The Drawing of Three

Chapter Four - Part 1

Giant Country

Jake stands in the eerie wake of the deafening gun battle, taking in the aftermath. The fire dog paces aimlessly on one side of the creek as Kelraji and the dark elf rein up on the opposite shore. Jake glances over his shoulder to see Linus extricating himself from the branches of a tree nearly sixty feet above him. The dwarven woodsman and the mercenary sniper back their lizard mounts warily away from the stand of trees behind them, which has developed into a roaring fire during the course of the battle. The noxious smoke from their assailants’ grenades has begun to thin in the late evening wind.

Jake turns back to look at Henry and Arthur. Neither man has moved from where they lay since the bikes crashed. His boots have completely filled with creek water.

Kelraji roars in rage, and then Hindi.

“तुम्हारी मौत से मिलने आते हैं!”

Seeing no more movement from that side, he steers his lizard to the bridge, dismounts, raises his shield, and charges under it, yelling in English as he does.

“Linus, put out fire before you kill my dead!”

The fire blazes in Linus’ eyes. There’s a pause, as he soaks in the beauty of a forest in flames. The flickering feeds some primal instinct, and for a moment he fights the desire to push the flames ever higher. Then, silently, silently begins his work. He uses his powers to, wherever possible, push the fire inwards, back into the charred remains of the tall trees. From there he channels the heat harmlessly up and away, Letting the fire put itself to sleep by burning through its food.

The mage takes his time with the shape fire spell, not wanting to exert himself any more than the day’s events already had. The concentrated body of flames lances into the mid-day sky like a white-hot speartip, a fitting tribute to his patron god.

Kelraji splashes through the shallow creek beneath the moss-specked bridge, his vajra poised to deal death, but finds little worth striking down. He feels the gray smoke leeching away his adept powers once more, though the effect is weakening as the smoke continues to clear. It takes him a moment to notice that there are two more of the unknown attacker’s monocycles parked in the shadowy recesses beneath the bridge, partially covered by an active camo tarp which has been thrown back.

Tis dismounts, collecting a length of rope from his saddlebag before striding to the edge of the road to pick over the dead. After inspecting a few corpses, he selects one man and drags him to the base of a tree, then begins to bind him to it with the coil of rope.

The dwarven woodsman wanders out into the underbrush, carefully picking through the ground cover and foliage as he stops occasionally to listen.

The mercenary shoulders her rifle and jogs through the creek towards Henry. The smell of the recently deceased forest fire fills the air with a heavy charcoal stench, tinged with the chemical aroma of the smoke grenades. The sun has passed its zenith, and already the air carries a mild chill to it.

Kelraji notes the bikes. He would surely prefer to ride one of those instead of the lizard. He wasn’t an expert at riding bikes, but it would surely beat being inept at riding a lizard. He checks under the tarp for anything else of value, and then returns to the main group, commanding the nerd once more.

“Linus, you link my mind with Tis, we must discuss private and quickly. One wheel bike under bridge. There may be more. Can you find? Can use, maybe can scrap?

Jake looks around hurriedly, making sure there are no enemies lingering in the woods to ambush them again. He hears nothing but the rustling of his companions and the chirrup of the occasional wood creature, so he holsters his revolver and splashes down the creek bed to where Henry lies, joining the mercenary at his side.

“How does he look? He’s not wounded, is he?” Jake examines Henry’s body for signs of wounding, worried for his companion.

The mercenary sniper shrugs as Jake approaches Henry’s supine form. “He’s alive at least. Fuck if I know how to help him though, I’m no medic.” Jake does his best to check Henry’s condition, his inspection aided somewhat by his rudimentary knowledge of first aid. The young man has a pulse and is breathing shallowly, though his heart rate feels fast, and his pupils are oddly dilated considering his eyes have been closed for at least a few minutes. Jake pats him down gingerly for broken bones and swelling, but finds no physical trauma save a gash on his forehead from the bike crash and a few bruises on his torso which have already begun to purple. If the dull ache in Jake’s arm was any indication, these last marks were probably caused by their late enemies. As far as the gunslinger can tell, he has simply been knocked unconscious, and should recover on his own with a little time.

Kelraji pulls the tarp back, causing its surface to ripple with striations of color as the adaptive material’s sophisticated processors work to match its surroundings. He sees the two monocycles propped up on kickstands, with three tire marks alongside them where the other bikes were parked. Though his knowledge of bikes is not vast, and these particular examples have been stripped of their manufacturer’s emblems, he recognizes the vehicles as Horizon-Doble Revolutions, the most common monowheels on the market. Though a bit fanciful for the average hog enthusiast, they enjoyed a good reputation for their stability and rugged construction. The mix of sand and pebbles where the bikes are parked is dry, but the smooth stones used to weigh down the corners of the tarp are dark with wetness. Besides a handful of shotgun shells and a mess of muddy footprints, he sees nothing else of note beneath the bridge.

The adept trudges back out into the daylight to rejoin his dark elf companion. Tis is in the process of extracting two darts from the base of the bound man’s neck, cruel barbs with hypodermic tips and feathered for stabilization. He carefully wipes the needles clean and pockets them. Next he produces a small glass vial of clear liquid and roughly tilts the man’s head back, holding his eyelids open to administer a few drops of clear liquid into each eye. Tis stands up straight and smiles at Kelraji as he approaches, resting his hand on the pommel of his saber. “A good fight, yes? Now we are needing the women. Nothing like a woman after a fight.”

Kelraji smiles broadly at Tis,

“Not so much fight as kill. I enjoy the act, but they have no chance, so no fun. We talk soon, yes?”

Kelraji waits to hear Tis’ answer, then goes to pick over the downed men in his melee, making the lieutenant his first stop. He checks carefully for any sort of power sources or tactical gear. Once he gathers any worthwhile gear, he lines the men up by the side of the road, severed parts realigned, and twists their hands and arms, beginning to stiffen, into poses with one hand open and pointing down, and the other open and pointing up, with the fingers slightly curled. The motions perhaps are not graceful, but he takes his time, making sure the alignment is at least correct.

The first sword nods. “As you say. I have given this one the antidote, he will be awake soon. Then Tis will see if it talks.”

Of the fifteen men who ambushed them, six of the bodies have been lost to the flames, their equipment rendered useless by the temporary forest fire. The remaining nine are all equipped identically. Each wears a suit of active camouflage armor, nearly identical to Kelraji’s own, including a removable battery pack which can be used to power his own suit. Each man also wears a pair of goggles with thermographic imaging capabilities. Oddly, they carry very little in the way of weaponry. Altogether, Kelraji collects seven unused smoke grenades, and four of the peculiar collars their leader had attempted to shackle him with.

Kelraji searches over the charred remains of their apparent leader, the man who had foolhardily attempted to collar him with one of their metallic bands. He finds two items of great interest. The first is a rugged, apparently flame-retardant package about the size of a postage envelope. He unzips it to find several copies of a two page document, each pair stapled together. These are the only things in the package, and are the only documentation or form of identification he has found on any of the corpses.

The second item of note is the dead man’s boots. They are made from a rich leather and armored with panels of an exotic metal, a near-black alloy which glimmers darkly in the sun’s light. The surface of the metal bears a unique texture, organic grooves like the contours of a topographical map. It’s edges have been picked out in gold, and a gold mark shaped like an umbrella adorns the heel of one boot.

Kelraji attempts to palm the documents as soon as he recognizes his own name, and hide them as well as he can. They will be destroyed, likely by fire, as soon as he is able. He stops halfway through tucking them in to his armor, and drops the documents on the ground, forgotten. He does not now, or in the future, remember to recover them.

Few men aside from Kelraji have changed footwear as fast, including the most fashionable of ThaiCorp lady-boys. He looks around after the fact, and nods to himself, secure that no one has seen the transition.

He returns, batteries in full hands, to speak with Tis and the prisoner. His eyes narrow dangerously as he regards the man. one hand, full of batteries, hovers near his belt.

Kelraji deftly palms the papers, letting them fall inconspicuously to the dirt. Though Linus is too distracted cleaning up the remnants of the fire to notice the act, Jake notices the other adept’s furtive movements out of the corner of his eye. His superlative vision informs him that Kelraji has hidden or discarded something, though even Jake cannot tell what it is or where it has gone from this distance.

Tis is squatting casually in the grass next to the bound man, using the point of his dagger to dig dirt out from beneath his fingernails with a look of decided boredom. The captive has begun to moan incoherently as he rolls his head from side to side.

Jake sighs and looks at the mercenary. “He’s just knocked out. Don’t worry, I know what’s wrong with him.” He lifts Henry’s unconscious body in a fireman’s carry and, boots sloshing with water, carries him out of the creek bed and lays him on the side of the path.

He eyes the papers that Kelraji discarded suspiciously, but turns his attention elsewhere for now. ‘One thing at a time.’ He returns to the creek to fetch Arthur Glass, picking him up gingerly and laying him next to Henry. He inspects both bodies to see if they have been collared, then turns to Henry’s lizard.

He opens the saddle bags and begins searching through his things. He might not know exactly what he’s looking for, but he thinks he’ll know it when he finds it.

Arthur fared worse than Henry in his own bike crash, but it looks like he has also been simply knocked out. Neither of them are wearing the distinctive metal collars around their necks, though Arthur’s neck has a ring of deep bruises around his neck from the simple iron shackle he wore as a symbol of his servitude to the elves.

It only takes Jake a few minutes rummaging through Henry’s bags to find what he is looking for, a leather glasses case stuffed into a sock and jammed into one corner of his rucksack. Inside he finds a plastic baggie containing a sizable rock of chalky white powder, a small mirror and razorblade, a few plastic straws, and a crumpled pack of cigarettes with a lighter inside.

Kelraji will gather the rest later. He has seen enough. He goes to talk to Tis for a hushed moment before the captive fully awakens.

“Tis, we talk. You are new king, right? Tell me how you will rule. I know that you win fight, these men die to you, and it is good. But what do you fight for? What do you protect? You have slave, but they almost take him from you. King is not all about battle. General is all about battle. But you want king. Why?”

Tis glances at Arthur’s unconscious form with practiced disinterest, as if Kelraji had just pointed out the presence of an ant in the grass. “Say you have a cattle, and someone is trying to kill you and the cattle at the same time, yes, outlander? Where does the dark-skinned one point his blade?”

The first sword stands up straight, slipping his dagger back into its sheath. “But your blade is unlike any Tis has been seeing, outlander. To fly like a spider’s silk, yet cut as a butcher’s axe, what sort of sword does this?” Tis smiles. “And you practice the witching arts. Your way is not the way when the smoke has you, yes?”

Russ Gault emerges from the undergrowth on the opposite side of the road, trudging over to join the rest of the party as Jake and the sniper finish laying out the unconscious bodies of their rearguard. Linus lowers himself to ground level, completing the unlikely expedition.

The dwarf pauses to pack and light a curved wooden pipe before speaking. “Sniffed out another stash of motorcycles half a click up the creek to the north. The tire tracks look to be cutting straight south, downstream. Wouldn’t be too difficult to make the trail, especially in the day.”

Tis cuts in. “Our road lies east, through the narrow pass and into the iron mountains. There is no time for the tracking of sides. We should resume the trail.”

Kelraji acknowledges the comments of the dark one, thinking on his words. Perhaps he could have phrased the whole thing better, made it make more sense. He is frustrated by his own lack of persuasiveness in the situation.

“You are maybe correct Tis, to save yourself before the things that you own. And yes, I am not the same when in smoke, though I have not seen smoke before. Is common here? Who else has? We talk more, I need learn of this place, of your people, your place in the Wheel.”

Kelraji then cocks his head, his gears churning full speed.

“Russ, you say more motorcycles? More people, more bikes, or just tracks? I do not want ambush again.”

Jake pockets the baggy with the white powder from Henry’s bag, then replaces everything as it was, stuffing the glasses case down and out of sight. He stands and speaks to the party aloud as he walks over to the crumpled papers strewn about by their attackers and Kelraji. “I agree with Tis, actually. We don’t have time to be chasing after these—slavers—if that’s what they are; we are here on a quest seeking a dangerous prize, and we dare not tarry over local trouble.”

He stoops to pick up one of the papers, turning it over and wiping some mud away before looking up again. “Slavers—or bounty hunters. Kelraji, there’s a price on our heads and your name on this paper! Wuxing put a hit out on you in this place? I think it’s high time we learned a little more about what you’re running from, friend. Who are they and what do they want? Other than your head on a stick.”

Kelraji turns quickly on the gunslinger, a wry smile on his face.

“Oh, a hit on just me? I had read it different. Did you know it had a second page, with more words on it? Words that mean that you are no less a target than I. Linus, look what gunslinger found. I did not know you wanted to be astronaut!”

The grin is quickly erased, replaced by a much more serious demeanor, and the Indian unconsciously cycles a few hand gestures with his left hand. His right is worryingly close to his vajra, though it too cycles through two distinct, slower motions.

“Like it or not, you are stuck out here as much. And I do not run from. I run to. I have told you my story to a point, but if you want me to skip the middle, I will do so. But for me, you give promise that you believe. That what I say is, as I present, truth. I do not question you, you do not question me. Do we, gunslinger, have a deal?”

Jake remembers his dream-self’s warning: ‘…my followers scattered, broken and turned traitor, my ka-tet divided and at the mouth of ruin. Trust no one Jake, not those you meet along the path, not your men, not the three, not even yourself.’ He did not believe it, he spoke out against this portent in the dream, but the tone in Kelraji’s voice… the look in his eye, the lingering of his sword hand, in them Jake can see the possibility of that future. His right arm twitches involuntarily.

“Very well, Kelraji, I will take you at your word. After all, what reason would we have to lie to each other?”

What reason, indeed?

Kelraji notes the reticence, filing away the minor betrayal for a later time before turning to the nerd.

“Linus, mind touch us all, so you will know true. Come now.”

Linus hesitates. He has recovered, somewhat, from the thick of battle, and has banished the flames that have now left several trees in cinders.

“I don’t know, Kelraji, that I want to share the visions from your mind. Violence is an anathema to me, but I often cannot avoid it. To you, it is like the tinder that feeds your flame. I fear entering such a mind.”

Kelraji laughs a few forced laughs.

“I do not know what anathema means, but I am guessing it is not true. You can avoid violence if it is that important to you. What you cannot avoid is the…” He thinks for a moment, not wishing to devolve into lecturing these men yet again. “Consequences? What you do here is seen, judged, and answered. You use violence just like rest of us. Maybe you use spirits, but you are the maker of the violence.”

Kelraji’s face wrinkles slightly in disgust at the man. He does not understand the man. No, the man does not understand. Kelraji’s belief is justified, the man is simply avoiding the truth.

“You value knowledge, science, but for what? What makes violence bad and what you do good? Think, tell me.”

Kelraji shrugs, and turns dismissively back to the gunslinger.

“What do you want to know from me?”

Linus caves, in part because, despite his fear of violence, his curiosity pulls him ever forward.

“Kelraji, let us not waste time” he says, as he holds out his two hands for the other two of the three to take."

Kelraji takes the man’s hand, drawing a deep breath before accepting, and holds out his other hand to the gunslinger, willing the man to acquiesce.

Linus looks at Kelraji in a final moment of hesitation before activating the net, waiting for Jake to take hold. He doesn’t want to enter Kelraji’s thoughts alone.

Jake hesitates, catching Linus’ eye for a moment. Then he joins hands with his ka-tet and completes the circle.

The hermetic mage sends an arcane signal through both of his hands, coding his spell to read the chemical discharges of his targets’ neural passageways. Something momentarily bars his access to the gunslinger’s mind, like a callous built up to ward away magical attacks, but he finally makes contact as Jake gives in to the spell’s effects. Like punching corn starch mixed with water, the scienter reflects in passing.

The deluge of pure sensory experience is overwhelming at first, nothing more than confusion and out-of-context memories as the hermetically created tri-processor engine becomes self-aware. There is a man cast in shadow kneeling above them, his arm outstretched, his features hidden beneath the lip of a wide-brimmed hat. A large revolver gleams sterling silver in his holster as the tall man on the bridge retreats up, into the light. They land in a cramped apartment, staring at a briefcase on the kitchen table in front of them. Black curtains block out the morning light. A teenage girl, raven-haired, accepts a business card from their outstretched hand. “If you can find no one else who will train you, contact me. My com is here.”

Linus is the first to find himself again, putting a bit of mental distance between himself and the net. He takes his hands away, the casting complete. He continues to sustain it as he watches the other two.

As the link forms, Kelraji shows in his mind his memories, starting from what he considers the beginning. Which, to the surprise of the other runners, does not take place within his own lifetime as they know it.

Kelraji is, or was, an emperor in a former life. He was a man known as Jahangir, a Mughal emperor. The man received a divine gift in the form of a magical comet that fell to Earth in his courtyard. Many of these events are replayed in vivid detail. He survived an assassination attempt, cutting down more than one assassin, on his way to retrieve the gift from Allah. The other runners, skeptical as they are, cannot help but not the spinning precision of the emperor, shoulders rolling and back twisting in the same manner as Kelraji does in combat. The stone itself is magical, it calls, it pleads, it begs, it commands. Not in words, but in compulsions. Kelraji lets a strong feeling of yearning seep from his mind, infecting for a moment those of his companions.

Then, flashing forwards, memories of stories being told as a child of what became of the gift. Meteoric iron, a rare, if mundane, material. Known artifacts included a sabre, a longsword, a curved dagger, and a knife. Pictures of the knife, gleaming gold and silver, fill their minds. Stronger emotions flood them as Kelraji reveals of the dagger, reluctantly. The men feel its weight, hear the beckoning. the dagger, about as large, has rubies inlaid in the handle instead of gold. The hilt itself is dull black, and the blade has waves with crimson crests, not unlike dried blood, despite many attempts to polish them out. They may wipe away for a day or more, but they always return within a week. The weapon itself seems to mandate the waves and their coloration.

Kelraji concludes his tour of the items, listing the four known, and moving on. But not, however, before a larger imprint of the distinct Damascus wave pattern is left upon their minds, not matching any of the revealed items.

Kelraji goes through the myths of the birth, life, and death of the cosmos, the cyclical nature of time, and many other things the other runners don’t care about.

They tune back in when he gets back on track. His organization, those he loves, those he grew up with, are tasked with sustaining Earth in its current form. They perform, yearly, a ritual of renewal. It takes 14 people to perform the ritual, and the sect has dwindled and waned over the years to the mid 40s. Kelraji, a member of the outer circle of the sect, is tasked with bringing the material that they require.

A short backtrack. The ritual itself, upon conclusion, opens an astral rift, through which Mana pours and flows for exactly one year before it begins to subside. The rift is nearly always flocked to and studied, and has been throughout time. The sect moves every year, opening a new rift in a new place to account for the closure of the old rift. The organization as a whole is incredibly clandestine, and many members are organized into cells, knowing perhaps one of the 14, maybe two, never three. It has survived since the last coming of magic, and, Kelrjai hopes, will do so once more.

For reasons unknown to him, his order requires the meteoric iron. The ritual can perhaps be strengthened, extended, furthered? He does not know. His place is not to question, but to procure. The dagger in question was stolen from his order just prior to a renewal ceremony. He must return the dagger to the 14, or he sincerely believes, perhaps rightly so, that part of the world will begin to crumble, and the Wheel will turn on the 6th age of man.

The thought does not make him sad, he does not fear it. That said, he does not welcome it. His role is the sustainer, and he wishes to do his best in praise to his deity, to all deities.

Wuxing stole the dagger, not knowing its importance, or perhaps because of it. He was not sorry to finish the tales of the men and women who stood against him. Perhaps they finished his in a previous life, or would in the next…

He has been out of contact from his organization for months, years maybe? He does not truly recall, his sense of time has become bent. He yearns to reunite but fears the worst. So he does what he can. He protects what he knows is important, and waits to be collected once more. For without the 14, India will perish, and the 6th age will come to a close. He must stay alive, stay hidden, and trust they will reach him, as he cannot reach them.

Kelraji breaks hands with the men, returning to his own mind. Thoughts of hunger, and cravings for chana masala cross the net before Kelraji realizes that the bond is still active, even without physical contact. He shrugs, stares directly at Linus, and does his best to imagine eating the most delicious chana masala he has ever had, chewing slowly and deliberately. He is, perhaps, finished with the meld.

Kelraji’s mental presence fades as his unwillingness to participate nullifies the voluntary spell. Linus’ stomach rumbles as an inexplicable need for Indian food arises within him.

Jake exits the mindnet trance in a cold sweat. Only a few seconds have passed, but he feels as if a million thoughts have passed through his mind at once, straining his capacity to comprehend them.

And yet, being linked so close has taught him something of his companion. He had no idea Kelraji was actually capable of concern for matters other than himself; then again, perhaps he had been seeing single-mindedness as callousness. He appreciates the man’s situation a little more now, but wonders how the quest for the true meaning of the book will help him recover the dagger. It must be woven together, somehow; else the winds of fate would not have blown him onto this path.

He crumples the ransom in his fist and throws it to the mud. “Very well, Kelraji. We were bound to come to this moment when we shed native blood on this soil. What say you for our next move?”

One thing sticks out in his mind prominently: the grim portent of the gunslinger, and the girl in the apartment with black drapes. He wonders what it could mean. ‘The face I have forgotten..?’

He watches as their captive is prepared to be questioned. He doesn’t envy the man his position; Tis seems like the sort that knows his way around pain.

Kelraji ponders the vision for a moment, but realizes that he need not linger on the problems of another man if that man was not himself lingering.

Moving to Tis, Kelraji begins to reason with the darkling.

“We need to move. on. Bring him. We go to other bikes, make sure not followed, then go to Myrmid. No other good choice. What will we learn from the man anyway?”

The first sword stands and shrugs. “Very well, we bring the new outlander. Though it makes Tis curious: what if you are the bad humans, and they are of the raegh sent to bring you to justice?” The elf smiles. “Come, Tis is equally curious to try the witchcraft carts.”

Russ grunts his consent. “I agree. We’ll cover more ground on those monowheels.” He sniffs disapprovingly at the air. “Smells wet. We’re going to need to find shelter before the night is out.”

The party splits up, half following Russ to the hidden bikes while the other group retrieves the cycles from beneath the bridge. They transfer their saddle bags to the new rides and secure Henry, Arthur, and the captive on the back ends of three bikes. They collect ten bikes total, three of them a bit banged up from the crashes, but serviceable as far as any of them can tell. Kelraji, the only one with any motorcycling experience, jumps in the saddle and starts one up.

A trideo screen blinks to life in front of him, filling his field of vision with a panoramic view of the terrain ahead which blends seamlessly into his peripheral. The system starts up without a problem, but the menu is all in Japanese. No. . . Kelraji stares at the screen for a moment, trying to get a sense of what the characters meant. They were kanji alright, but they didn’t make sense as Japanese menu options.

The characters are, of course, Chinese. His past lives had taken him throughout India and much of Japan, but not enough to become familiar with this particular language. Still, the characters share a common ancestry, and after deducing enter and back, he is able to fumble his way to the language option and set the system to Hindi. He spends a few minutes exploring the bike’s software, impressed with what he sees. These are premium road machines, with deluxe sensor packages and decent pilot systems. He finds a setting called “smartwheel,” but leaves it on default, unfamiliar with this new technology. Finally, he sees that the bikes are equipped with active camouflage chassis, though they’ve been left on passive mode to match the surrounding foliage.

With a bit of trial and error, Kelraji feels confident that he can program any of the unmanned bikes to follow them in a line using their superior sensors. This would give them a way to bring bikes for Henry and Arthur when they awake.

Russ sniffs the air once more, baring his teeth. “Spring rains are coming. If we’re going to move, we should do it soon. I don’t want to be out in the open when this storm passes.”

Kelraji checks the bike’s display for a battery indicator. How long will they last? Do they have a max range? The animals will make the journey eventually, and Kelraji would rather not walk the last hundred miles if he can avoid it. Plus, they may need to harvest batteries from the others.

First thing first, Kelraji thinks. He programs the bikes to follow him as a group, up to a set speed. If he should exceed the speed, the bikes should idle until he returns. Unsure how to do this, he calls over Linus, setting the language to English. Surely the man knew enough about computers and science to accomplish the task. As he delegates, his thoughts drift. A plan forms in his mind.

“Russ. You say others bike not far, yes? Short distance? Do we need all? Take few, move fast. Strike hard strike fast. No bikes means no follow. Russ and another who ride good follow us. Rest go along road, find safe camp, stay safe.”

Turning to Tis, he smiles widely, confidently.

“What means bad humans, what means Justice here? I see only living humans and dead humans. And…” Kelraji moves to Tis, whispering. “you who talk treason should too be wary of raegh, should know that Justice means one thing to one man and another to another.”

Leaning back, Kelraji continues the conversation, now solely between him and Tis, as the rest sort out Kelraji’s rambling plan.

“What means this raegh? Do I say it right? Can you teach me some ways, some words? I would learn your world, equal facet of mine.”

The monocycle’s readout estimates it has power for roughly 130 miles remaining, just enough power to take them the rest of the way to the Iron Mountains. The odometer reads 20 miles since it was last reset. Kelraji pulls the heavy battery packs from the three damaged bikes and cleaves them into useless hunks of high-tech alloy with his monowhip, leaving them to smolder and rust in the silty creekbed.

At the three’s direction, the party splits up in search of shelter for the night. A few of them find some clearings that would make decent campsites, but their mercenary sniper reports a spacious cave a half-mile to the north that will best shelter them from the storm.

They ride their newfound hogs to the cave and begin to set camp for the night, each man and woman setting about to prepare in their own way. Linus gets a cooking fire and some log seating arranged at the mouth of the cave with a bit of applied pyro- and psychokinesis. Jake and the mercenary tend to Arthur and Henry until both men finally come to after about an hour’s rest. Though they groan with the pain of a dozen bruises peppering their bodies, they don’t seem to have suffered any serious physical injuries. They will be sore, but trail ready by daybreak.

Kelraji and Tis bind their captive to a stalagmite at the back of the cave, roughly blindfolding him and muffling his ears to prevent him from learning anything more about their group.

Russ’ Garand cracks once in the distance, sending Jake’s fingers to the smooth grips of his revolvers, but he relaxes as he spots the outdoorsman trudging back to them through the pine cover with a deer slung over both shoulders. Together they drain the carcass and lay thick slabs of venison to sizzle on the smooth stones around the fire pit. Tis rubs the dark elves’ signature spices over the meats while Arthur puts on a pot of grains to simmer in the glowing coals.

The first sword leaps to his feet to address the assembled travelers as they finish their meal. “Kelraji gives great curiosity to the ways of my people, so Tis is thinking I will tell of our becoming.” Russ passes his curved wooden pipe around the fire as Tis begins to weave his tale, the bowl packed high with a sickly sweet green which sets their imaginations ablaze. The dwarf chuckles good-naturedly as Linus coughs laboriously from the stinging smoke. The elf’s English has been improving rapidly in the short amount of time he has been with them, and he is a gifted storyteller, holding everyone present enthralled by his tale.

“It is known that the world breathes in great cycles, as we do. When world breathes out, magic flows through the myriad things, witches take up their spellbooks, spirits roam the nether, and dragons fly and rule over all. When world breathes in, magic disappears, and the people forget, and think wizards and dragons are just stories. Two world-breaths ago, when magic was as it is again, three peoples lived here on the Misty Isle: the dwarves in their holds beneath the mountains, the orks in their barrows on the plains, and the elves in their towers deep in the Thrallstone woods.

“When magic began to fade, the peoples prepared to hide until the next cycle should come. The half-men sealed themselves in vaults covered in runes of power, to preserve their lives for the next coming. The orks also made ritual in their sacred lodges, and so preserved their spirits from the hands of time. My ancestors too saved themselves with wards, sealing themselves in their tower to wait for the next beginning.

“But they would be awoken before the next world of magic began. Here another story meets our own—a human, the Reader, came to our island. All powerful he was, for he had magic in a time when there was none. He had ruled over a mighty kingdom of the humans, it is said, and great was his rule. This Reader had armor and sword which made him the better of any foe in battle, and he carried always a book which contained the secrets of the universe.

“The Reader’s rule was ended by the betrayal of his queen. Took his wargear in the night, she did, and scattered it to the corners of the world. She took the tome as well, and with it banished him from his own throne. To our island was he sent. With the last of his strength he awoke the three races on the island, and set them to guard his place of banishment. The dwarves he set to guard the deep, the orks to tend and steward the land, and the elves to keep watch on the nether realm. He built a webway of portals across the isle, then set it to drift, lost to the world. The Reader, his energies spent, settled into his Grey Keep, where he sleeps, waiting for what was stolen to return to him.

“Now, the elves of which I speak are not my elves. These elves, trusted to watch over the webway, were fools, grown complacent and weak with the passage of time. Under their noses, an army of foreign invaders came, intent on the Sleeper’s death. On the eve of the great battle to defend our isle, the elf lord’s advisor mutinied, destroying the towers and taking command of the combined forces by right of conquest. Under his merciless command, the army of beastmen at our gates were driven back through the portals, and the island was safe once more.

“But the other races did not look kindly upon this treachery, and cast the remaining elves out. Having nowhere else to turn, my people lived in the webway, the space between the portals, venturing out onto the island or back into the world to raid and pillage, gathering just enough with each attack to sustain ourselves. After many generations, a great evil arose in the deep beneath the dwarf fortress, and the passage below was sealed in order to preserve us all. We took the upper battlements of the Iron Mountains as our home, at least until the Myrmid came and drove us out once more.”

The dark elf pauses, staring off into the distance. The dying light of the fire throws his pale, narrow features into gaunt relief. “Does this answer your question, Kelraji of the silken blade? raegh means lord in my tongue, but it is not the lord you humans understand. For my people, raegh must be the strongest and most cunning among us, or we would have perished many times over. If we had not betrayed the weak elves before us, all would have been lost. Had we not raided for our survival, my people would have died out in the lifeless void of the webway. Rule is not given, or inherited, it is taken, it is strength, it is guile, it is true power. This is our way.”

The adept listens carefully, taking careful mental notes of all Tis has said about his people.

The storm finally breaks, sending down torrential sheets of rain and crashing thunder. Save a few drips coming from cracks in the ceiling, the cave is dry and warm.

Kelraji nods, taking it all in. He plans to track down the rest of the bikes the following morning, but for now, stuck in the cave, he is prepared to simply let the night happen, and goes to the rear to sleep. But, before he does, Kelraji remembers the events of the day, and goes to Russ with his armor, making a request.

“Too heavy, need lighter. Can you fix? Can you show me to fix?”

The outdoorsman glances at the armor before handing it back. “I’m afraid I have no skill at that, lad. I can track a mouse through a snow storm, but I don’t know the first thing about crafting mail. I’d ask Behuniak about it if I were you.”

Kelraji frowns at the man, but his dissatisfaction fades. Trying his best to be polite, Kelraji asks a question as politely as he can given his situation.

“I will do so. What skills do you have that are of use besides tracking, cooking, and shooting? It is good to know our collective strengths and weaknesses.”

Hearing the answer, Kelraji gathers Tis, and goes to interrogate the poor man tied to the outcropping.

Russ frowns, tamping his pipe out into one leathery hand. “That’s about the lot of it for me—I’m a pathfinder and a soldier, and not much else. When th’ batteries run out of all your gadgets, and the supplies runs low, you’ll be glad to have me in your pack.”

Tis and Kelraji retreat to the back of the cave where their captive sits, bound to a protrusion of stone. Though the elf makes his way easily through the dark, Kelraji must ignite the minuscule LED on his comm to navigate the uneven floor. The prisoner’s face and ears are still covered by their makeshift blindfold.

Kelraji shrugs at Tis, and speaks simply.

“Make him talk. You know more ways than me, I am sure. Where are rest? How do they find us? No begging, just information.”

The elf takes on a grim expression as he stoops down to head level with the captive man. He pulls off the hood to reveal the man’s head, still covered by a black synthetic fabric and framed in infrared goggles. Beneath this, the man’s head is pale, his features decidedly Asian—Kelraji is fairly certain his face is Chinese. Close-cropped black hair rings his head, though it is shaved down to the flesh around one ear. His gaze is empty, expressionless.

Tis produces his dirk and begins to draw the well-honed blade across the man’s forehead, a half-inch from the hairline. The first sword speaks firmly and calmly to the bound man as blood begins to run freely down his face. “Do you understand outlander speak, human? Where are the rest? How do they find us?”

The martial artist keeps his resolve for perhaps a minute longer before giving in to the pain. His throat is dry, and his accent is heavy. “Yes. . . I speak English.” He yells out in pain, his cry piercing the night air as it echoes out of the cavern. “No more. . . all dead!” He cries out again as the dark elf’s knife turns the corner of his hairline, heading for his ear. “The stone! Stone points to stone! Please, spare me!”

Kelraji frowns at the man. He thinks of all the traditions that he knows, attempting to place the man’s martial style, his haircut, anything about him that would mark him religious, megacorp, or familiar in any way.

“English, good, us too. Fortunate. How many at start to find us? Not all dead, lies. Where did other two escape to? What is stone?”

Kelraji stays Tis’ arm gently, smiling a wicked grin at his companion.

“Magic can tell if he lies. Then pain starts again.”

Thinking on it a moment further, Kelraji puts it together finally, growling.

“Who has my stone?”

Tis stays his blade, but does not lift it from his subject’s scalp.

The captive stammers as he struggles to put together a sentence. “I don’t know where others go.” Blood flows freely over his face. He tilts his head back in a fruitless attempt to keep his eyes clear. “They escape, regroup at outpost.” At the mention of the stone, the frantic man glances down at Kelraji’s boots. “You. . . you have. You have your stone. Please, you must stop. I do not want die.”

Kelraji thinks back on the fighting style of these Wuxing ambushers, trying to place it in his years of travel and sparring. Their twisting deflections and pinpoint strikes were those of the Chinese tai qi chuan, though they had an athleticism Kelraji did not usually associate with the meandering technique of tai qi. In terms of his looks, the only thing that stands out about the man is his unremarkable appearance. The pallor of his flesh reminds Kelraji of the washed out chip-junkies that litter the parks of lower Manhattan.

Kelraji does not trust this man, and his suspicion only grows.

He checks the man’s neck, and the rest of his body, for slots, ports, anything out of place. He repeats the same check astrally. Once he is done, he tries to recall the faces of the other men whose bodies he positioned. DId they, too, have the same features? Kelraji knew all africans looked alike, but he hoped that he could tell his fellow asians apart a bit better.

He utterly ignores the comment of the stone, but files away the outpost knowledge. It would have to be dealt with, and soon. The others would have to be tricked, but that wasn’t a major concern. Plus, he figured that Tis would be easy enough to convince to go on a slaving mission of his own. It might be nice to have a place to call home…

He smiles to Tis, amused.

“Another slave for your kingdom, my friend?”

The only visible augmentation on the man is a chip slot at the base of his neck, behind one ear. There is a data chip of some kind currently in the slot. Kelraji does his best to assense the man’s aura, but the best he can make out is that there seems to be some kind of magical ward around him. Because all of their attackers wore masks and goggles, Kelraji did not see any of the other faces in the ambush by the stone bridge.

Tis wipes his dagger on the bound man’s sleeve. “Soldier make poor slave. If you are finished, slit his throat and leave the body. I grow tired of it already.”

Kelraji is no idiot, and knows when he’s been had. He curses himself for leaving anything of value behind.

“Tis, we must go back, we must go now. You can see in dark, yes? I need to know if he look same.”

Kelraji’s face hardens for a moment before turning to the captive.

“How does stone lead to stone? Tell or die.”

When the man has answered to Kelraji’s satisfaction, he frowns, and nods.

“Death is not to fear, but to embrace. Coward.”

He stands, twists his vajra in his hands, detaching the two balls into the garrote formation, moves behind the prisoner, and decapitates the man in one swift tug. He’ll need some way to check his fears against what is true. Draining the head, he deigns to inform the rest of the group.

“They are still after us. More come. We must go back to dead, must cut out rot. No escape. Me, Tis, Russ, we go now. Come back soon. Stay hide.”

Kelraji goes to the bikes, hoping that Tis and Russ will accept the offer, and more than willing to force the issue should it come to it. As he turns to gather the necessary supplies he frowns. He’d rather not have to murder an army of clones, but the very idea gave him shivers, seemed to violate the very purpose of the wheel, unnatural. Maybe they were just prisoners, the down and out. But still, he had to know, had to check. And he had to be sure that he left nothing of use if there were more coming…

The Chinaman struggles to convey the complex idea in his mind with his tenuous grasp of English. “Like magnet hand know north, stone know stone. Hang with string or put in water, stone points.” He looks up at Kelraji pleadingly, shaking his head in a feeble attempt to keep his own blood from running into his eyes. “No kill, good man, I tell all, you let live, good man, please. . .”

The man’s pleading turns to senseless gurgles as the adept’s garrote passes cleanly through his neck. Kelraji is forced to pick the gruesome trophy up by the ear, as the hair is buzzed short, and half-scalped, besides. No matter how many of them Kel took, the weight of a human’s head always managed to surprise him with its melon-like density.

The bloody-handed duo returns to the campfire, drawing looks of concern from the others, but less outright shock than would generally be warranted by the macabre display. Perhaps they were getting used to his tumultuous ways.

Tis declines Kelraji’s offer to return to the battlefield, his elven pride showing plainly through his displeasure at being ordered about. “Nothing is there now but wraiths of the fallen. A pointless task. Tis will be staying.”

Russ rejects his request as well. “No thank ye, lad. I’ll not head out into these woods at night for such a task, if it’s all the same. If we are being tracked, we’ll know soon enough when we get back on the road.”

The monk looks out in the night, past the modest ring of light created by the crackling fire. The gunslinger was still off in the distance, speaking with Henry in hushed tones. He could barely make out a dull silver object pass between their hands. Linus was blatantly avoiding his gaze, not wishing to even begin the contest of wills required to convince the scienter to stray from the campfire’s security. The night air is brisk but young. The adept is a little saddle-sore from the days riding and fighting, but he was feeling better than he had a few moons ago in New York city. He was certain he had a night prowl in him, if he so chose.

Kelraji is confused that the others do not see the wisdom of his plan. Frustration mounts, but he shakes it from his mind. He knows they should be as concerned as he, but perhaps it was not to be. He goes to his gear, quickly slips into the chameleon suit, bringing back memories. He grabs the dagger, tucking it inside the zipped suit, strapping it to his chest. He ponders the knowledge about floating or dangling, but knows he will need to explore the option later. He grabs his go bag, stuffing it with his binoculars, earbuds, and gecko gloves. The head he wraps in the dead man’s shirt and carries, hoping to avoid getting blood all over the rest of his gear. Sinching up his new boots, Kelraji waves to his companions, heading out through the mouth of the cave. He gauges the distance, ponders how much he’ll really be able to bring back. If it’s over a mile, he’ll take a bike, if it’s under, he’ll jog. He needs to get there, and quickly, but he needs to do it quietly.

Stopping every few hundred yards to check the upcoming terrain with his thermographic and low light binoculars, in addition to quick astral scans. Kelraji hopes to make good time, and hopes to remain unseen. He reassures himself that his chameleon suit, highly illegal thermographic damping adding to the active camo, is enough to keep those after him from spotting him first.

A clap of thunder strikes the air as Kelraji sets out into the night, relying on his monocycle’s pilot to guide him through the treacherous rain-slick woods. He emerges onto the primitive road and turns west, back to the scene of battle. Raindrops sting his face as he covers the half-mile back in one long burst of speed.

The adept dismounts as he draws close, taking one last look through his binoculars as he comes in range. Numbers whir around the periphery of his vision as the digital lens struggles to get a picture in the gloom of night. After a moment’s calibration, shapes come into focus on the thermal spectrum—small blobs of orange heat moving slowly across the cold bodies of the dead men. After watching for a few more minutes, the best Kelraji can make out is that they are some sort of weasel-like creature, perhaps twenty or more, roving over the battlefield in one unruly herd. They don’t seem to have noticed the adept or his bike. The rangefinder in his binoculars marks the closest one at 100 yards downrange.

Kelraji shrugs. His mission still clear to him, he decides to attempt to scatter the animals with his bike. He checks the area astrally, then kicks the bike into gear, putting on the high beams and attempting to roar through the pack. Being so small, he sees no danger, and his questions demand answers. Should he need to, he’s sure he can run over a fair number, and the rest would fall to his scything whip. Even if they were scavengers, disfiguring the dead beyond recognition, he could still gather the gear.

A thought pops into his head. He checks the logs of the machine, momentarily but overwhelmingly distracted, to see if it stores past locations, directions, or has a map he can locate himself on.

Kelraji flips to the bike’s GPS system, but there are no waypoints or locations programmed into its memory. There is not even basic satellite tracking data from its drive across the island—either the satellite receiver was turned off, or it wasn’t getting a signal out here. How this was possible in this day and age is beyond him. In 2072 even the north pole had decent signal strength.

The adept flashes his astral vision on the scene in front of him, an almost reflexive habit of the awakened, but is taken aback by what he sees. The ferret creatures have strong magical auras, exhibiting the vibrant penumbral glow of dual-natured critters. Moreover, They are surrounded by shimmering motes of astral light which flit about over the bodies of the fallen. It is difficult for Kelraji to make out any more from his distant position.

Kelraji, concerned by the vision, dismounts the bike. He remains in astral perception, and begins to advance. He takes the opportunity to test his boots, moving stealthily when he can, and jumping from cover to cover with the power of the boots, attempting to learn their ways, feel their power. Perhaps this had to do with the feywild that idiot spirit summoned by the scientist had blathered about. He did not know, but he would not be dissuaded. Closer. At the very least, he must ensure that they were not also some sort of Wuxing agent. Plus, he hadn’t come all this way for nothing. He would examine the dead once more, and return with all of the knowledge and gear that he could.

Kelraji slinks through the brush on the side of the road, drawing nearer to the dead bodies littering the clearing ahead. The rain subsides by some barely perceptible margin, but it is still constant and cold enough to send chills down the adept’s spine as he moves. The forest glows with astral light, pulsating with the subtle life-energy of plant matter. Mindful of his astral signature while he is dual-natured, Kelraji moves from tree to tree, obscuring the healthy glow of his own awakened body.

The adept employs his newfound boots as he gets within 20 meters. He picks out a piece of cover near to the roving herd of ferrets, the charred body of a tall pine which had been consumed in the fires of battle. It was now nothing more than a grey pillar on the astral plane, its life-force all but spent. For a split second, he feels as if he has been tossed into an ice-bath, floating exposed in the empty blackness of space, and then he is on earth again, his back pressed against the charcoal grit of the burned-out tree trunk.

He cranes around the tree to watch the critters once more, his vision now unimpeded by rain and distance. The floating motes of light are not fairies, but actually bugs, dual-natured denizens of the insect kingdom. They give off strobes of light on the astral plane as they flit about. They seem to be congregating on the faces and necks of the fallen men. In the distance beyond the stone bridge, he can see that even more of the insects are swarming over the hunks of motorcycle debris lying in the creek. All around, the ferret creatures chase after the insects, pouncing in the air to eat the bugs whole. They frolic and play as they go, apparently enjoying their free feast of awakened insect.

Kelraji glances down to see that a surprising number of the insects have already landed on him. Several moth-winged ones cling to the binoculars at his belt, and nearly a dozen motes like fruit flies buzz around the pocket where he has stuffed the battery packs of the fallen. More and more of the bugs gravitate toward him as he watches.

A high-pitched growling comes from behind him, and the adept looks up to see one of the dual-natured ferrets standing on its hindquarters and baring its fangs at him. The little varmit’s aura is shaded with the greens and reds of surprise and animal aggression. The other creatures in the pack take up the call, until the night is alive with the sharp barking challenges of the ferret pack.

Kelraji is far from amused at the turn of events. But he knows smart from suicidal. He needs the gear that he has, and he doesn’t understand what is happening. All of his life experiences have led him to believe that the only thing more deadly than a known danger is an unknown one. Not knowing how to prepare for the events at hand, Kelraji elects to discontinue his stealth tactics. He will do them no harm if they do not oppose him. The bugs seem drawn to the power in the batteries, or perhaps to outsider tech. That much was clear. The vermin were here to eat, and the man would not deprive them of their feast. But neither would he back down in the face of such a horde. Perhaps unarmed, unarmored, he would consider it. But not here, not now. If he had to crazy wild on a pack of five inch tall mammals, so be it.

The man stands, rolls his shoulders, and teleports in short leaps back to his bike. Once he reaches it, he revs the engine and guns it straight at the center of the back, high beams on. He has never been so outnumbered, yet so utterly unafraid, in his life.

The ferret critters scamper to either side of the road as Kelraji bears down on them, disappearing into the undergrowth with yowls of surprise. A moment later, however, the little beasts appear to regroup, slinking out from edge of the forest to stand on their hind legs and bark angrily at the adept. They appear to value something on the battlefield enough to hold their ground against this bright-eyed intruder.

More than a dozen of the ferrets form a rough circle around Kelraji and his bike, yipping aggressively and standing on their hind legs. He watches as the astral signature of one of the creatures fluctuates with the tell-tale manaspike of spellcasting, sending a nimbus of electricity arcing from its body into the air around it. The lightning bolt leaps to the ferret’s nearest neighbor, causing it to release a blast of electricity itself. Within seconds the entire circle of critters are releasing bolts of lightning from their bodies, illuminating the dreary night with brilliant flashes of white.

Kelraji curses at the small creatures. A dozen ferrets he was not afraid of. A dozen bolts of lighting were a different story. He briefly wondered if the bike would protect him before realizing that was simply not feasible. He could not figure out what the critters were after, and that frustrated him. He thought on it a moment. He weighed his options. He fought the urge to leap down from his bike and become a dervish once more, and knew he was in danger of doing so should it escalate further. He considered trying to trace Russ’ route to the other camp. His mind working in overdrive, he knows he must decide soon.

Realizing that he is trapped, he decides he’d be better off deciding somewhere not within the circle. And, if he’s to exit, he might as well make an impression.

He unhooks the vajra, holding it in his hand should he have to make a sudden movement. He dare not strike the animals unless he must, the vajra filament, made as it was of Panchaloham, was almost certainly conductive. He doesn’t know which metals are in, but he also doesn’t know enough chemistry that it would matter. He motors back the way he came. He’ll check in the morning, and he’ll bring that idiot gunslinger to play cap-a-mole if he has to. He had unfinished business, and wasn’t about to let his foe get the upper hand tracking him.

Jake listens intently to the dark elf’s story, watching the devil-grass pipe make its way round the circle to Henry. He marks carefully as the man takes a drag with practiced ease, holds it in and coughs it out. Jake makes a note in the back of his mind for later and loses himself in the elven creation myth.

After the story is completed and the others are occupied around the camp, Jake approaches Henry where is seated at the edge of the firelight. He grabs him roughly by the shoulder and says “Come with me, Henry. We need to talk”. Jake leads him away from the mouth of the cave, down a gravelly embankment and into a pool of shadow.

He withdraws the little baggie of white powder from his pocket and holds it up in the starlight. “Henry, I know what this is. I have seen it destroy one man’s life and spell doom for another. It has no place here.” He rips the bag in half in his gloved hands and scatters the powder in the dirt at his feet.

Jake’s hand grips Henry’s should tightly. “It was no stroke of misfortune that put you on this journey. I requested you personally. Your path, Henry, has been intertwined with this quest by the hand of fate; I have seen it in my dreams. But with your face came a dire warning: if I did not set you correctly on the Path you would lead to the destruction of everything we are working toward, perhaps the destruction of this world.”

“I am here to guide you, and lead you down the path, but I can only show you the door. You must open it.”

Henry’s eyes grow wide as the powder drifts to the ground. He leaps forward, trying to inhale the powder into his mouth with scoops of his arms. He wheels savagely on Jake. “You! You. . . Fuck! That was all I had! Are you fucking crazy?”

The junkie leaps headlong at the gunslinger, drunk with rage and fatigue.

Jake shrugs Henry’s uncoordinated attack aside with ease, and resumes his plea. “Henry, listen to me. Yours is not the only timeline at stake. You are one of us!”

A sharp cry of pain echoes from the cavern, cutting through the silence of the night-black forest. The dark elf was making the prisoner sing.

The young man balls his fists, ready to press the attack once more. “One of who, shitbag? Who died and made you the great sage and eminent junkie? I’m a career soldier, not some mystical warrior questing after grails and shit.”

“You are one whose life have been chosen by ka—by Fate—to have a hand in determining the ultimate fate of the universe. I am one, and each of my companions is one, and I have been lead to believe that you are one, too. Please, you must believe me! Let me show you the path which destiny has put you on, that you might tread it true!”

Henry crosses his arms, his face stuck in a frown of deep contemplation. “Alright, I’ll try it your way, but on two conditions: First, I ain’t your squire or anything gay like that, and second, you show me how to shoot. I never seen anybody handle a gun the way you did back there.”

Jake tries his best not to smile at this small victory, though he knows the minds of the drug-dependent are slippery, wily things. He does not doubt Henry is merely biding his time to seek an easier path, but he is encouraged nonetheless.

“Very well, Henry. We have hard days on the trail ahead, and you have an even harder trail than ours—” he glances down knowingly at the white powder in the dirt at their feet. “It will be a few days at least until you are feeling well again; I have seen it before. Then your training will begin in earnest.”

Jake reaches into his waistcoat to the small of his back, and produces the Ruger Super Warhawk from its hidden holster. He empties the shells into his brass bag and spins it expertly in one hand, letting it come to rest with its grip towards Henry. “This is the last weapon you will ever use. You will practice drawing and firing every day. Learn its weight, its action, its every minute detail. It will save your life many times, Henry, and one day it may save mine.” Or you will use it to destroy me. Have I sown the seeds of my own undoing?

“Tomorrow, I will teach you of ka, and the secret worlds which have been hidden from your eyes. I cannot show you the Path, for it has not been laid before me, but I know where it goes and what lies at its end. For now, we must rest.”

Henry Dean’s eyes grow wide as he takes hold of the Warhawk’s hilt. He holds it up, gazing wondrously at the unassuming 21st-century revolver. The distant light of the campfire casts a dim pallor on the cannon’s details. “But how. . . did you slip me a tab, man? When I hold it, I can feel a presence; hear a voice in my head.” He whirls, pointing the gun at an imaginary foe. His voice wavers. “It’s. . . you. It’s you the steel remembers—steadfast, grim, righteous. Is this normal? Am I going nuts? Is this what it means, what it means to be a gunslinger?”

“It is not me which you are hearing. I, too, have memories of a stoic hero, but his face is lost to me. Perhaps we can find him together.”

Jake glances up as thunder rumbles in the distance. “Let’s retire for now. Don’t tell the others about what has transpired here. I will let them know in due time.”

Jake turns to walk back up the hill toward the cave, to check on Kelraji and Tis’ progress with the captive.

Jake and his new apprentice reach the mouth of the cavern just as the rain begins in earnest. He takes stock of the unlikely band by the campfire, noting Tis but not Kelraji. He looks up to see a small trail of blood leading away from him, out to the small copse of trees where the motorbikes are parked. He hears one of the electric engines spark, then watches as a solitary rider drives out into the rain and dark, the fantastical vehicle somehow weaving through the trees without even a headlamp to guide it.

“Took off without a second thought. Something about clones and being followed,” Arthur offers.

The dwarf huffs reproachfully, pulling his fur pelt around his shoulders. “He’s loose a few, that one. Took the prisoner’s head with him on his little adventure.”

Jake is momentarily confused by this development, but decides it is best to let the Indian warrior take care of his own business. He waves his hat at the receding bike, “Let him go. There’s no talking that one out of something once his mind is made up.”

The lingering effects of the pipe cause him to yawn uncharacteristically. He sits crosslegged by the fire and pokes at the embers with a stick. “Hopefully he can find us after his task is complete. Tis, what did you learn from the prisoner?”

Jake and his new apprentice Henry reach the mouth of the cavern just as the rain begins in earnest. He takes stock of the unlikely band by the campfire, noting Tis but not Kelraji. He looks up to see a small trail of blood leading away from him, out to the small copse of trees where the motorbikes are parked. He hears one of the electric engines spark, then watches as a solitary rider drives out into the rain and dark, the fantastical vehicle somehow weaving through the trees without even a headlamp to guide it.

“Took off without a second thought. Something about clones and being followed,” Arthur offers.

The dwarf huffs reproachfully, pulling his fur pelt around his shoulders. “He’s loose a few, that one. Took the prisoner’s head with him on his little adventure.”

Jake is momentarily confused by this development, but decides it is best to let the Indian warrior take care of his own business. He waves his hat at the receding bike, “Let him go. There’s no talking that one out of something once his mind is made up.”

The lingering effects of the pipe cause him to yawn uncharacteristically. He sits crosslegged by the fire and pokes at the embers with a stick. “Hopefully he can find us after his task is complete. Tis, what did you learn from the prisoner?”

The dark elf shakes his head dispassionately. “The human talked nonsense, nothing-talk about stones leading to stones. It said that if any of them escaped, they would go back to their outpost. It barely spoke your outlander speak. A useless creature.”

The party lingers a while longer by the fire, turning in one by one to deploy bedrolls and heavy yawns inside the cave. Only Jake and Linus remain by the fire when Kelraji returns on his monocycle, his moppish hair drenched by the night’s deluge. The adept’s chameleon suit masks his form in the dark, his presence nothing more than a shadow until he draws near the crackling fire. In his hand he carries something the size of a basketball, hastily wrapped in a blood-stained t-shirt.

Linus’ eyes are transfixed by the flame. As Kelraji walks back into the camp, he is distracted for a moment, and there is a noticeable flare in the flame. He keeps his eye on what is almost certainly the head of the prisoner, wondering what madness to expect next from his companion.



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