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16 September 2018 @ 04:03 pm
Carousel eyed the other horses as they passed. :: No one I know. They're just horses. I still meet horses I can talk to sometimes. ::

:: In a couple of days you'll be meeting a bunch of them. ::


Meet the Wolf

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 Carousel down the slight decline and into the little valley.

The grass-over-gravel road had continued in reasonable repair, if occasionally muddy, with rather obvious camping areas at high and dry spots along it.

At first, riding alone, the lack of people had felt eerie. But the last two days had been pleasant in their peaceful emptiness. Carousel had travelled at her own pace . . . and barely laughed at Rael dismounting to walk several times a day.

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. Carousel 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 Senior Administrator 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?

Carousel'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." Carousel walked on without urging.

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 Carousel, trying to not wince as her feet took her 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.

"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."


"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."

"Umm, what world was this? Why were you there?"

"I spotted some powered gate activity. Which really worries me now."

"Oh. Not good. Control chips in brains sounds a bit ominous." 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."


"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."



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 bite 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. "It's especially 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."

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!" Xen looked indignant . . . then blinked and yawned.

Rustle shook her head. "Rael . . . You are unique in the way Xen's reacting toward you. Physically, emotionally, magically. No caution, no withdrawal, no hardening of his mental shields."

Wolf nodded. "Welcome to the family."