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matapam
14 August 2018 @ 10:03 am
Is approaching final takeoff: Let me know if I've left anything out, too abrupt transitions and so forth.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1M17WuN3PSNY21m17gz57NyPRZWMtVTYanJKF_qzsnuA/edit?usp=sharing
 
 
matapam
13 August 2018 @ 03:59 pm

Rael grabbed a hank of mane as she aimed Calico at the gate, but the mare hopped through like an old hand and trotted down the sandy double track in front of them. "Guess your previous owner did a lot of corridoring." She spotted two long green tiles roofs on the far side of the nearest hills. She looked back . . . rolling low hills, the grass looking greener and thicker that direction.

As the track crossed the swale between the low hills, Rael spotted the buildings below the roofs. Two three story ornate marble edifices, with columns and carvings and steps as broad as the whole building . . . The road was paved for a few hundred meters . . .

And that was it.

Just two huge buildings, plunked down in the middle of rolling hills.

Rael cocked her head at a sound . . . Surf? She stopped Calico in front of the first building. No sing of anyone, and lowering her shields confirmed that both buildings were empty.

Some Wizards School!

What did Mink say? If no one's there just follow the path to the beach?

She peeled out of her jacket. Wiped sweat off her forehead, and took off the long sleeved shirt as well. Calico moved out as soon as she picked up the reins and headed for the path.

The hills lost more vegetation, becoming definitely sand dunes and then beach.

Calico slammed on her brakes and snorted at the big waves.

"It's just water, silly."

A snort of disbelief.

Rael spotted movement to the left, and leaned that direction. Calico kept a suspicious eye on the aggressive water, as she headed left, resisting Rael's attempt to get her out onto the firm wet sand.

Rael could feel the power usage ahead, and spotted fireballs soaring out over the waves.

Nice! No fire hazard.

The fireballs stopped as the two tall figures turned toward her. She blinked as she recognized the closest one.

"Duke Dydit. I didn't realize . . ."

The tall good looking man just grinned. "That I didn't stay at Ambassador Never's side full time? Rael Withione, correct? I don't think we ever actually spoke." His sleeves and pant legs were rolled up . . . unlike the decrepit beach bum coming up behind him.

Rael looked beyond the ragged cutoff pants and threadbare shirt and into the eyes of a predator. She swallowed. "Xen suggested I should come and impress Nil with my shield piercing abilities."

The old man eyed her, then turned his head. "Bari! Come take the lady's horse." He looked back at Rael. "And then we'll just see who impresses whom."

Maybe I ought to have just stuck to kissing sleeping gods.

Rael slid off and handed to reins to a wiry muscled carrot top of a boy, and walked out to meet the Archwizard.

"Shield piercing, eh?"

"Well, it's more like sneaking through than piercing."

"Indeed? Get through this."

Rael boggled at the sheer strength of the physical shield, then raised her own as she reached and felt the frequency of . . . the first layer. Matched that, matched the second reached and tapped the wizard, jerking her fingers back quickly as the man threw up another as he stepped back, startled.

"That . . . Yes. I am impressed." Nil turned to glare at Duke Dydit. "Get that smirk off your face."

Dydit grinned. "She almost a granddaughter-in-law. That gives me a right to smirk."

The old man glowered at him, and turned back to Rael. "So do you do the same to mental shields?" His hardened as he spoke.

She already had the frequency and double shielded to incoming before she matched frequencies. And whispered, "long it takes her to Holy Cats!" and then shielded as hard as she could.

It turned into a whole day exploration of her techniques, his adaptations, her adjustments . . .

They had to break several times to eat and drink and rest.

With students looking on wide-eyed.

"I think I interrupted your class."

"Wizards need to be flexible. It's good for them to see that even I have a few things to learn."

A chuckle from Dydit. "Like staying at least ten feet away from Oner Princesses? And hoping they don't know about warping light?"

Rael grinned. "It's not well known. So . . . has Xen had any luck flying?"

Fortunately there was a brisk wind off the ocean, so she demonstrated. Kiting up a hundred meters, circling a few times, and managing to make the landing look easy, instead of unusually graceful.

"More gliding than flying, really." She giggled at their expressions. "Learning to land is the hard part."

Nil was frowning. "Just a pull, and shaped shield wings."

"A head wind, and a tail for stability. Frankly it's showy and fun, but not terribly useful except in an emergency when you need to get down from a high building or aircar."

Dydit grinned. "I think I'll wait till no one is looking before I give it a try."

Rael pointed. "I'd recommend starting from up on a sand dune. Although anchoring your pull might be harder in loose sand. And, umm, Dydit? Your heavy build is going to make it difficult."

He eyed her thin build and nodded. “It may take a rather large surface area.”

 
 
matapam
12 August 2018 @ 09:31 am

Local phenotypes, and less variation, after at least one bottleneck.

And some darn pretty types, too! The tawny dark-blonde hair, tanned skin, with golden-brown eyes is striking. Rael blinked. But I'm sure they don't turn into lions at the full moon.

Demoiselle and Egret joined them.

Demi grinned. "So you survived Answer, and now you have to face the aunts."

Obsidian sniffed. "Now, now, we're being nice. Rustle likes her. And anyway, she's obviously one of Bran Butcher's, so she hardly qualifies as a . . . Oner."

Rael suspected she was blushing. Time to change the subject. "I'm finding your training methods very different than ours."

"Oh?"

Rael nodded toward the young girls playing in the upper pool. "We teach individual abilities only, not this triad cooperation. That's the first thing I noticed. Then what you teach them is the large scale stuff. We start with tiny manipulations. As we get older, we start doing the large power gathers, the large physical manipulations. What your youngsters can do astonishes me."

"How tiny?"

"Microscopic, once we get good at it. Most of our electronics are at least partially magifactured." Rael shrugged. "And then we get into the mental spells, and energy manipulation. And, well, outside of teaching and medicine, we don't use much magic in our daily lives."

She looked around the pools full of women . . . "Rustle . . . didn't come?"

The two aunts swapped glances.

Obsidian raised up enough to check, then sank back down. "Answer ejected Rustle from the Pyramid when she was eighteen or so. She formed the Rip Crossing Pyramid, and spends a lot of time there. Well, not right now, while she's keeping an eye on Xen, but she never attends regular lessons here, and rarely major ceremonials."

Topaz grinned, head down where it could be seen by many. "When she's in town, on one of the equinoxes, Answer feels obligated to invite her. Grinding her teeth."

"And grinding them even harder when Rustle declines." Obsidian grinned. "Now I think I've soaked long enough. If you're done, Rael, I'll walk back to the winery with you and check on my favorite nephew."

***

Xen was sunning himself on the front porch, The bright sun caught the faint fuzz of hair on his scalp, and his pale new skin was reddening.

"Sunburn's a bad idea, boy!" Obsidian called.

Xen grinned. "I was only out here for a few minutes. And I need to even out my tan." He rose and stretched.

"Likely story." Obsidian gave and received a hug.

Rael blinked at the fingernails on his left hand. "How'd they grow so fast?"

"In a Speed bubble. Twenty-to-one ratio. For me it's been fifteen days since we had dinner together."

"Yikes!"

Xen glanced at his aunt. "So did Answer behave?"

"By her standards. Just a few sneers and jeers, but Rael's training and discipline impressed her. Not that she said as much."

Xen nodded. "She just criticized everything else, right?"

"Pretty much. Well, now that I see you looking so good, I'm going to check on the children. I enjoyed meeting you, Rael." Obsidian's gaze swung back to Xen. "You should bring her around more often." She stepped back and vanished with a faint puff of disturbed air.

Rael sighed. "I can teleport almost fifty meters, now."

Xen chuckled. "Your specialty, I swear, is, getting through shields. You should go impress Nil. But make sure he knows it’s a demonstration, not an attack."

Then he wrapped her up in a hug and grope. Drew back to kiss her. "Mine. Forever."

"Ooo! Getting possessive?" She leaned against his warm muscles. "And only for another hundred and fifty years or so. Oners don't live forever. Not that either of us is likely to die of old age no matter what our genes do."

"True. But still." He rubbed his cheek against the top of her head. Held her.

"Don't fall asleep on your feet."

"Umm? S'okay." His arms tightened . . . and an odd spell flowed through her . . .

She swung an arm and thumped him.

"Oww!"

"You were falling asleep. C'mon. Back inside with you. And I think I don't dare tuck you into bed." She chivvied him as far as the stairs, and fled.

Don't seduce sleeping gods? I think maybe it's not even safe to hug them!

Chapter Five

At breakfast, Urial and Dogwood gave her an excited and somewhat garbled directions to find Archwizard Nil, spoken of in wide-eyed excited-scared tones.

"And it's on the equator! It'll be hot there!"

Which sent her back to her room to make a short sleeved shirt the innermost of her layering and leave off the tights beneath the riding pants.

Brr! This is what an Ice Age World calls spring?

Out in the barn, Mink rolled her eyes. "Did you pass the sheep farm when you rode in? Notice that ugly stumpy tower? Go around behind the tower. The dimensional gate is in a courtyard with an ordinary gate keeping the livestock from wandering back and forth. If no one's in the buildings, just follow the path down to the beach. They do all their practicing on the beach."

"You've been there?"

"Sure. Sometimes I take horses back and forth, or deliver stuff."

With a day off, Calico was ready to go, and happily galloped and trotted the ten miles. The tower, while stubby, wasn't really ugly, what with big windows with sills full of greenery, and the surrounding orchard in bloom.

There was a path through the orchard, did it go around to the gate?

"Are you going to the Wizard School?" A high voice from up in a tree.

"Oh, hello! Yes, is this the path?"

Shaking branches and a fall of flowers; a thin figure jumped down from the tree. "Yeah, follow me. I'll open the gate for you." The girl was maybe seven or eight years old, a head full of curly blonde hair bouncing as she galloped down the path. Talking all the way. "Granpa has pinto horses too. I like them! Are you a wizard?"

The child dragged open a wooden gate to a circular yard . . . a circle of blue sky and grassy sand dunes or sandy hills stood unsupported.

"Right. Thank you!" Rael turned Calico toward the . . . beautiful summer day across the gate.

"Say hi to Granpa Nil!"

 
 
matapam
11 August 2018 @ 10:14 am

The privy had flushing toilets, the three bath tubs each had its own tiny cubby with a bolt on the door. And hot pipes. It felt so good after three days on the road. She was seriously pruney when she dragged herself out.

She walked back into the Inn, dirty clothes and damp towel over her arm.

Dogwood and Urial were chatting with two familiar witches. Demioselle and Egret, fortunately two of the nice witches she'd worked with three///years ago.

They spotted her and waved her over.

"Long time, no see, Rael." Demoiselle had dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and a deep tanned skin. Along with the good looks and height that in the Empire would have immediately had her recognized as a High Oner.

"Yes, and luckily I'm here for a one person disaster, not a . . ."

"Multiworld mass murdering world." Egret was another elegant brunette, not so dark, and with bright blue eyes.

"Yeah. Although I've got to wonder about these cyborgs Xen encountered."

"I want to see them!" Urial bounced on her toes, then nodded at the bundle under Rael's arm. "Laundry service?"

"Yes, please." Rael surrendered her bundle, and sat at Demi's invitational wave.

"So, how's Xen? Was he finally awake?"

"Barely awake, for maybe twenty minutes. It looks like the remaining damage is mostly superficial. I've never heard of these cyborgs before, but Xen says he was investigating a powered gate. I wonder if the cyborgs were making the gate—or if Earth or the One was. Darn. I can see that I'll be writing another report."

Egret nodded. "We don't need aggressive neighbors."

A snort from Particular as she delivered a teapot and three cups. "If that idiot stopped bring us to the attention of aggressive polities, we would wind up in wars with them." She looked down on Rael. "Simply destroying the Empire's and the Earth's gate mechanisms every time they touched us would have kept us safe."  

"And left us helpless in the path of the Helios. We do recognize that you saved us."

Sniff. "After you attacked us. And letting you come here? An agent of President Orde!"

Rael blinked. "These wretched names of ours—we've had two President Ordes in a row. The first was the man responsible for the attack. I was part of the One's efforts to remove him from office. The current Orde is doing his best to keep the peace."

Rael looked down at her cup as Demi poured. "Not that that damned War Party has quit."

Dubious looks from a number of directions.

"I am, as you point out, an agent of the Empire of the One. I . . . do not get to pick and choose which orders I carry out . . ." Mostly. Almost always. "Well, if I can, which rather obviously I sometimes can't."

A number of glares were aimed her way.

And from a dark corner, a dry old voice. "Pity."

Eyes widened, and bodies shifted a bit away from Rael. No one protested that single word.

The soft scrape of a chair, then a thin woman stepped out into the lantern light. Ancient. Powerful. Straight and moving easily despite her obvious age.

Rael stood up quickly as the old witch strolled out to look Rael up and down.

"I am Answer." Her blue eyes flicked to the other witches. "Bring her to the hotsprings tomorrow."

Chapter Four

"Weak." The old witch looked her up and down again. "Dependent. Running after a man."

Rael blinked at the head witch, the Senior Sister, they called her. Answer. "Actually my president sent me to check on the status of a very important person."

Sneer. "You look young, but I can see you must be nearing the half century mark. And you haven't the complexity of a woman who's given birth. Such a waste, you seem so strong."

Rael unclenched her jaw. "And how many children do you have?" In truth, the old witch's glow was both incredibly complex and frighteningly strong.

"Three. Ten granddaughters. Nineteen great granddaughters. Eight great great granddaughters—so far. And unfortunately, a great grandson, and three great great grandsons." Snort. "Here. You lot don't count."

"Xen? You aren't proud of . . . ?"

Snort. "We don't have any need for men beyond brief use. We are not weak, we are not subservient, and we should not have sons." She eyed Rael. "At least you are well trained. No doubt your president finds you useful. Your genuine infatuation creates a vulnerability in the man. He's amazingly weak for someone so strong magically. Not terribly bright, and soft in the head as well. But do join us . . ."

It was certainly an eye opening experience. Such different training. Such different talents. Such different methods. So many very strong women.

And soaking in the hotsprings after was rather nice as well. And she was much too worldly to be embarrassed by the casual nudity. Really.

She eyed the two witches heading her way. One complex and strong, one very complex and very strong. A young mother and a . . . baby goddess?

"I'm Obsidian, and this is my sister Topaz. We're Xen's aunts." The older one had light brown hair and blue eyes. The younger was blonde with hazel eyes. And similar features, and they certainly did look quiet a bit like Rustle. But then they all did, to her untrained eyes. Local phenotypes, and less variation, after at least one bottleneck.

 
 
matapam
09 August 2018 @ 07:02 pm

She could see him fighting off a yawn and getting back to eating.

Rustle cleared her throat. "Which is why I've gotten you a room down in the Inn, instead of inviting you to stay here. It isn't safe for you to stay here."

Rael nodded. "Although that sounds like a good way to scare me away."

"Heh!"


Chapter Three

Rael rode down to the Inn in the moonlight, the fat gibbous moon rising over the mountains as she turned away from the winery.

Xen had managed to eat all his alfredo before he fell asleep, head on the table, and been manhandled up the stairs.

His father is not the least bit scary, and his mother's nice, in a rather logical fashion. Much like Q. The whole family is so competent it's . . . the way they just do things, like there's nothing the least bit extraordinary about it . . . it's humbling.

"The Gods of War, and the witch who invented the permanent dimensional gates. One!"

Calico swiveled an ear to show that she was listening.

"I mean, I knew all these powerful people lived here. I just didn't expect them to be such nice . . . ordinary parents." Rael turned off the path and into the brick courtyard between the Inn and the stables behind it. The mares iron shod hoof clopped solidly and a thin figured popped out of the barn.

Light bloomed as he . . . no, she, lit a lantern.

"Wow, so you're Xen's girlfriend? That's totally awesome. He just runs from most of the witches." Brown hair, blue eyes.

Must be related to Xen.

Rael swung off the mare and the girl took Calico's reins to lead her toward the stables.

"Rustle said you'd be staying for several days? Whenever you want your horse, just send one of the brats, excuse me younger witches who are working here, out to the barn and I'll have her all saddled up and ready to go quick as anything."

"Thank you, umm . . ."

"Mink."

"Mink. I'm Rael, but I guess everyone knows that."

"Oh yeah." The girl grinned. "You wouldn't believe the reputation you have here."

The door in the Inn's back wall banged open.

"Is this her? The Oner who tried to kill Xen?" A girl with long blonde hair, looking younger than Mink.

"Oooo! It is!" An even younger redhead.

Mink snorted. "These are the brats I mentioned. Urial's the blonde one, Dogwood's the redhead. Don't mind them, they're only eleven years old."

"I'm twelve! Doggy's eleven, and you're only thirteen, Minkie Stinkie!"

Rael cleared her throat. "So . . . are you guys all witches?"

A chorus of agreement, with Urial chiming in, "Of course none of us have grasped power yet."

"Shhh! She doesn't need to know that."

Rael grabbed her saddle bags, and let the younger pair lead her off toward the Inn.

They started pointing. "That's the privy."

Oh One! No bathrooms inside!

"And that's the bath house."

Private or communal? Eep!                                                  

Dogwood giggled. "Xen's told us about how Oner's live. Eww! How can you brush you teeth with the toilet right there?"

"Ha!" Urial reached for the door handle. "Remember when Uncle Xen made that big Granite building? He said he was doing like a Oner hotel, so it was nice and compact."

“Yeah, yuck!”

“Umm,” Rael eyed the Blonde girl. “He’s your Uncle?”

“Oh . . . it’s a little more complicated than that. The Auld Wulf is my great grandfather.” She laughed suddenly. “And Mink is—technically—Xen’s aunt.”

Dogwood shook her head. “I am so glad I’m am not in that ridiculous tangle of relationships.”

“Ha! Like the Karista Pyramid is so . . . ordinary?”

Rael eyed the girls and wondering if she should stay out of or break up the incipient fist fight when the Inn door opened, silhouetting a tall figure.

“Girls?” In frosty tones.

The girls dropped all aggressive body language instantly.

Urial cleared her throat. “We were just showing that Oner person where things are.”

“Rael! Call her Rael!” Dogwood hissed. “Be polite!”

“Ah yes. The Killer Princess. Do come in.” The figure stepped back, and in the interior light turned into a woman, mature, but not even close to old. A slender blonde. Confident and cool, as she looked Rael over.

“I’m Particular.”

What? Oh, those witch names . . .

“Here’s the key to your room.” Particular gestured up the stairs and pointed. “North wing, first on the left.”

“Thank you.”

“You might want to take a bath. You look and smell like you’ve been traveling for days.” The witch strolled away, not even waiting for a response.

Rael giggled, feeling her lips pulling back into a grin.

“You think that’s funny?” Urial looked horrified.

“Oh yes. I know all about Mean Girl verbal battles.. I suppose she’s a relative, too?”

“Let’s see . . . I think it’s called first cousins once removed? Yeah, her mother is my grandmother’s sister.”

“I’m going to need a chart. And . . . she’s right about the bath.”

 
 
 
 
matapam
08 August 2018 @ 12:23 pm

"I thought I heard you." He looked like he was fighting off sleep. He looked like hell. "Tit for tat? Come to see me at my scarified worst?"

She thumped down beside him, into his embrace, hiding her face in his shoulder, hugging him back. "Orde sent me. The Newsies are driving him crazy asking if he's heard anything."

"You, of course, weren't worried at all."

"Course not." She leaned back and studied him. "What happened."

"I ran into a batch of honest-to-god cyborgs. Lasers, bullets, grenades, and finally a flamethrower. It was a bit exciting there, for a bit. I ran like hell. Pretty much the end of the story."

"Why?"

"I dunno. They took one look and demanded I surrender. I said sure, take me to your leader, I want to talk to them about cross-dimensional cooperation. They said, sure, once we've got the control chip inserted into your brain. I suggested we discuss this first. They opened fire. In retrospect, trying to keep talking instead of just traveling out wasn't a good idea."

She reached over and poked his scalp. "Is your hair going to grow back? I dunno about the spottiness, but being you, you could set a new trend." The patches of untanned skin over his face and shoulder made her queasy. How badly injured were you?

"I may have set a new personal record. He wiggled the fingers of his left hand. "At least I didn't loose any important body parts this time, the fingers are almost healed."

But not tanned, and the fingernails are still growing back.

"Well, since I'm awake, I ought to eat. Have you had dinner?"

"No, and you have no idea how tempted I was by that inn. The aroma!"

"The local witches preempt the kitchen for informal cooking contests. Unfortunately you're going to get whatever I accidentally order from the kitchen fabber."

"Accidentally?"

"Yawning while poking buttons can yield unexpected results." He pried himself off the stairs and led her to a kitchen out of a museum. "It's been bubbled a lot of the intervening time, so it isn't really fourteen centuries old. We use it a lot more, now that we know we can just go and buy a replacement."

"Grab drinks." Xen's father spoke from behind them. "Rustle's bringing dinner up from the Inn."

Xen snickered. "Is Rael about to get the whole 'examined by the parents to see if she's suitable' treatment."

"Yep."

***

Rustle Neverdaut was a slightly older, female version of Xen, from the curly brown hair to the tan skin. Well, maybe the first impression was misleading. Her blue eyes were bright, her nose straight. Xen had the blue eyes, but as accents in black, like his father's warm brown. And father and son shared the arrogant arch of the nose.  

She handed the sack she was carrying to her husband . . . pet? . . . whatever, while those bright blue eyes studied Rael. "So we finally get to meet the infamous Rael."

Infamous. The woman who tried to kill your son.

Rael swallowed, her stomach tightened and suddenly those odors from the sack were almost nauseating instead of delicious. "I, um, am pleased to finally meet you?" She hadn't intended that to come out so . . . fearfully?

Xen chuckled, and slung an arm around her shoulders. "Don't worry, they've never eaten a single girlfriend of mine, so far as I know."

A snort from his father.

"Okay, they may have tossed a few out the front door . . ."

A sniff from Rustle. "Those weren't girl friends. Those were predatory witches. And the Farmer girls! Are strong Oners as attractive to women as strong magicians?"

"Yes." Rael looked up at Xen. "I thought you were a wizard, not a mage?"

"I'm both, everything. We use the term magicians for anyone with power. Mages, wizards, witches, and gods." Xen eyed the sack. "So what's for dinner?"

"Bottomless pit!" Rustle pulled plates out of a cupboard and Wolf opened the bag and started pulling out boxes . . . folded heavy waxed paper containers.

Xen pulled a chair out of a corner and gestured her into it, sat beside her. "Hopefully I won't fall asleep in my . . . Chicken alfredo. Umm, it's a favorite of mine—depending on who's cooking."

Wolf grinned. "Some of the younger witches . . . forget ingredients or get creative when they take turns cooking. They have sort of an informal rotation, and pretend it's not a contest."

"It's how the younger witches earn their pocket money." Rustle filled plates and handed them around. "Or the witches who don't think grubbing around in the mountains is fun. There's an old volcanic area we mine for diamonds, plus garnets and of course, gold, out in the New Lands."

"The New Lands . . . that's the desert around your mid-continent spreading ridge, right?" Rael Stabbed a bit of chicken . . . garlicy creamy cheesey . . . her stomach unknotted and demanded more.

"Right." Rustle nodded, and looked worriedly at Xen. "I'd say, get Xen to show you the Rip, but he's not . . . quite safe to be around half asleep, like this."

"I'm awake!"

"For the next few minutes." The Wolf's smile faded as he looked at Rael. "When we're healing, and in and out of this coma-like state, and in and out of vivid dreams—we cannot tell the difference between dreaming and these brief wakenings. The next time he awakens—three or four days his time—he will have to ask us if you really came, or if he just dreamed it. And you really don't want to be near him if, for instance, he dreams that he accidentally hurt you."

Xen made a protesting noise and swallowed. "Great, now I can have nightmares about that. And anyway, I don't think I'd actually, physically, create injuries dreamed of as accidental . . ." He eyed his father.

"No, I never have. But Rustle knows to stay away." The Wolf exchanged grins with his wife. "Very hazardous, seducing a sleeping god."

Xen rolled his eyes and looked at Rael. "That's why my genetics are so interesting. Ignore them. They don't seem to realize that old people are supposed to be stogie."

Rael snickered. "Someday . . . Oh One! Never mind! I don't want to even think about introducing you to my parents!"

"My reputation. Hmm, could be interesting."

 
 
matapam
07 August 2018 @ 09:13 pm
 
 
 
matapam
07 August 2018 @ 08:28 am
 So, while Cooking Hot ists for a bit before I reread it for coherency, it's time for Rael to meet Xen's family.

Meet the Family

1407 px 1409 yp

"According to rumor, Xen Wolfson has either been killed, or seriously wounded." President Orde paused and watched her.

Rael tried to not respond, to not show any reaction beyond polite interest. She suspected she failed miserably.

"Dr. Quicksilver says injured, leave him alone for a year or so and he ought to be fine. We'd like you to go to Comet Fall and ask to see him."

She raised her eyebrows.

"Well, yes as a matter of fact, there are a few other things. Specifically, I suspect you'll need to go to the infamous Village of Ash. So you might just happen to meet the leadership of the Witches, the Mages, and the Wizards. It's . . . for all the importance of the place, it's pretty well opaque, as far as any of their magical organizations and practices. We need to know more about them."

"Right. Nothing to it." Rael considered the Fallen, probably the most irritating people in the Multiverse. "I'll start with their embassy on Embassy. If they won't let me through, I'll see if the horses will show me a back route." She ignored the odd look he gave her.

Chapter Two

It looked like an "Old Western Frontier" stage set had met up with a kitschy Swiss Chalet schemed touristy ski villa and unfortunately, procreated. The setting sun tried to gild the spring snow-melt mud, and failed.

Rael lifted her reins and urged her horse down the slight decline and into the little valley.

She'd taken the corridor as far as the provincial capital, then bought the horse for the final leg. She'd picked this one because with the irregular pinto spots she figured there wouldn't be any of the engineered genes that made the "best" horses here so One damned scary smart.

But "Calico" had turned out to be smooth gaited and easy going, the muddy-grass-over-gravel road in reasonable repair, with rather obvious camping areas at high and dry spots along it. The last two days had been more pleasant than the preceding four, arguing with diplomats. The first day, riding alone, the lack of people had felt eerie. But today the sudden scatter of huts and muddy sheep and fenced pastures over the last ten miles had felt like an unfortunate intrusion on her serenity.

The mud deepened as they descended to a creek in full spate. A bridge of logs thrown across, with boards nailed on top, was barely above the water, and from the fresh scrubbed look, had been under water quite recently. Calico slid a bit on the muddy slope down to it, ambled across and up the other side.

And then she was in the village of Ash. The center of magic on this world.

Pretty much as Subdirector Ajha had described it. Some new houses, since he'd been here. Now the question was, where would Xen be? Here or someplace else, and would anyone tell her?

Calico's iron shoes clinked on harder pavement, free of mud. There were lights coming on behind windows, indistinguishable voices, a baby crying. Two girls, preteen at a guess, stopped to eye her.

"Hi? I'm, umm, looking for Xen Wolfson?"

One girl raised a supercilious nose. "Oh, you mean Xenotime Rustleson."

The second girl elbowed the first. "Don't be snotty, she's obviously just a city girl, doesn't know anything." She pointed. "Take the road past the inn, go right at the fork."

"Thank you." Rael booted Calico forward. The inn was emitting delicious smells. I could hunt him up in the morning . . . But she ignored her stomach and turned up the road running between it and a garden, lush with budding bushes, flowering trees, and rows of soil full of sprouts. Just past the inn's stable, the road turned into a dirt track. Sandy enough to not be a morass. A kilometer up the rising path, it split and she took the right fork. The almost full moon cleared the mountains to the east, and by its light she could see that the path dropped a bit toward another creek. Smaller, with a faint smell of sulfur. Run off from one of the hotsprings they talk about.

The path dived into the dark under an oak tree. A hitching rail was dimly visible. Was this a picnic spot, or did visitors tie their horses here and walk the rest of the way?

"That's the usual procedure."

For a second she thought she'd found him, the voice was almost . . . but the man stepping out into the moonlight was more muscular, bearded . . . but those dark eyes . . .

"And I think you're the first Oner we've had stop by."

Rael clamped down hard on her shields.

White teeth flashed in a quick grin. Familiar enough to wrench her heart.

"You must be Xen's father."

"Yes. Wolfgang Oldham. And you are?"

"Rael Withione Montevideo. I . . . The President is concerned, we've gotten rumors that he was badly injured." She slid off the horse, trying to not wince as her feet took the weight.

"Yes." Exasperation in the deep voice now. "An amazing number of people want the boy dead. And are perfectly willing to take out any number of innocent bystanders to achieve that."

Rael sighed. "Yes. At least most of the Oners who want him dead just try to stick him with a sword. May I speak to him?"

"Umm, don't know that he'll wake up, but come along and see for yourself."

She tied the horse and followed the shadowy figure along the stream through a gap in the hill that opened up quickly to orderly grape vines climbing the hillsides. Ahead a grove of enormous trees. Redwoods, like on the west coast of North America?

"Yes. That's where I got these, or rather, their progenitors. Coastal redwoods. I wish I'd thought to snag some giant sequoias. Now those were impressive trees."

Rael tried to tighten her shields further. But there wasn't any tighter. One damn it!

The building just beyond the redwoods was sleek and modern. The first room was obviously part of a winery. It smelled of fruit and alcohol. Beyond it, a sitting room, with stairs leading up to a second floor. And sitting on the stairs, Xen.