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State Highway 62 near
The steering wheel was slick with sweat and Donna could smell the acrid taint of her fear sharp against the slightly musty interior of her old Ford Taurus. She nervously flipped a damp strand of her long dark hair over her shoulder as she checked her rearview mirror yet again. A sigh of relief shook her slender shoulders as she saw no sign of the headlights that had been behind her on the desolate stretch of road for the last hour.
“What’s wrong momma?” said a small sleepy voice from the rear car seat.
“Nothing baby, momma was just thinking about how much fun we are going to have in our new place,” Donna replied to her 5-year-old daughter Daisy.
Truthfully, she had no idea where they were going. It had been all she could do to gather a few things and scoop Daisy into the car before they caught her alone on her small homestead. She knew she had gone too far in her defiance this time.
Now she just prayed that they could make it across the state line into Washington and out of reach of her pursuers before her decrepit car gave up the ghost. She didn’t know for sure but it seemed unlikely that the brothers and the ‘Family’ had any influence across the state line. The last of her money had gone to buy enough gas to make it to Pullman. She didn’t know what would happen when she got there but anything was better than what they would do to her and her daughter if she stayed at the compound.
She was so desperate that as a last resort, she sent prayers to the gods of her people, even though she hadn’t felt close to them since her wáay'atin vision quest as a young girl. None of the normal church-taught prayers had done any good whatsoever in these last years. Donna was no longer even sure that any god or gods were listening, or if they even existed. If they were, how could they have permitted any of the things she had seen, and gone through? None of her prayers included any thought for her survival, she just wanted to get her bright, beautiful Daisy somewhere safe.
The cable wire tightness in her shoulders had just started to unwind when two things happened nearly simultaneously. Her ancient car sputtered as the engine stopped responding to the gas pedal and the dreaded lights reappeared in her rearview mirror like the eyes of a dark predator bearing down on her in the night.
“Shit!” said Donna under her breath. She struggled to pull the sluggish car off onto the shoulder, a sense of dread pulling her heart into the pit of her stomach.
“You said a bad word Mommy!” said Daisy.
“Mommy did, honey, but she shouldn’t have,” replied Donna as the engine shut down completely. She was at a loss. Her only hope was that maybe those headlights weren’t her pursuers. She wasn’t sure how close the nearest town was but it had to be several miles away. She and Daisy could walk it if necessary. If this wasn’t the brothers coming after her, just maybe they could make it. Surely there had to be people somewhere that would dare to help them?
It was not to be. Donna heard the throaty growl of a big diesel engine approaching and seconds later a dark silver Chevy dual-wheeled truck slid onto the shoulder in front of her blocking her escape.
Donna felt a primal howl of despair clawing its way out of her heart. She just wanted to give in to the darkness and immerse herself in it. But she couldn’t. Her Daisy needed her, so she shoved the scream down and refused to let her tears flow.
“Quick like a bunny, jump out of your seat and hide under the blanket sweetie,” said Donna.
“But momma, what’s happening?” said Daisy
“No time for questions, love bug. Just listen to momma. Get under the blanket and no matter what you hear stay in the car and be as still as the little deer. Remember our story about how the little deer stays hidden when the mommy deer is away?”
“Okay momma,” whispered Daisy as she unbuckled herself from her car seat and clambered under the blanket in the rear seat.
Daisy was such a good girl, thought Donna. Much too good to have to deal with all of this. Any child was. She steeled herself for what was next as she heard the doors in the precariously parked truck slam open and the snarly sneer of men's voices erupt as her greatest fear emerged.
“Get out here slut!” yelled Jonah, the oldest brother.
“Don’t make us grab you outta there, Donna. You’ll just make it worse on yourself,” warned Saul, the youngest brother.
“Time to take your licks you snotty bitch,” said Jeremiah, now the sole middle brother since her Caleb had passed.
For an instant, Donna was struck yet again by how different her sweet husband Caleb had been from his monstrous brothers. His lanky blond-haired, blue-eyed presence was sunlight to their darkness. If only he hadn’t been taken so young, events would have spun their lives into a different weave. That was neither here nor there though, and Donna steeled herself for what was to come. Maybe she could persuade them that she had run without her daughter and they would not look for her. Maybe she could drag it out long enough that a passerby would happen onto this lonely road and call the authorities in time to save her daughter. No matter, It was now time to pay the piper.
Half an hour earlier 20 miles away
State Highway 62 near
He loved horses. Of all the things that humans had ever dreamed up, riding horses had to be the most entertaining. He sometimes thought about the first inspired idiot who jumped on the back of a beast that outweighed him ten times over and then somehow managed to get the thundering behemoth to go where the man wanted. Human beings were sometimes just plain insane.
His love of riding and working with horses was how he ended up along this lonesome stretch of Idaho's high desert road. He had just finished working a roundup as an itinerant cowhand on the Nez Pearce rez and rather than stick around and cause trouble decided to see what was happening to the south. He never really needed sleep so an all-night drive in his restored 1957 Chevy short-bed pickup perfectly suited his wandering wants at the moment. The smell of sagebrush drifting through the open window and the dime-bright light of a full moon had helped him relax and release his awareness far into the cool night air.
He’d only been driving half an hour or so when he began getting a pin-prick sensation at the back of his expanded mind. At the next junction in the narrow road, he impulsively turned left toward the east, determined to see if he could locate the origin of the itch he was feeling.
Donna cracked the rusty door and then slammed it shut as she strode to the front of her car to confront her tormentors. She had to keep their attention drawn away from the precious cargo in the back seat.
“What do you fuckwits want?” she snarled as the 3 brothers formed a loose arc in front of her silhouetted by the lights of her car.
She flung her raven wing hair back as she squared her shoulders and lifted her chin in defiance. She wasn’t going to let them see her fear or her tears no matter what they did to her. She knew they fed on the terror of others and she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.
“You know what you did Darlin’ and you know what we are going to do to you,” said Jonah in a low growl through his thick dark beard as he grabbed the crotch of his greasy jeans.
“Who knows, maybe if you are really good we’ll let you live for a while after. Mebbe even long enough that we can have seconds?” said Jeremiah with a twitch of his fat, liver-colored lips.
“Ssssorry about this Donna, but you know we have ta do this. You shouldn’t oughta hurt pappa like that,” stuttered Saul apologetically.
Maybe a hay hook to the nutsack had been a tad bit of an overreaction thought Donna, but the old pervert had laid hands on Daisy and no matter that practically the whole family had been abusing Donna for months, no one messed with her daughter at least not while she still drew breath. The 18-inch long steel shaft with the wicked hook on its end hadn’t quite gutted the old man as she drove it up through his scrotum but it was unlikely that he’d be feeling frisky ever again.
“That old fucker shoulda kept his snot pickers to himself then and not been trying to feel up a five-year-old. Hey, but at least I had a target with him. With you three I’d probably need a microscope before I could find your man parts,” Donna replied with a defiant sneer.
“Hah! Finding our personal parts is not going to be a problem for you sweetheart. Maybe we should have your lil darlin watch. She might learn something. Where is she anyway?” said Jonah trying to peer into the dark interior of her car.
I knew you numbnuts would be after me, you think I’d bring her along? I left her with friends where you can’t get your hands on her. Truthfully, Donna had no friends brave enough to stand up to the ‘Family’, but maybe these geniuses didn’t know that.
“Ah well that’s too bad, She’s going to miss quite a show,” said Jonah.
“What show would that be? Me trying to avoid vomiting from your stench or you trying to find those microdicks you three call penises. I bet if all 3 of you pooled together you might come up with one almost man-sized dick.”
The brothers were so stunned that they just froze in place for a second. Donna could tell this was not the reaction they were hoping for from her. Good, she thought. She only wished her mouth wasn’t so dry or she’d spit on them too.
“I’m going to enjoy making you scream you stupid injun twat!” said Jeremiah as he stepped forward and drew back a ham-sized fist. Of all of them, he was the one she really feared the most. The others were cruel assholes but Donna was certain that Jeremiah was a full-blown psychopath who only truly got off by inflicting pain.
Just then with a rattling roar, an ancient pickup soared around the corner from the west and with a spray of gravel neatly slotted into place just behind Donna’s car. A couple of more feet and the old Chevy would have gone right over the steep embankment. the driver must have been either crazy or crazy good.
Either way, they were all astonished as a man as ancient as the old pickup disembarked with a spritely step.
“Howdy miss, howdy gents. Car trouble?” The old fellow said cheerily as he doffed his beat-up rolled-brim straw hat and settled it back down around his long gray braided hair.
Donna had seen his kind before. His age could be anywhere from 50 to 80 with a wiry build that meant he was likely to be as tough as an old saddle strap that had been left out in the sun for decades. As a girl and a young woman growing up in cattle country Donna had seen others just like him. The dipshit brothers standing before her always pretended to be cowboys with their $400 dollar hats and $1000 dollar boots, but they were really just farmers and criminals who had a few hobby cattle. This old gent was the real deal, Donna could tell by his rocking, slightly bow-legged walk and his work-worn boots and gnarled hands.
Yep, Donna knew the type and it worried her. She’d spent some of her time before Caleb in honky tonks where the sign out front didn’t list a closing time, just ‘Open 8 pm till fistfight’. Younger men always tended to underestimate these old boys, but Donna knew they had not an ounce of ‘back down’ in them and displayed a gallantry that was sadly missing from most men of a younger generation.
Donna didn’t want this old guy hurt and she instinctively knew that if the 3 huge brothers started in on him there’d be 2 dead bodies thrown over the embankment before the night was through.
“Why don’t you just mind your own damn business you old fart!” growled Jonah.
“Everything’s okay sir, really it will be fine, but thank you for stopping,” said Donna.
He could smell the stench of Darkness the second he stepped out of the truck. He truly tried not to take sides in the eternal battle but he could never understand why those of the Dark always smelled so damn bad to him- like a roadkill milkshake left out in the heat for a month. In any case, this was definitely what that tickle in the back of his mind was all about.
He smiled slightly to himself at the sight of the slim dark woman standing defiantly hipshot in front of her rattletrap car, illuminated only by the wavering headlights and the full moon. All this time he still had an affinity for certain groups of humans he thought. The fiery-eyed woman surrounded by mouthbreathers was one of the People. With even the most tentative mind touch he could feel the history embedded in her ancestral DNA. Her people had been great warriors and had fought for their freedom against impossible odds. After defeating the white-eyes in many battles they had lost the final struggle just a few miles short of their goal, not far from this very spot in fact. He had ridden a glorious big-hearted war horse alongside Looking Glass for many of those battles. What days those were! He was forbidden from interfering on that final fateful day as cannon tore apart men, women, and children, but here and now maybe he could help this one warrior woman fight for her life and the life of the child he could sense hiding quietly in the car.
It wouldn’t take much really. He wasn’t as powerful as he once had been but even so, a tiny fraction of his power could strip the flesh from their mortal bones in the withering wind of an instant. But what fun would that be? Much better to tweak the in-between spaces of perception and probability and let these fools do unto each other. Now that would be entertaining!
A few instants of calculation and then a gentle push and it was ready to begin.
The old man just gave Donna a surprisingly bright smile, as if letting her in on a secret. She couldn’t see his eyes in the pool of deep shadow under his battered straw hat but somehow she knew they were twinkling. He must either be brave as hell or nuttier than squirrel turds she thought to herself as the old man paused, turned fully toward Jonah, and then lifted a gnarled hand in the universal one-fingered salute.
“Suck it, monkey boy,” the old man said to Jonah matter-of-factly, with a craggy grin.
Donna could see Jonah’s face fill with blood as he turned nearly purple with rage and took a step toward the old cowboy. ‘Shitfire, here it comes’ she thought, but then Jonah paused as his grasping hand once again sought his greasy crotch.
“What the..?” said Jonah as his rage turned to terror in a microsecond.
Both hands were now grasping his man package and he began jumping up and down just as they all heard the unmistakable clattering hiss of a very large, very annoyed, Western rattlesnake.
“Get it off me! GET IT OFF!” he began yelling hysterically.
Donna could see a squirming large mass moving about inside of Jonah’s jeans but that just didn’t seem possible. How the hell had a rattlesnake managed to make its way up Jonah's pant leg undetected until just now? No matter what her logical mind was telling her, Jonah was a believer and neither of his two brothers had the reasoning capacity to doubt it either.
“Hang on Jonah!” said Jeremiah as he cast about uselessly while his older brother tried to do a flamenco dance while holding his castanets. Meanwhile, Saul just stood there rooted in place- his outstretched arms frozen as if he were keeping the crows away from a field of corn.
“Aha! “ said Jeremiah as his eyes finally alighted on a suitable tool for the job. A bare, arm-thick, dead branch that had fallen from one of the scrub oaks surrounding the roadside pullover was apparently to be the snake remover of choice. Without the hesitation that a minimum number of brain cells would have provided, Jeremiah in one smooth motion snatched the branch up out of the dust and slammed it as hard as he possibly could between Jonah's legs in an upward slash.
Jonah was lifted up on his tippy toes by the force of the blow and let out a loud ‘whoof’ as he then fell in a limp heap to the churned ground. Donna couldn’t tell whether the snake wasn’t dead yet or if Jeremiah just had some unresolved sibling rivalry issues as he continued pummeling the unconscious Jonah. From Jonah’s $1200 Tony Llamas toward his $600 Stetson, Jeremiah methodically beat the ever-living snot out of his older brother as he chased the ‘snake’ over Jonah’s now unconscious body.
Saul must have realized that Jeremiah was not going to stop until all that was left in the dirt was snake/man chutney. With that, he came unstuck and flew at Jeremiah.
“Stop, you're killing him!” said Saul as he broadsided his brother in a flying block trying to shove him off. Unfortunately for Jeremiah, the struggle had worked them all closer to the edge of the steep embankment and Saul’s desperate collision propelled him out off the lip of the roadway. After a brief attempt at flight, Jeremiah shot ass over elbows down the 300-foot embankment. Donna couldn’t guess how many rocks there were on his steep downward route, but it sounded like he hit them all. His caterwauling persisted for several seconds until there was a final thump and finally, blessed silence.
Saul rushed to the edge with a demented yowl, “Oh god no, what have I done!”
In his mad, futile scramble to the road's edge, Saul’s boots slid onto the large slick surface of a flake of basalt forcing it to teeter indecisively over the precipice.
Donna hated any manner of indecision with a fiery passion. Almost in fact as much as she hated these three yahoos. So with a few determined strides, she crossed the intervening space where Saul tottered and swiftly gave him a helpful ladies size 9 right where it was needed, sending Saul windmilling into the night air after his dear brother. Saul’s tour down the embankment was not as dramatic as his brothers but no less satisfying as it ended with a whimpering dull thud.
Donna felt the first genuine smile in months cross her face as she turned to face the old cowboy who had commenced a howling, whooping laughter.
“Well done Daughter, well done indeed!’ said the old man with a slap to his thigh.
The old man sauntered over to the gigantic limp mass that was the unconscious Jonah and casually flipped his body over onto its beer belly with one weathered hand. He then removed a fat wallet from the back pocket of Jonah’s jeans. Apparently the ‘rattlesnake’ was no longer an issue thought Donna with a rueful smile to herself. Taking what appeared to be several hundred dollars of cash out he then disdainfully threw the black leather back onto the heap and handed the wad of cash to Donna.
“No… thanks, but I can’t take that money, it’s dirty,” said Donna. She desperately needed money to get Daisy to safety, but she knew how the Family made its fortune and she wanted no part of it.
“Daughter, you must. You know the old ways. The blood of victory is yours. You counted coup on the enemy and would dishonor yourself by refusing to take what battle has purified,” said the old man.
“Well I guess if putting a boot in the ass of one of them counts as ‘coup’ then that’s true,” said Donna with a wry smile,”
“Striking an armed enemy in battle while unarmed yourself is the highest coup of all,” said the old man pointing to the short-barreled .375 magnum revolver holstered in the small of Jonah’s back.
Donna didn’t argue any further, as she accepted the money with a nod. She knew none of the brothers went so far as to take a leak without a pistol on them somewhere, and she and Daisy really, really needed this. She was proud, but her daughter came first in all things.
“Too bad we don’t have much time or I’d paint a handprint on your pony and gift you an eagle feather,” he said pointing to her recently defunct automobile.
“Yeah, well my ‘pony’ is ready for the glue yard I think,” Donna didn’t want to say more or appear to be asking for help. She and her daughter were safe for the moment and if she had to, she could walk through the night and next day as far as needed. Her ancestors had done much more, with much less.
“Well, let me take a look, I have a way with machines,” said the old man. Donna had no way of knowing this but that was a blatant lie. The old man hated machines of any kind, except maybe for his ancient truck who wasn’t really a machine any longer anyway.
He drew a small flashlight somewhere out of his pocket and popped the hood. Before Donna could even get close enough to offer a hand there was a bright blue spark from somewhere underneath and the engine roared back to life.
Donna was astonished, her old car hadn’t sounded this good in years. The commotion was just too much for curious little ears and eyes and Donna could see a tousled head pop up in the backseat.
With a laugh, she waved her daughter out. She knew with no doubt the danger was over. Daisy creaked open the dented back door and clambered out running breathlessly to her mother.
“It’s alright now sweetness, we are safe,” said Donna as Daisy hugged her tight and shyly peered around to get a look at the stranger.
“I’m Donna and this is my daughter, Daisy,” Donna said with a proud glow.
“So nice to meet such lovely ladies! My name is…”
“Ice’ye, I know you!” said Daisy with a giggle. “My Nana told me all about you before we had to leave Washington.”
Donna would have sworn nothing could have rattled the old man but he was clearly puzzled. She had no idea where her daughter had come up with the Nez Perce sounding name, but it was true her mom had spent much of her babysitting time with Daisy telling her the old stories.
“Um. Yes, some people call me that, some call me Low Key. Because I’m so calm and collected (yet another lie). You can call me IC if you like,” said the old cowboy.
Donna didn’t press, she knew it was unlikely she’d get more than a nickname out of the old coot, and truthfully she didn’t care. Somehow, he had had a hand in the outcome of all of this and she would be in his debt forever.
“Well, I don’t know what happened here exactly but thank you for stopping and fixing my car. I’m going to let someone else pick up this trash and my daughter and I are headed further West,” said Donna.
She really had no clue where though. Her close relatives were dead and it was very unlikely she’d be welcome back on the ‘rez anywhere after what the Family had done to those around her. But there had to be somewhere to go that was better than where she’d been.
“Say, not to put my muzzle where it doesn’t belong, but I know of some folks that a friend of mine works with. I think they could really use some help from people like you. They even ‘specialize’ you might say in keeping people safe. As a plus there are lots of animals that need a good looking after by someone like Daisy here,” said the old man smiling at the girl as he turned back toward his truck and removed an old-fashioned road map that probably was new in 1966. He drew out a pencil from behind his ear and marked a location. And then wrote a name and address in the margins and handed it to Donna.
“It’s on the other side of the state near Olympia but I bet you could make it in 7 or 8 hours if you pushed a bit and I give you my word that there is no safer place for you and Daisy.”
Donna was reluctant but somehow she trusted this old guy. “Okay, we’ll think about it, thank you!” said Donna.
Then to Donna’s astonishment, Daisy darted around her and threw her arms around the cowboy’s legs. Daisy was not a shy girl with those that she knew, but she never behaved this way with strangers! Donna was further shocked when Daisy beckoned the old man down and whispered something in his ear. The old man just nodded and smiled and kissed the top of Daisy’s head. With a gesture as old as her ancient people he smiled at Donna, touched his heart, and turned away to walk back to his truck.
“Mayhap I’ll see you both again, you never know where these midnight roads might lead!” He said as he opened his door.
At that moment thunder rumbled and an arc of sheet lightning raced across the midnight sky. The brief blue-tinted light struck the old man’s face just right and Donna swore she could see the glow of fiery golden amber eyes.
“Ah, one last thing. Warrior Daughter I know you call yourself ‘Donna’, but never forget your true name Watkuweis,” he said with a last grin as he jumped into his pickup and roared back into the night.
He knew from the moment that he saw the cornflower blue eyes of the little girl why he was here. When she knew his true name it merely confirmed it. Names have power. Much more power than the modern world can imagine. The little girl then whispered to him a heartfelt ‘thank you’ that clarified that she knew exactly who he was and what he had done. That soul felt knowledge came out of being directly descended from the heroes of both of his favorite peoples. How that had happened was unexplainable, but she had used his true name in invocation and in thanks and the power of that blazed through his very core past millennia of ennui and cynicism.
Maybe indeed, it was time to get off the fence regarding the great war. Neither side had any power over him. He could flout their attempts to corral him with impunity. Even the most powerful gods had been bitten by his not-so-playful pranks and the chaos he created. Some old books and closeted mystics had said that in the end, he would play for the Dark team, but they didn’t know squat about his other personas and roles. This archetype and these people were his truest self. Besides he didn’t want to end up with the Dark and smelling like old gym socks excreted out the ass end of a dyspeptic skunk.
A small smile creased his craggy face as he thought to himself. It really did take one of the most powerful forces of Light in the universe to show him the way. The simple good faith and trust of a child could bend the will of even a god.
Maybe he’d detour off his path South for a bit. He loved the Navajos. Such a wicked sense of humor in the face of incredible adversity and many of them still believed in him, but he could postpone his visit there. Yes, perhaps the Nexus Ranch should be his next stop. After all, if it’d not been for those on the ranch he would have missed the opportunity to completely disrupt the upper levels of an entire world government.
It turns out that high-level Chinese bureaucrats have no sense of humor even though watching them display their true selves was a real hoot for him. Aside from that entertainment, he’d recently heard tales of a great battle fought on the ranch. Even those snooty Valkyries were impressed. A single man and a magnificent horse had destroyed so many of the Hellhounds that they were now terrified to be anywhere in the vicinity. The man had even managed to completely remove a demon from existence. Zeus couldn’t do that and Odin wouldn’t even try. He’d like to meet this ‘man’ but heroes were one thing. That magnificent, once-in-a-hundred-generation, horse was entirely another!
Without his even realizing it and without his guidance, his trusty steel steed, not being even slightly jealous, had already started turning her way around to the West.
The Dark One was now getting more than a little annoyed. All his careful plans and the girl still escaped. She had been key to his long-range endeavors! It was difficult to isolate and corrupt those born of the light but when he succeeded they made superb tools. He’d had high hopes for the girl and her latent powers.
At the thought of what he’d lost his icy control waivered for an instant, thunder cracked and lightning splashed across the desert sky. It would have been so easy to have just incinerated them all, even that annoying, interfering minor almost god thing. But the treaty couldn’t be broken yet. Direct interference would destroy the tentative ‘peace’ and he wasn’t quite ready to revel in all-out war across the face of this world- not until he was certain of a win. And this was now the 3rd time that these human worms that called themselves the ‘Nexus’ interfered with his plans. The 3rd time would not be a charm.
It had been a very long day and the summer evening had already fallen when she and Daisy reached the gates of the ranch. They had stopped in Walla Walla to rest for a few hours and then Donna with her proclivity for decisive action had decided to just push on and see where it led. The ranch was beautiful and green and obviously well cared for with multiple new outbuildings springing up everywhere. They had just started down the graveled lane when Daisy giggled in glee and grabbed her mother’s arm.
“Can you feel it? Can you feel it Mommy?” she laughed.
“The magic! It’s everywhere!” Daisy said with a glowing face.
Donna couldn’t feel anything, except maybe a sense of relief. But somehow this place did seem right. For the first time in months, she could feel her anxiety abate as a warm envelope of security embraced her as they got closer to the end of the drive. She slowly pulled up to the beautifully modernized white farmhouse. The lights were on inside with inviting warm yellow beams pouring across the expansive wrap-around porch. As she opened the car door she could hear feminine laughter, the chime of dinner silverware and happy voices inside. And then she spotted a lone figure waving to her from an antique-looking porch swing. Daisy worked her way out from the back seat and as they approached the porch cautiously, the figure stood. Donna was just about to explain themselves when the stunning young woman with dark red hair spoke.
“Welcome to Nexus, I’m Kelly. We’ve been expecting you! You are just in time for dinner and to help us celebrate,” she said, making her way down the steps and linking arms with Donna while taking Daisy's hand.
‘“I’m Donna and this is my daughter Daisy. Sorry, but how did you know?.. uh, where are we exactly? What is all of this?” asked Donna.
“Don’t be silly Momma, you know where we are, we’re home,” said Daisy simply.
Three years previously
UC Berkeley Quantum Computing Labs
Dardenys was hungry. She was not only starving but also could feel the insistent cold gnawing on her bones through the spare pale flesh of her body.
There was nothing new about this, she was born into this gray barren wasteland and she would certainly die here, but before she had always managed to eke out a living of sorts.
It had been many weeks since she had last fed and she had been nearly out of hope until she had stumbled on to a spark of warmth and sustenance that neared the barrier close enough that she could reach through to touch it. This contact was enough to allow some of herself to flow to the other side to begin the hunt. She would not let it escape her hunger but she would not rush in and waste it either. The prey- a human man, was completely unaware of her. Humans on the other side couldn’t fully see her kind, although sometimes those infernal Fae could.
Occasionally- at the very end, just as their lives unraveled the knot that held them to their world, and they slipped briefly into hers- they might get a terrifying glimpse of her visage as she feasted on the last of their essence before they discarded it and moved on, but that was not usual. A small mercy she thought. At least she never sought to inflict pain deliberately. If she had been offered a choice, she would not have chosen this existence at all. But life is what it is, and it was now nearly time to feed.
She had followed her unwary prey for days as he stumbled through the morass he called a life. As she watched him silently she fed in tiny sips on his pain- just enough to sustain herself. She could feel his despair and desperation and she knew that soon the last of his life energy would be hers. In the light of day, she stayed hidden in the shadows but at night she could flow partways out of her shadow world and play for a time in his. Sometimes she could even feel herself in his tortured dreams.
Last night she had felt his riven psyche come to a decision and she knew that tonight would be his last. Would it be a bridge? Maybe a bus? He didn’t do drugs so that seemed unlikely. Whatever it was to be, she could feel that he wanted it to be spectacular. In the depths of his despair, she could sense that he had long since given up on love and that it had been years since he’d even felt worthy of trying for it. Even worse than that though, was the feeling that he was invisible to everyone in his life- invisible and of no consequence. He was certain no one would miss him and that few would even realize he was gone. Dardenys could feel this bitter knowledge feed the fire of his determination to at least make an impact in death.
There was no place in Dardenys where pity could reside but still, something tugged at her. Maybe it was the sheer waste of a beautiful life that struck her as wrong. Maybe it was due to being an outcast herself. But she didn’t make the universe, she merely had to keep herself alive in it.
Her feeling that tonight was different was born out shortly after dark when her prey left his barren gray box of an apartment and turned toward where his rattletrap car was parked instead of to the seedy 24-hour dinner where he often ate his evening meal alone.
Just as he pulled away from the curb she slid into the rear seat as fluidly as a shadow. Within a few blocks, it was apparent that he was headed back to work. She had taken this trip with him before and she knew the large building complex where he worked well. Oftentimes she had subtly fed on his work-inspired futility and frustration although she had little idea of what he did for his so-called ‘living’.
She had spent nearly 200 years around humans and knew much in general about their customs and languages but little specifically. Dardenys understood that her target worked in research that dealt with the energies filling the spaces between the smallest bits of reality. Occasionally when some of the experimental devices used here started up, she could feel a solid tug on her existence. It was beyond her limited understanding but it felt much like the occasional magical forces she encountered in her world.
As he made his way up the steps to the squarish uninspired brick building she followed in his shadow and wound around behind him as he navigated several locked security doors using his card key. They were now deep in the innermost sanctum where the devices and measuring equipment were housed. Just as they opened the final door to the most extensive lab in the complex she could hear him begin to mumble to himself.
“Good! No one is working late.” Clark said to himself as he fumbled his card key into the slot of the last reader and shouldered through the door. He wasn’t a monster after all. He didn’t want to kill anybody, he just wanted to stop the abomination that had been his life’s work for the last 5 years. Five long years he had put into this project. It had cost him everything. His health, his wife, and maybe even his sanity. He could swear that he was being followed wherever he went. Even his dreams weren’t safe from the haunted, gaunt but eerily beautiful face that he increasingly saw there.
The project had started with such promise. They were going to solve the world’s energy problems in one fell swoop. He had been a young but talented research assistant when Berkely recruited him. It was quite a career step up and his brand new wife, Janice, had been thrilled.
Then came the long stressful hours and so many months where it didn’t feel like there was any progress. The funding got tight and the promised bonus and raises vanished as did Janice once she figured out that a research assistant’s salary wasn’t going to get her the standard of living she was sure she deserved.
The last Clark had heard from Janice she was dating a hedge fund manager from Silicon Valley. She was still cashing her alimony checks though, which was why Clark lived in a shitty apartment and drove an even shittier car. Oh well, what’s done is done thought Clark with a mental sigh. Janice had probably been right to get what she could and to get it from a place as far away from him as she could manage.
Ironically, just as Clark determined that there was no point in any of it, the Quantum Energy Research team had finally made a major breakthrough in their attempt to harness the potential energy in Quantum states. The math the project leader, Dr, Gutenberg, had used to spearhead the breakpoint was beyond even Clark’s level but he understood the principle. Essentially they were able to achieve an end run around the first law of thermodynamics by using a portal box consisting of Quantum nanocrystals to transfer energy instantaneously from one location to another. In theory, the entangled Quantum ‘dots’ could be miles or even light years apart. They were currently using energy created from the fusion reactor at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. But potentially it could be any source- even the earth's sun itself.
Of course, they were still decades away from anything commercially viable but the limit was only set by the energy that initialized the teleportation and the size of the gap between the portal nanocrystals. It was astounding technology but Clark had come to abhor the thing that had taken everything away from him. It was against Nature for man to be playing unconcernedly with the forces that ruled the universe and reality itself. Man was not God!
This was his truth now. Reverend Goodnough had patiently illuminated this for him over the last months. He now understood how this evil creation had destroyed him and how it would destroy everything if left to evolve, The good reverend and his Church of Christ the Luddite had been
the only comfort to Clark these last months. After wandering alone in his desolation they had at last offered him an explanation that made sense. It was too late for him, but perhaps he could save others and in doing so be remembered as someone who tried to do the right thing, despite the personal cost.
Clark shook himself from his reverie and squared his shoulders. The time for careful consideration was over, it was now time to act.
Striding through the echoing tiled aisleways Clark made his way to the center of the lab where 2 stainless steel canisters sat on rollers next to their humming power supplies and control boards. The units weren't huge but vastly oversized in relation to the sub-microscopic quantum portals they housed. They had created two to ensure one was available in case of breakdown or maintenance downtime. It didn’t matter- what he was about to do would destroy both and most of the surrounding building.
It didn't matter that the portal was infinitesimal in size. He was going to overclock the normal operation of the device 10,000 fold. According to his careful calculations, for a few nanoseconds, its interior would be hotter than the surface of the sun and the uncontained reaction would melt or evaporate everything within 100 meters of where he now stood.
Clark knelt and popped open the power control station. Out of a jacket pocket, he pulled some wire cutters and a box of connectors and started to reconfigure bundles of multicolored wire. A humorous thought crossed his mind- no need to solder the connections, they only need to work once.
As he finished the low-pitched hum from the power supply changed to a high-pitched keening that set Clark’s teeth on edge. But he only had to endure it for another minute or so.
Clark turned to the control board, inserted his access card, and began typing in override after override. This was child's play to him as he had designed and created most of the control software and knew every backdoor into the system.
At last, he was done. Clark took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and said a brief prayer asking for forgiveness for the abomination he had helped create.
Then, without further hesitation, he firmly pressed ‘enter’.
Dardenys felt an intense flash of energy radiate throughout her entire body. Her senses expanded to infinity and then collapsed to a single point and she could feel herself drawn down a multicolored funnel of light and then slammed into a wall of sensory input like she had never felt before. It was too much- her mind fled and darkness followed
She awoke disoriented, surrounded by the smell of ozone and smoke. And warmth! The eternal cold she was familiar with was gone. As her eyes fluttered open she realized that she was seeing in a different way as well. Everything was brighter and more intense- colors were vibrating differently than in her world. She shook herself and managed to work her way into a sitting position from where she had been sprawled across the floor. Wait...how was she feeling the floor? She panicked for an instant and tried to flee back into her gray home world but it wasn’t there! Somehow she was no longer in the void between worlds but solidly in the ‘other’. In wonder, her fear left behind- she stood reveling in her solidness and strength.
After a moment she realized she was surrounded by the wreckage of the lab. One of the canisters that her prey had been so interested in was scorched and still smoking slightly, of the man himself there was no sign. There was no body, no bits of burned flesh or blood splatter. It was as if he had been sucked into an abyss.
Always living a life balanced on the knife edge of survival stood her in good stead and pragmatism won out over wonder and thoughtful consideration. She could hear an alarm wailing in the corridors and she knew that humans would be here soon and that she had to be clear by then.
As she cast about in desperation she saw the card key and lanyard that the man had been using in the wreckage. Attached was a set of car keys.
A few minutes later she was out into the cool night air. An overload of sensory input forced her to pause. The slight breeze wafted pungent scents to her that she had never before experienced, the lights of the city glowed like jewels and the traffic sounds were sharp and discordant. Shaking her head, she refocused and carefully made her way down the steps pushing the second canister with a control panel balanced on top. Fortunately, the backup device had wheels on it and she was able to roll it across the street to the storage area of the machine the prey had been driving.
She couldn’t say why she took it. It was just a feeling. She knew that somehow this machine had generated the forces that pulled her into this world and that such a powerful device could be useful in the future.
As she passed under the streetlights she thought it fortunate that it was late at night and that with her wings folded flat against her back, she could probably pass as human at a quick glance. Soon though, she was going to have to use her small magics to create a glamor to hide them in the daytime, and she was probably going to have to come up with some human-style clothes as well. And food, what was she supposed to eat? The rules were different here, she would probably have to take her sustenance like humans did.
She had just managed to get the car started when she began to see strobing blue and red lights approaching from the distance. She had watched the man drive many times in the last few days. If a human could do it, how hard could it be? Even with no experience she couldn’t possibly be a worse driver than the vast majority of Californians.
As Dardenys pulled away from the curb she thought to herself- if she could survive traffic on the 405, the rest of this new world would be easy.
“So, this is some kind of cult?” said a disgusted Donna. “For fuck’s sake, I might as well have stayed in Idaho!”
Lanie understood where Donna was coming from. A few months ago if she had learned that five women were marrying one man she probably would have felt the same. Donna had seen some of the wedding preparations this morning and had asked about it.
“No- not at all Donna. You don’t understand yet,” said Lanie.
All of Ben’s wives-to-be had left very early and were out and about getting wedding stuff done so it was left to a visiting Lanie to explain the unexplainable to a skeptical and protective Donna over morning coffee and a light breakfast. Daisy on the other hand had no problem with the situation. Lanie could see her out gleefully playing in the front yard with the other children and all of the animals.
They were mostly alone in the kitchen nook. Siofra was in the living room on the couch rocking Sian and singing a sweet lilting song softly to him in an unrecognizable language. The other women were busy working in the women’s shelter or on one of the other Nexus projects. Tom was pretending to sleep on the window sill. His fluffy bottlebrush tail fastidiously wrapped around himself. But Lanie could tell he had one eye open. The old soldier trusted no one completely except maybe Ben and his girls.
This was a busy place, thought Lanie, but still full of peace and love. She cherished the time she could wring out of her hectic career in the DEA to be here. But how could she convince someone from the outside of that without completely blowing their minds? Sarah had briefed her before they left though. For some reason, it was very important that these two stayed, so Lanie would do her best.
“No, I understand completely! Some randy Don Juan type has succeeded in brainwashing you all! I’ll bet he’ll be after my Daisy before too long!” Donna said standing angrily sending silverware clattering to the tiled floor. “We’re out of here!”
Out of the corner of her eye, Lanie saw Tom fly off the window sill and out the cat door into the yard. Simultaneously, a furious Siofra almost magically appeared next to the small table. Holy shit! Thought Lanie. She had no idea that elves could move that fast. She had never seen the quiet gentle Siofra like this! Her cheeks were red, and even the roots of her long, pale blond, hair were flushed pink.
“You will not say that of the honorable and gracious Lord Ben! He is a good man who saved us all and nearly died. My English is not perfect yet, but you say again and I will kick your ass up around your shoulders!”
Lanie’s eyes flew up at that. The diminutive Siofra barely broke 5 feet tall and couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds with a brick in each pocket, but right now she was terrifying. Lanie knew the story of how Siofra had killed a full-grown hellhound with just a knife, but she hadn’t really believed it until now.
Donna must have felt it too as Lanie could see her body language shift as she backed down slightly.
“Wait.. what? Your ears, are they real?” said Donna with a stunned look on her face.
Lanie just then realized that Siofra had let her glamor slip in the heat of anger and her elegant pointed ears were fully apparent. Siofra’s hands flew to her ears and then, proudly defiant, back to her hips.
“Yes, they are! Are yours? You better listen to me then. These are all good people who will fight for you and your child and will protect you unto death. I will do the same, but if you say one more thing bad about them I will slap you until you are silly first.” said Siofra.
“Momma?” said Daisy as she walked through the screen door preceded by Tom. “Momma, are you okay? Tom said I should come in and talk to you.”
‘Tom said’? thought Lanie. How was the girl able to ‘hear’ Tom? Lanie wasn’t positive but she was under the impression that only those intimately exposed to the ‘Ben Effect’ picked up that ability.
“It’s okay baby, but we should be going now,” said a trembling Donna.
Daisy took her mom’s hand and tugged her into the living room and sat down with her on the couch next to a curious Sian. She then turned to her mom and placing her hands on either side of her mom’s face stared straight into her eyes.
“Momma, please trust me. I know this is where we are supposed to be. Bad things will happen if we are not here. You listened to me when we left Idaho and we are now safe. Please believe me again.” Daisy said then wrapped her mom into a tight hug.
Just then the screen door opened and in walked the current subject of contention. Donna looked up startled. Ben must have been working out on the fence line near the back pasture again. Lanie could tell that at the moment, Donna was seeing just an ordinary guy in his early 40s with a crooked nose and lopsided grin. He was not handsome, except maybe for his beautiful dark brown eyes that were now crinkled in a smile. Lanie felt she could easily drown in those eyes.
The knees of his jeans were a bit dirty and his worn, plain white t-shirt was a little sweaty. He didn’t look like a hero. Just an ordinary working guy, tanned from the outdoors, maybe leaner and more wiry muscular than many his age. Lanie exchanged a look with Siofra as they both bit their lip. Shit, she had yet another rival. She hadn’t known for certain that Siofra also had a huge crush.
“Good Morning Miss Donna and Miss Daisy. So sorry I didn’t get to meet you last night. I had some business in town that ran late.” he said. “Morning Siofra, Lanie.”
Lanie could see that Donna was skeptical, but she stood to greet him politely, or maybe just to make sure she could get a good swing in. Lanie couldn’t tell yet. If Donna took a swing, she was going to have to pull Siofra off before the elf beat the bejesus out of the much bigger woman.
Ben took a couple of steps closer and stretched out his hand. Lanie could now smell him all the way in the kitchen area. He smelled like woodsmoke and pine and warm tall grass meadows right before a rain. These scents were backfilled with that intoxicating musky undertone that permeates the drying sweat on a lover’s skin after a long night of ecstasy.
Lanie could feel her own insides turn liquid. She could even begin to detect the scent of her own arousal. A glance to her left verified that Siofra was feeling something similar. The petite elf never wore a bra to cover her perky, perfectly shaped, teacup-sized breasts and her nipples were as hard as pebbles through her light cotton blouse. It was a little odd. Lanie had seen Siofra and Ben interact many times and the elf had never displayed this sort of reaction before. Something was up with the elf down under.
One thing was for sure if they had it this bad from where they were, Donna was getting it with both barrels. But, you could never tell. Some women were merely mildly attracted, but from Lizzie’s research- if you were especially compatible with Ben in the baby-making department, look the fuck out. The ‘Ben Effect’ could be like a tsunami washing over you.
Yep, it was happening. Lanie could almost see the shock as Donna shook Ben’s hand. Lanie then witnessed a shudder run through the woman’s body and a drop of sweat form on the smooth caramel-colored skin at her hairline and another on her upper lip.
“I hope that both of you beautiful ladies will be staying with us for a while,” said Ben. completely unaware of the effect he was having.
“Uh, um, yeah. I think we can see how it goes.” replied a thunderstruck Donna.
“Yay! Thank you, momma, you’ll see. This is the place for us. Thanks, Mister Ben!” said Daisy as she flew off the couch to hug Ben.
Whew, crisis averted. Lanie knew that the ‘Ben Effect’ had won the day for now. Many women eventually learned to tune it out, but by then Donna would have come to know just what kind of a man Ben really was and more about what they were doing here on the ranch. Of course, she could also go the other way- in those cases, the ‘Ben Effect’ was just a gateway drug and she could fall for him. Just like Lanie had.
Dammit it anyway, just what she needed- more competition.
Three years earlier
San Francisco California
The old warehouse stank. It smelled of stale cigars, cheap vodka, and even cheaper perfume, probably left behind by the previous entertainment.
Dardenys knew that to the men who surrounded her in a sneering mob, she was just the latest inconsequential distraction. Two of them shoved her forward to face their leader across an oversized wooden desk. Her Russian was a little rusty and these illiterate peasants spoke with difficult-to-understand gutter accents, but she understood one thing clearly- there had been no real reason to bring her here.
They could easily have just dispatched her out on the street (or so they thought). No, it was the sheer novelty of discovering that a mere woman had been systematically stripping their group of its livelihood and then killing the street crews with impunity. She had gone through their chop shops, brothels, and drug operations like a hot knife through putrid butter, stealing their money and slaughtering whoever got in her way. She felt not even the slightest bit of sympathy for those she slew.
They were worse than the dregs of humanity. They preyed on their own kind spreading pain and misery everywhere they existed. In her world, she had killed her kind to survive but that was only as a last resort and her people never would stoop to the depravities that these soulless sycophants inflicted on the powerless. And there was no reason for it. This was a world of nearly infinite plenty.
Now she had finally worked her way to the top of the dung heap. It was interesting to her, clinically, that none of this inner circle wondered at the fact that they could achieve what none of their other enforcers had managed. They were simply too stupid and egocentric to understand who was the spider and who was the fly in this scenario.
“She’s a cool one isn’t she,” said the local Bratva head as he sat toad-like behind his desk.
“She hasn’t said a word boss,” said the henchman standing to her left.
“Hmmm. She’s a looker though!” said the boss with a leer as he took in her finely chiseled features and haunting cold gray eyes. He continued “She’s skinny and barely has any tits, but we shouldn’t waste pussy, should we boys?”
The two next to her and the three stooges arrayed against the wall behind her howled at that bit of erudite humor. Dardenys noted that all had one or more pistols arrayed about them but none had them in their hands. Good, they couldn’t really hurt her, but she had discovered that if she didn’t react in time, direct hits stung like hades.
“Sergei, I believe our guest is wearing too many clothes,” said the boss with a gesture.
The smell of boiled cabbage and unwashed crotch nearly overwhelmed her hyper-sensitive sense of smell as the bald golem on her left stepped into her and grasped the neck of her cheap cotton dress ripping it off of her in one move.
It was immediately clear to all that Dardenys didn’t believe in underwear of any kind as she stood there proudly on display. She couldn’t help but smirk as she crossed her arms over her small but impossibly perky breasts. These idiots probably thought she was trying to hide her nakedness from them.
“What are you smiling at sweet tits?” growled the boss.
“I am just grateful to your associates for bringing me directly to you. I was getting weary of killing your serfs to get your attention,” she replied in classic Russian.
“Let’s see how grateful you are when we are finished taking our turns with you. Be nice and we might even consider a painless death,” said the boss as he stood and undid his tracksuit bottoms.
Little did he know that his rather unimpressive package would remain forever undelivered.
“Bring her to me, boys.”
As the thugs on either side reached for her, Dardenys snapped her crossed arms apart far too quickly for human eyes to follow. Foot-long blades of preternaturally sharp bone had somehow replaced her index fingers on both hands. Each blade struck with such velocity that they passed through spinal columns with barely a snick. Before greeting eternity the last thing each man experienced was watching their bodies from the outside as their heads tumbled to the hardwood floor.
Bright arterial blood gushed in hot fountains from the stumps where their heads used to be as the bodies hesitated slightly then fell much like a tree crashing to the forest floor after the final ax cut. Dardenys then leaned slightly forward across the desk and reaching a long elegant arm out in a deceptively languid motion, sliced the stunned boss man from testicles to sternum nearly splitting him in half.
As he jumbled to the floor like a bag of mismatched dirty laundry, Dardenys spun in a graceful silky pirouette to confront the three remaining gang members. She needn’t have bothered. None of them had even reached for their weapons or taken a step forward. Two of them had large wet stains on the front of their tracksuits and a steaming pool of urine puddling about their feet. Their mouths hung open and the flat dull look in their eyes told her that no one was home at the moment as their feeble minds had fled from the horror.
Pointing a finger at the one thug who hadn’t voided himself Darendys said in a low husky voice. “You- get these others in line and clean up this offal. And don’t dawdle, we have a lot of work to do.”
“Yes…uh mistress.” said the thug as he grabbed the other two and hauled them toward the bodies.
‘Mistress?’ thought Dardenys. She could get used to that. These tools were dull but with a little sharpening, they would allow her to do what needed to be done.
Mayflower Club Private Dining Room
Senator James Campbell was no man’s fool. The placid surface presented by the elegant and serene surroundings of the private dining room of this exclusive club was no more than the deceptive still surface over an ocean full of the coldest-hearted predators in existence. The crisp white linen tablecloths against the rich dark wood paneling merely provided a sophisticated veneer that hid the voracious beasts in plain sight. The four men gathered here were not likely to kill any one individual personally. They would never stoop to getting their hands dirty in that manner. No, they were much worse than that. Entire armies and economies of profit and loss did their killing for them. An honest assassin would be far preferable- for at least he would only kill one- or at most- a few at a time. For those gathered around the 200-year-old teak table in $10,000 suits, an entire village, or even a city, would be acceptable losses as long as they got what they wanted. James was quite sure that for the leader and erstwhile host, losses totaling the population of the nation would be agreeable in many circumstances.
“James, so good to see you, my man,” said Edward Kittredge III as he stood to shake James’s hand. “So glad you could make it.”
It wasn’t like he had much of a choice. The senior U.S. Senator from Washington State had been summoned like a cabana boy. Yes, he could have refused but that would have put a bullseye right on his back, targeting him in suspicion at the very least, retaliation at the worst. James couldn’t kid himself, he was walking a tightrope for his life. He heard whispers of what these four could be up to and if they were even remotely true, it would take the country, his country, in a terrifying new direction.
Any agreement that he made with these men that put him in violation of his understanding with the Nexus group would most certainly earn him a bullet. Denying these four men assistance could cost him his life as well but in a much more drawn-out and painful manner. They would first ensure that his career and reputation were ruined then assign someone to remove him from the equation.
That being said, James had already made up his mind. He would probably never be able to atone for his previous mistakes or those of his son, but he would do his best and hope that was good enough to avoid a 7.62mm dose of lead or a long walk in concrete boots off of a short pier. He probably deserved worse than either of those options.
“Of course Edward, I’m looking forward to the meal and to hearing what I can do to help you gentlemen,” lied John.
James would do what he could to find out more while stalling, but he also had to come up with a way of letting the Nexus people know what was happening. Edward may look like an aristocratic twat but he was no fool and James knew that he’d be watched carefully.
Contacting the Nexus group directly would not only bring them unwanted scrutiny, but it could also put even that extremely proficient organization in incredible danger.
Two days before the wedding
Ben shook his head at the image in the mirror as he finished shaving. He had never really pictured being married much less being married 5 times- simultaneously! Now it was almost here. A final run-through today and tomorrow he’d be hitched. As a lifetime bachelor, he should have felt terrified but for some reason, he wasn’t even nervous.
A year ago he’d pretty much given up on finding anyone to share his life with in any way. Now thanks to a series of near-impossible events and a well-meaning minor god he was about to be wedded to 5 incredible women. He knew he didn’t deserve it but to paraphrase a common saying- ‘Better to be lucky than good.’
Ben finished shaving and then crossed into the bedroom to where his dreaded monkey suit was laid out for him to try on. As he reached for the pants he heard the doorbell downstairs. It must be the caterers or the event people or who knew what. There was so much commotion going in that he wouldn’t have been surprised if it were a goat herder delivering the dowries. He’d been a part of major amphibious operations that had taken less planning. Thank Gods that the Fae had taken on the major part of putting on the actual wedding.
He’d just managed to get one leg on and was awkwardly hopping on the other when Lizzie flew, giggling into the room. She unceremoniously pushed him onto the bed and straddled his torso as she planted a sizzling kiss on his surprised face.
“Ben sweetie pie, you have some visitors downstairs,” said Lizzie as she laughed, bounced off him, and whirled back down the stairs like a mini feminine tornado.
Ben lay there stunned for a moment. Fighting Hellhounds was one thing, but sometimes his girls just had way too much energy for his old bones to deal with. Something must have wound them up.
As Ben made his way down the old polished wood staircase he was astonished to see two Marine enlisted men in immaculate class A uniforms awaiting him. The closest to him, wearing First Sergeant’s stripes was a veritable fireplug of a man with shoulders nearly as wide and as solid as the oak door frame behind him. Next to the First Sergeant was a slim, muscular, dark-complected Staff Sergeant with an elegant (but regulation) mustache holding a uniform suit carrier.
As the two caught sight of him, they snapped to attention.
“Captain Clarkson sir! I’m First Sergeant Diamond and this is Staff Sergeant Dalrymple. Sergeant Major Winters sends his regards and congratulations on your upcoming nuptials,” said the First Sergeant formally.
“At ease gentlemen, please. I haven’t been a Marine Officer in many years, just call me Ben.” Ben could see that the Marines must have been Force Recon at one point due to having both Jump Wings and Diving Qualification badges as well as chestfuls of ribbons indicating service all over the globe.
“Well about that sir…I believe the Marine Corps disagrees with you, and pardon me, I misspoke- it should be Major Clarkson now.
The First Sergeant glanced around him with a look Ben immediately picked up on.
“It’s okay Top, everyone here is read in.”
“Well sir, we work for a small off-the-books intelligence unit out of Headquarters Marine Corps and through the Field Office recently became aware of an operation you were running. Our boss just happens to be a certain retired Sergeant Major and thought that it might be helpful to you and the Marine Corps if you stayed on the reserve roles, retroactively so to speak. It turns out that somehow, someone ‘forgot’ to put your commission on the list for expiration. The Boss thought that maybe a little official cover and access to some of our resources could be useful. And, since you had the time in, a reserve promotion to Major was overdue.”
Ben chuckled. Like the great NCO he was, Sergeant Major Winters was still looking out for a clueless junior officer after all these years.
“Dang, alright First Shirt, but what specifically brings you here today of all days?” said Ben. “I’m sure that they don’t send you two out to meet and greet old retirees as a regular thing,”
“Uh, not exactly sir. We’d also like a moment of your time at your earliest convenience. There’s some information we need to pass on to you. The Sergeant Major thought we could kill two birds with one stone.”
“Umm, Ben? Darling. I can explain…promise you won’t be mad” said Kelly with a small lip quiver as she held up a hand to halt the First Sergeant’s continued explanation.
‘Ah here it comes,’ thought Ben. He knew Kelly was play-acting, he could never be really mad at any of his girls no matter how gruff he pretended to be.
“Okay, so what did you all do this time? Do I have to report back to boot camp or something? Cuz I ain’t going, no matter what the Top has to say,” said Ben with a chuckle.
“Well, we and the Fae knew you were once in the Marines and they insisted that as an honored warrior, you should be wearing a dress uniform instead of a tux, which we all know you hate anyway. But you didn’t have any uniforms anymore except for your sword and we didn’t know how to surprise you with one. Jean contacted a few people she knew in Quantico and at Headquarters Marine Corps. A very lovely older gentleman called us shortly after and assured us it would be taken care of. He gave us a phone number and we sent the measurements the Fae had taken for your tux and the tailors in Quantico promised it would be done in time,” said Kelly.
“And here we are, sir, delivery with a smile. We picked it up on our way out here,” said Staff Sergeant Dalrymple with a wry grin as he lifted the uniform carrier and unzipped it. “We knew you’d be pressed for time so we took the liberty of racking your medals and badges for you sir.”
A Marine Officer's Dress Blue uniform complete with medals and the golden oak leaves of a major was revealed. Prominent among the medals was the one he knew he would never deserve. A simple cross shape that to him symbolized his failure to take care of those that were entrusted to him. Ben paused, carefully determined not to show his uncertainty. His girls had gone to extraordinary lengths for him and he would sooner face the Taliban again than to let them think he was hesitant to accept what they had done with such love.
“Thank you Top Diamond and Staff Sergeant Dalrymple. I appreciate the effort it took to get it here on time. And please convey my thanks to the Sergeant Major. I’m sure we can make time to talk later today.” replied Ben. Then turning to where his girls were arrayed around the breakfast table with barely suppressed expressions of glee, Ben continued “Girls you’ve outdone yourselves, I’d never thought I’d wear one of these again. I’d love to put it on one last time.”
In that moment Ben knew he had finally come to an uneasy truce with the demons of his past. He would never feel that he had earned that cross, but for the wedding, he’d wear it proudly in honor of those not present, who had.
“Joe says you are really pretty momma,” said Daisy as she sat on the fence rail stroking the neck of a magnificent appaloosa.
“Ah- tell him thank you,” replied Donna. She wasn’t sure what to make of Daisy’s sudden imaginary ability to talk to animals but it made her child happy and Donna didn’t think it was harmful. Daisy continually amazed her with depths of imagination that she herself had never achieved.
“Silly, he can hear you. You just can’t hear him,” said Daisy.
“I see. Ahem, well thank you, Joe- you are a very handsome young man yourself,” said Donna to Joe.
Donna laughed as Joe took a step back and sketched a bow. It was true, Joe was a magnificent horse. Donna’s people had created Joe’s breed and made them famous across the plains so she was well aware of what a fine specimen he was. The tracery of scars across his cabled muscles didn’t detract from that, in fact, they indicated he was the epitome of a war horse. Donna was very hesitant at first to let Daisy get too close, war horses could be very temperamental, but one look into his deep brown eyes and Donna could sense the great loving heart within and Daisy wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer anyway, so as soon as she could, she had pulled her mom out to the pasture fence to see the latest wonder of the ranch.
“He says it’s okay if I want to ride him, can I please Mom!” pleaded Daisy.
“Maybe, we’ll have to ask people first though,” said Donna. She actually wouldn’t mind a turn herself, she used to love to ride, but since Caleb’s passing riding was one of the small joys that had deserted her.
“Let's see who we can find to ask hunny bunny,” said Donna as she helped Daisy off the fence and they headed back toward the house.
Just then they looked up at the crunch of gravel as a small black hatchback drove down the long drive to park by the front porch just a few yards away.
“I wonder who that could be?” said Donna out loud.
“Joe says it’s a nice lady called Lauren,” piped Daisy.
Donna just shook her head at Daisy’s antics. Donna, wouldn’t be surprised at just about anything that happened here though. She could have sworn she had seen some dwarves hauling a large roll of canvas behind a rainbow-sparkling tractor out into the woods earlier. And then there was the furious tiny woman who had confronted her at breakfast a few days ago pretending to be some sort of Kiebler elf. She hadn’t been afraid of her, well not really, but there was something very different about the small woman that Donna couldn’t quite put her finger on, and truthfully, she’d rather not get into a scrap with her, pointy ears, or not.
More than anything though, it was her strange reaction to this Ben character that had shaken her up. She hadn’t felt even a tingle for anyone else in the more than 2 years since Caleb’s death and this felt like a cattle prod had hit her in the hoohah. She was still upset that her body had betrayed his memory and she was more than a little leary of Ben. But after the appearance of the Marines earlier in the day, she was willing to give Ben the benefit of the doubt- for now. Caleb had been in the Marines before they had met and she had picked up enough to understand the difference between military courtesy and true respect and those tough-looking men had treated Ben with regard far beyond mere politeness.
In any case, this was an interesting place and as the door opened and Ben and Kelly stepped out onto the porch she made sure to position herself and Daisy where they could hear what was going on. She wasn’t being nosy- she told herself, just interested. Her level of ‘interest’ perked up sharply as a gorgeous dark-haired, model-slender woman stepped out of the driver’s side. As the unknown woman smoothed her chic, black, skirt out and ran her fingers through her fashionably bobbed shortish hair, an older but equally elegant silver-haired woman stepped out of the passenger side. Donna almost instantly recognized that they were mother and daughter.
“Lauren, so nice to see you!” said Ben.
“You as well, Mon Cher. I have someone who has been waiting a very long time to see you again,”
‘Lauren’? What the heck? How had Daisy known who this was? Donna wondered.
A sudden, completely unexpected spike of jealousy hit her as the first woman stepped up to Ben and right in front of Kelly gave him a brief but more than friendly kiss right on the mouth! She then moved to Kelly and gave her a tight hug. They were obviously good friends.
Donna had always had exceptional hearing and she was just close enough to hear Kelly whisper something in Lauren’s ear. It sounded like ‘soon’. Now Donna’s curiosity was ratcheted all the way up to the ridiculous range.
It was about to go off the charts as the older woman followed suit and kissed Ben on both cheeks in a Gallic manner and then firmly on the mouth for good measure. Ben just sputtered a bit at the unexpected affection.
“Uh, Dr. Hensley, good to see you again!” said Ben.
“You as well Capitain Clarkson. I never had a chance to say goodbye or to thank you for what you and your men did for us that day,” said the older woman in a lightly accented deep soprano, finishing with a full-body hug that left Ben gasping.
“Please Doctor, I was just doing what the Marine Corps paid me for,” said Ben.
Donna could feel the stone-cold weight of those words and sense the ocean's deep sadness in him, similar to her own.
“Call me Belle, and please stop with the nonsense’” said the older woman. “I was standing next to your lieutenant in the village and heard the order that recalled you and your men as we were getting on the trucks. You were supposed to withdraw to another location and await pickup when the weather cleared”
“Ah well- the radios weren’t working all that well…” started Ben.
“Pardon my Anglais, but bullsheet,” said Belle. “You gave us time to get clear and protected the villagers until help arrived. Not that it was needed. We heard later that after you broke the attack, there were hardly any Taliban left out of the more than 500 that would have hit us. Thanks to you and your men I was able to return to Lauren and my husband, and 120 doctors, nurses, and aid staff continued their lives and helped countless others in many countries.”
Donna could see that Ben was struggling to talk as he relived that day.
“I did what I could- but my men made the real sacrifice,” he said.
Donna could see tears in Kelly’s eyes and could sense that Kelly had shared her man’s pain.
“Yes, of course, you would feel that way. It is in no way enough to recognize their sacrifice but I’d like you to see this,” replied Belle.
She then reached into her shoulder bag and retrieved a small photo album. Flipping to the first page she said. The volunteer medical personnel that I served with in Afghanistan created a small organization to help memorialize your fallen men. Every year on the anniversary date of the attack, one or more of us survivors go to pay our respects and leave flowers on their graves -all 12 of them wherever they may be,” she said flipping through the album. “We have made a pact that as long as one of us is alive we will continue this in recognition of their ultimate sacrifice. Each of their hometowns also has a scholarship endowed by us in their name so that they will never be forgotten.”
Ben hugged the slender woman closely and in a voice tight with emotion said, “Thank you, Belle, I didn’t know.”
“We thought of approaching you many times but when we tried to find your current location from the Marine Headquarters a very nice gentleman who knew of you suggested we give it some time first. We tried again much later, but you seemed to be lost to them as well. And then a miracle of sorts! My own Lauren discovers you here by coincidence.” said Belle.
Donna could see an almost palpable weight lift from Ben and knew there was much more to this story when Kelly wiped her eyes and stepped forward to give Lauren’s mom a hug of her own.
“Coincidence? We’ve discovered around here that coincidence has nothing to do with it,” said Kelly with a chuckle.
At this point, Donna was inclined to agree. Her and Daisy's life had certainly gotten far more interesting than mere coincidence could account for. She was out of here at the first indication that her daughter was in danger, but in the meantime, she’d bet the farm that this wedding was going to be very, very interesting, and wild horses, even Appaloosas, couldn’t keep her away.
The Day before the wedding
Ben wiped the sweat from his eyes and swung the post hole digger down into the hole yet again and felt the bone-jarring ‘whack’ travel all the way up his arms as the blades smacked into still another fist-sized rock.
“Goddamnit!” he said out loud for at least the hundredth time that morning.
Why did there have to be a pile of underground rocks pretty much everywhere he had to dig a posthole for the new pasture fence? It must be a law of nature, he grumbled. The Nexus ranch had plenty of operating capital and he could have hired one of the crews to do this work for him. But he would’ve felt guilty about having them do something he could easily do himself and besides Kelly had pretty much run him out of the house, telling him to ‘go find a tool and do something with it’. This was accompanied by a look that gave him some idea about what she thought he could do with said tool. Hey- he couldn’t help it if he had no idea about weddings and was only trying to help with his suggestions.
Pretty much every female on the ranch was doing something to get ready for the wedding and pretty much every male had more sense than he did and was trying to stay the hell out of the way. So he had finally decided to get with the program. Now though he was wishing the tool he picked up was a fly rod instead of a post-hole digger.
Suddenly he felt the weight of eyes on his back and whirled about abruptly, simultaneously stepping into the hole he had been digging. His arms pinwheeled briefly as he fell backward and ended up on his ass in the loose dirt.
“Osiyo,” said an old cowboy leaning on the fence next to the road. ”Sorry about that. Dinnit mean to startle you.”
Osiyo, uncle- where the heck did you come from?” replied Ben sheepishly.
“Old Bertha got me here all the way from Idaho. She’s old but she still runs good!” the old cowboy said with a sly grin gesturing behind him to an immaculate turquoise and cream ‘57 short-bed Chevy pickup.
“No, sorry, I mean how did you…” started Ben.
“Oh she can be pret quiet when she wants to play a trick,” said the old guy with a grin.
“Uh yeah, I guess, how can I help you Mr….?”
‘You can call me IC if you like. Well, I’m here because I heard tell of a great warrior from around here…”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that…”
“...And you obviously aren’t he,” said the old guy gesturing to where Ben sat in the loose dirt. “But I was hoping you could point me in the right direction. I’d really like to meet ‘im.”
“Yeah, okay, I know I don’t look...” started Ben.
“Hey boss, I thought you were supposed to be working, not playing in the dirt. I’ll have to report you to Ms. Kelly,” said Joe with a disappointed shake of his head.
“God… darn it Joe” amended a startled Ben as he realized Joe wasn’t alone. “How did you and Daisy get all the way out here without me seeing you?” he continued, looking around him at the open pasture as he got to his feet and attempted to get the worst of the dirt off his jeans.
Ben was now seriously thinking about getting a hearing and vision check right after tomorrow's wedding.
“Easy Mr. Ben we walked, how else? Joe tried but he can’t fly yet,” replied Daisy with the logic of a child trying to reason with a rather dense adult.
Then she realized who Ben was talking to.
“Ice’ye!” she squealed and in a flash, she leaped off of Joe’s back and clambered over the wooden rail fence.
She hugged the old man about his midsection tightly. Ben swore he could see the old cowpoke’s eyes glisten slightly. Ben would wager that he could get gored by a bull and then stomped on by a herd of wild horses and shed blood but not a single tear. Daisy though was a special child- everyone she met loved her instantly.
“It’s good to see you again Ms. Daisy!” said IC. “And you must be Montana Joe.” he finished with a wave to where Joe stood with what Ben assumed was the equine version of a puzzled look.”
“Boss he can hear me, I know he can, how is that possible?” said Joe to Ben.
“I don’t know Joe, there’s something strange going on though,” said Ben.
“Oh, I know lots about you, Joe. If I’m not mistaken I rode your great-great-great-great-grandsire a very long time ago.” IC inserted. “I can tell you about your people some time if you’d like.”
Ben’s heart ached for his friend and battle buddy as the normally chipper Joe bowed his head sadly. Joe had never gotten over the loss of his mom.
“I’d like that, my momma died in a lightning fire when I was young and I never got to know about my family,” replied Joe.
Ben had no idea what was going on but it seemed that two people who had great instincts (even if one was a child and the other a horse) seemed to think this IC fellow was okay, or at least not an immediate threat. He was, no doubt, a talented storyteller if he claimed to have ridden one of Joe’s ancestors a hundred and fifty years ago.
“Uh, maybe we should all head back to…” Ben started to say.
“Are you here to stir up trouble you old reprobate?” said Hottee the Nunnehi abruptly from behind Ben.
“Jesus H. Christ on a graham cracker, where did you come from?” said Ben as he whirled about, startled once again.
“You need to pay more attention, Nephew,” said Hottee the Nunnehi with a slightly superior grin.
Ben didn’t know what was going on. He must have scrambled his senses worse than he’d realized during that last fight. Maybe what he needed was a complete ‘checkup from the neck up’ as the Navy Corpsmen used to say.
“Not to worry Hottee, I’ve turned a new leaf,” said IC with an overly innocent look on his face.
“Hmmph. pull the other one why don’t you.” said a visibly skeptical Hottee.
“No really, I’ve decided to put my hat in the ring on your side- for good,” said IC.
“Really?” replied Hottee.
“Yes, I’ve already helped them out once, well twice now if you count getting Daisy and her mom here,” said IC.
“It’s true Mr. Hottee, he saved us from bad men and told us how to get here!” said Daisy, her cornflower blue eyes wide and sparkling.
“Why now then?” said Hottee.
“Honestly, it feels like they’re all about to be neck-deep in buffalo dung and I’ve gotten to enjoy hanging out with these humans. I’d hate to see them disappear. I rather like the idea of helping them out of the doo-doo, if I can.”
Hottee appeared to be considering this for a moment and started to speak.
“Wait, before you say anything, I made a stop on the way here and picked up a token of my good intentions,” said IC.
The old cowboy strode over to the pickup, flipped down the rear tailgate, and retrieved a basketball-sized dusty stone. Ben wasn’t particularly impressed with the gift of a dirty rock, but he did notice that the ‘old’ man handled it as if it were a pebble. As IC dropped the small boulder to the ground it rolled slightly to one side and revealed a glassy dense black fracture.
“Oh pretty!” exclaimed Daisy as the late morning sunshine struck the facet igniting the surface into swirling rainbows of color. Daisy reached toward the stone and the moment her hand touched it, it was enveloped in a blue flare. Far from being alarmed, the girl just giggled.
Ben recognized the stone now as rainbow obsidian- the same material his lance head and Sarah’s arrowheads were made of. It probably came from Glass Butte Oregon, which is the only place it appeared in this world, as far as Ben knew.
“I took the precaution of a short trip to the Upper World to charge it fully,” said IC proudly.
“So you have some idea, that we might be needing this much, soon?” said Hottee.
“Just an inkling, but better to have it and not need it,” replied IC.
“Agreed,” said Hottee. “I have some people who know how to create with it. Thank you.”
“No problem, and Ben, please pardon my teasing. Seriously, I give you my word, if I can prevent it, I will not knowingly harm or allow harm to befall you or your people.
“Alright then, Mr. IC, or Iceye’ye or Coyote or Rabbit or Loki or whatever your name is at the moment. You might as well stay for the wedding. Hah! I bet you didn’t think I could figure it out.” said Ben triumphantly. Maybe his brain wasn’t as befuddled as he thought.
The old cowboy's eyes flared amber-yellow for an instant and he let out a chuckle.
‘Yah got me, but Daisy figured it out in 5 seconds.”
Daisy just looked innocently at him while everyone else was trying to hold back a grin. Ben didn’t know what to say about that. So for once, where women and girls were concerned he was wise enough not to say anything at all.
“Thanks for the invite. I understand that my old friend will be there as well. This should be a great party!”
Just then Ben realized what he had done. Crap. Another unexpected, last-minute guest for the wedding. The girls were going to kill him. Maybe he’d just stay out here a while longer, like right up until he was due to say his vows.
He’d be safe after that. They couldn’t kill him right after marrying him. Could they?
Tina was sparking with excitement. Today was such a big day for everybody on the ranch!
The Holy Glade was decorated with live garlands of fragrant flowers, soft fairy pipes were playing from sources hidden in the surrounding woods, and an intricately carved dais for the wedding party had been carefully laid down. Flower petals were strewn about the base of the live wood bower that arced out and symbolized (so she was told) The natural influence of Mother Earth that united and protected them all.
Tina hadn’t been to many weddings, but she knew that this one was going to be a blend of human and Fae that was perfectly suited to her new friends and family. Plus she had even been trusted with helping to put it on- well, under Gunny Jean’s guidance of course.
She had helped with the invitations and it had been interesting trying to figure out who to invite. The Fae never even blinked at the idea of a 6-way marriage. Multiple marriages were not uncommon among them at all. Humans, particularly those from Harborton were not quite as flexible for the most part. They decided to invite just those in the know and family who had managed to come to an accommodation with their unusual lifestyle.
Even so, there were nearly 50 wedding guests not including the Fae, the former mercenaries, and the Nexus staff. There was also a contingent of nine striking women wearing identical sky-blue dresses. Tina heard Sarah say something about them being Valkyries, whatever that was, but she heard someone else say they looked like the Swedish Bikini Team and Tina had no idea what that was either. She just knew they were gorgeous and she was more than a little envious of their perfect full bodies. At 14 it was sometimes hard to be around so many beautiful women when she felt like a flat-chested, skinny little girl. Today though, she thought she looked pretty cute in her Fae-designed long dress with her fine blond hair styled and a touch of makeup artfully applied by her adopted sister Maria.