Back | Next
Contents


CHAPTER ONE

Some place like Kansas, only not as hilly.

"I wish," I said, puffing hard because we were running flat out. "I really, really wish. You would. Develop your. People skills."

"Bite me," said Terrin, also puffing hard.

I'd have rolled my eyes, but needed to watch where we were going. It was midnight, with a lightning-shot sky dumping rain on us like daggers. Despite this, there were a number of very angry locals hot behind us, either a lynch mob or an auto-da-fé, which I think is Latin for barbeque. The crowd supplied themselves for either possibility, having brought along both torches and ropes.

No shoddy workmanship for Terrin, who is a wizard. When he decided to piss a person off he always put a two hundred percent effort into it. On this occasion, for reasons best known to himself, he caused a bouquet of purple daisies to sprout out of the bald head of the town's mayor. Bad enough, but they'd been infested with some kind of bugs that gave the man an attack of amazingly ugly hives.

Unfortunately for us, the mayor was popular and had an army of very large relatives all intent on avenging the family honor.

The thunder cracking overhead and hiss of falling water kept me from hearing how close pursuit might be. As I had the better eyesight after dark, I led the way, hoping to find some spot where Terrin and I could go to ground for a minute so he could get us out. His traveling crystals had been charged up for weeks, but times had been pretty good on this stopover, so we'd put off leaving.

I had only a sketchy idea of the lay of the land here. We'd left the town in a random direction, striking off over ice rink-flat farm country. No matter where we went, we'd be seen.

"House," I said, pointing to a humped building with a thatched roof, the only thing in running range that might provide a temporary refuge.

"Okay." Terrin was shorter, but more than able to keep up as I tore over the ground, my boots making muddy salad of whatever crop the field held.

No lights showed ahead. At this hour any sensible farmer would be tucked away in bed having a good snooze through the storm, which is what I'd be doing now if Terrin hadn't wanted to make a spectacular magical point. Couldn't he have just given the mayor a little tummy ache instead? I hate those.

The house turned out to be a barn. Good. Then we wouldn't have to deal with yet another irate local trying to kill us. One mob was more than enough. We ripped around and found a door, dragging it open.

Inside, I curled my lip at the sudden stink of damp livestock, then violently shook water from my soaked mane. My rust-colored fur would either droop or be sticking out in clumpy spikes all over my head, but corrective grooming would have to wait. "How soon?"

Terrin was wheezing hard, but already shrugging off his oversize backpack. "Gimme a minute."

I knew the drill; it would take longer than that for him to set up. We needed something to block the door in case the mayor's relatives turned out to be marathon runners. Some bales of hay were stacked neatly against one wall. I grabbed one in each hand and hauled them over. A few mice got dislodged. My ears swiveled to track their scattered retreat, and I had to repress an urge to lunge. Not that I'm into chasing mice, much less eating them. The reaction was some deep instinct thing, nothing to get wound up about, put it down to my weird DNA mix.

I slammed the bales behind the door and went back for another two, then two more. But that wasn't the only entrance to the place. Another, larger door was at the far end. I didn't think there'd be time to take care of that one, too.

"Terrin?"

He was still rummaging in the backpack.

"What's the hold up?" I asked. "You didn't lose them? Tell me you didn't lose them."

He muttered something impolite as he dug. "Flashlight!" he snapped.

I took that to be a request, not an explicative, and shrugged my own pack from my shoulders. It was nearly pitch dark, for him, anyway, something I don't always remember. I prefer order over chaos and found my flashlight exactly where it was supposed to be. One click and its beam shone into Terrin's search area.

"Don't you throw anything out?" The inside of his bag looked like a Dumpster.

He snarled sudden triumph, having snagged up two perfectly formed clear quartz crystals. They were about an inch in diameter and as long as my hand. Terrin gave me one.

"Get ready," he said, dragging one heel along the floor to make a rough circle around us.

I was ready ages ago. Outside, the first of the mob had arrived and were pushing against the door. You'd have thought the deluge would have put them off. The bales would hold them for maybe . . . ahhh . . . no. The bales weren't holding at all. The top one tumbled down in a squashy crash as people on the other side applied muscle against wood. Yells of unholy glee ensued as they inched the door open against the rest of the barrier.

At the far end came energetic hammering on that door. Until it burst open. A bunch of really big guys flooded in, wearing even bigger grins. And I thought I had teeth.

"Get 'em!" several of them roared. They charged forward. Just then the group at the first door succeeded in their assault, sending the last bales tumbling over into the path of their friends. It was a wonderful pile-up, but not enough to stop them.

"Now," said Terrin, in a strangely calm voice. His eyes were shut as he held his crystal.

Against all sense, I shut my eyes as well, clutching my crystal, and hoping my backpack was within the circle.

The yelling mob, the disturbed livestock, the splat of rain on thatch, abruptly faded. I thought I felt the brush of a hand grabbing my collar, but it seemed to pass right through me before fading, too.

Then came the tough part. Well, it's not that tough, and I should be used to it by now. It's the mental image that gets to me. I don't know what Terrin felt during the process, but to me it was always like being flushed down a toilet. A rushing noise, a swirling, that sudden twist, and the awful feeling that my guts were never going to catch up with the rest of me, then the worse feeling when they did.

Whoosh. Slam.

I held still, waiting for the next shoe to fall, but it never does. Once my consciousness figured it out I relaxed, sighing with relief.

Terrin said, "Why do you always groan like that? That was fun!"

"If you're an astronaut riding the vomit comet." I opened my eyes, squinting at a bright day. The barn and storm and riot were gone, left behind on yet another world. "Where are we? Is it home yet?"

"I don't think so. There wasn't time to pick a direction. Random chance again."

"Damn." The air didn't smell like home, though it was nice and soft. It had that fresh after-dawn tinge and felt like a late spring or early summer month. Grass, lots of brilliantly green, lush grass covered gentle hills, a living invitation to roll around and act silly.

Grass is coo-ool.

"Argh!" said Terrin, clapping a hand over his eyes against the daylight. He dropped and began hurriedly rooting in his pack again. "Sunglasses! Where are my shades?"

Mine were zipped in my jacket pocket. I put them on, then stowed away the flashlight in its designated pouch. My bag had been within Terrin's circle, thankfully. Some of the debris from the barn floor had traveled with us. I found my grooming comb with the wide teeth and started working on my still-wet mane. A quick run-through, another good head-shake and it would dry just fine in the open air.

The rest of me was still pretty damp, though. In silent common accord, Terrin and I put on dry clothes. He found his sunglasses and a purple fishing hat. "I don't like this place," he grumbled. "Something's not right here. Too damn much light." Under his short red hair he had naturally pale skin, so he had a right to complain. More than once I'd seen him lobster out after just an hour. Not a happy experience for either of us.

"You always say that, unless it's a night landing."

A grouchy snarl as he continued digging. "Gimme your crystal."

I gave it over. He put it in a small net bag along with his own quartz, safety-pinned it to the top of his hat, then pulled the hat down low over his brow. The crystals could start charging up with sun energy right away while we walked, an ingenious idea. Mine, as a matter of fact. He was a brilliant wizard, but I have my moments, too.

"So what happened?" I asked as he repacked all the junk he'd tossed around in his searches.

"What d'ya mean?" He pulled on a long-sleeved shirt and wrapped a bandana around his exposed neck to keep from burning. I never had to worry much about such things, my body-fur was better than sunblock-50.

"The mayor, the irate citizens, the mob, the chase scene. I just want to know why. We had a nice spot there."

"Mayor pissed me off."

"Obviously. How?"

"His attitude. Trying to act like he knew everything. Frigging amateurs. They do a little weather charm and think they've got the whole Multiverse in their hand when it's the other way around. I was trying to make him see what he was screwing around with; you can't just poke sticks at elementals for the fun of it. Unless you know what you're doing—and he didn't—all kinds of shit can happen."

"Weather? That storm . . . ?"

"Was his fault, not mine. Seemed to think he was helping out the farmers. I was trying to tell him he was sucking rain away from another area where it was supposed to be, upsetting balances, but he didn't want to hear that. Nothing pisses me off more than people who insist on being stupid. He wanted things to be growing in his microscopic piece of the planet—so I made some stuff grow to restore the balance."

"The purple daisies."

Terrin snickered. "Yeah. You should have heard everyone screaming when those sprouted out."

"I did. That's why I came downstairs with our packs." For the sake of survival I was forever prepared and alert to the signs that a hasty exit was at hand. Screaming people was one of them. At the little inn where we'd been staying the common room had overflowed with vocalized panic. "You spent good magic on that? It'd have been better to punch him in the nose; the same mob would have come after us."

"I didn't use my magic, I transferred some local energy in a different direction. There was more than enough off that storm for me to turn him into a Triffid if I wanted."

"Or maybe that giant carrot guy from The Thing?"

"Yeah, but the Howard Hawks version, not the other film—though that would have been fun."

Terrin had some really warped ideas of what constituted fun. Most did not bear thinking about.

"I had to transfer energy anyway, use up the surplus," he added. "That wannabe Oz dufus with his grandstanding was too busy floating his ego with all the applause to pay attention to his storm. He'd left things running, so it was building up to a good hail fall. Would have ruined all the crops. I took the edge off with that daisy gag."

"The bugs, too?" It hadn't been a pretty sight watching the mayor dancing around getting all bit up by the things. And it got downright revolting when he frantically started ripping his clothes off, the better to scratch at the hives.

"Those drained off the tornado that was coming."

"Really?"

"Yup. Nothing like spontaneous generation of life for using up excess power."

"Sure you didn't use some of yours? You look a little gaunt."

"I just played traffic cop, and it's this damn daylight that's messing with my looks."

He was touchy about his appearance, so I let it drop. "Will he ever get rid of the daisies and bugs?"

"Not anytime soon. He'll have to find another wizard to fix it back, and that will cost him. Maybe he'll learn a lesson or the other wizard can talk some sense into him. There's nothing worse than Talents who think they know everything about the Art. They're way more dangerous than those of us who do."

Terrin was an expert, and he did know a lot, but for the moment not enough to get us back home again. I kept quiet on that sensitive point and nodded toward a hill. "I think there's a road over there."

"What makes you think that?"

I shrugged. "It just seems the right way to go. You got your magic, I got my instinct."

"Okay. Let's go find out where we are. I'm starving."

We had traveling food in the packs, along with water, but those were for emergency only during stopovers in truly barren worlds. Whenever possible, we tried to live off the land. That usually meant taking odd jobs to earn our way. I'd do street-singing and story-telling, and when he had the energy, Terrin would trade minor magics for cash, but only in places where magic was accepted. Otherwise, he bartended.

Once upon a time, oh, a few dozen worlds ago, we lived on Earth—our Earth, the one you're on, not any of these other spots that called themselves by the same name. Terrin had a nice little metaphysical bookstore and coffee shop that afforded him the freedom to do what he liked. What he liked most after magic was getting laid—one of my favorites, too—and hardcore partying. The techno club raves he frequented in Deep Ellum in Dallas provided outlets for both. I'm more of a rock and roller. Techno is okay, just not for me. The rocker girls are just as cute.

I should really introduce myself, though. I'm Myhr—rhymes with purr—just Myhr, no other name that I can remember. What makes me more obviously different from most people are my cat features on a man's body. Just the face, I don't have a tail, though a lot of girls have enthusiastically assured me the tushy I do possess is very appealing.

And no, I am not related to the tunnel guy on that TV series. If that was true I'd have hit him up for an introduction to Linda Hamilton.

Where I came from is a mystery to me. Terrin thinks it was a magical experiment; I've speculated on genetics. I do have plenty of feline DNA making whoopee in my human-shaped bod—found that out when I saved enough cash working in Terrin's store to have a test made. So far no black-suited government types came banging on the door to make an issue of it. Terrin said he'd put up a protection spell around me to prevent that. Mighty altruistic of him, but I'm sure he did it for himself just to avoid dealing with the annoyance. Anything that keeps him away from parties and/or getting laid is an annoyance.

My lack of memory of where I was born and what I did before turning up on Terrin's doorstep never bothered me much. Not that I wouldn't like to know, but I don't stay up nights worrying about my origins. Lots of people might get bent out of shape over the big "Who am I?" question, but include me out. It's better to enjoy the moment and leave that angsty stuff to the heavy-duty thinkers. Bet if they got laid more often they wouldn't put so much time in on the topic.

How Terrin and I got bounced off our Earth and ended up ping-ponging from world to world is another story, which I'll get around to when I'm ready to tell it. In the meantime, we trudged up one green hill and down another, and, sure enough, my instinct came through again, taking us to a thin dusty ribbon of a road.

"Which way?" asked Terrin. He stretched his back, making popping sounds. "Left, right, up, down, inside-out?"

"Left." I didn't know why, but that was the way. To what, I also did not know, though it usually meant people and food. That's how I found Terrin's shop after all. He'd fed me, so I stayed on.

"My left or yours?"

Mine, of course. He could have probably figured it out himself using his own internal compass, but the one in my subconscious worked faster and didn't cost any magical effort. Traveling spells and transferring weather energy around was exhausting, though he'd never admit it; better for him to conserve himself until we had a handle on this particular stop. He looked pretty pooped.

A couple of hours later we saw the signs of civilization, a slow and easy one, represented by a simple farm house, low tech again, with a penchant for thatched roofing. I'd have thought we were still back on the previous world but for the subtle differences in building design. Also, this house was washed in a dull brown color. The other place went in for bright primaries.

A waist-high wall marked the perimeter of the immediate yard and its vegetable gardens; the gate was unlocked, so we went in.

"Hello!" I called toward the house. Someone was home; smoke rose from the chimney.

We paused a short, respectful distance from the front porch so as not to make the owner nervous about our intentions. It was usually safer to assume people everywhere were paranoid. After a minute, a farmer-type in homespun, earth-colored clothes emerged from the dark interior to stare at us. Well, mostly at me.

"Hello," I said politely. "We're just passing through. Could you tell us how far it is to the next town?"

He stared some more. "Ikghop patuuny mafork?" he asked.

"I said, could you tell us how far to the next town?"

"Skidwhip humdish?"

"I almost got that," I said to Terrin.

"Keep him talking," he told me, his voice tight with strain.

"Hello, Mr. Farmer, the weather here is great, isn't it?"

"Red salad fork," said the farmer.

"Really? I can fix my alarm clock myself." I took off my sunglasses. My eyes made a hit with him, judging by how wide his own went in reaction. Vertical pupils are one of my best features.

He scowled. "Who are clipwiddles, anycrab?"

"Sorry, I didn't catch that."

He turned back toward the house. "Hey, Verna, I think there's a circus plading to fardibt."

"Got it!" said Terrin.

I glanced at him. He'd relaxed, but his face was still red from the effort. Language spells were also hard on him, but he only had to cast one once per world.

"I need a drink," he added, positively sagging.

"The well's over there," said the farmer affably, pointing. "Help yourself, the water's sweet. What was all that gobble-gobble? Your friend from another country?"

"He's from Barcelona." Terrin went to the well, lowering the bucket by means of a wooden crank.

"Oh." The farmer nodded, as though that explained everything. Maybe this world had such a place. "That where the circus come from?"

"There's no circus," I said. "We're just travelers."

"So you can speak English. Should have said so. Then why the get-up?"

"What get-up?" I asked, very innocently.

"The mask."

"Mask?"

He peered closer at me. I flared my lip whiskers and twitched my ears around so he could see it was all real. I'd been through this kind of interview a thousand times, but still found it amusing. "Well, I never seen the like! What kind of eyes are those? Gold as our old tabby's. Verna! You gotta come out here!"

"Yeah, Zack, what is it?"

Verna came out, did her turn at staring and asking the usual questions, and I did my turn at being charming. Unless they're allergic, most people like cats, so I played on it, enjoying myself. It eventually led to an invitation to lunch, and I traded stories of the road for food. The food was good, too, very close to that of the Earth I knew, so I didn't have to worry about its digestibility. Trust me, Terrin and I have been to places that really do have green eggs and ham. They taste about the way you'd expect from their looks, too, no offense to Dr. Seuss.

I helped with the post-lunch clean-up, which pleased Verna to no end, while Terrin got specific directions to the next town from Zack, along with some useful local information. As a first contact situation went, Captain Picard would have been proud of us.

We had about two hours of walking ahead, but with a full stomach I was in the mood for a little light exercise. Terrin wasn't pleased, but only because it was day. His pale skin was more suited for night rambles.

"Too damn bitching bright," he complained. "I don't like this place."

"Better than others we've been to."

"Something's not right here,'' he went on, sniffing the air suspiciously. "Too dry. Too . . . something."

I thought the weather was just fine. Terrin enjoyed complaining; he was good at it, but I wasn't in the mood to help him indulge. Verna's cooking was first-rate and its proper digestion deserved my undivided attention.

The walk in was easy, with a gradual traffic increase the farther we went. Much of it tended to be farmers with things to sell, but they'd give the way over to an occasional cart or passenger wagon, and a few times guys in uniforms would march or ride past. I checked these dudes out for weapons, since you can tell a lot about the level of a place's tech development by what kinds of things people used to kill each other. It's a sad comment on the human condition, but we're kind of stuck with it.

There were lots of swords—the skinny kind—bows, knives, lances, and a crossbow-type contraption. No firearms yet that I noticed, but maybe an ordinary soldier or town guard couldn't afford a pistol. I'd rather no one had to carry weapons at all, but people are people, and not everyone is as easy to get along with as I am. Not that I was above protecting myself, but I'm more of a lover than a fighter.

The town proved to be fairly large, sprawling beyond the confines of a high defense wall. That was good and bad. We could blend in better with a crowd, but unless they had a covered sewer system, things tended to get smelly in walled cities. I'd never fully appreciated the joys of modern sanitation until my first encounter with a genuine medieval-type settlement. True civilization—as I broadly defined it now—was any society with working indoor plumbing and real toilet paper.

More soldier types trooped past, not quick-marching, but not wasting time. Several of them stared at me, either puzzled or amused, and I heard speculations about circuses. That was good. No one was drawing back in abject terror, muttering about two-legged cat demons, or making signs against the evil eye. I'd experienced all of those in our travels, and being taken for a side-show exhibit is preferable.

Joining in with a knot of locals, we passed unchallenged through one of the many wide-open gates, which seemed a favorable sign of peaceful times. There were all different types of skin shades, costumes, and accents, lending a cosmopolitan air to the place, and everyone looked fairly healthy and well-fed. Hopefully, this would be just another quiet stopover until the travel crystals were charged up again with magical energy. Then we could take off for the next world under better circumstances than our last rapid launch. Maybe the next trip would even take us home.

Zack had recommended a place to stay that was cheap, clean, and served food that wouldn't kill you. He said to mention his name to the owner. After some asking around on the twisty cobbled streets we found it, a modest two-story structure, this time with a tile roof, not thatch. The ground floor was half-tavern, half-café. We didn't have any local money, but had learned to be inventive about making a living, and we're not shy about applying for work. The owner already had plenty of free help—his family—but after he got past the first shock over my looks I offered to sing and story-tell to bring in more customers, this in exchange for food, board, and tips. He was on the ball enough to see my face as a potential to draw in crowds.

"I run a family place," he said. "Has to be clean stories."

"All of them?" I was a little short on those.

"All of them."

"Okay, I think I can do that." So I wouldn't be able to share my stockpile of dirty jokes, I still had all the rest of Hollywood to draw on. He wanted a sample before taking me on, so I sang the Beatles's "When I'm 64," then rendered up a ten-minute medieval version of "Casablanca," summarizing like crazy. I kept the Bogie impersonation intact, though, since I'm very good at it, and sang "As Time Goes By" in good voice. Instead of a plane, Ilsa left in a carriage. I try to avoid sad tales, but this one is always a winner with the women in the audience. When I got to the "beautiful friendship" line, the innkeeper's eavesdropping wife was streaming tears. I'd called it right again.

"Oh, that's the most beautiful story," she said, blowing her nose into her apron. "Clem, we keep him! He'll be better than that juggler who broke all the cups. And such a sweet face! And those gold eyes! Just like our old tabby!" She looked ready to scratch me behind the ears. I prefer belly rubs.

"Okay," said Clem, rounding on me. "You start today. Get outside and sing, and tell people to come by this afternoon for more stories."

"What about an evening show?"

"We'll just have the people staying here already—which would be you and your friend. There's a city curfew. Very strict. Everyone has to be off the streets by the sunset bell or the watch jails you."

That was useful to know. "Any reason behind this?"

"It's for our own good, so says Overduke Anton."

"Lots of crime?"

"Not since curfew started. There's less thievery with all the people in their own homes, so it makes sense to me. You want to be out and about at night you're either one of the overduke's watch or up to no good."

Nice black and white reasoning there, but it'd be tough on Terrin. The only time he liked being out was after dark. I'd have to make sure he knew the rules. He was presently talking to Clem's wife about soup recipes. In his checkered past he'd done some chef-type training at a restaurant and knew a thing or three about flavorings. He could charm people, too—when he was in the mood—and they were having a laugh about something or other. I beamed relief. It looked like we'd be comfy enough for the duration.

We took our packs up to the room; it was a small one, of course, but being virtually rent-free I wasn't complaining. I mentioned the curfew to Terrin, but he said he was staying in anyway. He grabbed the cover off the bed, wrapped it around his shoulders, then sank cross-legged to the floor.

"See ya," he said, then his dark gray eyes rolled up so only the whites showed. He took long slow breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. He'd be meditating for hours, which he usually did instead of sleeping. Just as well, for it meant I had the one bed to myself, and I liked to stretch out. I wanted to crash now, but had to go to work. Midnight on the last world, noon on this one. I'd be jet-lagged for a few days, or is that travel crystal-lagged? Oh, well, I could sleep tonight. With that curfew thing going on it would be quiet.

Changing into my show-time look, which consisted of a clean, pirate-style white shirt with some fancy black embroidery, polishing my boots, and fluffing my mane, I went downstairs to get started.

I was a hit in Rumpock, which happened to be the name of the city. The language spell usually translated names to a home-Earth equivalent, but not all the time. That often gave me a clue as to what songs to sing. What goes over well in Winnipeg can flop in L.A. You can't go wrong with the Beatles, though, so I shamelessly, and without paying royalties, sang one after another of those songs that lent themselves to a capella recitals. If I'd had a guitar, I could have done more, but hauling my backpack all over was as much luggage as I wanted to carry.

Into the afternoon and early evening I sang, answered questions about my looks with jokes, invited people inside, then sang some more and told stories. It was a good thing for me that back home I'd park myself in front of the TV and soak up countless old movies. Retelling all those tales saved me a lot of work making up my own. I'd spin them out with some reenactment, sometimes getting a member of the audience up there with me to help out. That always went over well, especially when I'd do Romeo and Juliet, because I'd try to pick out a cute, unattached girl for the other lead and feed her the lines. That was always good for a giggle. I was careful to improve the story by always giving it a happy ending. The one time I did it Shakespeare's way bombed totally. When it comes to dinner theater, people like a feel-good finish to go with their dessert.

That day's take was pretty good, and Clem let me keep half the tips. Tomorrow would be even better as word got around, he predicted. I hoped so. You can make a decent living telling stories—especially in a society without TV, computer games, radio, or a lot of books. From what I heard and observed, this town was definitely pre-Gutenberg, and I don't mean Steve. (I bet he spells his name different, anyway.)

Afterwards, while sharing the family's late meal, I played wide-eyed tourist with lots of questions, learning more about the ins and outs of Rumpock. Speculation about my cat's face led around to the topic of magic, just like I wanted. A few people in town were considered to be Talents. Whether it was of the stage show variety or the real deal like Terrin's remained to be seen. Clem and his wife, Greta, had only heard rumors of wonder-workings and were inclined to disbelieve them. I didn't press too hard for information.

Terrin and I had to be careful; some places were very anal about magic, so he usually kept a low profile. We'd hit more than one spot where wizards were the dish du jour. Those places weren't too healthy for me, either. Sometimes peoples' fears can be a real pain.

I trudged upstairs for a well-earned collapse, my brain pleasantly buzzed by exhaustion and Clem's own beer. As brews went, it would go over big time in Dallas.

Terrin was still in the middle of the floor doing his meditation thing, oblivious to my entrance. He hadn't moved a muscle since I'd left hours ago, but I was used to that. I prefer the old-fashioned kind of spacing out, which requires I fall into bed and check my eyelids for light leaks. Putting the candle I'd brought on a table by the bed, I gave in to a mighty stretch, loving the muscle-creaking agony. What a day, all umpteen hours of it.

We had a little square of a window covered with a wood shutter. I pulled it open for a last look outside and to get some air. The latter was none too good, being this deep in the city. Rumpock did have a sewer system, consisting of a series of open ditches that emptied into the Rumpock River. After learning that, I'd made a mental note to stick to hot tea or boiled water. And beer. Beer was gooo-oood.

The narrow street below was empty now, very quiet. I'd sleep like a log. If logs sleep. Now there was something to wonder about. Do logs sleep? Once in a while I come up with angsty questions that do bother me. Like why kamikaze pilots wear crash helmets.

Oh, yeah, the beer I'd had was real good . . . Clem had a winner fermenting in his basement barrels.

Down below I heard a soft sound like whispering. My ears sluggishly perked forward to pick up more. Probably someone who hadn't made the curfew. None of my business, but I snuffed the candle and peered out, my eyes fully dilated to take in the night view. Much of the color was washed away, a sacrifice to being able to see so well in the darkness, and boy, could I ever track movement.

Something was definitely on the move, too. I saw a rippling along the cobbles, like heat warping the air. The ripple grew more pronounced; the air thickened into a dark mist. Streaky at first, then growing more substantial the longer I stared. It covered the width of the street, flowing like a river. The only sound was that weird whispering, like thousands of secretive ghosts.

The fur on my nape went straight up.

Traveling with Terrin had brought me next to a lot of strange things, but nothing like this. It was huge. I angled my view to take in as much of the street as I could, coming and going. The whatever-it-was was everywhere, drifting along slow, but as though with purpose, with direction. Just as I began to wonder if it was intelligent or powered by intelligence, a tendril of the dark stuff oozed out from the main body and came creeping up the side of the building toward me.

I slammed the shutter into place and locked it, for all the good it would do. There were cracks around the closure, and that black misty stuff looked like it could just ease through. I backed away, staring hard at those small openings.

An inner sense told me the stuff was now level with the window, pausing just outside. Part of me wanted to open the shutter just a little bit for a look, but a much stronger part—one that had seen that particular Twilight Zone episode and what had been waiting for William Shatner on the other side of his window—kept me sensibly in place. Time to call the cavalry.

"Uh . . . Terrin? You might wanna see this. Terrin?" I shook his shoulder. "Come on, wake up."

He didn't snarl and wave me off, his usual way when being jolted from a meditative state. Eyes fast shut, his pale face was a sickly gray and slick with sweat. That wasn't right.

I half knelt and shook him again. "Terrin? Hey, buddy, don't do this, I'm scared enough."

Something audibly brushed against the window opening. I jumped, my heart trying to swim upstream to my throat.

I shook Terrin a lot harder now. No response.

He was absolutely rigid. Like a corpse.

Not right. Not right. Red alert. Battle stations.

The whispering grew more pronounced, stronger, almost seductive. Whatever was behind it wanted in and began bumping against the shutter— rattle-rattle . . . ting-tang . . . walla-walla-bing-bang.

Time to exit, stage left.

 

Back | Next
Contents
Framed