There was light, though the sun was not yet over the towering peaks surrounding the little pocket clearing hidden among the trees. Jack Hill walked steadily down the final game trail, letting his breathing normalize from the three mile hike. Sweat threatened to to chill him now. He ignored it, his attention going to the corral ringing the clearing. The posts were tired and gray, some of them splintered, a few showing signs of rotting off at the base already. He really should do something about replacing those. Not that there was any rush; a fresh post would almost assuredly trigger a Forest Ranger’s curiosity, should one such happen to visit this particular acre of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
He closed the gate that nearly always remained open, walked to the center of the enclosure…and smiled. The marker rocks, flat and unobtrusive, remained where he’d placed them. Excellent. He was not so foolish as to assume no hunter or hiker or overly zealous government employee had been here since his last visit, but it was always good to see that nothing important had been disturbed. It allowed him the fantasy, just for a moment, of being the only man in the world, or at least in the wilderness. He stepped on the first marker, lifted a knife from the shingled leather leg harness of his own design, and threw. The morning stillness yielded to a solid -thunk!- as the blade bit into the gatepost, the first of eight hits delivered in rapid succession. Fortunately for the gatepost, the hits were spotted all around the circle. Eight daggers thrown, eight hits.
But not perfect hits. Hill scowled as he retrieved the third knife. It was stuck into the wood for which he’d aimed, all right, nailed by a throw from thirty-two feet. But the hit was off, a good two inches to the right of his point of aim.
I’ll need to work on that. His first teachers had instructed him to still his thoughts completely, but that had never worked for him. Instead, he let thoughts come as they would but offered them no resistance, letting them flow through the mind and go on their merry way. I really didn’t lie to Tree when I told him I was little more than a kid during the Civil War. He really hadn’t…although he hadn’t exactly been born during the 19th century, either. Being told a thousand times that he had no talent for shapeshifting hadn’t convinced him; it had taken getting stuck between to truly show him the error of his ways. Desperately flailing between his own original form and that of a giant Anaconda, he’d somehow wrenched sideways…and become a walk-in, or more accurately a fall-in, resuscitating a total stranger’s little five year old body. The Soul born to that body had already left, of course, that being the difference between a walk-in and a possession.
Man, it was a bitch, hanging onto myself, not forgetting who I really was. It had taken him nearly seventy years to immortalize the boy’s body, by which time it could hardly be called a boy. An old man, at least in appearance.
The tin cans he’d brought in his pack were all set up, one atop each fence post. Picking a different marker rock, one that placed him far closer to one side of the corral than the others, he went to work, spinning, ducking, diving in mock combat as blue fire lanced from his right hand, swift strikes designed to blast the innocent cans. Gunfighters used to train similarly, he knew; he’d been one, of a sort. Three right hand blue strikes…then reverse the Flow, three more cans down to red strikes powered through the left palm. Time to Braid. Rolling over in the early spring grass, avoiding an imaginary enemy’s bayonet strike, he came up on one knee, thrusting both palms forward. This took more than a little precision; he’d never even heard on anyone else who could do it. The two beams lasered toward the little Campbell’s soup can more than forty feet away. Timing was everything; the beams had to flow together at just the right spot, some fourteen inches in front of the target.
Which they did; his control was rusty, but still good enough for that. The colors twined together, wrapped around each other, became purple to the naked eye…and struck the can. Unfortunately, he’d put a little too much into it. The spear of purple light did not simply pierce the can and knock it from the post as had been intended. Rather, the can exploded, as did a section of the nearest lodgepole pine behind it, and the pine behind that. The trees toppled, leaving jagged, scorched stumps as mute testimony to his recklessness. Damn!
He hadn’t meant to harm the trees. Not that he had much choice. Not with Willow growing like a little weed, he didn’t. Her enemies hadn’t found the baby yet, but they were getting close.
Well, practice makes perfect. Stepping outside the corral for a moment, he retrieved an old post that was simply lying on the ground next to a tree, obviously discarded. Setting the center place rock aside revealed a six inch pipe set in concrete. The loose post, dropped into that hole, stood upright–or at least close enough to upright for his purposes. Turning his back to the old gray hunk of wood, Jack flexed. A ridge of translucent crystal spikes burst outward, armoring his spine from shoulder to hip. The post shuddered, pierced through in a dozen places by blades that had no “real” substance, being formed of nothing but pure solidified Neutral.
He’d found this particular technique quite useful against big guys who thought they could grab you from behind without repercussions.
Hill worked on through the morning, continually loosening up until he finally felt he was ready, and then…the Well. It took a moment to be sure he was ready; messing with the Well was not something an intelligent fellow took lightly. There. There it is. His first teachers hadn’t called it the Well, of course. In fact, they’d probably not even known it existed, this fathomless reservoir of the Neutral current. Can’t you see, he’d asked his mentor, the three currents? I know the pundits talk about just two, Positive and Negative, but there’s the Neutral, too. Can’t you see? No; they could not see. They’d thrown him out on his keister for his heresy.
From that time forward, except when the Weaver had been around, he’d worked best alone…until now. Now he had access to the greatest weapon he’d ever known, the woman thought of by others as one they must protect, she being no fighter at all. If they knew Carolyn West was his secret weapon…but they didn’t know. They didn’t know of her ability to hold almost limitless Neutral current in reserve, terrified to release any of it through either Positive (right hand) or Negative left hand) groundings, frightened of what she might do with so much power if ever she indulged herself.
Yet she trusts me with it, and that’s a good thing. I think.
Still, he did need to explore his capabilities, find out what the Carolyn/Jack pairing could truly do. Which meant destroying something dramatically, triggering an explosion people were likely to hear as far away as Ovando. Hopefully, they’d put it down to work at the new limestone quarry. Except for the quarry workers themselves, but you couldn’t have everything.
The corral was far too flimsy for what he had in mind. A quarter mile away, however, a beetle browed granite outcrop begged to volunteer its services. Visible from the corral clearing, halfway up the southeast mountain slope, the hunk of hardrock had to weigh a good twenty tons or more. Quit procrastinating. Jack tapped the Well, getting a feel for how much of Carolyn’s Neutral he could allow through his own channels without frying his brain completely. And…there. Again the twin lasers shot forth, one red, one blue. Again they combined shortly before reaching their target, though precisely how much before was impossible to ascertain with any certainty at this distance.
When the outcrop exploded, it didn’t just go boom and rain rocks. The back blast was enough to make Jack Hill evermore grateful for Wayne’s reminder to wear his earplugs. A few of the resulting bits of stone fell from the sky into the corral itself, though most of the rockfall was much closer to ground zero.
“That,” Hill said quietly to himself, “was downright impressive, and barely tapping the possibilities at that.” It took him a moment to realize he’d spoken aloud.
All right, then. He’d worried about that, but distance between them did not seem to be a problem. With his slave girl anchoring the Well, power was obviously their friend…except that the back blast might kill them all before the enemy could. It would kill them if he wasn’t careful. He really needed to work on his control, refine it considerably.
Without pausing for lunch, the old Protector worked on into the afternoon. Many a fantasy book swore up, down, and sideways that doing stuff like this wore a guy out. They called it magic. They were full of crap on both counts. It was the most natural thing in the world, and he could work with it all day.
Which he might have to do if things kept going the way they were going. Thankfully, he didn’t have to do it all. As usual, Treemin was working his own wonder, weaving together an alliance of sometimes strange and disparate people that somehow became much greater than the sum of its parts. The Trace couple, Sam and Jennifer–before Sam was gunned down by Morse Code–had started it all, but it hadn’t ended there. Good God, man, think about it! How many people do you know who could cobble together a coalition that included one big good looking black man, that man’s own giant uncle, a number of women, ranching interests, former assassins, one former Marine, a gay guy, a whiz kid, a giant digger alien, and of course little old me?
It was nearly three p.m. by the time Hill called it quits, leaving the practice corral and heading on back down out of the wilderness. Overall, he wasn’t dissatisfied, but he wasn’t feeling cocky, either. Heartbite would be no easy kill. Still, the Wizard and the Weaver were finally back together, both at full strength for the first time in a very long time indeed.
It would have to be enough.