CUYA COUNTY JAIL
Deputy Marhsal Thomas glanced at the clock. Ten p.m., or close enough to it. Setting aside the officially approved copy of Cuya Rules and Regs he’d been reading, he rose from his hard wooden chair, selected the MDK (middle door key) from the rack, and let himself into the long corridor running between cells. Only one prisoner behind bars tonight; he supposed he ought to be grateful for that.
The inmate was sleeping. How anyone could doze off on those iron benches was beyond the jailer, but they did it.
Since it wouldn’t do to log in a cell check of less than a minute, he decided to hang out for a while. At least the mandatory ID form in its glass-fronted case was unique.
GRANT ECKLES HOWARD
Known BLACK WIZARD
Known WHITE WIZARD
Arrested on charge of
aiding and abetting
three RUNAWAY CITIZENS
in their ATTEMPTED
Howard would be executed on a phony charge, of course. Nobody in power wanted it known that heresy was the real problem. Disbelief in the Boss. Disbelief in the system. It was enough to make any loyal Cuya County citizen shudder with delicious fright. Nothing like terror. The CCP had neutered this one’s magic. Nobody messed with the Council of County Practitioners. They were the gold standard when it came to magic, revered protectors of the citizenry. The crowd celebrating tomorrow’s execution would be huge, picnic baskets, government distillery hooch, rousing speeches and all. It would be a fire, the only suitable end for an unsanctioned practitioner. Never mind that fire inherently produced far greater entertainment value than mere hanging. More time, pretty flames. Satisfying screams. Hanging had none of that.
Still, Thomas retained a small, nagging voice of conscience. Howard had once helped him out. Saved his bride’s baby, back before she was his bride, three weeks prior to their so-called shotgun wedding. It made him wonder. Not about the man’s guilt. Never about that. G. E. Howard had been accused and had not been able to prove his innocence. For the good of the County, he must pay the price. So it was said, so it was known, so it would be done. Societal cancers must be excised with speed and precision for the good of all, lest they spread their poison like capriosi vilify itself. ___The Arc of Truth, p. 223, third paragraph.
Facing the wall, the cancer slept on. For now.
I’d been re-drafted into the Army, though we were still in civilian clothes. Even the sergeant.
We were left to our own devices after a time, milling about aimlessly. Many were bored. I never got bored. Besides, I’d been here before, done my military service years ago. Boredom was a big part of that. The younger guys–and all were younger guys in my eyes–didn’t know the drill yet.
Alone in a sense, nobody else paying attention, I spotted a curious blade lying on the ground. Gently curved, good sized black handle of some Before composite material. Straight, nine inch long blade, but no ordinary blade. Not at all. A razor of sorts, but with a thick, strong spine hollow ground down to a slicey-sharp edge. Light, thin, fast, but no point and only three eighths of an inch, give or take, from edge to spine.
Curious, curious blade.
I was drawn to it. Strongly. Picked it up. The Army might not let me keep it long term, but for now it was mine.
We’re in a large, somewhat dark building. Another man and I sit by a window facing wild meadow, a distant stream, some shrubbery. A tall orange cow–Guernsey?–enters, stage left. Comes toward our window, looking at us with love-eyes. She’s underweight. Maybe hoping for grain?
Two of the nastier new recruits (this is not the Army of my youth) enter the building, laughing coarsely, cleaning muck from their clothes in desultory fashion. Both are big men, one somewhat larger than the other. This leader carries a large caliber pistol which he has fired in the building for fun and games. They’ve just had other fun and games.
“You killed the cow?” My voice is quiet.
“Sliced her throat,” the lesser monster admits proudly.
“I wish,” I continue in the same quiet tone, “someone would slit your throat.”
The gun-toting man promptly attacks, but not with his pistol. No, it is knife time.
In knife fights, you’re going to get cut. I know this. I avoid knife fights.
But this one is not avoidable. The strangely beautiful fixed-blade razor is in my hand. My enemy swishes through the air with so much force that when he misses it spins clear around and my thin blade opens up a wild red gash across his back. It is on for real now. Kill or be killed. Twice, maybe three times, possibly four, my offensive right arm is sliced. Blood flies, but the limb remains functional and although it takes time, way too much time, I basically slice the big man to ribbons. Gradually it seems, though likely far too quickly for his taste, he disappears until nothing is left but some sort of small gray shield, floating in the air as I continued to slice beneath it…
I woke up. Stared at the bars to my freedom, backlit by the candelabra hung from the hallway ceiling. No one there. The dream was important in some way–ah. Heh. Many a song had come down through the centuries to us, surviving even the Fall of humanity. One such was the classic Jim Croce tune, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim. I couldn’t remember all of it, just the most important part.
Well a hush fell over the pool room
Jimmy come boppin’ in off the street
And when the cuttin’ were done
The only part that wasn’t bloody
Was the soles of the big man’s feet
My arm seemed fine. No carry-through from the inner planes, then. Good.
But the razor’s edge…I’d known I had to walk it. I hadn’t known I’d have to wield it.
There was no clock in the cell block, but I didn’t need one. My Sense told me it was late evening, not yet midnight. Full moon outside. Halloween a-coming soon. Doom arriving by noon if I didn’t act before then. Boss Cuya, on advice from his practitioner advisers, always scheduled executions for high noon. Black was weakest then, White strongest.
Or so they figured.
They also figured I was done for. And they’d have been right if I was practicing either white or black magic these days. What they didn’t know…correction. What they refused to know was that my strength, such as it was, no longer came from either. I’d told them. They simply couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe that I’d walked away from Black in my late teens. Could believe even less that I’d abandoned White a decade later.
Or maybe they did believe. They might have condemned me even faster for that. Blacks sought power, were addicted to it like escapists to drugs or certain politicians to all-encompassing central government. Whites were back-patters, congratulating themselves for being oh so heroically helpful to those in need. Either path enslaved its practitioners just as the practitioners enslaved those they “helped.” Anyone who dared tread the middle path, the razor’s edge, was anathema to both the goody-two-shoes and the baddy-kick-shoes…because the Edgist didn’t need them.
Hot diggety. Eureka time. Thank you, jail!
Or…maybe not so much thanks to the jail. It had given me respite, a time to think, but now I’d better be thinking about how to escape. So far as I knew, there was nothing about the middle path that required me to literally stick my head in the noose or light my own funeral pyre.
No. “Well, Gizmo,” I murmured under my breath, “let’s see what my assets are.” Gizmo being my name for God. Or maybe one of God’s messengers. I might have the name wrong. Probably did. But there was a method to my madness. If a tattler heard me mention God, I’d be sentenced to death for that alone, or even mobbed in the street. But Gizmo? Slightly eccentric, maybe mentally ill, but no big red God-word flags.
My assets. Were I to use magic–the “neutering” spells the CCP had used were useless against me, as I knew full well–escape would be simplicity itself. Will the three doors between cell and freedom to unlock, put the jailer to sleep, and down the street I’d go.
Yeah. Problem with that. His fault or not, a lone jailer who allowed a dangerous felon to flee untouched would find himself incarcerated and tortured at best. My conservative, true-believing father had learned that the hard way in the final days before the heart attack that mercifully ended his life. Mom had hung herself a month later. Billy Thomas was good people; I couldn’t do that to him. And besides, magic was out, remember?
Man. Walking this razor’s edge was going to end up making my feet all sorts of bloody.
I could cast out a mental call for help. Audrey would gladly help. Better yet, she was too highly placed to be at serious risk even if she was caught.
Yeah. Problem with that. I didn’t think simple mental speech was on the forbidden list for razor-walkers, but the charismatic Mrs. Janssen was doing her best to stay loyal to her husband these days. Since said husband was Boss Cuya himself…no. Definitely not.
Could I pick the lock mechanically?
Nope. I had neither the requisite skills nor the necessary lock-picking tools for that. Not even a bent paperclip. Relying on magic for all those years had really left me quite defective in the arts of mundane survival.
My mind drifted. Dangerous, but a break was necessary. Political help from any quarter at all? One by one, I checked off the possibilities, consigning each in turn to the no-way trash heap. One of the Five Great Nations, Cuya County’s mostly white population was ruled with an iron rod, so no help there. Hooded Cobra was essentially Asian, governed by a triumvirate allowing even less flexibility in the lives of its citizens than Cuya County. The 13 Bloody Crips–well, anyone who’d read up on America’s Before society could figure that one out: A tense blend of Hispanic and African-American folks run by a single all-powerful gang. I didn’t know who held the current reins of power there, but whoever it was, a tall skinny white dude like me would be nothing but fresh bait for them. The Native Americans UTE (Unified Tribes Eternal) group? Maybe. If I could reach them, they might take me in as a token white wannabe shaman or something. But they were just as likely to come down on me hard unless I arrived with a wife carrying obvious NA blood in her veins.
Audrey had that, but Audrey was not an option. I couldn’t condemn her to the sort of life I’d have to lead from here on out.
That left the WJS, the Western Jewish State. I had to give them credit. They weren’t termites, as notorious black racist Louis Farrakhan had intimated in the 21st century, but they surely did rival cockroach fame when it came to surviving the worst planet Earth could throw at them. I admired those people considerably. Having learned their lesson over the centuries, survivors of capriosi vilify had somehow found each other, banded together, and built a war-capable society of which they were justifiably proud.
But they were suspicious of outsiders, with good reason. A white string bean like me, innocent as I might look with my baby face still noticeable at thirty-one years of age, I could easily be a Cuya County plant. An infiltrator. It wouldn’t be the first time, thanks to Boss Cuya’s endless plotting and scheming against them. I didn’t know which the anti-Semite wanted more: Elimination of the warrior Jews or access to their rich farmlands.
So no. No lock-picking skills without using magic, no help from Audrey, no sanctuary in any of the other large cities in this end of the country. No…no nothing, really.
Being a good boy was a real pain.
I checked my time sense again. First hour after midnight. The sands in the hourglass of my life were running out, pouring steadily. Deadlines sucked.
In the end, specifically around two hours past midnight, all that mental cogitation boiled down to…yeah. Nothing. I was going to have to go with Nothing. Capital N. With only voices-in-my-head and the occasional DOG (dream of guidance) to steer me along my way, I had to use more than a bit of common sense with a heaping dollop of guessing, but it seemed to me that while “unearthly skills” either pushed for someone or against someone, other techniques that neither “pushed” nor “pulled” might be razor’s-edge acceptable.
Not counting nonverbal communication over distance and occasional bouts of pure knowing, I had exactly one such skill that might get me out of here. Emphasis on might.
Time sense check. Three a.m., give or take. Another hour to wait. Or rather, practice and prepare. Shift change happened at four a.m. No way was I going to leave Billy’s head on the block as a lone scapegoat, but the morning shift jailer was another matter. He had more seniority; even if he and Billy took the hit together, there was a good chance the older law enforcement anal cavity would get hit hardest. Cass Wrack deserved all the rebound nasty karma he could get. Not a nice guy in any sense of the word. Been there, got the bruises to prove it. If he was a dream dude, he’d be the guy I’d sliced to nothingness with a nine-inch razor.
Wasn’t there a band back a few centuries ago, Nine Inch Nails? Useless trivia.
When the key finally turned in the cellblock lock, I almost wasn’t ready. For one thing, it hurt to move. The CCP hadn’t been gentle when they’d arrested me for heresy. Fortunately, the staff’s rigid adherence to duty was as reliable as–huh. Simile block. There wasn’t much of anything reliable these days. Except Gizmo and the Edge, of course. And the Guide. I’d met the Guide a time or two. I thought. In my dreams. Maybe once on the street.
My cell was #3 of six on the right-hand side. As always, they came down this side first. Two empty cells and then me. Lying on the iron bench, feigning sleep with my face to the wall, I heard Billy’s tenor voice at my door.
“Grant Eckles Howard, Cell #3, present and accounted for.”
“Prisoner Howard, present and accounted for, check.” Wrack’s dark voice was a cross between a snarl and a growl. A minor demon might have had a voice like that.
They moved on, repeating the checklist callout for each empty cell. I didn’t have much time. Rolling off the bench, I suppressed a groan, forcing my body to land cat-silent on the concrete floor. Easing over to the wall beside the barred and locked cell door, I took a quick gut-check. I had to–okay. “YEARGH-H-H-H!” Blood-curdling scream, copied from a victim I’d watched die from my dark magic when I was fifteen. The sound was aimed at the bunk, near as I could get it.
Surely ventriloquism did not count as magic, right?
Thomas and Wrack came hustling toward my cell, conditioned by long training to run toward trouble in the jail, not away from it. Billy was technically in charge until he officially turned the jail over to his replacement, but I was counting on ol’ Wrack and Wruin’s natural aggression to take charge in this situation.
It did. The older, meaner jailer’s panicked yell echoed off the walls. “What the–where did he go?”
It shouldn’t have worked, but man’s reptile brain is a curious thing. Jolt it out of its daily routine with a startling blast of the unexpected and all bets are off. I’d truly sounded like I was being torn apart. Kind of scared myself, thanks to the way those reinforced walls had amplified everything. The marshals should have automatically suspected a trick, but I had supposedly trafficked with forces known for gruesome irony whenever they got a chance to nail a dark practitioner. Plus, I was the only man ever accused of both White and Black wizardry and I’d been psychically neutered (they thought) by the CCP itself.
In other words, they now believed they were facing the biggest boogey being of all time, right there in their own little mundane jail. Their thinking caps short-circuited. They panicked.
“Get the cell key!” Wrack’s yell might be senseless, but I understood. In fact, I was counting on it. Opening a cell where something screamed horribly and disappeared was a foolish move. It was also necessary. The Marshal wouldn’t be coming to work until after breakfast, somewhere around nine a.m. If one of his jailers arrived at the top lawman’s house in the middle of the night, pounding on the door with a story about a scream and a missing prisoner, the old man would ask first thing, “Did you search the cell?”
Better to risk the denizens of Hell unplugged than the wrath of Chief Marshal Justice.
Billy’s boots came pounding back into the cell block. He fumbled the key and dropped it. Wrack cursed, shoved him out of the way–according to my ears, anyway–and jammed the key into the lock. He was first into the eight-by-eight cell, striding over to the bench, Billy right on his heels. I barely had enough room to slip out without brushing against the younger man.
Invisibility is a tricky sort of thing. The CCP would assume I’d used magic to cast a veiling spell despite my “neutering.” Somehow. They’d believe that to their bones because they were deeply inculcated to believe so. They literally couldn’t believe anything else.
That there might be another way would never occur to them. But there was. For all I knew, there might be a dozen other ways. My technique sounded fairly simple: Imagine a reflective shield between myself and others, showing themselves back to themselves. At the same time, keep my attention away from them so they would not feel the “hunter’s eye” upon them.
Okay. Maybe not so simple. Maybe it doesn’t even make sense. But it had worked the few times I’d tried it in the past.
Admittedly, the stakes had never been this high. Not even close.
I moved quickly toward the front office, but not too quickly. The reflective shield had to be maintained a while longer. Any sudden disturbance, such as breaking into a run or stubbing my toe, would put the deputies on me in half a heartbeat.
Of course Billy had left the cell block door unlocked. Panic will do that. Count on it.
It looked chilly out there, a few degrees below freezing. Too bad, Billy. His sheepskin-lined winter coat fit me better than Wrack’s blanket-lined canvas. Warmer, too. Besides, Wrack’s evil stink offended my nostrils and Billy’s cold weather garment had a brand new pair of cowhide gloves peeping out of one pocket. Pretty spendy for a junior deputy marshal.
With that, I was out the door and gone, shrugging into the coat on the fly. The sleeves were a little short, but otherwise, not bad.
I had only seconds to disappear; once the jailers realized Billy’s garment was gone, they’d figure out way too much, way too fast. Yet it looked like the Guide, or the Edge, or both, had taken a hand. Helping me out. Not a star in the sky; full moon or no, Cuya City was blinded under a deep overcast. Yippee. This was my home turf. I knew every street, every alley, every building on every street. I was a city boy, born and bred. No one would expect me to head west, out into the wilderness.
Gloves? Gloves. I decided to don them as I was darting down the alley between Blind Street and Brown Street. Reached into the empty pocket first and found another pleasant surprise. Felt like…I was sure of it. A folding knife. Double hot diggety.
Well. Hm. My legs had complained at first but seemed to be loosening up rapidly. For a time, jogging on automatic. my mind skittered about, making its own checklist. Karma for stealing Billy’s stuff? I’d incurred some. No question about that. Hopefully only a moderate amount. Would the Council decide he was culpable in a high profile prisoner’s escape, decided to make him a scapegoat? They might. Facts wouldn’t matter. With Council members, they never did. But the past is the past; I could do nothing for him now.
Food. I would need food. My preplanned route would take me through an old orchard at the edge of town. Looked like apples for breakfast. Meat was going to be a challenge. I was no vegetarian, but I’d never hunted, killed, slaughtered, or beat to death a living creature for my food. Leaving that unpleasant task to others was going to be a pretty high priority, but how to do it? I wouldn’t be able to trust anyone until I’d left the Five Great Nations country behind.
And then…and then what? Few of civilization’s people ever went out west. It was a barbarous, spooky, you-gotta-be-kidding place from what I’d heard. Thousands of miles–thousands!–where few people lived other than roving bands of raiders and those insane traders who risked their wagons, horses, mules, and lives for the chance of profit. Gamblers, every one.
I was no gambler. Give me a sure thing every time.
As long as it’s not my sure death by execution for heresy at high noon, gallows or burning optional.
The apple orchard loomed close, arriving minutes before first light. It seemed that way, like the trees were moving toward me, not me toward them. One thing I’d always had was a great pair of legs. Not pretty-girl great, mind you. Traveling great. Long and lean, covering ground at a five-mile-per-hour clip on level ground. I’d once matched a purebred Tennessee Walker for eight hours straight, then outdistanced the horse as he tired. Compared to other men, I could cover ground in a hurry. But outrun predators of either the human or animal kind? Not so much. If I wanted to survive, there would be times I’d have to fight whether I liked it or not.
Oh, my. Great River. I’d forgotten about Great River. Anybody heading west had to cross the flood, like it or not. How did they do it? Boats? I’d never been in a boat. Swimming was out of the question; my bony frame swam like a rock.
Winter was coming. Already here, practically. Shivering fear took me as I munched apples, souring the sweet juice as it ran down my throat. I almost choked before taking hold of myself.
One thing at a time. The sun would be coming up soon, yet I had to keep moving. With the first rays of dawn, every practitioner in the Council would be casting tracking spells. Those were not nearly as effective as they thought, especially against a walker of the Edge who produced fewer ragged aura openings than most of his fellow human beings, but they couldn’t be dismissed casually, either. I had two things working in my favor. One, the tendency of those so-called top wizards to disbelieve their lying eyes. Two, they were all cowards.
Not one of them would grasp the truth at first, no matter what their spells indicated. Better yet, once they did realize I’d fled west, their hearts would quail. Following a super-dangerous, double-magicked, heretical wizard into the vast unknown where rattlesnakes might bite their butts every time they squatted? Unthinkable. Beyond city limits, they would never follow.
That was the source of my greatest optimism. Mundane trackers, even dogs, I could elude with ease. I’d been doing it since I could walk.
Stuffing my pockets with more apples, I moved on. There was a gully running west. For a time, I would follow it, disappearing like the ghost my legend would become. As I ran, my morning dedication puffed softly between my lips.
I hereby dedicate myself this day
As a clear vehicle
For the Gismo, the Edge, and the Guide
With gratitude eternal
And love everlasting
Thank you All
The sun was up behind me, breaking through the clouds, casting my shadow well before me. It looked like it was going to be a beautiful day.
Maybe there was something to this razor’s edge thing after all.