at least. She had died quickly. Perhaps, she had died before even realizing what was happening to her.
And the poor, foolish boy, whose mistaken attempt at heroism had turned him now into a double-murderer—the first two of countless ones to follow—had seen what he had done and had been horrified and had wept and apologized and had tried to take it back, but of course, death did not work like that. Then he had fled. And since the place he’d committed his act had been out in the prairie, a long walk away from even the nearest town, and since anyway gunshots were things that happened somewhat frequently, unlike murders, it was a long time—presumably—before anyone even knew that two people had been killed.
For all he knew, he had never even been connected with the killing, though he had taken the man’s gun and gun belt with him. Not that such a thing mattered anymore. He had a newer, better gun now, and a different belt, and was a different person.
He shook the thoughts from his head, blinking dust from his eyes. It had been a long time since he’d thought of those events. He was older now—more than two decades older, though it felt like centuries at times—and now he was wandering through the desert, on the run as he usually was, and it looked very much as if it was time for the hammer to fall upon him.
It had to happen sometime, he guessed, and the desert would make it a slow and painful death, which was surely more than appropriate for him. He tried to laugh at the thought, but just grimaced and coughed instead. Breathing was getting harder as he went along, as the heat of the sun baked into him, drying him out.
His horse had come up lame some way back—he wasn’t sure if it had been one or two days earlier—and he’d been forced to shoot it. As always with him, one shot had been enough to end its life instantly, and for that he was glad, because it had been a good horse. He’d considered trying to get some of its blood to put in his nearly empty water bag, but he had heard—or read, perhaps; he could read well for a man of his kind—that drinking blood was liable to make a man throw up, and that would only dry him out faster.
He knew he was almost done now. Probably anyone who was trying to follow him would see his dead horse and realize that he was as good as dead, too, heading as he was into the desert, trying to make his way to someplace where he was unknown. He’d finished what little water he’d had the day before, and his tongue was swollen and dry, and his eyes felt as rough as the gritty dirt he walked on.
The land all around was hazy and wobbly, and when it was level, he saw sometimes what looked like pools of water on the flat desert, but he knew the secret of those illusions—more or less—and so he never allowed himself to get his hopes up. His lack of hope had, of course, been right; all of the apparent puddles had vanished as he drew closer.
Far off in the distance now, at the edge of his vision, he saw low mountains, and they looked almost as if their sides were dotted with trees, which might seem to indicate some significant source of water. He knew better. Those were cacti, great, big, towering growths of the desert, and though supposedly one could get water from such vegetation, he had no idea how it could be done. He suspected it was a fanciful tale, anyway. Of course, there must be some water, somewhere, for any plants at all to live, but who knew how long it took for the giant things to grow, and how little water they needed. And, he had no doubt, any desert life would surely protect its water fiercely. Spines and needles were likely only the most obvious of protections; for all he knew, the things were full of poison.
Not that poison would make much difference to him, given his current state.
The desert was not quite level, now, which was not surprising given that the mountains were approaching. He hadn’t reached true hills yet, but the land was rolling, like broad waves on the vast sea that he was unlikely ever to reach, though he was headed in its general direction. The topography didn’t make for much extra effort, and if he’d been well-provisioned and healthy, he would barely have noticed the ups and downs, even on foot. However, having gone a day already in the desert with no water, he was far from his best. His hat, being black, was hot, but its shade on his face and neck made it worth keeping on. Likewise, his coat was long, but underneath it, his body was cooler than the air around him still, and at night it had been barely enough to keep him tolerably warm. His boots were good, but after so much walking, even they rubbed at his feet.
His mind was getting hazier with every passing hour, and he was self-aware and free of self-deception enough to realize it. Thus, when he came over a rise and saw what looked like a tiny settlement in the near distance, he wondered if it might be some new version of a mirage. He wiped the dust from his eyes and his brow—sweat was no longer an issue—and he blinked several times, trying to clear his vision as he stood at the crest of the low rise. There was no waviness or haziness to the sight that met his eyes, but he had a hard time believing it was real. There was a moderate sized building, with what looked like a hitching post in front, across from which was a smaller building, maybe a shed or stable of some kind. Beyond were what looked like the ruins of a cart or carriage…
…and beyond that, mostly obscured by the larger building, what looked like it might be the top of well.
There was no sign of movement; even the wind was still, unfortunately, not that a hot wind would have been welcome. The buildings he saw—all single story, made of weathered wood—looked completely unoccupied. He wondered what this place could be. The more he looked, the more solid it seemed, but it made no sense. He knew of no roads anywhere nearby; his sense of direction was always good, and he was familiar with most of the mapped-out regions in that part of the land, though of course, the maps were changing rapidly, and new roads and cities were being made all the time. But still, he didn’t see any reason why there would be a solitary dwelling out here, especially one that, in size and configuration, looked more like a saloon or a general store than a house.
He scanned the rest of the area from horizon to horizon, and apart from the mountains in the far distance, and a few more rarely scattered cacti, some of them as giant and towering as trees, others squatter and broader, he saw no sign of life, human or otherwise. There were barely any rocks, even, just hard, dry dirt. There was no evidence of any road running into or through the small dwelling or store, though he supposed that the lane between the bigger building and the shed or the stable might have counted as one.
“What the hell?” he muttered to himself, his words barely articulated as he spoke them. If he hadn’t known what he was saying, he wouldn’t have been able to decipher them.
Had some madman decided to come out into the desert and set up a shop or a saloon or a…a farm for the love of God, expecting maybe that travelers would be coming through, but then finding his hopes dashed? Had he then given up and left, abandoning his buildings after going to the trouble of building them? How had he even decided to set up a place?
Maybe…maybe it was that he had found water there, had dug his well where he’d found evidence of a spring, and had thought he might transform the place into something livable. But there was no sign of heavier growth even of cacti near where the buildings were. Indeed, the nearest cactus to the cluster of ruins was easily a hundred yards away. Surely, if there had been ample water even below the ground, there would have been more things growing.
Could he be imagining what he seemed to be seeing? He didn’t think so. But then again, how could he know what he would imagine as his approached his death from the desert heat?
He sighed out a painful breath and shrugged to himself. Nothing had moved at all even while he’d stood there watching and wondering, and though he supposed someone could be hiding in either or both of the buildings, somehow he sensed that there was no one. But there might be some bottles of whiskey in the building if it had been a saloon. Probably not, but it might be worth a look, and he had little else to do with his limited remaining time. More importantly, there might be water in the well, if it was indeed a well, on the far side of the larger building. If it hadn’t gone completely dry, why, he might even be able to fill his water skins. He might yet survive to make it to California after all.
It seemed ridiculous to think that fate would be kind to a man like him, but he’d long since abandoned the notion that the world had any natural justice. Good things happened to the worst of the worst people—like him—and horrible things happened to people who had done nothing wrong.
There was little reason not to investigate the cluster of buildings. If he was seeing a place that didn’t really exist, it would probably fade as he got closer. If it didn’t, then either it was real, or he was so far gone that this imaginary place was likely to be where he died. That was not so horrible. He could think of many worse things to see before dying. If this was how death from heat and thirst felt, well, he could think of worse ways to go.
Even so, as he began walking again, heading down the low hill toward the buildings, he pushed the right side of his duster behind his holster, giving him quicker access to his gun. It was loaded with five bullets; the chamber under the hammer was empty for safety. He had only a few extra rounds in his gun belt. He didn’t go through bullets all that quickly, anyway. For him, five rounds meant five deaths. He had never once in his life failed to kill someone when he’d fired at them, and he had never required more than one shot to do so. This was his genius, he supposed. It was not something of which he was proud, but he did not doubt that it would remain with him until his last moment.
If it didn’t…well, that moment of irony would have its own amusement, at least.
The buildings did not fade or dissolve as he drew closer, even as he got within fifty yards of them. In fact, if anything, they became clearer and looked more solid, just as real buildings that were really there ought to do. This didn’t exactly reassure him, but it gave him a clearer sense of his footing, at least. He wasn’t completely off his head, or if he was, he was so off it that the things he saw looked utterly real. In fact, now that he thought about it, if he sniffed the air, he thought he might be able to smell the scent of old wood.
That could very easily have been an illusion, though.
As he drew closer, he put his hand on the butt of his revolver. This was not so much to make sure he could draw it quickly enough at need, since he was quick on the drew and well-practiced at doing it. The fact that he was alive could be taken for evidence that no one had ever outdrawn him, but he would have been the first to admit that matters were not quite as simple as all that. There might easily be men who could draw their guns more quickly than he, but he doubted there was anyone who was better at making each shot matter, even in the heat of a confrontation. Not that he was a believer in fair fights. A fair fight was one you were just as likely to lose as to win, and only a fool got into fights like that very often.
No, he put his hand on the butt of his pistol as a warning. If some person were in one of these buildings, or if there were people in more than one of them, and they entertained thoughts of ambush, it was better for them if they decided not even to try. They would live at least a little bit longer that way.
He heard no movement as he got closer, though, and as he sniffed, he realized that he could smell neither the scent of unwashed humans—a pungent odor that he had discovered was easily recognizable when he was alert—nor of any animals, whether horses, cattle, goats or otherwise. He supposed there could have been snakes, and once he decided to look inside the buildings it might be worth being cautious of them, since he had no desire to surprise a rattler that was hiding from the midday sun. Snakes could not be intimidated by guns.
He would not go into the buildings first, though. His first goal was to inspect the well that he thought he’d seen lurking past the buildings. If there was water to be had, that would be his first priority, and anything else that might be stashed away in the buildings would be extra. And if there was no water, then even a large store of jerky or flour or even hard candy sticks would be of little use to him. He didn’t think he would be able to swallow it.
He strolled slowly through the course between the barn or stable and what looked more and more like a store than a saloon as he walked by. Glancing into both buildings as he passed, he saw that if there had ever been doors on them, they were gone now, and there was no sign of wreckage from them. It was too bright outside for him to make out the interiors of the buildings much, but he could make out nothing on any of the floors, and he saw no sign of furniture in the larger building. There didn’t seem to be any rear windows in the larger building, though the stable looked like it had an open spot on the far side. There was no sign of any animals within, which was no surprise, and still no odor of animal or manure. There was not even any hay on the floor of the place.
Could this little area have been built but then never inhabited at all? Why would someone do such a thing?
Shrugging to himself, he walked on past the doors of the two buildings, his ears pricking for any rustle of movement, which would at least be easy to hear in the still air. There was nothing. He was already as sure as he could be that no one lurked on the roof of either building, since he’d approached from uphill of the place, and the roofs, though sturdy in appearance, had been plainly unoccupied. He didn’t think anyone could have climbed onto one without him knowing as he approached. If someone could, and they were determined to do so, well, they deserved to get the drop on him, he supposed. But they’d better make sure their first shot counted, because if they missed, they were unlikely to get the chance to fire at him twice.
Phlegmatic though he was, by habit and by nature, he could not help but get a bit excited as he neared the end of the bigger building and saw, indeed, that there was a well only about twenty feet beyond its far wall. He was a bit surprised by the character of the well. It was an old-fashioned, rounded collection of stones, cemented into place, with a wooden, double-angled roof on wooden supports above it. There was a crossbar, also of wood, between the supports, on which was coiled what looked like reasonably good rope. On either end of the central beam was a rounded metal handle, attached to the beam by spokes, apparently there for lowering the bucket and rope into and raising it from the well. The end of the rope trailed off to the side, hung over the stone edge of the well, and was attached to a slightly battered but intact metal bucket.
The man drew to a stop. This was odd. He would have expected to see a trough, and a hand pump of some variety or other, since there was a stable across the way. Surely whoever had built the place or lived in it didn’t mean to draw up water by the bucketful and then carry it across, over and over, to the stable. For that matter, did they mean to get water that way for themselves? This looked like a storybook well, perhaps the sort that Jack and Jill might have gone to when they fetched their pail of water. He had seen such wells before, but he couldn’t recall when, and he thought almost all of them now were at least accompanied by hand pumps.
He shook his head and even pushed the broad brim of his hat slightly up on his forehead with his left hand. Something felt strange, and for a moment he wondered whether he should go any closer. But what could be the danger of a well? It wasn’t as though he was likely to fall in—that would require deliberate effort on his part, given the layout. And snakes seemed unlikely to try to curl up inside the circle of such a well, and there was plainly nothing alive on the top edge of the stones.
In any case, without water he was going to die before long, so even if it had been guarded by snakes and coyotes and men with guns, it would have been worth hazarding the well. So why did he feel as hesitant as he did?
Then, for the first time in quite a while, a faint breeze stirred, blowing from the west, and it brought to the man’s nose the faint but clear trace of well-water.
This, he felt sure, was no illusion. Or, if it was one, then it was one he might be willing to die believing. He didn’t think he’d ever smelled anything so sweet or wonderful—not perfume, not flowers, not baking bread or roasting meat, not anything. This was the smell of life itself.
He did not smile, but his mouth opened, and the feeling of his parched tongue and cheeks felt more prominent to him even than it had through all the hours walking across the barren land.
He glanced around behind him again, always suspicious. He didn’t know how anyone might possibly contrive to use a well, and even a breeze, as bait for a trap, or why, but it was against his nature and his habit to be reckless. The only movement anywhere around was just a faint lift of dust disturbed by the mild wind. There was not even any sound of creaking hinges; if the wind even passed any open doorway that he hadn’t been able to see, it was not strong enough to move it.
Deciding there was no obvious threat and recognizing that without water he was as good as a dead man anyway, he forced himself finally to come near the well, his hand still on the butt of his pistol. He circled to the far side of it as he approached, so the well would be between him and the buildings as he inspected it, and also to make sure no reptiles lurked behind it in the modest shade there. There was nothing. And as he looked back to the pair of buildings though the frame of the well’s supports and its roof, he confirmed that no one and nothing was moving but dust.
He leaned in carefully over the edge of the well’s stones, and he looked down into a deep, fairly smooth round hole. He could not see very far; in the shade of the well’s roof, with the bright sun everywhere else, the inside of the well looked almost pitch black. But the smell of water was clearer now, the most beautiful and wonderful thing he had ever inhaled.
Sighing, trying to let himself be happy, at least a little, he pulled his hand from the butt of his gun, and then, after a pause, he reached out and took hold of the rope that hung over the well’s edge to the bucket on the ground beside it.
As he touched the rope, which felt strong and smooth, as though much more freshly made than the buildings or the well itself, he heard a new noise. It did not come from any of the buildings, or from the land around, or from even the far mountains, and he did not even understand it clearly enough to be frightened, though he was startled. The noise came from the well itself; it was the sound of suddenly rushing water.
He took half a step back, and his hand went back to his gun, which he drew smoothly from its holster—a habit of his whenever he was unsure—but he did not cock the hammer. The rushing sound became a low roar, but it didn’t sound like anything alive, merely like a roaring river, perhaps a modest waterfall. He didn’t take any further step away, too confused and curious to feel the need to put distance between himself and the well. What was the worst that any rush of water could do, even if a river suddenly flowed out of the hole and spilled into the desert? Honestly, though, he had no idea what to expect. The water smell grew stronger over the few seconds, and it had not lost its allure.
The rushing noise reached its peak, and to the man’s amazement, water suddenly crested the top of the well and smashed upward, knocking the overhang and the support posts and the crossbar with its handles to pieces as though they’d been blasted by dynamite. Now the man stepped back farther, his gun still drawn but at his side, unable to credit what he was seeing.
The water did not flow over the edges of the well, but instead it gathered above it, like a plume of a geyser, but much more concentrated, rippling and flowing but staying gathered above its source, slightly higher than the old roof had been. As the pieces of wood fell clattering to the ground on the other side of the stone circle, the man saw that the water began to whirl for a moment, and then it bulged in his direction.
It was not possible, but he got the impression that the water noticed him and was somehow…was somehow turning to look in his direction.
Now it bulged toward him more quickly, not obeying simple gravity as it ought to do, and it stretched quickly to close the distance between it and him.
He knew it was pointless—it was water, clear and twinkling in the desert sun, not so much as discolored by any rust or other minerals—but now he brought his pistol up, cocking the hammer effortlessly as he did, and he fired one of his five rounds at the very heart of the collection of liquid. He had less than half a second to sardonically note that, of course, the bullet passed through the liquid just as would be expected, without changing the stuff at all, and for what might be the first time, he had failed to kill what he was shooting at. Then the water engulfed him.
He instinctively held his breath as best he could, and that was just as well, for the liquid surrounded him from head to foot, hat and all, gun and all. He was amazed that his hat stayed on his head, but it did. He fought hard to keep his eyes open, expecting them to burn, but was surprised to find that they did not. He could see through the water about as well as he expected to, the distorted view of the desert and the two buildings rippling and waving around him. Then, and to his even greater surprise, he was lifted from the ground, carried helplessly up, as unable to resist as if he were falling over the waterfall he’d imagined just seconds before, and drawn toward the rim of the well.
He felt the urge to shoot again, but resisted it, not wanting to waste bullets on futility, but utterly at a loss. He couldn’t help but yell as he saw himself flowing toward the well’s opening, but only bubbles and a grumble issued from his mouth, and water flowed in to replace it. He wanted to choke, to expel the fluid from his mouth that was trying to replace the air, but even that was a secondary process, as he was drawn headfirst into the well itself by the water, which was flowing back as it had flowed out, now carrying him with it. For all he knew, it had not even dampened the wood that had formerly covered its source.
The thought fled as he was brought, headfirst, down into the deep tunnel of the well, and all quickly became black around him, his eyes being still adapted to the bright desert sun. He tried to cough, expecting to choke, expecting to become lightheaded, but he was surprised that, though the water felt wrong in his throat, and he wanted to clear it, he at least didn’t feel as though he were being throttled or gagged.
He expected to lose consciousness quickly, but he didn’t, and the deep tube of the well continued; he could feel the ever-increasing speed of his descent, and he soon realized that the well was far, far deeper than he ever could have thought such a thing would be. If he’d fallen from a precipice of the Grand Canyon, he would have hit bottom by now.
Though he still could not see, he sensed that the walls of the well—or tunnel if that was a better term—had changed. The were less narrow, less confining, but this mattered not at all to the course of his movement. He was pulled along, unable to tell if he was still heading in the same direction, or if he might have turned or bent or even gone around to move in the other direction. Any sense of gravity or even acceleration was effaced by the power of the flowing liquid that carried him along, just a helpless piece of flotsam in a river that was far too mighty for what it was and where it had been.
His mind was scrambling, trying to bring sense to what was happening to him, but nothing came from it that gave him even any thoughts of answers. The darkness and the feeling of rapid movement with the water were all that he could feel. It didn’t even occur to him that this might be the last form of delirium as he succumbed to his thirst and the heat. If it had, he might have been comforted, for if he was that far gone then oblivion could not be long away.
Despite having a mouth and—presumably—lungs full of water, he was not becoming lightheaded, did not feel that horrible sensation of needing to breathe but being unable to do so. His body certainly wanted to get rid of the fluid in his lungs, and maybe to swallow at least some of it in the process, but though his chest heaved, there was nothing to replace exhaled water but more water.
He didn’t know how long he was carried along through the blackness, through whatever tunnel it was, by the water. His sense of time was disjointed by the blackness and the rushing of the liquid, the sound of which was much more potent with the water in his ears. It was more than mere seconds, certainly much more than that, but he didn’t think it could have been hours, even if he could accept that somehow, he was not drowning. He did have time to reflect on how ironic it would have been for him to face dying of thirst in the desert only to be drowned by a demonic flow of well-water instead, but since the water didn’t seem to be killing him, he was spared that bit of humiliation.
After a period that he could not have described, he suddenly felt the flow of water slowing. Ahead, he saw light, a small circle of bright, white luminescence, as brilliant in the darkness as the well had been dark in the desert glare. The water was headed toward what might be the surface again. Perhaps it had swept around in some massive arc and was now bringing him back to the desert.
He gripped his pistol tightly as the circle of light grew larger, coming closer. Then, he passed through it, rising upward, surrounded by a great mass of water as when it had rushed out of the well in the first place. He could see that he was not by the well in the desert anymore, and that instead he was someplace brightly lit and starkly white all around, but it was difficult to make out more than this at the moment. Then, the water came to a resting plume, as when he had first seen it, and he looked down to see a black hole in what must be some manner of floor or ground. That hole shrunk and then vanished even as he noticed it. So did the water. It flew away from around him, leaving only his clothes and lungs damp. Perhaps it had snaked down into the hole just before it had closed. He couldn’t be sure, but he didn’t have much time to consider it, for without the water to support him, he was dropped down onto the surface of whatever floor it was—it felt more like a floor than any earth on which he’d ever walked—and he was stunned by the minor impact.
His hat, much to his surprise, was still on his head. He was not surprised that his gun was still in his right fist. He felt himself to be in air again, and his body responded by now fighting to clear the water from his lungs—though he had somehow been able to breathe it—and he coughed and gagged and spluttered, rising groggily to his knees, his left hand, and his right fist.
His coughing finally slowed, and a voice from behind him said, “The water is supersaturated with oxygen, so you shouldn’t really need to clear it, but I know it’s hard to fight against those biological urges.”
Before the second word had been finished, the man had whirled in place to a half-risen position, his left arm partly behind him, and his gun cocked and pointed at the person who had spoken. If this intimidated the speaker, it did not prevent him from finishing his sentence, nor did he so much as flinch or stammer.
The gunman paid little attention to his surroundings, his gaze—like the barrel of his pistol—directed toward the man who had apparently just spoken. He was certainly the only one in his field of vision. The man was of medium height, slender build, and he wore flowing white robes. His hair and his copious mustache and beard were almost as white as his clothing. Even his eyes must have been terribly pale, perhaps a blue so light as to be nearly translucent.
This new man, who looked rather like some manner of priest or monk, stood still, calmly regarding the figure in front of him. If he was at all troubled by the fact that there was a gun pointed at him, he did not show it in the slightest.
Focused on the monk-like figure, the still slightly wet gun wielder growled, “Who the hell are you? Where am I? What’s going on?”
The white-haired figure tilted his head slightly and asked, “Do you want me to answer those questions in order, or can I take it as I see fit?”
The traveler was normally about as reactive to taunts as was the duster he wore, but he’d had an unusually stressful day. His gun was already cocked and aimed, but he tensed his finger ever so slightly on the trigger and allowed his confusion and stress to show. This, he knew from experience, tended to make him look barely sane. “Don’t try to be funny with me,” he said. “I’m in no mood for games. Just tell me who you are and what’s going on. I’ve killed more men than I can count, so killing you isn’t going to make much difference to me.”
The white-haired man sighed and said, “You’re quite the desperado, aren’t you? But I don’t want us to start in this fashion, so why don’t we get this out of the way?” His slight smile disappeared, and in a grim tone, he said, “Shoot me.”
This surprised the gunman, though it wasn’t the first time someone had said such a thing to him. Sometimes those who said it were bluffing, sometimes they were not. His usual practice in such circumstances was to comply with the request. Now, however, he was someplace such as he’d never been before; he’d apparently just been seized and taken there by well-water that behaved like it had a mind of its own, and before that he’d been on the verge of death in the desert. He needed to try to figure things out, and the man before him was his only current source of information. It might be foolish just to kill him.
“You’re as crazy as I feel,” he said. “But you need to think about what you’re asking. When I shoot someone, they die.”
With the return of his slight smile, the white-haired man replied, “Show me.” After a silent pause, he went on, “And I wasn’t ‘asking’, I was giving you an order. If you don’t shoot me, I’ll being the water back…only this time you will not be able to breathe it. This time you will drown. Perhaps over quite a long period of time. Unless you shoot me.”
The man’s gun barrel did not waver, but it came closer to doing so than he thought it ever had before. He felt less prone than before to shoot the man, in light of what he had said, about the water, about the impossible fact that he’d been able to breathe in it. He wanted to understand, and he didn’t quite recognize the nature of the threat.
The man in white sighed again, sounding truly frustrated more than sad, and he gave a flick of his left hand. In other circumstances, even that tiny movement might have gotten him shot, but this was an unusual situation.
At that hand movement, the man with the gun saw a tiny hole appear in the floor—if that was what it was—to his right, and he abruptly smelled the powerful odor of the well-water. It wasn’t quite as alluring as it had been earlier, possibly because he’d inhaled and swallowed enough that he wasn’t so thirsty anymore. To his astonishment, from this small new hole, a fountain of water suddenly rose, congealing in midair as it did, instead of splashing to the ground. The gunman noted that the man in white now clenched his left fist, the shape of his hand roughly mimicked by the shape of the impossible water. The gunman looked up at the pale, sharp eyes, and he saw in them a look that he recognized—it was the look of someone prepared to kill another person.
He hated to lose his one source of evident information, but if there was one man there were likely to be others somewhere. And he couldn’t learn anything if he was dead, himself.
His finger finished squeezing the trigger, the hammer dropped, and with a roar, his pistol kicked, and a bullet left the barrel. That left three still in the cylinder.
The water reversed its course and swooped back down into its hole, after which the hole closed back over as if it had never been there.
The gunman assumed that the water had disappeared because the man who had summoned it was now dead, but he thought that only for an instant. He looked, and he saw no sign of shock or pain in the face of the man in white, nor was there any blankness, as in the face of someone who’d died too quickly even to know they were dying. If anything, he was smirking slightly, though his mustache and beard hid some of the expression. He stood quite still and seemed unperturbed.
The gunman noticed a strange dot in the air, visible only because of the contrast with the man’s white robes. At first, he could not be sure what it was. It didn’t look like a mark on the man’s clothing, and he didn’t think it had been there before. It looked almost as if it were something in the air in front of the man, just a few inches in front of his chest. It even seemed to be spinning, but that might have been an illusion.
His smile widening, the man in white looked down at the spot that had caught the gunman’s eye, and now his right hand came up and he took hold of whatever the something was that floated before him. It took only another second, as the man’s fingers closed on the object and brought it closer to his face as if to inspect it, for the gunman to realize that the spot he’d seen in the air was the bullet he had fired. It had come to a halt barely a foot before the white man’s robes, and then stayed there, still spinning from the rifling of his pistol barrel, until the bearded man plucked it from the air as if it were nothing at all unusual.
The gunman felt his own jaw drop, though he quickly caught himself and closed his mouth. He had his thumb on the hammer of his pistol, had been about to pull it back to prepare to shoot again, but he relaxed it now, and he allowed his pistol’s aim to waver. He could not quite believe the evidence his eyes were bringing him.
The man in white, on the other hand, seemed quite calm, and even amused. As he looked at the bullet that he now held in between his finger and thumb—it was apparently cool enough to touch, or else such heat as it had didn’t bother him—he spoke as if to himself, though his words were addressed to the gunman. “You really are quite the deadly desperado, aren’t you?” he said. “If that bullet had followed its trajectory, it would have slid past the left side of my sternum, nicked the top of my left fifth rib, which would deflect it just enough that it would tumble and rip through both my aorta and my left pulmonary artery where they crossed each other. I would have died in seconds…” He paused, then looked at the gunman directly before finishing with the words, “…if I had any of those organs or structures in the first place. And if it were possible for me to die.”
The gunman finally rose to his feet, his left arm starting to become fatigued from his awkward position. After that, he considered things for half a second, then holstered his pistol. It appeared to be useless against his present companion, and there was no need to tire himself. He did leave himself a mental note to clean and oil the pistol as soon as he got the chance. Even that weird water that had brought him to wherever he was now was surely not good for its mechanisms.
Looking at him, the white-haired man said, “That was really a remarkable shot. And you did it while half-crouched after having been drawn through the Omniversal bulk by my water, and before that having been near death from dehydration. Impressive.”
That compliment was hardly one the gunman thought he deserved, given what the white-haired man had just done. Unable to think of anything else to say, he asked, “How…did you do that?”
“What, that?” the bearded man said, looking at the bullet in his hand as if it, and what he had done to it, were the most trivial of matters. “That’s nothing.” And as he said this, the bullet indeed became nothing, for with a tiny little popping noise, it vanished. The gunman had seen card players who could do tricks with their hands, and he’d once seen a traveling conjuror show, but this did not look like any of those things. He thought he actually saw the bullet shrink—as though it were suddenly receding into the distance while nevertheless remaining where it was—and then finally resolve to nothingness.
He blinked, not yet able to say more.
“That’s all just parlor tricks,” the white-haired man said, though the gunman could hardly agree. “I can do that sort of think without even thinking. I’m something of a wizard, you see. A pretty good one, even if I say so myself.”
The gunman was confused. “What do you mean, you’re a wizard?”
“A sorcerer,” the man replied. “A user of magics. A warlock. A dealer in the supernatural—though actually, there is nothing that is supernatural, since everything that actually exists is part of nature, but you know how words and terms can be. Still, I prefer wizard. You can call me wizard if you want.”
Something about the tone in which the man said this gave it more weight than seemed appropriate. Puzzled, and happy to be distracted from his thorough confusion, the gunman asked, “Why can’t you just tell me your name?”
The “wizard” looked at him slyly, as if pleased that he’d recognized the importance of his previous words. “Ah, not so fast as all that, thank you. Names are tied to identities, and they can have great power in the right circumstances. So, except for those near and dear to me—of whom there are, alas, none left alive—I would prefer just to be called the Wizard, or simply Wizard if you prefer. And likewise, I shall not presume to call you anything other than…Desperado, shall we say?”
Puzzled but rather contemptuous of such superstitious nonsense, the gunman said, “I don’t really care if you know my name. I’m…”
“Ah, ah, ah!” the self-called wizard interrupted forcefully. “I don’t want you to tell me. The power of identity can work in reverse as well, you know, though that’s rarer and more difficult. I’ll just call you Desperado, or the Desperado if you prefer.”
“I…really don’t care,” the man—Desperado, he supposed, if that was what this self-proclaimed wizard wanted—said. He supposed he shouldn’t be too dismissive of the man’s claim to be a wizard. He hadn’t heard the term used too often, but he could hardly argue that the man didn’t seem to be able to do magic. If it was trickery, it was trickery worthy of almost as much respect as if he were really able to do what he seemed to do.
The wizard smiled as if satisfied by something, then he said, “And now that we have the whole intimidation and threat nonsense out of the way, I can begin to answer at least some of your questions. Indeed, I’ve already begun, haven’t I?”
The gunman supposed that was true, since once of his questions had been “Who are you?” and the man had at least given a partial answer. As for the others, though…
He looked around, now paying closer attention to his surroundings for the first time. He almost wished he hadn’t. The floor or ground on which he stood felt firm and hard, but it was uniformly and almost blindingly white. It headed off into some unguessable distance in all directions, and everything around was also white. The ceiling—for there was some form of ceiling, though it was high enough above him to exceed the highest church ceiling he’d ever encountered—was likewise white. He thought about a phenomenon he’d heard about, snow-blindness, where a person who was stuck in a never-ending, pure white landscape, or in a blizzard, could lose all sense of vision or something like that.
“As for where you are, which I think was another of your questions,” the wizard said, “well, you’re in my universe.”
The gunman tilted his head, raising an eyebrow as if to counterbalance the motion. “I…what? I don’t understand.”
“No, well, I wouldn’t really expect you to,” the wizard said, and then with a smile that somehow did not quite convey what his next words declared, he added, “and that’s not an insult. There’s nothing in your background—nothing in your world, really—that would have prepared you to understand.”
Unperturbed by the slight contempt he thought he sensed, the gunman said, “Well, I’ve never been the smartest person around. I’ve only ever been good at killing people. Well, at killing anything, I guess. Just…it’s usually people, the way things turn out. But never mind that. You said…you said your universe? My world? You make it sound like you want me to believe they’re two different things. But…the universe is the universe. Okay, fine, the Earth’s a world, and there’s other planets out there, they say, but the universe is…everything.” He didn’t know why he was letting himself get bogged down in this bit of semantics, but he felt he needed to grasp hold of something familiar before trying to get to the question of what had just happened to him.
“Yes, well, that’s a matter of terminology, of course,” the wizard said, looking slightly irritated. “And I must admit that, literally, the word universe implies that it is everything, the one place. However, it’s more complicated a place than most people think, and what most people think of as their particular ‘universe’ is actually just one rather small—even when they are infinite in spatial extent—part of a much larger infinity, perhaps infinite in infinite dimensions, that I call the Omniverse. Actually, I didn’t originate the title, many others refer to it that way. I used to prefer the term ‘Metaverse’, but then that term was stolen and bastardized by an irritating little slime from your world…though he was not from your time, he’s from the future. He may not be in your particular future, of course. He may not actually exist in your future, but he’s in one subset of the timelines that happen in your world, locally. It’s terribly irritating.”
The gunman blinked, utterly at a loss, which he admitted aloud, saying, “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
The wizard apparently was tickled by this declaration, because he laughed, and it wasn’t completely contemptuous. “Of course, you don’t,” he said. “How could you? I’m too used to just talking to myself, I’m afraid. Even if I make myself companions, they’re just parts of me and so they can only say what I make them say. I do it, from time to time, but it’s not terribly rewarding.”
The gunman shook his head, feeling his hat shift from side to side a bit, its wet band slipping along his wet hair. Trying to control his temper—and fairly convinced that even if he didn’t, there wasn’t much he could do to this man, though he might be willing to try eventually—he asked, “Could you please try to explain where I am and what’s happening in a way that even an idiot could understand? That’s probably your best bet when you’re talking to me.”
Still chucking slightly, the wizard said, “Very well, I’ll do my best. I would say stop me if anything isn’t clear, but to be honest, I don’t particularly like being interrupted, so try to keep questions to a minimum, and ask them when I come to a pause. Okay?”
Though the man’s last question might have implied that he was open to disagreement, his bearing and attitude made it clear that this was not so. He looked sidelong at the gunman, who felt he ought to go along for the time being. However, he figured asking something before they got started wouldn’t be unreasonable, so he said, “That’s fine with me…but if it’s going to take more than a second or two, could I ask if you’ve got any chairs or anything? I’ve been on my feet for a long time now, and I’d rather sit while I listen, even if it’s Indian style.”
Now the wizard looked honestly stunned and even slightly chagrined. “Of course, of course,” he said. “How could I forget? I had the water that brought you here replenish your body’s level of health and hydration, but it couldn’t wash the mental fatigue you’d accumulated from walking through the desert away, can it? But that request is easy enough to accommodate. Do I have chairs, you ask? I have anything that I want to have.”
With that, he gave a tiny flick of his right hand, and to the gunman’s—the Desperado’s he supposed he’d allow, if that was what the wizard wanted—amazement, the ground sprouted two bulbous shapes that rose and quickly formed themselves in a pair of soft, cushiony chairs, with fine white upholstery. Even the wood of the legs was very pale, though in the global white background, it seemed positively brilliant with color.
As if in afterthought, a third, smaller bulge developed from the floor, and it shaped itself instantly into a table, set roughly between the two chairs. It was bare, and it was made of something that might be wood, but it was colored the same white as everything else but the wood of the chair legs.
The gunman blinked in astonishment, and he muttered to himself, “I think maybe I am dying in the desert after all, and this is just some…dream or something I’m having while I’m dying.”
The wizard seemed more tickled than ever by this, and he said, “I suppose one never can know with absolute certainty that one isn’t dreaming everything that happens. But solipsism doesn’t really work, because a person has to imagine themselves able to imagine an entire universe around them. And most people have neither the imagination nor the will to actually generate all the unexpected and complex things that exist in their universes.” His laughter changed into a bitter smirk then, and he added, “Unless, of course, one is like me and really is the only person in his universe and can make it be whatever he wants…within very restrictive limits.”
The gunman chose to ignore this little bit of commentary, since he didn’t understand it much at all and didn’t think it would be easy for the man to explain to him. Instead, he took a half step toward the nearest chair. It certainly looked solid, though it was unlike any chair he’d ever seen in terms of color and, of course, origin. It looked comfortable enough, probably cushier than any chair he’d ever seen in person. But he wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t some manner of trap, something that would grab him, the way the water had grabbed him, against everything that ought to be possible. He tentatively nudged the front of it with his shin, not sure what he was trying to determine. It resisted the pressure of his leg just as any chair ought to, but it seemed heavier than many, since the light pressure didn’t make it budge in the slightest from where it was.
He still felt wary, but as he thought about it, he realized that, if this was some manner of trap, then it was a pointless one. The water had been able to seize him and take him without him being able to resist at all. If this wizard had wanted to make a chair to do something of that sort, he could do it without getting the gunman to sit down in it—the chair could surely just be made to come to him. He didn’t think there would be much he could do about it. He might be able to make a satisfyingly real bullet hole in the thing’s upholstery, but he didn’t see why such a thing would have a significant effect on a piece of furniture. He certainly didn’t have enough bullets to blast it into bits.
It was possible, of course, that this was some twisted game the wizard was playing, that he didn’t need to trick the gunman but merely wanted to do it. Still, if he was that kind of man—that kind of wizard—then the gunman was not going to be able to avoid being made a toy for sadistic amusement, he was pretty convinced about that. And, now that he thought about it, he had already resigned himself to dying that day, as had seemed almost certain when he’d been stuck in the desert. Death was death, and he wasn’t really that afraid of it, and as for suffering—well, there were surely worse ways to suffer than dying of thirst in the desert, but it was still a pretty bad one.
With a sigh, he brought himself carefully closer to the chair, turned gently and sat down, doing so somewhat slowly and gingerly, as if he expected the chair to close over him, or perhaps simply to disappear, dropping him to the floor. It didn’t. The only extent to which it did anything surprising was that its cushions and upholstery were so soft, and yet supportive, that the Desperado—he found himself almost perversely thinking of himself as the Desperado as if it were his name, or perhaps an official title—felt almost as if he were seated on a huge pile of cotton, or perhaps even on a cloud. Though he thought that clouds were supposedly water, so he guessed they wouldn’t hold anything up, and he certainly wouldn’t want to immerse himself in water, cloud or not, after his recent experience.
He shifted a bit, so his gun and holster weren’t poking him in the leg and side too, much, then put his hands on the arms of the chair. They were not as yielding as the seat and the back, but they were quite nice. This was a chair worthy of a very wealthy man’s house.
“Nice,” he muttered.
He hadn’t been looking at the wizard as he said this, but he heard the man say, “Why, thank you. I made it myself.” The wizard chuckled as if at a private joke, then he took the other seat from the one the “Desperado” was in.
After a brief pause, during which the gunman waited with forced patience, the wizard grimaced slightly, and he said, “All right. I’ll try to make it as straightforward as I can and anticipate questions, so you don’t have to pester me too much. As I said, I’m a wizard, and quite a good one. A very good one, in fact. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was the greatest wizard in the Omniverse—that would probably be a mathematically impossible thing even to assess. But I am very skilled and very powerful. And, well, at some point in the past—my past, my personal past, which is not necessarily in your past…and actually, it’s rather pointless even to discuss past and present with respect to other universes in the Omniverse, so I’ll just let that lie.”
The gunman—the Desperado, as the wizard said—was not at all clear what the wizard was talking about. He seemed almost to be talking to himself more than to his “guest”, but perhaps he was just having a hard time knowing where to begin. He had made it pretty plain that he didn’t want to be interrupted more than necessary, and in any case, the gunman was too confused even to be able to imagine what questions might be useful to ask. He decided simply to wait until the man came to a deliberate pause of some kind and to see if he understood enough to articulate anything intelligent.
He was mildly surprised by his own relative equanimity. He was certainly not calm, and he was utterly flummoxed by the events of the day, but after nearly dying in the desert, then being shanghaied by water that seemed to have a mind of its own, and then brought to this place—wherever it was—his current circumstances felt comparatively comfortable. Certainly, the chair was nice. He hoped to find a way to extricate himself from the situation he was in as soon as it was possible, but he needed to learn what was happening, and the wizard was presently going about giving him information, so he would wait and see. He didn’t necessarily trust that the man would be honest, but he would just have to deal with that.
“So,” the wizard went on, “as I said, there is the Omniverse…the infinitely infinite “bulk” in which all else is nested. And within it are countless smaller things or realms or what have you that the people within—when there are people within—are pleased to call universes. And there are an infinity of types of universes, and an infinity of each type, and of course, most of them are places where nothing that we would call life is possible. If any living being were to be sent to one, unprotected, that being would be obliterated and worse in the tiniest fraction of a second…if they happened to land in a universe in which time even applies.
“But still, there are an infinite number of universes in which life can exist and thrive, like yours. In fact, there are universes so full of life that your entire universe itself might as well be a desert, since so much of it is uninhabitable. And I was born and grew up in such a universe, so to speak. It’s smaller, spatially, than yours—finite but unbounded, as they say—but a much larger proportion of it is amendable to life, so there’s probably much more life there than in your universe…though infinities make comparisons like that complicated. Anyway, as I said, though there are other wizards and the like in my universe—we have what you would call ‘magic’, obviously, but as I said before, it’s not truly ‘supernatural’. In my universe, it’s part of nature, and in many senses, that magic is something that spreads through the bulk, even to universes where it’s all but unknown. But I was as great a wizard as ever lived in my world—I’ll use world interchangeably here with universe—and that maybe made me a bit reckless. In any case, I was interested in exploring other universes in the Omniverse, and learning more about it, and I was trying to pursue that interest when an…accident, I suppose you’d say, happened. I was able to leave my world, true enough, but I was accidentally trapped inside a new universe that formed around me…that formed from me, you might almost say. And I became isolated in my own private universe, bonded and at one with everything in it, so that here I can make anything happen at all, as long as I can imagine it and its not contradictory with itself, but…well, I can’t return to my home universe. The accident, the spell, made me and this newly formed universe one and the same, and this universe cannot be separated from me. I am it and it is me. I can…in certain circumstances…use the magical abilities I’ve always had, and my power as the local god of this universe, to reach into other universes, and more easily, to see into some. But I can’t leave. I’m trapped here by my own accident.”
He paused and looked at his guest “Desperado” with a wry grimace. After a pause in which he seemed almost expectant, he asked, “Does that make sense?”
The gunman, the Desperado, was not stupid, not by any means. But he was not ashamed to reply, “It may make sense, but I sure as hell don’t understand it. I mean, I follow some of what you were saying, but for all I really know it might as well be a pulp story or something. I don’t even know what I might ask you.”
“Fair enough,” the wizard said with a laugh, and this it seemed both comfortable and genuine. “Well, I’ll try to go a bit further, then. You see, I’ve been trapped in this universe—in my universe, now—for a very long time. It’s hard to say just how long, since time itself isn’t a constant or absolute, and it doesn’t match up between worlds, but…well, obviously, I’m immortal here, since I’m one with the universe, but there’s only so much one can do with a universe that’s smaller than some cities in your world. I mean, I can expand it locally and all that, but that’s not a real expansion. Everything here is only me, and that gets dull after a while, so I thought…well, I thought, if there could be an accident that could lead me to be stuck here, maybe some other magic might be able to reverse the process and return me to my world.”
Trying to think as clearly as he could about things, the Desperado—he found it surprisingly easy to think of himself by that name, or term—said, “Well, I guess that makes sense. Usually, what can be done can be undone. Except death, I guess.”
With a rather frightening chuckle, the wizard responded, “Don’t be too sure about the irreversibility of death.”
Surprised, and quite skeptical, the Desperado said, “What do you mean? Can some…magic, or whatever you might call it, bring people back from the dead?”
With a shrug and an almost childishly mischievous look, the wizard replied, “Well, in principle it can always be done. But, of course, that depends on local entropy and all those things. Entropy is something that is pretty much Omniversal. It’s not based on any one local set of laws of physics, it’s based on mathematics. And mathematics is essentially inescapable. As a mathematician in your world once said, many years after your time, there may be universes with any conceivable set of laws of physics, but there is no universe in which there is a highest prime number.”
The Desperado had no idea what the wizard was talking about. Shaking his head slightly, he said, “If you say so. I’m afraid it’s beyond me.”
“Fair enough,” the wizard said, not looking disgruntled, but if anything, looking pleased to have intellectual superiority over his “guest”. Then he went on, “So, as I was saying, I started thinking about how I might go about trying to redress my problem. And as a wizard—and as the god of my own little universe—I have ways of performing divinations that can reveal to me things that are not directly before my eyes. And I found that there is a being in a universe which I can reach who might just be able to help me.”
The Desperado, trying to follow, and trying not to be too skeptical of all this, since he plainly was where he was, said, “You can’t mean me, right?”
This brought a chuckle that grew into a larger, perhaps more contemptuous but not quite malicious laugh, and the wizard said, “Of course not. No offense, but your abilities as a gunman are not much use to me. However, you can be of help in other ways. You see, the being I would like to ask for help is…well, she is magical in her own right. It’s a different kind of magic to mine, but I certainly couldn’t just invite her to my universe the way I did you.”
Sitting back in his chair and trying to look sarcastic, the Desperado said, “You call that an invitation?”
“I do,” the wizard said. “It was an invitation you weren’t able to refuse, of course, but it was an invitation, because my intentions are not to do you any harm or to keep you here interminably. I need your help to send a gift and a request to this other being, who may be able to help me get out of my accidental prison. So, actually, in a way, you are a being who can help me, if only indirectly.
“I won’t force you to do it,” the wizard went on. “But if you do on fact do me this favor, I meant to repay you quite handsomely.”
This caught the newly-christened Desperado’s attention. “Really?” he said, still feeling quite skeptical. “And how would you do that? Some kind of magical thing, three wishes, thousand-league boots, something along those lines?” He was trying not to be too sarcastic, but even though he’d had the morning that he’d had, and was where he was now—or at least he seemed to be—he didn’t think he was quite as open to fantastic hopes as events the next person. He didn’t waste time imagining lucky blessings he might receive. He did not deserve any, that much was certain, though he was also not under any illusion that people only got what they deserved in the world, good or bad.
The wizard chuckled a bit at the Desperado’s minor sarcasm. “Probably nothing so coarse or prosaic,” he said. “But I do have tremendous power here, and the effects of that power are not limited to my universe. I’ve already restored your health even as I brought you here. You probably don’t realize just how close to death you were when you found my well, but your kidneys had already basically shut down, your temperature was well above normal, and you were so dehydrated that you might’ve had a stroke or a heart attack just from the thickness of your blood. Now I’ve returned you to your optimum health, even while I brought you here.”
The Desperado recognized some but not all of the things that the wizard was saying, but upon paying close attention to his own body, he realized that he felt physically quite well. Apart from not being terminally parched, he realized that he felt no local aches or pains, no stiffness, and even his feet didn’t feel raw from where he’d been walking such a long distance. He wouldn’t be surprised if he’d been given a thorough washing as well, but he didn’t feel like trying to give himself a sniff just to check and see. Also, he was more interested in something else
“How did you do it?” he asked. “How did you bring me…well, here, from…from my world, as you said. Your ‘invitation’.”
The wizard nodded, at least not seeming to think that this was an annoying question. Perhaps, like many skilled people the Desperado had met, he was only too happy to brag a bit about his work.
“Well, I won’t get into the technical details,” the wizard said. “They wouldn’t mean much to you, in any case. But I was looking for someone with your type of characteristics–toughness, speed, agility, cool-headedness, the ability to be ruthless when necessary but without doing so for fun–and it helped a great deal that you were…well, so close to…to death if you don’t mind my saying so. It made it far easier to find then to transport you.”
“Because I was close to death?” the Desperado asked. “Why does that make a difference?”
The wizard shrugged and bobbed his head, looking like he was deciding just how much, or how little, to explain. Finally, he replied, “Well, I’m sure a hardened desperado like you doesn’t think of death as much different from, say, a car breaking down. Or, wait, say, a steam locomotive breaking down. But for many living things, death as more profound, more spiritual…magical, you might say. And it leaves traces and in some ways thins the barriers between some universes and some others, at least locally. Not enough to matter, generally, but for a wizard like me, it’s enough.”
The Desperado found this rather intriguing, as a frequent deliverer of death, and he would have liked to learn more about it. However, it probably wasn’t particularly pertinent, and it would likely be an irritating question. He allowed himself to be satisfied simply with the comment “Interesting.”
“Yes, it is, isn’t it?” the wizard said, his relative enthusiasm going a long way toward confirming the Desperado’s assessment about skilled people and a bit of bragging. “Many people in many universes have wondered and puzzled over what it is about the ending of a conscious life–which really is, after all, just the breaking down of a machine, albeit a biological one–that touches upon certain aspects of magical power. But then again, what is it about conscious life that allows it to interact with magical forces in the first place?”
This was likely a rhetorical question, but the Desperado couldn’t resist commenting, “Well, I certainly wouldn’t know.”
The wizard chuckled. It was a strangely menacing sound, but his guest was, thankfully, not easily put off my such things. “No, I guess you wouldn’t,” he said. “And that’s through no fault of your own. Your world is depressingly dry of real magic. Even the things people believe are magical in your world almost never really are. Just delusions of foolish people. Or perhaps I’m being redundant.”
“Perhaps,” the Desperado allowed. He had to admit to himself that pretty much everyone was foolish at least some of the time. He doubted this wizard was any exception. Finally, not sure if this was getting anywhere and unsure even how he could possibly begin to understand what was really happening to him, the Desperado decided to push toward the point. He said, “So, okay, if I understand you correctly, you’d like me to…what, to do some kind of job for you, some…I don’t know what, but it doesn’t even sound like it involves killing anyone, which makes it a new one on me. Though maybe I’m wrong. And then you’ll reward me in some magical sort of way, whatever that might mean. And then, what, you’ll send me home?”
The wizard shrugged. “I can send you ‘home’ if that’s where you really want to go,” he said. “It seems to me that your ‘home’ hasn’t exactly been kind to you. And there are so many other, potentially more interesting places to go. But I’m not going to ask you to decide right now, of course. If you accept this…job, I guess, you’ll see at least one of the other types of worlds there are out there, and maybe that will lead you to think about some other options you might want to consider. It could be at least a part of your compensation, to be able to pick which world you want to go to.”
The Desperado could hardly imagine what such a thing might mean or entail, so he didn’t pursue that line of inquiry for the moment. Instead, he responded, “You said ‘part of’ my compensation. I guess that means there would be more than that?”
“Of course!” the wizard replied. “This job would be part of helping me to get free and get home as well. I assure you, I will be very generous with my rewards. For instance, just one thing I can do for you—and it would not be your sole reward—is, if you decide to return to your old world…which I suppose has its charms, if you like that sort of place…in addition to putting you somewhere a bit safer and more pleasant than where you were, I can put a kind of…well, I guess you would say a ‘spell’ on your such that no one would recognize you unless you wanted them to. You would no longer be in danger of being hunted for the things you might or might not have done before. Or, I guess, for anything you might do in the future. I suppose that sometimes a man of your nature might find it impossible to stay out of any trouble.”
This piqued the Desperado’s interest. The notion that he might be able to return home, but to be effectively no longer a wanted man…he was hesitant even to consider the possibility, because it felt like the sort of thing that would offer itself only to disappear as soon as he considered it. Still, if such a thing was at all possible, it would be hard simply to turn it down. And the wizard seemed to say that this would be only part of this offered reward…and he seemed to imply that it would not be the largest part.
Forget the possibility that the man was lying, that he wouldn’t be able to deliver on his promises. That was always possible, of course, but there was not denying that the man had powers that the Desperado could not begin to understand–assuming, of course, that call this was really happening and he was not just imagining things while dying in the desert. He supposed, if that were the case, he would know soon enough. Or, rather, he would not know, either that or anything else. That was okay if it was the case. He knew it was going to happen to him sooner or later, anyway. So, since what seemed to be happening did, in fact, seem to be happening, he decided he would just go with it.
Deciding this, he said, “So, you’re offering me not only saving my life and letting me basically start over…either back home or somewhere else…in return for just…finding some person you’re looking for, or delivering a message to them, your invitation or whatever. It sounds like a hell of a reward for just a messenger service.”
The wizard chuckled again, and it was obvious that he caught the Desperado’s tone of skepticism. “Well,” he said, “I could just claim that I am generous and magnanimous by nature, but I think you’re too canny to accept that on my word. But I assure you this will not be just a ‘simple’ messenger service.”
Not terribly surprised–for why would this wizard need to find someone like him if this was something simple–the Desperado smiled grimly.
Meanwhile, the wizard went on, “The person I’m sending you to find and pass on my invitation to is…well, a bit prickly, you might say. She has her reasons, of course, but…well, she is rather prejudiced against humans.”
The Desperado raised an eyebrow. “Is that meant to imply that ‘she’ is not human?”
“No, it’s meant to say it outright. She’s not human. I told you before, she is a magical being.”
The Desperado tried to think of all the children’s stories he’d heard or read in his time, which was a surprising number, and included bastardized retellings of old myths and legends and even mere fanciful tales. Trying not to sound too sardonic, he said, “So, what is ‘she’, some kind of…gorgon, dragon…a sphinx?”
The wizard eyed the Desperado with surprise. “You’re remarkably…literate, shall we say, for a man of your…walk of life.”
The Desperado shrugged but didn’t say anything. He liked to read when he got the chance. It seemed to be the least he could do to repay the person who has first taught him, given what he had done to that person. He couldn’t remember for sure what that person had looked like–or he didn’t want to–but it had been someone who had meant a lot to him, as had being able to read. He’d liked reading books, stories, more than he had ever liked reading anything more ‘practical’.
The wizard, having been surprisingly polite in allowing a silence for comment, which his guest had declined to use, now said, “Well, you don’t have to worry about dealing with any hideous monstrosities. The one I would like you to find and to whom I would like you to convey my message is perfectly lovely, even beautiful, in a way…to look at, that is.”
“What do you mean?” the Desperado asked.
“Well…as I said, she is prickly. And she hates humans. When humans are involved, she tend to hurl gouts of fire first and ask questions…well, never.” Based on the wizard’s expression, the Desperado would have guessed that he not only approved of but actually admired such character. The Desperado supposed he had no grounds for complaint. He’d been known to shoot first on many occasions, himself. And when he shot first, there was never any point in asking questions.
So, instead of commenting in any kind of judgmental fashion, the Desperado simply said, “She hurls gouts of fire? But she’s not some kind of…dragon?”
“Not at all,” the wizard said. “Dragons are very impressive and powerful in their own way, but they wouldn’t be much use to me for my hopes. They are too…well, limited. At least most of them are. And the ones who aren’t are rarely amenable to helping anyone or anything other than themselves.”
The Desperado had meant his dragon comment as sarcastic, but apparently, in the wizard’s mind at least, dragons really existed. That was interesting, even if it wasn’t true. But it was not really useful at the moment, so he said, “Well, if she’s not a dragon, and she’s obviously not human…what is she?”
“She’s a fairy,” the wizard replied. “She’s called ‘The Dark Fairy’…by others and by herself.” The wizard looked quite serious as he said this.
There was a bit of a silence after that while the Desperado tried, and so far failed, to interpret what the wizard meant. Finally, as much to clear his head as anything else, he asked, “Fairy? You said she’s a…fairy?”
“That’s right,” the wizard said.
After another, shorter pause, the Desperado said, “You mean…little, tiny people, people who can fit on the palm of your hand…that like to spend time in flower gardens and places like that…people with dragonfly wings and things like that? That kind of fairy?”
The wizard bobbed his head side to side a bit, which seemed to be a habit of his, and he said, “Well, the wings don’t have to be ‘dragonfly’ wings, though often they are, and the size…well, it can be a bit subjective, but generally, yes, I’d say most fairies, when in their default state, are well under a foot in height. Which I guess means you could put one on the palm of your hand…though it would behoove you to be very cautious, if you did. Most fairies are reasonably polite, even pleasant, but they are mischievous. And they can get quite angry in some circumstances. And they are, of course, magical. Also, while many fairies do indeed like to spend their time in flower gardens, and some even give people a bit of secret help in seeing to the flowers, pretty much any place of natural, plant life is amenable to them. The one I’m looking for prefers forests.”
The Desperado leaned forward, trying to take in what the man had said. Somehow, he found it more difficult to accept the notion of actual fairies than he did of dragons or gorgons or any other…what had the man said, ‘horrible monstrosities’? Surely there was no way that fairies could actually exist. It was nonsense.
But, of course, his whole current situation was nonsensical. There was no water that could move on its own, there weren’t “wizards”, there was no “Omniverse”. Yet, here he was, sitting it a quite lovely and comfortable chair in a white hall or plain or room, whatever one might call it, that was certainly like nothing he had ever seen or heard of before. He considered again the possibility that he was simply dreaming this while he was dying. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing he would imagine if his mind was dissolving into final darkness under the glare of the desert sun; he would expect to be tormented by memories of some of the people he had killed in his time, perhaps by all of them. Curiously enough, now he could hardly even bring a single person to mind, which was a pleasant change in its own right. If this was a side effect of having his health restored by this odd wizard, he was glad for it.
Sighing, he decided he’d be best off just going along with things for now. He would try to hold off on his skepticism about fairies if he could. He asked, “So what makes this one the ‘dark’ fairy? Or is that just a…a particular kind of fairy?”
“No, no, it’s not that she is some particular subspecies or genus of fairy or anything like that,” the wizard replied. “She is the Dark Fairy. Sometimes people just drop the definite article and use it like a name, ‘Dark Fairy’. She doesn’t much seem to care. But she is ‘Dark’ because, as I said, she hates humans. She would probably like to burn every last human habitation in the Omniverse to ash if she had the chance…possibly even if it caused catastrophe for the rest of nature. She is…consumed by the hatred she bears, and in her world, she is prevented from taking her vengeance on humans, so she has confined herself to her realm, and her darkness feeds upon itself. It’s really rather sad, if one cares about such things.”
The wizard looked overtly warm and melancholy as he pronounced this last verdict, but his expression didn’t seem quite right. The Desperado wondered if maybe the man was simply trying to look sympathetic because he thought he was supposed to look that way. Then again, maybe someone trapped and isolated, the only living thing in his universe—whatever such a situation might mean—would lose his habits of the normal way to express himself.
“So, like you say, it sounds like going to meet her could be a dangerous thing to do,” he commented. “She’s…magical, as you put it, and prone to attack without asking questions…especially a human, which I am, at least by some definitions. I’m guessing that, even if I’m a lot bigger than she is, that’s not going to be much use against magic. And, though I can certainly shoot and kill something half a foot high if I have to—I’ve even shot flying birds—that’s not what you want me to do.”
The wizard eyed him for a moment, then noted, “You sound as though you believe me and that you’re considering my request.”
The Desperado shrugged, leaning forward in his chair slightly. “Well,” he said, “I don’t have much choice about believing what’s happening to me right now. It’s either real or I’m dreaming it while I’m dying, and it doesn’t feel like a dream, so I’ll go with the first one for now. And if it’s real, well, then it’s hard not to believe in magic. I’m here, after all, not in the desert, and I was brought here by that…living water you used to ‘invite’ me. But I didn’t drown in it, and since you mentioned it, I feel…healthier than I can remember feeling in a long time. So, I don’t have very sensible grounds for saying magic can’t exist, or…other worlds or ‘universes’, like you said. And you made these chairs and this table, and you stopped my bullet in midair. That’s sure as hell never happened to me before. So…well, I’ll keep myself watching for any signs that this is a trick or that I really am just dying, but until those signs come, I’ll assume this is real.”
The wizard smiled rather broadly, which gave him a slightly lunatic look, but the Desperado figured the man could be allowed a bit of madness if he really had been stuck alone in his little universe for so long that he couldn’t describe it. With a voice that was an odd combination of sly cynicism and almost childish delight, he said, “So you are considering my request.”
“Why not?” the Desperado said. “I don’t have anything more appealing to consider, other than dying in the desert. Time’s been my way when that would be appealing, but since I’m healthy now and might be able to escape at least some of my past by doing this…well, as I said, why not? Though I’m not sure how I’ll be able to really talk to someone who’s not even a foot tall.”
“You won’t need to worry about that,” the wizard said. “As part of sending you to her world, I will…adjust your size so that you can speak to her on equal terms. Size-wise, anyway. That should also give you a bit of protection against her automatic reaction to humans. She won’t be able to recognize you as human, at first.”
The Desperado raised his eyebrows and leaned back, decidedly curious. “You mean, you’ll…what, shrink me? Will that hurt?” He wasn’t afraid of pain, but the notion of being squeezed down to a sixth or less of his normal height sounded like it would be uncomfortable.
The wizard looked truly and thoroughly puzzled by this question. “Why in the place would it hurt?” he asked. He did not wait for a reply, instead going on, “I’ll just be adjusting a few complementary parameters of your physical nature. You won’t feel a thing, any more than if everything in the world suddenly doubled in size all at once but everything else related to it doubled to compensate. What a strange thing to think.”
The Desperado was not even slightly embarrassed. “This is all foreign land to me, and more than foreign,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll think stranger things than that from time to time.”
The wizard’s brow furrowed for a moment, but it seemed that he accepted the Desperado’s point. “All right,” he said, “I suppose that’s not unreasonable. But honestly, it’s such a strange notion, if you know what this sort of thing entails.”
“That seems fair, and I can certainly imagine it would be the case,” the Desperado said.
The wizard sighed, as if feeling fatigued by the need to force himself to understand the limitations of the Desperado’s point of view. He said, “Well, anyway, it won’t hurt. I doubt you’ll even realize it’s happened until you get a chance to look around and compare yourself to other things in her world. That world is superficially much like yours, but of course, you’ll be seeing it from a different point of view. I suppose that’s occasionally a useful experience.
“In any case, in addition to shrinking you, I’m going to have to equip you with a few other little tidbits of preparation. For instance, I’ll give you a linguistic spell, so that you’ll be able to understand and communicate in most any language, at least any that use sounds and writing. You won’t be able to understand pheromone-based communication, of course—human noses aren’t suited for it, and it’s not useful enough to improve your nose to allow it. Also, you’d probably be utterly distracted by the expansion of your olfactory capacity. But symbolic and auditory languages, formal ones, at least, will be natural to you, and you will be able to speak them.”
The Desperado blinked. “Really?” he said. “That sounds quite…well, intriguing, and definitely useful. You can really do that?”
“I can,” the wizard replied with calm confidence, giving the impression that he was not bragging nor that he thought this was anything particularly worthy of awe. “It’s not that difficult. I can’t claim that you’ll suddenly be able to speak to birds and beasts and the like—that’s a different kind of thing, entirely, and is unlikely to be useful to you. But I’d rather not have you need to spend the time working out communication through gestures and trying your best to get ideas across crudely in the Dark Fairy’s world.”
“I guess that means they don’t speak English, then?” the Desperado asked.
The wizard eyed him with modest contempt. “Most people in your world don’t speak ‘English’. And the English don’t think that people where you live truly speak ‘English’ for that matter, if you want to know, though they are being prejudiced and unreasonable in that judgement. English is a pretty good language for conveying most conveyable ideas, and it has the pleasing attribute that it readily absorbs new words and ideas from other languages when it doesn’t have them already. It has an alphabet of only twenty-six characters, and yet they can be combined into functionally limitless thoughts and ideas. That’s one of the reasons I’m speaking to you in it. It’s not the very best language there is in the Omniverse, by any means, but it’s a decent one.”
“Fair enough,” the Desperado said.
The wizard seemed to need a few seconds to relocate the direction of his thoughts. When he succeeded, it was obvious by the look on his face. Perking up a bit, he said, “And though there may be other useful things to do for you, there is one rather paramount thing I want to do.”
“What’s that?” the Desperado asked.
“May I have your pistol for a moment?” the wizard asked.
This request both surprised and unnerved the Desperado. The wizard had his right hand slightly held out, as if preparing to accept the gun which he expected to be offered without hesitation. But the Desperado was far from inclined to comply with the request. His gun, a dark .44 revolver with a mid-length barrel, was his life. Quite apart from not liking to be parted from it, it could be used against him if it were in someone else’s hand. He was decent at evasive moving, but no one could dodge bullets forever, and they certainly couldn’t outrun one, especially in a place like where he was now. It was true that there were only three bullets in the cylinder, and he doubted the wizard was as good a shot as he was, but still…
The wizard seemed to grasp his reticence and the reasons for it. With a wry grimace that was almost a smile, the man said, “You don’t need to worry. I have no need for your weapon for myself, even if I were inclined to kill you now, after not having done so already. I could simply eliminate all oxygen from this universe on a whim if I wanted…that would be quicker and tidier than shooting you, for me at least. And I could simply summon your gun to me, if I wanted. After all, the only reason you didn’t so much as lose your hat while you were being brought here was because I influenced its movement. I just want to make your gun more…versatile, I guess would be a good word.”
The Desperado thought about it for another moment, realizing that the wizard had made telling points. With a sigh, he rose to his feet, since it was awkward and difficult to draw his gun while reclining in a plush chair. The wizard rose at the same time, and to the Desperado’s surprise, when they were both standing, the chairs and the table both melted back into the floor, or ground, or whatever it was.
He idly wondered why the wizard had bothered making the table. He had thought, for a moment, that perhaps the man was going to offer him a beverage, but that had not been the case, and anyway, he no longer felt the slightest bit thirsty.
Gingerly, he pulled his pistol from its holster, turned it around so the cylinder was in his fist and the barrel was pointing downward and slightly in his direction, and he held the pistol out toward the wizard.
The wizard took hold of the butt of the revolver, and the Desperado released with only a fraction of a second of hesitation. The wizard held the gun horizontally, his fingers not even approaching the trigger guard, let alone the trigger. He brought his left hand up alongside his right hand, and he held the pistol for a moment flat, laying across both his open palms. Then, his eyes focused, and the blue of his eyes became paler still, almost white, and they seemed to radiate a bit of light of their own.
To the Desperado’s surprise and amazement—despite what he had already been through—the pistol rose slightly from the wizard’s hands, floating in the air about a foot above them. A faint light seemed to surround the pistol, but it didn’t seem to be radiating that light itself, rather the light seemed to congeal from the air and the white floors and ceilings all around, and then soak into the weapon. The wizard’s brow contracted slightly in concentration, and the light intensified.
The Desperado saw at least one over thing happening as the light surrounded his pistol. He had always tried very hard to take excellent care of his weapon. It was, after all, the thing on which his life depended. He cleaned and oiled it frequently, tried to avoid getting it wet, and drying it as quickly as he could if it did. The cylinder, the hammer, the spring action, all these things were as well-maintained as he could manage, given his erratic lifestyle. But now, as he watched, the surface of his weapon became cleaner, glossier, its sleek, dark, near-black color looking more lustrous and pristine than even when he had first acquired it. The grip, too, lost some of the effects of sweat and use that had inevitably aged it, even when it was cared for with something approaching love. If the Desperado had been required to say, he would have said it came to look better than new.
But, of course, appearance was not terribly important in a weapon, except perhaps as a means of intimidation. What mattered was that it performed its function as it was meant to do, and the Desperado hoped that would be the case still when the wizard was done. Though he’d experienced some of the things the man could do, it was hard to accept that his gun might not simply be ruined. Still, he hardly was in any position to be critical.
After less than a minute, the light around the pistol faded, and the pistol floated gently back down into the wizard’s hands. With a tiny smile, the wizard took the weapon in his right hand, just as the Desperado had done, holding the cylinder portion of the weapon, and he present the butt of it to the Desperado, its barrel pointed almost directly back at him.
Feeling oddly hesitant, the Desperado took his pistol by the butt, saying, “Thank you,” as he did, more as a matter of automatic courtesy than as a particular expression of gratitude. He eyed the pistol carefully, shifting it about in his hand. It felt the same as always, though it was plainly sparkling clean, for which fact he was thankful. He had been worried about the effects of the water immersion if he didn’t get it cleaned and dried quickly, but there was not a trace of residual moisture that he could see.
The wizard, smiling in a rather smug way, asked, “How many bullets are there in the gun?”
Surprised by the question, the Desperado replied, “The cylinder holds six, but I only ever load it with five. Though I’ve fired two of those recently and haven’t reloaded, so really, it’s got three bullets left in it.”
Smirking, the wizard asked, “Why don’t you count them?”
The Desperado eyed the man with puzzlement for a moment, then shrugged. He half-cocked the hammer, the barrel pointed down at the ground, or floor, or whatever it was in this place. Then he flipped open the loading gate. He was not surprised to see an unfired round revealed, though he thought it too looked cleaner than it had ever looked before, the brass appearing never to have interacted with air at all. He spun the cylinder a notch at a time, and was surprised to find that, in the space he expected to be vacant, there was another bullet, just as clean and new as the first two he’d seen. Then, revolving the cylinder further, which should have brought a spent round into his view, he saw, instead of a shell casing with a dimple in its firing cap, a new bullet as shiny and beautiful as the others.
Continuing to spin the cylinder a bit, the Desperado confirmed that there were indeed six brand new bullets in his weapon’s cylinder.
He closed the loading gate and then carefully released the hammer, looking up at the wizard. “You…reloaded it,” he said.
“You could say that,” the wizard said, his smugness almost palpable.
Not wanting to offend the man, given that he had done something he clearly meant to be generous, but also not wanting to let a personal safety habit slide, the Desperado said, “Well, I appreciate the thought, there, honestly. But I usually only load five rounds at a time and leave an empty chamber under the hammer. It’s safer. A fall, a bump…it’s possible for a bullet under the hammer to go off without you wanting it to, and the best you can hope for if that happens is that you don’t shoot yourself in the leg.”
The wizard nodded, as if he understood the reasoning behind this precaution completely. “You’re right, of course,” he said, “and it’s admirable that you’re such a practical man. There are all too many people who treat weapons in a frivolous way, and too many innocents are killed in accidents because of that.”
The Desperado got the impression that the wizard was just saying something he thought he ought to say, or maybe even that he had heard someone else say. Nothing in his demeanor made the Desperado think that the man would be overly troubled by deaths from firearm accidents, and the Desperado himself had no right to be judgmental.
“However,” the wizard went on, “you need not worry about that particular safety issue ever again, at least not with this gun. That weapon will, from now on, never fire unless you actually want it to fire. There will be no accidental shots, even if you were to hurl it against the side of a building or hit it with a sledgehammer. And if you did do either of those things, it wouldn’t be damaged by the impact. It wouldn’t be damaged by anything that wasn’t more powerful than the magic I’ve put into it. Also, you’ll never need to clean it again; it will not rust, it will not collect dirt. Its mechanism will always work perfectly.”
This astonished the Desperado. “Really?” he asked. “Are you being serious, or just…teasing, joking?” He could tell that his pistol was absolutely clean for the moment, but it was difficult to believe that it would remain that way.
“I am neither teasing nor joking,” the wizard replied. “And I am not lying. Though I suppose that’s just what a liar would say, isn’t it? But you’ll see for yourself. It’ll stay clean forever, and it won’t fire unless you mean to fire it. Which means, by the way, that no one else will be able to use it but you, unless you actively want them to use it. That’s nice, isn’t it?”
The Desperado blinked. He’d rarely, if ever, been disarmed by anyone who got hold of his gun, but it was always a concern, in principle. No one wanted to die by their own weapon if they could help it. He took a deep breath, looking again at the pistol in his hand, turning it over and back in his grip, and he said, “That’s…amazing, if it’s true.”
“It is true,” the wizard said. “And, what’s even more useful, you’re never going to need to reload it again.”
Now the Desperado openly gaped at the man, his mouth falling open in disbelief, a state he felt no urge to correct. “Wait,” he said. “What do you…do you mean…” He couldn’t complete his sentence.
“That’s right,” the wizard replied, nevertheless. “It reloads itself automatically. There is no need for you ever to find or purchase new bullets. Which is good, because in the world I’m sending you to, they won’t exactly have bullets available for guns used by people who are fairy sized. Not that I’m hoping you’ll have to use the gun there at all, but one never knows, as I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“How could that be possible?” the Desperado asked, his voice only slightly louder than a whisper.
The wizard smirked and said, “Well, I could explain to you how the matter is gathered from all about the pistol in a more or less uniform fashion, even drawing energy to generate local changes in quantum fields from the bulk of the Omniverse, and that the power to do so is drawn from ambient ‘magic’, also partly from the bulk. But I don’t think that would mean too much to you, so hopefully just ‘magic’ will suffice as an explanation.”
The Desperado shook his head, trying both to believe what he was being told and trying not to believe it, lest he be taken for a fool.
“You look skeptical,” the wizard said. “And I can hardly blame you. Why don’t you try it out and see?” He looked over his shoulder, and the Desperado saw a new bulge in the floor perhaps fifty yards beyond the man. It rose, changed shape, and became—oddly enough—a stack of several bales of hay, some behind the others, on the near side of which hung a paper target with concentric rings, black in the middle and then off-white around the remainder.
The Desperado cocked his head, looking at the wizard in puzzlement.
“Go ahead, prove it to yourself,” the wizard said. “It should only take seven shots to do it, of course, but if you want to do more, that’s fine with me. Fire away until your hand gets tired, if you want.”
Deciding that he really did want to know for sure that the wizard was telling the truth, the Desperado said, “Okay, I’ll try it. If you could step a little more to the side—might as well at least pretend we ought to be careful.”
With a chuckle, the wizard took a few paces to his right, so that he was more completely out of the line of sight from the Desperado to the newly created target and backstop. The Desperado sighted his pistol, pulling the hammer back; the action felt slightly easier than he remembered it, but he knew he might be fooling himself about that. He barely took a moment before pulling the trigger, the loud, sharp explosion sounding just as it usually did. Then, a second later, he fired again, then again, then a fourth, fifth, and sixth time. Then he paused, taking a deep breath, and this time he pulled the hammer back slowly…
…and when he squeezed the trigger, the hammer dropped, and yet another round exploded out of his pistol, despite the fact that every chamber in it should have held just an empty, spent shell casing.
He lowered the gun, then half-cocked it and opened the loading gate again, spinning the cylinder rather more quickly than he had before. Each primer was clean and smooth, showing no indentation from a firing pin, and all the brass was shiny and pristine. It was as if he had not fired the pistol at all.
The wizard, instead of looking smug, muttered, “Let me see that,” and he looked down the way at his newly made target and backstop. The paper lifted itself off the hay, and the hay then shlooped back down into the floor, leaving no trace. The paper flew through the air into the wizard’s hand, and he held up the target.
In the middle of the black at the middle of the paper, there was a pattern of holes, each very slightly ragged around its edge. There was one central hole, surrounded equidistantly on all sides by a pattern of six more, forming a near-perfect hexagon.
The wizard looked up at the Desperado with clear admiration. “You shot like that…deliberately, didn’t you?”
Still reeling from the effects of his having fired seven shots without reloading, the Desperado didn’t give much thought before answering, “Well, I didn’t want to just shoot all through one hole. Then it might be that I’d fooled myself or lost count, unlikely as that might be. So, I fired six in a ring pattern, then put the seventh—Christ, the seventh—through the middle. I’ll be damned.” He put his pistol back in its holster almost reluctantly.
“Who knows, maybe,” the wizard muttered. “But…honestly, I knew you were a brilliant shot, but…there’s barely any room between the bullet holes. If they were any closer, the center of the ring would just have fallen out. And it’s practically a perfect hexagon. I know for a fact that none of my magic was involved in this fact. And you say that, if you had wanted, you could have put all seven bullets through the same hole?”
The Desperado shrugged, feeling more awkward than flattered. “It’s always been like that,” he said. “I can always hit whatever I aim at, when I want, wherever I want…except I always seem to aim to kill when I shoot at people, even if I’d rather not. So, they always die. Except you, of course.”
The wizard seemed to pay no attention to the comment regarding his own lack of vulnerability, but instead he simply muttered, “Good grief, but you really are good, aren’t you.”
Somehow self-conscious, and rather surprised by the fact, the Desperado quietly responded, “I’m skilled at shooting, or talented, or whatever you want to call it. I’m not good by anyone’s definition.”
The wizard looked up at him with an expression of mild contempt, and with a wave of his hand, the paper target he held popped out of existence. “Oh, please,” he said, “spare me the nonsense about ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and any associated self-loathing or shame. The Omniverse is vast beyond anyone’s possible comprehension, and in all universes where there is life, there is death, and though death’s arrival is rarely pretty, it is at least a cessation of suffering. There are no small number of beings—well, not even a small infinity of beings—who, if they were able to be honest, and were not tricked by the urges natural selection tends to breed into all life, would welcome death, especially the way you bring it…all but instant, and all but painless.”
The Desperado shrugged. He’d entertained such thoughts before, of course, though certainly not in those words. Men such as he must always try to find some form of personal justification, he imagined, or else go to alcohol, or something similar. But he distrusted justifications. They felt like excuse making, and if you needed to make excuses for what you did, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Not that he had ever seemed to have a choice. He seemed to be a killer by nature, even back to when he’d been a boy, and he’d never been able to stay away from situations in which he’d needed to kill for very long. Who knew how many people he had killed?
At that moment, again, he couldn’t readily estimate, nor did any of the people he had killed come to his mind. That was rather unusual; he was often only too readily able to torment himself with the horrified faces of those he’d murdered. He tried never to kill the innocent, of course, not if he could help it, but the world was rife with misunderstandings, and some of them had been his. But he couldn’t recall any one of his victims at the moment, possibly because of how healthy the wizard had made him, and he was not sad about that.
The wizard had watched him for a moment, perhaps seeing whether his words had been convincing. He shook his head, then he said, “Anyway, enough maudlin sentiment. It’s a hard old Omniverse, and I needed a hard person to do what I need done, even though I don’t need you to kill anyone. So, now, I need to give you more specific instructions for your task…if you’re accepting my request, that is.”
The Desperado considered it, but not for long. In a sense, he’d been paid in advance, at least partly, with the restoration of his health and the miraculous rebirth of his pistol. If he received nothing else in return, he could hardly have considered himself poorly compensated. He had yet to try the language thing the wizard said he had done, or would do, but that alone would also, surely, be something of incredible value. Unless the wizard planned for those gifts to disappear once the job was done—and somehow the Desperado didn’t get that impression—then he had certainly given a preliminary payment in good faith, and he’d demonstrated that he had the ability to follow up with more.
“Why not?” the Desperado said with another shrug. “I wasn’t doing anything else today except dying of thirst in the desert. And you’re…well, you’ve already shown me some pretty interesting things. Why not?”
“You’re surprisingly adaptable,” the wizard said with a smile, and the Desperado thought this at least was legitimately meant as a compliment. “But I shouldn’t be surprised, should I? I was led to invite you specifically, after all, and the auguries were quite clear.
“Now, to the specifics of the task, then. I’m going to send you to the world in which the Dark Fairy lives—the ride will be less unpleasant this time than your last voyage, I’m glad to say—but I won’t be able to put you in her realm directly. It’s protected, magically, by her and it is also contained by others. So, you’ll need to ask around a bit to find her.”
The Desperado thought this sounded reasonable, though he didn’t quite understand the notion of magical protection and containment. Then a thought occurred to him, and he asked, “Wait, won’t that be difficult if I’m…fairy sized, like you said?”
“It shouldn’t be,” the wizard replied, sounding as though he had barely paid attention. “There are plenty of other fairy sized creatures in her world, and many of them speak…which means you will be able to understand them and communicate with them.”
“Oh,” the Desperado muttered, impressed in advance. Then he asked, “Should I just…ask for the ‘Dark Fairy’, or does she have some other name?”
“She does have another name, but no one uses it,” the wizard said, sounding dismissive and almost irritated by the question. “Asking for directions to the Dark Fairy should work as well as anything.”
“Okay, fair enough,” the Desperado said. He supposed he would be able to figure things out when he arrived, as far as that went. He was generally pretty good at adapting to new circumstances, though he had to admit that his present ones were stretching his limits. “So, then, what am I going to do once I find her? Just pass on a message from you? An invitation, like you said?”
The wizard gave a wry half smile, and he replied, “Well…partly. I do want you to tell her that I sent you, give her a quick rundown of what I told you—about how the accident trapped me here in my universe, but that otherwise I am tremendously powerful, both within my universe and outside of it, but that I would need the help of an external magical being of particular…characteristics, such as she has, to help me undo the accident and allow me to be free to return to my home. I think she might at least sympathize with my predicament.”
The Desperado didn’t understand the meaning of this last sentence, but he figured it probably didn’t matter. “Okay,” he said. “So, I’m assuming I’m going to tell her that you’ll reward her for her help if she’s willing, like you’ve already been rewarding me ahead of time. But…well, I can show her or tell her what you’ve done for me, but I don’t know if that would convince anyone who didn’t see you firsthand.”
“No, probably not,” the wizard agreed. “So, I’m also going to send you with a token of my…well, esteem isn’t the right word. A token of good faith, perhaps. Something I’m certain she’ll like.”
The wizard held up his hand, and the air around it seemed to wobble and warp, rather like the mirages the Desperado had so recently been forced to ignore as he’d wandered in the desert. The warping solidified itself, and then became a necklace of some sort that dangled from a dark but lustrous metal chain. Attached to the chain was a large oval stone, also set in darkish metal, perhaps two inches top to bottom and slightly more than an inch wide. It was a dark, glistening blue color, and had an utterly smooth and sleek surface that bulged outward in a slightly less prominent curve than those at the sides. The Desperado, who had never had much experience with gemstones, nevertheless thought it looked exceptionally fine. He would have thought that it must be merely colored glass, since it was surely too big to be a real precious gem, but then he realized that the wizard probably wouldn’t need to resort to fake jewels. This led him to wonder if it might even be a sapphire. He knew little enough about the value of gems, but one that size would have to be immensely valuable. Looking closely, though, he saw that though it was indeed deep blue, the blue was not perfectly constant, but instead seemed to have an almost misty, cloud-like appearance, almost a glow, giving the stone a sense of depth greater than it surely had, as though there were a slightly cloud-covered twilight sky contained within, the clouds perhaps reflecting just a bit of the last of the sunlight—or perhaps early moonlight, since there was no redness to the light.
In response to the Desperado’s unspoken curiosity, the wizard said, “It’s a moonstone. Technically speaking, it’s a form of the feldspar group, and people on your world would say it’s orthoclase with albite layers alternating within, giving it its unique billowing light, that people on your world call ‘adularescence’. Good word, that one. It sounds very mysterious and evocative.”
“I suppose so,” the Desperado said. “But it doesn’t mean much to me, even if you did that language thing to me already.”
The wizard laughed almost openly at this, and he said, “Well, no, I guess not. It’s just a word, after all, and its meaning is only part of jargon, mainly, and I don’t particularly partake of the jargon, so I’m not conveying the meaning. I just like the sound of the word. In any case, the Dark Fairy is apparently very fond of moonstones—she has a kind of collar-necklace set about with square-cut ones, apparently, as her only ornamentation. This is actually a perfect moonstone, and I know that because I made it, from the substance of my universe, to be perfect. And no, in case you’re wondering, I did not simply conjure it into existence just now but fashioned it with care over a decent interval. I wanted to make it just so.”
The Desperado nodded, but he didn’t comment on that. Whether summoned at a whim or created painstakingly, the very fact of someone being able to make such a thing from nothing—or from the ‘substance of his universe’, whatever that might mean—was equally impressive.
He did, however, say, “So…I’m supposed to give this to her as a…a sort of token that you can do impressive things, or as a kind of…payment in advance for her help?”
“Not exactly,” the wizard replied. “This is certainly not the only thing I would give as payment, though it is intended for her to keep, if she likes it. I also intend to help her to escape from her own confinement, if she agrees at least to try to help me escape from mine. And this moonstone will help her do that. For it’s not merely a gem, it is also magical, much in the way your gun is now magical.”
The Desperado shook his head. He thought he understood, but he was not confident. “I…think I know what you mean,” he said. “But it’s going to be hard for her to take my word, I would think, even with this…moonstone.”
“Quite right,” the wizard agreed. “But the moonstone does more even than that. It will also allow me to communicate with her directly, even from here in this realm to hers, despite the barrier and the distance through the bulk of the Omniverse, if she puts it on.”
This impressed the Desperado. He looked at the gemstone necklace with deep curiosity, wondering if there was any possible evidence of mechanism within in. He could see none, but he was not too surprised. He said, “That’s pretty amazing. It’s some kind of…well, portable telegraph machine?”
“It’s rather more impressive than that,” the wizard said with a smug twist of his lips. “Words and even thoughts can be conveyed between us if she is wearing that. And it will also serve as a conduit through which we can combine our two kinds of magical abilities so that she can provide me the aid I require, even as it can allow me to counteract the spells that bind her in her realm.”
The Desperado was sure that must make sense in some way, but it was beyond his reckoning. He decided not to add any more comments along those lines. Looking again at the beautiful moonstone necklace, and then back up at the wizard, he asked, “So, do you have a…a box, or a case, something to put this in to carry? Isn’t that the way they usually give jewelry as gifts?”
“Well, maybe so,” the wizard replied with a smirk, “but it’s not really useful in this case. Pardon the pun. It would be rather bulky and unwieldy for you to carry a big jewelry box with it. You can feel free to put it in one of those deep coat pockets you have there. Don’t worry, it won’t scratch or tarnish or anything else alone those lines. It’s protected by the magic in it, and the only thing that could make any mark on it would need to be something stronger than that magic. And there are few enough beings in the Omniverse who have that kind of power—though I suppose a supernova in your universe would do the trick. Also, you don’t have to worry about losing it. It’s not going to fall out of your pocket without you wanting it to, any more than your pistol is going to fall out of your holster. I don’t give gifts or tools to people with the intention that they lose them by accident.”
The Desperado raised his eyebrows again. “That’s very…convenient,” he said. “If you could market that kind of thing, you’d be a rich man.”
The wizard sneered as he replied, “I’m already the god of my own private universe, and I’m one of the more powerful wizards in the Omniverse. I hardly need to accumulate money, especially not the provincial currency from one tiny world in one vanishingly small segment of reality.”
With a nod, the Desperado said, “I figured. I was just joking.”
The wizard blinked a bit, then he chuckled, seemingly caught off guard. “I see,” he said. “Well, that surprised me. You didn’t strike me as a particularly jocular person, and…well, you certainly didn’t crack a smile when you spoke.”
The Desperado shrugged and said, “I don’t smile very much at all, frankly. I try not to get happy if I can help it. It only leads to disappointment.”
“That sounds dreary,” the wizard commented, “but I’m hardly a good role model for the best way to live one’s life, am I? ‘You do you,’ as they will say in at least one version of the future of your world.”
“Right,” the Desperado said, not following at all. “Anyway, is there anything else I need, or need to know, before you send me along?”
The wizard seemed to give the question serious thought before replying, “I don’t think so. Would you mind giving me a quick review from your point of view, just so I can be sure there aren’t any misunderstandings?”
“Okay, that sounds fair,” the Desperado said. “As I understand it, you’re going to send me to this…Dark Fairy’s place, or near it, and then I’ll ask around to find where she is, make my way to her, tell her you sent me to ask for her help, and that in return you’re offering to help her to get out of…well, whatever situation she’s stuck in. I’ll show her that necklace, or give it to her, to show that you’re serious, and…well, if she accepts and uses it, I guess she’ll be able to talk to you about the details.”
The wizard looked mildly impressed, and he said, “That seems like a reasonable summary.” He held the necklace out for the Desperado to take.
The Desperado reached out somewhat tentatively, half nervous—because of what had happened with the well—that as soon as he took hold of it, he would be whisked away. That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, the wizard just let go of the chain, and the Desperado felt its cool metal, and the weight of the stone, which seemed lighter than he might have expected. Holding it up to get a closer look, he noted that, as he looked into the moonstone, the slightly misty translucence in its depths almost seemed to move, as if it really were faint whisps of cloud blown about by a slight breeze. It was quite a remarkable thing. He had known men who would have killed the holder of such a necklace without hesitation, just for the chance to have it, and hopefully, to sell it. He was quite happy that he himself was not such a man—or such a woman, for that matter; it was not men alone who could be murderously covetous about jewels.
For all its undeniable beauty, though, the necklace was just a pretty trinket to him. He supposed the wizard’s magic had made it truly a thing of practical use, but most other such items had always seemed to him to be pointless toys of people with more money and power than they knew how to put to any good use. Maybe they were just distractions for such people, ways for them to avoid having to think about the cruelty and hardness of the world. Maybe the comparative permanence of a gemstone made some people feel better about their own mortality. Who could say? He appreciated beauty, but it was not necessary, and it was only sometimes useful.
Because he thought such things, it was without much compunction that he took hold of the gem, lowered the chain into the hand with which he held it, then gently deposited the whole thing in the deep left pocket of his duster.
That taken care of, he looked back up at the wizard and asked what he thought was an inescapable question, saying, “What happens if she’s not interested? What if she refuses to help you?”
The wizard grimaced, his expression sad, and for a moment he was silent. Then he shrugged and replied, “If she’s absolutely unwilling—and I do want you to try your hardest, please—then you should make your way out of her realm and then you can just speak into the gem and tell me that things didn’t work out. Without her help, without her wearing the moonstone, I would need you out of her protected realm to be able to bring you back. Then, I suppose, I would need to try to locate another, similar being who might also be able to help me. Somewhere a bit further away in the Omniverse.”
Surprised by this seemingly practical answer, the Desperado asked, “And would you be wanting me to go take a message to this new person, or would you just be…I don’t know, sending me home in failure?” He supposed it was just possible that in such circumstances, the wizard might be so frustrated with him that he would kill him, but he doubted there would be much he could do about that if it came to it.
With a deep breath, seeming not to like even contemplating the failure of what must have been quite a bit of effort on his part so far, the wizard replied, “Well…much of that would be up to you. I suppose if you do something spectacularly stupid, and that’s the reason she doesn’t agree, then I might just say ‘that’s enough for you’ and send you along with payment for work done. However, I doubt that would be the case. We’re dealing with a rather ornery magical being, and if she’s too stubborn—well, I know she’s stubborn, but I mean, stubborn in the wrong way—then there will be nothing you could do to change her mind. In which case, if you were willing, I’d ask you to wait about while I find the next candidate and try to help me with them. Finding a replacement for you wouldn’t be as hard as finding one for her, but…I would still rather avoid the effort.
“And it’s not like you need be bored while you wait. This is my universe, after all, and though it’s not that large, it is unbounded, and I can certainly provide various means by which you might be entertained.”
“I’m not too worried about that,” the Desperado said. “And as for whether I’ll fail, and if I fail, whether it’s because I did something ‘spectacularly stupid’, well, we can only find that out by trying, right?”
“I suppose that’s true,” the wizard replied. “All one can ever do it try. Contrary to certain popular fictional entities from a set of futures of your world, there is no ‘do or do not’, since there are always things outside one’s control…there is only ‘try’. Or ‘try not’ I suppose.”
The Desperado had no idea what the man was talking about, but he didn’t think it mattered. “Okay,” he said, not feeling completely calm about things, but resigned to whatever he encountered, even if it was his own death, since he was already alive longer than he’d expected to be.
“Very well, then,” the wizard said. “Let’s get ready to send you. When you go, while you travel, I can give you a local environment that’s at least reasonably comfortable. Do you prefer to stand or sit?”
“Stand, probably,” the Desperado said. “Might as well stay at the ready.”
“And do you have a preference for…ambient lighting?” the wizard asked.
This question surprised the Desperado, and he had to think about it for a moment. He looked around at the universe of the wizard and realized that he had stopped really noticing the stark whiteness of it, probably because he’d had local things like the wizard himself on which to focus. But he feared that, if he were to travel any distance with only that whiteness around him, he really might feel blind after a while. Even the water that had ‘invited’ him to the wizard’s world would be better than that. However, a preferable option occurred to him, and he said, “If it can be done, could you just make it about like the light of wherever I’m going? Might as well have my eyes already adjusted for local conditions ahead of time.”
“Eminently practical and easily done,” the wizard said. “Good thinking. Keep every possible advantage you can reasonably keep; you never know when it might make a difference. All right, then we’ll get you…ah, wait. I’d almost forgotten.”
The Desperado raised his eyebrows silently, making it obviously that he was waiting for elaboration.
With a rather rueful smile, the wizards said, “When you’re in her world—and certainly when you’re in her realm—do your very best not to kill any animal. Killing humans is fine, but I doubt that will come up. But do not kill or even injure any animals near her unless your life quite literally depends on it. She will not take kindly to such an act.”
Surprised to be told that killing humans was fine—it seemed the wizard had not much greater regard for them than this Dark Fairy did, though he looked like one himself—the Desperado nevertheless thought he understood. Animal lovers could be unreasonably fierce in their protective attitudes to what they saw as innocent creatures. “Fair enough,” he said.
“I’m serious,” the wizard asserted. “I won’t be able simply to pull you back here while you’re in her realm, so your own life would very much be in danger if you foolishly kill any animal where she can know about it.”
Nodding, the Desperado said, “Fair enough. That’s good to know. I won’t even draw my gun unless I have to.”
The wizard chuckled, saying, “I think that’s wise. Not that I don’t have a certain enthusiasm for you seeing just how much this modified weapon can do for you, but I think we have to keep time and place in mind. It’s a very big Omniverse—infinitely infinite in infinite dimensions, or what have you—so if you want opportunities to use it, I’m sure I’d be able to arrange them.”
“No, I doubt it,” the Desperado said. “I’m good at killing, and my pistol is important to me, but it’s not something I do or use for fun.”
“Yes,” the wizard said. “You don’t seem exactly a ‘fun-oriented’ type of person, do you? But, who knows, you might have at least a little fun while looking for the Dark Fairy. You’ll certainly get a new perspective on many things.”
The Desperado shrugged. “Maybe so,” he said, making it clear that he thought the matter was not really worth considering.
The wizard chuckled. Then he said, “Very well. Now, prepare yourself. It won’t be an unpleasant trip, really, but it might feel odd, and you’ll likely be less…distracted than you were when I brought you here. I won’t make you a chair, since you don’t want to sit, so…well, just be prepared. When you finish your trip, you’re going to be in another world, and though things will not be too wildly different than yours, they will be different. It will almost certainly surprise you.”
“I would think so,” the Desperado said. “At least it shouldn’t be boring.”
“No, indeed,” the wizard agreed. “Perish the thought.” Then he raised his right arm and made a gesture. However, he caught himself, apparently just before he started, as though he had almost forgotten something, and indeed, his next words were, “Oh, and I need to mention to you…don’t use your real name with her or those like her.”
“With…the Dark Fairy, you mean?” the Desperado asked.
“Exactly,” the wizard said.
Quite puzzled, the Desperado asked, “Why not?”
“It’s as I told you before,” the wizard replied. “Names—true names—are tied in with identity, and for her to know your true name would give her power over you, power that might supersede anything I could possibly do to protect you. And she’s unpredictable enough that I don’t honestly know that she wouldn’t abuse it. And you.” His words sounded almost half in jest, but the look on his face and the tone of his voice were quite serious.
Shrugging, still a bit confused, the Desperado said, “Right. Okay. I won’t tell her my real name.” He was fine with going by “the Desperado” for the time being.
“Excellent,” the wizard said, and the pleased tone and the smile he wore now seemed to confirm that he had not been exaggerating the danger. “Well, then, I’ll be sending you along. And, though time flows different between realms in the Omniverse—when it flows at all—I’ll sync up your local time with mine here, so that I’ll have a truer sense of how long you’re taking.”
The Desperado had no idea what the man meant, but he said, “Sounds good.” Then the wizard more firmly raised his right hand.
As the wizard waved his hand, the Desperado expected a new hole to open in the floor, perhaps similar to when he’d been threatened by the returning water earlier and it had spewed up through a sudden aperture in the floor. However, apparently that had only been for theatrics, or perhaps it was only necessary for summoning water. Whatever the case, the floor on which he stood did not visibly change, but nevertheless, it and the wizard and the white ceiling and everything else around them seemed not so much to fade as to recede, withdrawing in all directions, as though the Desperado were shrinking suddenly. And yet, his impression of their size did not change, it felt instead as if he were abruptly going away from everything in all directions at the same time, heading off on some new heading that could bring him to recede from all things in all directions at the same time.
He blinked, though there was nothing in his eyes, and the air around him seemed just as breathable as before. He could no longer feel ground or floor beneath his feet, but nevertheless, he felt himself still to be upright; gravity seemed to be pulling directly and naturally downward. He wondered how that could happen, how it worked, but he was not educated enough about the subject really even to speculate.
As it grew more distant, the whiteness changed color to a vague but pleasant light blue, particularly above the Desperado, while lower down it changed to a subtle greenish brown. He wondered if this was a precursor to his arrival at whatever the new world was, because it gave him the feeling that he was seeing the misty colors of an earth and sky.
Then, abruptly, though the colors did not change, a sense of increased movement jerked the Desperado’s senses. He felt himself suddenly being accelerated, not as if he were falling from a cliff or a roof, but more as if something he’d been standing on had instantly begun to move upward at tremendous speed. His weight felt like it increased suddenly, and though his knees did not buckle, he felt strain in his leg muscles.
This sense of acceleration continued, and it changed direction, here and there, though it was always directed downward—or perhaps it was upward. He felt now as if he was being pushed along through the air or the sky or whatever it might be, swerving, changing direction, but always kept upright—more or less—in the direction of his travel. It was quite astonishing and rather disconcerting. He felt slightly queasy—not quite as if he were in any real danger of throwing up, but nevertheless his stomach complained a bit—and he found himself glad that the wizard hadn’t offered him any food, and also that he didn’t feel hungry. Either situation might have resulted in the dry heaves or worse, and he didn’t know what effect that might have where he was now, apparently traveling between worlds, or universes, or whatever the wizard wanted to call them.
He was even more thankful for his stable stomach when he began to experience almost a spiraling sensation, as though he were spinning about along the axis of his motion, like a terribly fast screw or hand drill, gouging its way forward by rotating. The gentle, pleasant colors around him did not change, but those felt far less real than his motion did, as though they were a kind of stagecoach interior, hiding from view the reality outside, whatever that might be.
He closed his eyes, and when he did, he was surprised to find that the lights and colors around him did not change at all. It was not merely as if his eyelids were transparent, but rather as if they didn’t really exist, or at least that they had nothing to do with the things he was seeing, or that the colors around him had nothing to do with the operation of his eyes, but were simply the action of his brain, like a dream while awake, hiding him from whatever the reality was that was carrying him across what the wizard had called the Omniverse.
The Desperado idly wondered just how far he was going, in terms of miles or yards, compared to distances on Earth. He decided that there was probably no way to compare, and it was certainly beyond his understanding.
He didn’t know how long he was traveling. He felt the changes in his movement, the twisting, the spiraling, the jerking this way and that, but always with the net pressure downward, so that he felt that he was standing upright, though there was no sign of any surface below him when he looked. He almost wished that his eyelids functioned normally, because he would have liked to have closed his eyes…maybe even to fall asleep if it was possible.
But after that thought arose, he dismissed it. It hardly seemed possibly for him to sleep or even relax with all the movement going on and closing his eyes—in the usual sense—would probably just have made him more nauseated.
As that thought went through his head, the Desperado thought he felt a slowing down of his progress. The changes in direction seemed less abrupt, and even his increased weight seemed to lessen, as though whatever had been pushing him upward slowed down.
Then, much to his surprise, he felt that what had been pushing him up completely receded, and there was no pressure on his feet at all. He felt weightless, but more importantly, he felt as if he were falling. He was still completely upright, and there was no wind as there would have been if he’d been dropped from a height, but the feeling was similar, and it was quite disconcerting.
He found himself bracing, as if expecting at any instant to collide with some form of ground, or at best a surface of water, and though he knew that if he did his bracing would be pointless—he was already falling for so long that any impact with a surface would be fatal, whether he was prepared for it or not—he couldn’t prevent the reflex. He hoped the wizard hadn’t just been toying with him and had now sent him to a very bizarre death. In some ways, having a reprieve from his expected, rather miserable demise in the desert would make a sudden turnabout that would be particularly disappointing.
Still, at the speed he felt he must be falling, it would likely be a very quick death. Perhaps it wouldn’t be as fast as a bullet through his brain—though if he’d been going headfirst, it surely would be—but he couldn’t imagine surviving for more than a few seconds after such an impact.
These thoughts were idle ones; he didn’t really think the wizard had planned to double-cross him. What would have been the point? And anyway, though the man was strange, as was his manner, the Desperado had not gotten a killing sense from him, and that was one thing he was fairly good at detecting, at least in his world.
His world…there was a thought he wouldn’t have ever expected to have. He didn’t know what to do with it, so he decided not to dwell on it. Reality was far bigger and stranger than he’d ever imagined, it seemed, but it was whatever it was, and he would simply have to deal with it or die trying.
As he thought this, his internal sense of falling began to recede, and weight returned to his body. He felt that he was slowing down now, but gradually, and he weighed again slightly more than he would have expected, but it wasn’t unpleasant.
Then, though he could not see it by his surroundings, which remained just a broad and hazy sky-blue fading to greenish brown, he felt himself come to a halt, and his normal weight seemed to return.
He blinked, and this time the blinking seemed to work. As his eyes closed, the color went black for a fraction of a second, and when he opened them, things had subtly changed. The broad colors were quite similar—the wizard had apparently fulfilled his request quite meticulously—but now there were details, shapes, forms, and it was obvious that he was not traveling in whatever way he been before, but was in a real, physical place.
He looked around, trying to take stock of his new environment. He seemed to be standing on coarse, dark earth, almost spongy in nature, but though it didn’t seem particularly dense, it seemed to support him well. As he looked down, it didn’t appear that his boots were sinking significantly into the surface, which he would have expected from what looked almost like tilled soil.
Though there was no grass or other plant matter below his feet, around him were many plants, of a type he didn’t think he’d even heard of before. There were broad growths of green material, flat but wide, sticking straight up in various places, some of it in solitary, blade-like configuration, some of it, split into two of these on round stalks or trunks. The tallest of these rose easily twice as high as his head, but most were only up to his shoulder or so. They were interspersed, not regularly arrayed, so he got the notion that they hadn’t been cultivated but had grown wild. They smelled nice, like normal plants he would have smelled back home.
A little further off, another plant or tree or whatever one would call it rose higher than most of even the taller other plants. It had a wider trunk that was still entirely pale green, and which had a waxy look to it, glistening slightly in the ambient light from the sky. At its top, at a height that must have been about fifteen feet, the Desperado would guess, it widened out into a sort of canopy. But instead of broad branches with many leaves, or even a spraying of larger fronds, it had wide, broad, flat circular row of pinkish-orange growths that were leafy in shape but not in color. He couldn’t see what they might look like from above, but from below they were rounded, almost teardrop shaped, with the point of the teardrops facing inward, arrayed in overlapping layers encircling the top of the main trunk, angling slightly upward.
It was quite lovely but seemed utterly alien.
The Desperado’s contemplation of this sight was interrupted by the arrival of a sound, a loud, repetitive thrumming noise, almost like the pulse of a very fast steam engine. It was heading in his direction, quite clearly so, and without even thinking, he swept back the right side of his duster and put his hand on the butt of his pistol.
Then he remembered the wizard’s recommendation about not killing anything—except possibly humans—and he decided he would not draw his gun. He would, however, not remove his hand from it until he saw what was coming, if it continued to come nearer. Whatever it was, the sound was strong, and if it was something dangerous, he would want to be prepared, just in case.
As it got close, he found that he could almost feel the vibration in his gut, which was a bit disconcerting, though after the experience he’d just been through, it was at least a comparatively mundane sensation. It became astonishingly loud, though not really painful to his ears.
Then, to his surprise, he realized the noise was coming from above him. He looked up, trying to ascertain the right direction, and he was amazed to see a shape zooming through the air at fairly high speed. It was nothing like any bird he had ever seen, other than the fact that it flew. It was broader, thicker, almost like an oblong ball, or perhaps a spindle from a spinning wheel that was overstocked with yarn. It must have been the size of his head, and perhaps half as thick around. As it moved, its speed made it something of a blur, but he could see broad colors of yellow and black, roughly striped perpendicular to its direction of motion. There was a rapid blur in the air on either side of it, as of something moving too quickly to be discerned.
The Desperado’s eyes widened, and his jaw clenched. He didn’t think he had ever seen anything remotely like this shape that was moving through the air. His grip on the butt of his pistol tightened just slightly, in case the thing began to swoop toward him.
It did not do that, however. Instead, it made a flat, straight trajectory for that tallest plant he had seen, the one with the pinkish orange plates on its crown instead of leaves. On approaching, it slowed, almost instantly stopping its forward motion, and then coming down atop the structure, like a bird coming in to roost. Only its shadow through the substance of the “fronds” could be seen, now.
However, as it had slowed, just before it dropped from his line of sight, the Desperado had gotten a much better look at the thing. Now his mouth dropped open, and his hand fell away from the butt of his pistol. The thing he had heard and seen, that had appeared to be like nothing he had ever encountered before…was a bee! It was a fat bee, perhaps a bumblebee, perhaps just a particularly healthy honeybee. He was no expert in such things. But it was a bee—a bee the size of his head!
With that realization, suddenly his surroundings lost some of their bizarre, alien character, and he realized that he was standing in a growth of grass, grass the blades of which were often nearly as tall as him, and some of which were taller. And that tall, bizarre plant that the bee had been seeking out was no tree but was…a flower.
He gaped about at his surroundings for a moment, then looked down at himself, as if confirming that it was still his usual body. It certainly felt the same as normal. Even his sense of his own weight felt just as it always did. But that seemed like it shouldn’t be right. Shouldn’t he feel…lighter, somehow?
It seemed that the wizard had indeed caused him to shrink, to become less than a foot tall. Though, looking about again at the plants around him, most of which he now realized were just ordinary grass seen from another perspective, he thought he must be well under a foot, actually. Maybe not as small as half a foot high, but not much higher than that. He could indeed have stood on someone’s outstretched palm, though even if such an opportunity presented itself, he had no intention of doing so. He could hardly trust himself to the hand of a giant.
And that thought revealed the seeming incongruity in the more obvious incongruity to him. He didn’t feel smaller or lighter, as he would have thought he would feel if shrunk, and yet, based on the weight of his normal body, surely his feet should have sunk into the soil quite a bit—even more than they usually would, in fact, since surely his boot heels now would be merely a fraction of an inch across. He was no genius, but even he realized that, if one put the same weight down on a smaller point, it would surely pierce through something far more so than usual.
His current experience was more akin to having come to a place where everything else was much larger than usual, not that he was much smaller. Was this the wizard’s doing, or did it have something to do with the process of traveling between worlds? He had no idea, but the seeming paradox bothered him at least a bit. Maybe he would get used to it.
His thoughts were distracted by a new humming, thrumming, buzzing sound. He thought for an instant that perhaps the bee was taking flight again, but a glance told him it was still puttering about on the surface of the flower, doing whatever bees did when they landed. This was a similar sort of sound, but its specific characteristics were different. It was slightly louder and slightly slower, but in some ways it felt almost lighter than the bee’s noise, as though it was made by something finer, less squat and thick, sleeker. He wondered if it might be perhaps a dragonfly. Were those dangerous? Or, rather, would they be dangerous to someone his size?
He touched the butt of his gun again, still reminding himself to avoid killing unless his life depended on it. He hoped it wouldn’t, but he did wonder, if his bullets retained their apparent weight, as his body seemed to have done, what they would do to an insect that was almost as big as he was. He was nowhere close to being curious enough to consider doing the experiment.
This buzzing noise didn’t seem to be coming as directly toward him as the bee’s had done, but as it passed close, coming off to the side, he caught a glimpse of whatever had been making the noise. It was certainly quite a bit larger than the bee, and it was almost in the shape of a dragonfly, but he couldn’t be sure in the blur of its speed. It didn’t seem quite right.
He wished he could have gotten a better look at it. Then, as if in response to his wish, the flying creature seemed to change direction just before it was completely out of sight, and then it almost stopped in midair before changing direction and heading back over toward him, where it hovered in the air perhaps ten feet—relatively speaking—above him.
“Why do you have your wings in that configuration?” it said.
For this was no insect hovering effortlessly above him. It looked for all the world like a woman, though very dragonfly-like wings grew from her back and beat steadily in the air, producing a pleasant hum, even up close. She was quite slender, she had rather short blond hair, and she wore a light green top, belted at the waist, and a knee-length skirt, had green bangles on her wrists, and wore soft-looking mid-sized boots, made of what could have been green suede or even velvet. The edges of her shirt and of her skirt were oddly ragged, but in what looked to be a deliberate way, with an uneven zig-zag hem all along them.
She was looking down at the Desperado, who could see that even her eyes were light green, and he had understood her question perfectly. But he didn’t know what she meant, and he was frankly too astonished to process it. This was plainly a fairy of some kind, just based on her appearance. She did not however appear to be in any sense “dark”, and even as she asked him her question, there was a slight smile on her face, seeming to indicate mere idle curiosity.
Still almost at a loss, the Desperado was at least able to force out the words, “Beg pardon?” Then, somehow feeling that he was being rude or at least not fully polite, he reached up with his right hand, not thinking anymore of using his gun, and he took his hat off, holding it politely in front of him, as if meeting some wealthy or high-born lady.
The flying woman came down a little bit closer, but she didn’t land. She gave the impression that it was somehow easier and more relaxing for her to hover in midair than it would have been simply to set down on the ground and stand to talk. Or, perhaps, she was simply being cautious and maintaining her mobility advantage. Surely it had to be easier to avoid a hostile being when one could fly.
“I asked why you have your wings in that configuration,” the woman said, waving her hand generally at the Desperado’s body. “It doesn’t look very useful. What if you need to fly?”
The Desperado looked down at himself, for a moment unable to understand just what in the world—whatever world it was—this woman meant. He couldn’t fly, and he certainly did not have wings, functional or not.
Then, as he looked, the fact that the woman’s gesture had swept in the direction of his whole body, from top to bottom, gave him a hint. Looking again at himself, he took hold of the edge of his duster—not the side he pulled back to get to his gun when necessary—and flapped it about a bit. “You mean this?” he asked.
“Yes,” the woman said with a nod, looking quite at ease still, despite the incessant beating of her wings. “Why do you have it like that? It’s not very nice to look at, and it doesn’t seem very useful.”
Strangely defensive, but also recognizing that a fairy would probably never have seen such a thing, the Desperado said, “Well, it actually can be useful. It’s a duster. It keeps dust off…when I’m traveling somewhere with a lot of dust, anyway, which I often am.”
The flying woman looked distinctly puzzled by this reply. “It keeps the dust off?” she asked, as though uncertain she’d heard him correctly. “But…just flapping your wings does that. I’ve never had trouble with dust.”
Trying to keep his head straight, especially in light of the impossible but undeniable fact that this woman was flying but was motionless in the air before him, the Desperado said, “No, well…around here I wouldn’t think it would be a problem. But trust me, I’ve been places where flapping your wings would just raise more dust to clog your nose and block your vision and dry out your mouth. Even birds need baths.”
“Well, but birds are big and clumsy,” she said. “Except the hummingbirds. They’re nice. They can be a bit short-tempered, but they’re quick and light, at least.” She paused, as if thinking about his point, then said, “It can be that dusty in those places?”
With a shrug, the Desperado said, “It can. Especially in the desert.”
“The desert,” the woman said, as though she recognized the word but found it horrifying. “I’ve never been to a desert. It must be awful.”
“It certainly can be,” the Desperado said, slightly amazed to be having this casual conversation with a flying woman in a green outfit. “The last one I was in nearly killed me.”
The woman laughed as though this was obviously a joke. It was not clear why, but the Desperado didn’t have time to ask her before she said, “You’re funny. What’s your name?”
The Desperado blinked a few times, then he thought about the wizard’s parting advice. He didn’t know if it only applied to the Dark Fairy, or if other fairies could also use his identity to somehow gain power over him. It was best to be cautious. So, he decided he would just go with what the wizard had called him, as he already seemed to be doing so in his head, anyway, and he replied, “I’m…well, they call me the Desperado.” Then, deciding it would be impolite to do otherwise, he added, “And you are?”
The fairy tilted her head, coming ever so slightly closer. She said, “Well, since you’re giving me your title instead of your proper name, why don’t you just call me…let’s see…call me Pixie. That’s one of the things the humans call fairies like me. I don’t know why.”
The Desperado was pretty sure he’d heard that term before, in fairy tales of one kind or another, though he’d never thought that such a thing could be real. He also thought that, indeed, this flying, svelte woman would definitely match what he might have thought of as a pixie.
“Fair enough,” he said, also by no means sure where the word “pixie” even came from. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“And you,” the woman—Pixie, for the moment, it seemed—said, and then she went on, “I don’t think I’ve seen you in this area before. I didn’t even see you fly in.”
“No, well, uh,” the Desperado said, trying to imagine himself flying into the area by any means. “As a matter of fact, I didn’t come here in any kind of usual way. If there is one. I was…sent here. By a wizard, or at least that’s what he says he is.”
The woman’s eyes widened, and she seemed both deeply interested and slightly awed. “A wizard!” she exclaimed. “I’ve heard of them, but I don’t think I’ve ever met one.”
“No, well, I’d never met one before, either,” the Desperado admitted.
“Well, then, how do you know he really is a wizard?” Pixie asked.
The Desperado figured this was a reasonable question, but he was also pretty confident in his answer. He said, “Well, for one thing, he sent me here…and not by any…wagon, or steed, or whatever that I’ve ever experienced before. Like you said, I didn’t fly here, and I certainly didn’t walk.”
“Ha ha, obviously,” Pixie said, as if the notion of walking to get somewhere were ridiculous.
“And he first brought me to him by having some…well, sort of living water from a well come out and grab me. He called it an invitation, but it wasn’t like I could refuse. He did some other things that were pretty…impressive, too. I don’t know if there’s a formal meaning to what a wizard is, but he fits the bill for me.”
The flying woman seemed a bit puzzled by some of his terms, but she didn’t seem inclined to ask him to clarify.
When Pixie remained silent, the Desperado decided to tell her a little bit about his journey. After all, he’d been told he would need to ask around a bit to find his quarry, and here already was someone who might know. He said, “He…sent me here on a sort of job. He wanted me to give a message, and a gift, to someone called the Dark Fairy. Do you happen to know where I might find…her?”
He paused a bit on the last word because the Pixie looked both surprised and a bit troubled by his declaration. She rose slightly in the air before quietly asking, “Why in the world would a wizard send you to give a message to her? She’s…she doesn’t like humans, and wizards are humans…aren’t they?”
The Desperado blinked. It hadn’t occurred to him even to question that assumption. Thinking carefully, he said, “Well…he looked human, but he definitely can do things no human I’ve ever known could do. So maybe he’s not.
“As for why he sent me…well, there’s apparently something he needs to do that he can’t do by himself, but that he thinks he could do with her help, so he sent me to ask, since he can’t go there himself.”
Pixie looked troubled. She lowered herself a bit again, clearly thinking carefully, then said, “I don’t know. I don’t think she’d be inclined to help anyone who even might be human. She probably wouldn’t even help another fairy unless they were in real trouble, or humans were endangering them. But she can’t leave her realm, anyway. She was trapped there. I’m not sure how.”
“No, well, I was told that, also,” the Desperado replied, pleased with himself for remembering those details—though he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. The recent events he’d experienced had been incredible and shocking, so he was not too surprised that almost every detail remained clear and fresh in his mind. “He’s sort of in a similar situation, I guess. And maybe that’s why he wants to reach out to her. He thinks that they can help each other get out of their…traps, or whatever you’d call it.”
Pixie looked particularly thoughtful, and she even bit her lower lip before saying, “I don’t know…I’m not certain it would be too…well, safe, I suppose, for her to be out and running loose. Of course, it’s terrible that she’s trapped and can’t go anywhere but in that…that place of hers. But she’s…damaged. I don’t know what she would do if she got free. But anyway, I really doubt she’d agree to work with any wizard from somewhere else.”
The Desperado sighed and said, “Well, he knows that might be the case, but like I said, he did send a gift for her to try to convince her.” Deciding it should probably be safe, he reached into his left pocket and pulled out the moonstone necklace, holding it by its gem, with the chain dangling off his hand. “He said she likes…moonstones.”
To his surprise, when the necklace came out into the air, it began to give off a slight shine, a bit of a glow, as if the cloudy blue in its interior were oozing out into the air around it. It felt no different in his hand, but the color of the radiance was certainly striking.
Pixie seemed far more impressed than he was. Indeed, she came down closer than she had been thus far, and she gazed at the moonstone raptly, seemingly almost entranced by it. The glow increased slightly as she got closer, and it certainly was pretty, but the Desperado was far from thinking it was as mesmerizing as this Pixie seemed to find it. She stared at it as if getting lost in its depths. She floated down so low that they were roughly at eye level with each other, though her legs were bent back so that her feet didn’t touch the ground. Her mouth opened slightly in apparent awe, and she seemed almost…lustful, the Desperado could have said, though he guessed maybe fairies—or Pixies—behaved in different ways than humans.
Finally looking back up at him with dazed eyes, Pixie said, “It’s beautiful.”
Still puzzled and a bit put off by the strength of her reaction, the Desperado said, “Yes, it is very nice,” though he thought it wasn’t really to his taste that much. “I suppose then that it would be a…well, a reasonably good gift to try to give to ask for her help.”
Pixie nodded vaguely, but it wasn’t clear that she was really agreeing with his assessment. After biting her lips again, she looked directly at the Desperado and said, “You know…maybe the wizard could use my help instead. I’m a slightly different kind of fairy than she is—and than you are, I suppose—but my magic is still pretty strong. Maybe you could just…give this to me, and I could help this wizard. And maybe you and I could even…dally together a bit.”
The Desperado found this last suggestion troubling. It seemed that this Pixie was suggesting something rather carnal in nature, and though he thought she was pretty, and certainly was not above such desires, he found it terribly unnerving that she had suddenly become this way only when the moonstone was in front of her. Was it greed that led her to offer some kind of possibly sexual favor in return for getting the stone? If so, that wouldn’t be all that troubling, since he’d known many women who did such things, often more openly, and as part of an established business. But this seemed different. The woman seemed somehow drunk, or dazed, or perhaps almost like someone who had taken the brew made from the peyote cactus. He didn’t know if this was just the way fairies reacted to moonstones, or if the wizard had tried to make it more enticing, since the Dark Fairy was apparently quite hard to negotiate with. Maybe it was affecting this Pixie more than he would have thought because she was not dark.
He tucked the stone back into his pocket, and Pixie seemed to at least become somewhat less dazed, though her gaze lingered on where he had put it for a bit. He said, “I’m sorry. I’m quite sure that you are…strong, with magic, or whatever, and I have no doubt that, well…dallying with you would be pleasant. But I have specific instructions. And I don’t think it would be a good idea to go against the wishes of a wizard like that.”
Pixies eyes widened, and she seemed a bit surprised, though the Desperado wasn’t sure if she was surprised by his refusal, or by the point he had made, or by her own behavior. Still slightly dazed, she said, “No. No, I guess that would be bad. They say you shouldn’t even meddle in the affairs of wizards, let alone cross them.”
“I think that sounds like good advice,” the Desperado said.
With a sigh, Pixie finally said, “Well, that’s a shame, but as you say, you have your instructions.” She looked almost ready to fly off, possibly without saying goodbye, since she still seemed dazed enough to forget social niceties.
Eager to catch his opportunity before she did, the Desperado said, “Speaking of ‘instructions’…do you think you could tell me how to get to the Dark Fairy’s…well, realm, or whatever you might call it. The wizard said he could get me near, but couldn’t put me inside it, so I’d have to ask around.”
Pixie blinked, as if surprised. “Oh,” she said. “I didn’t realize. Of course. Her forest is off in that direction.” She waved her hand in a vague way over his left shoulder, in what would have been about a seven o’clock direction.
The Desperado looked over his shoulder as though expecting to see a clear path or some sign of his destination, but all he could really make out was more grass, tall enough to block him from seeing any great distance. Looking back over at Pixie, who looked like she was now getting a bit bored, he asked, “Are there any…well, not roads, but say, signposts or markers or anything of that sort?”
Pixie seemed slightly puzzled by the question, but she said, “No, there are no paths or markers, but don’t worry. You won’t be able to miss it…though you’ll probably want to. You can fly there in a jiffy, and you’ll be able to see where you’re going without any trouble once you get going.”
Feeling strangely awkward and even embarrassed, the Desperado thought quickly and told her, “Well, the, uh…the wizard told me that I wasn’t supposed to fly as I…as I went to find her. He didn’t tell me why, but he made it clear that it would…well, maybe mess up his magic or something.” He knew it sounded absurd, but he thought it was best to let Pixie keep the impression she had of him as a fellow fairy, rather than to reveal himself as a human. He didn’t know, if she were to find out his nature, if she would try to stop him from going near this Dark Fairy at all. Or if, perhaps, she was not too fond of humans, herself. He worried that his improvised explanation, though, would be too obviously false.
Pixie, however, seemed to take it as real, though she did look puzzled. “Really?” she asked. “I guess that explains why you have your wings in such an inconvenient shape. Don’t want to be tempted, and who doesn’t fly when they’re not really thinking about it? But that’s amazing. Who would have thought that flying would mess up his magic? Wizards are really strange, aren’t they?”
She spoke as if she knew more than one wizard, though she had just moments before admitted to never having met a wizard. Nevertheless, the Desperado didn’t feel hesitant at all in replying, “I could not agree more.”
Pixie looked thoughtful for a moment, then appeared resigned, and she said, “Well, I guess you’ll have to go on foot then, I suppose. It still shouldn’t take all that long, though you’ll have to go around some things and not veer too far off. Still, if you head that way, you still shouldn’t be able to miss it.” She again waved her hand in the general direction she had mentioned before.
The Desperado toyed with the thought of asking her to help guide him, but she was fairly obviously starting to lose interest already, and he had nothing to offer her in return for her help. He didn’t want to be caught up in owing some fairy something that he didn’t know if he could repay. And his sense of direction was reasonably good—perhaps it was related to his inerrant ability to aim his gun and hit whatever he meant to hit. If he went very long without reaching his destination, he supposed he could always find someone to ask again. The fact that he had met this fairy so soon after his arrival made him conclude that it was at least possible that there would be others about, though he knew he couldn’t rule out lucky coincidence.
Still, he did have one more question to ask before Pixie completely lost interest. “How will I know when I’ve gotten to her…realm, or whatever it’s called? Is there a marker or a signpost or a…fence of some kind?”
Pixie looked surprised by the question, but she shook her head and replied, “No, there’s no real marker, and certainly no fence. But you won’t be able to miss it. You’ll know when you’ve reached it.”
Puzzled in his turn, the Desperado asked, “How will I know?”
With a shrug, Pixie said, “Because it’s different than everything else around here. It’s…unpleasant.”
“Is it dangerous?” the Desperado asked, legitimately concerned, especially considering that he had been told not to kill any animals, which he guessed included insects. “And is there any real danger on the way that I need to worry about?”
“Nothing dangerous on the way,” Pixie said. “Nothing that could harm a fairy. As for whether her realm is dangerous…well, I suppose she is dangerous, but I don’t think she’d try to attack another fairy, not without a good reason. There are probably some dangers there, but I don’t think you’ll need to be worried about them. And, as for her…well, you’re supposed to find her, anyway, you said, so I guess that’s just something you’ll need to handle on your own.” With that, apparently wanting to avoid any further questions, and obviously interested in getting on about whatever her usual business was, since she couldn’t get him to give her the moonstone or “dally” with her, she said, “Good luck. It was nice to meet you.”
As Pixie slowly began to rise back up to higher than the level of any of the grass, the Desperado said, “Likewise. And…thank you, ma’am.”
This last expression seemed to tickle Pixie’s fancy because she giggled slightly, but she said nothing else, and she quickly returned to her previous blurring speed and zoomed out of sight.
As he watched where she had been, the Desperado put his hat back on, shading the sky, which was bright enough to merit the cover, though the sun was not visibly overhead. He looked up at the top of the flower, but he could no longer see the shadow of the bee that landed there, and there was no movement in what he now knew were petals. Apparently, the bee had flown off while he’d been talking to Pixie, presumably having gotten from the flower whatever it was it had sought.
With a sigh and a shake of his own head, surprised at how easily he was taking in all these occurrences that should have led him to doubt his sanity, the Desperado turned and began to make his way in the general direction toward which Pixie had gestured.
As he walked, the Desperado continued to marvel at the fact that, though his weight felt entirely normal to him, and the earth beneath him was soft and springy, his feet did not sink into it appreciably. Indeed, looking back once or twice on his progress, he saw that he had barely left any footprints. He supposed anyone who knew what they were doing could have followed him, but it wouldn’t be obvious.
Pixie had said he would need to wend through many obstacles on his path, and she had not been wrong. He had to step around many clumped blades of grass as he went, and some larger stalks, but he was thankful that this place was not thickly growing with the stuff. He’d known areas in the middle of the continent he’d come from where the grass grew so thick that you couldn’t see any trace of the ground through it from above. He could only imagine how hard it would have been to walk through such terrain if one was barely over half a foot high. That thought led him to wonder, given that he felt his normal weight, if he tried, he would be able to jump to his true normal jumping height rather than his relative height as he was now. If that were the case, he supposed he would be able to clear any obstacle by bounding over it, but he didn’t feel any real desire to try. Even if he could do it, landing would be trouble, and if he really did feel like his usual weight, it might not be unreasonable to assume that he could break a leg—or his neck—if he came down wrong.
He wondered why the grass grew quite so separated here, such that though he had to wend about constantly, there was always some clear ground for him to walk on. Unfortunately, he had no basis on which even to speculate.
As he walked, he kept his eyes and ears open for any possible danger. He supposed he wouldn’t have to worry much about insects, given his comparative size, though if he were stung by a bee such as the one he’d seen earlier, it might indeed be a serious injury—even leaving aside the bee’s poison. He knew, though, that bees were not aggressive unless they or their hive was threatened. He’d known a few beekeepers in his time, and though he’d had no desire to get too near an active hive, he’d seen that it could be done without too much danger.
He supposed there were probably larger insect predators that might be worth avoiding, but unless he met one, he didn’t think there was much to worry about.
He also didn’t think he needed to worry too much about larger animals. A coyote might just try and snap up a tidbit like him, he guessed—he had certainly known them to eat lizards that weren’t much bigger than he currently was. But this didn’t feel like coyote country to him, and he likewise didn’t think he would need to worry about meeting a housecat or even a feral cat, though if he did, he knew he would need to be very careful indeed. Cats were sadistic, vicious creatures, and would torture or kill smaller animals merely for sport. If he saw sign of one, he would certainly draw his gun. He also didn’t think mice or moles or even rats were likely to bother something like him.
Of course, in a world in which fairies existed, he supposed there might be any number of other dangers lying in wait. Perhaps there were dragons the size of woodchucks that would look for their chances to incinerate something like him before eating him. However, the woman, Pixie, had told him there were no significant dangers before he got to the Dark Fairy’s realm, and he would guess that a dragon would be something that would be worth noting, even for her. He could not prepare for issues he could not possibly imagine, and so for those, the best he could do was stay alert.
No, probably his biggest worry would be the possibility that some bird, perhaps a small hawk or falcon, might take him for an unusual vole, and snatch him up from the ground to carry back to its nest. He was reasonably sure he could kill such a bird if he needed to, even at his present comparative size, but if he did so after already being up in the air, the consequent fall would probably kill him anyway, certainly if he really was his usual weight. Then again, he thought that small animals could usually survive falls that would kill a larger one. How would that apply to him?
He shrugged to himself, again shaking his head, and tried not to be distracted by the unanswerable questions. There was no accounting for the effects of magic, he guessed, and magic was clearly what he was experiencing, whatever it even meant, so thinking about it wouldn’t get him anywhere. Walking would, so he continued to walk in the same general direction, keeping his senses on alert especially for birds, and for any sign of his destination.
He did see a few insects here and there, though they seemed often to try to stay away from him; maybe they were leery of fairies, which he seemed to be to them, apparently. Another few bees passed by, but as he was not very close to any flowers again, none of them came close to him. There were smaller, more typical flies buzzing here and there, housefly types as well as several others he didn’t think he recognized. Thankfully, he saw no horseflies, which he would have had only a little compunction about shooting if one did come near him. Not killing innocent things was all well and good, but no horsefly was innocent. Even a Dark Fairy couldn’t blame him if he shot one of those, surely.
Mosquitoes were another concern, though he thought one probably wouldn’t consider a creature his size as a good source of blood, so he was probably safe from any attempted bites. It seemed the wrong time of day for mosquitoes, anyway, and he did not encounter any.
At one point, as he walked, he saw what must have been a beetle off ahead of him—certainly it was squat and shiny black and would have seemed to be about three feet long compared to him if he’d been his usual size—but it apparently sensed him coming and scuttled off quickly between the blades of grass, and he soon lost sight of it. He was almost disappointed. Seeing the beetle made him half want to encounter a ladybug, since they seemed like just the sort of creature to fit into a fairy-laden world, but he saw none. He guessed that was just as well; he thought he remembered hearing or reading that lady bugs were hunters and killers in their own right.
That thought led him to think of spiders, which he guessed were another, possibly more serious, threat to someone down at the level of the grass. Still, he didn’t know of any spider short of a Mexican tarantula that could cause much trouble for a creature his apparent size. He wouldn’t want to stumble into a web, he guessed, but that seemed like it would be a greater concern for someone who was flying.
He had been walking for what must have been something like an hour, still reasonably confident in his general direction, when the ground began to get a bit firmer beneath his feet, and the grass blades grew slightly farther apart. It seemed the soil was becoming dryer and was certainly less springy. Now he left no visible footprints at all as he walked.
Soon he came upon some low and sparsely leafed bushes of a type he’d never seen before. Their trunks and branches were the first really brown plant parts he’d seen here, and were darker than the soil, which had grown lighter in shade. He was surprised and rather pleased to see a caterpillar crawling up a low branch of one of these bushes. It was smooth, largely dark green in color and easily four feet long relative to him. It was almost charming to see the way it inched its way along up the branch, presumably heading for some of the leaves. He didn’t retain much in the way of boyish wonder in his soul—such things didn’t survive well in a life such as he had led—but he did chuckle a bit as he watched its movement.
Smiling slightly to himself, he continued forward, tipping his hat to the caterpillar, which did not seem to pay him any mind at all. He noticed that the grass was thinning and becoming browner, less healthy-looking. Something in the soil here was, perhaps, not good for it. There were a few more of the scraggly bushes with their meandering branches and sparse leaves, but even they did not seem very healthy. Yet the air did not feel any drier, and though the soil was less springy than it had been where he had first arrived—if that was the right term—there were clearly fewer things growing. There were also fewer insects. Even flies seemed to be avoiding the region. He wondered if he might be near one of those places where strange minerals were pushed up from within the ground, and thus made a region comparatively unfit for normal living things. Still, he would have thought something like that would leave a taint in the air, and he smelled nothing but the ambient, remaining, healthy smell of the plants and the soil through which he’d been walking.
He was fairly sure he was still headed in the direction in which he’d set out. He knew it was impossible to be certain, but he’d trained himself pretty well to avoid the gradual veering and circling that tended to happen to those who were walking without knowing their surroundings well. He had not become lost in the desert that had almost killed him by accident; that had been a deliberate attempt to evade pursuers that had gone wrong. It had not been a flaw in his sense of direction, but a misjudgment of another kind completely.
Deciding he had best just continue, and thankful at least that he had few obstacles to go around, he walked on. The air in front of him seemed almost hazy, and he wasn’t sure what the terrain ahead looked like. He drew to a brief halt as he looked ahead trying to make out what might lay beyond the haze. It was not like a mist, not like a low cloud of fog, nor was it as if there were a significant amount of dust raised into the air. He’d been through dust storms here and there, and they were certainly horrible enough to endure, but they had obvious natures. This strange blurring of vision felt almost as if he were trying to look through discolored glass, with light scattered by the air itself. There didn’t seem to be anything in the air that was doing it.
Beyond, he could not make out clearly what the terrain was like. He thought he saw large, dark shapes, almost like pillars, rising up from bare ground. They were significantly higher than the flowers, or the bushes, or anything else he had passed, and they were also much wider. He wondered for a moment if they might be some manner of rock formation, like some of the sometimes-bizarre shapes he had seen rising out of the desert not far from the mountains, and in other parts of the lands in which he had traveled. But these did not have the color of stone; they were very dark, nearly black—perhaps in some places they really were black.
They didn’t seem to be plants. Certainly, there was no sign of any greenery beyond the haze in the air. He tried to squint to see if he could make out anything more clearly, but it didn’t help.
This was the correct general direction in which he was supposed to head, he was basically certain about that. And, of course, there was supposed to be some manner of boundary to this Dark Fairy’s realm. Perhaps this haziness in the air represented that boundary. He hoped the whole area wouldn’t be hazy. If so, traveling through it would be nearly maddening, as well as dangerous. There could be pitfalls, bogs, logs over which to trip, and even predators in such an area, and it would be difficult to evade them effectively. But neither the wizard nor Pixie had given any hints about such dangers. It was possible that they simply didn’t know about them, but it seemed more likely that this sight-interfering place was merely a threshold through which one had to pass.
He reached a hand tentatively forward, wondering if he would feel a change in the air as he encountered the haze, or if he would even meet a real, physical barrier. He felt no resistance, and certainly nothing solid met his fingers; even the temperature of the air seemed the same. Somehow, he had expected to feel almost a greasy, oily sensation, but all he felt was air. His hand was only slightly blurred as it entered this apparent substance, but when he drew it back, it looked the same as it always did.
Shrugging to himself, not liking the possible worsening obstruction of his vision, but seeing no real alternative, he instinctively held his breath and then walked forward. He put his right hand on the butt of his pistol, just in case, but reminded himself firmly not to kill anything if he could help it.
Though he felt nothing anywhere on his body, his entire vision became slightly blurred as he reached the place where his hand had become hazy before. He squinted again, involuntarily, but it neither worsened nor aided his sight. He thought he noticed a faint smell, one that was mostly unpleasant but carried a hint of nostalgia. It was the smell of ash and soot, faint but present, as from a recent wood fire, one that had gone out and had perhaps been rained on. It wasn’t the smell of a currently burning fire, as of an active campsite or a stove or a fireplace. It was an older, faded, somehow disheartening smell.
The blurring of his vision lasted only for perhaps two paces before clearing, but though his vision now was unobstructed, and he could see what was in front of him, the small of dead fires remained and, if anything, grew stronger. Now, though, he could at least see where the smell came from.
Before him lay an expanse of what looked like burned out forest. The things he had taken for possible stone pillars were actually the remnants of the trunks of trees, all of them burned severely, the branches but all of a few completely snapped or burned from their trunks. In places, the whitish gray of old ash marked them—and there was plenty of it on the ground, certainly—but mostly they were blackened, charred, many with the crossed line pattern one sometimes saw on burned logs.
He could not tell what kind of trees they might have been; most of them were straight up and down, without much meandering of their trunks, but that didn’t narrow things much, and he had a hard time judging their size. Somehow, they didn’t seem quite as big relative to him as they should have, given the scale of the grass and flowers and bushes he’d passed so far, but they were certainly bigger than any ordinary trees might be if he had been his usual size. He had heard of the soaring, gigantic pine trees out in northern California, but he had never seen them, and he wasn’t sure they weren’t exaggerated. Perhaps they would seem as large or larger compared to his normal size as these ruined trees did to him now. He didn’t think that the majority of these trees had been any kind of evergreen, though. There was not even the remnant of a burned scent of resin as one might expect from pines or their relatives.
He looked from left to right ahead of him. Everywhere were variations of the same sight: row upon row of mostly straight, cracked, desiccated tree trunks, black with occasional gray, with very rare branches on the trunks—though now that he paid attention, he thought there were some lying on the ground, looking if anything more devastated than the trunks. The ground itself was gray and brown and occasionally black, with the weird, caked look of ash that had been rained on and then dried out. There was not even a hint of new greenery growing through any of it, or of any branches or leaves reblossoming from the trunks of the burnt trees. Everything before him was dead—burned and destroyed, ruined beyond survival.
He wondered how long ago this fire had happened. The fact that there were no newly growing saplings or even other plants made him think that it must have been recent—he’d seen a remnant of a forest fire before, and it was remarkable how quickly new life sprang up from it. However, the look and feel of the trunks and the ash, the impression that everything here had worn further since whatever catastrophic fire had passed through the place, made it feel that it had been some time ago, perhaps months, perhaps even years.
He took his hat off briefly to rub at his forehead, which felt itchy as he looked at the vista of devastation before him, and then he put it back on.
He blew out a slow breath. Well, at the very least, he thought he must really have been heading in the right direction. If there ever was a place suitable to someone who was called a “dark” fairy, this would certainly be such a place.
He began to step forward. The ground beneath his feet was far harder than the ground outside had been, as hard as the hardest hardpan of the desert he’d ever walked through. He wouldn’t quite say it felt like stone, but it was much less yielding than he would have though ash to be. As he looked down at his feet, he was surprised to note that not even a stray autumn leaf seemed to have blown into this area from the world outside the blurring haze. That was surprising. He’d felt no resistance at all to his own movement, not even a feeling as strong as a breeze in his face. Surely, if it had been more than a few seasons, at least some plant material should have blown in from behind him. Apparently not, though. Either it was prevented from coming in, or someone—or something—regularly raked away such things.
He strode on, not too quickly, keeping his eye open for any sign of someone who would match the description of “Dark Fairy”, but he neither saw nor even heard any signs of living beings. As he looked up, he caught no sign of insects, nor birds, nor—apparently—fairies going overhead. The sky was clear, but the blue was somehow hazed over, as though tainted with a bit of soot such as covered nearly everything about.
This had to be the Dark Fairy’s realm, he felt sure of that. But if so, then she must be more than merely “prickly” as the wizard had proclaimed. He thought either the wizard or Pixie had described her as “damaged”, or something of that sort. He wondered what the nature of that damage was. Had she been harmed in the fire that had burned this place? Or had she caused the fire? Was that the nature of her damage?
He would have to find her before having any chance to figure out the answer, if there was such a chance. But, of course, learning about this Dark Fairy’s past, and her troubles, was not really the point of his mission. He merely had to find her, deliver the wizard’s message, and give her the moonstone so she could talk to the wizard directly. He had suspected that it would not be quite as easy a job as it sounded, but now that he saw this place, he wondered if he had underestimated things, nevertheless.
He continued to move, more or less straight ahead, wondering how he would find this Dark Fairy if there were no other people to ask. How would he know where to look? He supposed he could, at worst, go on until he came to the other side of the place—he assumed there would be another region of blurring on the opposite boundary—and then turn either right or left, move along a ways, and then turn around and go back. He didn’t know how big the burnt forest was, but he didn’t think it could possibly go on forever. If it did, he would have thought that would be something either the wizard or Pixie would have mentioned.
Then again, even deserts didn’t go on forever. They didn’t have to go on forever to kill you before you could get across them, and this place was like a kind of desert itself. Even the bare, burnt tree trunks could pass for huge cacti from a distance. There was certainly no sign of water, and no food seemed likely, either. He had been restored to health by the wizard, but it couldn’t last forever. He would need to eat eventually, and long before that, he would need to drink.
He sighed as he walked. Perhaps he never really had left the desert. Perhaps he had been dreaming all the events regarding the wizard, and then his transport here, and Pixie, and the necklace, and now he was getting to end of his life, and so the dream had changed back to one of desolation, suitable for a man dying of thirst.
It didn’t feel like a dream, but he couldn’t swear that it wasn’t.
He walked for a while, allowing himself to meander just slightly, passing between trunks of massive to gargantuan size. There were, here and there, some more burned branches on the ground, all just as thoroughly seared as everything else. He also saw that there were at least a few trees of different types; the trunks were not all exactly the same configuration. Possibly, some skilled woodsman would be able to say what kind they had been, assuming that any of them were trees such as grew where he had come from. The air smelled more than ever of old ash from the fire, of soot that was somehow damp despite no sign of water. It was a dead smell, and it burned his nose a bit, but it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, nevertheless. He had always been fond of the smell of a wood fire, at least when it was contained and used for sane purposes, and despite this place being far from that, it wasn’t entirely different in odor.
Soon, he came to a place where the tree trunks seemed to be getting smaller, which surprised him just a bit. They didn’t seem to be different kinds of trees, and indeed, their contours matched those of all the countless ones he had passed, but they were shrinking—or perhaps he was growing, he guessed that might be possible—and started to feel like more normal-sized tree trunks. They were still just as burned as the others, but they felt more normal.
He looked up and saw that there were slight wisps of cloud now, faint gray against the pale blue sky.
And now he came upon a break in the trees, some manner of clearing, surrounded by irregular, charred trunks in a very rough ring. There was less ash on the ground here than there had been elsewhere, but the ground was still hard and dead. The clearing was slightly longer perpendicular to the Desperado’s direction of travel, and looking to his left, toward the far end of it, he saw what looked to be a stump. It would maybe have risen to just slightly past waist high on him, and it was denuded of bark, and cut off almost level at it’s top.
No, wait, that wasn’t quite right. It was slightly irregular somehow, but the sameness of the color made it hard to see.
He walked toward it, even more slowly than before, and soon it became clear that this was not merely a straight-cut tree remnant. The stump had been somehow carved, and with great care, into a form of chair, almost like a low, crude throne made of wood. Though the thing was clearly not alive, the wood there was merely discolored, old, and brown. There was no trace of ash or soot anywhere on it.
Two tree remnants, one on either side, rose not far from it. These had rapidly ramifying branches, spreading like the fingers of a demon’s hands, splitting and splitting, gnarled and twisted. They were dead, plainly so, but were nevertheless intact, though without sign of leaf or shoot. They spread, almost meeting over the top of the stump-chair, giving the impression of a demented, arched alcove over some manner of small forest throne.
He wondered if this was the Dark Fairy’s chair, or if maybe it used to be before the disaster that burned the forest. Its surfaces were smooth, almost polished.
He walked toward it, not quite as slowly as before, curious to see if there was more to the thing, and also wondering if there would be any sign of the Dark Fairy there, or some symbol of any kind. He stopped perhaps fifteen feet in front of it, his left hand going up to rub against the back of his neck as he considered what he was seeing.
Surely this must be where the Dark Fairy came sometimes, he thought. It had a regal but dangerous air to it, and the trees guarding the chair looked menacing, as though they might come to life and throttle anyone who had the audacity to sit uninvited, or perhaps even anyone who came too close.
He was startled out of his reverie, and he whirled and drew his pistol before he even processed what led him to do it. Only as he came to a stop, facing away from the woodland throne, did he realize that he had responded to a low-pitched, but highly hostile-sounding growl, as from a large, dangerous animal.
He didn’t immediately think it might be the Dark Fairy somehow. This was not the sound made by anything with a human voice, or with one like it. He thought it more like some relative of a bear, perhaps, or a wolf—perhaps even a cougar. Whatever it was, he was prepared to face a good-sized predator even before he had turned his head to see.
He was faced with something that was indeed not a fairy, certainly nothing like Pixie had been, nothing like a human in shape. But it was also not quite exactly like any animal he had seen before. Standing facing him, one of its front paws slightly forward, was a shape roughly like a large, black wolf…except it wasn’t quite exactly like a wolf. The fur on its body was closer to its skin, and it was slightly more muscular than any wolf he’d seen or heard of—a creature built more for power than long endurance. It was black, with an almost bluish tinge to its glossy fur, and curiously, it had a prominent, bushy mane around its head, like those on pictures he’d seen of lions. Despite this mane, its wolf-like ears were visible, though they were flattened backward in a clear sign of hostility, if he knew anything about animals at all. Its lips were drawn back in a snarl, revealing vivid rows of thick, white teeth, the first white things he’d seen in this area, with canines that looked longer and sharper than those on any dogs he’d ever encountered.
Its paws, he could see, were also not quite like those of a wolf, but were more like a cat’s paws; they were broader than a wolf’s or dog’s feet would be, and they gave him the impression of prehensile toes, which might just have retractable claws.
He wondered where the thing had been when he had entered the clearing. He supposed, given its color, it could easily have lurked behind any of the trunks, and as long as it kept still, even the Desperado’s sharp eyes probably wouldn’t have seen it. He would have expected to have a sense of possible danger, but then again, this was a new world, and the whole forest was overridden with ash and soot; there had certainly been no animal smells on the air.
Was this a guardian of the Dark Fairy’s throne? Or could it even be that the Dark Fairy could take the shape of a wolf/lion hybrid if she wished? He had no idea whether such a thing might be possible.
The beast took a half step forward, bringing its other front paw slightly closer along with the opposite rear paw. The Desperado was fairly sure that he saw the claws on the front foot flex as it stepped, making him think again that it looked more feline than canine. It’s snout, however, was definitely longer and narrower than he thought any cat type would be and was more in the wolf or coyote configuration.
He supposed that, in a world with fairies, it was certainly reasonable that there would be other creatures that didn’t exist in his world or match quite any family within it.
The growl paused only for a second as the thing took a breath in, but then it resumed almost instantly, and if anything, it got lower and gravellier. It sounded like the menacing threat-noise of something much bigger than it was, perhaps like a full-grown lion or tiger, though the Desperado had never encountered either creature in person to know what they might really sound like.
As he thought this, a random, related but tangential thought flitted through his head that it was odd that the creature, which presumably—if its scale matched his, as it apparently did—was not quite even a foot long from snout to tail should have such a deep, powerful voice. He thought there was something about size that made smaller creatures have higher voices.
Then again, his own voice had sounded normal to him when he’d spoken with Pixie. And hers had sounded like a normal woman’s voice.
He also found it surprising and strange that this lion-like, wolf-like creature should have the proportions of a large beast despite its apparent true size, or lack thereof. Were there tiny deer or elk that it preyed on in this world?
The paw it had just moved now inched just slightly further forward and the creature lowered its head, its eyes staring at the Desperado, unblinking, as blue-black as the midnight sky on a moonless night.
As if to test his own voice as compared to the creature’s, the Desperado quietly said, “Easy, there, boy. I don’t mean any harm.” His voice was steady, as it nearly always was, and he hoped that would help relax the creature, if such a thing were possible.
The thing’s ear twitched just slightly in response to his words. It didn’t come any closer, but it didn’t back off, and it certainly showed no sign of relaxing.
The Desperado’s thumb was resting on the hammer of his pistol, but he hadn’t cocked it yet, and his right arm, with the pistol, was out to his side a bit. The beast wasn’t quite in springing distance, at least if it moved like a good-sized wolf, but it was not far outside it. That wasn’t especially worrying, though. The Desperado knew that, even with his pistol to the side and the hammer not drawn back, if the creature launched itself at him, he could bring the gung to bear, cock it, and put a bullet into the middle of the thing’s skull before it could reach him, and still probably have time to dodge out of the way. This was his gift, such as it was, and he’d had a lifetime to learn its limits. He wasn’t proud of the fact—it wasn’t really as if he’d chosen to pursue his field of expertise—but when it came to dealing death, he had never met anyone better than he was.
That, however, was not really the point, here. He had been told by the wizard not to kill any animal if he could help it, not unless his life literally depended on it. Also, he honestly didn’t know if this could be the Dark Fairy in disguise, though he doubted it. Even so, apparently, she would not take kindly to killing such a wild beast at all, and killing it in what might be her equivalent of a throne room would surely be worse.
Beyond even all that, though, the Desperado honestly had no desire to kill the thing. He was certainly capable of killing animals for food if the need arose, and he didn’t tend to feel too guilty about it, anymore than this thing would feel guilt over killing whatever it preyed on. But killing animals for any other reason did not sit well with him. Animals simply did what they did; they were not responsible for their actions. If they endangered humans, it was generally out of fear or hunger. Even people, for the most part, were less in control of their actions than they imagined. His fellow humans had never struck the Desperado as all that much more sensible than the average wild creature; they were just smarter and more capable of building things.
Death was part of life, and the Desperado was more than used to it. He could kill an animal if necessary. But he preferred not to do so, and he particularly didn’t want to kill this creature. Not only was that his explicit instruction from the wizard to avoid doing, but he also found that he admired the thing’s form and demeanor. It was powerful and sleek, a magnificent specimen of whatever kind of animal it was. It was beautiful in its way. And it had not simply sprung upon him from behind, but had given him a threatening noise, approaching him slowly, trying to intimidate him. It didn’t seem intent on killing him if that wasn’t necessary. At the very least, he could return the courtesy.
Thinking this, he decided to try to back away a bit, not as if preparing to flee, but just to keep distance, so the thing would think him neither prey that was about to escape nor competing predator that was about to fight. He moved his left foot slowly back, slightly toward the stump-throne behind him, and he shifted his weight over it. The lion-wolf watched him, its gaze glancing down at his foot for an instant as he started to move, but then returning immediately to his face, its eyes on his.
It was cunning and observant, this thing. It knew where to look for signs of threat.
Maybe—just maybe—it was smart enough to understand his speech, even if it was unlikely to be able to speak, itself.
“Easy, boy,” he said again. He presumed it was male, since from what he had read, only male lions had manes, and this thing had one. He could be wrong, of course, but it seemed a minor worry. “I’m not looking to hurt you or anyone or anything else around here. I’m just trying to find someone called the Dark Fairy. Do you know her?”
It felt foolish to him even as he asked the question, but the thing actually did seem to understand his question. As it turned out, however, this was not a good thing. Something about the thing’s face made the Desperado think it had not only understood exactly what he had said, but that it thought he was seeking the Dark Fairy possibly to harm her, and that it would not allow such a thing to happen. He supposed he could understand its response; how many armed men came looking for someone with positive intent? Still, this thing seemed almost jealous as well as protective—its face and demeanor were astonishingly clear in conveying these feelings—and its hostility level increased. It tensed even more than before, the growling dropped to nearly nothing, and it leaned forward, its rear legs bending.
“Wait!” the Desperado said. “I don’t mean her any harm. I’m just here to…”
It should have seemed strange to be trying to plead his case to a wild animal, but it felt perfectly reasonable. However, the Desperado did not get a chance to finish his sentence.
The beast sprang into action with a speed that almost surprised the Desperado. But he was not surprised by the action. He had seen in the thing’s features, in the set of its body, the fact that it had decided he was hostile, a threat to itself or—more likely—to the Dark Fairy, and it was plain that it meant to kill him or at least hurt him enough to eliminate the danger.
So, in the split instant when the thing’s paws completely left the ground, after it could no longer possibly change direction, the Desperado whirled to the right, throwing his own body slightly through the air. His boots might not have appeared suited to work of agility, but they fit him well and he was certainly used to them. He jumped to the side more than two yards, twisting counterclockwise slightly as he did, landing on his right foot, knees slightly bent, gun still not cocked but the barrel now pointing mostly upward.
In some part of his mind, he noticed just how normal his weight, his resistance to motion, his body’s response to his jump and to his connection with the ground felt. He couldn’t understand how that could be, but that was fine, because the part of his mind in use now was not the part that figured out fine details and complex issues.
He looked as the beast sailed by him, passing through where he had been only an instant before, its paws ahead of it, claws definitely spread and extended, its jaws wide and lips curled back, revealing more of its truly intimidating teeth. He knew it had to be at least a little surprised that he had dodged it, and he hoped this would throw it off the rhythm of its attack, perhaps send it tumbling to the ground in a chaotic roll, its failure stealing some of its confidence. Then he might try to reason with it again, since he had the remarkable impression that it understood him.
However, the thing’s reflexes must have been at least as good as his, or it had been prepared for possible evasive action just as the Desperado had been prepared for it to spring. It did not lose its balance or skid or roll, but instead, its adjusted leap took it right toward the wooden stump-throne that had been more than ten feet–or the equivalent adjusted distance based on size‒behind the Desperado. It connected with the back of the throne with its front paws and twisted the rest of its body slightly to its right, surprising the Desperado with how compactly it was able arch itself inward, its rear and front paws easily occupying the curved inner rear of the wooden seat.
An ordinary wooden chair would have been thrown over backward, taking the creature with it, but this throne really did seem to have been carved from a stump, with roots firmly planted in the hard ground. It did not seem to notice the force of the creature’s impact at all, and the beast was able to use it to push off against, redirecting its motion and turning as it did, adjusting its body via the fulcrum of the back of the throne before gravity even had time to make it start to fall. Twisting and rotating at remarkable speed, it swung itself to face the Desperado’s new position and launched itself again at him from the throne almost as quickly as he had been able to move.
This abrupt change of direction nearly overcame the Desperado’s own reflexes. He did not panic, but he had no backstop against which to push off to change his own direction, and he was already moving slightly to what had been his right. All he was able to do was continue his rotation and push more in that direction, keeping himself roughly facing the thing and now pitching forward to what had become his left side. He rolled toward the ground, bracing himself for an impact with his shoulder, which came as expected and briefly jarred his vision. There was probably pain involved in the impact, but it was held in abeyance as irrelevant for the moment. He rolled with the impact, hating having to face away from the beast even for a split second, whipping his head around faster than his body so he could get the animal in his sights again.
His gun arm slid underneath him and came back out in front, the pistol not even touching the ground as he tucked his elbow to lever it through. He spread his feet and his left arm, trying to keep from becoming fully prone, so he could move quickly if he needed to evade some more. The hard ground was surprisingly slick, though, possibly because of the ash that even here coated it slightly. Both of his boots skidded, and he didn’t quite get the base he wanted to be able to rise quickly back to his feet if he needed. His left arm, at least, was sturdily held by his hand, the splayed fingers giving a better grip than his boot heels.
The charging beast, however, had four feet, each with claws. It must have been surprised by his ability to dodge its renewed attack, for it sailed past where he had been, missing him by scarcely two feet, twisting slightly even in the air as it realized it would not connect this time. It landed a few yards past where the Desperado had been, unable to stop itself quite as firmly as it had against the throne, but scrambling its body back toward its right, its eyes as fixed on the Desperado as his were on it.
This creature was definitely more feline than wolf, whatever specific type of beast it was. Its ability to twist its body almost like a liquid, to change direction nearly instantly, to seize the ground with its claws to provide force to change its direction—these were all things than no wolf, dog, or even fox could have done, and even a wily tomcat would have been envious of its agility. The Desperado would have admired it himself, but it put him in a horrible position.
The thing skidded, but not as badly as the Desperado himself had, and it changed direction almost as quickly as it had with the throne leap, now facing him and bunching up its legs behind it again.
The Desperado’s feet scrambled, still sliding. His hands were both steady, but that would not be enough, since only one of them was on the ground. He certainly did not dare even to lower his gun.
He did not want to kill the lion-wolf thing. He really did not. Quite apart from the admonition he’d been given, he thought it was a remarkable animal, admirable in many ways. He did not want to kill it.
But it had already launched itself again, and there was no way for the Desperado even to roll to avoid it. It was much closer to him this time. He could see its gaping jaws, its sharp teeth, and its front limbs with spread, sharp claws coming at him.
He did not want to kill it. But it clearly had no such compunctions about him.
He didn’t need to think about what to do once he decided it was necessary. His thumb cocked the hammer of his pistol before the beast had closed half of the mid-air distance between them. And then the hammer dropped as he squeezed the trigger, as the thing was perhaps two thirds of the way to him.
The explosion of the firing gun was muted by the strange, ashy feeling in the air, but it still felt outrageously loud against the previous near silence of the world.
The bullet passed between the thing’s open jaws—the Desperado could see its progress in his mind’s eye—passing through the roof of its mouth, through its nasal passages, and inerrantly into its brain.
By the time its body struck his, the great cat-wolf was already limp, and though the Desperado was knocked backward by its momentum, neither its claws nor its teeth came to bear, and it crumpled and bent into itself, twisting now in an entirely passive way as it rolled over him, and he rolled with it to lessen the impact of a beast that must weigh more than he did.
He avoided getting the wind knocked out of him by doing that rolling, and he came back to face the thing as soon as it had gone past him, his gun still ready, the hammer again pulled back. He got his feet firmly under him and rose to a squat, looking at the form that had come to rest just beyond where he’d been hit by it.
After a second, he could tell that it was not moving at all. He carefully lowered the hammer of his pistol, pointing the barrel up at the sky, and looked down at the beast.
Remarkably, he realized that his hat was still on his head. That seemed almost as magical as anything that had happened to him so far, and he sincerely wondered if that was thanks to the wizard as well.
Noting that, he touched the brim of the hat as in a tiny salute, and he quietly said to the unmoving black form, “I’m sorry. I…I tried to…”
Once again, he was unable to finish his sentence. This time it was not a sound that stopped him, though noise did soon follow. It was his acute sense of danger that warned him to move, though he wasn’t sure at first what it was that triggered it. He only knew it felt much more perilous than the lion-wolf had, and he knew he had to dive to the side again as a reddish orange light came into the corner of his left eye.
He was better able to avoid losing his footing this time, launching himself in the general direction of the throne, thinking that he might, if necessary, use it rather as the beast had. He rolled and came up next to it, pulling the hammer of his pistol back even as he did, watching in amazement as what looked like a ball of almost liquid fire whipped past where he had been standing, so close he could feel its severe heat. If someone had ignited a large oilcloth bag full of kerosine in mid-flight after hurling it at him, it might have seemed like this if it had all lit perfectly and all at once. But maybe not. The flame that streaked past where he had been was almost more self-cohesive than liquid would have been, and it seemed to be nothing but flame, as though it required no fuel to burn.
It hit the ground beyond where it had missed him, scattering into a flash of fiery flamelets and disappearing, even as the Desperado heard a voice saying, “What have you done?”
The Desperado almost laughed, thinking of the cliché of shooting first and asking questions later, as he had thought with the wizard, but he still cocked his pistol and looked up and to his slight left at the sound of the voice.
For the person speaking was not on the ground, but hovered in the air, easily ten or more feet up and less than twenty feet away. The speaker was a woman—or, well, she looked like a woman—dressed in a sleek black dress, or perhaps a top and a skirt, shoulders bare, and knees bare above a pair of what looked like multi-buckled boots that began just a few inches below them. Behind the woman, a large black and gray blur moved through the air; these must be wings, but they were more like butterfly or moth wings than Pixie’s dragonfly wings. The woman’s hair was as orange red as the fire that had just missed the Desperado, and it looked like she wore long, black, elbow-length gloves.
She glared down at the Desperado, and he watched with amazement as, in her right hand, a new mass of fire came into being, a great ball of flame, hot and bright, resting in her palm as though it were merely a bucket she was balancing.
He guessed that was where the fire that had barely missed him had come from.
Was this the Dark Fairy? She certainly would fit the name.
“Wait!” the Desperado said—still keeping his gun cocked but not pointing it at her. He figured, since she had asked a question, she might at least let him answer. “Wait,” he repeated. “I didn’t want to hurt it. It attacked me. I tried to dodge it, but…it was too quick. I didn’t want to kill it.”
His words did not appear to convince the fearsome woman hovering in the air before him. Her lips curled into a snarl that would have made the any wolf envious, and she replied, in a voice clogged with anger, “And I don’t want to burn you into a little, crispy skeleton and stomp your bones into powder.”
The Desperado thought this was definitely a lie. She most certainly did want to do that to him, if not something worse.
And indeed, the next thing the woman said was, “But that’s what I’m going to do!”
She pulled her arm back, and the Desperado tried to back up and look around for anywhere to hide. Unfortunately, the throne was more or less by itself, its two flanking trees not within easy springing distance. As the flying woman hurled this new ball of fire at him, the only thing he could think to do was spring over the back of the throne, to try to hide behind it.
He barely made it in time. He supposed his duster would protect him from at least some of the fire if it hit him, but he didn’t want to find out how much, or for how long. He landed almost flat, his feet connecting with the ground just a bit faster than the rest of him, which kept him from having the wind knocked out of him, and his left hand still slightly touched the back of the stump throne, where he had used it to vault. The fire barely missed him, and he could feel its searing heat as it passed. He tried not to be distracted by watching it hit the ground beyond and burst, knowing that his attacker was still there, and had a higher vantage than he.
He was right to be so vigilant. By the time he scrambled backward scooting up a bit, the flying woman had long since easily come around behind and above the throne. He whirled to face her, hoping perhaps that she might be in more of a mood to listen.
That didn’t seem to be the case, however. She had already conjured a new fire ball, this one noticeably larger than the last one. The look of rage on her face was more bestial than had been any snarl by the wolf-lion the Desperado had shot. As soon as she got a clear shot, a place where she could pause with a good view of him, the woman let the fire fly.
The Desperado had not even fully gotten to his feet. His left arm was still pressed awkwardly against the wooden throne, which felt as solid as the bones of the earth. But his feet were barely stable, only corners of his boot heels dug into the ground.
He didn’t see any way to dodge this hit. He hoped his sturdy coat might protect him some, and that maybe, if he lived through the encounter, the wizard might end up healing him again. But that was a lot to hope for, and he really didn’t want to be burned.
He recalled how he had foolishly and uselessly shot at the water from the well when it had arisen to grab him. It had done nothing, of course, and the same would probably be the case for shooting at fire.
But perhaps there was some hidden core to the flame, some tiny ball of something from which it emanated. His racing mind barely formulated the thought‒indeed, he might have thought it later‒but it was all he could do.
Trying to brace for the fiery impact when his attempt failed, the Desperado fired his gun at the rough center of the ball of flame as it sped toward him. He knew without thinking that the flying woman was not in his direct line of fire, so he wasn’t worried about accidentally hurting her.
He was utterly stunned when, as his bullet struck the ball of flame, which had traveled about half the distance between the woman’s hand and its target, the fire scattered to bits, more decisively even than its predecessors had upon hitting the ground. It flared sideways and split into innumerable sparks, all of which shrunk and vanished in the blink of an eye. There was not even any residual heat in the air. The fire was completely gone.
The Desperado blinked, utterly astonished, and he didn’t even think to recock his pistol, let alone keep it ready to fire. He simply gaped at the air where it had been, unable to believe the evidence of his senses. Had the flying woman followed up immediately with another attack, he would have been hard pressed to defend himself in any way.
Fortunately for him, the woman was just as stunned as he was. She gaped at the air, now clear of fire, and then looked at the Desperado. Her astonishment had, at least for the moment, cleared the look of fury from her face.
“How…how did you…” she began to mutter.
But she didn’t complete her question, for both she and the Desperado were distracted by a low, groaning, moaning noise from the opposite side of the wooden throne. They both turned, the Desperado still too startled to be as alert as usual, though he didn’t yet rise from his partially leaning posture.
Off opposite the throne from them, the groaning moan‒now sounded more canine to the Desperado‒came from the form of the black lion-wolf. It was stirring in place, twisting a bit, shaking its head, as if waking from a deep slumber.
“What the hell…” the Desperado muttered, almost as surprised as he had been when the fireball had shattered. He knew he had fired a bullet into the beast’s brain. It had been killed instantly‒mercifully, in a way. There was no possible way it could have been waking up as if it had merely been sleeping.
Could it be magical, itself? Perhaps it could not actually be killed, and would recover immediately from any apparent wound. But if that was the case, why had the flying woman been so enraged?
Supporting the Desperado’s misgivings, the flying woman’s face lit up with a brilliant, joyful expression, warm but no longer hot, and she shouted, “Fenreo!”
No longer paying attention to her erstwhile target, the woman zoomed over the Desperado’s head and set her feet down on the ground next to the creature, which was now bringing its legs toward its body as if to get them underneath itself. The woman reached a hand out to pat its side as it did, clearly not worried in the slightest that it would attack her.
Now that the woman was still and on the ground, her wings stipped moving, and the Desperado could see that they were indeed configured rather like those of a butterfly, or maybe a moth, each one the equivalent of four feet or so high and perhaps nearly three feet wide, if she had been a normal-sized woman. They bore an intricate pattern, a combination of black and gray, with the outer edges being all lined by a band of black, including a spikey, thorny-looking projection near the tops and a longer, hook-like project at the bottom, which didn’t look like it would be terribly functional.
Within the black outer border, the base of her wings were dark gray, but within that, there were three large patterns of black, identical between the two wings. These were wavy and spiky and irregular, and they seemed to shift slowly, like a slick of oil on the surface of water, but they never touched or overlapped each other, and they remained identical on both wings even as they shifted.
The Desperado could also see that she indeed had a sleeveless black top that came down to her hips, and then a black skirt that ended just at the top of her knees. She indeed also wore nearly knee-high black boots, gleaming dully, with row upon row of metal buckles up the front. Though elaborate, the boots did not seem to be fashionable ones, but were practical, with thick, wide soles and a barely raised heel.
As she reached out to stroke the great black animal’s side, the Desperado saw that what he’d taken for gloves were actually more like sleeves of some sort. The started just below her elbows and went past her wrists, but then they tapered to only a single loop, attached around the base of her middle finger. Her fingers were thus unencumbered, and the Desperado thought that her nails were not long, as some women grew them, but they were painted. The color, matching all else she wore, was unadorned black.
Her skin, in contrast, was rather pale, which seemed to make sense given the redness of her hair.
She seemed to be paying no mind to the Desperado even as she stroked the wolf-lion that was brining itself to its feet. Then, more surprising, she threw her arms around its neck huggin it and saying, “Oh, Fenreo, you’re alive! I thought he’d killed you. I should have known no fairy would kill an innocent animal, even if he’s using something that looks like a human weapon.”
Still dumbfounded by many things, the Desperado, rising to his feet, realized that this woman did not think he was human. He supposed that made sense; humans were far larger than he apparently now was, and even Pixie had taken his coat for folded wings, though it was hard to imagine wings acting like sleeves. He decided it might be wise to let this woman proceed under that misapprehension. After all, if she was the Dark Fairy, he had been told pretty clearly that she did not like humans.
So he could well believe.
He glanced down quickly at his pistol. More prominent in his mind than carrying out the charade of being a fairy of some sort was the fact that the wolf-lion creature had survived a bullet that should have been lethal to any normal living thing. He would have attributed that to a magical nature that made it immortal‒that was no more unbelievable than everything else that was happening to him‒except the woman’s reaction made him doubt it. Why would she be first so enraged and then so obviously relieved if the beast was immortal?
No, something else was behind this. And the fact that, just a moment ago, he had shot at a ball of fire in what he had fully expected to be a futile gesture…and it had worked made the Desperado think this was a function of some other magic.
The wizard had made it so his gun would never need reloading, and supposedly would never need cleaning. Apparently, that wasn’t all he had done.
The wolf-lion was now fully on its feet and nuzzling against the woman with a sound that was somewhat like a combination of a groan and a purr. The Desperado didn’t know if he should be wary still. The thing seemed quite docile at the moment, and the woman seemed in a much better mood than before, but that could be quite temporary. If they both decided to turn on him together, he would have a hard time protecting himself. He might have no choice but to try to get away.
However, that would miss the entire point of him being there. Slightly energized by relief from what he had thought would be a fiery death, the Desperado took a deep breath and cleared his throat, then said, “I…I’m sorry if I’m being rude, but…are you the person called the…Dark Fairy?”
Still stroking the beast’s mane, the woman glanced up at the Desperado with a look of mixed puzzlement and near contempt. “Of course I am,” she said. “Surely, you must have known that already. No other fairies live here. Don’t tell me you were lost.”
“No, no,” the Desperado said, resisting giving a nervous chuckle. “No, I was…well I meant to come here. And I was looking for the Dark Fairy, but I didn’t know what you looked like, so…”
He trailed off, not sure quite what to say next. The woman now rose fully to her feet and turned as if she were facing him. He thought, though, that she was really looking at what was presumably her throne, on the back of which the Desperado’s left hand still rested.
Slightly worried still about seeming rude, the Desperado took his hand away and walked around and slightly to the front of the wooden seat. He thought the woman‒the Dark Fairy, that was‒seemed to appreciate the gesture, as her face, which had become rather stern and haughty as she had arisen, softened slightly, though she was not smiling
“So,” she said, making her way toward the throne, the wolf-lion coming behind her, both of them eyeing the Desperado with caution but not outright hostility, “who are you and why are you looking for me?”
The Desperado crept carefully away from the throne, giving the Dark Fairy ample room to approach it, as she seemed to intend. He saw that the wolf-lion kept close to her side like a loyal but very dangerous pet. It glanced at him, its gaze clearly wary, but it didn’t seem overtly threatening as it had been before. Perhaps being knocked unconscious by a bullet that should have killed it had calmed it somewhat, or perhaps it was just more at ease in the presence of its mistress. Either way, the Desperado decided that, for the moment, he was in no immediate danger. He holstered his pistol and then, as he had with Pixie, he doffed his hat and held it in his left hand.
Recalling the wizard’s recommendation, he said, “I’m…well, I’m called the Desperado by the person who sent me.”
The Dark Fairy reached the wooden seat, turned, and then sat down in it, her wings lifting to rise behind her like a canopy or a stained-glass window, though they ought to have been squished against the back of the seat. The wolf-lion took a spot at the right side of the seat, from the Dark Fairy’s perspective, and the Fairy laid her hand on its head.
Smirking at the Desperado, the Dark Fairy said, “I suppose that explains why you have your wings configured that way and why you’re using something that looks like a human weapon. You’re almost like something from a story book.”
Thinking that they had very different ideas about the sorts of things that might appear in story books, the Desperado nevertheless decided to go along with the misunderstanding. It was best not to evoke any prejudices if he could help it. “Yes,” he said. “I guess that’s true.”
Looking somewhat stern again, the Dark Fairy asked, “What happened with Fenreo? Why did you use that weapon on him? I thought you had killed him, and if you had, I would have killed you or died trying.”
That was easy enough for the Desperado to believe. Recognizing that “Fenreo” was the lion-wolf creature, he said, “Yes, well…I’m afraid he must have thought I might be hostile, and when I said I was looking for you, he must have assumed I meant you harm, though I don’t. He attacked me, and I tried to get out of his way, but…well, he was too fast and strong. I’m afraid I took…drastic action. I apologize.”
With a look of mixed anger and puzzlement, as if she thought the Desperado must be just about the biggest imbecile she had ever encountered, the Dark Fairy asked, “Why didn’t you just fly? Fenreo is Earth-bound. If you’d just flown, he would have been unable to reach you. And he would have recognized that you’re a fairy, too, and he probably would have been less hostile.”
Taken slightly aback by her assumption that he could do such a thing, without thinking about it much, the Desperado said, “I…can’t fly.”
Even as the words left his lips, it occurred to him too late that this might be a dangerous admission. If the Dark Fairy began to realize that he wasn’t a fairy, she might become hostile again, herself, which was much more worrying than “Fenreo” being so.
The Dark Fairy however did not look suspicious, but rather she looked horrified and slightly sympathetic. “Why?” she asked. “What happened?”
Thinking back to his conversation with Pixie, the Desperado said, “Well…you see, I was…sent to find you and bring a message to you by a…a wizard.”
Still looking aghast, the Dark Fairy asked, “And he stole from you your ability to fly? He locked you in that…’Desperado’ guise?”
Feeling only mildly guilty for the dishonesty, the Desperado shrugged and replied, “Well…I guess you could put it that way.”
The Dark Fairy’s lips curled into such a snarling sneer of contempt that the Desperado expected to hear some truly foul expletives come from her mouth, but the word she spat was simply, “Humans!” Then she added, “Of course it would be a human who would do such a thing.”
Impressed by her vitriol, the Desperado nevertheless said, “I’m not entirely sure this wizard counts as human.”
With a shrug, the Dark Fairy said, “He may be able to use magic, and I’m sure he thinks he’s oh so smart, but every wizard I’ve ever heard of was a human. Other beings are magical, but humans use magic, like they use and ruin everything else in the world.”
The Desperado blinked a bit, surprised by this characterization of the members of his species. He supposed he could understand at least some humans being thought of in that way, but he didn’t think every human deserved such description.
Still, he was far from exemplary even as far as humans went, so he didn’t see any point in arguing the issue. Instead, he decided to push on with his task, saying, “Well, he is going to…reward me, I guess you could say, when I’ve done what he asked, so…”
He had been about to go into conveying his message, but the Dark Fairy interrupted him, saying, “And do you honestly think this human, this wizard, will do what he says he’s going to do?” She seemed to think this was a hopelessly naive way to think.
The Desperado could admit it was reasonable to ask the question, but he was easily enough able to reply, “I think so. I’m…decent at reading people. Also, honestly, he saved my life already. So even if he didn’t do anything else, I’d be at least a little bit grateful.”
The Dark Fairy gave a little “hmmph” sound, clearly not pleased to have to think anything complimentary about a human.
Seeing that the Fairy wasn’t going to press her point, the Desperado went on, “So, he asked me to find you and to deliver a message, and a gift…and a request.”
The Dark Fairy’s eyebrow arched in an almost comical look of skepticism. “A request? Why would I care to listen to the request of a human wizard?”
Resisting the urge to smirk at the Dark Fairy’s contempt, the Desperado said, “Well, I guess he thinks he can help you as well. And, like I said, he’s offering a gift on top of his help.”
The Dark Fairy’s contempt was tinged with honest puzzlement as she said, “Help? What sort of help would I need from some human wizard?”
“Well, I don’t know very much about it,” the Desperado replied, “but I guess he said you’re trapped in this…in your area here, inside that…blurry haze, whatever it is. And he’s trapped too, I guess. Inside some…separate universe, or whatever he called it, somewhere in what he calls the…Omniverse, I think he said.”
The Dark Fairy drew her head slightly back. She seemed more puzzled, but in a different way than before. “A separate…universe?” she said. “What do you mean?”
This question slightly surprised the Desperado. He would have guessed she would know about such things, since the wizard had made it seem like common knowledge among magical people. With a deep breath, he said,”Trust me, it’s way over my head. But it seems to be real, I promise you that. And he…well, he wanted to offer to help get you out of where you’re stuck, if you can help him get out of his.”
The Dark Fairy looked like she perked up just a tiny bit, almost as if in spite of herself. She tilted her head and pressed her lips tightly together, scratching the lion-wolf’s mane absentmindedly, which didn’t seem to bother it at all. Her eyes then narrowed, and she asked, “What does this wizard know about my situation? How does he know? I can promise you, I don’t have any familiarity with any human wizards.”
The Desperado chuckled mordantly and replied, “I have no idea. I don’t know how he knew about me, and I’m a lot less interesting than you are. I guess if you want to know more, you’ll have to talk to him.”
Now the Dark Fairy sneered a bit. “And how do you recommend I do that?” she asked. “You just said that he’s trapped in some…otherverse or whatever it was you called it. And apparently, you’re aware that I am unjustly imprisoned here.”
The Desperado nodded, and he considered shifting his hat to his right hand so his left hand would be free. After an instant’s thought, though, he decided that the Dark Fairy was still “prickly” enough that he wanted to keep his gun hand completely free. He was fast, but she was magic. Best to be careful.
Muttering “Excuse me,” he put his hat back on, relieved to see that the Dark Fairy plainly couldn’t care less about it, and then he went on, “Well, that’s…I guess it’s one of the things to do with his gift. He says it’ll let him talk to you…and you to him…even from here to where he is…if you put it on, anyway. At least I think that’s what he said.”
“Put it on?” the Dark Fairy asked. “Put what on? I don’t…”
The Desperado had calculated his minor delay to pique her curiosity, though she seemed more irritated than interested. Still, hopefully she would respond reasonably when he showed her what the wizard had given him. It had certainly impressed Pixie.
He put his left hand into his duster’s pocket and this time took hold of the chain of the necklace, thinking it might be more dramatic to reveal it that way‒and also thinking that he was an idiot for even bothering with such things when dealing with an actual fairy. He drew the cool, dark metal chain from his pocket and then finally the moonstone pendant came with it.
He held the necklace up at arm’s length. It seemed to radiate its bluish glow again, as it had with Pixie. He wouldn’t have been surprised if it had glowed even more brightly here, before the one he had been told to give it to, but this was not so. If anything, the glow was rather muted, just a subtle, slightly intriguing thing. Perhaps the stone thought that the Dark Fairy was not the simple-hearted, naive being that Pixie had been, and might even be put off if it came on too aggressively.
Wait. Had he just thought of the necklace as if it had a mind of its own? He knew it was magical, but surely he was giving the thing too much credit, or allowing himself too much credulity.
The Dark Fairy, in any case, seemed reasonably impressed. She didn’t exactly look as awed as Pixie had‒and the Desperado would have bet large chunks of his limbs that there would be no offers to “dally” with this woman‒but she was clearly riveted. For the first time, the Desperado realized that the Fairy’s eyes were a dark, deep blue, for they seemed to catch and respond to the subtle light of the necklace in exactly the same shade.
“Is that…a moonstone?” she asked, not looking at him as she did.
Before he’d been given the necklace by the wizard, of course, the Desperado would have had no idea of the answer to that question. Now, however, he felt entirely confident in replying, “Yes it is.”
The Dark Fairy nodded, and though her face remained taut and firm, she slowly rose to her feet, almost as if not quite conscious that she was doing so. The lion-wolf, the name of which the Desperado could not recall, looked up at her with idle curiosity. Apparently it, like the Desperado, felt nothing very unusual about the moonstone. Maybe all moonstones affected fairies this way specifically, or maybe the wizard had put some spell on it to entice the Dark Fairy. She seemed as though she might be the sort of person to need an extra push, that was fair enough, but it felt a bit dishonest to use magic to entice her, if that was being done.
At least it seemed that neither the Dark Fairy nor her pet sensed anything threatening from the necklace. The Fairy took half a step forward, not looking at the Desperado at all. She was not as hopelessly and guilelessly mesmerized as Pixie had been, but she was clearly intrigued. “It’s beautiful,” she said, perhaps half to herself. “I’ve never seen one like it.”
“No, neither have I,” said the Desperado, which was true, but that was because he hadn’t even known what a moonstone was before that day. “The wizard knew you liked them, and he wanted to give you something that you would really appreciate…and that would be worthy of someone like you, too, I guess.” He worried that he might be laying it on a bit thick with this last comment, but for all that the Dark Fairy seemed to care about his words, he might as well have hummed The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Taking another step forward, the wolf-lion lagging behind, the Dark Fairy said, “May I…see it?” She raised her right hand slightly as if unconsciously already reaching for the necklace.
The Desperado was surprised that she was so polite in asking, but he guessed that just because she was clearly capable of great violence and fury, that didn’t mean she had no manners. He, after all, took his hat off to show respect when appropriate, and tried not to speak rudely, but he had killed many times.
In response to the Dark Fairy’s question, he said, “Of course. It’s…I was told to give it to you. It’s yours…whether you agree to help or not, as far as I know.” He stretched his left arm out, the necklace hanging from his extended first two fingers.
The Dark Fairy seemed careful not to touch his hand as she took hold of the chain. Her fingers were slender, but they did not look soft…if anything, they seemed as though they might have been carved from living stone. Her black fingernails gleamed slightly as she took the chain from the Desperado’s hand and raised the necklace until the stone was at her eye level, barely a foot from her face.
Or, well…about an inch from her face, really, the Desperado now thought. They were all small now, though he didn’t feel small, and the Dark Fairy didn’t look small. And, of course, the wolf-lion was comparable in size to the two of them, though that made no obvious sense. And the necklace, which had been normal when the wizard had given it to him, had apparently scaled itself down appropriately, as well. It all seemed to make no sense, but the Desperado tried not to let it bother him. He could see himself driving himself mad if he dwelt on such things too much.
The Dark Fairy asked, “You said that I would be able to talk to him where he is if I put it on?”
“Well, that’s what he said to me,” the Desperado replied. “I…don’t know how that might work, but he didn’t give me any reason to doubt him. He was able to send me here, at least…but he said he couldn’t send me directly to you because the magic that keeps you…trapped, I guess, got in the way. If he’d been trying to boast, I wouldn’t think he would have admitted that. Maybe.”
The Dark Fairy seemed to ponder this for a moment before asking, “But if the barrier that keeps me here prevented him from sending you directly here, how could this allow us to communicate?”
The Desperado could only say, “I have no idea.”
The Dark Fairy tilted her head, bringing the pendant a bit closer to her face. Her expression was becoming ever so slightly more like Pixie’s had been, her mouth hanging just slightly open, her face a bit slack. This worried the Desperado a little, but before he could even think what he might say about that worry, the Dark Fairy said, “Maybe it allows my magic to be used to…to connect more directly with his magic, and the combination will be strong enough to use to communicate even through the barrier.” She seemed to be thinking aloud.
The Desperado had nothing to add to her thoughts. He was truly a stranger in a strange land, far more than Moses ever could have been. He felt a bit uneasy about how the Dark Fairy, who had until moments ago been skeptical and even downright hostile to the notion of working with a human wizard, seemed now only to be pondering the hows and wherefores of the possibility, not whether she should do it. There was clearly something about the moonstone that had a kind of unwholesome effect on fairies. He’d seen drunks who would look at a bottle of whiskey with eyes not much different from those with which the Dark Fairy ogled the moonstone necklace.
The wizard hadn’t mentioned anything like that to him. Was that because he’d thought it beside the point of their interaction? Had it been something that he thought should have been common knowledge? Or had he deliberately withheld the information in case it might have dissuaded the Desperado from agreeing to carry out his request?
The Dark Fairy now smiled, her mouth still slightly open, an almost vacuous expression that did not suit her. She took the chain now in both hands and lifted it, clearly intending to put it over her head.
The Desperado felt a surge of misgiving as he saw her do this. Something about the anticipatory joy she showed seemed almost maniacal. Stumbling over his thoughts, he spoke in a mumble that he meant to be stronger, and he said, “Wait…”
But his warning, whatever its reason in the depths of his mind, came too late. The Dark Fairy finished donning the necklace, the stone unerringly coming to rest facing outward, laying on her skin just above the edge of her clothing, though the chain would have seemed to leave it hanging down farther than that.
Her eyes widened, and her expression took on a hint of puzzlement.
Then the dark blue glow of the moonstone flared, encompassing her and the Desperado as well—though not the wolf-lion—its color completely effacing all other vision of the world.
And the Desperado felt the bottom fall out of that world yet again.
The blue glow that surrounded the Desperado seemed so intense that though he could vaguely make out the shape of the Dark Fairy next to him, he could not even be sure of her facial expression, though if he’d had to guess, he would have expected it to be a mix of surprise and fury.
Though the Desperado was primarily surprised, he also felt both angry and foolish, himself. It hadn’t occurred to him that maybe the wizard might be providing the necklace as a means to “invite” the Dark Fairy to him in just as irresistible a way as he’d done with the Desperado himself. He supposed he should have been able to guess, but he simply knew nothing at all about the rules of “magic” or such invitations, and so he had not been able even to suspect such a surprise.
He guessed he ought to console himself with the fact that the Dark Fairy, who presumably knew a thing or two about magic, had not suspected anything. But she had not seen the wizard already, and she had also been under the influence of whatever power the moonstone necklace exerted on her, and that clearly had befuddled her senses. The Desperado could not grant himself that excuse.
He felt again the bizarre sensations of moving rapidly through some realm the nature of which he could not even imagine, yet all the while his travel made him feel he was standing upright, as though whatever brought him on this twisting, swerving, spiraling course was pushing him along by the soles of his feet. It was just as strange as both previous times, the only difference now being that instead of water or a vague color pattern like ground and sky, he was now surrounded by the dark blue, moonstone glow. He could see nothing outside of it.
As before, it was hard for him to tell how long this journey—if that was the right word—lasted. It could have been minutes, perhaps even hours, given how disjointed even his sense of time became. He did not think it could be days, let alone weeks or months, but if some knowledgeable person had assured him that it was, he would not have been able to summon good arguments to refute them.
Eventually, he felt his direction change, feeling the sensation that the push on his feet was not driving him forward but was in fact slowing him down. He thought that he was now approaching whatever his destination might be, and he tucked the right side of his duster behind his holster, putting his hand on the grip of his pistol. Who knew where he would be at the end of the journey?
He finally came to what felt like a real rest, with what seemed to be solid ground, or floor, beneath his feet. An instant later, the dark blue glow that had surrounded him faded away, and he found himself in an environment of pure white, with white floors and a distant white ceiling, all stretching beyond the reach of his sight in all directions. It would appear he was back in the wizard’s “universe”.
And next to him, the same distance she had been when she had put on the necklace, was the Dark Fairy. She gaped at her new surroundings, at first not even looking at the Desperado, clearly unable to credit the fact that she was somewhere other than her forest.
The Desperado had the fleeting thought that maybe—just perhaps—she would be pleased or even delighted to have been freed from the burnt-out forest in which she had been trapped. That hope was quickly dashed, however, for the Dark Fairy regarded him with an expression that quickly turned to rage, and she said, “You…you rotten scum! You tricked me!”
“No, wait,” the Desperado tried to say, “I didn’t know this…”
Before he could complete a sentence, the Fairy had raised her right hand and conjured another fireball, this one if anything bigger and hotter than the previous one she had summoned. The Desperado could feel its intense heat, and he backpedaled quickly, drawing his pistol, trying to think of what he had done the previous time to destroy the fireball, since he didn’t think there was any way he could dodge at this close range, and there was certainly nothing he could use as a shield.
Before the Dark Fairy could let her attack fly, however, a strong voice called out, “Don’t take it out on him, Dark Fairy. He didn’t know. I was the one that brought you here.”
The voice had a power that distracted the Dark Fairy, a fact for which the Desperado was distinctly grateful. He recognized the words as coming from the wizard, and when he looked to his right, he saw again the lean, white-robed, white-haired, and white-bearded figure that he had met so recently.
The Dark Fairy turned in response to the voice, and without even asking who this newcomer might be, she simply hurled her massive wad of fire right at him.
The Desperado, recalling what had happened when he had tried to shoot the wizard—at the wizard’s own behest—expected the fireball to stop in midair before it reached the man. To his surprise, the wizard simply stood in place, and the fireball struck and engulfed him. The flames wrapped themselves completely around his body, surrounding him from head to toe in a conflagration that the Desperado could feel was even hotter than it was before the Dark Fairy had thrown it.
However, for all its heat and light, it seemed not to perturb the wizard at all. His hair and beard, his arched eyebrows, his white robe—none of these showed even the slightest hint of combustion. Instead, the flames simply flowed over him, almost seeming to caress his form, and he looked down at them and himself in apparent idle curiosity. Then he lifted his right hand and, as if of its own will, all the fire that had surrounded him flowed languidly together, finally accumulating in a new ball of flame in his own palm.
Then he closed that palm, and the fire disappeared with any trace of heat or smoke.
The Desperado half expected the Dark Fairy simply to summon a new fire ball, perhaps even larger than the previous one, and to try again, maybe even to try over and over, though it might seem futile. Such was the character of the rage he could almost feel radiating from her. However, it seemed that—though her fury was real—she was able to keep from allowing her emotions to fly away with her. She clenched her fists at her side, snarling, “Who are you?”
The wizard tilted his head, his tone slightly mocking, as he said, “Isn’t that obvious? I’m the wizard who sent the Desperado here to come find you.”
The Dark Fairy glanced at the Desperado, and though she made no move to attack him, her hostility was such that he did tighten his grip on his pistol slightly.
“So, I was right,” the Dark Fairy said to the wizard. “You are a human.”
“Strictly speaking, no,” the wizard responded. “Actually, it would be more accurate to say right now that I am a god, albeit the god of a very small universe. But I certainly did start out as a human, of course. And the Desperado there, he is a human, still.”
This seemed to catch the Dark Fairy by surprise, and she turned to face the Desperado with wide eyes. “What do you mean?” she asked. “He can’t be a human! He’s…he’s the same size as me.”
“Well, technically, right now, it would be more precise to say that you are the same size as him,” the wizard said. “Size is easy enough to manipulate during the passage between universes, since all it requires is adjustment in scale factors.”
The Dark Fairy looked angry, but now also somewhat betrayed—though in a more personal way than her previous anger. “You…you lied to me!” she accused the Desperado.
“Well…I didn’t actually ever say I was a fairy,” he said, still feeling slightly ashamed, though he hardly thought he could be blamed. “You assumed it. And given how you…well, obviously don’t like humans, I wasn’t going to try to change your mind.”
The Fairy sneered, then she turned to the wizard, and she said, “Well, you’ve got me to where I can communicate with you, so I guess that offer was at least as genuine as this one’s not saying explicitly that he’s a fairy. Now you can send me back. I’d rather not deal with the likes of you even if you can get me free. Oh, and you can take your moonstone back, too.”
The Dark Fairy grabbed for the stone that lay on her upper chest, but when she tried to take hold of it, she seemed surprised. It looked like it was simply lying against her skin, but when she tried to get her fingers behind it to grip it in her fist, she couldn’t seem do it. She tugged at the chain above the pendant, but though it had a bit more give, it didn’t make the pendant move.
“What in the…” she growled.
The wizard, looking just the tiniest bit sheepish, said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t accept that necklace back from you. It’s yours now.”
The Dark Fairy glanced up at him, but though she seemed to understand his words, it was clear that she didn’t accept them. With a worsening snarl on her face, she brought both her hands up toward the necklace, and as she moved them, they both became engulfed in flame, as though she were going to hurl fireballs at herself.
She didn’t do that, but she did bring the fire toward the moonstone necklace, and the center of the fire moved from her palms to the stone.
It was quite plain that the fire itself did not harm her in any way, nor did it singe or even wrinkle her clothes, which seemed to make sense. However, as the hearts of fire merged in the gem of the necklace, the Dark Fairy abruptly stiffened and let out a howl of pure agony such as the Desperado had rarely heard. He was torn between reeling back because of the heat of the fire that rebounded off her and reaching in to see if there was something he could do to help.
In an instant, the fireballs scattered into the air and disappeared, breaking apart on the stone as rapidly as they had upon hitting the ashy ground when she’d thrown fire at the Desperado. The Dark Fairy staggered, and she looked as though she was barely able to keep from falling to her knees. The Desperado wondered how badly she had been hurt; he saw no injuries on her, but her pain was unmistakable.
The wizard was not merely unconcerned, but he looked even slightly amused. “I wouldn’t try to take that off,” he said. “You’re not powerful enough to do it. And if you were…that would be a bigger problem for you. I advise you not to do it.”
The Fairy seemed only gradually to recover her composer, then she looked at the wizard and snarled, “Why did you do this? Why did you ensnare me like this?”
“He told you why,” the wizard replied, nodding toward the Desperado. “I want your help to let me escape this tiny universe.”
The Dark Fairy gaped at him, plainly flabbergasted by his audacity, which the Desperado felt was a pretty reasonable reaction. “Help you?” the Fairy asked with remarkable vitriol. “Why in the name of nature would I help you, when you’ve kidnapped me from my forest by tricking me with this…this moonstone?”
The wizard looked both amused and faux hurt as he replied, “‘Kidnapped’ you? What in the place could you possibly mean? I sent the Desperado here with my gift and my offer, and indeed, I’ve already fulfilled my part of the bargain. I have already freed you from the desecrated forest to which you had been confined. You’re welcome.”
“I’m welcome?” the Dark Fairy mocked. “That forest is my home, and it was my home from long before it was burned by humans! I was kept there to protect humans from me, but I didn’t want to get away from it forever.”
“Yes, well, I am aware of that,” the wizard replied. “But if you can help me free myself from my own, rather more severe confinement than yours, then I will be in a position to do far more than simply whisk you out of your forest to my realm. I’ll be able to shatter the barrier that keeps you within it, and—should you so desire—give you the wherewithal to wreak vengeance upon those who destroyed your home and all the creatures you loved.”
The Dark Fairy looked as though she was prepared to hurl some invective at the wizard in response to this offer, but then she paused. “You…could give me power to pay back the ones who destroyed my home?” Then she seemed to catch herself, and she added, “But you couldn’t even get to me directly, yourself. You had to send this one and use this…magic moonstone necklace.” She seemed scornful, but the Desperado thought she was forcing it a bit.
The wizard smiled, replying, “I made that ‘magic moonstone necklace’. Literally. Out of raw, quantum and magic fields. At least some of which I also made, in a sense. It’s true that I could not reach you directly—I’ve already told you, I’m trapped here in my universe. But I did know where you were, and I knew how to find you, from far across the Omniverse. I may be trapped here, but that is through my own error. No other beings imposed my imprisonment on me. I was already among the most powerful wizards in any universe, and within my universe itself, I am omnipotent. The very laws of nature are at my whim, here.”
“Then why would you need my help?” the Dark Fairy asked, clearly not entirely convinced.
“Because, due to the way I became trapped here—not so much in my universe as comprising my universe—I cannot escape solely through my own power. I need you. The two of you.”
The Desperado started, momentarily caught off guard. “Wait,” he said. “What do you me, the two of us? You said you just needed me to go find her, since you couldn’t go, yourself.”
“And it was true that I did need you to go find her, and that I couldn’t go myself, or reach her directly. I couldn’t invite her the way I invited you, because both the barrier around her forest and her own power would have made it unworkable from outside her world. If I’d broken through that resistance, it might have destroyed her. But I didn’t say that was the only thing I needed you for.”
“Didn’t you?” the Desperado asked, far from sure that was true.
The Dark Fairy looked quite grumpy, and she said, “I don’t have any idea what you mean, but I have no intention of helping two humans who stole me from my home. Just send me back, now.”
“No,” the wizard said. “I’m not going to send you back. Not until you’ve helped me.”
The Desperado gaped, still and again caught off guard. The wizard’s tone sounded absolutely cold and final, and his expression bore no trace of sympathy.
The Dark Fairy turned in place, crossing her arms and giving her back to the wizard, not looking at him—a posture that was so childlike that it almost amused the Desperado despite his own frustration—and she said, “Well, then I hope you enjoy my company, because I’ll be staying here forever.”
The wizard chuckled. “‘Forever’ is something that’s easy to say,” he told her, “but even a being like you can’t grasp it in principle. Time is a complex structure, and it is not the same in all possible worlds, or even—forgive me—from moment to moment. For example, if I choose, I could send you to your world at a different time than that from which you left. A more opportune time. Think of a moment in your past to which you’d like to be sent, to change things if you could.”
The Dark Fairy sneered, but the Desperado could tell she was intrigued, though she still faced away from the white-haired figure. She took on a reluctantly thoughtful expression, but then her face grew puzzled, then frightened, then frankly alarmed and nearly panicked. She whirled back around and said, “I…wait, what is this? I…I can’t remember! I can’t remember my…I don’t remember my…”
“What?” the wizard asked, looking mildly concerned. “What don’t you remember? You remember where you came from, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she replied fervently, in her obvious distress losing her defensiveness. “I came from my forest, where Fenreo is. But…but I don’t remember…”
“You remember your name, don’t you?” the wizard said. “Your real name, I mean, not your title.”
“I…I…” the Dark Fairy stammered. Then her jaw fell open, and barely above a whisper, she replied, “No! I…I can’t remember my name!”
Instead of looking shocked, the wizard smiled, and it was not a kindly look. “Of course, you can’t,” the wizard said. “I have not only brought you to my universe, but I’ve also taken your identity. I have it, here in my realm. Your name, which is the heart of your power, your memories of your past, those you love…those you hate. I have them. Oh, and I have yours, as well,” he said, looking at the Desperado as if in afterthought.
Again caught off guard by being spoken to, when he felt very much that he was merely an observer of this conflict between powerful, magical beings, the Desperado blinked stupidly. “What?” he said, not even understanding enough to feel alarmed. “What do you mean?”
“I have taken your identity, the formative events and memories that make who you are, or at least how you see yourself. Not everything, of course. But many of them.”
“I…wait, that doesn’t even make sense,” the Desperado said, glancing over at the Dark Fairy, perhaps hoping for some help or explanation, but she seemed too lost in her own personal horror even to pay him much mind.
“Well, actually it does,” the wizard replied, “though I can understand why it would seem otherwise to you. Such things have less…power in your world, though they are not impotent. Think of this—when I brought you here, you were going to tell me your name, weren’t you?”
Vaguely recalling the event, the Desperado said, “I think so.”
“Well, then, tell me now,” the wizard suggested. “Tell me your name. Tell me where you were born, how you grew up. Tell me about the first person you ever killed.”
Without really thinking about why, not so much humoring the wizard as meaning to disabuse him of his strange thoughts, the Desperado began to reply with his name…
…but he couldn’t find it. He couldn’t bring his name into his mind. It wasn’t like one of those moments where something you knew just couldn’t quite be brought into consciousness, where it was right on the tip of your tongue. It felt more as though he was trying to think of an answer about a subject he had never known, though it was one perhaps he had heard of. Prompted by the wizard’s questions, he realized he also literally had no idea where he had been born, though he could recognize that it was something that had happened, and which he ought to recall.
As for the last question, why, he’d been thinking about that barely a few minutes before he’d come across the abandoned store and barn where he’d been seized by the well-water and brought to the wizard’s realm. He had been reminiscing, if that was the word, about the first, stupid, horrible time he had killed anyone.
He could remember the fact that it had been a horrible thing. But he could not recall the event itself. He could recall nothing about it.
He gaped at the wizard, not as horrified as the Dark Fairy obviously was, but utterly flummoxed. “What…is this like…like amnesia?” he asked.
“No, no,” the wizard said, looking quite unperturbed as he shook his head. “This is not a case where your brain, your mind has been damaged, where your memories are simply locked in your head, and you can’t reach them. They are actually gone. Gone from your head, anyway. I have them. And I will give them back only when I am satisfied that you have done what I want you to do.”
“But…but, when did you do that?” the Desperado asked, not completely certain he was disappointed to lose at least some of the memories that had been taken. He was a bit irritated at not knowing his name, but he knew—at least academically—that some of his past was worth losing.
“With you, I did it gradually,” the wizard said with a nod. “I didn’t want it to be too obvious and distracting. That’s one of the reasons I told you not to say your name. If it was on your mind, you would notice when it left. With her, I had to do it rather more precipitously, but she was already furious, so she was too distracted to see it coming.” He nodded toward the Dark Fairy.
Upon being referred to, the Fairy seemed to snap out of her horrified amazement, and her face contorted again into an inhuman snarl of fury. The Desperado didn’t think he had ever seen such a face of unmitigated hate, and he had met many unsavory people in his day. She howled, “I’ll kill you, you rotten human!” and she raised both hands, summoning two searing, almost white-hot balls of fire, and she hurled them both at the wizard at once.
The Desperado had taken a step back again as he’d seen what the Dark Fairy had been about to do, but it turned out to be unnecessary. This time the wizard didn’t allow the fire to reach him; perhaps the first time he had simply been engaged in theatrics, or perhaps had been providing a demonstration. This time, to the Dark Fairy’s obvious surprise, her fireballs simply shriveled and shrunk away to nothing in mid-air, barely after leaving her hands. There was not even any residual heat left from them.
“You can’t kill me,” the wizard said, oddly not even seeming pleased about the declaration. “If it were possible to kill me, things would be so much easier. But to kill me, you would have to literally destroy this universe. Not ruin it, not devastate it, not wreck everything in it, but literally to unmake this universe itself. And even if you were so inclined, you have neither the understanding nor the power to do such a thing.”
To the Desperado’s surprise, the Dark Fairy seemed to regain a semblance of self-control rather quickly. Maybe she hadn’t been so carried away by her rage as she had seemed to project. Still sneering, though, she asked, “Well, if I’m so inferior, and he’s just a human, and you’re such a big and powerful wizard, but you can’t escape, how could we possibly help you?” The fact that she asked this made the Desperado wonder if she really was considering going along with his request.
The wizard too seemed to think this was a possibility. He smiled rather amiably, and he said, “Well, I am a very powerful wizard, of course. And within this universe, I am locally omnipotent. But there are other creatures in the Omniverse—an infinite number of infinities of them, as a matter of fact—and some of them have power so great that destroying a universe, even a full-scale one, might not be impossible for them. But such beings can also create things as well as destroy them, though it can be difficult at times to discern why they might do what they do. In any case, one of them, at one point in time—whatever that might mean, it could be our past or our future, or the future for one of us but the past for another and sideways in time for the third—one such very powerful being created a set of talismans. Rather as I created that necklace you’re wearing.” He nodded toward the moonstone pendant on the Dark Fairy’s chest.
The Dark Fairy glanced down at the necklace, frowning, then looked back up at the wizard.
“As for why this being did it, who can say?” the wizard went on. “Perhaps there was a purpose. Perhaps it was merely for amusement. But the creature scattered its creations—there were four of them—in various places around the Omniverse, leaving clues as to where they were and what their nature was, for those with enough insight and power to learn about them. Maybe it was a test, or a game—more likely the latter, when one considers the…characteristics of these talismans. In any case, the being spread them around, and it allowed people and things in various universes in the Omniverse to come upon them, to seek them, to fight over them, to use them, and so on.”
The Dark Fairy looked intrigued despite herself. The Desperado, on the other hand, didn’t really know much of what the wizard could possibly mean, and he didn’t have any idea where to start asking questions. He was still too flabbergasted to realize that, when he tried to think about who he really was, the only title that came to him was “the Desperado”. He couldn’t remember anything relating to his name, his family…he didn’t even recall his mother or father, or whether or not he had ever even known them.
The Fairy asked, “What sort of talismans are these? Magical items?”
“Something a bit beyond even that,” the wizard said. “They tap into…aspects or characteristics or powers that are not isolated in particular places in the Omniverse—though they apply more in some than in others, and of course, where there is no life, they are irrelevant. But they take shapes that look rather like this.” With that, he waved his right hand again, and above him, seemingly arising from the air itself, there formed four images.
The shapes, oddly enough, were quite familiar to the Desperado, much to his surprise. Though he had never seen them quite like this, he’d seen representations of them in ink on paper often enough.
The leftmost of the four shapes, from the Desperado’s and the Dark Fairy’s viewpoint, was a brilliant, shining diamond, easily as tall as the width of the Desperado’s palm and slightly narrower from side to side. It glittered and scattered even the uniform light of the wizard’s realm, breaking the white into numerous tiny rainbows. It was shaped not like a stone cut for a ring, but like a “traditional” diamond, taller than it was wide, point up and down and on either side…shaped like the diamond from a deck of cards, though it was not red but actually clear.
The fact that it was shaped like a diamond from a card deck was not surprising given the next three shapes. To the right of the diamond was a dark, gleaming, gunmetal gray form that looked like an inverted heart, its point upward, with what looked like a wooden, stylized handle protruding from between the two curves below. It was a spade, but it looked like it was trying to look almost like a real spade, or at least like a trowel.
Next to that was a three-lobed mass of black iron, from the base of which protruded an iron handle with a black, wire-wrapped grip, but one that was very short. It seemed it would be difficult to use for its supposed purpose, but this was clearly meant to be a club…in the shape of a club from a deck of cards.
And the last of the four was a straightforward-shaped heart, and this one was very much red, quite shiny, and looked as though it might have been made of polished red granite or marble, smooth and rounded, bulging in the middle. It looked as though a person could simply hold it in his or her hand, but it would be too big for any normal person to enclose completely in hand.
The Desperado, holstering his pistol at last—upon realizing that he’d had it out longer than was useful—looked at the four shapes floating above the wizard, and he said, “What the hell?” Turning then to the wizard, he asked, “Is this…is this a joke?”
The wizard smiled slightly and shrugged. “Perhaps,” he said. “But the joke is not mine. And the power these…well, these symbols you see me making images of, that is not a joke by any means.”
The Dark Fairy, who seemed to recognize the shapes of the suits from a deck of cards just as much as the Desperado did, asked, “What kind of power? What can these things possibly do?”
The wizard chuckled unpleasantly, and he said, “Oh, who can even say what they cannot possibly do? Each one individually has certain characteristics, consistent with the shapes they’ve been given. The diamond, for instance, gives one power over all forms of wealth, of trade, of commerce. Its holder, even if they did not know what it was, would be guaranteed to become unfathomably rich, by whatever measure was used by their people in their universe. And if one were to use it directly, with knowledge of its ability…why one could probably control and manipulate the economies of even galaxy spanning civilizations.”
The Desperado blinked, trying to follow what the man was even talking about, but it passed his comprehension. The Dark Fairy seemed to be less confused, but also less interested. Still sneering, she said, “I could see humans liking something like that, but I think it’s rather contemptible.”
“I’m not surprised,” the wizard told her, his own smile quite companionable now. “And I think you’ll like the next one even less. For the spade gives its holder, its wielder, power over industry, invention, construction. In a way, its related to the diamond, of course, because one of the most important aspects of industry for most people is the wealth it involves and creates. But this is slightly more focused on the actual building—mass production, factories, invention, expansion…cities full of vast buildings, rising as high as the sky, or perhaps even constructs surrounding and using all the power of entire suns. The conquest of nature.”
He smirked, clearly looking at the Dark Fairy to see how she would react, but she just kept sneering as before, saying, “I don’t see how that’s any different than what humans already do.”
The wizard laughed. “It’s different in speed and scale, and in its irresistibility. Imagine the course of an industrial revolution, such as the one on his world…” He nodded at the Desperado, then back at the Dark Fairy, going on, “…or on yours, with all its collateral damage, but compressed in time and multiplied in scale, so that avoiding or correcting the damage becomes that much harder. And imagine it dominated by the will of one person…whoever holds the spade trump talisman.” He paused for a moment, a look of distaste crossing his features, then to the Desperado he said, “I know you don’t know to be irritated by the term ‘trump’, which is what these things are often called, but in a bit over a hundred years, the term will take on a new meaning in your world…or, well, in a series of potential worlds that would lie in your future, and I don’t like the term much for that reason.”
The Desperado shook his head and said, “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
This tickled the wizard, it seemed, and removed whatever bad taste he’d had regarding the term “trump”, and he almost giggled as he said, “Fair enough.”
The Dark Fairy, however, seemed not to be so amused. Shaking her head at the last interaction as if dismissing it, she said, “All that doesn’t sound like any different than the way humans do things already. The time scale might change, but to nature it’s all the same. Nature is eternal, and the speed with which humans ruin it is always instantaneous by comparison.”
“You may think nature is eternal,” the wizard said, “and I suppose, on the scale of the Omniverse, it is. It is eternal in ways you cannot even imagine…though, to be fair, even I can’t truly imagine it, either, but I’ve had more of a glimpse than you have, and I can assure you, more than a glimpse would turn you into a gibbering vegetable. Which, perhaps, would be acceptable to a lover of ‘nature’ such as you. But the ‘nature’ you refer to—cycles of life, seasons, birth and death, predation, parasitism, photosynthesis, evolution, whatever…these things are finite and ephemeral even on the scale of the universe you come from. ‘All that you love will be carried away’, I can assure you. The two of you should be only too familiar with the concept of the cycle of life and death, though you may not realize it.”
The Dark Fairy rolled her eyes, clearly not interested in whatever philosophizing the wizard was doing, and Desperado simply found it uninteresting and pointless. He shrugged and asked, “So, it makes people good at industry. And the other makes someone good at money. Whatever. What do those things have to do with you, or us, or whatever it is you want to do?”
“Fair question,” the wizard admitted. “Let me finish telling you about the other two first, then I’ll answer your last question. I’ve been speaking of them in increasing degrees of…well, peril, perhaps is the right word, and I’ll continue now.”
He glanced at the third of the shapes that hung in the air above him. “The club,” he said, “as you might expect, gives one power over violence. Over war. All manner of war, from sticks and rocks and spears, through actual clubs, up to swords and guns and cannons and lasers and particle-beam weapons, thermonuclear devices, anti-matter bombs, gluon guns, singularity bombs, necromantic spells to unleash zombies and the like on populaces…all the way to planet-destroying weapons, to dragon hordes, demons and nightmares…everything in any given universe and beyond that can be used to harm and destroy others, and to make them harm and destroy in return. This can turn worlds and even universes potentially into hells of battle and devastation.”
The Dark Fairy breathed out and said, “Again, it sounds like what humans do, anyway.”
“Says the woman who hurls fire at anyone she thinks even might be an enemy and who is driven by a profound bigotry, albeit one with understandable roots,” the wizard sardonically replied to her comment.
The Dark Fairy looked away slightly, drawing her lips into a thin line, perhaps recognizing some truth to the wizard’s words.
The wizard smirked unpleasantly and went on, “Yes, I think you would have sympathy with the club trump and its power of war even more than our friend the professional killer, here,” he said, gesturing at the Desperado, to whom he then turned and asked, “After all, you rarely kill out of hate, isn’t that right?”
The Desperado, not particularly interested in that line of inquiry, shrugged and said, “If there’s someone who deserves to be hated by me, and I’m in the position to do it, I’d just kill them and not waste any more time and energy on it. But there aren’t very many people who really deserve me to hate them. I’m a worse person than almost anyone I’ve ever met, anyway.”
The wizard laughed softly, but not unkindly, and he said, “I’m sure you actually believe that. You’re surprisingly generous for a dealer of death. And at the very least, when you kill someone, it tends to be a very quick death.”
“There’s no point wasting time about it,” the Desperado admitted. “If you’re going to kill someone, kill them. I’ve never understood the point of gloating or tormenting someone if you’re going to kill them. Once they’re dead, it’s not like they’ll remember.”
The wizard chuckled again, but before he could say anything else, the Dark Fair—who was clearly exasperated—interjected, “Enough of this banter. Can you get to the point? You said yourself that I’m not eternal, and though you might be, I feel like you’re wasting my time.”
“I’m only locally eternal,” the wizard said in response, smirking, and the Desperado could not even begin to comprehend what that meant. The wizard didn’t dwell on it, though, instead saying, “But I think you both can see how terrifying the club trump talisman can be. In the wrong hands, it can do truly horrifying things, and I fear there are no right hands for it.”
He turned now to the last of the four symbols, and his expression was surprisingly sober and thoughtful. With a sigh, he said, “And the last one, the heart, is perhaps more perilous still, though subtler. It gives and has power over the heart, of course…the figurative one, not the literal, blood-pumping organ. Of love, yes, but also hate, of admiration and of jealousy, of joy and of sorrow, of friendship and of loneliness and rejection. It is the most terrifying of the trump talismans.”
The Desperado was confused. “It’s more terrifying than…war?” he asked. “That doesn’t seem right. Love seems…well, harder to come by, sure, but not a bad thing, anyway. Not worse than war. Or am I missing something?”
“You’re missing a great deal,” the wizard replied. “Love is a force that can start and stop wars. Love can launch a thousand ships, be they triremes or interstellar battle cruisers. And if love can be manipulated…stopped, twisted, redirected…almost any atrocity can be committed and considered ‘good’. Imagine someone being able to change your own emotions. Imagine someone being able to make you adore a miserable, disgusting cad, and make you despise a beautiful, innocent child. Imagine being made to love…oh, tuberculosis, say, and to hate flowers and trees.” With this he turned to look at the Dark Fairy. “Imagine someone could make you love those who burned your forest, and to hate your friend, Fenreo…to make you love the desecration of your ‘nature’, and to hate that nature itself. Would that be terrifying?”
“That would be impossible,” the Dark Fairy replied, rolling her eyes scornfully.
“That shows how little you know,” the wizard said. “Even someone like me was able to change, or at least to edit, who you are to the extent of seizing your identity and withholding it from you. With the heart trump talisman, a person could change your very character itself…and make you love being the changed version of you. Or make you hate being the changed version of you, and yet be unable to resist being it. And this could be done on the scale of whole universes with this trump talisman.”
The Dark Fairy looked sullen, and the Desperado was pretty sure she was unconvinced, but she didn’t gainsay the wizard’s words. Instead, she asked, “So, what about all this, these…‘trump talismans’ as you call them. What do they have to do with getting you free from whatever this place is? I don’t see what…wealth or industry or war or even love are going to do to get you out of here.”
“Well, those things in themselves, of course, aren’t much use to me,” the wizard admitted. “I’m stuck where I am, and none of those things can make a difference to me, per se. I suppose, if all else failed, it might be tolerable just to make myself love and enjoy my isolation and confinement, but that would simply seem like a kind of madness, at least from my current perspective.
“But if the trumps can be brought together, their combined power exceeds that of merely their four abilities put together. Together, their power is awesome even on the scale of the Omniverse. They would have power that exceeds the scale of universes, of universes of universes. They can tap into the very structure and function of the Omniverse itself. Or so it is said.”
“Said by who?” the Desperado asked, in utterly over his head. “Where did these come from, where are they, how do you know about them, what…I don’t understand any of this. I mean, you’re the ‘god’ of this universe, can’t you just…make these things, like you made that moonstone necklace, like you…like you made my gun so it doesn’t ever run out of bullets?”
The wizard smiled ruefully, and he replied, “No, not at all. I can make things that lie within my power, and to a certain extent I can use them to extend my power elsewhere—as you know, Dark Fairy—but at least part of that is due to my already-existing skills as a wizard. Within my universe, of course, I have great power, and the fact that I am one with my universe gives me some degree of ability to interact with the greater Omniverse. But as for the trump talismans…well, they are another matter entirely. Even one of them would be beyond my ability, even if I were to put all the energy and substance of my universe entirely into making it. And the four of them together…well, I doubt they could be conjured even by sacrificing all the past, present, and future of both of your entire universes…though perhaps I’m wrong about that. It’s not my area of expertise.”
The Desperado did not feel he’d been given much more of an answer than would have been achieved using a simple “No,” but he decided not to point that out. Unable to resist at least some further curiosity, he asked, “So, then, who did make these…trump things, whatever they are? And how do you know about them?”
“As for how I know about them,” the wizard said, “well…I’ve always been rather good at divination, even before I became the god of a small universe. Not good enough to avoid my accident, obviously, but that’s more secondary to not thinking to look in the right place in the right way than in not having the ability. And with my current status, I can bring more power to bear on my divination, as I did when I located you two in your various universes. So…I had heard some vague legends here and there about these trumps, but once I became what I am, I was able to find out more, and to realize the power they represent…and that they might be powerful enough to free me.
“As for who made them…well, the entity that made these trumps talismans is…well, really, almost a legend in and of itself. Of course, obviously, it exists, if they exist—which they do—but its character, its power, its…well, its danger is what you could predict from a being that made these trump talismans. If they are dangerous, then that being is so much more so that it’s difficult even for me to fathom. I hope never to come to its attention, to be honest. Which is one reason I’ve recruited you two.”
“‘Recruited’?” spat the Dark Fairy. “You didn’t recruit me, you…conscripted me. And it sounds as though you did the same thing to him, and then sent him to kidnap me by lying to him about what you were trying to do! You’ve abducted us!”
The wizard bobbed his head from side to side and said, “You say tomato, I say po-tah-toe. I couldn’t rely on your enthusiasm. My divination made it clear that you two, specifically, are the best two for me to choose to carry out my task. It’s not always clear why these things are so—even the magic itself might not know why it’s the case, just that it is. I need this done, and I have the power already to reward you greatly and will have still more ability to compensate you if you do what I say.” He turned to the Desperado and said, “You said you were perfectly fine with doing what I asked, before.”
“Well…yes, I did,” the Desperado admitted, then quickly, concerned about what the Dark Fairy might think, he added, “but she’s right that I didn’t know what you really had planned when I went to her. I thought I was just delivering a message.”
“You were, and you did,” the wizard replied, being deliberately obtuse, the Desperado thought. “The message was, that if the Dark Fairy—and you—will help me get hold of the four trump talismans so that I can escape from my imprisonment in this small universe of my own accidental creation, I will not only return your identities, I will reward you at a level beyond even my current power…beyond even the saving of your life and returning you to health that I did for you, Mr. Desperado, and the subsequent improvement of your gun. It wasn’t precisely the message I led you to believe you were delivering, but it wasn’t that different.”
The Desperado thought the Dark Fairy glanced at him and then rolled her eyes, and he was not sure if she was disgusted by his naivete more or the wizard’s duplicity. He was, however, too distracted for the moment to worry about her already presumptively negative opinion of him. He said to the wizard, “That’s right. You did more than just make my pistol so that it doesn’t ever run out of bullets, didn’t you?”
“Of course,” the wizard said, looking pleased with himself. Then, with a bit of a frown, he asked, “Why, did you end up using it? I hope you didn’t try to kill anything.”
“Well, I certainly didn’t want to,” the Desperado replied, not feeling at all ashamed, despite the look of disapproval. “But her…pet, or friend, or whatever, that wolf-lion thing, isn’t much friendlier and more patient than she is, and he attacked me. I tried to dodge, and I didn’t want to kill him, but I had to shoot him. But he didn’t die.”
“No, clearly not,” the wizard said, raising an eyebrow and contemplating the Dark Fairy, who glowered at them both wordlessly. “If he had, I don’t think she would have stopped trying to kill you, even after I brought you both here. I would probably have to forcibly restrain her.”
“So…how did that work? How does it work?” the Desperado said. “Because only a few seconds after that, I was able to shoot one of her fireballs out of the air. I’m a good shot, but bullets don’t usually do much to fire.”
“Ah, I see,” the wizard said, still looking smug. “Well, the gun is now able to respond to your intention and adjust its effects accordingly. You were strongly motivated not to kill her friend—I think you said his name was Fenreo?” He looked at the Dark Fairy, but she didn’t respond even with a gesture, so the wizard looked back at the Desperado and continued, “So your gun operated as a kind of tranquilizer, instead. It put the poor beast to sleep, but literally, not in any…euphemistic sense. And since, I’m quite sure, you were strongly motivated to extinguish the fire that she had hurled, presumably, at you, the gun fired a bullet that would have that effect.”
The Desperado blinked. If he had not seen the very effects the wizard was describing, he would not have believed them. Trying to sort things through in his head, he asked, “So, then…whatever my…intention, you said, whatever I’m hoping to do when I shoot…it’ll do that?”
“Well, not just anything,” the wizard replied. “It’s still a gun, after all. You’re going to be able to pull the trigger and have it…build a house, say, or water a desert. And, of course, there are limits on its power. You wouldn’t be able to use it to destroy the moon, or any such thing.”
The Desperado drew his head back. “Why would someone even want to ‘destroy the moon’?” he asked.
The wizard shrugged. “People are strange,” he said. “I don’t know what some of them might want.”
“All right, enough of this yammering!’ the Dark Fairy interrupted, her hair seeming a slightly brighter orange/red in her impatience, as though it were about to turn into true flame in its own right. “You have us trapped, and you won’t let us go or even give us our…memories, our identities back unless we do what you say. So, what do you want us to do?”
The wizard looked surprised. “Surely that’s obvious?” he said. “I thought I’d said already. I want you two to collect the trump talismans from where they are and bring them to me.”
The Desperado didn’t think the wizard had been quite explicit about this before, but it was certainly not a surprise. Nevertheless, it still felt unreasonable. He asked, “How are we supposed to even find them, let alone get to where they are and bring them back?”
“A fair question,” the wizard replied. “Or perhaps one could call it two questions. But finding them—at least other than the fine locations—will not be your problem, but mine. Indeed, I know where the first one is already. And as we get that, it will be easier to find the others, since they call out to each other. And getting you there and bringing you and them back, well, I have the means to achieve that…as you should know.”
The Dark Fairy glowered, still, but she asked, “So, where is the first one, and which one is it? Why are we wasting time with all this elaboration of trivia? Why don’t we just get on with it?”
The wizard tilted his head, looking slightly pleased. “Am I to understand by this that you agree to help me?” he asked.
The Dark Fairy spat a sigh out and replied, “We don’t appear to have much choice. I know I said that I would rather wait here forever than help you, but I can barely tolerate your company even for as long as I have. It’s bad enough that I’m going to have to work with a human, but at least this gunman isn’t as bad a person as you are, and he talks less. A little.”
The Desperado was not used to being compared favorably with others—not on a moral level, at least—but he supposed the fact that his gun, in following his desires, had merely knocked her wolf-lion friend unconscious and not killed it demonstrated that he wasn’t completely bloodthirsty.
Perhaps she had a point. He would have been hesitant even to help the wizard in the first place had the man made clear what he really meant to do to the Fairy. The wizard was, at the very least, somewhat deceitful. Which led the Desperado to wonder how much they could trust him to follow through on his promises if they carried out his wishes, but as the Dark Fairy had said, he didn’t see that he had much choice. And for him, still, it all seemed better than dying of thirst in the desert.
If, indeed, he wasn’t in the process of doing just that right that moment and was dreaming everything that was happening in his last moments of life. This seemed less likely, though, somewhat ironically. He had never had the kind of imagination to come up with dreams like the one he would have to be dreaming now if that were what this was.
The wizard laughed openly at the Dark Fairy’s points, obviously not troubled by her impression of him. “You speak plainly but fairly,” he said. “Very well, I’ll get on with the specifics.”
He waved his hand again, and three of the four talisman images in the air above him disappeared, leaving only the first one—the diamond—floating there. “The first one, the one I’ve located most easily, is the diamond,” he said, “which is why I both put it first and described it first. It is, in many ways, inherently the least…perilous of the four talismans, though it is by no means to be taken lightly. It is also the one that I know is not even being used at the moment. It is owned, so to speak, by a particular entity that keeps it for, well, shall we say, sentimental reasons, not for its power.”
“Really?” the Dark Fairy said, seeming honestly surprised. “An item that gives someone power over money, and it isn’t being used? I take it the person who has it isn’t a human.”
Chuckling again, the wizard said, “You are right, as it turns out, though there are humans who don’t care all that much about money. This stone is held by a being who is, in a sense, the god of her universe—she is female in form and in character—as I am of mine, but she is…far more powerful than I am. For her godhood, if that is what one might call it, is natural. I suppose it might be more proper to call her a demi-god, for she has no real…authoritarian tendencies. Indeed, she’s rather…soft-hearted, one might say, though not soft-headed. Her realm is one of peace, but it is…peculiar.”
The Dark Fairy looked singularly unenlightened, and the Desperado didn’t feel much clearer. “What do you mean?” he asked. “You expect us to be able to steal this diamond thing from this…well, this woman, I guess, because she’s soft-hearted? But if she’s a…a goddess, even more than you’re a god, then how the hell are we supposed to do that? I mean, she’s a fairy, sure, and she’s magical,” he nodded toward the Dark Fairy as he said this, “but she can’t even hurt you. And I’m just a…a gunfighter. You didn’t even need to use a magic toy to grab me and bring me here.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” the wizard said, looking almost stern. “Either of you. I didn’t pick you two randomly, but through careful and intricate divination. You are the ones best able, most likely, to be able to carry out the tasks that I need done. I have no doubts about it. If it can be done—and it can be done, though not easily—then you two are the ones best able to do it.”
A pause followed, as the Desperado waited for the wizard to say more. When that didn’t happen, he said, “Your confidence is one thing, but you still didn’t say how we’re supposed to do this.”
“Ah, yes, of course,” the wizard said, and the Desperado saw the Dark Fairy roll her eyes again. “My apologies. I’m not used to speaking to anyone but myself, so I tend to assume the person I’m talking to knows what I mean. Unless I’m fooling myself, I suppose.” He chuckled, the sound and his expression slightly demented, though the Desperado thought this was an act, then went on, “I don’t think you’ll have to try to…well, to defeat this being, or probably even to try to fool her. I rather think the best way to start with her would be simply to…well, ask her.”
The pause that followed this was of a completely different character than the previous one. Finally, the Dark Fairy said, “‘Ask her’? Are you serious? What, have you arranged somehow for us to accidentally lure her into a trap like you did with me? Will this…moonstone necklace take it from her magically once we get close enough?”
The wizard laughed quite a bit more openly now, and the laughter seemed both honest and even somewhat innocent. “Magically take something from her?” he asked. “Me? No, I’m afraid that’s not something of which I’m capable, even if I were inclined to try. Just because a bear is well-fed and sleeping does not mean it is wise to try to pluck a hair from its side…or to threaten its young.”
The Dark Fairy looked perturbed by the wizard’s metaphor, but the Desperado said, “So, in other words, just because she’s…soft-hearted doesn’t mean she wouldn’t get mad as hell if she thought you were trying to…well, to do something like what you did to the Dark Fairy, here?”
“Precisely,” the wizard said, seeming utterly untroubled by the reminder of his previous deception. “But I don’t think it would be necessary. I think you may very well be able to…well, to talk her into giving it to me, or at least lending it to me.”
The Desperado looked over at the Dark Fairy with surprise, and he found that she was returning a similar gaze. Turning back to the wizard, the Fairy asked, “Are you seriously asking us to believe that this…whoever it is who has this diamond talisman, which is so powerful, can just be…talked into handing it over to you?”
“Yes, I am,” he said. “My divinations are reasonably clear and consistent about this.”
“Are we going to need to…I don’t know, get her in contact with you for that to work, like you said was going to happen with her?” the Desperado asked, nodding toward the Dark Fairy.
“No,” the wizard replied emphatically. “No, indeed. I have no desire to connect my mind or universe with hers, even at a distance. Quite apart from the danger if she should decide to become angry at me, her mind is…inscrutable, and contact with it might change my mind in ways that would be reflective of her priorities. I’ve no desire to, say, turn off my own mind, relax, and float downstream, lay down all thought and surrender to the void…even if it is not dying.”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” the Desperado said.
“Neither do I,” the Dark Fairy agreed. “But I’m not all that interested in the details. So, we’re going to be on our own to convince this…whoever, whatever it is, to give or to lend us this diamond talisman.”
“I’m afraid so,” the wizard said. “But I am convinced you will be up to the task. Oh, and I encourage you not to think of her as ‘it’, even if you don’t mean any ill by it. Her pronouns, as they say, are ‘she’ and ‘her’. And she calls herself Lucy.”
The Desperado blinked, surprised more by this last revelation than anything else in the recent conversation. “Lucy?” he asked. “Just…Lucy?”
The wizard looked vicariously embarrassed by this, but he replied, “Yes, I’m afraid so. It’s the name she chose, and for reasons that…well, I won’t get into them. I don’t quite understand the urge, myself. But if you ask her, I’m sure she will explain it to you.”
The Desperado and the Dark Fairy again shared a puzzled glance. Then the Dark Fairy said, “So, it sounds as if this…this Lucy, whatever she is, is at least willing to talk. Or she would be willing to talk if we go to her.”
“Yes,” the wizard replied. “And she shouldn’t tend to want to do you any harm, at least not without significant provocation. She is a proponent of peace and love, as they say.”
“Well, wouldn’t an attempt to get this…this diamond trump thing be considered a provocation?” the Desperado asked.
“Not if you go about it in a reasonable way,” the wizard said.
After a brief, thoughtful pause, the Desperado said, “Well, I’m not exactly a…smooth-tongued individual. And I don’t get the impression that the Dark Fairy, here, is…well, at least isn’t used to talking to people much. No offense intended,” he added at the end.
The Fairy seemed utterly uninterested in his words, which was better than finding them insulting. She said, “I’m capable of speaking reasonably in the right circumstances. And I’m likely to have an easier time of doing it with a being who is…well, not human, and who is a promoter of peace and love, as you say.” She didn’t sound completely confident, but the Desperado thought she was trying to be positive about herself as much as she could.
“Excellent,” the wizard said. “Then let’s be getting you off on the first journey.” He raised his hand, as though to do one of his acts of conjuring, but the Desperado stopped him.
“Wait,” he said. “What about…well, are there any things we need to avoid doing, or to make sure that we do, like how you told me to be polite and not kill or hurt anything while I was heading to meet her?” He nodded toward the Dark Fairy. “Or are we just going to…be sent right to her, and not have to worry about that?”
“No, you won’t be sent directly to her,” the wizard said. “She doesn’t allow that. She makes those who come to meet her travel through a sort of…well, a path, a route, I’m not sure the best word to use for it, before meeting her. But she will not try to interfere, and there should be no danger to you from any of the denizens of her realm…though you will probably find them, and it, rather strange. But it shouldn’t be dangerous, at least, and I don’t think you’ll need either your gun, or your magical fire in the process.”
Again, the Dark Fairy and the Desperado shared glances, clearly thinking similar thoughts. The Dark Fairy said, “If we don’t even need to use our particular…abilities, or weapons, or magic as the case might be, then why in nature do you need to send us? Why couldn’t you just send anyone, or just conjure or create someone or something to send?”
The Desperado thought this was a reasonable question, but the wizard shook his head, replying, “No, it needs to be you. The two of you. The divinations are clear. You two are more than simply your ability to do battle, however impressive those abilities might be. You are the ones most likely to be able to convince her. And as for conjuring or creating someone or something to send…well, I am able to conjure items of a certain degree of complexity, but I cannot create separate beings, not with minds of their own. If I could do that, I would not be so lonely or feel so trapped here. Even if I were to separate out part of my own mind and give it a body and a life of its own, it would not be able to leave this universe, being as it would be a part of me.”
The Desperado didn’t quite follow, but he guessed the Dark Fairy’s question was firmly answered in the negative. She, at least, seemed to accept the response. “Fine,” she muttered. “Then, do you need to give us any…directions, a path, a map? Or are we on our own finding her?”
“I’m afraid I can’t give you a map,” the wizard said, “since paths in her world are very much at her whim. But if you ask around, and look for her, I think you’ll be able to find her without too much difficulty.”
With a sigh that was almost a growl, the Dark Fairy said, “Fine then. Get it over with. The sooner we get to this Lucy and get the diamond, the sooner we can move on to the others and get done and go back to our homes. Fenreo will be worried about me.”
“Not at all,” the wizard said. “The very direction of the flow of time is different here, and in other universes, just as the direction of the pull of gravity depends upon where on a planet’s surface you’re standing…at least if you’re in a universe with planets and typical gravity. The past is always down, you might say, and the future is always up, but which is which will vary from place to place. When you’re done, I can send you back home in the very place you left, in space and time, and you’ll never have been missed. In a very real sense, the notion of time passing for your Fenreo while you’re outside of your universe is a nonsensical concept.”
The Desperado was utterly at a loss to understand this, but he was relieved slightly to note that the Dark Fairy looked as confused as he felt. “Whatever,” she said, her grumpiness no doubt worsened by her confusion. “Just get on with it. What do we need to do?”
“Just stand where you are,” the wizard said. He again started to raise his hand and again the Desperado interrupted him.
“Wait,” he said. “How will be get back? How will you know when we’re done, assuming we ever are?”
“Ah,” the wizard said, sounding as though he was becoming slightly impatient. “Don’t worry. The necklace will keep tabs, and it will alert me and bring you back when the time comes.”
The Dark Fairy looked down at the new moonstone necklace that lay on her upper chest, and which went quite nicely with the moonstone collar she wore. “Wonderful,” she muttered. Then looking back up at the wizard, she said, “So, get on with it.”
“With pleasure,” the wizard replied, and this time without interruption, he raised his hand and made a gesture.
The blue from the moonstone flared again and surrounded the Dark Fairy, then the Desperado, blotting out the sight of everything but each other. And the Desperado felt the world beneath him vanish yet again.
He paid less attention to the sensations of the travel this time than he had before, since it was no longer so new to him. He still felt, all along the journey, that he was upright, but it was again very much an artificial kind of uprightness. It was curious to him that, this time, he was able to see—or perhaps merely to sense—that the Dark Fairy was traveling along with him.
As before, it was hard for him to tell how long the journey lasted. It was like a dream in that sense; it felt both interminable and instantaneous, as though his ability even to keep track of passing moments was impaired. He thought briefly about what the wizard had said, about how the nature of time itself differed in different universes, and that even the direction of time was not consistent. This was a difficult notion. As far as he knew, time only had two directions, and you could only travel in one of them. But then he thought about what the man had said about gravity always pulling you down, toward the earth, but that which direction was down was different depending on where on earth you were. Down to someone in China might be up to someone in Texas…or maybe even sideways to someone in Africa. The Desperado’s geographical knowledge was decent, but not terrific, and he’d certainly never been outside North America before.
But time and gravity were two entirely different things, and he couldn’t see how time could have different directions. Then again, he couldn’t understand how there could be more than one universe, or how there could be wizards and fairies and magical talismans, so he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised by any ignorance from which he found himself suffering. The world, or the universe, or the “Omniverse” as the wizard called it, was clearly bigger than he could possibly have dreamed.
He was frankly surprised that he was accepting it all as well as he was. He had no intuitive sense of any deep understanding, but he felt remarkable equanimity with what was happening to him, more than he thought he should have felt. He would have expected to feel that he was losing his mind, to panic, to be terrified, to be completely at a loss. And yet, he was simply going along with events, not without thought or without question, but without any real sense of the pure shock that he would have predicted himself to experience.
Was it because he had basically accepted his own death, there in the desert, after having seen so many other people die in his life? Had he simply become numb to any further emotional reactions to the changed nature of reality because all of it was something he was experiencing other than the expected oblivion—or Hell? Or had, perhaps, the wizard, when restoring him to health, adjusted some aspect of his emotions to make him better able, and more willing, to carry out the tasks he needed?
That was a troubling thought, but he had seen how the moonstone had affected Pixie and even the Dark Fairy, altering their behavior in troubling ways. It didn’t seem that hard to think his own moods at least could have been changed. Clearly, his memory had been, and surely moods and attitudes had to be related to such things.
He sighed—a strange experience while ensconced in the blue glow that carried him and the Dark Fairy through whatever region or path they were following to wherever they were going—and decided that he couldn’t be sure whether he had been altered in any specific way other than what the wizard had revealed. He could only stay vigilant, about events and about himself.
He was distracted by the sense of slowing down, such as he had felt before, and he looked at the Dark Fairy, who was beside him, or seemed to be, and he could tell that she sensed the change in their orientation. He put his hand on the butt of his pistol, despite the wizard’s assurances about the lack of danger where they were going. The man was clearly not entirely honest; it was best to be prepared for anything.
Just as he felt he and the Dark Fairy were about to come to ground, or whatever the right term was, the Desperado felt a brief and sudden lurch in his orientation, as if at the last minute his descent—if that was even what it was—had been interrupted by some curious gust of wind, and he found that he and the Dark Fairy were separated slightly, he moving forward and she moving backward. He also felt that his body was changing posture, not by his own will, but he had no power to resist it.
When the blue light faded, revealing wherever they now were, the first thing the Desperado noticed was that, instead of standing, he was seated, on what felt like a bench of some kind. He glanced down, then back around behind him, taking in as much of his surroundings as he could, quickly. One of the first things he took note of was that the Dark Fairy, though she had been moved relative to him, was not far away. She was seated only a few yards behind him, her wings having adjusted themselves to her setting, and she looked as surprised as the Desperado felt.
They found themselves, apparently, in the front and rear bench seats of a wooden rowboat. It had a flat stern, just behind the Dark Fairy, and a pointed prow, just a bit in front of the Desperado. The wood did not seem to be painted, but it was utterly smooth and clean, and it looked so fresh and healthy that it could almost still have been alive despite having been formed into the boat. He saw no sign of oars or paddles, within or on the sides of the boat.
They were floating in the middle of a fairly wide river—nothing like the size of the Missouri River, let alone the Mississippi, but no tiny stream, either. The water was clear and clean, and quite smooth, flowing with an apparent steady, waveless pace. Only slight ripples spread out from the edges of the boat. The surface of the water, so undisturbed, vividly reflected the light from the clear, orange sky.
The Desperado looked up and around. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. Yes, the sky above, arching over and all around him, was a peculiar, translucent, light orange color. It was not the fiery shade of the Dark Fairy’s hair, but a milder, almost pleasant color. It was not a sky color he had ever seen or imagined. Floating in it, here and there, were what should have been wisps of cloud, but they almost looked like…like twisted and twirling bits of some kind of vegetable rind, and perhaps chunks of fruit. It looked almost like jelly or preserves.
“What the hell…” he muttered.
The Dark Fairy, behind him, was silent, looking up and around with her mouth slightly agape.
The Desperado drew his eyes from the impossible sky and looked to the riverbanks, equidistant on either side, sloping up rather sharply from muddy edges to green fields on either side. They were apparently floating through a very large grove or orchard of some kind, because all around them were slightly uneven stands of rather short trees, with dark green, rather ovoid, shiny leaves. All the trees were fairly bursting with growths of bright orange fruits in the shape of slightly squat balls, wider than they were tall. The Desperado had good eyes, and he thought perhaps that the many fruits would each be slightly smaller around than the palm of his hand. He hadn’t seen them before, but he’d heard of something like these.
He glanced back at the Dark Fairy and asked, “Are those…oranges?”
She shook her head, agape still, and replied, “I think they’re…tangerines. Very similar fruits but slightly smaller. Quite tasty.” She seemed at least as at a loss as the Desperado was. Neither of them made any move to rise in their seats.
Looking at the burgeoning growth of these “tangerines”, the Desperado said, “It looks like they’ve had a hell of a growing season. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much fruit in my life.”
“Neither have I,” said the Dark Fairy, and this impressed the Desperado more, since she seemed the sort to be closer to nature than he was.
Now that he looked at the fruit and up at the sky above and around it, the Desperado said, “The sky looks almost like it’s made of…of some kind of preserves, maybe made out of these ‘tangerines’. That can’t be possible, can it?”
The Dark Fairy muttered a word the Desperado didn’t quite hear, though he could tell it started with the letter “M”. Then she said, “No, I wouldn’t have thought so.” Again, her incredulity was far more convincing to the Desperado than his own, since she was a being whose very nature was magical.
Their amazed comments were interrupted, and they were startled—only slightly—by the sound of a soft, melodious, female voice, which came from the direction in front of their boat, saying, “Hello there, my guests. Welcome.”
The Dark Fairy and the Desperado both turned toward the bow of the boat, not sure how anyone could have spoken to them from what should be empty water. Hesitantly, both at once, and quite slowly, they said, “Hello…?”
Gradually, they became aware of a vague shape, almost ghostlike, that hung in the air above the water. They could make out almost no details, but the general outline was that of a slender woman with shoulder-length, wavy hair, wearing what seemed to be a long, flowing dress or skirt. They could not see any colors or make out any features, just vague outlines of a shape, with one exception. They could clearly make out her eyes. These were as solid appearing as any eyes might be, despite the mere suggestion of existence of the rest of her. But they were not normal eyes, despite that. Their pupils were sharply defined and wide, but surrounding them, the irises—and bleeding into the whites—were a changing cascade of colors, symmetrically tumbling and rolling into and around each other, like gems on a mirrored, moving surface, lit from behind by the sun.
“Hello,” the voice said again, and they could just make out in the afterimage that was her face that her mouth was moving. “Welcome to my world.”
The Desperado was too puzzled to speak, but the Dark Fairy, seeming much more comfortable with such bizarre things—and more polite than she had been either with him or with the wizard—said, “Thank…thank you. Do you…may I ask who you are?”
With a tiny, pleasant laugh, the voice and figure replied, “You may certainly ask, but I’ll introduce myself to you, and you to me, when we meet each other. I can tell some things about you already, but I don’t want to be impolite and make assumptions.”
The Dark Fairy blinked but said nothing for the moment, so the Desperado said, “When we meet? Aren’t we…aren’t meeting right now?”
“Not formally,” the woman—or the shape of a woman—said. “This is not my true self, but merely an extension of me. An image of broken light, if you will. I can tell that you have business with me by the way you arrived, and I would prefer to handle such things in person.”
The Desperado now realized more clearly that the boat in which he and the Dark Fairy sat was moving steadily along the flowing river, not seeming to need any steering, and the vast grove of trees on either side slowly passed them in the other direction. This shadowy, ghostly figure of a woman, however, remained the same distance in front of the boat as it moved, as though she were somehow a part of the boat itself, though she was not attached to it in any way the Desperado could see.
“Very well,” the Dark Fairy said, her tone somehow deeply respectful and deferential, which was still a mild surprise to the Desperado. “We will be happy to wait for that. How…should we find you?”
“That won’t be difficult at all,” the woman said, and from her tone of voice alone, the Desperado could almost conjure the image of a pleasant smile. “Simply stay in the river, following it and me until you come to the bridge. Just past the bridge, you’ll be able to go ashore, and my people will direct you to the station.”
The Desperado looked back at the Dark Fairy, trying to make a question clear in his glance. She apparently got what he was wondering, because she shrugged, almost seeming to dismiss his skepticism with mild contempt. He supposed he must seem a truly uneducated bumpkin with respect to all this magical stuff, but he hardly thought that should be held against him. Perhaps she still held him at least partly responsible for her being involved in this affair at all, which he had to allow was understandable. He was glad, at least, that she seemed to have accepted that he had been duped as well as she. She might be fiery and “prickly”, as the wizard had said, but she was not completely unreasonable.
“Very well,” the Dark Fairy said, nodding solemnly to the vague figure with the sharp, colorful, cascading eyes. “We will do as you say. For you are correct, we do have business with you…at least, if you are who I think you are.”
“I am,” the figure said. The color in her eyes glinted and glittered, as if the noonday sun shone behind them, conveying pleasant, good will. Only as the Desperado noticed the light in her eyes did he realize that, though there was plenty of ambient light about, and it was plainly daytime, there was no obvious sun in the sky. Then the figure turned, and though her silhouette remained, her eyes were no longer visible.
The Desperado looked back at the Dark Fairy for some kind of hint or indication about what was really going on, but she gave him no sign. He turned to face forward again, taking his hand off the butt of his pistol finally. Whoever or whatever this apparition was, it didn’t seem substantial enough for bullets to affect it, even if he were inclined to shoot it, which he was not. He supposed, perhaps, with the changes the wizard had made to his gun, he might be able to do damage to a shade or haunt, or whatever this was, if he tried, but that would be incredibly rude. This figure seemed unthreatening, and he didn’t get even a misgiving of hostility from it. His instincts about such things were good, though he knew they might not be accurate where he was now. Still, he guessed that the Dark Fairy herself, despite their having been coerced to travel together, was much more likely to be a danger to him than the figure floating along in front of the boat.
They were all silent for a time. The land on the sides rose up into brief hills on both sides, through which the river flowed while going around a bend. When they came out the other side of the brief fold in the land, the level ground returned, but they could now see that the vast groves of fruit trees were coming to an end. Replacing them, however, were plants of a much more incredible nature.
Without thinking, the Desperado asked, “We haven’t…shrunk back down again, have we?”
He hadn’t really been expecting an answer, but the Dark Fairy, behind him, said in puzzlement, “No. Not at all. I can change my size if I like, and I know we were changed when we were brough to the wizard’s cesspool of a universe, but…no such thing has happened here.”
“Huh,” the Desperado grunted, not sure what even to say.
On both sides of the river now, towering far, far over their heads, were what looked like gigantic flowers, even bigger relative to them than had been the ones he’d seen in the Dark Fairy’s world. They were tall and mostly straight, with single green stems from which grew occasional, immense leaves, and their tops, which tilted a bit like sunflowers, though in random directions, had yellow petals, with yellow, daisy-like centers.
But they did not look quite like real flowers, not like any plant matter that might have grown anywhere the Desperado could imagine. They were translucent, especially the petals and the leaves; the Desperado could make out the shapes of the other flowers, and the bizarre orange sky, through them, at least where they were thinnest. He saw no sign of bees or other insects or pollinators, huge or normal in size.
The Dark Fairy, seeming to be speaking half to herself, said, “They’re…they’re not made out of…of fiber and cells and sap, but almost out of some kind of…of plastic, like humans make. It’s plastic that seems like it was made out of plant matter, but it isn’t anymore…and yet…and yet they’re alive. Clearly alive, as alive as any flowers I’ve ever known. I can feel the life and health in them.”
The Desperado looked at the impossible, incredibly high flowers as the Fairy spoke. He didn’t know the word “plastic”, but he thought he understood the rough idea of what she meant. He would have likened their appearance to clear, colored wax or glass, but it was more flexible than the latter and sturdier than the former.
The Desperado watched the Dark Fairy out of the corner of his eye as she and he both looked off to the side at the fields of immense flowers, which spread into the distance just as much as the fruit trees had, if not more. Turning toward the front, speaking even as she did, the Dark Fairy asked, “How can it be possible that they’re…alive?”
Her voice trailed off, and she looked slightly dismayed. Following her gaze, the Desperado also turned toward the front of the boat, where he saw immediately what had led the Dark Fairy’s words to peter out. He took a deep breath, then blew it out, saying, “She’s gone.” The shadowy figure of a woman had faded completely away, or perhaps had vanished while they had been looking elsewhere.
The Dark Fairy sighed, but she didn’t look so much angry as mildly disappointed, as if someone with whom she’d been having a pleasant conversation had suddenly had to go, leaving her with nothing but the company of dullards instead. He supposed that was pretty much what had happened.
Evidently recognizing his regard, the Dark Fairy became grimmer again, and through tight lips she said, “I guess we’ll just have to wait until we get to this bridge she mentioned.”
The Desperado nodded slowly, but then, even as the idea occurred to him, he asked, “Couldn’t you just fly?”
The Fairy shrugged, looking barely interested in the suggestion, but nevertheless she replied, saying, “Maybe. I might not be able to. Who know the nature of the air here, with a sky that looks like…marmalade? She could probably prevent me from flying, too, if she wanted to…if she wanted me to stay in the boat and follow its course, which is what seems to be the case. But it would be rude of me to try, I think. She welcomed us as guests, even though we weren’t invited, and asked us to stay in the river until we got past the bridge, where she said we’d be able to go ashore. Unless we need to do otherwise, I don’t mean to go against her directions.” After a pause, she added, “But if you want to try to swim, you’re welcome to do it. Who knows if it’s even water we’re in? It might melt a person like acid if they step in it. Not that it would be a terrible loss.”
The Desperado couldn’t help but laugh at the Dark Fairy’s attitude. He found it refreshing that she was so honest about her dislike or at least disdain toward him. “No,” he said, “I think I’ll follow your plan and do what the…well, do what she said.”
The Dark Fairy nodded briefly, then turned her gaze back toward the ridiculous, translucent, yellow and green flowers they were drifting past. The Desperado, however, kept looking at her, though he tried not to stare too directly. He didn’t want to be too impolitic, but he thought he needed to know something, so he said, “You changed your mind pretty quickly once the wizard told us what he wanted us to do.”
Her glance darted back to rest on him, and her forehead contracted into a slight, thoughtful frown. “What are you talking about?” she asked.
“Well, you told the wizard you’d rather just stay in his universe forever than do anything to help him. But then, once he started his pitch, you pretty quickly gave in.”
Looking disgruntled, the Dark Fairy said, “It was an empty threat on my part. I was speaking in anger. But, like I said, I would rather be sent on any number of quests than wait around in that…human’s universe with him.”
“Sure, maybe,” the Desperado said. “That makes sense. No point cutting off your nose to spite your face, like they say. But I got the impression there was something else going on.”
“What do you mean?” the Fairy responded grumpily. “What else could be going on? I bow to irresistible necessity just as much as anyone must.”
“Sure,” the Desperado said. “Though I get the feeling you’d usually give more of a fight. But something about the thing the wizard wanted us to do got you actually interested. And I don’t think it’s just the prospect of the wizard being able to reward us afterward. Because who can really trust him? So, what changed your mind?”
For an instant, it seemed that the Dark Fairy was simply going to deny the Desperado’s words, but then she pursed her lips and looked thoughtful. Finally, hesitantly, she said, “What do you think changed my mind, if you’re so sure?”
The Desperado, not feeling on completely secure ground, since he wasn’t at all knowledgeable about anything magical, said, “Well, I thought you might have seen some possible…advantage that you might take, or something along those lines. Maybe some way that these…whatever he called them, talismans or whatever, could be used against him.”
The Dark Fairy’s expression didn’t change overtly, but she did ask, “Do you think the wizard thought that?”
“That’s a good question,” the Desperado admitted, and he looked away from her, trying to recall the wizard’s reactions. Unable to be sure, he finally replied, “I wouldn’t guess so. I think he’s too…stuck, that he has too much of a one-track mind. And I get the impression he’s been alone in his universe for too long to be able to really get what other people might be thinking.”
“And yet he was able to deceive you into coming to trap me,” the Dark Fairy responded, her attitude still clearly disgruntled toward him.
“Well, okay,” the Desperado replied. “But that isn’t too hard. I was suddenly brought into this universe from a…well, what I would think of as a normal world, into one where magic and all this other…stuff happens. Also, I was almost dead when he took me. And I’m first to admit, I’m not necessarily all that bright when it comes to other people.”
The Dark Fairy raised an eyebrow. “Yet, you think you caught wind of some…opportunistic thought process in me.”
The Desperado shrugged. “I thought, maybe,” he admitted. “But I’m a long way from being sure. That’s why I’m asking you about it.”
The Dark Fairy continued to regard him with her raised eyebrow for a moment, then she sighed and looked slightly away, saying, “Well, you should revise your estimate of yourself upward a little, because you’re not wrong. The wizard admitted that these…trump talismans, these magic items, were created by some being that is far more powerful than he is, and that they are more powerful than anything he could do or make. So, just maybe, they might be something we can use—or I can use, if you’re not interested or able—against him, to turn their power about and free us…or at least free me, if you’re not interested, once we have them in hand.”
“Aren’t you worried that he might…expect something like that?” the Desperado asked.
“I’m not worried, exactly,” the Dark Fairy replied, “but I certainly imagine he might expect it. He might even have safeguards in place to protect him against a betrayal. But I think he thinks very highly of himself and is overconfident. And any undertaking like this has to be a gamble. Within his universe, his power is absolute, but only over the things that are in and from it. So there must be a chance to counteract his intentions. Otherwise, why would he steal our identities and coerce us into doing this? He could just force us to do it, or make us want to do it, if he had power over things from outside. And I mean to try to find the weaknesses in his plans, which have to be there, and to find a way to turn these powerful items against him.”
“So, you don’t trust him to…to let us go, or to reward us, after he’s done?” the Desperado asked.
“I don’t see how I can,” the Fairy admitted. “But even if I did, I don’t have any desire to acquiesce to the ‘request’ of some human, when it’s really a demand, a kidnapping that he calls an invitation. I’ll burn to ashes in my own fire before I just become the tool or plaything of some human wizard.”
The Desperado nodded, not at all surprised by her attitude. Then he said, “But what if I was only too happy to work for him? Maybe I’m his willing accomplice, and I’ll tell him everything you said. Aren’t you worried about that?”
“No,” she replied without hesitation. “I don’t sense anything like that from you; you’re clearly just a human, and disgusting as humans are, I can still generally sense when they have ill will toward me or are trying to deceive me. Also, frankly, I don’t care if he knows.”
It was the Desperado’s turn to raise a questioning eyebrow. “Really?” he asked. “You don’t care at all?”
With a sigh, the Dark Fairy replied, “Obviously, it’s better for me if he doesn’t know that I don’t mean to just go along with his game meekly, but he’d be a plain and straightforward fool if he thought that I would in the first place. And while I don’t think you’re his voluntary agent much more than I am, even if you are, if you intend to try to stop me from seizing my freedom back if I can, then I will kill you without hesitation.”
The Desperado laughed, honestly pleased, though he wasn’t sure why. “I can believe that,” he said. “And I guess I wouldn’t blame you. But don’t worry. I was willing to do a straightforward job for a straightforward reward…hell, just in thanks for him having saved my life, to be honest. But once it was obvious that he’d tricked me into tricking you, and then when he took our memories, so we’d have to do what he said…well, I’m not a whole lot happier about being forced to do things against my will than you are.”
After regarding him for a moment, perhaps trying to ascertain the truthfulness of his words, the Dark Fairy said, “Well, then, it’s good to know we’re coming from the same place.”
“That it is,” the Desperado said. “But I think you’re going to need to take the lead in things. I have no experience or understanding of magic at all. If one of those talismans was to find itself to me and I didn’t know what it was, I’d be as like as not to just…bring it to a jeweler or some such, try to sell it or swap it for food.”
“That wouldn’t be such a stupid thing to do,” the Dark Fairy agreed, surprising the Desperado slightly. “Anyone who values even great treasure over the necessities of survival is a fool. What use are gems and jewels, really, and what are they compared to flowers…even peculiar ones like these?”
The Desperado looked around again, trying to decide whether these very strange, immense growths, if they really had grown, were more pleasant to the eye than, for instance, the moonstone necklace around the Dark Fairy’s neck. Both things merely strange to him, when he thought about it, and he couldn’t see either great attraction or revulsion arising from either. It did amuse him, slightly, that the Dark Fairy was so dismissive of a love a jewelry when her only real ornament, other than the wizard’s pendant, was a collar of shiny stones. But he didn’t see any need to point out the inconsistency to her.
With a sigh, the Dark Fairy muttered, “It’s been so long since I’ve seen flowers, and the first ones I see now are…cellophane.”
The Desperado quietly responded, “Yeah, I can see how that could be frustrating.” He stopped himself from pointing out that, from his point of view, the flowers of her world hadn’t been much less bizarre. He thought she might not appreciate being reminded that he had seen them when she had been trapped in a burnt-out forest.
He thought about asking her how she had come to be trapped in that place, but before he had the chance to weigh whether it would be an irritating question for her, the boat came around another gentle bend in the river, this one in the other direction, and as it did, the Dark Fairy said, “Look. There ahead.”
The Desperado did as she suggested, and in the distance, at a place where it seemed the flowers were still present but became less densely packed, he saw what looked like an arched stone bridge going across the river. It was still quite some distance away, but he thought he could tell even from where they were that it had no central support, but was merely a classic, single-span, stone bridge. He thought he saw people crossing it, walking or perhaps riding, and maybe some kind of wagons, but here he had to question his own gaze, because neither the people nor the carts seemed quite right to him.
“I guess that’s the bridge she mentioned,” he said.
“So it would seem,” the Dark Fairy agreed. “She didn’t say anything about more than one, so I would guess this is the bridge. And she said that just past it, there would be a place where we could go ashore and come to meet her.”
The Desperado nodded. Thinking aloud, his eyes locked on the bridge in the distance, he muttered, “I wonder why she couldn’t just talk to us while we’re in the boat.”
The Dark Fairy responded, “Who can say? The wizard said that the being who rules this world insists that people follow some course to come to her, did he not?”
“I guess he did, at that,” the Desperado said, not really having recalled that fact before she reminded him.
They slowly passed down the river, steadily but gradually coming closer to the bridge, and as they did, the Desperado began more to doubt the evidence of his sharp eyes than he had from a distance. Something about the people he saw crossing the bridge, or standing on it and looking out, did not seem quite right to him. He thought perhaps that they were all riding horses, and he even thought he made out the heads of their steeds, but those didn’t seem right, either. And the vague shapes of occasional wagons or carts that he made out seemed even more bizarre—they, for instance, did not seem to have horses pulling them.
As they drew ahead, he saw that some of the people were on the banks of the river, and that indeed there seemed perhaps to be something of a gathering spot to the left of the river, to the left of the bridge, like some manner of village square—though he couldn’t make out any significant collection of buildings. He thought he saw a tent or pavilion, though, and perhaps a small shop of some kind, with an extended umbrella, like a large parasol, over it, though there was no direct sunlight to block, and certainly no sign of rain. What sort of rain might even fall from such a sky?
All this, though, fell to the side in his mind, for he was focused on his first clear view of the people, some of whom were near enough to see him and the Fairy, and to wave, smiling.
He felt his mouth again drop open, and he forced it shut, afraid he was getting too much into the habit of looking stupefied.
The people he saw looked human, at first. At least, their upper halves looked human. They had the heads and shoulders and torsos of men and women, and there were even children, boys and girls here and there, all of the people brightly garbed in clothes that appeared fit for some celebration, perhaps a carnival. But from the waist down they were…other than human.
The lower portions of each person seemed to end in the middle of the back of a horse, though not a full-sized horse by any means. These were horse bodies that came to only a bit higher than the waist of an ordinary person. Neither the Desperado nor the Dark Fairy would have needed stirrups to climb onto these horses.
But they weren’t real horses, in any case, even beyond their small size. They glinted, shiny and bright, gaily decorated in various colors, and their heads moved from side to side, their mouths opened and closed, their eyes blinked and gazed about…but they were made of wood. It was shiny, beautifully varnished wood, the stain drawing deep and rich color from the various shades of the faux horses, but they were clearly wooden. And though they had legs, the legs did not end in hooves. Instead, on each side, the legs were attached to the upper, inner portion of long arches of more wood, joining front and back limbs, making the lower halves of these people seem like rocking horses.
But they moved about, as rocking horses should not be able to do, with first their left rockers and then their right rockers coming forward, each rolling along as the other came forward to go in front. They seemed to go easily, and at quite a good pace, when they were moving. Both their human parts, with arms and heads and hands and clothes, and their wooden horse parts, seemed very much alive and active.
A few of the younger ones rolled up until they were not far from the banks of the river. They waved, smiling at the Dark Fairy and the Desperado drifting past the remaining flowers. A few of them held white, fluffy confections with crusts in their hands, some kind of pies, and they munched them even as they smiled and waved, calling out helloes to the two boat-bound visitors.
Waving vaguely back and trying to smile, the Desperado said, “What in the name of God…”
The Dark Fairy, whom he could see out of the corner of his eye, also waved back at the infectiously happy rocking horse children, and she muttered, “I have no idea,” before raising her voice slightly and saying, “Hello!” back to the children.
The Desperado had thought that fairies and wizards and lion-wolfs were all quite beyond anything he could have imagined meeting, but they were far less bizarre than these impossible people. And yet, despite their mixed flesh and wood, their rocker feet and wooden lower halves, these people seemed entirely happy and healthy, and their greetings were utterly unaffected, as plainly sincere and well-meaning as anything the Desperado could recall encountering.
“What the hell kind of place is this?” he asked, mostly of himself, not sure if he was more delighted or simply flabbergasted. This time the Dark Fairy simply shook her head, still waving and giving an uncomfortable smile at some more children who had come near to the shore to call out greetings.
Presently, they came to the bridge, which they could see it indeed to have been formed of stone bricks, beautifully shaped and pieced together, but with enough lack of uniformity to give the structure character. The center of its arch rose quite a bit higher than either end, and there was ample head room for the two in the boat even if they had been near either end. The Desperado didn’t really know much about bridges, but he could tell that this one was the product of great skill and craft. The stone bricks were clean and sharp, with minimal signs of weathering, and with color ranging mainly from a light gray to a slightly reddish, darker gray. It was quite beautiful, in its way. He saw no sign of moss or algae growing on it, though he thought that might have added character. Likewise, no creepers or ivy grew along its sides. Near its base, by the shore, he saw only a brief area of discoloration above the surface of the water. Apparently, the river didn’t change level enough to have marked the lower part of the stones.
As they swept gently under the edge of the bridge, there was only minimal change in ambient brightness, since the light seemed to come more generally from the entire sky than from any one sun-like source. The Desperado looked up at the arching bridge above them, and he was surprised to see no sign of crossbeams supporting the arch, and also not to be able to see any gaps between stones, but a smoother lower surface of what seemed to one great spread of rock, all along the underside of the bridge, as though someone had spread mortar all along that surface, completely covering the seams of the arch. But if it was mortar, it was remarkably new or remarkably durable. There was not so much as a weathering crack anywhere on the whole arch, no sign of any shifting or adjustment that might have taken place as such mortar had dried.
“Huh,” he muttered. “I wonder how they did that?” The Dark Fairy didn’t say anything; he wasn’t sure if she had even heard him. Come to think of it, this probably wasn’t the sort of thing she would have been interested in. Anyway, the real answer to his question was probably just some version of “magic”, which didn’t mean much more to him than someone telling him alcohol made a person drunk by means of “intoxication”. He wondered if he would continue to be as ignorant as he now was or if he would come to learn something other than vague words to describe uncanny happenings.
Soon they reached the far edge of the bridge, and they saw, perhaps a hundred yards or less past it on the left, a landing platform, a wooden dock or pier that jutted into the river, its posts creating subtle ripples in the water that went around them. On these too, there was no algae, no mud, no significant discoloration above the waterline. It seemed this river rarely, if ever, flooded, or at least that it was not currently much below its usual peak water level. The wood of the pier posts did not show any signs of weathering that the Desperado could see.
His brief contemplation of these facts was rapidly redirected, however, as he saw the denizens and sights that leaving the bridge revealed. More of the strange rocking-horse people were there on the shore, and one or two of them, seeing the boat, waved and made their rolling-gaited way out onto the pier, apparently to meet the travelers. Beyond them, the Desperado could see a large square surrounding a huge, ornate fountain, with sprays and arches of water flowing and splashing, changing configuration from moment to moment, giving a noise that was not overwhelming, but was louder than the river. He also heard a sound of happy music playing, though he couldn’t have guessed what instruments were being used to make it. It sounded cheerful and beautiful, though, if a bit peculiar. More of the odd people were gathered around the fountain, some chatting together, some of the younger-seeming ones playing games with balls, many of them eating some of the curious, white-topped pastries.
The most bizarre things, though, were on a road that came down close to the shore. The Desperado saw what looked like some manner of carts, or coaches, but he had never seen ones of this color or shape before—they were slightly yellowed off-white in color, and they seemed to have peculiar markings in erratic configurations all over them. From a distance, he couldn’t make out what those markings might be, but they seemed almost familiar. The most striking thing, though, was that these carts or carriages were not drawn by anything, but simply moved along on their own, on dark brown or black wheels with shiny, metallic-looking centers. One of these carriages came to the edge of the pier and stopped, waiting.
The Desperado blinked. What in the name of wonder was this place?
The Dark Fairy, from behind him, muttered, “What kind of cars are those?” He assumed she must have referred to the carriages he was watching, but he said nothing in response to her question. If anything, she sounded far more familiar with such matters than he, and he could think of nothing to offer her.
Without its occupants making any move, the boat steered itself toward the edge of the pier, though there was no obvious current directing it that way, and certainly no sign of any rudder. As they approached, the Desperado saw that the pier was perfectly designed to come to just below the level of the boat’s gunwales, at least with the water at its current level—which the Desperado suspected was always the case. The boat drew along the edge of the pier, and a burly “man”, his upper half dressed in sailor’s garb, with a blue chambray top and a round white hat, came near to the edge. The Desperado expected the man to throw out a rope for them to catch, or to ask for them to throw one to him, though in fact there was no such rope in the boat. However, the sailor rocking-horse man made no overt move; the boat merely came gently alongside the pier, barely knocking against the wood of the edge, and it came to a stop.
The Desperado looked out at the water in front of the boat, expecting to see something jutting out to hold it, but there was nothing. The ripples in the water around the boat seemed to have stilled, when he would have expected at least to see signs of water flowing past the now-stationary vessel. There was no such sign, however. It was as if the boat had come to a halt because the water of the river itself had stopped flowing, just for their convenience. He blinked and shook his head.
A rich baritone voice came from the pier, and the Desperado looked up to see the smiling sailor “man”, who was saying, “Welcome, ma’am, sir. Let me help you out of the boat.” He offered his right hand, first to the Dark Fairy, not pushily, but generously, and rather chivalrously, the Desperado thought.
The Dark Fairy looked at the man, clearly battling her repugnance for the part of him that seemed human, and just as clearly unable to decide if it was warranted, since the man was not entirely human. She shook her head at the offer, saying, “Help him, if he wants it.” Then she stood and, looking slightly unsure of herself, she flapped her wide, vast wings rapidly, and she rose into the air a few feet, coming toward the pier and landing on it gently.
The Desperado thought she had merely been trying to see if she would indeed be able to fly, rather than really needing to do so to get out of the boat. The look of satisfied relief on her face to find that she could was somehow charming as well as mildly amusing.
Smiling and nodding at this impressive display, the sailor turned to the Desperado and offered his hand. “Can I help you out, sir?”
Deciding there was no need to be rude, the Desperado stood in place, the boat barely wobbling at all as he did, and he took the dock worker’s hand with his left arm—his right hand dangling not far from his pistol, just in case—and let the “man” help him out of the boat and onto the sturdy wooden pier. He could have easily gotten out on his own—the boat didn’t even so much as jiggle even when he stepped out of it—but it seemed worth just gripping the offered hand to see if it was indeed flesh, as it appeared to be, or if it was wood, as the lower half of the figure seemed to be.
The hand he gripped was flesh and bone, as far as he could tell, and it was durable flesh and bone at that. The Desperado found himself partly lifted from the boat, by muscles that were as strong as they looked, though they were well within the power of an ordinary, strong human arm.
Stepping lightly onto the pier, his boot heels making a pleasant clopping noise, the Desperado looked around and said, “Thank you.”
Another person, this one a pretty young woman with dark fair—at least her top half was—now approached, her rolling, rocker legs making less noise than the Desperado had. She approached to stand near the newcomers, smiling at them and at the sailor, saying, “Hello and welcome, ma’am, sir. I hope you had a nice trip on the river.”
The Desperado looked at the Dark Fairy, who seemed perplexed by the kindness, though she’d been quite polite with the shade-woman before. Deciding that ordinary words of courtesy were more his thing than the Fairy’s, at least in this kind of moment, he said, “Uh, it was…well, very pleasant. Certainly, the smoothest ride I’ve had in a boat.”
“How wonderful to hear!” the woman said, and she truly did seem pleased. She gave a gesture toward the shoreline, and to the square with the fountain, from which the happy music continued to flow, though the Desperado still could not make out where the band was that was making it. “Welcome to our world. We don’t get many people from outside, though they come from time to time. We’d love to have you join us to listen to some music, if you like. Henry’s going to be dancing in just a minute, and that’s always a good show. If you’re hungry, we have marshmallow pies and fresh strawberries, as much as you might like.” She paused and looked at the off-white cart that waited near the base of the pier before saying, “Or do you need to be off to see Her right away?”
“Her?” the Desperado asked, looking at the frolicking people around the fountain, and near the pavilion and stand nearby. It looked like a fair of some kind, now that he thought about it, and though the colors of the few buildings and decorations were bright, they didn’t seem to clash with either the flowers or the bizarre sky.
“Her with the sun in her eyes,” the rocking horse lady said as if to clarify. “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes. Our Lady.”
The Desperado didn’t feel much more informed by her response, except that she must have been talking about the shade, or the woman, who had appeared to him and the Dark Fairy in front of the boat and had told them to come where they were now. He looked at the Fairy, who nodded to him, and then looking back at the woman—he could think of no better term—he said, “Yes, I’m…afraid we are on a sort of, well, mission to go speak with…your Lady, I guess. And, of course, she also invited us to come see her. I think it was her.”
The woman smiled, looking perhaps slightly disappointed, and she nodded and said, “I thought as much. Well, we certainly wouldn’t want to hold anyone up from seeing Her, but if you get the chance, it would be lovely to have you come celebrate with us. But in the meantime…” she turned and gestured toward the shore, “…there’s a taxi waiting that can take you to the station.”
The Desperado looked up at the strange, yellow-white carriage that sat near the base of the dock. It was short compared to stagecoaches and other carts he had known, its roof rising perhaps only to his shoulders, or maybe slightly above. Its top was flattish, but it gradually changed to slope down in one direction, tapering off to some projection, and on the other end it dropped more abruptly, before continuing relatively straight and dropping off again. He thought the latter might be the front end, because through one of the two open window-holes in the side of the cart facing him he could see that a man was sitting, facing in that direction. In the middle of the roof of the thing was what looked like a sign of some kind, perhaps made of partly colored glass, but the Desperado could not read it from his angle.
He looked at the Dark Fairy and asked, “Do you know what a…‘taxi’ is?”
“More or less,” she said. “It’s a car that humans use; they take you somewhere if you pay them.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” the rocking horse woman said. “There’ll be no charge for your trip. The Lady Herself asked you to come. She’ll have taken care of the fare.”
“Oh,” the Dark Fairy said. “That’s generous of her.” She seemed honestly surprised.
“Here,” the woman said, “we’ll walk you over.” With that, she nodded at the sailor rocking-horse man and the two began to walk/rock forward. With a shrug, following the Dark Fairy who followed the others, the Desperado walked behind them. He noticed as he did that, though her boots looked every bit as sturdy as his, if not more so, the Fairy’s footsteps echoed much less on the wooden dock than his did, and the rocking-horse legs of the two others seemed to make almost no noise.
As they got nearer to the carriage, the two rocking-horse people split up, and very naturally, the man guided the Dark Fairy toward the near side of the thing, while the young woman directed the Desperado toward the far side of it. The man, reaching his goal first, took hold of an apparent handle on the side of the carriage and pulled, swinging open a thick-looking door.
The Desperado didn’t pay too much attention to what was going on with the Fairy, though, because he was too flabbergasted by the cart. Now that he was close, he could make out what it seemed to be made of—but that didn’t seem like it could be correct. Its color was off-white bordering on yellowish all around because it seemed to be molded from a slap-dash patchwork of…well, of newspapers. The Desperado hadn’t seen a newspaper since probably the last time he’d been in Kansas City, but he’d certainly seen them often at that time. He’d enjoyed reading them and wished there had been more of them out West than there were. In the big cities out east, he’d heard that there were many such papers, some printed daily. But these newspapers were on slightly whiter paper than he was used to seeing, and the print was starker, darker, and in lettering that looked clearer and easier to read than he was used to. However, that didn’t seem much to matter, not given the fact that these were overlapping, slapped against and over top of each other, all plastered around the entire surface of the strange, horseless cart that he was now circling behind.
He looked up, giving a quick glance at the glass—he thought it was glass—sign on top, which he’d been unable to read before. It was mostly white, but with two roundish yellow-glass bits on the ends, and it bore one large, thick black word, in lettering similar to the headlines on the papers of which the vehicle was made: TAXI.
He guessed that explained how they knew what the carriage was. It had a sign on top.
The rear of the main part of the carriage, he saw, had a rectangular panel in white, with some black numbers and letters on it that appeared random. Above this, there was a long, slightly sloped rectangular window with rounded off corners. Unlike the portals on the side, this was actually a window of closed glass, or so it appeared.
The young woman had now reached the far side of the carriage, and she opened another door like the one the man had opened for the Dark Fairy. The Desperado, trying not to look as though he thought he was going mad, walked toward her, rounding the rear end of the cart. On it was a projection, like a rail or a guard-piece, also made of apparent newspaper, and there were a few bits of glass, rather similar to the sign on the roof of the thing, on both ends of the rear of the thing. He looked closer, trying to see if maybe the newspapers had been painted onto some other surface, presumably wood, as a bizarre form of decoration. But the closer he looked, the more it seemed that the structure of the thing really was actual overlapping newspaper. Where one bit lay top another, he could see the fine, raised surface of the overlapping paper.
As he rounded the rear of the cart, he noticed a headline that read, “YOUNG WOMAN LEAVES HOME FOR MAN IN MOTOR TRADE”, below which was a kind of sub-headline in smaller print, which read, “Distraught Parents Ask, ‘What did we do that was wrong?’”
What in the world kind of headline or story was that for a newspaper?
“You can get in here, sir, if you like?” the woman said, gently pulling the door wider for the Desperado. He was honestly amazed by how adroitly she moved, even when sidestepping. He wouldn’t have imagined that people shaped like these could be so nimble…but then again, he wouldn’t ever have imagined people shaped like these.
“Thank you,” he replied quietly. He looked into the carriage, and he saw that there were two benches of a sort within, one in front of the other, and that he and the Fairy were being led to the rear bench, which he supposed was because they were passengers. The benches, not wood, looked like plush, thick sofas, but they were upholstered in what seemed to be more newspaper.
He looked down at the seat nearest him and saw another headline, if anything bigger and bolder than the others, which read, “MAXWELL MUST GO FREE!” and below it, a sub-headline that read, “Rose and Valerie demand release of accused serial killer”. This seemed a more plausible headline than the other he’d noted, but it was still bizarre.
Shaking his head and giving a strained smile to the rocking-horse woman who held his door, the Desperado gingerly took a seat in the sofa-style bench in the rear of the carriage. Looking to his right, he saw that the Dark Fairy had already sat down. He noted that her wings had apparently reconfigured themselves almost completely, so that she seemed to be wearing a cape, about knee length, with the same pattern that had been on her wings, still shifting slightly like oil on water, and which was tucked neatly beneath her.
That was impressive. He now could more readily understand why both the Dark Fairy and Pixie before her had mistaken his duster for wings that had been shaped into a long, yellow coat. Apparently, these were not merely some equivalent of butterfly wings, but were much more able to move and change in accordance with their owner’s desire.
He sat down, expecting to feel paper crinkling beneath him, but the cushioned seat gave slightly in just the way a cushioned sofa might.
He shook his head. He probably should just give up on having any expectations at all. Nothing in these worlds was going to behave as he thought it should, or at least so it seemed.
“Are you in?” the rocking-horse woman asked, looking through the opened door at him.
Looking down at himself and his seat, the Desperado tucked his coat more completely underneath him and said, “I…think I am.”
“Very good,” the woman said. She shut the door, which looked thick but must have been rather light for all of that. It closed with a solid sound, but the portal in the door allowed the Desperado still to see and hear the fountain and the square and all its denizens. He caught a sight that caused him to blink again; there was a good-sized brown horse—apparently real, not carved of wood—standing in the square, partly surrounded by more of the rocking-horse people. It was a beautiful animal, as finely developed as any the Desperado had seen, and as he watched, he heard a new song come into the air, though he still could not see anyone playing it. It sounded almost like a squeezebox, though it was louder and had prettier tones than the one he recalled having heard played. To his amazement, he saw the horse, in response to the three-beat style song that had begun, began to move its feet back and forth, shifting and twirling and dancing, much to the joy of the onlookers.
“What the bloody…” he muttered, tapering off as he gaped at the animal that seemed literally to be moving to the beat of the music, without rider, without bridle, without saddle—though it did have some draped minor decorative covering on its back that looked almost like a saddle blanket, and that matched the decorations all about. It also had ribbons with bells around its ankles, above its hooves, that jangled brightly in time with the music and its dancing.
The rocking-horse woman, turning to follow his gaze, gave a bright smile and said, “Oh! It’s Henry! He’s doing his waltz! How nice, you were at least able to see it for a bit.”
The Desperado looked to his right when he was able to tear his gaze from the spectacle of the dancing horse. The Dark Fairy was looking at the horse as well, and though she seemed mildly confused, he gathered she was wondering more why such a thing was being done than simply that it was happening. She saw the Desperado’s gaze, shrugged, and looked forward.
Right in front of the Dark Fairy, in the forward seat, was a single man. He must have been human, at least in shape, because he seemed to be seated like his new passengers were and the Desperado couldn’t imagine a rocking-horse person even fitting in the carriage, let alone sitting in a bench. The man wore a flat brown hat, of a sort the Desperado had seen before, and he also seemed to be wearing a jacket. Even as the Desperado looked, the man turned to him and the Fairy, smiling below his bushy mustache, and he said, “Afternoon ma’am. Sir. Are you on your way to meet with the Lady?”
The Desperado blinked, and before he could respond, the Dark Fairy said, “Yes, we are.” Her tone of voice made it clear that she didn’t desire conversation with this person, probably because he was—apparently—a true human.
“Very good,” the man said. “I’ll bring you to the station.” He then first reached out and pulled on what looked like a metallic flag of some kind on the front of the cart before him, eliciting a dinging noise, and then he reached down to operate some lever, putting his other hand on what looked like a round, nearly hollow wheel in front of him. The Desperado now felt a slightly rumbling, humming sensation in the floor of the carriage.
The man in the front seat turned to the sailor man and then the young woman, and he said, “Thanks for bringing them to me.”
“Thank you,” the woman replied. “Say hello to the Lady if you see her.” Then, to the Desperado and to the Dark Fairy, she said, “Farewell. It was nice to meet you. Have a pleasant journey!”
The sailor on the other side, his deep voice a pleasant contrast to the young woman’s, almost musically in harmony, said, “Yes, have a pleasant journey.”
“Right,” the Dark Fairy replied tersely, her eyes on the back of the head of the man in front of her.
“Thank you,” the Desperado forced out, trying to be polite, his gaze fighting against being drawn back to look at the dancing horse.
He didn’t see what the man in the front seat did, but the rumbling in the carriage increased, and the whole thing started to move forward, apparently without any source of power. It couldn’t be a steam engine, like a train—there simply wasn’t room for any such engine, and there had been no sign of a smokestack, let alone any coal or a burner. It must have been magic, again.
The Desperado was distracted from these specific thoughts as the “taxi” began to accelerate, far faster even than a locomotive could speed up, and the square and the fountain and the food stand and the pavilion and all the strange people—and the horse—fell behind them. He was astonished by how swiftly the immense flowers were zipping past them as they sped along the hard surface of the road. The wind, whipping through the portals on either side, moved his duster and his bandana. It even made the brim of his hat flop a tiny bit, but much to his surprise, there was no sign of the hat flying off his head, though he felt almost inclined to take hold of it to secure it in place. He didn’t think he’d felt wind this strong except perhaps in a sandstorm. He’d heard of twisters they sometimes had on the plains, but he’d never seen one, himself. Still, he imagined they must be something like the wind he was experiencing.
The man in front, who appeared to be controlling the direction of the carriage along the road, using the wheel on which his hands rested, called back, “If the wind’s bothering you, sir, you can feel free to roll up the window. I just leave it down because I like the fresh air.”
Surprised by how observant the man was, but not really knowing what might be meant by “rolling up” a window, the Desperado replied, “No, no, that’s…that’s fine. I was just…I was impressed by how fast we’re moving.”
“Ah, I see,” the driver said with a grin. “Yes, indeed, she’s a powerful machine, my girl. I don’t ever go unsafe speeds with passengers, but even so, on a straight road we can easily hit a hundred kph.” After a second, apparently in response to the dim look on the Desperado’s face, the man added, “That’s about sixty miles per hour, if that’s more what you’re used to.”
The Desperado thought about it. He certainly was familiar with “miles” at least, assuming they meant the same thing here as where he came from. He also assumed that “hours” were the same. If they were, then that was an impressive speed certainly. He thought he’d heard that there were some steam locomotives that, if not encumbered by too many cars, could go nearly that fast, but they were immense and powerful things, and they were on rails. It was amazing to think that this “taxi”, with no obvious source of propulsion, could move at such a speed on a simple, hard road.
Magic was certainly impressive.
He glanced over at the Dark Fairy to see if she might be likewise impressed, but she looked profoundly bored by the exchange, vaguely staring out the portal on her side. The wind of their movement made her hair stir, but it didn’t seem to upset the overall placement of it. Now that the Desperado thought about it, he realized that there was nothing really holding her hair up in the left side of the part, as it arced over her forehead to drape down on the left side of her head. Nevertheless, it stayed where it was, largely, even though it seemed free to move in the wind. That must have been magic, too, of course, but the Desperado couldn’t see why one would bother using magic to secure one’s hair.
Then again, he’d heard and read of some truly bizarre things women in his world did for the sake of beauty, and he supposed maybe magic was a better choice.
The man in the front bench, glancing back over his left shoulder, said, “If you don’t mind me asking, sir…are you from the Black Mountain Hills of Dakota?”
This question surprised the Desperado, largely because it contained a word that was familiar and specific. After pausing for a moment to be sure he’d heard correctly, the Desperado replied, “Uh…no. No, I’m not. I’ve been to the Dakota territories before. I travel quite a bit. But I’m not from there.” Then he added, “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, nothing in particular,” the man replied. “I just…I met a young man from that region once, and he was dressed a bit like you are. He carried a gun, too. But, to be honest, he seemed a bit…how should I put this so as not to be insulting to someone who isn’t here to defend himself? He seemed a bit hotheaded and impulsive. But, then again, I guess most young men meet that description to some degree or other, eh?”
“I suppose so,” the Desperado replied, agreeing that this was a fair description, though his own young, hotheaded days had…well, wait, what had they been like? He couldn’t bring them to mind, now. As far as he could recall, he might always have been his current age. That, he guessed, was the wizard’s handiwork.
The driver became silent now, or nearly so. The Desperado thought the man was humming to himself a bit, almost matching the sound of the hum that came from the carriage beneath them, though most of the sound of his voice was lost in the wind.
They moved along at great speed, winding through low hills, and before too long the flowers began to diminish in frequency, first replaced by ordinary-looking grass, which was so closely cropped that it might have been grazed by vast herds of cattle or sheep, though the Desperado saw no such animals. Then they came upon a fairly abrupt start of vast stretches of low plants with squat, almost spade shaped leaves, on which grew, apparently, some small, bright red fruits, in abundance similar to those that had been growing on the tangerine trees they had first seen. These plants grew in loose rows, apparently having been cultivated, but those rows stretched on to the horizon on both sides of the taxi. The Desperado could not make out the river, which should have been somewhere off to their right. Apparently, they had left it behind, or it was hidden by the low, rolling hills.
The Dark Fairy stirred now, looking out through the portal on her side of the taxi, and she apparently overcame her discomfort with speaking to a human enough to ask, “Are those…strawberries?”
The Desperado supposed she must have been referring to the fruits growing all around them, and now that she mentioned it, he thought they might indeed be strawberries. He tried to think of the last time he’d even seen strawberries. He couldn’t recall. And he’d certainly never seen anything like these immense fields of them before.
The driver, glancing back at the Fairy quickly, as best he could while still maintaining control of his carriage, replied, “Yes, they are. These are the Lady’s fields.”
The Dark Fairy blinked, shaking her head, looking honestly charmed and almost thrilled. “There are…so many of them. They just go on and on.”
“That they do,” the driver agreed. “Some say the fields go on forever, though obviously no one has ever checked. Or if they have, they haven’t come back yet!” He chuckled at his little, rather silly, joke. “The Lady loves her strawberries, and she doesn’t seem to tire of them. And, of course, she shares them freely with all of us. It’s too bad you didn’t get a chance to have some at the fair. They’re delicious.”
“I’m sure they are,” the Fairy said dreamily, seeming to forget her automatic dislike of the man in front of her.
Apparently picking up on the Dark Fairy’s sense of longing, the driver said, “Perhaps the Lady will give you some to try when you meet her. She’s very generous. After all, she’s given us everything we have.”
The Dark Fairy seemed almost puzzled by this. She asked, “What do you mean, she’s given you everything you have?”
“Just what I say,” the man replied with a shrug, the tone of his voice making it clear that he wasn’t being dismissive or snarky. “She made our world, she makes the trees and flowers and food grow, she keeps us healthy. She gives us everything…and tenderly.”
“I…see,” the Fairy said, though it sounded like she really didn’t see. “And…well, what does she ask in return?”
The Desperado suddenly realized that there was a mirror placed in the middle of the window before the driver, and through it he could just see the man blinking in apparent confusion at the question. “I don’t know rightly how to answer that, ma’am,” he said. “She doesn’t really need anything from us. It’s not as though we have anything to offer her that she doesn’t have already. I suppose you could say that all she asks of us is that we try to be happy and to love one another.”
The Dark Fairy blinked in turn, clearly not sure what to make of the man’s words. After a moment, she muttered, “She sounds…too good to be true.”
Far from being offended, the driver laughed pleasantly at this, and he said, “Ah, yes, well, I can see how it might seem so. She’s not a girl who misses much, that’s for certain. She understands us. I can’t claim that any of us understand or can really measure up to her, but, well…it’s enough to know that she loves you, yeah? With a love like that, you know you should be glad.”
“It’s enough to know that she loves you?” the Dark Fairy asked, clearly skeptical.
“Of course,” the man replied. “All you need is love.”
The Dark Fairy raised her left eyebrow in a profoundly sardonic arch. She said, “That sounds quite nice, but in my experience, even setting aside the more basic, physical ‘needs’, humans are rarely satisfied simply with ‘love’.”
The man looked somewhat sad, though he appeared to take the Fairy’s words at face value. He said, “Well, that may be true, but those people you’ve known didn’t know our Lady. If they saw our love, they’d love her, too, I’ve no doubt about that. She’s a woman who understands.”
After a moment of silence, other than the rushing wind of their movement, the Dark Fairy cleared her throat and almost muttered, “You said that before. Understands…what?”
With a very affectionate and knowing smile, the driver replied, “Just about everything. Certainly, everything that happens here.”
The Desperado looked at the Dark Fairy again, trying to see if he could grasp what she’d been hoping to learn, but if there was any deeper meaning to her questions, he couldn’t tell what it was. She simply looked ahead at either the back of the driver’s head, or the back of the bench on which he sat, looking almost disgruntled.
Unable to think of anything better to say, the Desperado quietly commented, “She must be very impressive.”
“Aye, that she is,” the driver agreed with a broad grin.
They sped along through the seemingly endless fields of strawberries for what felt like quite some time. Then, gradually, despite the claims that they went on forever, the fields began to taper a bit, and ahead they saw a few buildings. They were definitely buildings, that much the Desperado could tell, but they were buildings such as he had never seen before, not in Kansas City, not even the time he had been to Chicago. Even with the orange-colored, fruit-and-rind-laden sky over them, the buildings glinted and gleamed, as though they were made almost entirely of glass. There didn’t seem to be a great many of them, but they were certainly there. As the road drew nearer to these buildings, other roads, covered like the one on which they traveled in black hard concrete—or what looked like it—joined with the one they were on, with various signs and crossings. Here and there they saw other carriages, similar to theirs, though some did not appear to be made of paper but of shiny metal. Most of these street mergers or crossings were posted with signs, some reading “STOP”. These signs so far appeared to apply only to the perpendicular roads they were passing. But at one point they came upon an intersection with a larger road, and above this, strung on rope, or perhaps wire, across the meeting roads was a set of lanterns of some variety.
The lower lanterns of these hanging lamps were lit as they first came into view, giving off a green light that the Desperado thought looked too bright and clear to be any kind of flame, though he couldn’t imagine what might be causing it other than magic. As they approached, however, this light went off, and one just above it, glowing an amber yellow, came on, and the driver shifted his left arm and something else, and they slowed, coming to a halt just as this yellow lantern went out and the top one—this one an ominous red color—came on.
A few carriages—none of them drawn by horses, some of them clearly other taxis, also made of papers and with signs on top, and others of black or colored metal—began to drive in the crossroad directions.
Curious, the Desperado asked, “Are those…lanterns a kind of signal for the other…carriages, or taxis?”
“Indeed, they are,” the man said. “And for us as well. When it’s yellow, you slow down, because when it’s red, you need to stop and let the others go. It’s very important to pay attention to the traffic signals. I read the news today about a man who didn’t notice that the lights had changed, and…well, leave it with saying, he made the grade. It was rather sad.” Despite this last declaration, the man gave a mordant chuckle, as if at the foolish things people could do that would harm themselves through inattention.
The Desperado did not quite follow all the aspects of the man’s tale, but it seemed there must have been some sort of collision. Given how fast these carriages could go, he could well imagine such a meeting might be fatal.
After a brief pause, the cross-traffic slowed and then stopped. The red lantern above their course went dark, and the green one came back on. The driver moved something on his left, some manner of lever, and the Desperado thought he saw the man do something with his feet, as well. The vibration in the base of the “taxi”, which had become less intense while they were stopped, resurged, and the carriage moved forward.
They passed through a few more intersections, but the ones they approached were all only lit by the green lamps at the time, so they continued without stopping, though the Desperado thought they were going slower than they had been when traveling through the fields. They seemed to be coming into the heart of the city, and he gaped unreservedly at the massive metal and glass buildings around them, some of which had to have been over ten stories high—though most were not quite that tall. He saw some places on the ground floors of a few that looked like larger versions of general stores, with bright, floor-to-ceiling windows revealing rows upon rows of colorful wares within, though the taxi was moving too quickly for him to be sure what they might be. Outside many of these places were signs, apparently giving the names of the businesses, but these weren’t paint-on-wood, nor even carved or wood-burned lettering, but were of seeming colored glass, like the sign on the roof of the “taxi”. Some appeared to be lit from behind, rather like the lanterns above the streets, though the Desperado could not imagine what kind of flame could be maintained in such an enclosure or how it could be so bright as to be visible even in what passed for daylight.
It must have been magic—so much magic that it boggled the Desperado’s mind. Even the deeds of the wizard seemed minor compared to the wonders he was seeing.
The thought of magic, and the scale of it, made him turn to the Dark Fairy and ask, “Have you ever seen anything like…all this?”
He seemed to have disturbed her from some slightly grim reverie, because she took a moment even to respond. Then, finally, she simply said, “Like all what?”
“This…city, these buildings, the signs, the colored glass, the…the lights and the carriages that move without anything pulling them…all of it,” he replied.
Glancing about, her expression making it plain that she was far from impressed, the Dark Fairy replied, “What, this? It looks like a typical human city to me. They seem to like to hide themselves from nature and to build ugly shapes of glass and metal and plastic. There are cities like this in my world, though I obviously haven’t visited them for quite some time, and I didn’t like to visit even when I was free. They’re ugly. Although I will grant that this one is cleaner than any I’ve seen or heard of. Maybe because there are so few humans.”
Now that the Fairy mentioned it, the Desperado noted that there were very few people walking about in this place, though there seemed to be shops and buildings enough for a very large population. Indeed, the number of people in the other carriages on the roads had to be larger than the number on the walkways or visible in the buildings. There were a few of the rocking horse people here and there, and there were what looked to the Desperado almost like walking eggs with faces—they reminded him of an illustration he’d once seen in a nursery rhyme book—but mostly the pedestrians appeared to be ordinary humans, though they tended to be dressed in clothing that was gaudy and colorful in ways that were almost difficult to look at.
Surprised to hear that such cities were common in her reality, the Desperado asked the Dark Fairy, “So, then, do most humans in your world use magic, too?”
She seemed confused by the question, but instead of asking for clarification, she simply said, “No. Most humans can’t even sense magic, let alone use it.”
The Desperado shook his head, trying to figure out if the Fairy was misunderstanding him or if he was misunderstanding her. Trying to find the words to express his puzzlement, he asked, “But…if they don’t use magic…if they can’t even sense magic, which sure seems believable to me, then…then who builds the cities and all these…carriages and lights and…and everything?”
The Dark Fairy looked at him as if she was trying to figure out if he was joking, but she seemed quickly to realize that he wasn’t. Shaking her head slightly, she said, “It’s just…technology. Wood and coal and oil burning, moving magnets or pistons or whatever and causing electricity to move and light lights and turn signals and drive the cars along. I’m…I don’t know all the details, obviously, but it’s not magic. Magic wouldn’t be so…wasteful. It’s what humans call ‘technology’.”
The Desperado blinked. He thought he knew the word, or at least that it was similar to words he knew, but he wasn’t entirely sure what she meant by it.
He was going to say as much, but it seemed the Fairy recognized his persistent confusion, and she went on, “It’s like that pistol you have. That doesn’t use magic to drive bullets out, it uses the burning of some kind of chemicals, doesn’t it?”
“Well…I suppose it did before,” the Desperado agreed. “Though I’m not so sure, anymore, since the wizard changed it.”
“Right, fine,” the Fairy said. “But before that, it did. And it was made by technology, too. No one shaped or made the metal parts in it using magic. Well, the same chemical forces can be used to drive pistons inside engines, to drive cars like this one, or to run generators that produce electricity. The humans use that, twisting and forcing the powers of nature to do what they want it to do.”
The Desperado thought he was basically following the Dark Fairy’s point, and he certainly knew that people’s ability to build and make things was always getting better, so it was entirely plausible that in some places—in some worlds—they might be able to make things such as what he saw around him. He also detected more than a hint of disapproval in the Dark Fairy’s voice over what humans did with “technology”, and he felt mildly defensive about it. So, he asked, “Isn’t using magic or doing magical things just another kind of…forcing the powers of nature to do what you want it to do? Or is magic not part of nature?”
“Of course, magic is part of nature,” the Fairy snapped. “No creatures are more part of nature than fairies like me. And we’re magical. But that’s our nature. That’s how we are. We’re born with magic and the ability to sense and use it.”
The Desperado didn’t understand even the concept, let alone the nature, of magic enough to know how it really differed from something as ordinary as a steam engine, or a bullet—or a campfire, for that matter. And since he didn’t know, he wasn’t sure what the right question to ask might be, to try to get more understanding from his traveling companion. He didn’t want to irritate her too much, and that seemed all too easy to do.
He was saved the effort or the risk when the driver, looking back with apparent sympathy, said, “Here we are at the station, friends.” He was turning the vehicle into a side road on the left where they then came in front of a long building, maybe only two stories high. As they pulled up near a double set of doors, all of which looked primarily to be glass, the Desperado saw a large, rectangular sign that read, “One After 909 Station”. He thought that was a strange name. Why not just call it “910 Station”? He assumed that it was a train station of some variety, based on what the shade had said to them, and what the other people had said, but if there were train tracks, they were hidden on the other side of this building and behind the other buildings of the city.
These musings were interrupted when they came to a stop and saw, stepping from under an eave overhanging the glass doors, a pair of energetic men approached the stopping carriage. At first, the Desperado took minimal notice of them, thinking they were just ordinary station attendants, but as the figures came closer, he blinked and did a double take.
Though they looked basically like young men, wearing red, slightly gaudy uniforms consistent with that of a bellhop in an expensive hotel, including a matching, flat-topped hat with a bill only in the front, as the figures got closer, the Desperado could see that they were not just normal young men. The closer they got to the taxi, the more the Desperado was sure he wasn’t simply imagining things.
The two figures split up, one heading toward the near door of the taxi, where the Desperado was seated, and the other toward the Dark Fairy’s side. The Desperado saw that they were…not made of flesh, or so it appeared. Instead, they looked almost as if they were formed of colored mud, perhaps of clay, shaped while still wet into exquisite likenesses of human beings, including their clothing. The colors were all appropriate—the “skin” of one was a pale, peach color, the other a darker tan; the whites of their eyes were white, their irises brown; and even their “hair” two different shades of brown—but they were all sculpted as if from living, smooth earth. The only things that stood out as different were their long, straight ties, like slightly restrained cravats, which were shiny and brilliantly reflective, far brighter than even fancy mirrors the Desperado had seen behind the bars in expensive saloons or hotels, as reflective as a still mountain pool on a bright, crisp day.
He looked over at the Dark Fairy, expecting her to be unimpressed as usual, but she gaped at the approaching young men—if that was really the right term—at least as much as he must have been doing.
“Are they…they look like they’re made of modeling clay,” she muttered, perhaps to him, perhaps just to herself.
“That they are,” the taxi driver said brightly. “Though we call it plasticine on this side of the pond. They’re the porters, in case you had luggage to carry.”
Even as he finished—and before the Desperado could ask what he meant by “this side of the pond”—the two young men of clay opened his and the Dark Fairy’s doors in unison, both smiling down with bright, white, earthy teeth, saying, “Welcome to the One After 909 Station,” one adding “sir” and the other adding “madam” at the end. Then they both asked, “Do you have any bags?”
The Desperado blinked and replied, “No. No, I don’t have any bags. I don’t even have my saddle bag anymore.” He had lost that before the wizard’s water had first seized him.
The Dark Fairy simply shook her head, gaping at the man—if that was really the right term—on her side.
“Very well,” the man next to the Fairy said. “Well, please step out of your cab, if you don’t mind, and we’ll guide you to the train.”
They both offered hands to help the two passengers from the taxi. The Desperado, afraid of what the hand might feel like, shook his head and gently waved off the offered assistance, and the figure next to him stepped back a foot or two to give him space. As he rose from his seat and stepped out of the carriage, he saw that the Dark Fairy had accepted the assistance. He doubted that she needed it, and he suspected that she’d simply been curious about what the porter’s hand might feel like. He watched her step out, and it was obvious that she was looking down at the hand that held hers, but he couldn’t make out her expression. He also noted that she did not unfurl her wings as she left the taxi, but instead left them hanging as a cape behind her. Possibly she was thinking that it would be easier to go through the doors to the station that way, or possibly she just was too distracted to bother.
The other porter brought the Dark Fairy around the rear of the taxi, where she met the Desperado, standing in the hard stone or concrete front area of the station, before the entrance. From within the taxi, on the far side from them, the driver’s voice called out, “Thank you for using my services, ma’am, sir. It’s been a pleasure meeting you.”
The Desperado was hard put to it to figure in what sense their presence could have been a pleasure for the man, but he appreciated the politeness. He thought the Fairy grudgingly felt the same way, for she leaned down slightly and said, “Thank you for bringing us.”
Though the interior of the taxi was slightly shaded from the daylight—which came from nowhere the Desperado could determine in the jammy sky—the driver’s face could be seen to smile, and he said, “That’s my job.” Then, adding, “You have a nice time meeting the Lady,” he touched the middle of the wheel he used to steer, twice and in quick succession. When he did, the Desperado was startled by two quite loud, brassy toots of noise, which were presumably triggered by that pressure. His right hand automatically twitched toward his gun, but he resisted that reflex at least a bit, as he realized from the driver’s face that this must be some kind of farewell signal. Indeed, after that double-sound, the driver moved the lever on his left, changed his feet position, and the taxi made of newspapers began to move forward again, easily picking up speed and approaching the exit back out to the main road.
The Desperado, watching the thing move with such apparent ease, asked the Dark Fairy, “So you’re saying that’s not…magic?”
She shrugged. “Here, in this world, it might be,” she replied, “though I can’t really sense any coming from it. But who knows what the rules of magic might be in another world? Still, humans are more than able to make vehicles like that without magic, though…they’re usually not made from that kind of material. And speaking of material, I’m less certain about these…men not being magical.” She said this last bit under her breath, clearing intending it only to be heard by the Desperado.
She looked out of the corner of her eye at the clay man nearest her, who stood still and polite while she and the Desperado conversed. The Desperado in turn looked at the man nearest him. Their faces, their forms, were certainly almost uncanny in their resemblance to the shape and even the rough color of young men dressed in uniforms, attending to potential passengers at a station. In fact, they seemed polite and fine enough to be working in some important train station in Europe, or a high-class hotel in Kansas City, to the Desperado’s admittedly inexperienced eye. But their substance, even that of their clothing, was formed of earthy material—clay, apparently, or whatever word the driver had used—and though in the Bible it said that God had formed man from clay and breathed life into him, or some such story, the Desperado had never taken it literally, and he had always imagine that once the Lord had breathed life into the clay, it had become…well, flesh.
Yes, he could well believe that these men, like the lower halves of the rocking horse people, were products of pure magic. But then, he would have believed that about the taxi, and these buildings.
Seeing themselves being looked at, the two porters brightened and even stood up a bit straighter, though they had been far from slouching or lounging, and the one nearest the Fairy said, “Shall we bring you into the station madam? Sir?”
The Desperado and the Dark Fairy looked at each other, perhaps both marveling at the way the figure’s lips moved, so apparently naturally while still being clay, revealing hints of clean, bright teeth behind the lips—teeth that were likewise made of clay.
At least, that’s what the Desperado was doing.
“Yes, I suppose that you may as well,” the Dark Fairy said, her tone assuming a natural haughtiness that the Desperado thought suited interacting with these young men perfectly.
The men each gestured with one of their arms toward the station doors, which were actually two double-doors, seemingly made almost entirely of glass. The Desperado took this as an invitation for him and the Dark Fairy to walk ahead, so he began walking, as did the Fairy. The two clay men immediately got in step alongside them. As they walked, the Desperado asked, “Are we getting on a train?”
“Yes, sir,” the nearest porter replied, his voice sounding far more normal than he looked. “The train is waiting within, and it will bring you to the Lady’s home.”
Trains, at least, were something with which the Desperado had some familiarity, though he’d not ridden on them very often, and in his experience, they tended to produce a great deal of smoke and steam, none of which he could see anywhere nearby, even rising up behind the low building they were approaching. Still, maybe it was a magic train of some sort, so that it didn’t need coal and steam to move along its tracks, any more than the “taxi” had needed horses.
The only horse he’d seen here, apart from ones made of wood and attached to the bottom of otherwise normal seeming people, had been dancing. And now he was walking next to a fairy, being escorted by two men made from some kind of colored earth, like wet, moving sculptures. He at least felt reasonably confident that this wasn’t all just the product of him going mad while dying in the desert; he didn’t think, even in the grips of terminal lunacy, he would have the imagination to come up with worlds like these. Whether he was within the dream of some other mad creature, however—the wizard, maybe, or something else—was a much more real-seeming possibility, though that fact felt rather ironic to him.
They approached the entrance to the station, below the sign bearing the peculiar name, with its overhand made of metal. The Desperado saw that there were glowing lamps on the underside of this awning—if that was the right word—that shone, apparently, behind slightly foggy glass like the lights where the roads crossed, and behind the store signs. He had to wonder how they were lit, but he doubted it would be useful asking the Dark Fairy.
He expected the two “men” accompanying them to hurry ahead a bit perhaps to hold the doors open for him and the Dark Fairy, but they did not. Instead, as they approached the glass doors, which were framed in metal, and on which he realized that he saw no handles, the doors suddenly, and seemingly of their own volition, drew apart in the middle, opening an entryway at least two people wide.
The Desperado could not help but come to a halt, and as he did, he realized that his hand had already gone to the butt of his pistol. Beside him, the clay man closest to him stopped, and then the other did, with the Dark Fairy being the last to realize that her companion had frozen in place. They all turned to look at him, the two porters giving surreptitious glances at his sidearm, and the nearest of the mend said, “Is something the matter, sir?”
The Desperado did not reply to the man directly, but instead he looked at the Fairy, and pointing with his chin at the door, which still stood wide open, of its own accord, he asked, “Are you saying that’s…not magic?”
The Dark Fairy, seeming quite nonplussed, looked between the Desperado and the doors a few times, then in a slightly impatient tone she replied, “I don’t know, here in this world, but I think that humans make doors like these without using magic, so these could be non-magical, for all I know.”
The Desperado was unconvinced. He looked to the sides of the doors, where the walls were also made of glass, and he could see that no one had pulled the doors back—at least that no one obvious had done so. He could see that there was a track or frame of some manner at the top and the bottom of the doors, and some boxy metal things at the ends, but he could not see what possible non-magical thing could have opened the doors.
Also, he was having trouble knowing whether his instincts were working correctly. Though he sensed no real danger, the very fact of doors that opened so generously and all on their own as one approached seemed to bespeak a trap. It was too bright outside for him to get a very good view of what appeared to be a tiled plaza inside, then perhaps gates of some kind. Certainly, he could make out no shapes of awaiting marauders, but then again, sensible marauders would not reveal themselves until they were prepared to attack. Indeed, truly sensible marauders would avoid revealing themselves even when attacking.
The clay “bellhop” nearest to the Desperado said, a kindly smile frankly audible in his voice, “It’s all right, sir. I’m from the country, myself, and I remember feeling a bit put off when I fist saw doors like these. But they’re nothing to worry about. As they explained it to me, there’s apparently an infra-red light above the middle of the doors, and when someone gets close enough, that light reflects off of them and hits a camera of sorts that sees in infra-red. That signals a pair of electric motors that turn on and pull the doors open, and it keeps them open until after another camera on the other side of the door stops detecting reflections from another infra-red light on that side.”
The Desperado looked at the young “man” in amazement, not at his words—though he could tell the porter had meant what he had said to be an explanation, it had conveyed little meaning to the Desperado—but at how his lips, his jaws, his “teeth”, and even his “tongue” had moved. He’d never really paid much attention to such things before, but now that they were carried out by people made of colored earth, he recognized that, other than the substance of which they were made, these men’s bodies moved and worked exactly like those of an ordinary person.
Blinking and looking away, because staring at the creatures was oddly disconcerting, the Desperado shook his head and said, “Okay. Well, I guess that explains it, doesn’t it? Let’s go, then.”
He saw the Dark Fairy shake her own head in apparent exasperation at the pointless delay, and she turned and began to move. The “man” accompanying her deferentially kept about a half pace behind her, and as the Desperado forced himself forward, his hand still resting idly on his pistol, the clay man nearest him also accompanied him. It occurred to him to wonder, since they didn’t have any luggage and the doors opened by themselves, why did they need escorts? He tightened his grip on his pistol, just in case the clay men were actually enemies, but he didn’t think they were. No part of his natural sense for danger was aroused by them other than his fundamental wariness of everything.
They stepped through the doorway, and immediately the air grew slightly cooler, though it was still quite pleasant, especially given the long coat the Desperado wore.
The building into which they entered had seemed small, or at least not that tall, on the outside, compared to all the buildings in the city surrounding it. However, from within, it felt vast, its arched ceiling at least thirty feet up at its peak, and its breadth stretching off to the left and right farther than the Desperado could make out.
Pingback: Picture and Shakespeare “quote” deferred due to mechanical difficulties – Robert Elessar
Pingback: Another restless wind inside a letter box – Robert Elessar
Pingback: Bus stop, waiting, she’s there, I say, “I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else.” – Robert Elessar
Pingback: A brief return to the laptop, but without any dancing – Robert Elessar
Pingback: In nature’s infinite blog of secrecy a little I can read. – Robert Elessar