Issue 23: "At War With The Devil, Part One" Jan 18, 2012 13:21:25 GMT -5
Post by Admin on Jan 18, 2012 13:21:25 GMT -5
Weird Western Quarterly
Issue #23: "At War With the Devil, Part 1: Why We Fight"
Written by Susan Hillwig
Cover by Joe Jarin
Edited by Mark Bowers
Issue #23: "At War With the Devil, Part 1: Why We Fight"
Written by Susan Hillwig
Cover by Joe Jarin
Edited by Mark Bowers
It was a warm mid-April morning, but Chris Maxwell barely took notice of it. He was sitting on the porch of his grandparents’ house, eyes closed and head hanging down as he concentrated on his breathing. It was a trick he’d learned during his travels, a way to center himself when he felt overwhelmed by something...and with the events that had taken place over the past few days, the threat of being overwhelmed by them was ever present.
He heard footsteps inside the house, then voices, and he stood up. The act of moving disturbed the calm Chris had built up, and he could feel a trembling deep inside himself. It was his gift reacting to his mood, wanting to drive his body as far and fast as it could go. At times like this, it was like trying to rein in a wild mustang, but he managed to do so, silently telling himself, Normal speed. Normal people move at normal speed.
“...stop by in a few days to see how he’s doing,” the doctor was saying as he stepped out onto the porch. “In the meantime, just make sure he gets some rest. No excitement.”
“Of course,” Ruth Maxwell replied. Stepping outside as well, she looked over at Chris, and he could see the worry in his grandmother’s eyes. Chris wished there was something he could do to erase it, but he couldn’t. All his abilities, and he couldn’t do this one small thing.
The doctor turned to Chris now and said, “As for you, young man, I expect to see you at the meeting tomorrow. You look like just the sort of man we need.”
“Need for what?” Chris asked.
“For the regiment we’re putting together, of course.” The doctor positively beamed as he said, “The town council has decided to ready itself for the inevitable call from our government by making a list of every able-bodied man, aged sixteen and older, for conscription into the Confederate Army. I know you’ve only just arrived back in town, but...”
Chris felt a vibration run through his body, which he quickly clamped down upon, then said, “And what if I don’t want to be part of this insanity?”
“Young man, that’s the sort of attitude that put your grandfather in the state he’s in. I suggest that you learn from his mistakes and do the right thing.” The doctor nodded to Ruth, saying, “Good day to you, ma’am,” then headed down the steps. His horse and buggy were waiting for him, and he threw Chris a hard glance as he gave the reins a snap.
Once the doctor was out of sight, Chris let loose, running down the steps, across the wide yard, then back to his grandmother’s side. All of this took him only two seconds, and he left sparks of lightning in his wake. “Christopher, please,” Ruth said once he was still again, “you need to calm down. Getting angry won’t do Elias any good.”
“I’m not angry, I’m just...frustrated.” Chris shook his head, a rather slow gesture compared to the feat he’d pulled moments before. “Having that idiot constantly call me ‘young man’ didn’t help. I’m as old as him, dammit.”
“Doctor Criswell has only been here a few years, he doesn’t know you.” She gently placed her hands on either side of her grandson’s face. “And he wouldn’t understand the blessing God gave you.”
“Some days, it doesn’t feel like a blessing.” He turned away from Ruth, unable to cope with looking at her silvery hair, her wrinkled face. He should have a couple of wrinkles and gray hairs of his own by now, seeing as how he was just a few weeks shy of his forty-second birthday, but instead he barely looked twenty-five, an unforeseen side-effect of the powers granted to him by the Blackfoot shaman Ahwehota over two decades before. “At the moment, it feels like I’m sitting in a barrel of gunpowder and wondering if I should light the match.”
Undeterred, Ruth replied, “It’s not so dramatic as that.”
“Isn’t it? Do you know anyone else that can do what I do? Do you have a true grasp of how dangerous I am? It’s been a long time since my powers scared me, but lately...” He shook his head again, saying, “I shouldn’t have come here. It’s just brought you more trouble.”
“You have never brought us trouble, Chris. Elias may have made you believe that for a while when you were a boy, but it wasn’t so. You’ve always made the best choices with your life, and I know that you’ll make the best choice now, whatever that may be.”
“I wish I felt as confident as you about that.” He glanced through the still-open doorway and at the stairs that led to the second floor. “Is he asleep right now?”
“He should be. Did you want to go up and see him?”
“No, that’s fine. The doc’s right about one thing: he needs to rest. I’ll see him when I get back.” He started to walk down the porch steps.
“Where are you going?”
“I need to think for a while, and I can’t do it clearly if people like that doctor are dropping by.” He caught sight once again of the worried look in Ruth’s eyes and went back up the steps. “I’m not running away from all this, I promise. No matter what I decide to do, I’ll come back and let you both know.” Chris then hugged her and said softly, “I love you, Mama.”
She smiled up at him. “You haven’t called me ‘Mama’ in years.”
“Not out loud.” He gave her another brief hug, then dashed down the steps. Within thirty seconds, he was clear of the town of Manchester, and five minutes after that, he passed the Alabama border. Soon, the soles of his boots were slapping against the surface of the Mississippi. It felt good to be moving again, to just set the gift within him free and let it carry him effortlessly across the land. Even after twenty-three years, Chris hadn’t completely gotten over the wonder of being able to move at such incredible speeds. He’d done his best to study his abilities, and had traveled the world to consult with people much wiser than him: scholars, priests, shamans, mystics, learned folk of every sort. He once spent an entire year in a secluded place called Nanda Parbat, working and praying in silence, all so he could earn the privilege of stepping into the shrine of Rama Kushna and speaking with the godlike entity said to dwell within -- he staggered out an hour later, head swimming from the visions that had been visited upon him, many of which he still had yet to understand. In between his studies, Chris would apply his gifts to causes that benefited others, be it rescuing an entire village from a tsunami in Asia or plowing a field in the blink of an eye for a poor farmer in South America. Unfortunately, that desire to always work for the greater good now left him torn, unable to see which path he should take...and for someone who could move as fast as him, not having a clear view of what’s in front of him could be disastrous.
Chris slowed down, sensing that he was close to his destination. The world around him gained substance once more, as opposed to the electrically-charged blur that he saw when he ran. Sparks still danced around his feet as he looked down from the plateau of Table Mountain and across the wide, green expanse that was Echo Valley. Over the past two decades, the place had become a second home to him, and the Indians who lived there always welcomed him like a brother. The mere sight of it helped to brighten his mood, and he raced down the mountain path until he reached a group of women who were stitching deerskin hides for clothing. He paused just outside their little circle, watching in silence and waiting for one young lady in particular to take notice of him -- another woman next to her spotted Chris first, and she gave her a nudge and pointed his way. The young lady laid her work aside and, with a radiant smile, ran over to Chris and jumped into his embrace. After sharing a long, passionate kiss, she said to him, “I was beginning to worry about you, Windrunner. You said you would be home by yesterday.”
“I know, Autumn, and I’m sorry, but... something’s happened. Too many things have happened.”
“What is it? You can tell me.” Her deep-brown eyes gazed up into his blue ones. “No matter what’s wrong, I’ll always be here for you.” Autumn Sky was a full-blooded Blackfoot, her parents being among those who’d relocated to Echo Valley after escaping the massacre that had killed Ahwehota, the original Windrunner. Chris had watched her grow up and, five years ago, he’d taken her as his wife. That she tolerated his many absences over the years was a testament to both her patience and her love for him.
Chris took a deep breath, readying himself to explain further, then he heard someone else call his name. He turned to see Hawk coming their way, his sixty-year-old frame still moving at the clip of a man half his age. “I thought I saw you tearing down here!” Hawk said with a laugh. “How’s things in Alabama?” Then he caught sight of Chris’s expression, and he took on a more serious tone. “Not good, huh?”
“No, not at all,” he replied. “I’m glad you’re here, though. I wanted to talk to you, too.” Chris took hold of Autumn’s hands, saying, “Aside from my grandparents, you two are the most important people in my life, and I’m...I feel lost right now. I need help finding my way out of this mess, if there is a way.”
With a note of concern, Hawk asked, “What’s going on, Chris?”
“The war.” He squeezed his wife’s hands tightly. “The war’s finally come.”
* * * * * *
Light trickled down from the smoke-hole at the top of the tipi. Hawk, Chris, and Autumn sat upon woven mats arranged around the fire pit, which was merely glowing embers at the moment. At various places throughout the tipi were souvenirs of Chris’s travels, some of them gifts from people he’d helped over the years. He never wanted anything in return for what he did, but he always accepted such things out of politeness, and there were times when he’d later look upon those items with a touch of pride, knowing that there were people out there who were grateful for his presence in their lives, however brief it was. But today, as Chris sat there in distress, those souvenirs served more as reminders of what he should be doing that very moment, as opposed to huddling in a tipi in some faraway land.
“The secessions aren’t surprising to me at all,” Chris said. “The southern states have been threatening it for years -- Lincoln getting elected was just the final straw for them, I think -- but I figured that, if they did it, that’s where it would stop. Or maybe that’s just what I hoped. Either way, I’ve always done my best to avoid any conflict having to do with abolition. I didn’t think it was right to force my will upon others, no matter what I personally felt about slavery. I’m no John Brown.”
“I’m glad of that,” Hawk replied. “I met him once, years ago. There was a hint of crazy in that man. He had the right idea, but the wrong methods.”
“Exactly. He saw nothing wrong with killing anyone involved in the slave trade, and he got himself hanged for it. In the end, all he really did was incite a lot more people to violence on both ends. Of course, maybe that’s what he really wanted: to get everyone so riled up that they would want to go to war.” Chris let out a sigh. “And now they are, as of six days ago. There was an incident at a fort in South Carolina, and the Confederate states are calling it an invasion. I’ve even heard some folks talk about storming Washington D.C. in retaliation since it butts up right against Virginia...they’re part of the Confederacy now, as of yesterday.”
“So how many states does that make?” Hawk asked.
“Eight, including Alabama, where my grandparents live. That happened back in January, and I’ve been reluctant to visit since then, but I didn’t want to put it off any longer. I had no idea that I’d be walking into such a mess, though.”
“Let me guess: Your grandfather is all for this Confederacy business.”
“He is and he’s not. My grandfather’s not what you’d call an abolitionist, but he’s not a slave owner, either. He just plain doesn’t like coloreds, free or slave, so he doesn’t want them around in any capacity. He’s the ‘send them all back to Africa’ sort.”
Hawk cocked an eyebrow. “Just your average racist, is that what you’re getting at?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I was trying to be a little more genteel about it,” he replied. “My grandfather’s also not in favor of our ‘new nation’ taking up arms against the Union, and ever since Alabama seceded, he’s apparently been quite vocal about his opinions.” Chris paused, then said quietly, “Last night, he got into an argument with the other members of his law firm, and it got so heated that he had a stroke. It hit him really hard...he’s bedridden right now. He can’t even talk. And you know what the worst part is? Everybody in Manchester is saying that it’s the Lord’s wrath that struck him down. They’re calling him a traitor to the cause simply because he spoke his mind. For God’s sake, my family has lived in that town for over forty years, and I had to beg the doctor to come over and treat him!”
He began to tremble, and Autumn reached over to put her arms around Chris in an effort to comfort him -- she found it was like trying to take hold of an earthquake. “Be calm, my husband. All will be well,” she whispered.
“I don’t believe that anymore,” he answered. “This is too much like the vision I had when I first got my powers: a great war tearing the country apart, everyone fighting one another until the ground was soaked with blood. I’ve seen glimpses of it in other visions since then, but I could never discern when or where it would happen...but I think it’s going to happen now.”
Hawk stood up and paced about the tipi. He and Chris had talked many times over the years about that particular vision, and Hawk had always been of the opinion that this ‘great war’ was more symbolic of something else -- the scale of destruction Chris described struck him as far too large to be real -- yet this secession movement and the feelings it was stirring up made it seem like it was within the realm of possibility. “If’n you’re right ‘bout all this,” he said after a while, “and it’s really going to be as bad as you think, how are we supposed to stop it? This isn’t some border-town skirmish, we’re talking about two whole nations going at it here.”
“I know, I know...but think for a minute about what I can do. Just me.” Chris looked from Hawk to Autumn. “You both know the amount of power I’ve got locked up inside of me, and what I can do with it if I really let myself go. What’s more, there’s no one else in the world that’s anything like me: I’ve hunted down every rumor I’ve ever heard that sounded even remotely like Ahwehota’s gift, and I’ve turned up nothing. If I gave into temptation, I don’t think there’s anybody that could stop me.”
Autumn pulled away slightly. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that I’m capable of ending this war before it’s really started. Hell, if it’s going to be as horrible as I’ve envisioned all these years, maybe I have to do it.”
“You don’t have to do anything,” Hawk replied, “especially if’n you don’t want to.”
“That’s the part that scares me the most,” Chris said. “I want to end this war so badly that I can’t stop shaking.” He wrung his hands together, as if to rub off some of the nervous energy building inside of him. “I want to shatter every gun on this continent. I want to force Jefferson Davis and Abe Lincoln into a small room and lock them in until they settle this peacefully. And if they can’t do so...what’s to stop me from just taking over everything?”
“Your conscience, for one. You’re a sensible man, Chris, and you know that sort of action would be wrong to undertake. I’m not saying I’m looking forward to this war, but I do think that both sides need to hash this problem out themselves. Like you said, this has been coming for years, and I think any attempt to repress it will just make things turn out worse.” Hawk paused a moment, then said, “Did you ever think that maybe your visions ain’t necessarily of this war to come, but of what might happen if’n you intervene like y’all say you want to?”
Chris stared at him, then bowed his head. “No, I didn’t.”
“That’s because you were thinking instead of how you can use your powers to help others, same as you always do. In this case, though, I think your powers are going to be a hindrance. This is going to be a war between men, and...well, let’s be honest, you’re a bit more than a man these days.” The corner of Hawk’s mouth tugged upward in a smirk. “Despite this slight lapse in judgment on your part, I still think the spirits made the proper choice in making you the way you are. Lots of other people in your position, if’n they had your powers, wouldn’t be so hesitant about what you’ve been suggesting. They’d just figure ‘might makes right’ and do whatever they pleased.”
“Like Wise Owl tried to do,” Chris said quietly, and took hold of his wife’s hand again.
Sighing, Hawk answered, “Yeah, exactly.” He walked up and patted Chris on the shoulder. “I don’t blame you for your desire to end this quick, though. I’ve seen enough battles in my day, and heard of many more from my dad, God rest his soul. Whatever happens back east, it’s gonna leave scars on a lot of people. Maybe there’s a way you can make those scars fewer, but I don’t think it’s the way you’ve been dwelling upon.”
“What way do you suggest, then?” Chris asked.
“I suggest that, for now, you spend a great deal of time making love to your wife and not thinking ‘bout this war between states.” He glanced at Autumn. “That sound agreeable to you?”
“I am not against it.” Despite the serious talk that had been going around the tipi, Autumn managed to put on a rather loving smile. “Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.”
Hawk nodded and exited the tipi, leaving the couple alone. “You didn’t say much regarding all this,” Chris said. “Did I scare you, talking the way I did?”
“Somewhat, but I agree with Hawk: you need to stop thinking about this war, at least for a while. You mind is becoming too clouded by worry.” She reached up and traced her finger along the edge of his jawline, then down his neck. “I love you, Windrunner, and I will support whatever decision you make. All I ask is that you be certain about that decision.” Her hand came to rest over the small, carved thunderbird charm that hung around his neck on a rawhide thong. “And I will pray that the spirits grant you the clarity you need to help you make it.”
Chris placed a hand over hers, then used his other hand to pull her close, until their foreheads touched. “I pray for the same.”
* * * * * *
He did his best to put it out of his mind for the rest of the day, concentrating instead on spending time with Autumn and visiting with the other residents of Echo Valley. Hawk’s brother, Small Eagle, had just welcomed his second grandchild into the world, and there was still quite a bit of fuss being made over the infant, which Chris was more than glad to join in on. There was also some teasing of Hawk regarding this, as he’d never settled down and had any children of his own. “Small Eagle’s got six kids already,” Hawk would reply, as he always did whenever the subject came up, “so why’s everybody so eager for me to pile more on?”
By the time the sun began to set, Chris was acting more like his usual self, and Autumn was happy to see that. As they made their way back to the tipi to turn in for the night, he told her, “I have an idea, but I’m not entirely sure they’d go along with it.”
“An idea about what?”
“How to keep my grandparents safe while this war is going on.” He caught the worried expression that crossed her face. “It’s nothing like I was talking about before. In fact, I’m surprised it took me so long to realize.” After a pause, he said, “I want to bring them here.”
“To the valley?”
“Yeah. This entire place is hidden from outsiders, so even if the war grows out of control, it’ll never come here. It can’t.” They stopped walking, and Chris pointed to a spot midway up one of the mountain ridges. “I’ll build them a cabin, right up there, and I’ll stock it with everything they could possibly need. It’s not Alabama, but they’ll be safe.” His eyes dropped to the ground. “That’s all I want: for them to be safe.”
“I understand, but this may not be the life they want,” she replied. “Remember when you took me to the land you grew up in? How awkward I felt in the presence of all those whites? Would it not be the same way for them?”
“Then I’ll settle them in Howling Forks. It’s a lot smaller than Manchester, but you’re right, they’d probably be more comfortable there. And if there’s any trouble, I can...”
Autumn put a finger over his lips, saying, “I also think you should ask them first, or were you going to whisk them away in the night?”
He smiled, then kissed her fingers. “You’re right. I’m thinking at my speed again, not normal folks’. I should at least wait until Elias has rested up a little.” He glanced off to the east now, towards the plateau of Table Mountain, which acted as a gateway to the wide world beyond. “I think I might run back home tonight, though, just to let my grandmother know I’m doing better than I was this morning.”
“But it’s getting late. Can this not wait until tomorrow?”
“I’ll be there and back before you know it,” he replied, then noticed the little pout coming to her lips, which she sometimes gave him when he tried to put his desires ahead of hers. “Of course, Hawk did suggest that I tend to other matters for a while, didn’t he?” He kissed Autumn’s fingers again, then the palm of her hand, then her wrist. She responded by playfully tugging away from him and running the rest of the way to their tipi -- by the time she entered, Chris was already there, stripped to the waist and ready to wrap her in a bearskin hide.
A few hours later, as the moon rose over the valley and they had both been sated, Autumn slept peacefully in Chris’s embrace. He envied her for how easily she’d slipped into slumber, while he could only seem to manage a fitful doze as the events of the past few days kept rattling around his head. The war would happen, he’d resigned himself to that fact, but he still questioned what his role in it should be, if any. The latest scenario to come to him as he lay there with his eyes closed involved him running to the White House and vibrating past all the guards at super-speed until he found himself in front of President Lincoln himself. He’d offer his services directly to the Commander-In-Chief as a scout or spy...but not as an assassin. That would be Chris’s only condition: he’d refuse any order to kill anyone. There had been times over the years when he’d come dangerously close to taking a human life, but he’d always managed to stop just short of doing the deed, and he knew it would take a rather extraordinary circumstance to make him change his mind on that point.
Overall, the idea of answering to Lincoln alone seemed to calm his nerves, and he finally began to fall asleep. When dreams came, however, they were of torn landscapes and ash-filled air. He could hear screams and gunfire all around him, yet there was no battle to be seen -- it was as if the hand of God had waved over the land and rendered the participants invisible -- there weren’t even any dead laying about. Chris wandered about this nightmare for what seemed like ages, until he spotted a man with long, snowy-white hair standing on a hillock. He rushed up to the man, and as he got closer, Chris was shocked to see who it was. “Ahwehota?” he said. “Is that really you, or am I still dreaming?”
The Blackfoot shaman, dead for over two decades, smiled and nodded at his successor. “You should know by now that there is little difference between dreaming and waking.”
“Yes, but...why are you here? All these years, you’ve never appeared to me before.”
“Not in body, but my spirit has always been with you, as part of the force that drives you faster than the wind.” Ahwehota’s smiled faded a little. “As you know, it can be difficult to pull one’s self away from that force, especially when one no longer has a body.”
“Then this must be important. Is it because of the war? Do you know what I have to do?” Chris’s voice took on a pleading tone as he said, “Tell me I’m making the right choice.”
“That war is not your concern, for there is something far worse on the horizon. A person you and the Sons of Tomahawk thought long dead is returning from the dark places he hid himself away in.”
“Who do you mean?” Chris began to ask, then realized there was only one person whose return would compel Ahwehota to contact him from the afterlife. Shaking his head, Chris told him, “That’s impossible, the Army killed Wise Owl. There’s no way in Hell he could’ve...”
“Hell was his way. The man we knew as Wise Owl is no longer a man, and killing him was the first step towards his transformation. He indebted himself to some of the blackest creatures in existence in exchange for the power to exact revenge upon those who rejected him. Now his debts have been paid, so he is free to come back and do as he vowed.” A look of sorrow came over him. “I wish I could have warned you sooner, but he made sure to cloak himself from all prying eyes, even those beyond this world.”
“Where is he now? Is he close?” Chris reached out to take hold of Ahwehota’s shoulders, but his hands passed right through the man. “No...no, don’t go yet!”
“Forgive me,” the shaman said as he began to fade from view. “The spirits...their pull is too strong...I cannot...”
“But I need your help! What’s going to happen? How do I fight him?” But the questions came too late: Ahwehota was gone, and soon the landscape around him disappeared as Chris felt himself rush back to consciousness. He woke up inside the tipi, his heart pounding like a triphammer. Autumn was still asleep, and he fought the temptation to shake her awake, choosing instead to slip out from beneath the covers without disturbing her. He dressed within a split-second and dashed outside, where all was still and quiet, save for a slight breeze stirring the night air. Nothing seemed to be wrong, but he wouldn’t be comfortable with that assessment until after he’d checked every corner of the valley at super-speed, along with the land around it for a good five miles. I should wake up Hawk and Small Eagle first, he thought, let them know what’s coming. Maybe Small Eagle’s already had a vision of his own.
A tremble ran through his body, which he attributed to the tension building inside himself, until he realized that waves were forming on the lake in the middle of the valley. Earthquake, Chris realized. This can’t be coincidence. Chris vibrated his body so as to cancel out the effects of the quake upon himself, enabling him to run at breakneck speed over to Hawk’s tipi -- he was already stumbling out, half-dressed and bewildered at what was happening, as was everyone else venturing out of their homes at that moment. “We might need to evacuate,” Chris said to Hawk. “I’m sure he has a lot worse than this planned.”
“What are you talking about?” Hawk could barely keep his footing, so Chris grabbed hold of him and brought him up to his level of vibration.
“Ahwehota just came to me in a vision. He said Wise Owl’s coming back, and I presume this quake is part of it.”
Hawk gaped at him, then looked over at his brother’s home nearby. “Get me over there,” he said, but before Chris could even take one step, the ground began to shake with even more ferocity, knocking Chris’s counter-vibration out of whack and causing both men to fall to the ground. Fissures started to open up all over the valley, letting loose clouds of something noxious, along with swarms of what appeared to be large insect-like creatures, which pounced upon anyone who was unlucky enough to be near them. The air soon filled with the sounds of horrific screaming and the crunch of bone. “God in Heaven,” Hawk choked out, then slapped Chris on the back. “Get moving! Grab whomever you can and get them to town!”
With a nod, Chris climbed to his feet and started to make his way back to his own tipi -- it was a selfish thought, but he wanted move Autumn Sky safely away from all this madness before anyone else -- but before he could reach it, another fissure opened up directly in front of him. He skidded to a halt as molten rock belched out and solidified in the air, making a ten-foot-high wall of stone. Then the fissure spread around him in a tight circle, spewing out more molten rock until he was surrounded on all sides, with only a small opening at the top...but that was soon closed off by a swarm of insectoids crawling over it and down towards him.
“You’re gonna have to do better than that, Wise Owl!” Chris shouted, then began to beat at the stone walls at super-speed -- when the insectoids reached him and tried to bite his flesh, Chris would grab them and smash them against the walls as well. After about ten seconds of this, he managed to crack out of his prison, and he threw himself against the ground in order to crush the creatures still clinging to him. Once he’d dispatched them, Chris took off running again, his concern for Autumn’s safety even greater now, but when he got to where he’d left her, all Chris found was a shredded tipi and dozens of insectoids, many of which were feasting upon what may have once been a woman.
The world came to a standstill for him after that. Fueled by grief and rage, Chris let loose a flurry of blows upon them, until there was nothing left but shattered carapaces and smears of ichor. He then sped all over the valley, intent on destroying every one of those hell-spawned creatures he came across. Magma-spewing fissures still sprung up in his path, but he was moving so fast that it didn’t even have time to harden before he’d passed right through it, with nary a blister on his skin to show for it. “Come out and face me, you bastard!” Chris yelled as he pummeled another insectoid into goo. “Are you afraid that I’ll do worse than break your hands this time? Because you should be!”
The taunt had barely left his lips when Chris felt something sharp strike him in the back, and he fell, tumbling over and over upon the ground as his momentum wore off. After he came to rest, Chris looked down at himself to see the tip of a short iron spear sticking into the left side of his chest. There was an intricate pattern etched into the metal, and he surmised that it must be enchanted somehow, as that seemed the only way the spear could have even touched him, considering the speed he’d been moving at. Gritting his teeth, Chris tried to pull it free, but before he could do so, another hand reached out and wrenched the spear loose from his chest. Chris cried out in pain and looked up to see Wise Owl standing over him, looking just the same as he had twenty-three years ago, when he’d tried to kill Chris and steal his newly-acquired powers. “Why should I be afraid of an ignorant child like you?” Wise Owl said to him, running his fingers across the smear of blood upon the weapon. “I waited for you to come back, son of Jim Crandall. Waited for days and days. I wanted you to be a part of this.” He took a moment to lick his bloody fingers, then grinned. “I wanted you to feel this wretched place die.”
With barely a thought, Chris leapt at Wise Owl, intent on dragging the shaman to the ground and beating him to a pulp. But Wise Owl was prepared, and impaled him once more with the spear, this time piercing his left shoulder. As he forced Chris to the ground again, Wise Owl told him, “I made this just for you. The metal is attracted to the particular vibrations your powers make. All I have to do is point it in the direction it leads me.” He twisted the shaft, causing more blood to well up in the wound. “And to think I once coveted what you and Ahwehota possessed. Now I see how limited those powers are.”
“That’s only because you don’t have any imagination,” Chris rasped, then took hold of the spear and began to shake at super-speed -- while it didn’t affect the spear itself, Wise Owl soon found that he couldn’t hold onto it, and Chris managed to work it out of his grasp. After he’d moved out of Wise Owl’s reach, Chris tried to pull the spear free from his shoulder, but as he did so, he heard the mad shaman begin to chant something in a guttural voice, and the iron spear began to disintegrate in Chris’s hands until it was nothing but hundreds of tiny shards that buzzed about him like a swarm of hornets. The shards slashed at his skin, his eyes, even his tongue when he parted his lips to draw breath. Every inch of his body was a potential target, and despite how rapidly he could heal from injury, Chris could tell that the sheer number of wounds he was incurring would soon overwhelm that ability.
“As I said, the metal is attracted to you...and only you,” Wise Owl explained with a laugh. “There’s no way you can drive it off, nowhere you can run that it can’t follow. It will never stop attacking until your heart stops beating...and even then, it will very likely tear your corpse apart. I shall enjoy watching that.”
I’m going to die tonight. The thought came so easily to Chris’s mind that it brought no shock with it, just a hard focusing of his perceptions. All around him, he could hear the screams of the dying, the roar of the earth as it continued to tear itself apart, the insane cackling of Wise Owl, and all of the sudden, he knew that this was the true great war, one fought since mankind first learned the difference between good and evil. The squabbles of those living back east now seemed so pathetic compared to the destruction this one man was wreaking upon this peaceful valley. Wise Owl had to be stopped, and Chris could see only one possible way to do so. The circumstances were extraordinary enough to justify it, but that didn’t make him despise the decision any less.
Like a stroke of lightning, Chris leapt at Wise Owl once again, this time reaching his target and snapping the man’s neck so fast his head spun around backwards. The shaman’s body fell to the ground, and the shards soon followed -- whatever magic animated them was obviously cut off by Wise Owl’s death. The earth stopped rumbling as well, though the moans of all those injured throughout the valley rose to fill the void, and the fires brought on by magma spilling out of the earth still burned. Bleeding from innumerable cuts, Chris looked about him at the destruction and began to weep, for the sight of all the dead scattered about was so much worse than what he’d seen in his visions. “Lord, forgive me,” he whispered, “but I had to kill Wise Owl in order to save whomever is left. I couldn’t let him...”
Chris stopped mid-sentence as he felt something clamp onto his ankle. He looked down to see Wise Owl holding onto his leg and pulling himself closer. The man’s head was still twisted around, yet he was still alive! “Your God...is nothing...compared to me,” Wise Owl choked out, his hands working their way up Chris’s leg, who was in too much shock to shake him off. “The whites say...He let others kill Him...yet took no revenge when He rose from the dead.” Wise Owl’s talon-like fingernails dug into the exposed flesh revealed where Chris’s trousers had torn. “Your God is a fool.” Suddenly, Chris felt every ounce of energy within him flow down towards where Wise Owl had a hold of him, leaving his body cold and hollow. He tried to pull away, but it was far too late for such things. Wise Owl wouldn’t let go until he’d drained Chris dry of everything he had -- the shaman was already beginning to look rather hale and hearty, and the damage done to his neck was almost gone. As he grinned maniacally up at Chris once more, he said, “I often wonder what happens to the souls of those I have consumed. Do they become a part of me, or do they wander the Earth as ghosts? Or perhaps they are cast down where I was, and become fodder for those who freed me? Which do you think it is?”
Even if he’d deigned to answer the madman, Chris had no voice left to do it with, and his perceptions of the world were growing too dim to even hear the question. His speed still lay within his own body, but Chris could feel it slipping out of his grasp -- in a few seconds, that would be gone as well, another piece of stolen magic for Wise Owl’s arsenal. He knew he couldn’t let the man have it, yet he didn’t have the strength to keep it from him...unless he did the one thing he feared worse than using his powers to kill someone.
Closing his eyes, Chris let his gift accelerate his body far past the limits he’d imposed upon himself long ago. Lightning arced across his now-glowing skin, jagged bolts of it snapping off to burn both the ground and Wise Owl, who let go to keep himself from being injured any further. Chris was free, but it was too late to stop what he’d begun. Echo Valley had already faded from view, and all around him was light, beautiful, multicolored light, and it beckoned to him the way it had when he’d first become Windrunner. Whatever the source of his powers truly was -- mystical spirits or some unknown force in the universe -- its effect upon him when he was in its raw presence was nearly impossible to resist. By throwing himself wholly into that source, he had prevented Wise Owl from stealing his gift, but now he was in danger of losing his individuality. Briefly, images of Autumn Sky and his grandparents and all his friends flitted through his mind, and he tried to hold onto them, to craft an anchor from them so that he could find his way back to the physical world, but he simply couldn’t maintain it. The light pulled him into its embrace, and it was so warm, so comforting, that the urge to fight back vanished, replaced by a serenity impossible to describe.
Chris Maxwell managed to form one last thought – Goodbye -- then he was gone.
* * * * * *
In all his years of wandering the West, Hawk had never faced a battle like this. He was no stranger to magic, having grown up in an enchanted valley and all, but most magic-users he’d met were benevolent, not power-hungry madmen like his uncle. He’d never fought against creatures that could keep charging him after getting filled with enough lead to drop a raging buffalo. Yet here he was, reloading his father’s old flintlock for the umpteenth time and taking aim at the huge half-serpent, half-God-knows-what that had crawled out of the lake. He shot another one of its eyes out -- of the eight he saw, five had already been put out of commission -- then ran to a new position, hoping to spot some chink in its scaly hide before the whip-thin tentacles radiating all over its body sliced through any more of his people. As he dove for cover behind a gutted horse, Hawk tried not to look at the faces of those who’d already fallen -- if he thought about who they’d lost so far, he knew he may very well freeze up, and then more people would die. He also tried not to think about his brother and the rest of his family, who he hadn’t seen since this whole mess started. He’d caught a brief glimpse of Chris after they had gone their separate ways, but that was all. Hawk told himself that was a good thing, that Chris was still out there, fighting the good fight at speeds Hawk’s ordinary eyes couldn’t follow. The alternative was...no, there was no alternative. Chris was fighting back, and so was he. That’s all he needed to know.
Another reload, another moment of taking aim, this time at a pus-filled sac at the base of the creature’s skull -- with luck, the shot might pass through and scramble the thing’s brain, if it had one -- but before he could pull the trigger, the creature let out a painful bellow and collapsed. At the same time, Hawk realized the tremors that had been tearing the valley apart had finally stopped. With an expression between shock and jubilation, Hawk stood up and cautiously walked towards the creature, which was letting off a godawful stench as it rapidly decayed. A few survivors approached it as well, and Hawk asked them, “Has anyone seen Windrunner?”
“There!” someone shouted, and Hawk turned to see Chris standing in the distance, blood-stained and shoulders slumped, the body of a withered old Indian laying at his feet. Hawk started to jog towards them, anxious to see for himself that Wise Owl was indeed responsible for this madness, and that Chris put an end to it. To be sure, the fact that the Indian’s head appeared to be pointed in the wrong direction suggested there was little more to worry about, but when he saw Wise Owl grab hold of Chris, he knew he shouldn’t have let appearances deceive him.
Hawk was still too far away to figure out what was happening, but he could make out the agonized expression on Chris’s face well enough, and that made Hawk drop to his knees and take aim at Wise Owl -- he had to stop whatever his uncle was doing quickly, and the bullet could travel faster than Hawk could run. When he pulled the trigger, however, nothing happened, and Hawk began to curse a blue streak as he tried to figure out the malfunction. Meanwhile, he could see lightning forming around Chris’s body with an intensity he hadn’t seen in over two decades. “No...no, stop!” Hawk yelled, then threw the gun away and started running again, even though he knew there was no way to reach Chris in time. How do you outrun the fastest man alive?
There was an explosion of thunder and light so intense that the shockwave knocked Hawk backwards, hitting his head when he landed. After laying there dazed for a moment, Hawk rolled onto his side and looked to where Chris had once stood, but all that remained was a blackened scar upon the earth surrounded by shards of metal. He also saw Wise Owl coming his way -- the man’s head was slightly askew, but a quick twist of his neck snapped the bones back into place. “My dear nephew,” he said to Hawk with contempt, “I’m so glad you still live. I planned a special death for you, just as I did your thieving white friend.”
“You think Chris is dead?” Hawk replied, staggering to his feet. “The boy’s just taking a breather. He’ll be back any second now, just you wait.” He put as much bluster behind the words as he could, but in reality, Hawk remembered how hard it was to bring Chris back from the spirit world the first time he ended up there, and that had been under much calmer circumstances than this. “What say you and me sit down for a little palaver in the meantime?”
Wise Owl didn’t bother to answer, instead producing a small pouch and throwing it at Hawk’s feet. It burst open upon impact, spewing out sand in much larger quantities than could be contained in such a small pouch. Hawk backed away the moment it hit the ground, but the sand crawled after him and began to climb up his boots, hardening as it went. Soon, everything below his knees was encased in a rocky shell, immobilizing him. “You always talked about how much you loved this valley,” Wise Owl said as the sand kept working its way up Hawk’s legs, “yet your desire to wander pulled you away from it so often. So I decided to make sure you couldn’t wander away from this.” He stepped closer, but not close enough for Hawk’s flailing hands to grab hold of him. “Echo Valley shall die tonight, and so will you...eventually.”
Hawk took one last swipe at Wise Owl, then gave up to concentrate instead upon trying to pry himself loose from the ever-creeping sand. When it reached his waist, he took hold of the edges and did his level best to break it off before it thickened, but that only caused the sand to rapidly engulf his arms, then his shoulders, then his head. “Damn you, Wise Owl!” Hawk screamed just before the sand rushed across his face, becoming rock-solid within seconds.
“You damned me long ago,” he replied. “I merely took advantage of it.” With that, he turned away from the now-silent statue of Hawk, and the tremors started up again, causing people to scream for help that would never come.
* * * * * *
Firehair could see the smoke from miles away. He did not suspect at first that it came from Echo Valley, but as he continued to travel westward, it became harder to tell himself that dark portion of the sky hung over some other locale. So he spurred his horse ever harder, thoughts of an unassuming visit with Hawk fleeing his mind. The two men had met many years ago, and though he was a wandering sort like the Son of Tomahawk, Firehair always stopped by the valley for a spell whenever his travels brought him near...despite the fact that he felt like a fool as he stumbled blindly through the mountains that surrounded it. After Wise Owl’s expulsion, their tribe had no means of granting the blessings of the valley to outsiders, and therefore he had to be led in either by Windrunner or someone native-born every time.
That obstacle didn’t occur to him until he passed near the small town of Howling Forks, which lay not far from the mountains. There was smoke there as well, along with shattered buildings and mangled bodies. He called out briefly to see if anyone was still alive, and when he received no answer, he rode on, his ruddy locks whipping about in the wind like the tail of a comet. When he began to travel up Table Mountain itself, he had to leave his horse behind, for the path was littered with chunks of boulders, and some portions of it had simply vanished -- it was as if the mountain itself had changed its shape. Luckily, Firehair had always been a rather agile climber, so he scrambled up the now-alien landscape to the plateau that gave the mountain its name. The thick black smoke he’d seen from afar now threatened to choke him as he approached the edge, where instead of the forbidding, tightly-clustered spires of rock that the valley’s magic usually cast upon his eyes, he saw a charred ruin that was too horrific to be anything but real. Whoever or whatever had done this wielded enough power to destroy the illusion that had cloaked Echo Valley for centuries, and now it lay bare before the world, dying in plain sight.
Firehair pushed aside the shock he felt and rushed down the path leading into the valley. Hundreds of Indians lived within that land, including some of his fellow Blackfoot...someone had to be alive down there. But as he moved through the valley itself and saw the human remains strewn about, his hopes of finding a survivor began to dwindle. Then he spotted a figure standing in the distance, and he ran towards it, calling out and waving his arms. When he got closer, however, he realized it was a statue in the rough shape of a man, the mouth open in a scream. Or perhaps it was a man who had been made into a statue? Considering all the other twisted, indescribable things Firehair had found in the valley so far, that notion wasn’t very far-fetched. He examined the statue with both his hands and eyes, trying to discern who it might have been, but the rocky exterior distorted the features. Then his hand passed over the mouth.
A slight puff of warm air was coming out of the hole.
He jerked his hand away, stared at the statue for a moment, then pulled out a knife and tried to hack away at the stone. After ten minutes of relentless work, Firehair made a crack in the statue’s shoulder. He worked his blade into it and managed to pry a chunk of stone free, revealing warm, living flesh. He worked even harder after that, tearing at the stony prison until his fingers bled, and occasionally drawing blood from the victim as well due to his eagerness to free them. When he pulled the mask of stone away from the face, Firehair wept to see that it was Hawk, who made no response at all as Firehair slapped his cheeks and pulled open his eyelids. The man breathed, his heart was beating, but those were the only signs of life visible.
For the next three days, Hawk lay inside the lean-to Firehair made upon the plateau -- the valley was nowhere near inhabitable -- and while he would take water or broth when it was poured between his cracked lips, Hawk seemed unaware of everything else around him. When the sun was up, Firehair would go down into the valley and prepare the dead in the manner he’d been taught by his Blackfoot kin, and at night, he would lay next to Hawk and pray that the spirits would bring his companion back to him.
On the morning of the fourth day, Firehair awoke to find Hawk’s eyes partially open, and while the man didn’t speak, he did seem able to follow the words as the Blackfoot warrior told him of the devastation he’d found. By the sixth day, Firehair worked up the courage to tell Hawk about finding the body of Small Eagle, along with the rest of his family, though Firehair left out many details regarding the way their bodies had been desecrated. Even so, the news was a hard blow to take, and Hawk cried silently for hours, refusing any comfort offered.
When Firehair came back to the lean-to on the evening of the seventh day, Hawk was trying to stand up, but his body was too weak to manage it. When Firehair urged him to lay down again, Hawk surprised him by croaking out, “Want to see,” and gesturing in the direction of the plateau’s edge. Without another word, Firehair tossed one of Hawk’s arms over his shoulders and hoisted the man to his feet, then guided him to where he wanted to go. The smoke had blown away, leaving an unimpeded view of the destruction that lay below. The two men stood there gazing upon it, the setting sun casting a reddish pall over everything, and after a while, Hawk said, “Wise Owl did this.”
Firehair glanced at him. Due to Hawk’s previous silence, he’d had no idea yet what the cause of all this was. To be sure, to hear the name of someone he’d been previously told to be dead was the last thing he expected. “You are certain?” he asked.
“I looked him right in the eye as he sealed me in that tomb.” Hawk’s voice was weak, but there was a flinty edge to the words nevertheless. “He planned on having me waste away to nothing in there, but your arrival messed that up. Now I’m gonna make him regret not killing me outright.” He turned to his companion, and though all sixty of his years on Earth were evident upon his face, the fire that drove Hawk since his youth still lay within his eyes. “You wanna help me get back at the bastard?”
Firehair, always a man of few words, nodded his assent.
TO BE CONTINUED!
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