Mongrel Nation Sideways Tales: Fairy Dust I: Fairy Dust

Fantasy, Mongrel Nation, Rime-on-Heartsease, Shatter Zone

Humans would call it a fairy ring. The fairies there called it Landing Zone Four. The thirty meter diameter dwarfed any casual fairy ring that usually appeared on Earth. Aside from having a somewhat nodular shape like a mushroom, the glowing transport nodes that made its circle bore only limited resemblance to the toadstools that made most fairy rings. The nodes glowed white-blue and shined some distance into the sky. Pale wisps whipped up from the nodes periodically, looking like they ought to sweep through the air with a swishing sound, when in fact no part of the fairy ring made any sound at all. It glowed, a bright ring of cold light, making the grey dusk outside of the ring look dark as night. Soon, supplies to outfit a reasonably sized military tower would emerge in the fairy ring, available for the use of the maneuver’s commander, the Base Auspex, whose name was Rime-on-Heartsease. Before that could happen, they had the fairy dust test to complete. The local the fairies had captured lay on a stone table in the middle of the fairy ring, silver chains tethering his slim body down. A fairy carried a syringe toward the prisoner. The new fairy dust formula had been mixed into a saline compound; the hypnotechs had discovered a liquid injection made the fairy dust compound mainline in the subject faster. Aside from the natural dejection expected from getting overpowered and chained to a stone table, the prisoner expressed no fear about the slightly glittering syringe moving toward his arm.

“Poor misguided soul,” Rime said. He put a hand on the prisoner’s shoulder. He meant the gesture as a comfort. When it came to it, though, he couldn’t think of anything comforting to say. Gripping briefly, Rime nodded.

The other fairy pushed the needle of the glittering syringe into the prisoner’s arm. All of the contents slid into the prisoner’s bloodstream.

It took swift effect. Rime had never seen it happen so fast, the drain of color so the subject looked frozen—the softening of muscles as if the subject slept. The thing that made it most uneasy to Rime was the quiet. It seemed like the wrong way to respond.

“Did he have a name?” Rime asked the other fairy. “Or, I mean, did you know his name?”

“Jericho,” the other fairy said.

Rime nodded. “Jericho,” Rime said. Jericho turned his low-lidded eyes toward Rime. “Jericho, can you hear me?”

Jericho swallowed. “Yes,” he said without much breath.

“Jericho, I need you to do something. Would you do something for me?” Jericho nodded again. “Hold your breath, Jericho.”

Jericho swallowed again. He closed his lips. His chest stopped its slow movement up and down. Rime waited for a second, just to make sure he was holding his breath. Then, taking a sharp and finalized breath, Rime said to the other fairy, “Tell me when he’s dead. We’ll start his outfitting as soon as possible.”

Rime left the stone table to send word back to Fairyland. He composed his report in his head. It began: Preliminary tests prove promising. Send more fairy dust…

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Mongrel Nation V: For You to Bathe in Glory You Must Be Doomed to Fail

Fantasy, Katriel, Mongrel Nation, Shatter Zone, Tiff Van Ry

It made Kat nervous that he felt like he could trust nothing about Van Ry except their common purpose: avoid captivity. Kat had not decided whether to list Van Ry under “assets” or “liabilities.”

“Just don’t do anything stupid,” Kat said to Van Ry. “For as long as we maintain control of the situation, we—no, what the hell are you doing?” Kat interrupted himself, swiping to grab at the flipping end of Van Ry’s coat. Van Ry, getting to his feet, went straight for the door out of the sheriff’s office. Van Ry smirked at Kat. Then, his expression turning into a good impression of panic, Van Ry hurled himself wildly at the door. The door burst open under his weight. Sunshine flowed into the dim sheriff’s office. Van Ry sprawled out the door.

Kat jumped to his feet, his heart rattling under his ribs. A hundred impotent curses and inquiries jumbled for place behind his teeth, succeeding in only gagging him. From outside the door, Kat heard Van Ry.

“Shit!” Van Ry mewled. It was a tone much like the yelp of a bully who discovered a bigger and badder bully. “He’s gone crazy! Get him away from me!”

Kat almost looked out the door after Van Ry, then remembered that would be stupid. Instead, Kat fell with his back against the wall between the door and the boarded-up window. He didn’t know quite what would happen next, but he couldn’t think what to do about it except assume a defensive position.

Above the pumping blood in his ears, Kat heard snippets of speech from outside. “—alone in there,” Kat heard from Van Ry, then a question. Van Ry said something that sounded like, “unarmed.”

Kat had a second to feel betrayed—to suffer a tightness across the throat. He tried to tell himself not to be surprised, at least. It shouldn’t have surprised him. The next thing to happen ought not to have either. It was what he would have done, if the situations had been reversed. It still surprised him.

The boards over the window exploded. Kat flinched. Splinters clattered into the room. The light increased. The sharp contrast between the large patches of sunshine and darkness made it hard to distinguish details in either. The boards on the window on the other side of the door exploded too.

Kat took a moment to do two things. First, he assessed for a breath. On his left, two big guys with shotguns—on his right, three with machetes. The rubble sloughed from their broad backs, pattering to the ground. The chunks of concrete that broke the windows in for them had broken up the furniture in the room and left most of the floor cleared. None of them had looked at Kat yet. The moment felt tranquil.

The second thing Kat did was to resign himself to how fucked he was. Which he found quite relaxing, for the moment.

Trying not to immediately invite the attacks of the twelve armed people still outside the sheriff’s office, Kat lunged to his feet. The people with shotguns and machetes had not got used to the confusing light yet. Kat pressed that advantage. He moved quickly between light and shadows. His fists and feet wildly struck around at ribs, knees, necks. Kat managed to drop two of them in the first few seconds—one clutching his groin, and the other unconscious on the ground with his head turned almost too far. Because of the close quarters, none of Kat’s attackers shot at him. That didn’t give Kat an advantage; he kept having trouble tracking on the people he fought. They kept getting behind him. It was only through flexibility and brute strength that he had avoided their grasping arms so far. The rest of the guys outside filed in, taking their time as if waiting in line at a carnival game. With every passing heartbeat, Kat felt himself losing any meager control he had over the fight.

In a day already head-aching with twists, Kat felt numb to the next one.

A stuttering roar loomed close from outside. Then a shattering crash interrupted his fight. Preceded by two, round, unnatural yellow lights, a big metal object crashed through the front of the building. Rubble clattered everywhere. Plaster dust burst into the air. The people who weren’t crushed aside dove out of the way. The object slid to a halt—its wheels grinding in the dust. Grit sluiced over Kat.

The door in the vehicle’s side clunked open. Van Ry sat inside at the steering wheel. He made eye contact with Kat. Kat needed no further signal. He darted the two steps to the vehicle and jumped inside.

Van Ry clunked the shifter next to the steering wheel. The engine in the vehicle roared, and it grumbled swiftly backward out of the front of the sheriff’s office. From there, Van Ry executed a tight turn that, in the dust outside, got the vehicle skidding. Kat almost fell out of his open door, the vehicle spun so hard. When the nose came all the way around, Van Ry chunked it into a different gear. He slammed his foot down on the accelerator. The vehicle thudded forward, knocking Kat against the seat. His legs still hung outside the vehicle and the door thudded against his knees. It was about the worst pain he’d felt that day. He didn’t pay much attention to what Van Ry was doing for a second, concentrating instead on pulling himself all the way into the cab. By the time he had a more solid seat and the door slammed shut after himself, Van Ry had wended or broken a path through Ramshackle. Ahead, the way was clear except for the heavy front gates, which were being drawn closed by two big guys.

“This truck won’t get through those gates if they get them latched,” Van Ry said. “They’ll get them latched before we get there unless something happens.”

With a snarl of annoyance, but no further thought, Kat unlatched the door again. In a few snaky movements he climbed on top of the vehicle. It had a luggage rack. He braced his feet in the luggage rack. One from each hand, he flicked two knives from hidden places under his coat. The knives glittered through the air. Then the two big guys at the gate stumbled, each with a knife in the back of their knee. No longer capable of pulling the heavy gates closed, the two big guys now bleeding in the dirt had no greater interest than pulling themselves out of the way before the big vehicle zoomed through the partly closed gate and out into the scorching desert.

Kat took a calm breath. He turned to watch Ramshackle’s bent and broken silhouette widen then begin receding. No one set out to pursue them. Not yet, anyway. Somewhat comforted, Kat slipped back into the cab of the vehicle.

He slammed the door behind himself and sunk into the seat. Relieved to have an opportunity to breathe easy, Kat took a long breath.

“Well,” Van Ry said before Kat finished exhaling. “You almost bollixed that up, didn’t you?”

Mongrel Nation IV: I Got a Wooden Medal and a Fine Harangue; if You Want to Be a Hero Follow Me

Fantasy, Katriel, Mongrel Nation, Shatter Zone, Tiff Van Ry

Kat faded into a head-achy, dehydrated haze. Heat itched at him. After a second he remembered why his head hurt and why the heat-wavering blue sky stretched down infinitely below his feet from an emptiness of brown, crusty desert over his head. I am upside down, he reminded himself, from a rope around my ankle.

A face pushed toward him. Every feature of the hairless face was sharp, including the teeth in its thin-lipped grin. The person pushed his aviator sunglasses down off his eyes to look more closely at Kat.

Kat swallowed, trying to wet his dry throat so he could talk. He didn’t manage the swallowing very well, but he breathed out a few dusty words anyway.

“You Coon?” Kat asked.

“Yeah,” Coon said. “Going to do something with the information?”

Kat nodded, realizing it probably looked odd since his chin was going up. “I am here to collect on your bounty, sir. Prepare to be arrested.”

Coon’s smile twisting, he pulled his bowie knife from his thigh sheath and held its tip against Kat’s throat.

“How’s that again?”

Kat tried again to swallow—gave up. “Trust me,” Kat said.

Coon just kept smiling.

*

Kat calculated. He looked at the face of Van Ry, smiling under the pressure of the pistol in Kat’s hand, and aligned variables with constants, and Kat from there extrapolated possibilities.

In light of a conclusion, Kat let go of Van Ry. Van Ry slumped to his feet, struggling to keep upright against the wall behind himself. When Van Ry righted himself, he found the pistol shoved into his face again, but this time Kat held out the handle.

“Awfully trusting, aren’t we?” Van Ry said, looking up at Kat. Kat’s lips pressed together in a harsh frown.

“I am not happy about this,” he said. “I don’t trust you.”

“That makes one of us,” Van Ry said, taking the pistol.

Kat considered asking which of his statements Van Ry applied that to, but he let it go. Turning on his heel, Kat strode toward the door out of the cells.

“What do you expect me to do now?” Van Ry asked. He pointed the pistol at Kat’s back, sighting along the barrel.

“Survive,” Kat said, expressing not the slightest worry. “Now you are my accomplice.” With those words, Kat pointed at Sir Ramsey’s valet. The big man still hung by the handcuffs attaching his wrist to the pipe hanging from the ceiling. The valet stared from under thick eyebrows out small eyes at Van Ry.

“Like repays like,” Kat concluded. He pushed through the door to get out of the cells.

“That bitch,” Van Ry muttered. He swallowed, scratching his cheek with the barrel of the gun in his hand. “Any way we can talk this one out?” he asked the valet. The valet shook his head. Van Ry nodded. “That’s fair, I guess.”

In the front room of the sheriff’s building, Kat raided a locker. The dusty shafts of hot sunshine dropping through the slatted windows made Kat’s outline fuzzy. His nightmare-black coat distorted light oddly. His movements looked dreamlike in the uneven, crooked light.

Kat glanced over his shoulder when he heard Van Ry. “These are yours, I think,” Kat said, pulling a bundle of items out of the locker. He dropped the bundle on a solid table in the middle of the room. The table was otherwise covered in maps and papers. The stuff scattered under Van Ry’s bundle of items. Before Van Ry picked it up, Kat moved toward the front door of the building, sliding the last of his knives into a sheath on the back of his forearm. He had several knives on his person now—recovered from the locker where Chamfer put them after confiscating them. Four of Kat’s knives were visible—two on his forearms and two on the outsides of his boots. All the others were hidden under his ankle-length, nightmare-black coat.

In several steps that shushed like dead leaves in wind across the cement floor, Kat moved to crouch with his back against the wall and look out the window. Scoping. That was clearly his intention: scoping the situation.

Van Ry raised his thin black eyebrow in his effeminate pale face. He started tugging the bundle of his things apart.

“You try too hard,” he said. “Do you think anyone out there is as careful as you?” Van Ry pulled on his own long coat, putting his wide-brimmed black hat on. “You have no reason to be so disciplined.”

Kat looked back at Van Ry, his face blank. He considered retorting with something trite—something about how Kat had the world against him and a weird compulsion to save that same world. The words wouldn’t take shape in his mind. They kept rearranging themselves behind his eyes, and he couldn’t think of a striking way of saying “I need to save everyone who’s hunting me.” It felt annoying. He kept quiet, glancing out the window again.

“Sir Ramsey got away—he’s out there,” Kat said. Van Ry squatted near the window, watching Kat assess the view out the window. “He has seventeen men with him. Four shotguns. Three rifles. Five crossbows. Twelve pistols—only four drawn. Many knives, and a lot of improvised clubs… Is that a horse’s thighbone? Paska.”

“What are they doing?” Van Ry asked.

“Waiting,” Kat calculated outcomes. He assessed visible angles and known resources. None looked promising. Idly, not really thinking about the question, he asked, “In your version of events, what did you plan to do at this point?”

“Plan is the wrong word,” Van Ry said. “If I’m consigned to it, then the ‘plan’ didn’t include oversights like the ‘bad-ass’ letting the weakest of his opponents get away. The ‘plan’ didn’t include people out there realizing anything amiss till I got further away.”

“And I was assuming you weren’t an optimist,” Kat said.

“What?” Van Ry said, surprised into feeling convinced he’d misheard Kat.

“Nothing. Have you revised your plan yet?”

“See, that’s where our communication here seems to fall apart,” Van Ry said. “To say I ‘plan’ would be unfair to people who make a living out of defining things.”

“Provide a better label,” Kat suggested.

“I react,” Van Ry said.

“That sounds suicidal,” Kat said.

“I have not yet died,” Van Ry said.

Kat made a few choices about the things he saw outside the window. He looked around in the room, rough-lit as it was by slatted sunshine, and he reminded himself of the things he could use here too.

“Did you shoot him?” Kat asked, nodding toward the door to the cells where Sir Ramsey’s valet still hung by his wrist.

“No,” Van Ry said, his tone surprised.

“I expected you to shoot him,” Kat said. “It would have been more to your advantage.”

“I seem like that kind of guy to you?” Van Ry asked. The thought brought back his crooked smile.

“You seem like a pragmatist to me,” Kat replied. “Take in your surroundings. These are your circumstances. How will you react?”

His gaze turning inward, Van Ry stroked the side of his chin—a thoughtful gesture. “I know what I’ll do next,” he said quietly, through a thoughtful smile. “Want to know a better question? I know a question that’ll have way more to do with our survival than what I’ll do.”

“Is the question, ‘What will Kat do about what Van Ry does’?” Kat asked.

Looking Kat full in the face, Van Ry’s smile turned again, and again unexpectedly, genuine. “Shnikies, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, he ain’t dumb,” Van Ry said.

Mongrel Nation III: Thought Myself to Death

Fantasy, Katriel, Mongrel Nation, Shatter Zone, Tiff Van Ry

“We have about two minutes to decide if we’re going to be able to work together,” Van Ry said, lighting another cigarette. Kat’s cell stood open, the keys that Van Ry took off the unconscious guard still in the lock. Kat sat on the floor at the back of the cell, frowning with skepticism in every little wrinkle of his thin-lipped face. “Let me get this out of the way right now: you shouldn’t trust me. And, since we’re being honest with each other, I know why you’re in here.”

One of Kat’s thin eyebrows arched. “It’s not a mystery,” he said.

“So you say,” Van Ry said, his smile pouting and going crooked, like he would break into a sneer if no one stopped him. “Here’s how it’s going to be: either you come with me, or I walk out of here and let them walk into you like this,” Van Ry spread his hands to gesture to the whole, hot and dimly lit corridor of cells.

The keys in Kat’s open cell had come off a guard. The guard lay on the floor of another cell, stunned for now, with the cell door locked behind him. Van Ry had done it.

“They’ll know you did it,” Kat said.

“You really think so?” Van Ry said. “You think you can trust these people?”

If Kat was entirely honest, he wasn’t sure. What he felt for sure is that, on the spectrum of such things, he was a good guy compared to Van Ry. That had always counted for something in the past.

“Suit yourself, then,” Van Ry said. “Before you condemn yourself, then, I’ll warn you of this once, before we get all tangled up together: I like to prove my points.”

With that, Van Ry gave a lazy, kind of salute with the two fingers holding his cigarette. He left the cells.

Not sure what would happen, but entirely certain he didn’t want to face it without doing something, Kat calculated his possible courses of action. As soon as Van Ry got out of sight, Kat curled up to his feet. If the problem was going to be what it looked like in the cells, Kat would change what it looked like. He swept across the dirty floor of his cell, his nightmare-black coat shushing the air around him. At the door he jerked the keys out of the open door. From there, he meant to go and open the cell with the stunned guard. After that he planned to return to his own cell, lock the door, and throw the ring of keys toward the guard. At least if he did that it’d look like Van Ry had escaped by himself.

Parts of the plan felt counter-intuitive, like the part where he locked himself back in his cell and threw the key away. In a saner moment, he supposed he could consider the wisdom of the course of action. In this odd moment, he felt like all he could do was follow his instincts. In the name of his instincts, he tried one key after another to open the cell with the stunned guard. He did what he could to lie to himself about his trembling fingers and chattering heart.

Just as he found the key that slid into the keyhole with a promising ease, a shout interrupted him.

“Now, you jus’ ease yourself around, son,” a gruff voice said. Gruff—such an impotently overused term. Growling in the face of the sentiment, the calming, cigar-smoke-rasped voice of the sheriff fell cozily into the category of sound easily described as gruff. The sheriff of Ramshackle was named Chamfer. Kat liked him. Kat glanced at Chamfer out of his ember-glow red-on-black eyes, pricks of orange light in the shadowy cells.

“Jus’ you ease around,” Chamfer said. The attempt not to frown put uneven wrinkles in Chamfer’s dark brown face. “Consider yourself good and took. We’ll jus’ be taking you over to Sir Ramsey’s dungeons and all. You come quiet, and we’ll see our way around making the situation uncomfortable for you.”

Chamfer did not have his pistol drawn, although he had a large hand resting on the long-iron hanging on his hip. Several other people stood with Chamfer. One of them was Sir Ramsey, in his white suit, leveling a black crossbow at Kat. Sir Ramsey’s valet/bodyguard was there too. The bowler hat and poncho wearing valet had no weapons drawn, but that didn’t mean he had no weapons on him. With the others, Van Ry stood. Van Ry panted, as if he’d been running. He had somehow got a small wound on his forehead that bled a little down his pale face.

Several courses of action occurred to Kat while he stood there. The first thing he considered doing was to point out how odd it was to see Van Ry doing what he was doing. Clearly, Kat considered saying, Van Ry pulled one over on you gentlemen. Do you not see the reason in the situation? I, sirs, am being framed! Kat considered saying that.

Even thinking about it made his tongue feel like it tripped over his teeth.

So he considered his second course of action: going quietly. That smelled troublous; it went even further from being a good idea than his original attempted deception. Sir Ramsey’s dungeon was notoriously impregnable. Until they built a real jail, the lawmen of the area had been using Sir Ramsey’s dungeon for years to hold prisoners about whom they meant business. Kat supposed he could possibly plead his case over time from inside a cell in Sir Ramsey’s dungeon. The prospect felt frighteningly improbable. Besides that, Kat didn’t have time to stew in a dungeon for he could not say how long before an impending threat to Ramshackle fell on it and destroyed the whole town.

Feeling woefully trapped into the only other course of action he could imagine, Kat drew the set of keys from the lock of the cell. He sighed, frowned, and looked at Van Ry.

“Blackmail,” he said.

With a dismissive flicking gesture Van Ry shrugged behind a renewed smile. The other men all looked over at him, momentarily confused. Van Ry suddenly darted to the side to avoid the thing that Kat used their moment of confusion to start doing.

The bunch of keys clinked out of his hand and tinkled through the air. They smacked into Sir Ramsey’s cheek hard enough to cut his skin and leave a bruise. Crying out, Sir Ramsey jerked to the side. His hand convulsed. His trigger finger fired his crossbow bolt wildly. The click and whir of the crossbow caused enough disturbance to make Chamfer cuss and whip around. Chamfer had his pistol half out. Sir Ramsey’s valet drew a knife from somewhere under his poncho. All three men could attend to nothing but their surprise for the length of several calm heartbeats. Kat would have sworn, though, that his heart beat a hundred times in the few steps he ran to get to them.

At the last cell, Kat leapt. He kicked off the bars of the cell. Now able to fall from above and the side, Kat dropped his elbow into the side of Chamfer’s face. The elbow had all Kat’s strength and weight behind it. Chamfer’s head cracked around too fast. His neck turned too far. His body took over, determining that Chamfer didn’t know what he was doing, and it turned off for survival. Knocked unconscious, Chamfer fell to the ground, thumping like a sack of flour.

Of the three men, Sir Ramsey’s valet kept his head the best. His knife glinted like a spark in the shadows. The blade moved toward Kat. To avoid it, Kat turned in the air and fell backwards. Watching the big knife snick through the air, Kat flumped onto his back. He fell onto the body of Chamfer. Kat felt behind himself for something on Chamfer’s belt. The cold metal of the sheriff’s handcuffs slid into Kat’s hand. Tugging the cuffs with him, Kat rolled off Chamfer. He avoided a swipe of the valet’s knife.

Kat loomed to his feet with all the fluttering and shimmering black of a rising murder of crows. The valet thrust his knife at Kat again. With his left hand, Kat slid up the side of the knife’s blade. Then he grabbed the valet’s thick, warm, hairy wrist. Heaving and leaping, Kat pulled his much lighter self up and around the valet. He perched like a monkey on the coarse poncho across the valet’s broad shoulders. The valet began wildly turning, as if he could flail around to face Kat. Kat kept a hold on the neck of the poncho with most of the fingers of his right hand. He held the handcuffs in the curl of his pinky. With his left hand, Kat kept a tight hold on the valet’s knife hand.

The valet spun, trying to get at Kat, and swung his arm, trying to swipe Kat off. At the peak of one of the valet’s swings, Kat made a quick move. He clamped one end of the handcuffs around the valet’s wrist. The other end of the handcuffs he snapped around a heavy steel pipe running a few feet lower than the ceiling. The valet didn’t notice it happen. Almost comically, he tried to complete his knife-thrust down. His wrist jerked against the handcuffs and the pipe. The force of his swing tugged him a few inches off the ground.

Kat braced, then he leapt backwards. Curling, he flipped in the air. He landed in a crouch, his long hair flipped behind him.

In a grimy corner of the room, Van Ry stood, smirking and leaning like a spectator who, having bet on the fight, watched his investment make valuable returns. Van Ry idly shoved with his shoulders off the wall. He looked about ready to say something glib. Kat had no patience for that. Snatching Chamfer’s pistol from the floor, Kat swept across the room. With his right hand, Kat slammed Van Ry against the wall, lifting Van Ry off the floor by his leather vest. Kat pressed the tip of the pistol against Van Ry’s cheek. Under Kat’s thumb, the hammer of the pistol clicked back.

With the cold metal against his cheek, Van Ry’s expression changed. Kat expected that. But rather than a distortion of fear or desperation, nor even some extremity of cockiness, Van Ry smiled still. The smile, though, turned genuine, like seeing a friend.

“Yeah,” Van Ry said. “I think we’ll be able to work together.”