A Star Alone: The Texas Chronicles

The Wall and Judith Mackowitz

I know the government would like a glorious story. A tale that makes us heroes, and sometimes we were. Sometimes we were villains, a hated breed. Others we were nothing at all. Here’s the truth of it. Over eight hundred years of it.

The bombs fell. And it sucked somethin’ awful. Fire and death and poison that choked the world on its own bile. Something that couldn’t be ignored.

Brother was turned against brother. The East fought the North fought the West fought the South. Countries were torn apart. Crops withered and died with the cattle in the fields, bloated on their own gas.

But the worst part? The absolute worst part that stung worse than any wound or blight?

The world forgot about Texas.

We heard the bombs falling. Saw it on television, read it in our papers. As long as the world had communication, we knew about the war. Then one day it all stopped. And we knew we were next.

We waited for the war. Stacked our bullets next to our guns. All those pussy laws about gun control were proven just as wrong as we knew them to be. Every man, woman and child had a gun clutched in their hands. Huddled in their homes, sights trained on the door. No one was taking us without a damn fight.

But no one came. No thug Yankees, or wuss Westerners. Even the wetbacks stopped coming. It made us even more nervous. Like it was a trap. Weeks turned to months to years. After the first decade it started to settle on our minds that maybe no one was coming.

Or maybe, just maybe, they were sneaking across. Nothin’s big like Texas is big. And even we admit some of Texas is just plain empty. Rolling plains that stretch across imagination. What if all these enemies just weren’t seen? The government, still being elected like nothing happened (and we hated that part), decided that a wall was a real good plan. Only instead of just next to the Rio Grande, we needed it everywhere.

Did I mention Texas was big?

The first Texans rushed out to the four corners. Armed with picks, shovels and mortar, determined to protect their great state. Soon they started to build, down to the gulf and across the West.

In the north, there was Judith Mackowitz.

The story gets murky after so many years. You have to go all the way back to the diaries of the workers on June 5th to really understand a clear picture. Even then, it seems miraculous.

They had just laid the foundation for the northern wall. It was maybe a few yards closer than spitting distance to the Sooners. A hot day, sun was up, every single one of those men and women were sweating like hogs. But there was a wall that needed to be built, and they were out there.

All of a sudden, out of the Oklahoma county comes this skinny white girl, racing a horse across the plains. The builders stop, lower their tools and pick up rifles and pistols. One of the men, the foreman Terry Williamson, looked down the scope to see this girl. Blonde curly hair flying in and out of her face as she races a quarter-horse half to death. And behind her were the fiends of Hell.

Winged devils, that’s what they were thought to be. Mottled skin, with green hair and yellowed eyes. While we know now they were probably some rogue faeries out for some fun and mischief, the Texans back then must have thought the war was the Apocalypse given life. And these were Satan’s hordes, taking a poor girl down below.

What was going through their heads? Later, many said they were torn. This could’ve been a trap, a pretty woman leading the fiends to our doorstep. Even if she was innocent, better to shoot them all, just in case. They were flying, what was going to happen to them? Or this girl?

But Judith Mackowitz was faster. She raced right across the plains, spurred that horse right across the new foundation. She leaped off that horse, and was behind the builders before the faeries came within twenty yards.

The words, though garbled by some accounts, is always the same in reports. One of the fae, one with golden wings, groaned. “Texans,” It muttered.

Judith Mackowitz snatched the rifle out of Terry Williamson’s hands, and placed one between the eyes of every fae before they could blink.

“Shoot the bastards before they have a chance at magic,” She muttered, handing the gun back to Terry. “Ain’t this Texas?”

Judith Mackowitz enjoyed a long career as sheriff of one of the new border towns for forty years. You can see the monument to her stand today, right at the border.

Also on that very spot the new Texan motto was created, by Judith Mackowitz herself. Consider her standing at the border, rifle sitting on her shoulder as she looked back over the prairie. One of the builders walked over to her with the sad news that her horse died, a burst heart from the long gallop across the plains.

Hearing this, Mackowitz shrugged.

“It’s Texas. Wussies need not apply,” She muttered.

The phrase stuck.

The Torre Spell Shots

Magic was real.

That’s a frightening concept for a Texan. Every single one of them were good, God-fearing Texans. They knew what was real. What could be felt, what could be shot.

But those winged bastards chasing down Judith Mackowitz were real.

Those first few decades were hard on the great State. You have to understand, Texans now had a real enemy. Something that wasn’t even human.

There were the tales. Tales of fantasy creatures, running amok. They weren’t just in one place, but everywhere. Things that could fly, or change. Men with the heads of cattle, winged like an angel. They stared at the walls, almost debating whether or not it was worth trying to breach.

Then they would disappear. Texas would have made them pay, you can be sure of that.

Texas did its best to be normal. The wall was built, in pieces at least. To get in, you had to cross a desert, swim the gulf, or assault a fortress. If someone had the balls to get through that, then they must be deserving of the title Texan. We got our share of refugees, though we never called them such. They were survivors.

This is hard to say, hard to explain. How Texas was trying to define itself. The average Texan wasn’t trying to make a statement, or run off to war, or change the world. In the early days everyone just wanted to be left alone. There was an apocalypse going on outside our borders. Let it happen, just don’t let it bother us.

It was this kind of thinking that scattered the state into its cities and towns. As electricity and communications started to die out in the years afterwards, each town slowly drew away from the rest of the state. Until one day you considered yourself a Texan first, but of Dallas a close second.

It’s true today. We pay fealty to the Governor, true enough. But the sheriffs and mayors are the ones who truly hold our hearts.

I think magic had a lot to do with this.

It snuck in. Nothing stopped it from coming in. Not the walls, or deserts or big blue sea. It seeped into the very earth and changed us. People started to wake up and find themselves able to fly, or cast lightning. It was terrifying.

We got used to it. And then set about to finding a use for it.

Texas was a land of guns. What’s a gun? Think a big long iron pole, hollowed out and with a handle on one end. You load pellets of metal and dragon dust in, and ignite it. Yes, that does sound dangerous. That’s what Sammy Torres thought too.

About forty years after Mackowitz rolled in, and the wall was built, Torres walked out of the scrag. A young man, he spent most of his time eking out a living hunting and running a minor horse ranch just outside what was then the oil fields. A simpler man, at least that’s what everyone thought.

In truth Sam Torres was an educated man. He had gone to University before returning to the land. As magic came to be, it started to affect his land. One day it would be fertile, the next it was orange. Guns started to misfire, and wolves came back to hunt his herd.

Torres saw. He studied. And came to the nearest town with a solution.

The first Spell Shot.

Magic was hard to understand in the early days, and even harder to control. Anyone attempting a spell had as good a chance at setting themselves on fire as causing a good rain. But what Torres came up with was something very different than a staff, or one of those froufy wands the outsiders are so fond of. No, these were weapons, and looked as such.

A good wood for the barrel. Kept shorter, under seven inches, and rubbed with pig fat boiled down to strengthen the wood.  The handle was bronze wrapped in leather. Torres’ own, the very first was horsehide, from one of his favorite studs that had been savaged by a wolf. That horse helped bring that animal down six months later.

Even with the first, what captivated Texas was the ease with which Torres’ arms could be used. A simple command word, and barely any effort was needed. The early armaments could just push with force, but the amount of force could change. Just enough to knock a man on his rear, or even brain a wolf at two hundred yards.

One of the legends is his demonstration. No one was buying his pitch. To the townsfolk, it looked like Torres was carrying a very nice stick with a gun handle. Nice, and easily fit in the holster he designed. But he was asking for gold, real gold for a polished branch and some bronze wrapped in horse-leather.

Then Sammy Torres blew open the city hall doors. With that first Spell Shot he could split open a boulder, and place his shots to knock beer bottles out of the air.

Suddenly the rancher was looking mighty smart. As you know, everyone in Texas now uses either the shorter Spell Shots, or the longer sighted Slingers. Other competitors eventually rose up. Names like Barstone, Cleevin, or even the archery-inspired Balbins. But nothing compares to a Torres Spell Shot.

The Seventh Annual Fyrebowl

There was something missing until football came back to Dallas.

Didn’t even notice it was gone. First year goes by, and the Cowboys and Texans played a few matches. Texas and all the universities tried to put together a league, everyone tried to get excited. It felt like football was going to be important again. The soul of Texas was saved.

Then the wall was being built. That took a few years and the best men and women. Couple of fights broke out. The Spell Shots were developed. No new blood was coming in from the outside. One thing after another, and it wasn’t for a few generations until anybody realized that the state of Texas wasn’t playing football.

To be precise, it was one hundred and sixty-one years until football was reintroduced. A concerted effort from the surrounding towns and villages around the old stadium. For four generations these men and women had been regaled with tales of heroes among men. Titans of the gridiron that dominated the competition, true knights of the state. Names like Staubach, Aikman, Smith, Irvin, and Too Tall. Now the old coliseum was filled again, young boys scrolling through the old rules to try and be inheritors of the fame.

Across the plains the challenge was heard by another, smaller stadium. Houston, apparently, also held a football team. And all the old universities soon joined in. Football was back in Texas. With some changes.

When football was found again, things had changed around the state. Magic was not just here, it was here to stay. And catching a football was a lot easier when one could fly. It damn near confused the regular teams for a while. How is flying pass interference? Is it offsides if you move the field?

Two leagues were then started. One was regular football, every Sunday in the fall, quick as clockwork. No magic, nothing of that sort. Just like the good Lord intended football to be played. But he also gave his children gifts, and meant them to use them.

Fyreball was born.

Started as a joke, really. Footballs on fire. Caught by a team that didn’t even flinch at the sight. A defense that rooted itself to the ground and flung halfbacks thirty yards backwards. It caught on.

To make it easier, the TFL started up after the Texas Bowl in February. No need for fans to have to choose between two great sports. Both were accepted, adored even.

Which brings us to Danny Smith and the seventh Fyrebowl.

You’ve heard of Midnight Smith? You should. That boy was hot for two decades with the Comsten Hawks. He was Quarterback, before they were known as the Head Mages. Could throw a ball straight as an arrow for fifty yards, and then start messing with it with some fancy spellwork. His speed with incantation was unmatched, and when his team came even close to his level they tore through the League.

It was not perfect. The Hawks had a poor defense, seriously wretched. No one had really figured out how to break through this new passing game or rushing attack. But even still, the Hawks routinely let in sixty points in matches. But Smith and his receivers could cracks triple digits, something unheard of back then. Comsten was favored going into Dallas Stadium.

Imagine those early Bowl games. They didn’t have the funding we do. Magic was there, but not even close to discovering the fun stuff. So the focus was not on making the game an event. Rather, Fyreball stripped down all the sparkle and glitz. Magic was for the field, the spectacles were the players. And Danny Smith was the star.

Just look at those old pictures. Straight black hair, wind-swept as he surveys the field. Piercing green eyes that could pick apart any coverage. Enough strength to shrug off the cornerbacks if he turned tail and ran for the sidelines. Women wanted him. Guys wanted to be him. And he took it all in with poise. A man’s man.

Game went underway. If I remember correctly it was the Dallas Rebels team itself. Should have been favorites, honestly. That defense was led by Zeke Harwood, a punishing end that added a little thundering oomph to each one of his thirty-two sacks. The defensive line got to be known as Stormfront, led by the Hall of Famer. Dallas was a complete team.

Comsten had Danny Smith. And for everything the front threw at him, he had an answer. Zeke sent a blitz, Smith would dump off the ball with some illusion work. The secondary had no clue which receiver had the real ball. If they dropped back into coverage, Midnight would burn through the field on his legs. Sure Dallas was scoring, but Comsten’s defense just had to be lucky every once in a while. Zeke had to be perfect to come close to touching Midnight Smith. By halftime the score was 42-28 and Comsten didn’t even look close to tiring.

Then it happened. Thirty Hawk Snatch.

Such a classic move for Midnight’s offense. What was supposed to happen happened almost every single time Danny ran this play in his twenty-one year career. A fake hand off to the halfback, with an illusion by the halfback looking like he cloned himself. Many running backs have tried this. This one, Mookie Sands, often put a little smirk on both their faces so him laughing was the last thing linebackers saw as they ran right through air. Danny would then have the ball and usually an open receiver all the way down the field.

Except this time Zeke wasn’t fooled. Thirty Hawk Snatch was being used a bit much by Comsten, and Zeke had a feeling that it was coming the entire game. He burst through that false Sands back, never losing stride. Before Danny even saw Harwood appear out of the spell, Zeke let Midnight have all that rage and frustration in one sack that could be felt by everyone in the stadium. Shockwave knocked offense, defense, and poor Smith’s helmet bouncing around that field like hay bales.

Zeke stands up. A little embarrassed, a little triumphant. Great hit, but maybe just a bit much. The Hawks and Rebels players get up, a lot shakier than Zeke.

Midnight doesn’t move.

Poor Zeke is losing his mind. He can’t have killed Danny Midnight Smith. It was just a hit, come on, Danny. Wake up wake up. Comsten is counting on you. Harwood picks up Danny, and finally looks at him. And drops the quarterback.

“Elf!” He shouts. The stadium is silent.

Danny, or as history later shows Daernon, was just knocked unconscious. And the illusion work that he had crafted for the last twelve years was disrupted by one defensive end on a bull rush.

No one knew. Not his teammates, or his town. It was inconceivable. No fae, and certainly no elf, had even come close to the border for over a hundred years. Or so the state was led to believe. And here they were, cheering on this grubbing Elf? It struck a nerve. Folks started getting out of their seats and making their way down to the field. And some other folks started to follow them. Soon all sixty-five thousand Texans were trying to crowd their way into the first three rows, making their way to Danny Smith.

I don’t know what was going on in their minds. Maybe the outrage snapped some core in the soul of each man and woman up there. Maybe they just wanted to see if it was true. Touch the ears, see the eyes. Reassure themselves of reality.

None of that came to pass.

Zeke Harwood stood in front of Midnight’s crumpled body, and glared down at everyone. Mookie stood behind him, and the rest of the Hawks. Both teams stood, straight-backed and suddenly armed.

“None of you are touching him,” Zeke said. “We’re finishing this damn match.”

The match actually never was finished. No one was willing to move. The Governor had to be summoned from his box at the top of the Stadium. He had to walk through the mass of people, picking through hatred and confusion down to the field. All so he could stand next to the referees and wait for Danny Smith to wake up.

That must have been a sight. Danny Smith blinking his eyes open. He looks up, and everyone in the county staring right at him. He frowned, and touched his ears. His eyes widened, but what could he do? The cat was well and truly out of the bag.

Zeke offered Midnight a hand up. After the two captains were side-by-side, the Governor got the whole story from Midnight. How he had crossed over from the west twelve years previous, before Fyreball even existed. Daernon was fleeing the conflict that, even after all this time, was finding reason enough to go on. He had kept his illusions up in Comsten, working for one of the landholders in the local orchards.

Daernon, or Danny as he was insisting he be called, hadn’t even considered himself an athlete until a game of Fyreball almost torched one of the orange trees he was tending. He had lashed out without thinking, and swept the flames away. He was named quarterback immediately.

The Governor listened to all of this, and looked at his people. Dallas was still confused, hurt, angry that their game was interrupted. He was going to have to make a hard decision. He elbowed Zeke out of the way, and looked Daernon Smith right in the face.

“Why are you here?” He asked.

Danny shrugged. “I love Texas. I love Fyreball, sir. Why would I be anywhere else?”

The Governor held the quarterback’s hand high.

“I declare that this is the truest Texan you shall ever meet! May no one doubt his patriotism!”

The seventh game is in the records book under an asterisk. Zeke for the rest of his life maintained both that the Rebels would have made a game out of it, and that the Hawks won that game. His statue stands in a place of pride in Dallas’ Hall of Fame, right next to Danny Smith’s.

Danny played for fourteen more years. Even at his retirement, everyone declared that he was easily the best of the Head Mages, and teams across the state begged him to stay. Midnight responded that just because he lived longer than humans shouldn’t have meant that he got to play longer. Elves that played the game soon followed what was known as the “Midnight” rule, and retired after twenty-one seasons, out of respect for humanity.

He’s still around, still green-eyed and perfect black hair. Still willing to play a game of Fyreball for fun, even if winning is the only way he can compete.

Go on, try and match him. He’ll spot you ten points. Don’t be a poor sport when you lose.

The Battle of Soggy Rains

To dispel every goldamn insipid rumor, we didn’t start the war against New Maya.

We had never heard of New Maya. Texans didn’t leave Texas back then. That means they never heard of the collapse of Mexico and the central Americas. Or how a radical humanist named Tzeka Manuel declared himself the King of the Risen Sun and started New Maya. We probably would have considered it funny, even if we knew how many thousands he ordered executed.

The empire of New Maya was born out of hatred of the fae. While we were just figuring out how to live with those who survived entering the state, there was a purge going on. If your blood wasn’t red, you were killed. New Maya was sure to check, thoroughly and often.

One scientific discovery that is grudgingly given to the empire is its understanding of iron. New Maya, more than most scared the fae, absolutely terrified anyone who feared iron. Their warriors were often drenched in blood, howling at their enemies. The fae would flee the field before the berserkers even came close.

I talked about blood, and that was a fact. Tzeka believed that humanity would receive its power again from blood. Human sacrifice was reborn, and with a vengeance. When they discovered how to use blood to power their own magic, they couldn’t be drained fast enough.

Hundreds died in those first decades. Thousands more were ritually bled. There were storehouses that were nothing more than oceans of blood. It’s enough to make you want to retch.

But, it still has to be said. From a purely historical standpoint, New Maya was the first, and to this day the only, nation that was completely human.

We should have been friends. After the seventh Fyrebowl and Midnight Smith, Texas was still almost entirely human. We were still proud of the fact. All these races were running around, there was a war going on, and still Texas stands. Hasn’t even been invaded once.

New Maya heard this. They said they understood it. And were kind enough to send a delegation to enslave us.

A full delegation. Think thirty horses, fully laden with water, gold, and blood for their magic. Twelve men, ten women, each of them a noble from the south. They were garbed in shimmering cloaks, opened to leave their chests bare. Yes, even the women, and there are a few stories about the response from the men of Texas that I’m not going to repeat.

The delegation stood before the walled city of Soggy Rains. A border protectorate, about five hundred souls all told, a thousand if one included the dogs. The town started when some of the wall diggers huddled together in what was supposed to be dust country. It rained for three weeks straight. The men and women stuck fast, wouldn’t move. They didn’t leave Soggy Rains, and got that wall built despite the rain that became the norm for the area. Their children stayed, and their children’s children, all the way down for over four hundred years. More came, more stayed, and all were proud of Soggy Rains.

So when some prissed-up little Mayan sniffed his nose at our walls, historians predict that that was when the war truly started. The meeting was merely a chance for them to die.

The terms were simple. New Maya was still expanding. It was closing in on the Los Angeles Waste to the northwest, and was almost done firming up Central America. The new emperor, Tenel Ka, was eyeing the Caribbean islands, but wanted to shore up support in the east and north. If we would kindly bend our knees and be their whipping boy and first line of defense, they’d really appreciate it.

The inhabitants were, surly, unamused by New Maya’s delegation. It seemed like a standup comedy routine that had gotten a bit too serious. But when they tried to kill Lonny, the war was official.

Lonny wasn’t a who, per se. Lonny was, and is, the earth. Stirred up by the building of the wall, and two hundred years of constant rains, Lonny rose up out of the very bones of what was once dust to descend upon the people.

When Lonny first rose up, he saw the inhabitants with Spell Shots drawn. Weapons raised threateningly at what could best be described as a golem made of muck and stone. Lonny saw all these enemies, and laughed. He raised up a statue of the event, pulling mud out of the ground, a great monument of himself meeting the townsfolk. He then promptly adopted Soggy Rains as his home.

Soggy Rains later found out that he thought they all came out to welcome him to life. No one had the heart to tell him they were a few moments away from shooting him. This earth elemental was never the smartest person in town. Really the town’s lovable idiot, to tell the truth. But he stuck around for two hundred years. Spent his days strengthening the walls, adding additions to the many homes, laying roads. His nights were spent in the city hall he built, surrounded by children who found him fascinating. Lonny was as much a staple of the town as the weather.

The delegates from New Maya looked up at this earth elemental, and tried to dissolve him. Sliced open their own hands and started chanting. Before the lead got to his third word, the mayor had shot him three in the head with his personal Spell Shot. The rest of the town immediately produced weapons, and started slaughtering the slavers – sorry – delegates.

Only one survived, saved by a horse jumping at the sound of a Spell Shot and taking six different kinds of ammunition. Don’t ever discuss that horse with Soggy Rains. It’s still a sore spot.

When Tenel Ka heard of this, he flew into a rage. Three hundred of the finest sons and daughters of the empire had to lay down their lives at his feet before the Sunrise King would be appeased. Their blood bathed him from head to toe. He reclined on his throne, stinking of iron and sweat. Then he permitted his army to try and destroy us.

Soggy Rains was to be the first to feel their wrath. For a town of five hundred, Tenel Ka sent three thousand Fangs. Battle mages trained in blood magic, utterly devoted to the Empire, and willing to die before surrender. And they were descending upon the town.

Have you ever heard thunder rolling across the plains? It’s not constant, and from far enough you barely hear it. Just a rumble, there for a second and then gone. Then it’s there again, and takes longer to disappear. The third time, it crashes around your ears, a roar that goes on without ceasing.

That thunder was coming to Soggy Rains.

They had their battle strategy. The town was fortified. They had been building and rebuilding its walls for four centuries. The Fangs would tear down the walls. Their blood could turn the skies red, and make the rains burn. They would summon horrors beyond imagining. These small Texans could not compare to the might of New Maya.

They had no clue what they were in for.

Gotta tell ya, that blood magic was something. The walls stood for a week solid. But it happened. Red veins choked walls that had stood for centuries into dust. The front door cracked open and three thousand Fangs rushed in to finish off the Texans.

Now, let me preface this by saying that Texans think very differently than most folks do. They look at magic like, well, magic. Waving a hand, or some froo-froo wand and singing some words. A man tries to wave a wand in Texas instead of packing a Torres Spell Shot, he’s getting thrown out of the bar. But that is what most people think magic is. Spells, incantations and rituals that add up to power.

We’re Texans. We don’t think that slow.

Every man, woman and child stared at the invading Fangs with contempt. Looked down the barrel of Torres Spell Shots, and Cleevin 16-Staffs. The legendary Pollyanne Threndy was there, favoring a recurved Balbin. And when that first idiot Fang opened his mouth for a blood curse, Soggy Rains let them have it.

Close your eyes. Imagine it. We don’t cast big spells. When Torres and all these creators were thinking up their weapons, they weren’t thinking about how to change a river, or blacken the skies. They thought in bullets, or arrows. Tiny bits of metal, crafted just right and moving fast enough to split through any armor.

Bullets of fire, of ice, of lightning. Pure force, the size of a dime. The defenders tore through the first lines of the Fangs before the army even realized something different was happening. Four hundred and thirteen Fangs were dead in the retreat out of range.

The Mayans tried to cast long range spells. They opened their casks, and started to work their magics. The earth rumbled, and split. The skies blackened as their great mages cast their weavings.

Threndy took them all out from the highest rampart. Beside her was Ive Stanton. Yes, he started the Stanton school for spellslingers, and if you don’t shut up about it, you’re not going. Where was I? Right. The Mayans were still in range for those two. And they couldn’t wreak havoc in a cave, the plains outside Soggy Rains gave them nothing to hide behind.

The Fangs charged again. The Texans responded again, this time taking the time to cripple one, washing away the blood and stripping him naked before letting him return to the army on one of their horses. There was a note that sits in the museum of Soggy Rains, simply reading

That’s MY horse.

I want it back. In one piece and unharmed.

Don’t make me come out and get her.

– Pollyanne Threndy

The Fangs, if they had managed to survive, almost impressed Soggy Rains. They were relentless, and for three days tried to just force their lines through. By the end of the third day the Mayans had lost over two thousand men. Soggy Rains had lost forty-five.

The Fangs left had no choice left but to retreat in disgrace. Some deserted, and even returned Threndy’s horse in the hopes of defecting over to Texas. They were losers, and they were turned back. Soggy Rains settled in, started to rebuild, and watched for retaliation.

It never happened. What no one knew was that the New Maya empire was close to collapse. Historians can’t explain it, and there have been no records to support anything other than the simple wipe-out of an entire civilization within eighteen months.

The last real act of the Empire was spreading the legend of Soggy Rains. The Fangs, and those who listened to them, were mystified by the resolve and killing power of Texans. It seemed like something out of a fairy tale.

Ten years later, an ogre crossed into Houston. He was living in the Mississippi Delta, and wanted to hire a squad of Texans to help defeat an uprising of trolls. Apparently they aren’t the same, I don’t know. The city of Houston conferred, wondering if this was a trick. But he came with gold, and an offer of fifty pieces for any man who would join on. Houston came back an hour later with a counter.

“Triple it, and we’ve got a hundred men who will leave now.” The city of Houston was soon kicking itself when the going rate for a Texan soon ten times the professional rate. We just couldn’t be killed, here or anywhere. Texas became synonymous with winning wars.

That’s how the entire state’s biggest export became ourselves. Mercenary work has been the best thing to happen to the state since football. And every mercenary before leaving the state and coming back will look to the east, and thank God for Soggy Rains. We will always remember them.

Governor Silverhand

Mercenary work gets complicated.

The actual work isn’t. After Soggy Rains and the first contract signed in Houston, every Texan wanted the honor of being named a mercenary. Our best and brightest men and women flocked to the border towns, on horses or anything that could be saddled. Parents weren’t sending their kids to be students of business, or farming, or trade, or even higher magic. The best thing that could happen to a family was the firstborn being accepted to Stanton, or Death’s Shot or any school in the entire Slinging League. All so they could sit on their hands and wait for conflict to bring jobs to their door.

That was the complicated part. How to split the money.

Texas has a wonderful reputation. And we earn it, with every contract. The entire Star is known for being worth more than ten men. Torres Spell Shots and any Texan weapon only works for true Texans, no one can replicate our artifice. For every ten men sent out, nine are expected back.

But what about when there isn’t work?

The problem with war is that it’s sporadic. For a few years the southwest will be embroiled in a new conflict, and Soggy Rains, or El Paso, or anywhere along the Rio Grande was suddenly flush. But then someone would actually win that war, and jobs would dry up. Then the plains people would be besieged by Waste Beasts coming out of Los Angeles, and the north point had the best methods for dealing with the animals. The port cities usually had some steady work as bodyguards in the Gulf, but no one travelled in storm season, that was when they had to tighten their belts.

It was a certifiable mess. We had to rely on the wars of others, for decades. And the money that came back didn’t go to Texas. It went to the town that wrote out the contract. If Houston protected a ship, it kept the money and Dallas never saw a dime. If Soggy Rains collected a bonus, the coin went into strengthening the walls and purchasing enough food to keep going in the lean years.

Finally after thirty years of this, the Governor got involved.

Governor. We still call them Governors like they’re elected. It’s a title, one that no one wants, so it became hereditary. Over the almost five-hundred years, the families of Austin squabbled over the responsibility of ruling like a radioactive potato. This latest was a Johnson, Luke the Third. He had tried to leave the mansion a few times, but was always dragged back in.

When Austin and the mansion caught wind of mercenary work and the havoc it wreaked on the economy, Governor Johnson finally saw his chance. He left the mansion, and travelled across Texas. He gathered up every mayor of every town, both on the border and the interior. He brought them in at gunpoint if need be, but he got them all in his mansion. All told, about a thousand men and women (few elves, at least one dwarf, I think Lonny the earth elemental was actually getting his chance to serve about this time), and the Governor. Then he started to talk.

He talked about the great state of Texas. How it was strong, how it had withstood the very Apocalypse without even a scratch. We invented the Spell Shots, brought football back and invented Fyreball. A strong state, one that should be proud of its heritage. But also on the verge of collapse.

The Governor proposed a tax on all mercenary work. Ten percent on all contracts to help keep the state solvent…and there they went. Quick as that, before a sentence was out, the border towns stood up to leave. This was their money, money that their sons and daughters bled and died for. Why should they have to share it with anyone?

Luke Johnson smiled, and nodded. “That’s absolutely true. All that money is yours. But the farms, those are inside Texas. The cattle ranges, the forges and timber mills, are inside Texas. Do you really want to try and live without that help?”

They’d buy it. And make do when times got tough. When one of the farming towns threatened raising prices, a border town muttered that maybe they’d just go back in and take the food they needed.

At this Luke Johnson tore the Governor’s badge from his chest, and spat out a command to his Shot. The weapon sparked, and the badge melted. Solid silver coated his right hand, and he clenched it into one fist.

“If we are so concerned with killing Texans to spite work, let me be the first,” he shouted. “Being Governor of a state that would turn upon itself is worse than tearing away my own hand.”

Shock. That is what all these mayors felt at their Governor’s words. And then shame. Here they were, true-blooded Texans all, openly contemplating civil war. They weren’t supposed to be like the rest of those outside folk, squabbling and fighting. Texans fought other people, but unless a real crime was committed we settle with words. Or a bar fight if it makes us feel better.

The mayors finally wised up. A fifth of all contracts goes back to Austin, and distributed as need be across the state. Moreover, Johnson leaned on the schools and all Texans to not just aspire to mercenary work. Fighting is all well and good, and every man and woman needs to know how to defend a home. But there’s some real work to be done as well.

A compromise was reached in a rotating cycle. For every year in mercenary work, a Texan had to work two in the interior earning the right to represent the state. It revitalized the husbandry community, and returned the best of us to working for Texas, instead of just representing it.

Governor Johnson held that fist clenched the rest of his life. There was ample opportunity to have it healed, but the man refused. He used it as a lasting reminder for the state to remain unified. It never again wavered in commitment to Texas.

A Rising Klan

This is painful for me to tell. But as they say – remember the past, or be doomed to repeat it.

There is a certain measure of shared responsibility for the sins of our ancestors. We can justify their actions as relics of their time. Everyone was doing it, it would have been odd to not join in. Odd, dangerous even.

But there comes a time when you just have to call your family racist.

We have family in the Klan. Not had, have. Yes, even now and after the Unity Exile, the Klan still exists. Though I can tell ya, it came pretty damn close.

You have to understand, the knights were confused for the longest time. For hundreds of years before they had been committed to one thing and one thing only. A return to white America, to stop what they saw as the “perversion” of the country. The apocalypse was almost a validation of everything they taught. This is what happens when you let the blacks and browns and anybody else in!

And they were protectors. In the early days, the Klan was not just concerned with making Texas white. It wanted Texas to be safe. Their knights distributed food, sheltered the homeless, and generally tried to make themselves useful. In some counties being Klan just meant you were neighborly.

I’m not defending those bastards for one second. There were times of trouble. There were nights of white hoods. Burning crosses and burning flesh, charred to coal. They did such evil while they helped keep the state safe.

What really changed them was a harsh look at reality. Early on, with the tales of new creatures. The fae coming right up to the border and threw these racists for a loop. For centuries they had been concerned with the purity of the white race. And now, there were elves? Fairies, dwarves, things that looked like the demons of Hell?

The response was mixed at first. Some parts of the Klan carried on just as they had before. Anyone that ain’t a white human can suck on a bullet. But others, especially closer to the border and coast, started looking at their brothers and sisters a little more closely. Maybe for the first time, started seeing human as just that – human.

It was unusual. A usual thing to say. But after a generation or so people just understood the knights as humans only. That was just fine. Texas had always meant to stay humans-only. And the Klan was popular again.

Then Danny Smith happened. There were Klansmen at that Bowl. Their words were some of the strongest for stringing up that elf. Quarterback be damned. When the governor declared him Texan, they did not go quietly, even if Danny Smith was never touched. And the troubles began.

Again, it was the border towns. I don’t know how that shakes up. It’s always the border that is pushing the farmland to change, to become more worldly, while those further inland are content, thank ye very much. Mayhaps it’s because when you spend your days looking out into the great unknown, and the evils of the world, you open your mouth and talk to it. Sometimes even listen to what it has to say. You can change your mind like that.

The border towns were getting used to the sight of elves, dwarves, or anything that looked human and was offended to be called such. If they didn’t love Texas, they could blow their magic rear back out of town. but if they made it across for the love of the Lone Star…well, that was another story.

It wasn’t even a discussion for the Klan. They demanded a test for all Texans, the Iron Grasp. Tried to make it state law. Anyone who couldn’t abide the touch of iron was a foreigner. Unfit to call Texas their home.

Then a dwarf held iron, and that bill died. Someone should have got around to telling the Klan that the fae were even more different than we were. Maybe they did.

They kept trying. For fifty years after that Fyrebowl the kept bringing anything up as law. Red Blooded law. Cases brought up on personhood, and denying fae rights. The shootout at the Elfin Draught was the last straw.

The Elfin Draught was a slap in the face to the Klan. It was meant to be. Its owner was Leon Kincaid, a black man with a long memory that extended back generations. He saw the actions of the Klan and thought it sounded very familiar. He set up a bar in one of the biggest border towns, and hung out a sign that simply said “Fae welcome.” He waited for controversy to start.

That bar isn’t actually a bad place. It still stands today, though it has been rebuilt. For something that started as an insult, it makes some of the finest ale in three counties, and even distills some shine that could make a troll breathe fire. It got popular, and after Soggy Rains, it was a favorite spot for mercenaries to rest and pawn off some of their best loot.

Some even said it was more comfortable than the Klan-approved tavern, the Sunflower, owned by Thad Ketch. It even brewed better shine.

That must have stuck in Thad Ketch’s craw something awful. One Friday, he stormed into the Draught with his three brothers, demanding the place close down. “There’s too many damn greenbloods in this damned hellhole!” He hollered.

Weirdly enough, Ketch had a point. Many of the fae had no intention of becoming Texan. They were just looking for mercenaries, biding their time. Others were even wondering about sticking an outpost just outside the state walls, making it easier for foreigners to hire out work.

(That last one almost happened. A full outpost, just outside of Soggy Rains, to show how open and welcoming the fae were to Texas. Soggy Rains tore it down in a week. Looked too much like a fortress.)

Back at the Elfin Draught, Kincaid was screaming right back at Ketch. Kincaid claimed that the Klansman was just ticked that he was losing coin to a better tavern. One of Ketch’s brothers shot back that Kincaid loved sticking with flower girls and fairy boys. A couple of trolls finally threw the brothers out, and the tavern returned to normal.

What happens next is murky. How that night ended was the Draught catching fire, and Ketch lying dead on the ground with a knife in his back. A knife that belonged to one of the trolls.

Kincaid maintained that the brothers came back to try and torch the place, and a quick knifing was far better than Thad deserved. The brothers swore they had only returned to talk to the owner. Maybe scare some of the damned fae out of their state. Reasoning didn’t change the facts, or racism.

It might have been better if Kincaid had been the one who killed Ketch. Trespassing, an interrupted brawl, and two competitors in the dead of night. The town could understand such a matter. The owner of the Draught tried to lie his way through to that. But everyone knew the troll had done it. For all the right reasons, and in defense of his fellow being. It was to be admired.

Didn’t stop the Klan from sending his burnt corpse swinging from a tree.

I’m sorry this is hurting, son. Oh, no, don’t lie to me. I can see that glint in your eye. It ain’t tears, and it’s not laughter I see. That’s rage, the cold kind. It settles right in the pit of your gut. Gnaws at your sides, sends you racing while rooted to your seat.

It’s not fair. That troll had done nothing wrong. Not him, and none of the others the Klan rounded up for those many decades. That’s right, decades. The Ketch brothers who brought the Klan in to help settle their dispute had long ago joined the dirt. The damage had been done, the spark lit.

Texas was divided.

Not that the world outside would have known. We sent our mercenaries out, collected our fees, and spread it out across the state. Any border town could be recruited from, and Texans remained the best. If one town seemed more human than another, it was just happenstance, right?

No one knew that we had just split ourselves up. And not nicely down the middle, or the outside looking in. Every town, every port, every little farm slowly made its opinion known on these magical creatures that had invaded humanity’s last stronghold. Were the Klansmen the last bastion of hope, the knights they had always claimed to be? Or were they just some hopped-up bastards looking for kicks? Depended who you asked.

The Klan was not universal in Texas, but it was still strong. In some towns, to be Klan was to be a legend. The knights set you and your family up for life. Cared for all your needs, because you were human, and a brother. And once you had a taste for it, you never let go.

The fae responded by understanding their limits. There was just places that they couldn’t go. Farms that held crosses on the barn door were warnings, the only ones the fae would receive. Towns where their Spell Shots had words like magic scum, and fairy boy scrawled into the wood.

They hated it. They got used to it. What else could they do?

This was your great-great-grandfather Billy Jay’s life. He’d always tell me the story of a late August night. He was just a young one, living on his uncle Jake’s ranch for a couple years while he got some good training in to become a “real Texan,” as he put it. Good land, grazing for the cattle, and fed by a local stream. And his uncle was a good man who had no tolerance for intolerance. There was usually a dwarf or satyr doing odd jobs for the family while they passed through. They even had a minotaur once, grandpa’s uncle would accept just about anyone willing to put with him.

Good, hard, uncompromising in his values. That uncle was a good one.

Started it always the same. “The sage was purple that night. Never had been purple before. It wasn’t just purple. It was like the blood of the earth had grown so cold that red was not enough color for it.”

Uncle Jake decided the land was telling him something, and none of it good. There was a couple of fairies living there. Pixies, really, just a few inches tall. Aunt Jude was having them look over the gardens. As soon as the sage turned, Jake and Jude hid the pixies up in the attic, squirrelled away amongst the rafters.

Then the Klan came.

One of their bases was not too far away from Jake’s farm. And every once in a while, his gruff kindness would irk them enough to try and set him straight, once and for all.

Grandpa Billy Jay still got chills in his old age. When he heard the cloaks flapping in the night sky, he called it death’s wings descending upon them. Riding pure-blooded horses, without a trace of magic in them. Carrying swords and axes and bows and guns. Real guns. They never wanted even a touch of magic stinking up their robes.

Anywhere between five and fifty men stood outside the main house. Jake crouched from his bedroom window, a full staff battle shot in his hands and ready to use. Jude was in the kitchen, covering the back entrance with a cast-iron skillet and her own Spell Shot.

Billy Jay was right behind the main door, and praying to God that he could be anywhere else. He wanted to be brave like his aunt and uncle, but all he could think was how he had never even cast a spell in anger. And now all these men wanted to kill him?

They stayed just out of the house lights, and started screaming at Jake. They demanded that he send out any damn blue blood piece of you-know-what on out. Get some real Texan justice.

When Jake refused to do so their minds turned to what they would do to his wife. Jake laughed and dared them to try. Jude even stuck a hand out the back door to wave to anyone coming up the back.

Anyone who came within thirty feet of the house limped away without knees. Only one was fool enough to keep going after Jake had winged him. Billy Jay slammed the door in his face, before throwing the Klansman out. They took a hint and left.

They always wanted to take Jake’s place. From the day he moved Jude into the house to the day one of the cattle gored him in that stampede, he never left his own land. Being Texan to him meant honoring the land, the ideals, and being able to kick ass without ever having to leave your front porch. The family made sure the Klan never came close to taking his land.

All decent families had a story like Grandpa Billy Jay’s. Some just standing up and saying no. The Klan either understood and moved on, or decided to make an issue of it. Just another aspect of life.

No one could have predicted how the Governor finally decided to react. And no one can prove it to this day. This Governor, one Sheila Johnson, hated how the Klan split up her state. It had affected mercenaries, picking their off-years in towns based on their Klan support or disapproval. Some cities didn’t want to put their money towards a Klan town, causing confusion in taxation.

And some from the outside were starting to find it odd how one town seemed so different from the next. What was this Klan they were hearing about? The new government?

That rankled Governor Sheila. In a way that many still cannot understand. She was the Governor, dammit, and they would understand this.

She sent out a proclamation, one that angered the entire fae. Sheila Johnson praised the Klan, naming them one of the greatest militia forces in Texan history. She even printed up a note of thanks, sending it across the state. Half the state praised her as a visionary. The other half thanked her for extra toilet paper.

About a year later, the impossible happened. There was a rush to end a major war, humans against some unknown evil. There was talk of dragons, and plenty of gold. Fae need not apply.

Many towns closed up shop in protest. Demanded the governor turn these recruiters away. She refused, saying they could not bear to pass up this much wealth. The Klan members rushed for the border, singing Sheila Johnson’s name as they raced off to face this new evil. For the glory of the Klan, Texas and the human governor!

No one returned from the Unity Wars. Thousands of mercenaries, more than Texas had lost in its entire history, wiped out. No trace, no knowledge of what had happened. Thousands of the staunchest supporters of the Klan disappeared.

Sheila Johnson’s mood towards the Klan changed considerably after the Unity Wars. Turned on a dime. She outlawed the order immediately following the wars, and deputized many of the fae to clear out any and all remnants of what she described as the darkest stain on the Lone Star. Such a change of character was unheard of from a Governor.

It was rumored she had reached out to this new evil. Maybe even colluded to kill Texans. But she died peacefully, at a ripe old age, with a smile on her lips.

The Klan still exists. I suspect it always will. There will always be some people that just feel a need to hate. But they never rose to prominence again. God willing they’ll stay that way.

The Wheelchair Sage

Ah, yes. Dearest Ashleigh. The best of us all. Such grace, such fury.

Hell on wheels never meant so much.

What? Who is Ashleigh! Boy, what have your ma and pa been teaching you? Math?!? I know Baron Math is fun and all, but Ashleigh could chew up that Math fellow and spit him back before he raised that puny little wand of his.

Youngsters. Always looking at the new legend, because he has flash and style and he’s so cool because he was teaching the right way to fillet the Gomors in their last surge. Now everyone loves Math.

Sit down! I ain’t just griping, I’ll prove it to ya.

Ashleigh Nicks, the Wheelchair Sage. Greatest spell slinger in her time, and I’d say far beyond that. But she didn’t start out that way. That Wheelchair wasn’t just for show. And it wasn’t some twist of fate. She wasn’t born with condition, or lose her legs fighting in a great war. No, she did it the old-fashioned, tried and true manner of all children. She was playing stupid.

Let me set the scene. Her parents, when they weren’t out in mercenary work, were shopkeepers. Her daddy ran a respectable general store, tucked right in the middle of the main street. Two parents who knew the value of a hard day’s work, whether it be fighting in wars, or managing the shop.

They were wonderful people. Not the best parents. One fateful day her mother was running errands for neighbors in town. Ashleigh was toddling around the store, when her pap is called off to the bank to haggle about one bill or another. Him, grumbling all the way down the street, makes it to the bank before anyone thinks the little one might not be completely safe when his staff is just leaning against the store counter. Especially if this particular child’s been waitin’ for the chance to try it out.

How are we to take anyone seriously like that? Someone who at the age of five takes her daddy’s spellshot and tries to perform a major spell. Speaks the words wrong, and not only does she take out her own legs, oh no. Ashleigh Nicks starts her magic career blowing a hole in the family store, destroying half the goods, and taking a short flight down the street. About seventy feet worth of flight, landing right in front of her dear mother as she worked at the barber’s place.

Whenever I tell that story, I try to imagine little old Yolanda Nicks. An older mother, armed with a pair of shears, and her darling little girl is rolled

out in the street. The Nicks girl is missing a couple of limbs, smoking, her dress is in tatters, and she’s giggling.

She waved to her mother and said, “Look, ma! I can do magic too!”

Yolanda reportedly tried to die on the spot. And when God didn’t relent she decided that her Ashleigh better learn real magic before the entire town looked like the store, which now had remarkably fine ventilation.

Ashleigh Nicks didn’t lose a single step after that. No, she never wanted to move slow. That woman wouldn’t crawl when she could fly. The Nicks had to keep replacing her chair because she would try to make it float. Levitation spells, hovers, weightlessness, even rocket propelled. Ashleigh would have driven any twenty men insane.

But the Nicks family wouldn’t dream of saying no to that daughter of hers. She needed those wheelchairs, had to have them. It wasn’t a question of spoiling some previous little gal. They saw that she had a burning desire to be something, to do great things. How could they try and tramp down on such spirit?

That being said, the rest of the town was probably happy when she rolled out at the wizened age of twelve. There just wasn’t enough for her to learn in the old homestead. She had magic to learn, and the only thing she knew was it wasn’t going to be learned there.

Now, let me explain this. There’s all sorts of restless. There’s restless loves, a restless horse that’d prefer to break your back then let you ride his and that restless night before blood’s spilt. But for this sage, and many others, restless is something else. There’s a spot of pent-up energy that itches at the back of your neck and won’t stop until it’s scratched. Ashleigh had this great itch, always did. Since she touched a staff she felt like she needed to know more, be a part of magic, as big a part as she could find.

So she’d wheel from one spot of Texas to the next. Stop off in one town to listen to some coot spin a bit of river yarn and catch a fish with it. Another place she found a little hidey-hole of some spirit, and spent a week just getting to pronounce its name right. The wheelchair got a lot of use, and never seemed to complain.

Then the stories started accumulating about this young mage rolling around the flatlands. She was learning, but Ashleigh was also bringing new life to magic.

Like that time she found a river god that had lost his way. Just meandering through some farmland, causing a flood with every step. Ashleigh caught him up in a bottle, turned that river right back around and led him out to sea. That river still tries to follow her old wheel imprints from time to time, just to remember what it felt like.

How about when she faced off against old Ironbreak? That ornery dwarf tried every trick in the book to gather up every piece of the cold metal, just to stave off his appetite. Nothing would sate him, but iron could at least hold off the hunger pangs for a time. Ashleigh found that iron wasn’t the solution, but the problem. It was causing indigestion, had to be purged out of the system before he could have a decent meal. Ironbeak was so glad he used much of his old food to craft a brand new wheelchair (after he ate the old one).

Ashleigh outraced the sunset, waltzed with the moonlight, and would party so long the cock wouldn’t crow until suppertime. But she was still itching for magic.

Then she met Seton. The bastard of Belldon Hills.

Seton was old well before Ashleigh ever was young. Half-human, half-mystery. Could handle iron, but those red eyes never seemed to want to linger on any one face for too long. The boy that lived deep in Belldon Hills was already developing a different sort of reputation for magic. That he could bend it down the straight and narrow, make it useful and proper-like. Relics, artifacts, he could make the skies sing and the corn grow tall and firm. For a hundred years Seton had honed his craft to an art form that would make all weep.

That’s what drove Ashleigh up to the Hills. Stories of this ornery little enigma, puttering around with great and terrible wonders. It burned at her heart, knowing that there was someone as devoted to magic as she was. The girl blazed through the Texan plains to Belldon, kicking up a storm with her wheels as she tried to get a head start on yesterday.

She heard the warnings. Seton was reclusive. He didn’t like people. Usually shot fireballs at the sight of anything that twitched on his property. Ashleigh didn’t care. This was a dedicated lover of magic.

Ashleigh called him out of his house, demanding they get to know each other. Explained that she was a girl in a wheelchair trying to become the best mage in Texas. That she needed to learn from the best, and in Belldon Hills that was him.

Seton responded by summoning up a storm. Ashleigh was soon drenched in rain, hail, snow, and frogs. The winds buffeted her chair, the cold plastered her hair to her face.

She sat there, and waited it out. Waited through the storm, and the squall that followed. Seton set illusions after her, then several golems of his own design. Ashleigh waited through what she could, destroyed what got too ornery. Then she would return to her rest, and waiting.

For a week she waited out there. Then Seton kicked the door open, threw some clothes at her, and demanded she get in for a hot meal. They were friends for six months. And husband and wife for three years.

Those were good years. Good for them, good for Texas. Ashleigh was the one who finally convinced Seton to join in mercenary work. They rampaged through several wars, and a dozen minor tyrants’ holdings. Traveling alone, just a married couple that could shatter entire cities in a single glance. Texas soon enjoyed a nice uptick in profits and fame.

Oh, the tales I could tell. Ashleigh and Seton, they once had to take on a pair of sisters that had been trying to make angels. New ones, with specially crafted feathers. The winged angels of what once was Missouri. Each feather was sown on individually, with a spell written on the stem and blessed in the sun.

They looked like angels. But the bitches tested by strapping their inventions on any poor soul that crossed their path. The test subject was thrown off of bridges, trees, mountaintops. All in the name of research.

Ashleigh wanted to learn how they did it. How the spell work was so fine that the Winged Sisters could pirouette and spin through the currents with ease. For someone who could not walk, it was a miracle.

For Seton, it was another job. He brought one sister down with another storm, but calmer. The rain drops soaked into the wings, driving them down. When the sisters tried to strike back, Ashleigh showed that she could be merciless, freezing them solid with a single word.

That was a good job. Or how about Luc, Captain Kill? Ravaged the southern seas for well on ten years before the couple arrived. He understood tactics, how the seas moved, and where the true monsters lurked. With this knowledge he knew how to carve out a little kingdom over the seas.

Ashleigh responded by blasting his ship onto dry land when it made port. No wind, no great upheaval of the oceans. Pure force lancing from her hand. No one was going to dominate Texas while she was around.

Again, these were good years. But like many things for the Wheelchair Sage, they ended too soon, and without warning.

You will learn that there are two things that define life, kid. Love, and power. Small people will say fear, but don’t believe them. Fear only exists when one has something to lose. You’ll go through life, and all you will do will either be in pursuit of love, or power.

Love is a gentle chain. It coaxes in, silent. Even when the rattle is heard, it is music. The chain is slipped around your throat, and tightened by inches. All the while you can’t ever think of letting go, or saying stop. To do so would be too painful.

Power is the clifftop. There is no easy way up, none that matter. There are compromises one can make, settlings. But more often than not they will send you tumbling off the side. Clutch at the rocks you have won all the more firm as the wind breaks upon your back, and search for the next one up. You’ll never reach the top, but what does it matter? Done right, you will always climb.

Of the two, one was chained, and the other clung to the rocks. One had to let go and fall.

One morning, Soggy Rains was witness to yet another skirmish. The townsfolk awoke to what they thought was a bar brawl, or another lover’s quarrel gone sour. They were half-right, but to see two of the greatest mages try to decimate each other must have given even this legendary city pause.

The fortress city shook to its bones as their battle raged. This was not a spat, or a game. Seton as not trying to test his young wife. They desperately wanted to kill each other. Fires choked the air, killing those around them. Lightning, darkness, nothing was off limits.

If this were another time, another place, it would have been one sided. Two years earlier and Seton would be tearing her apart. But Ashleigh was not a small girl to be taken apart. She held her own, and responded with fury. She attacked as often as she turned away.

There are rumors of spells performed there, that should never exist. Of thunder that shook souls from their bodies. Golems made out of hatred, a beast born out of air. This duel claimed twenty lives, yet the duelists continued on. If Soggy Rains wanted to stop the fight, they would have to separate titans.

No one can say what the Duel was about. Only that it existed, and that Seton was never seen again. After it had raged for two days, and then Ashleigh did something. A new spell, a different one at that. There was a green flash, and a howl in response. And then silence.

The man that could be a god had disappeared.

Ashleigh sat in her chair, staring out into thin air. Those who had dared to risk the scene looked back at her, unsure of what was next. They had fought magic, had looked evil in the face and laughed. But this, this could not have been more different than the night being brighter than the day.

Ashleigh nodded, and rolled out of town. Out of Texas, out of mind.

Twelve years. That’s how long Texas stayed without its favorite daughter. Twelve long years.

We did not falter. This was just one girl. The Wheelchair Sage, to be sure. A great woman, someone to be admired and respected. But still one girl. We did not suddenly sink into darkness.

But what happened was we didn’t rise. We sat on that plateau and just enjoyed our spoils. No new greatness, no great wonders. It was like a desire had been lost with Seton and Ashleigh gone.

We were involved in a war. Another border skirmish, some megalomaniac trying to take over the world. A nameless Lich King, before necromancy was outlawed across the globe. Amassing an army of the dead that performed better than most against our forces. Texas might have had its hands full.

Ten thousand skeletal warriors. Cloaked in pure magic, it fed off of our very weapons. No blade could wound the army. Our spellshots only strengthened them. Wave after wave of mercenaries were called to the front, desperately hoping to be the one to take down the Lich King.

Nothing worked. We never got close. The undead felt nothing, would respond to every move with one thought: conquer. Overwhelm our strongholds, our forces. Wipe out the greatest state on the planet, and then clean up the other countries with ease. It was working.

It was the first time in three hundred years that Texas considered fear as a response to an enemy.

But she returned. The Wheelchair Sage came back to us.

The skies opened, and fire poured forth on the army. Their magic drank in the flames, and was soon drowned. Spells that were impenetrable before were now only brief candles snuffed out with a strong wind from the North.

The Lich King was found, blackened. His skeletal visage cracked and smoked upon the plains as it charred away into nothingness. His great army was dust, ground into the dirt or blown away in the earlier blaze.

And we stood in awe as the Wheelchair Sage pushed her way towards us. Her hair was short and streaked with gray and black. Soot washed over her face. Her wheelchair sputtered and creaked with every movement.

But still she smiled. Toothy, open, and ready to laugh. She was home.

Men fought for the honor of wheeling her into Texas. They needn’t have bothered. She never stood for letting anyone push her around. But she did allow some hugs, a few tears. And a simple explanation for her absence.

“Dragons are fun.”

That was all there was to that.

If this doesn’t pique your interest, kid, there’s more. The tales after, her great fights and alliances with the Governor. The wars that followed, her loves that were gained and lost. But honestly, if this doesn’t turn your head, I don’t rightly know what will.

copyright 2016-2017 Jack Holder

Proper War

Proper War

On Thursday it was Mrs. Lana Milkshade’s turn to host the monthly dinner party. It wasn’t really, but poor Mrs. – excuse us, Ms. – Glory Nalus’ house was the latest of recent conflagrations, and she simply did not have the necessary living room to host the event. Mrs. Milkshade’s house also had a lovely view of the suburban areas where the elemental spirits were currently vying for control. The electricity and magma were mixing wonderfully with the pale yellow light of the air, especially in the mid-afternoon sun. So Mrs. Milkshade’s seemed a lovely alternative.

Mrs. Milkshade believed her house was simply superior to the rest of the mothers in town. It wasn’t because it was grandiose, not that at all. The grandiose houses were the first to go in this latest flare-up. Too many opportunities to detonate floors to rubble. It was instead a modest two-story affair of wood and stone, crafted by hand with the runes etched lovingly over the lattice to prevent evil spirits. Not extraordinary, but serviceable.

Rather, Mrs. Milkshade’s house was superior because of her garden. The elm trees laced through oak branches wonderfully, forming a canopy over the stone walkway and giving the lilies some much needed shade. In the backyard stood one apple tree, unobtrusive in its pastoral grace. Mrs. Milkshade loved picking the apples and enjoying the shade of the trees that gave her such comfort. Some days she never left her walkway, drinking a glass of apple cider, freshly pressed, and enjoying the sights.

Some may ask where Mr. Milkshade was during all this. Mr. Milkshade had been a terrible bore for thirteen years before doing the world the good of removing himself from it, and Mrs. Milkshade was all the more content. She was happier as an old – that is to say, an older, being just turned forty-five – maid than she ever had been married.

The Mrs. remained. Mrs. was a title of respect and command, and she had earned it in Candid. She attended the monthly town meetings without fail, and was kind enough to only win first place at the annual flower competition once every three years. The people of Candid knew that Mrs. Milkshade was a Mrs. through and through.

Mrs. Milkshade was sitting on that same stone walkway, enjoying a cordial as Ms. Glory started to walk up the drive. Her clothes smelled of ash and sulfur, but otherwise she was not the worse for wear. She did not want to keep the Mrs., in fact had demanded that Candid called her by her maiden name. The scandal had remained in the town for a long while, however. Imagine, a good dwarf man like Gregus Battlesmasher, running around with some succubus with her whatever hanging out for the world to see. Mrs. Milkshade could only feel a pang of sorrow for poor Glory, and when this latest of tragedies afflicted her, had done the courtesy of ignoring it completely.

“Mrs. Milkshade,” Glory said, standing on her tiptoes to peck the cheeks of the hostess. One showed proper respect to Mrs. Milkshade at all times. “I cannot tell you how grateful I am.”

“Tut, tut, Glory,” Mrs. Milkshade waved her hand towards a seat next to her. “It was my pleasure. How is Miss Wendt’s abode?”

“Unscathed,” Glory remarked. She looked down at the pitcher next to Mrs. Milkshade. “Would that be liquor?”

Mrs. Milkshade bit back a polite retort. Glory was settling back into single life, and was only two hundred. She wished to straddle flightiness and solidarity, a reed blowing in the wind whilst staying put. Allowances must be made.

“It is a lovely cherry cordial. Mrs. Eiri was kind enough to send some ahead of her for the dinner party.”

“Which Mrs. Eiri?”  Glory asked.  She took the offered seat, being careful to move it just a few inches back.

That was a conundrum. The two Daughters of the Pale Morning never had the decency to take their husbands’ names. Being a strong, independent woman was all well and good, but there was some inherent power in the sharing of a name in matrimony. Always take such power.

“Mereda,” Mrs. Milkshade said. “And she is most likely fetching Mrs. Srie Eiri.”

Glory nodded, sipping her cordial.  She was thinking of the battle down the block. Currently the three O’Laney brothers were storming the Denton’s house for strategic positioning. And the rumor was that Harold Denton had been stockpiling enough wine to end this war in a drunken stupor once and for all, if it didn’t burn first.

Glory hoped the rumors were true. She was sleeping with Harold’s son and two of the O’Laney brothers, and was hoping at least two of the warriors would survive. They were always so sweet to her, bringing gifts to her door and never once asking after her deadbeat husband, may he burn in the fires of perdition where he was most likely heading.

“Is that the Eiri sisters?” Mrs. Milkshade asked. They had not yet turned around the corner, but Glory had learned that Mrs. Milkshade never was wrong in what she heard. Sure enough, there they were, the Eiri sisters, different shades of pale. Mereda was always a slight dream of a girl, the last trace of night in her hair a black shock against a white mass of curls falling around her shoulders. Srie was brighter, pinks and orange eyes always peeking out of her rich tangle of blonde hair. They were not hand in hand, but the smiles on their faces would always describe them as sisters.

They looked seventeen, and had been for the last thirty years that Mrs. Milkshade had known them. She never knew whether the daughters of the Pale Morning was a religion, or perhaps more literal. She never asked, that would be too rude.

Srie nestled next to Glory, sitting on the stone walkway. She smiled, looking up. “Did you know that your house is just the most wonderful orange right now? Burnt, with flashes of scarlet. And the blue! The blue just is soft in the center. It is just…”

Mereda kicked her sister in the foot, looking up at Mrs. Milkshade in apology. “Srie, they don’t want to know.”

“Sorry,” Srie said, not entirely understanding what she was apologizing for.

“May I have a cup of cordial?”

“Absolutely,” Mrs. Milkshade said. “Your sister was kind enough to bring it beforehand.”

“Thank you, Mereda,” Srie said. She smiled, sitting down again.

Glory looked at the sisters as they settled in to watch. “Mrs. Milkshade, how are you this day?”

“I am doing quite well, Glory,” Mrs. Milkshade remarked. “I was feeling quite peckish last night, but after a spot of beef, I felt right as the moon.”

Glory nodded. “You have had no problems then with travelling?” Glory never was too polite to not ask about diet, but she did her best to put a polite mask over her words.

“Candid is always so kind when they see me out on my business,” Mrs. Milkshade sipped the cherry cordial again. It truly was a tad too sweet, she preferred a touch of frost in the cherries before they were harvested. Gave the syrup a touch of night in the taste.

A bolt of lightning streaked towards the stone walkway, crashing right in front of the steps. Mrs. Milkshade arched an eyebrow, looking towards the source of the spell. A house across the street was being torn from its roots by a golem of magma. The inhabitants of the house were attempting to combat the beast with opposing elements, a deluge pouring out of the facilities while Francine Darlique let her staff gather energy for another blow.

Mrs. Milkshade cleared her throat.

The house stopped shaking. The golem, Francine Darlique and the inhabitants looked across the street. Mrs. Milkshade tapped her finger against the glass. Glory looked bored. Mereda rolled her eyes as Srie waved.

“Sorry, Mrs. Milkshade!” Francine called out. “We’ll try and keep it down.”

“Not a problem, Francine,” Mrs. Milkshade said. “But if you could make sure that you do not hit my property. I fear for my poor lilies, they are not as strong as they used to be.”

The golem burbled an apology.

“You’re all doing great!” Srie shouted out. “Have a fun war!”

Glory stared at the two Mrs. Eiri. The daughters of Pale Morning were usually ready to burst in the front door, but now they sat, watching with interest for something they most likely did not know. Something was calling for them. Mrs. Milkshade apparently decided it was best to let it take its course.

“Mereda, I have heard that your husband is attempting to negotiate a peace.” Glory took a sip of cordial.

“He was indeed,” Mereda said. “A glorious negotiation between the families. The Darlique mages and the Servants of the Burning Earth,”

“Better known as Norri’s brother’s wife, Jane Yaspin, and everyone she managed to get to worship lava,” Srie explained.

“And the Servants of the Burning Earth,” Mereda continued. “Were going to sit down with the town council, and the committee set up by my husband,”

“Who is absolutely lovely, by the way.” Glory wondered why Srie kept speaking. “Fredrick has been losing weight, and the fact that he was boiled this morning really has nothing to do with that.”

Mrs. Milkshade frowned, and stared at Mereda. The Mrs. Eiri stared ahead, watching the golem cool across the street. If she smiled a bit as the lightning burst the obsidian into gravel, Mrs. Milkshade supposed it was permissible and not too impolite.

“Right, I would like to welcome you all into my home to a wonderful dinner party.”

It really was a wonderful spread. Mrs. Milkshade prided herself on sparing no expense, no detail, all without sending out for a single pepper. The glasses were buffed herself, filled two-thirds with chilled water with a tea cup besides. Only one dish was cracked, the result of a particularly strong wind gust that blew through her kitchen before its caster realized their grave mistake. She reserved this for her own character. A spotless tablecloth, the candles remained unlit due to the early time, it was all perfectly adequate.

Mrs. Milkshade watched as the ladies filed in, looking at the spread with renewed interest. She did not give herself the luxury of a sigh of relief, but a small crook of the mouth did suffice. Her friends, her guests, were here without fail, and at the appointed time with five minutes for polite conversation they were at the table.

She nodded to the new widow Eiri. There were arrangements to be made.

“Is there anything we can do, Mereda?” Glory Nalus asked.

“No,” Mereda said. She took a drink of water, shaking her head. “Really, ladies, please do not bother yourselves. Fredrick most likely went the way he desired: screaming in agony for a path to peace.”

“Ah,” Srie said, holding a napkin up. “A legacy. We should all be so lucky.”

“Seems frightfully dangerous,” Ms. Nalus said. “Imagine if all of us went out there trying to be heroes.”

“Glory, don’t speak of such nonsense.” Mrs. Milkshade poured a glass of tea for widow Eiri, then for her sister and finally Glory herself. “It is not for a polite society to be involved in such petty squabbles.”

“Even if it is tearing the region apart.” Mereda agreed.

“But don’t we have a civic responsibility?” Glory pressed.

“To do what?” Mrs. Milkshade asked.

“To help Irene Olive.” Srie said.

Irene Olive? Mrs. Milkshade vaguely remembered her. The slight half-elf newlywed. Lovely herbal beer, if in need of a hint of midnight ragweed. She lived several blocks up, closer to the forest. Why was Srie bringing up Irene Olive, she was not invited to the dinner party.

“She’s hiding behind the apple tree.”

Mrs. Milkshade’s eye twitched before she stood up. Glory and Mereda were up and offering to help prepare the appetizers before she could even move towards the back door. The hostess thanked them and accepted the help. Poor Mereda needed something to do, and needed to not be alone. Mrs. Milkshade then turned towards the back door.

This was her place of residence. While there were visitors by every three days as polite society necessitated, they did not stay. There were no gentlemen callers, no salesman, and certainly no riff raff. She had worked diligently to keep her trees well maintained, and they helped mark her property off with both an open air and sense of ownership. And there was a certain boundary that one did not cross to keep Mrs. Milkshade in good graces. Mrs. Irene Olive had shattered it just now.

Mrs. Milkshade stepped out the backdoor, and surveyed for any damage. But despite an eye that could pick out a dandelion hiding in her fields of sunflowers, she could spot nothing out of place. The paths remained swept, there was not a flower bent, and even the elms on the other side of the property had all their twigs intact, which was quite remarkable given the lack of rain this month. It seemed like no one had been to the back to do anything but meticulous and spectacular gardening.

And yet there was Irene Olive’s toe. Sticking out from behind the apple tree where she tried in vain to hide from Mrs. Milkshade. Barefoot, the poor woman must have run without even a slipper on her feet, which was just too much. And she was so considerate to the garden. Mrs. Milkshade closed her eyes, breathed, and smiled. It was a bit expressive for her, but given the war she was engulfed in, allowances were made.

“Mrs. Olive,” Mrs. Milkshade began. “If you would prefer, Ms. Nalus and Mrs. Eiri are in the midst of preparing another spot for you for our little get-together. I would be delighted if you rested in a chair rather than my apple tree.”

Mrs. Milkshade returned to the house, and sat down. She did her best not to fume, and the lovely cheese and crackers with tea provided by Ms. Nalus and widow Eiri were so much help. She did not see the ears poke out first from behind the tree, tipped with ash and soot. Nor did she see the torn green dress,  and the blonde hair that had been hastily bound up to avoid the fires.

Mrs. Olive was never close to Mrs. Milkshade’s level of sophistication. She let out a sigh, and a laugh, and a cry. She ran to the back door, being careful to keep the garden pristine. But she was elf enough that being proper was not a factor to field maintenance. It was simply a fact.

Mrs. Milkshade looked up as Irene Olive walked through the door. The quirk in her mouth returned. Perhaps with this she would fulfill her necessary good deeds for the week.

“Dear, try not to get ash on the set pieces, they are one of a kind.” Mrs. Milkshade murmured. “Srie, would you be so kind as to help Irene find the facilities and some respectable clothes? I believe I have several dresses that have returned to fashion that I simply will not fit into.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Milkshade.” Irene said. “I cannot begin to express,”

“Facilities.” Mrs. Milkshade took a sip of tea. “Now. We will wait, but not for long.”

Irene Olive returned to see Glory involved in a raucous debate between herself, Mereda and Mrs. Milkshade. The dress remained the same – Mrs. Milkshade was perhaps a bit generous in believing she had ever been so slight – but it had been washed a dried with efficiency, as was the dear’s hair.

“Much better, dear.” Mrs. Milkshade said, motioning to an open seat. “You look positively lovely.”

“I was going to say that!” Srie said. She jumped into a seat, looking on.

“What were you debating?”

“Involvement.” Glory said. “Whether or not it would be proper to involve ourselves in this conflict.”

“Which it isn’t.” Mrs. Milkshade said.

“But the possibilities…” Glory began.

“It isn’t.” Mrs. Milkshade said. “This is an internal blood feud that has to do with the Darliques and that insufferable woman up the block. The fact that they have amassed enough power to threaten the rest of the region is irrelevant. I will not be brought into this conflict simply because a Yaspin decided that this particular avatar deserved a war.”

“What about the Darliques?” Glory asked.

“Francine Darlique is a very capable woman, which is why Jane Yaspin despises her.” Mrs. Milkshade said. She stood up, absolutely furious. This was all well and good, and she was in need of a good debate to keep the blood flowing, but her meal was threatening to turn towards burnt!

“I will be back.” She murmured. “Mrs. Olive, I do apologize in advance, I did not take any dietary restrictions of yours into account. I do hope you enjoy a pork tenderloin with a raspberry reduction and saffron.”

“Did I also catch a hint of sweet potato for a dessert?” Irene asked.

Mrs. Milkshade stopped, and this time she did let a smile trace across her face. “Very good, Mrs. Olive. I added sweet potato to the crust of the tart to give it a hint of flavor.”

Mrs. Milkshade watched the pork tenderloin as she lifted it out of the fire pit. It was not always this civilized. Hours slaving away in a kitchen, just to turn your head for one second and have it burn right through your fingers. But a constant flame from a hired spell was well worth every penny. As she did the cooking, Mrs. Milkshade believed she could consider this still homemade.

“What about Fredrick?” Glory asked. “What if it were Mrs. Milkshade’s husband, or yours Srie?”

She continued, but Mrs. Milkshade was losing focus. Mr. Milkshade had done quite well being gone, as had Mr. Nalus. But Mr. Milkshade, that bore, that person who had tried in vain to make her not just respectable and polite but boring, she would not have it. She lived her life to the fullest, not through gallivanting off in sordid countries and even more sordid beds like Glory, but by being the best where she was. Right there in Candid, she was known. People knew not to cross her, without an inkling as to why.

Mrs. Milkshade had heard a nice boring tale. A woman comes up in nothing, in squalor. She is berated, belittled, made absolutely unknown for her entire childhood and much of her adult life. But she struggled and worked and suddenly she was pretty enough to catch the eye of the local princeling. Some foot binding rituals and a summoning circle to bind a fairy to her will, and soon the prince was falling in love with her over the size of her feet. She went on to live happily ever after in a palace that never made her stand up again. Apparently this is bliss.

Mrs. Milkshade picked up the tenderloin, and set it down on the dining room table. She engaged in small talk, her mind in several fascinating places. She was right in the dining room, engaging Irene in talking about the latest gossip on the war. Apparently someone had decided to involve the lower planes and summoned a demon to fight the Darliques, (“I bet you it was that no good Reginald Buxbottom!” Mereda said, finally losing her temper. “His mother never required him to wash before the community theater. Imagine summoning demons to a simple blood feud, what this town is coming to.”) And it was currently navigating Main Street and the tripwires within.

But Mrs. Milkshade was also thinking on that silly tale. She would never use such a practical summoning on something as silly as a prince. She would never be allowed to tend a garden as a princess, let alone take the time to make a raspberry reduction. Instead she would have had that hapless fairy set to work on a wardrobe that was slimming, not appearing to be slimming, and then tackle the geology underneath the garden to remove some rocks before she tore a hand open. Sensible magic.

And still Mrs. Milkshade was checking on that tart. She was trying a new recipe, and didn’t want it to disappoint. Her smile slipped. They would like it. Yes. Yes they would.

A man burst through the front door, sword and summoning stick in his hands. A blood-flecked beard covered a heavily scarred face, and he slumped to one knee. He was dressed in cloth and denim, torn and burnt.

Glory stood up, sticking her finger at the man. “Antonius Rascal Paxton!”

The man winced, and turned around. He put on his best apologetic face.

“How dare you come into Mrs. Lana Milkshade’s house in such a state!” Glory exclaimed.

“Sorry, Glory.” Antonius mumbled.

“Excuse me?”

“Sorry, Ms. Nalus.” Antonius corrected.

Glory walked towards the soldier. “There is ash in your hair, your clothes are a mess, is that fresh blood on your sword?” It was not a question so much as a scream, as she had reached the young man and decided that the current decibel was not enough.

Antonius tried to make putting a sword behind his back as innocuous as possible.

“Don’t do that.” Glory chided. “You will drip on these carpets, and who is going to have to get the blood out of the carpet? Mrs. Milkshade?”

Antonius’ eyes widened, and flickered to Mrs. Milkshade. Mrs. Milkshade drank her tea. This was not something she needed to be personally involved in yet. And a lady did not make threats in her own home. It was proper, and more effective, if another did it for her.

“What do you have to say to her?” Mereda asked.

Antonius scuffed his boot. Or rather, he was about to until he realized he might ground something into the carpet, and fear for his life saved him. “I’m sorry I dragged a blood feud into your home, Mrs. Milkshade.”

“Apology accepted, young man.” Mrs. Milkshade stood up. Antonius took a step back, hand gripping his sword. An eyebrow went up, as if something was both amusing and gauche to the hostess.

“Now, Antonius,” Mrs. Milkshade smiled. “Would you like a piece of tart before you leave?”

“Yes, please.” Antonius murmured.

“Then I believe Srie will be kind enough to pull that delightful confection out of the kitchen, and I would be happy to slice,” She allowed herself just the slightest inflection on the l diphthong to watch the young man’s stomach churn, “you a piece.”

Antonius accepted the tart, and exclaimed that it was the most delectable piece of food that he had ever tasted, outside of his mother’s. Exempting one’s mother is acceptable and even required, though for all her skill in parenting, Mrs. Paxton truly could not bake to save her soul. This was actual fact. She lost it last week, thanks to that despicable Brenna Saxen’s Flaming Jubilee, and was currently searching for someone else’s soul.

While Mrs. Milkshade had to admit that her desserts would only rank seventh in the community bake sales (or higher, depending on the current death rate), she was pleased with the comment, and thanked the young man, who beat a hasty retreat out of the house and down the block towards the sounds of an ambush.

“Such a nice boy,” Srie said. “Mrs. Paxton should be proud.”

“Holds the sword with technique and conviction, and those manners!” Glory picked up some of the dishes with a smile in agreement. “Once he realized the error of his ways, he could not help but be polite.”

“Fear will do that to a young man.” Mereda pointed out.

Mrs. Milkshade waved her hand. “Tush and ravel, Mereda. The boy’s fear has little to do with his manners. Manners are built into our bones. In fear we may ascribe to politeness, but it is only through practice and poise that it is achieved.”

“And that is why there are too few men and too many boys,” Glory called out from the kitchen. “Not enough practice!”

“Do we need to hold a ball?” Mereda asked. “We could bring it up at the supplication hearing next week.”

The supplication hearing, oh dear. Mrs. Milkshade had completely forgotten about the premature planned surrender of the Darliques. This blood feud had been budgeted out months in advance on the social calendar, but already it was over budget. The Darliques were going to have to surrender early, or not even a production of Turner Vaughn Gnasp’s immortal classic Seven Spirits Sang Sweetly could raise enough money to prevent a deficit. As if they could even provide the necessary sacrifices of gold and goblin secretions this late in the year to procure the necessary rights.

“We are already in over our heads with this silly blood feud.” Mereda chided. “A ball would raise no revenue whatsoever.”

“We could make it a ransom ball,” Glory suggested. “Hold foreign dignitaries for funds. That would help us get back some of the funds from the war. And while they are here, they would instruct the young gentlemen in multicultural poise and elegance.”

“And where would we get such dignitaries at this time of year?” Mereda demanded.

That was true. Most dignitaries of note had either already been ransomed this year, or were awaiting negotiations patiently. Several had been kidnapped by villages enough times to have contracted villas for their personal use. At taxpayer expense of course.

Mrs. Milkshade turned towards Mrs. Olive. She had remained almost silent throughout dinner, and even now seemed to want to shrink into the wood paneling. She was an uninvited guest, but a guest she was. Mrs. Milkshade would not have a disappearance in plain sight.

“Mrs. Olive, what do you think of this current town squabble?”

Mrs. Olive looked like she wanted to disappear as Mrs. Milkshade continued. “Or, perhaps you wish that we talked more of stopping the bloodshed rather than the social calendar.”

The other ladies realized that Mrs. Olive had been entirely left out of the conversation. Glory reddened, while Mereda Eiri trailed off her in own thoughts. Srie Eiri leaned forward, suddenly very interested in what the woman had to say.

Mrs. Milkshade surmised that Mrs. Olive was quite typical for a half-elf. Irene Olive was not usually seen in town for a weekly dinner. Mrs. Milkshade doubted that this was an intentional snub. Half-elves were so often ostracized from polite society. Which was rather silly, when considered fully. There was an exotic quality to combining so diverse cultures as human and elf, or whatever else chose to breed with the elves.

“I just want the death to stop.” Irene said.

Mrs. Milkshade nodded, and gathered herself up. “Come along, ladies.” She made sure to pluck a hat off the rack, a nice little lavender shade that did accent her eyes so. Oh, and then the deep red with a wide brim for Mrs. Olive that just gave her a sense of life. Yes, that would make an impression.

“Please put this on, Mrs. Olive,” Mrs. Milkshade moved around the house, checking a mental list of necessary tasks for closing the house for the dinner party.

The guests moved about, tidying up the house with speed. The Eiri sisters made sure the living room was spotless while Glory finished wiping down the kitchen. They had no idea just where they were going, or why. But Mrs. Milkshade was the hostess, and an outing was just the thing to burn off such a lovely dinner.

Mrs. Olive stood in the center of the four ladies, trying to be unobtrusive. Mrs. Milkshade placed her hand on the half-elf. “Irene, if you would be so kind as to make sure the back garden is still in good order, and then meet us on the front walk.”

Mrs. Milkshade led the party out to the front door, and took one last look at the feud raging in the streets. It had been amusing while it lasted, but the war was starting to spill into her living room, and it obviously upset Mrs. Olive so. Even the new widow Eiri was putting on a brave face, and Mrs. Milkshade would not stand for that.

Still, the lava had always been such a relaxing sight while she had sipped an evening tea. And every once in a while a conjured flood did wonders for her garden. No, those were always interspersed with droughts that lasted for days. The weather was being used much too often as a weapon. It was time to end this.

Mrs. Milkshade stepped off her walk and nodded across the street. The battle had finally abated during dinner, and Francine Darlique and her boys were using the golem’s body parts to prop up part of the house. She did have to admire the resourcefulness.

“Mrs. Milkshade!” Francine dropped her staff, bowing. “How was your dinner party?”

“Interrupted by Antonius Paxton.” Mrs. Milkshade looked around. “Have you seen Jane Yaspin recently, or has her head been removed?”

“Jane is still puttering around the north end of town, holding it despite several tornadoes I sent her way.” Francine grinned, and Mrs. Milkshade noticed a few molars were missing. When this was over, Mrs. Milkshade made a note to find a dentist that was travelling. They could make a fortune, and deprive some tooth fairies from nesting in town.

“I wonder if you would join me and my party in stopping this squabble.” Mrs. Milkshade asked.

“But we were going to surrender next week,” Francine began, and stopped when she noticed a tick in Mrs. Milkshade’s mouth. “We didn’t want to surrender early to Jane Yaspin.”

“I have no intention of you surrendering at all, Francine.” Irene finally showed on the walk. Mrs. Milkshade nodded to her, and started walking up the street. “I said we are stopping this. And I have no care of who declares victory.”

That was a minor lie. Mrs. Milkshade was more than prepared to let Jane Yaspin squirm before giving her leave to surrender. This squabble was her fault, and it had upset her guests.

The walk through town was uneventful. The war being raged was fueled by passion and hostile differences that had no immediate answer. But the sight of Mrs. Milkshade caused the warriors to stop either to wave, or run towards a safer side of town.

Irene asked Mrs. Milkshade about this, and the hostess smiled. “The boys and girls know that I do not trifle lightly.” If there was going to be any more explanation it would have to be subliminal.

As they approached Jane Yaspin’s house, Srie stopped, and rolled her eyes. “Oh, tan sunrise!” She spat.

“Language, sister.” Mereda said.

“Jane Yaspin is taking this too literally, Merey,” Srie pointed, and the rest of the ladies did find themselves in agreement. Jane Yaspin had decided to raise a moat of lava around her two-story house. It bubbled and frothed, occasionally spouting up around the lone walkway towards the front door.

The burning rock was vibrant, and accentuated the obsidian walls nicely, casting a harsh glow that gave the impression of someone not to be messed with. Though it might have been more impressive if the Yaspins could raise enough obsidian to make more walls than a simple cottage. Presumably they still wanted visitors, but could not decide whether to be evil overlords of the melted stone, or prominent members of the community.

“You know why she did this,” Glory cast her hand over the lava. “She never could get a single daffodil to take root.”

Mrs. Milkshade whole-heartedly agreed, but let the others and Francine Darlique actually give voice to it. She was here for peace, not to comment on gardening choices, however misplaced their intentions were.

She stood at the foot of the walkway, ignoring the heat, and looked up to the window above the doorway. “Jane Yaspin, if you would be so kind and come out,” She smiled as sweetly as possible. “We have a little war to discuss.”

The window opened, and Jane Yaspin stuck her tiny little nose out. Speckled gray hair was cut close to her head, the ashes on her glasses seemed more a fashion statement than a result of hard work, and her portly figure did nothing but accentuate such. She stood there in a dress that flowed, actually flowed.

“Gods above and below,” Glory muttered, “Is she actually trying to wear lava?”

“So it would seem.” Mrs. Milkshade said.

Jane Yaspin leaned against the windowsill. “Lana,” she drawled. “How nice to have you drop by.”

Francine Darlique and the dinner partyers took a step back from Mrs. Milkshade. This was suddenly something that seemed hazardous to bystanders that came too close.

“Jane,” Mrs. Milkshade said, looking up at the woman. “Come down here now.”

“Or what?”

“Or I make you.” Mrs. Milkshade smiled. “And then I would have enough regrets for us both.”

Jane Yaspin seemed caught. She was in a role, a role she obviously loved. Queen of the melted stone, fighting a war that made the ladies in bake sales stand up and take notice. And she must have even thought she looked ravishing in that dress, though the effect might have waned in the last three decades she had spent in married life. The men would be the first to say they would rather jump in her moat than walk through the front door. She thought herself powerful.

But this was Mrs. Milkshade. And Jane Yaspin had already made the mistake of calling her by her first name. Jane disappeared from the window.

“Francine,” Mrs. Milkshade plucked the hat from her head, and held it out to be grabbed by the Darlique. “If you would be so kind as to fetch two chairs.”

Francine grabbed the hat, and frowned. “Two?”

“Afterwards, if you would be kind enough to console the newly minted widow Eiri,” Mrs. Milkshade said, “and have one of your boys locate Mr. Olive. I am quite sure his wife would like to know if he survived the fire that obviously took their house.”

Francine conjured two chairs, and started to hurry off.

“Francine.”

She turned back to see Mrs. Milkshade, reclined in the chair and sipping from a tea cup that had appeared from nothingness.

“If I find that the widow Eiri is such because of your side of this squabble, I will call on you next. Doubly so if Mr. Olive is only partially located.”

Francine bowed, and disappeared behind the dinner partyers.

Jane Yaspin’s front door burst open as she strode forth from the walkway. The burning rock bubbled and geysered around her. It was rather impressive, if overdone.

She reclined in the chair, looking over Mrs. Milkshade with contempt. The hostess in turn enjoyed her cup of Shaeryan Jade. The lava did make reheating a non-issue.

“So you have sided with the Darliques.” Jane sneered.

“I have sided with myself, Jane,” Mrs. Milkshade explained. “As I always have done.”

“Anything the Darliques have offered,” Jane started, and stopped with a wave of the hostess’ hand.

“The Darliques have offered me nothing, there is no ransom or leverage, and quite honestly there is nothing either of you have or have done that interests me personally.” She took another sip of a tea. “But you two have upset my guests, so I would like this little squabble to stop now.”

Yaspin leaned forward. “The Darliques are scheduled to surrender next week.  Why not wait?”

“Surrendering next week will cost Candid,” Mrs. Milkshade paused, summarizing the losses of the last few weeks and taking a calculation. “Sixteen houses, finally divert the river, make any land outside of my property infertile for the next three years, and make our reputation synonymous with quaint backwards hicks for two generations.”

Mrs. Milkshade considered. “Ah, yes, and four dozen sons and daughters will have been killed. So rather the question is why don’t you surrender now?”

“Me? Surrender?” Jane laughed. “I’m winning.”

“No, you managed to slip the surrender into Mayor Brandt’s monthly address, most likely through your niece engaging in entirely too crude tactics.” The knowledge of such was given to Mrs. Milkshade by Tessa Marie Nancy, who always did gossip too much. “Francine Darlique was amenable to such because to challenge the mayor when he had been so kind in allowing your war seemed crass.”

The lava servant was shaking violently. The geysers that had previously been for show now spurted onto the walkway and out of the moat, carving holes into the streets and surrounding foliage. Such a loss of control belied a lack of ladylike demeanor.

“I was content to sit this out as well. It truly was none of my affair.” Mrs. Milkshade finished her tea. “But you truly are a petty little girl, and now I must step in, or I fear a month from now this house will be worshipping the stars as they fall from the sky on Candid.”

Jane Yaspin remained silent.

“Send word of your surrender within the hour,” Mrs. Milkshade stood up and turned to leave. “Or I will.”

“Tell me,” Jane Yaspin said. “Does being polite in all things forgive your absolute bitch tendencies?”

The lava froze, and retreated. Where bubbles and froth were a moment ago was solid rock. Rock that wished it could run. The house shuddered once, and collapsed in on itself. Jane Yaspin’s own dress toppled her to the ground as it solidified into a block of obsidian.

Mrs. Milkshade turned to the little woman. “That was unwise.”

Jane Yaspin scratched at the dress, to no avail. It had sealed her in as effectively as a tomb. Mrs. Milkshade tapped her foot against the dress. “If you had allied with a river, it might have made more fashion sense. But the rivers that could come to your beck and call know to fear me as well.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Mrs. Milkshade,” the woman said, bending a gloved hand towards the little thing. “And I do not suffer slights.”

The partygoers did not know what conspired next between Mrs. Milkshade and the once-proud Jane Yaspin. But she sent word of her surrender within the hour. Her forces conceded the bake sale to the Darliques as well as exclusive rights to the third-floor of the library. As that contained the spells on music, the Darliques were more than content and did not pursue the matter further.

Jane Yaspin was last seen skulking out of town in a cloud of ash. She most likely wanted it to be a cloud of promise, on vengeance and brighter days for herself and her kin. It mostly brought coughs and chuckles.

Mrs. Milkshade returned to her porch, and waited. Candid was becoming more exciting. There was talk of a carriage road. And after this year, they might even have a chance to kidnap their own official for ransom.

All was turning out nice and proper.

copyright 2016 Jack Holder