“Okay, if you’re going to be an ass about it . . . how about I cut that nasty stuff out of your back, and then we can duke it out magician to magician in a month when you’ve recovered.”
“Cut . . . Fat chance I’ll let you near me with a knife . . . Cut what?”
Xen turned to display his back. “I had something, a big pellet or whatever you want to call it, under the skin there. I got it out but it was dissolving. Two months later, a woman I work with was transported. She sliced it open and scrubbed the rest out.”
“What good will that do?” At least there was an edge of uncertainty to his belligerence.
“My power’s coming back slowly. I hope to hell it’ll recover completely. I suspect the quicker we get it out, the faster the recovery. Maybe the less permanent damage.” Oh shit, I don’t want to think about permanent damage.
Dr. Watson barred his teeth. “Do it to me right now, you piece of dross. Prove that you’re on my side.”
Xen stood up. “Peel off the top of that . . . garment and let me get to work.”
The man grumbled to his feet and shrugged out of the overalls.
“There it is. Umm, it’s very absorptive, so let’s minimize both our exposures. If you would lay down on your right side . . .”
Fortunately he could do a reasonably strong pain spell. So, a quick slice, and flick the pellet out, wash it and scrub it with a wad of grass, rinse, and try a healing spell.
“Well, that’s all I can do without running water.” Xen stood back and rinsed his hands. Blood, but no nasty stuff. “Judging from my friend, you should be feeling the power just a bit in ten days or so.”
He straightened and looked south, to the thin column of smoke. “So, if you want to head straight to Cali, go north. I’m going to find out who’s . . . no?”
“No. I still think you’re full of shit, and I don’t believe you about having Cali here. I’m going to go find out which of my friends set the fire.”
Xen sighed. “Right. I recommend we hike up that hill, there’s a couple of trees, so there will be fallen wood for a fire. Dinner, sleep, and we’ll find the fire by midday tomorrow.”
“We should keep going. It wasn’t that dark last night.” Watson looked stubborn.
Xen sighed. “And so we met potentially hostile people dead tired?”
The man stepped around him and started walking.
Xen picked up his deerskin sack and followed.
I hope Cali’s representative of their culture, not Watson and the Judge.
“It feels like a bloody space suit!” Rael looked down at herself, very glad that Dr. Wrla didn’t have a mirror in his lab.
The Subdirector of Research nodded. “It very nearly is. Put on the helmet.”
“The last suit worked very well, apart from needing a bit more heat insulation.” Rael looked at the helmet. Smoked glass, well, carbon fiber impregnated outer layer with clear non-conducting inner layers.
“They’ll up grade. We’ll stay ahead of their game.” Wrla grinned. “Since Izzo won’t let you just kill them.”
Rael put the helmet on. “At least it has lots of holes for airflow.” And it doesn’t seal, so I don’t have to worry about it getting welded shut by an electric arc. “I feel ridiculous.”
Q howled with laughter when she saw it. Then sat down and cried.
Rael looped an arm around her shoulders. “They can’t have just killed him. They must have wanted information.”
Their eyes met, and neither of them said anything about what methods the PooBahs might be employing to get answers.
“So. My turn to cook dinner for the hordes?” Rael got up and headed for the kitchen.
/// Figure out when, and the ages of all the kids who might be around to be fed.///
Living in Xen’s house had turned out to be quite different than she’d imagined.
Q’s nine-year-old daughter Destiny, and five of Xen’s teenaged kids were in and out all day, even though they slept in a “kid’s hangout” with corridors to both Xen’s and Q’s houses. And attended school here as well.
But while Rael was back home reporting in—and visiting her own teenagers—four more little kids had joined them.
“Jacana and Lapwing never did get over their little adventure with Heso and Eldon, so rather than leave the kids in a bubble forever, we’re raising them. My Aunt Obsidian has them most of the time, but this summer she needed to take Fir up to Mount Frost. Fir’s fourteen and could easily grasp power this year.”
Rael nodded. Xen had mentioned the witches’ ceremonies, so she knew, in general, what Q was nattering on about. More little redheads, well, two of the four. But three out of four teenagers are red in one shade or another. “Nine years old by the calendar, but somewhat less in actual experience?”
“Yes. A bit younger than Destiny. I bubbled her regularly while dealing with the Helios, but I got her out whenever I had a few days off. Those two just didn’t even want to think about their kids.”
“And they both had twins. You know, it suddenly occurs to me that red hair is pretty common on Comet Fall. It’s very rare on the One World.” Rael opened the cupboard to see what was available. And I never realized that Xen had a deal with the witches who ran the restaurant to keep him supplied with food in various levels of assembly.
Q nodded. “Blonde too. Two of the Old Gods—Barry Virtue and Edmond Vice—were sexual predators and spread their genes widely and often, especially in the early years before the other Gods reined them in a bit. Barry’s blond and Edmond was a redhead and fortunately dead. Add in a small founder population, then a bottleneck, and we’ve got several distinct types. And a whole lot of redheads, especially in Ash and Rip Crossing, where the Mages and Farmer Girls are all related to Beck Butcher.”
Rael sighed, and ran her hands through her hair. I need a hair cut. “Umm, did you hear about me?”
Crispy hot fried chicken in the hot bubble. They obviously know how many people Xen feeds regularly. I never stay here long enough to notice. I’m not a regular part of his life, and he’s not a regular part of mine.
“One of Bran Butcher’s daughters, speaking of men who got around? In a nice way in his case. Like Xen, the highly magical are highly attractive to witches.”
“And Oners.” Rael shuffled her feet embarrassed to say it. “The name is so . . . I mean, I might name a dog Bran . . . and butcher . . .”
Q grinned at that. “Brandon, officially. And Butcher was just his father’s job description. I think the original family name was Done Mayor or somesuch. They were the strongest Mage line, much status attached to it, even before the comet fell, a thousand years ago.”
“Ah.” Rael grinned ruefully. “It’s embarrassing to have to admit that’s a huge relief. Brandon Done Mayor sounds so much better.”
Q snickered. “Even without a Withione, or whatever, in there?”
Rael shook her head. “In Oner terms, he’d be . . . Let’s see . . . Something like Ando Clostuone Done Mayor Comet Fall. Except the letters would depend on his insertions.”
“That’s an insane naming scheme.”
“I know. You’d think they’d at least let us have official name type names in addition. Or let us change them as adults. But no. We’re stuck. Not that I don’t like mine, but Wqlw? Not that anyone would dare laugh.”
Fresh broccoli. One of the vegetables they’d actually eat, so long as it wasn’tmushy. Fresh rolls, smelling heavenly, butter.
“At him? Unlikely they’d do it twice, but he get’s along pretty well with the people here.”
“Which is astonishing to those of us who knew him before the bio-attack. Thank the One that was a boy who had a rigid sense of honor.”
Q eyed her. “What about you?”
“I’m not sure. Well, I lost three genes, but . . . I can do things I never could, before. Maybe because I never tried. Or maybe because those three genes were always turned on and drawing power.”
“Interesting . . . so, in addition to this not-really-a-space-suit what do you have planned?”
“I want to put a whole lot of grounding rods . . .” She broke off at Q’s nod.
“I’ve got a grid of rods all over the plaza now. Just below the surface. I can raise as many or as few as he’s on. I’m hoping to drain his batteries, or whatever he’s got, and punch holes straight through his damned magic carpet.”
“Good plan. We need to keep him here, and ask him a few question.” Rael eyed the other woman. “I could get some priests in, or you could invite that William Michaelson of yours.”
“Or both. Will can’t compel speech, he just suppresses lies.”
Then a cacophony of voices as the kids poured in.
“Ah, school’s out. So, you guys want a snack now and dinner later or are you ready for the fried chicken now?” Rael was already pulling out the chicken as multiple calls for it erupted. “You lot are bottomless pits.”
And I’m going to stay a part of your live from here on out.
With Xen, dammit. He has to be alive.
When they took a break at midnight, Dr. Watson (please let there be a Sherlock somewhere!) fell asleep. Xen took a quick look around under the light of the full moon and spotted movement in the grass. A wolf . . .
“Still following me? Silly wolf.” Xen tossed him a strip of jerky. And since he wasn’t showing any signs of attacking the new human, stretched out in the grass and let himself fall asleep.
Woke to Watson’s cursing in the early dawn.
“You needed it.” Xen handed him a strip of jerky. Looked around. Hunter was well down the hill, watching them. “Let’s go.”
Three hours later Xen trudged up a high hill for another look around. Spotted movement. Several specks of orange, heading west. “You know Watson, I’ll never complain about the orange outfits again. They’ve made finding people really easy.”
Watson wheezed up beside him. “Bloody predator. Hunting people.”
“And a good thing. Water?”
“Yeah. You’re running low, aren’t you?”
“Not yet, but getting all of you back to my base may be a bit tight.” Xen took the bottle back and took a sip. Corked it. “Come, Watson, the game’s afoot.”
“It’s not a game. We’re marooned here with no way to get home . . . not that I could live there anymore, without a job . . . or legal existence.”
Xen nodded. “We’ll see.” When I trust you well enough to tell you I’m not from your home.