Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

S3: Prologue

A little something to tide you over until I begin season 3 (details to come soon). For now, enjoy a brief prologue!

From the journals of Barda Bones Edison, first among the Elf-kind, adventurer, healer, musician, historian, and compiler of the Encyclopedia Magna:

I remember everything. My memory does not fade as human memory does, nor do I live in the endless Now of the Faer Folk.  My earliest memory is of chasing butterflies in a field, and it is as vivid as the memory of my last meal.  And yet, for as long as I have been able to write, I have kept a journal.  As of this writing, it comprises many handfuls of notebooks, along with uncounted scraps of paper, all bound and organized according to a system even I can barely comprehend.  Those journals hold all my childhood joys, the myriad flirtations of my adolescence, and the many pleasures and sorrows I have known in my increasingly long life. It contains entries both extraordinary and mundane, on any number of topics.

I have written extensively of my mothers, Nikki Bones and Jax Edison.  My tales of their adventures form the spine of what will no doubt be my most lasting work: a great encyclopedia, covering the history of our world from the Awakening onward.  I have written of their bravery, their power, their compassion, and their heroism.  I have written at length of the great and all-encompassing love they felt for one another, a love that inspired poems and songs and sagas that are sung to this day by bards all around the world.  A love that I, even after all my centuries of life, despair of ever experiencing for myself.

I have not written of my grief for them, of the great light that went out of my life the day my human mother died, or the ache I feel for the loss of my faery mother, who has lived among the trees of the vast northern forests since that dark day, her roots sunk deep and her branches spread wide, and her voice forever silent.

Though my human mother was always doomed to die, as all humans are, I like to think, that had we remained in our forest home, had we not allowed the world beyond the wood to summon us hence, Jax Edison may have lived far longer than she did, and been much happier at the end.  Such was not to be, however. The outside world called, as I believe she always knew it would, and thus was our idyll shattered forever.

I did not know it at the time, of course.  It was my thirteenth summer, and the summons that came was cause for celebration.  The Kings of Pash, old friends of my mothers, were holding a ceremony to officially crown their heir as Prince of the Realm.  We were among those invited, and my mothers believed it was time I came to know something of humanity and its, admittedly fraught, contribution to my heritage.  

I saw it as an adventure, and indeed it was.  That seemingly simple journey began the final adventure of Jax Edison and Nikki Bones, which would end with one mother dead, the other in self-imposed exile, and their daughter...

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Jax Edison: Outlaw Prophet is now on sale!

Outlaw Prophet is now available as a Kindle book for only $1.99!  It contains an edited version of the entirety of Jax Edison Season Two, as well as a bonus epilogue available only in the collected editions.  A paperback edition is also available.

From the description: "Jax has left adventuring behind to bring the enlightenment of pure magic to her troubled world. Many will flock to her teachings, while others will kill to prevent their spread.
Her companions and loved ones will be scattered across the world, while Jax finds herself trapped in an insidious prison, where she must thwart the will of an ancient power before she can rejoin her friends as the world prepares to tear itself apart."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

S2:01:A Whisper on the Wind

Julian Katzakos strode with great purpose into the private office of the Empress Regina Maxima.  He had news to report, and was eager to deliver it.  As he followed the servant who announced his entrance, he found the Empress seated at her desk, reading maps and reports by the light of a small electric lamp.  An ornate hookah stood next to the desk, and the Empress occasionally drew smoke from a long tube.  The room was filled with clouds of the sweet-smelling canais smoke, and the Prime Speaker could already feel his head beginning to swim slightly.  Best to deliver his news and retreat to fresher air that would clear his head.

“August Majesty,” he said, bowing low.

“Prime Speaker,” the Empress looked up from her desk with a smile, her half-closed eyes bloodshot.  “I have received favorable reports from our commanders in the field.  The war against my idiot brother goes well.”

“Indeed, Empress,” he answered.  “In fact, I have news from my spies in his capital on that very subject.”

“Mm?” the Empress had gone back to looking over her maps, and glanced back up at him, distracted.

“I have news,” Julian said again, “from my spies in your brother’s capital.”  He was used to repeating himself when she’d been into the canais.  Though she claimed it granted her unique insights and revelations, it tended to make her a bit disconnected from the here and now.

“Spies?” she repeated.  Then, as a thought struck her, she said, “You know, Julian, I had the most interesting thought.  Has it ever occurred to you that the beliefs of the Rafellans are incredibly similar to those espoused by the Protagonist cult from a hundred years ago?”

“I was unaware of such a cult, Empress,” Julian said.

She waved her hand.  “They were short lived, and well before your time, or mine, for that matter.”  She took a long pull from her hookah, then blinked at him.  “What was I just talking about?”

“I was about to share news from my spies in your brother’s court, August Majesty,” he said.

“Right, yes,” she said.  “You have news.  Please,” she indicated he should speak.

“My spies report that, owing to your numerous victories on the northern and southern fronts, along with the complete defection of his western farmlands, the false emperor intends to surrender,” he said.

“Wonderful!” she exclaimed.  “He must have finally realized that one city and a handful of dependent villages no longer constitute an empire.”

“Indeed, August Majesty.  I am assured that you should expect an official notice of surrender and request for terms by tomorrow afternoon.”  He bowed again, eager to leave the room.

“Good good,” she said, leaning back in her chair, a satisfied smile on her face.  She indicated that he could leave.  As he was about to do so, she called him back.

“Yes, August Majesty?”

“While my brother’s surrender is indeed excellent news, he is far from my only concern.  What of these reports regarding unrest along our western border?”  Julian often forgot that the canais, while befuddling, could also grant the Empress a certain focus.

“Ah,” he said, “that.  Yes, there have been more raids than usual for this time of year, but it is nothing of any great significance.”  He was lying somewhat.  The nomadic tribes had grown bolder than they’d ever been, and he had heard rumors that several villages and a small town had been seized.  “The Twelfth Legion has been dispatched to the area to supplement the local garrisons.”

“Mm.”  She continued to study her maps.  Then, shaking her head, smiled her half-lidded smile at him.  “I’m sure the Lady Maryza will make short work of them.  Now,” she waved him away, “have another bowl of canais sent up along with a jug of wine and my two favorite husbands.  I have reason to celebrate tonight.”

“That you do, August Majesty,” he said, bowing again as he backed toward the door.  “I’ll see to your requests personally.”

***

Justine Comeglia, Prime Speaker of the Imperial Council of Quartus Futilis, stood over the body of the dead emperor, cleaning blood from her knife.  She turned to the terrified servant cowering near the door.

“Send word to her August Majesty, Regina Maxima Vegarius, Empress of the True Imperium, that the ancient capital of the Indovinare is hers once more,” she said.  As she stepped over the corpse of her former lord, she continued, “I will take control of the government until she arrives, so please inform the members of the Council,” she laughed derisively, “all three of them, that I am suspending the Council until further notice.”  She sat in the throne and gestured at Quartus Futilis’ body.  “And have that cleaned up.  It’s starting to stink.”

The servant nodded.  “At once, my Lady,” he said.  “Shall I summon the priests?”

“Whatever for?”  She looked down from her throne, eyebrow raised.

“To say the proper blessings over the body of his August Majesty,” the servant said, incredulous, “and to remove the remains properly.  Only a priest of the highest order may touch--”

“Yes, yes,” Justine waved him silent.  “I’m familiar with the Sacred Protocols.  However, in this case, they will not be followed.  Send the most simple-minded of your lowest-born servants to remove the body of his ‘August Majesty’, then have the corpse stripped and shoved down the sewage tube into the river with the rest of our waste.”

“Prime Speaker!” the servant was scandalized.

Justine laughed.  “Oh, and what is this?!  Some scrap of loyalty to your beloved ruler?”  Her eyes narrowed.  “Unless you’d care to join him on his journey, I suggest you do as I say with all haste.”  She scowled at him.  “I just murdered a sitting emperor, boy.  Do you think I’ll even remember slitting your throat?”

The servant swallowed, then, with one last look for the body on the floor, he bowed low.  “It shall be as you command, Prime Speaker,” he stammered as he backed out of the room.

“That it will,” she said softly, sitting back in the throne.
“You seem quite pleased with yourself, Prime Speaker,” a voice spoke from the shadows, as a tall woman garbed in the long dresses favored by the court of the Theopolis stepped into the dim light of the throne room.

“Should I not be, Ambassador?” Justine sat straighter, with an attempt to calm her nervousness.  The people of the Theopolis always made her uneasy.

Ambassador Thea Moran shrugged her shoulders, clasping her hands behind her back.  “I suppose you have some cause to congratulate yourself,” she said, “but I hope you won’t forget who made this possible.”

Justine swallowed.  “Of course not, Ambassador,” she said.  “Your assistance in this matter, not to mention all you are about to do for the Imperium, has been invaluable.”

“Not I,” Thea shook her head, a look of mild reproach on her face.  “It is the Overgod who makes all things happen.  The world is his gameboard, and we are merely pieces.”

“O-of course,” Justine stammered.  “I meant no disrespect.”

“I’m certain.” the Ambassador smiled.  “Now,” she said, “I must away, to see that all is ready for her August Majesty’s visit.”

Then, as the door to the throne room opened, and three dirty servants from the deep cellars entered to gather up the corpse of the emperor, the Ambassador of the Theopolis vanished back into the shadows.

Moments later, alone in the dark throne room, Justine Icena Comeglia released a long shuddering breath and covered her face with her hands.  Suddenly, this didn’t seem like a very good idea at all.  Suddenly, she cared far less about restoring the honor of her family than she did about saving her own skin.  Then, with another deep breath to steel herself, she rose from the throne and descended the raised dais.  She too had much work to do in preparation of Regina Maxima’s arrival.

***

“Are you sure about this?” Jax asked.  She, Nikki and Lora stood upon a hastily constructed dais in the center of a small frontier village.  “I thought I was fairly explicit about my 'no conquering' rule.”

Lora nodded.  “It’s for the tribes’ benefit,” she explained, indicating the desert nomads who stood guard before the dais.  “Conquest is a vital part of their culture.  Your message united them for the first time in their history.  You need to show them you are worthy of being their Chieftess, if you want them to continue to follow you.”

“But I didn’t want them to start following me,” Jax said.  “You said you'd found me students among the tribes of the Far West.  I didn’t realize you were raising me a private army.”

“You don’t think you’ll need one?” Lora asked with a quick laugh.  “I wouldn’t have thought you were that naive.”

“Naive?”

Lora shook her head.  “Alchemist,” she said, “the revelation of Ja’naam will have almost as great an impact on the world as the Awakening itself, and will upset the status quo of every ruling power.  So, yes, I think your own private army might be handy to have around.”

"I'm really not comfortable with that title, Lora," Jax said, before sighing and nodding.  “But it's a fair point,” she said.  “I just don’t want innocent people getting hurt.  My village...” She grit her teeth.

Nikki lay a hand on her wife’s arm.  “We’ll make sure that doesn’t happen, love.”  She put her hand in Jax’s and squeezed.  “But Lora is right, dearest.  If you truly wish to spread your knowledge, you’ll need to be able to defend yourself.”

“You’ll have to refresh my memory,” Jax said, looking out over the mass of frightened villagers being herded in front of the dais.  “When did these people attack me?”

Lora checked a sigh.  “I told you.  The tribes--”

“Yes,” Jax growled.  “The tribes.  The gods forbid we upset the tribes.”

“Alchemist...”

“Please excuse me, Ms. Neely,” Jax said curtly, “I must address my new ‘subjects’.”  She turned to face the gathered villagers and cleared her throat.  “Hello,” she said, smiling.  “My name is Jax Edison, and I just want to assure you that I wish none of you harm.”

“Then why have you come here, at the head of a barbarian horde, to raid and despoil our village?” an old woman in front demanded.  Jax could tell she held some sort of office, and was possibly the leader of the village.

“I apologize,” Jax said, “for any damage or thievery that may have occurred.  The warriors of the tribes have been... misled regarding our mission.”

“Then your mission is not to occupy our village, steal our food and money, and take our men and women for your own perverted uses?”

“Excuse me?” Jax asked.  “Are you telling me this has happened?”

A man stepped forward.  One eye was swollen shut and blood ran from his lip.  “I have a farm on the outskirts of the village.  Your ‘misled warriors’ trampled my crops, slaughtered what stock they couldn’t carry off, and took my wife and eldest daughter!”

Jax shot Lora a venomous look.  The young woman could not meet her eyes.  Then she sought out the leader of the tribal confederation.  He was standing to one side of the dais, with two bound and gagged women.  Looking around, Jax saw that other warriors, men and women, had similar prisoners of both sexes.  Slowly, deliberately, Jax descended from the dais and approached the injured farmer.  She reached out her hand and he flinched.  “No no,” she said softly.  “I’m not going to hurt you.  Quite the opposite, in fact.”  She smiled, her hand stopping inches from his face, and asked, “May I?”

With some hesitation, the farmer nodded.  Jax touched his face gently, and a warmth spread through him.  When Jax took her hand away, his face was whole and unmarred.  He stared up at her.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

“It is the very least I can do,” she replied.  “Now,” she said louder, walking back up onto the dais, “all captives will be returned to their families, along with all plunder taken.  If damage was done to homes and fields, it will be repaired.”

“We will do no such thing!” the lead warrior shouted, a cry going up from his followers.  “We followed your emissary into the East because she promised to deliver us to a great leader, one who would bring us untold spoils and territory.”  He glared up at Lora.  “I can see now that she lied.  You are no great leader.  You are just another soft Eastern cow, unfit even to nurse my children.”

Fury blazed in Jax’s eyes a moment, then cooled.  She laughed softly.  “I’m going to let that last comment pass,” she said.  “And while I would not say Ms. Neely intentionally misled you, I am afraid she may have misrepresented my mission.  What I have to offer you and your people, and to all people,” her gaze swept the crowd of villagers, “is far greater than simple conquest and spoils.  I will be happy to show you what I mean,” her gaze turned steely, “once you have fulfilled my promise to these people.”

“I spit on your promise,” he retorted.  “All spoils are ours to keep, by ancient tradition.  And these women are mine.”  To prove his point, he struck the younger woman across the mouth.

Jax stood silently for a moment that seemed to last forever.  Then, her voice quiet, she said, “It’s to be a demonstration, then.  Thank you, ‘brave warrior’ for volunteering to assist me.”

The warrior laughed.  “What are you prattling about, woman?  I haven’t... what?”  He looked frantically around as he rose from the ground.  “What is this?”

“A lesson,” Jax said, turning her gaze on his followers.  “One I hope does not bear repeating.”

Before anyone could speak or move, the lead warrior convulsed with a series of sickening cracks.  Bones and ligaments snapped as his levitated body was twisted into impossible positions.  The rope fell from his broken fingers just as his neck twisted all the way around, and his captives ran.  Then, his lifeless body still floating in front of the dais, he burst into flames, which burned so hot as to reduce him to a charred skeleton in moments.  His bones fell to the ground in a pile, and Jax turned on his people, speaking a single word.

“Now.”

At once, captives were released and spoils returned.  All eyes turned then to Jax.

“I am here to show you all a new way,” she said.  “Those who wish to follow me are welcome, those who do not, may go about your business.  Those of you who do follow me, however, will find that this new way is incompatible with many of your old ways.  It’s your choice.”  To the villagers, she said, “My people and I will leave your village now.  If any of you wish to hear what I have to say, come to me in the morning.  We will be camped on the plains to the west.”  With that, she left the dais with Nikki and Lora.  As she left the village, every last tribal warrior followed after, many looking behind them at the burned pile of bones and ash that had begun to blow away in the wind.

If you've enjoyed this free first chapter of Outlaw Prophet, you can read the rest on any Kindle device or app for only $1.99!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

S1:01:By the Flash of Her Guns

The mother held her son close, shielding his body with her own, as the massive claws of the reptilian giant slashed toward them. She whispered a fervent prayer as the young boy in her arms clung to her and wept. She prayed that empty words and choked sobs would not be the last things they would hear before they died, but also that neither of them would have time to scream.

A shot rang out, then another, and the mother looked up in time to see the lizard man rear back, blood oozing from its chest. A third shot was followed by a fourth, and the creature staggered further away.

"RUN!" A woman’s voice, strong and commanding, cut through the mother’s prayers and the whimpering of her son. Her mind wanted to obey, but her body refused to move, frozen in place by fear and the near-certainty of her death. The mother looked up and saw the woman then, smoke rising from the barrels of her guns, her back to them as she faced down the snarling monster that somehow still stood, despite four bullets in its chest. The woman fired another shot, then turned to the mother. "Damn it, I said run!"

The mother stared, wide-eyed, at her irritated savior. "I- I-"

The gun-wielding woman rolled her eyes, blowing a stray lock of blonde hair away from her face with an exasperated sigh. "Lovely," she growled, "you’ve gone stupid on me. Well, if you’re too scared to move, just keep your head down and hope I don’t run out of bullets before this thing runs out of blood." She leaped across the small clearing amid the tall grass, her long coat fluttering behind her. She fired another shot, clipping the lizard man in the neck. It roared in fury, but stood panting, blood loss and pain beginning to catch up with it. The woman held her guns at the ready while the monster stumbled about, low growls rumbling up from its chest. As it went down on one knee, the woman circled toward it, placing herself between the creature and its intended victims.

The monster hissed at her. "My... prey..." It reached out a hand, still intent on devouring the mother and son.

The woman leveled her guns at its head. "I’m afraid not."

"Ssstupid... ape!" It spat the words with a mouthful of blood. "After me... more will come. Blood... fills the air."

"Yeah," the woman replied, "your blood. I know enough of your kind to know they’ll eat you first, and we’ll be long gone before they’ve picked your bones clean."

The lizard man roared, making a feeble attempt to leap at her before two bullets found its brain. It went down, unmoving. The woman nudged it with her foot, then, seemingly satisfied, returned to the mother and son, the latter of which had stopped crying, and was watching the woman intently. The woman replaced the missing bullets in her revolvers as she approached, finally returning both guns to the holsters slung across her hips. Standing over the huddled pair, she extended a hand and a kind smile.

"Come on," she said. "The creature was right. The smell of blood and the sound of my guns will make this clearing a very popular place with the local predators in fairly short order. We need to move."

The mother nodded, taking the woman’s hand and standing, her son held tight against her. Without another word, the woman led them to the tall grass at the edge of the clearing across from the dead lizard man, where she retrieved a large pack and a wide-brimmed hat. She slung the pack across her back and put the hat on her head, tipping it low across her eyes. She gestured for the mother to follow her and she stepped into the grass. They walked quickly and silently, making their way carefully through the grass toward a line of trees.

"Mama," the boy spoke up, fear evident in his voice. "We’re headed back to the--"

"Shhh," his mother said, soothing him with a caress. "It’s all right." But her own voice gave the lie to her words.

The woman looked back over her shoulder at them. "What’s wrong with the woods? I come from west of here, and have never been to these forests. I’m only headed toward them because I know the lizard men won’t follow us in, but we can hook around and head north through the grass if need be."

The mother shook her head. "There is something wrong with the woods, but it’s a long story, and one I’ll be happy to tell once we’re out of danger. We should be safe enough if we keep to the edge of the woods, though I’d prefer to spend the night indoors. There’s a small town just a few miles north, where we might find food and lodging. We were headed there when we got turned around in the tall grass. Then, the lizard man came and..."

The woman smiled. "And then you got really turned around. I’ve heard of this town. I was headed there myself when I caught wind of you and your scaly friend." She raised an eyebrow. "But why not stick to the forest yourself until you reached it? You’re obviously woodsfolk. You’d have had a much easier way of it through the trees than the grass."

"As I said, it’s a bit of a story," the woman said. "I wanted us out of the woods as soon as possible, and was willing to risk the grasslands."

"Fair enough," the woman nodded, "but I’m looking forward to hearing that story. At any rate, we’ll keep out of the woods and head north. We’ve put enough distance between us and the clearing that nothing should be after us. All the blood and the smoke from my guns should cover our scent well enough, and we’ve been careful not to disturb the grass too much."

The mother nodded. "Thank you," she said. "And thank you so much for saving us. My name is Nell, and this is my son, Cass."

"Jax," the woman nodded, touching the brim of her hat. "Jax Edison. And don’t mention it." She smiled. "Now, how long you figure before we reach this town?"

***

It was well over an hour by the time they reached the farms at the outskirts of the town, and the sun was nearly to the horizon when they arrived at the only public lodging. It was little more than a tavern with a few rooms upstairs, but it was clean and the people seemed friendly enough.

"Only got the one room left," the perpetually smiling woman behind the bar said. "Bed fits two, but there’s a couch that should serve a third well enough."

"That’ll be fine," Jax said. "Any chance we could have dinner sent up?"

The barkeep nodded. "I’ll send you up a pot of chef’s beef stew and some bread."

Jax nodded. "Sounds like just the thing."

"Anything to drink?"

"Wine for me," Jax said. She looked at Nell.

"Milk for my son, if you have it, water if you don’t, and I could use some wine myself. In fact, just bring us a bottle." She grinned at Jax, who chuckled and glanced up at the barkeep.

"Make it two," she said, tossing her a gold coin, "and something sweet for the boy. It’s been that kind of day."

***

Later, Jax and Nell sat on the couch, the second bottle of wine half-empty on the table in front of them. The empty first bottle was stacked with their dinner dishes near the door to their room. Cass slept soundly on the bed behind them, cookie crumbs lining his smiling face. A fire burned low in a small hearth across from the couch.

Nell sipped her wine, then stared down at the deep red liquid in her cup, remembering. "It wasn’t always bad," she said, "in the woods." Her voice was thick, the words running together slightly. Most of the second bottle had found its way into her cup, while Jax drank slowly and sparingly. "In fact, it was good for a long long time. Our village was old, really old. My family lived in it since the founding, hundreds of years ago. Only home I ever knew." She was silent a while, glassy eyes staring down into her cup again.

"You had roots there," Jax prompted, gently.

Nell laughed. "Roots! Ha!" Then she clapped a hand over her mouth, looking toward the bed. She took her hand away and grinned at Jax, putting a finger in front of her lips. "Shhh."

Jax nodded, smiling. Quietly, she said, "So, I imagine it would take something pretty horrible to make you leave a home like that." The smile dropped from Nell’s face. 

 "Yeah," she whispered. "Something horrible." She gulped down the rest of her wine and grabbed the bottle. Wine sloshed over her hand while she tried to refill her cup. "I don’t wanna talk about this."

"It’s okay," Jax steadied Nell’s hand, filling her cup halfway before topping off her own with what remained in the bottle. "You don’t have to."

"No," Nell shook her head. "I have to. I should."

Jax nodded.

Nell took a deep breath. "It started about a year ago. Our old shaman died." She smiled, sighing. "He was so sweet, such a sweet old man. He blessed me when I was born, blessed my son... he said Cass was a holy child, since he was born from the fires. You know the fires?"

Jax nodded. "We had them in my village every spring. So, you didn’t know his father?"

Nell shrugged. "He wore a mask, and it was dark, but there were a few it could have been. Doesn’t matter, though. It’s God that fathers children at the fires, and the Goddess who helps us bear them, right?"

"So we’re told," Jax said.

"And anyway, I never wanted a husband," Nell said. "Was happy to raise Cass on my own." She smiled, remembering. "He was such a sweet baby..." She shook her head. "Not the point. Point is," she said, "the old shaman died. New one took over, but not Kenn."

"Kenn?"

"Kenn was old Will’s chosen sussess-succor-such-"

"Successor?"

"Yeah," Nell nodded, taking a drink. "That. But he died too. Right after old Will. Well, maybe died, I don’t know. He just disappeared one day. And then Haz became shaman, which was weird, because Haz was a hunter. Hunters don’t become shaman, they hunt. I’m a hunter -was a hunter- and that’s what you always do. You always do what you always do, you don’t just suddenly get to do something else, right?"

"Um..."

"I mean, you have to train. Old shaman always picks from the real little kids who to train for the next shaman. You don’t just go from hunter one day to shaman the next, that’s what I mean."

"Right."

"But Haz, all of a sudden, Haz can do all kinds of magic. Not just shaman magic, but amazing magic. He doesn’t just hear the wisdom of the trees, he can make the trees obey him. He can shape them, change them. The whole forest does what he wants, even the animals. That’s not shaman magic."

"No," Jax agreed, "it isn’t."

"Right? But he can do it, and everyone thinks he’s great. Hunting is easier, it’s easier to find edible plants, medicine plants. Life gets really good." She took another drink. "But then, but then Haz decides he wants to be chief too." She shook her head. "Shaman can’t be chief," she said. "That’s the Law. That’s one of the First Laws. Shaman can’t be chief. But Haz doesn’t care. Says he wants to be chief anyway. He kills the old chief, and anyone who stands in his way. He makes a bunch of new laws, really harsh laws. Anyone who doesn’t obey gets killed." She gripped her cup tight, wide eyes burning into Jax. "You don’t understand, the forest did whatever he wanted. If he wanted you dead, the forest killed you. The forest we had all known all our lives, the forest I’d hunted since I was a girl, suddenly it was our enemy. Suddenly our home was our enemy." She shook her head. "Eventually, whatever Haz wanted, Haz took. Food, clothes, weapons... women." She squeezed her eyes tight. "When his men, big ugly men who weren’t from our village, came to my house, I thought they were there for me. They’d already taken everything. Cass and I barely had the clothes on our backs. All our food was gone, my weapons had been confsca- conscat- con- taken, so I figured he finally just wanted me." She shook her head. "They were there for Cass." She looked at Jax. "I killed the first one with his own knife, then the next. Third one ran, and so did we. I grabbed Cass and we ran. The forest tried to stop us, the animals, the plants, everything tried to stop us, but we managed to escape. I lost the knife, killing a wolf at the edge of the forest, then we got lost in the grass, and then..." She drained her cup of wine, the last few drops running down her chin. She belched. "Sorry," she said. "I don’ us’ly drink this mush..." Her eyes drooped, and she slid down the couch. Jax caught her before she slid off completely.

"I can tell," Jax said with a smile. "Come on, let’s get you in bed."

Nell nodded, her eyes rolling back in her head. "Bed’s good."

"Yes," Jax said, hauling the other woman to her feet. "Bed is very good. Here we go." She half-carried Nell to the bed and laid her down, careful not to wake Cass. As she tucked the covers up around the other woman’s chin, Nell’s eyes fluttered open.

"Y’r good," she said. "Good woman. Thank..." The words drifted into a snore.

Jax chuckled, lightly kissing Nell on the head. She fixed the covers around Cass and went to lay down on the couch, tossing back the rest of her own cup of wine. She covered herself with her long coat and, with a hand on each of her guns, stared into the flames of the dying fire and waited for sleep. The last words Nell said echoed in Jax’s thoughts.

"I’m trying," she whispered. "I surely am trying."

***

The next day found Jax deep in the forest, with three days’ room and board -and a note telling Nell to stay put- left behind at the tavern earlier that morning. She made her way toward Nell’s village, determined to meet this so-called "shaman" herself. It wasn’t long before the forest got in her way. Thick vines had grown across the path, twining among the trunks of the tall trees, making the way all but impenetrable. She reached under her coat and pulled out a long, broad knife.

"I don’t really want to do this," she said, "because if this is what I think it is, then what I’m about to do is going to hurt someone." She waited, and nothing moved. "Fine," she grunted. She sliced at the vines blocking the path, slowly making her way toward the heart of the forest. She was not surprised when the vines closed again behind her, but was curious why nothing else tried to stop her.

It wasn’t long before she figured it out. The vines were leading her. At some point, they began to move out of the way before she sliced them. She allowed them to lead her on, knowing at the end of the path was a trap, but also knowing the way behind was closed. She would fall into the trap, then, and hope she could find some way out of it once she did. After a few more hours of being led through the vines, trees, and underbrush, Jax found herself in a pine grove. Needles crunched under her feet as she stepped into it. At the center, a man stood before a long slab of rock. He turned to her and smiled.

"Welcome," he said.

Jax tipped her hat and slid the knife back under her coat. Assuming a deceptively relaxed stance, she hooked her thumbs in her gunbelt. "You must be Haz, the new shaman I’ve heard so much about."

The shaman affected surprise. "Really? You’ve heard of me? I had no idea my fame had spread beyond the forest. Or perhaps," his smile widened, "you’ve met some of my wayward people."

"Perhaps."

"And just where might they be now?"

"Away from you."

The smile hardened, just a bit. "For now."

"We’ll see."

"Yes," he said, the smile seeming very forced now, "we will."

He waved his hand, and suddenly Jax found herself suspended from the nearest tree by vines at her wrists. Another vine secured her ankles. The shaman approached. "Now," he said, reaching under her coat, "let’s see what gifts you’ve brought me." He unbuckled her gunbelt, which also held her long knife, and tossed it across the small clearing. A search of the inside of her coat revealed two more knives, a pistol, and a small leather-bound book. "Ah," he said, "a spellbook! Something of an amateur magician, are we?"

"I don’t get paid, if that’s what you mean."

His smile turned condescending. "Indeed. Let’s see..." He flipped through the book, muttering, then closed it and tossed it in the pile with the rest of her things. "Well, now that I know what’s in your spellbook, I can counter any magic you might throw at me." He looked up, expecting a retort, and was vaguely disappointed when he didn’t get one. "Okay," he said, "I think I’ll just let you hang there a bit, and, in a few days, when you’re sufficiently weak from hunger and thirst, I’ll cut you down, lay you out on my altar and sacrifice you."

"To whom?"

"What?"

"To whom will I be sacrificed? I didn’t think there were many gods that accepted human sacrifice these days."

He laughed. "Oh, it’s no god, I assure you. What I seek to deal with is far older and far more powerful."

"And that would be..?"

"None of your concern." He turned to leave.

"One more question," she called after him, "before you go."

"Yes?"

"Where is she?"

"Who?"

"The dryad you’ve captured."

"Dryad?"

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, do me the favor of not treating me like an idiot," she said. "No ‘shaman’ has the level of power you do. Shamanic powers are subtle, unobtrusive. The powers you’ve displayed tend to be the province of nature spirits. Let me guess, you tricked one into revealing her true name, and now you have her bound in iron somewhere while you siphon her powers."

"Well, aren’t you clever."

"I do all right. So, where is she?"

"Why should I tell you?"

"Because if I know where she is, I can free her without killing you."

He laughed. "Free her? You’re not exactly in a position to do that by any means, let alone by killing me."

She smiled. "Yes, it sure seems that way, doesn’t it?" She sang a phrase in the melodic language of magic, and the vines released her. She dropped to the ground and walked forward, rubbing her wrists.

He stepped back, a look of shock on his face. "Wait. How? No. That’s-- stop!" He held out his hands, and more vines snaked toward her.

She sang another phrase, and the vines hit an invisible barrier.

"No!" he cried. "Those spells were not in your spellbook!"

"No, they weren’t," she remarked casually, continuing toward her pile of belongings.

"But, the spellbook--"

She reached the pile and crouched down, grabbing one of her guns. As she stood, she aimed it at him. "Decoy," she said, then pulled the trigger. A bullet shattered his kneecap and he fell screaming at the base of the altar. She gathered up the rest of her things, buckling on her gunbelt and returning the knives, pistol and spellbook to their respective inside pockets. "Now," she said, taking aim at his other knee, "where is she?"

"You don’t understand," he moaned, clutching what remained of his left knee, "you can’t kill me!"

"No," she corrected him, "I’d prefer not to kill you, but I will, if you don’t tell me where you’ve hidden the dryad." She shot his other kneecap. "Last chance."

He screamed again. "No! You idiot! I’ve already begun the spell! All that was left was the sacrifice! Kill me, and you risk summoning Zog-Haggoth, The Beast Which Sleeps Beneath The Wood!"

"Never heard of him."

"It’s what I was going to sacrifice you to! It’s one of the Ancient Terrors, wrestled into their prisons by the very gods themselves in the time before Time! If it’s summoned without a Master to control it, it will devour the entire world!"

"Ah." She cleared her throat, lowering her gun. "And you would be able to control it?"

"Yes! I only wanted to command Zog-Haggoth to grant me more power, then I was going to banish it back to its prison! I don’t want the world to be devoured! I was planning on ruling it!"

"Fair point. So, how do you know I couldn’t control it?"

"Have you spent the last month in preparation and study to do so?"

"No."

"Then you can’t."

"Right." She holstered her gun. "Well, I guess I shouldn’t kill you, at least while you’re leaning against that altar stone."

"Ha," Haz said, then his eyes rolled back. "Ahh."

"What?" Jax asked. "What’s wrong?"

Haz looked down at his leg, then at the very large pool of blood beneath it, and then at the flow of blood that spurted from his ruined knee. "It would appear," he said, "that your bullet did more damage than you may have intended." He chuckled weakly. "I seem to be bleeding to death."

Jax knelt beside the dying shaman. "Wait. Maybe I can--"

Haz laughed again, though it was little more than a wheeze. "You can do... nothing... fool. I... go... to my death... gladly... knowing that you... and this whole... wretched... world... will not long... survive me." He spit a mouthful of blood at her. "I hope it... eats you... first." Then he died.

Almost immediately, the ground beneath the altar split and began to rise. Jax leaped back as fire erupted from the cracks. Everything shook, and she could hear a loud roar coming from deep within the earth. She looked down at the ground as it cracked and shook.

"Well, this could be a problem."

***

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