Monday, January 7, 2013

Tooth and Claw: Showdown in the Desert

Prologue, Chapter Seven

Monday, June 25th, 2012
                It was just as Father Dragon had said:  Death was coming from the West, smelling of rose petals and citron, bearing an hourglass.  She had the wind at her back, and so the pack caught her scent on the air before she came into sight.  Beneath the fruity floral scent, there was also the unmistakable smell of decay – blunted by the perfume, but their keen noses would not be deceived.  The straights wouldn’t register it on a conscious level, and were too polite to pay attention to their instincts; they’d just judge everything a bit more harshly around her without even realizing it.
                So that’s how the dead walk among the living, Willy thinks.  His heartbeat kicks up; the others remain calmly alert.  They are crouched on the roof of the Barringer Crater museum, Willy in the lead.  Carter is at his right shoulder, with Uma and Tajo flanking and Elias at the rear.  Willy stares into the night, but he can’t see anything beyond the glare of the sodium vapor lamps below.  They are shielded from sight by a low safety wall at the roof’s edge, and in exchange their own sight is limited.  Loose gravel crunches under Elias’ shoes as he shifts in the electric darkness, the buzz of the lights carrying on beneath the drone of the air conditioners.  They had chosen to wait on the very Southwest corner of the building, as far as they could be from the parking lot lights and rooftop machinery while still being on the roof itself.  To their left was the crater, where Father Dragon watched in the Wild with doubtless equal anticipation.  To their right, the audiovisual cacophony of civilization, electric torches blazing against the night while machines grind against the silence.  And above, the crescent moon waxes, as much Tajo’s moon as it is Uma’s tonight.
                A long silence passed in tension, the pack’s hackles raised, waiting for their quarry to arrive.  There was a tactical advisability to it:  to wait and watch when facing an unknown foe.  Let her do her business and then, then, when she has passed from the eyes of civilization – then you may chase.  But until then, watch.  Wait.  It went against all their instincts.
                But soon, they could see her walking in the darkness between the road and the fence, a lesser shadow emerging from the darkness.  Willy saw her more clearly as she approached:  she carried a large black purse over her shoulder, one hand on the strap and the other holding an hourglass by the leg.  Her dry black hair fell to her shoulders, a wide silk choker at her throat, and her white blouse had a small hole over her heart.  She did not trigger any of the infrared security lights, and then Willy realized what Tajo could have told him from her scent alone:  she was not sweating, she was no warmer than the air around her, and so she wouldn’t be picked up by the electronic eyes.
                She vaults clear over the fence as she nears the building, then continues her brisk walk along the Southern wall, overlooking the dark crater.  Willy makes no move to follow her, listening to the sounds of her shoes on the dry earth below as she walks around the building.  Then she stops short, and Willy sees a small flash of light as he looks over his shoulder at where she must be, accompanied by a crackling sound.  The pack turn their heads to follow his gaze, but otherwise remain stock still.  Willy crosses over to the Wild, and the pack follows him.  He takes off at a light jog to the edge of the roof and crouches against the wall before crossing back, the others just a step behind him.  Nothing but a breeze marks their passing in the Mortal Coil.  But as they moved across the roof in the Wild, a sound rose up – a glass spirit in distress, but not as though it were being shattered.  They couldn’t make sense of the strange cry even as they left the Wild.  There was another dim flash and crackle, from inside now, and the scent of burnt metal and plastic wafts up to them.  Then the click and thump of a push bar swinging a heavy door.  A woman’s voice calls out:
                “Safe passage!  Safe passage again!”
                Two sets of footsteps run through, then there was another door opening – followed by the first door closing, and then the second moments later.  Then the woman walks out, now carrying the Holsinger meteorite on her shoulder.
                Elias knew the rock well.  A nickel-iron meteorite, only a couple of feet long but weighing over half a ton.  He had stood in that very room, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the crater, and put his own hand on it.  It sat on a waist-high pedestal, where anyone could touch it, completely unsecured.  After all, it wasn’t like anyone would just pick up a fourteen-hundred-pound meteorite and walk off.
                And yet she walked off to the East.  They watch her gingerly set down the hourglass, and then tug at the chain link fence – one of the wires comes free as though she were pulling a loose thread from a sweater.  Then she bends to pick up the hourglass again, and walks on into the night.
                “All right,” Carter whispered after the thief had passed out of earshot, “Let’s get after her.”  They cross into the Wild and drop down the side of the building.  The glass spirit has ceased its crying, evidently comfortable in its new shape:  rippling and distorted around a hole big enough for a person to walk through.  They follow the thief’s tracks to the hole in the fence, the unwoven strand lying stiff and twisted on the ground, and walk briskly in her tracks.
                Once they have left the crater and the museum far behind, they cross back into the Mortal Coil.  Beneath the stars, Willy can just make out her heavy tracks in the dust, following her scent at roughly the brisk pace that the thief herself had walked.  She is bearing East by Northeast.  Willy breaks into a light jog, and the others keep pace.  Soon she is in sight again, the meteorite gleaming dully in the night.

                Ferraille turns to face them as they approach, fanning out in a loose arc some ten yards distant.  She sizes them up:  all have the predator’s look about them.  They will not be fooled like the bloodkin whelp, they see her for what she is – there it is in the old man’s eyes, the hint of reverence beneath the accusation.  This could be trouble.
                “We can’t let you take that,” the black one says at last.
                “I have heard this before,” Ferraille replies, letting the meteorite fall from her shoulder.  It sinks into the dry packed earth with a heavy thud.  “And it has not stopped me.”
                “That’s ours,” he clarifies – doubtless the alpha.  The others are clearly taking their cues from him, but he is wary of risking them in an unnecessary conflict.  Good.  Ferraille has a few tricks up her sleeve, but will need her strength to carry the stone, for the journey ahead is long.
                “I know,” Ferraille says.  “Three things you should never do:  never politic against the bloodkin, never trespass against the moonkin, and never gamble against the bramblekin.  I know,” she says again, and winces.  “I am sorry, but I have no choice.”  It doesn’t come.  Odd.
                “You got choices,” the wiry one says.  “You can run, or you can fight.”  He glances at his companions.  “I hope you run.  It’s always more exciting when they run.”
                Ferraille shakes her head before speaking.  “I cannot run with the stone, and I cannot leave it behind.  Yet I do not wish to fight you.”  There it is again – or rather, there it isn’t.
                “Then you shouldn’t have taken what’s not yours,” the alpha says.  She can sort that oddity out later – now she fights.  “Willy, feel her out,” the alpha says with a nod.
                Willy’s bluster leaves him as he turns to his alpha.  “What?!  That rock weighs like fourteen-hundred pounds!  You feel her out!”  But a glance from the alpha silences him.  He straightens his back, rolls his shoulders and rocks his head from side to side, then begins to circle inward at her.  His fingers waggle at his sides, as though he were a gunslinger in the Old West; he licks his lips and stares into her eyes.
                Ferraille sets down her bag and the hourglass next to the meteorite, and takes a step toward the wiry one.  The old man, the scruffy one, and the woman spread out to box her in.  She spreads her palms and speaks to the wiry one:  “You leave me with no choice.”  Her stance does not change, but she galvanizes herself as the wiry one – Willy – steps almost within arm’s reach.
                Lightning fast, his fist rises at her jaw – but does not connect.  She has leaned back just enough to make him question whether she moved at all.  There is only the slightest moment’s hesitation as she feels more than sees that twitch in his hip to telegraph the next punch, and she drops her weight at the same moment he commits with his shoulder.  As his fist goes again for where her jaw just was, her fingertips rise and dig deep between his ribs.  She puts a little juice into it, just enough to scare the pup, and he leaps away with a yelp.  He retreats just a step more, his hand going to his ribs, then straightens himself and squares off with her again.  The other four continue to pace at the edge of the ring, one always out of sight.  Willy advances, and something changes in the way the alpha is carrying his weight, straight ahead of her.
                She drops to one knee a half-step back, just as she hears the quickening footsteps on all sides.  Swinging her arms wide, the alpha leaps – and so do the others, she hears – and Ferraille brings her hands together with a clap of thunder.  A bright spark arcs between her palms just before they connect, and the five are thrown clear of her.  She rises to her feet, hands smoking as the dogs around her clutch their ears in agony.  They stagger to their feet, dazed.
                “I shall say once more,” she calmly repeats, “I do not wish to fight you.”  The alpha shakes his head back and forth, clearing it.  The others show no sign of advancing, but neither do they show any sign of backing down.  “I have your stone and your pride,” she continues, “Shall I take your lives as well?”
                Carter recalls the words of Father Dragon as he foretold the thief’s coming:  stop her if you can, but do not waste your lives if you cannot.  They can suffer this loss, let this trespass go unpunished, or they can lose another one – or two – or three.  The choice was bitter, but easy.
                “Let her go,” Carter says between his teeth.  Willy feigns disappointment to cover his relief; the others are more honest.
                Ferraille nods, slings the strap of her purse across herself, then hoists the meteorite to her shoulder as if it were a sack of potatoes.  She then grabs the hourglass by one of its legs, and walks into the night.
                An hour later, she is grateful to leave the moonkin behind her, grateful to be once again alone with her thoughts in the desert night.  But what was that back there?  Ordinarily, the slightest gesture of mercy would have been unthinkable to her.  Was her master’s eye growing tired, perhaps?  If so, then –
                Ferraille drops the meteorite, and nearly drops the hourglass as well.  Her hands rise to clutch her head as she is wracked with the old familiar sting of betrayal. Mais voilà, she thinks distantly.  She banishes the thought from her mind, but the conclusion had already formed, and tucked itself safely away.
                She looks down at the stone:  it has fallen end-on into the dirt, buried well over a foot deep.  She tries to lift it, but it must have turned even as it sunk into the ground.  She clutches her purse – she has many tools, tools for entering and leaving and travelling, but no tools for digging.  She stares dully at the rock for a moment, then begins to dig into the hard packed earth with her hands.

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