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Wolf Who Rules
By Wen Spencer
Baen BooksCopyright © 2006 Wen Spencer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGhost Lands
There were some mistakes that "Oops" just didn't cover.
Tinker stood on the George Westinghouse Bridge. Behind her was Pittsburgh and its sixty-thousand humans now permanently stranded on Elfhome. Below her, lay the mystery that at one time had been Turtle Creek. A blue haze filled the valley; the air shimmered with odd distortions. The land itself was a kaleidoscope of possibilities-elfin forest, oni houses, the Westinghouse Air Brake Plant - fractured pieces of various dimensions all jumbled together. And it was all her fault.
Color had been leached from the valley, except for the faint blue taint, making the features seem insubstantial. Perhaps the area was too unstable to reflect all spectrums of light - or maybe the full spectra of light weren't able to pass through - the - the - she lacked a name for it.
Tinker decided that was as good a name as any.
"What are these Ghostlands?" asked her elfin bodyguard, Pony. He'd spoken in low Elvish. "Ghostlands" had been in English, though, meaning a human had coined the term. Certainly the phrase fit the ghostly look of the valley.
So maybe Discontinuity wasn't the best name for it.
A foot taller, Pony was a comforting wall of heavily-armed and magically-shieldedmuscle. His real name in Elvish was Waetata-watarou-tukaenrou-bo-taeli, which meant roughly Galloping Storm Horse on Wind. His elfin friends and family called him Little Horse, or tukaenrou-tiki, which still was a mouthful. He'd given her his English nickname to use when they met; it wasn't until recently that she realized it was his first act of friendship.
"I don't know what's happening here." Tinker ran a hand through her short brown hair, grabbed a handful and tugged, temptation to pull it out running high. "I set up a resonance between the gate I built and the one in orbit. They were supposed to shake each other apart. They did."
At least, she was fairly sure that they had. Something had fallen out of the sky that night in a fiery display. Since there were only a handful of small satellites in Elfhome's orbit, it was fairly safe bet that she somehow yanked the hyperphase gate out Earth's orbit.
"This was - unexpected." She meant all of it. The orbital gate reduced to so much space debris and burnt ash on the ground. Turtle Creek turned into Ghostlands. Pittsburgh stuck on Elfhome.
Even "sorry" didn't seem adequate.
And what had happened to the oni army on Onihida, waiting to invade Elfhome through her gate? To the oni disguised as humans that worked on the gate with her? And Riki, the tengu who had betrayed her?
"Is it going to - get better?" Pony asked.
"I think so." Tinker sighed, releasing her hair. "I can't imagine it staying in this unstable state." At least she hoped so. "The second law of thermodynamics and all that."
Pony grunted a slight optimistic sound, as if he was full of confidence in her intelligence and problem solving. Sometimes his trust in her was intimidating.
"I want to get closer." Tinker scanned the neighboring hillsides, looking for a safe way down to the valley's floor. In Pittsburgh, nothing was as straightforward as it appeared. This area was mostly abandoned - probably with help from the oni to keep people away from their secret compound. The arcing line of the Rim, marking where Pittsburgh ended and Elfhome proper began, was defused by advancing elfin forest. Ironwood saplings mixed with jagger bushes - elfin trees colliding with earth weed - to form a dense impenetrable thicket. "Let's find a way down."
"Is that wise, domi?"
"We'll be careful."
She expected more of an argument, but he clicked his tongue in an elfin shrug.
Pony leaned out over the bridge's railing, the spells tattooed down his arms in designs like Celtic knots-done in Wind Clan blue-rippled as muscle moved under skin. The hot wind played with tendrils of glossy black hair that come loose from his braid. Dressed in his usual wyvern-scaled chest armor, black leather pants and gleaming knee boots, Pony seemed oblivious to the mid-August heat. He looked as strong and healthy as ever. During their escape, the oni nearly killed him. She took some comfort that he was the one thing that she hadn't totally messed up.
As they recuperated, she'd endured an endless parade of visitors between bouts of drugged sleep, which gave the entire experience a surreal nightmare feel. Everyone had brought gifts and stories of Turtle Creek, until her hospice room and curiosity overflowed.
Thanks to her new elfin regenerative abilities, she healed far faster than when she was a human; she awoke this morning feeling good enough to explore. Much to her dismay, Pony insisted on bringing four more sekasha for a full Hand.
Yeah, yeah, it was wise, considering they had no clue how many oni survived the meltdown of Turtle Creek. She was getting claustrophobic, though, from always having hordes of people keeping watch over her; first the elves, then the oni, and now back to the elves. When she ran her scrap yard - months ago - a lifetime ago-she used to go days without seeing anyone but her cousin Oilcan.
As Viceroy, her husband Wolf Who Rules Wind, or Windwolf, held twenty sekasha; Pony picked her favorite four out of that twenty to make up a hand. The outlandish Stormsong - her rebel short hair currently dyed blue - was acting as a Shield with Pony. Annoyingly, though, there seemed to be some secret sekasha rule - only one Shield could have a personality at any time. Stormsong stood a few feet off, silent and watching, in full bodyguard mode while Pony talked to Tinker. It would have been easier to pretend that the sekasha weren't guarding over her if they weren't so obviously 'working.'
The bridge secured, the other three sekasha were being Blades and scouting the area. Pony signaled them now using the sekasha's hand gestures called blade talk. Rainlily, senior of the Blades, acknowledged - Tinker recognized that much by now - and signaled something more.
"What did she say?" Tinker really had to get these guys radios. She hated having to ask what was going on; until recently, she always knew more than everyone else.
"They found something you should see."
* * *
The police had strung yellow tape across the street in an attempt to cordon off the valley; it rustled ominously in a stiff breeze. Ducking under the tape, Tinker and her Shields joined the others. The one personality rule extended to the Blades; only Rainlily got to talk. Cloudwalker and Little Egret moved off, searching the area for possible threats.
"We found this in the middle of the road," Rainlily held out a bulky white, waterproof envelope. "Forgiveness, we had to check it for traps."
The envelope was addressed with all possible renditions of her name: Alexander Graham Bell, 'Tinker' written in English, and finally Elvish runes of 'Tinker of the Wind Clan.' The sekasha had already slit it open to examine the contents and replaced them. Tinker tented open the envelope and peered inside; it held an old mp3 player and a note written in English.
"I have great remorse for what I did. I'm sorry for hurting you both. I wish there had been another way. Riki Shoji."
"Yeah, right." Tinker scoffed and crumpled up the note and flung it away. "Like that makes everything okay, you damn crow."
She wanted to throw the mp3 player too, but it wasn't hers. Oilcan had loaned it to Riki. The month she'd been at Aum Renau, Oilcan and Riki became friends. Or at least, Oilcan thought they were friends, just the same as he thought they were both humans. Riki, though, was a lying oni spy, complete with bird-feet and magically retractable crow wings. He'd wormed his way into their lives just to kidnap Tinker. She doubted that Oilcan would want the player back now that he knew the truth; it would be a permanent reminder that Oilcan's trust nearly cost Tinker her life. But it wasn't her right to decide for him.
She jammed the player into the deepest pocket of her carpenter's jeans. "Let's go."
Rage smoldered inside her until they had worked their way down to the discontinuity. The mystery of the Ghostlands deepened, drowning out her anger. The edge of the blue seemed uneven at first, but then, as she crouched down to eye it closely, she realized that the effect "pooled" like water, and that the ragged edge was due to the elevation of the land - like the edge of a pond. Despite the August heat, ice gathered in the shadows. This close, she could hear a weird white noise, not unlike the gurgle of a river.
She found a long stick and prodded at the blue-shaded earth; it slowly gave like thick mud. She moved along the "shore" testing the shattered pieces of three worlds within reach of her stick. Earth fire hydrant. Onihida building. Elfhome ironwood tree. While they looked solid, everything within the zone of destruction was actually insubstantial, giving under the firm poke of her stick.
Pony stiffened with alarm when - after examining the stick for damage done to it and finding it as sound as before - she reached her hand out over the line.
Oddly, there was a resistance in the air over the land - as if Tinker was holding her hand out the window of a moving car. The air grew cooler as she lowered her hand. It was so very creepy that she had to steel herself to actually touch the dirt.
It was like plunging her bare hand into snow. Bitterly cold, the dirt gave under her fingertips. Within seconds, the chill was painful. She jerked her hand back.
"Domi?" Pony moved closer to her.
"I'm fine." Tinker cupped her left hand around her right. As she stood, blowing warmth onto her cold-reddened fingers, she gazed out onto the ghost lands. She could feel magic on her new domana senses, but normally - like strong electrical currents-heat accompanied magic. Was the 'shift' responsible for the cold? The presence of magic, however, would explain why the area was still unstable - sustaining whatever reaction the gate's destruction created. If her theory was right, once the ambient magic was depleted, the effect would collapse and the area would revert back to solid land. The only question was the rate of decay.
Pony picked up a stone and skipped it out across the disturbance. Faint ripples formed where the stone struck. After kissing 'dirt' three times, the stone stopped about thirty feet in. For a minute it sat on the surface and then, slowly but perceivably, it started to sink.
Pony made a small puzzled noise. "Why isn't everything sinking?"
"I think - because they're all in the same space - which isn't quite here but isn't really someplace else - or maybe they're everywhere at once. The trees are stable, because to them, the earth underneath them is as stable as they are."
"Like ice on water?"
"Hmm." The analogy would serve, since she wasn't sure if she was right. They worked their way around the edge, the hilly terrain making it difficult. At first they found sections of paved road or cut through abandoned buildings, which made the going easier. Eventually, though, they'd worked their way out of the transferred Pittsburgh area and into Elfhome proper.
On the bank of a creek, frozen solid where it overlapped the affected area, they found a dead black willow tree, lying on its side, and wide track of churned dirt were another willow had stalked northward.
Pony scanned the dim elfin woods for the carnivorous tree. "We must take care. It is probably still nearby; they don't move fast."
"I wonder what killed it." Tinker poked at the splayed root legs still partly inside the discontinuity. Frost like freezer burn dusted the wide, sturdy trunk. Otherwise it seemed undamaged; the soft mud and thick brush of the creek bank had cushioned its fall so none of its branches or tangle arms had been broken. "Lain would love an intact tree." The xenobiologist often complained that the only specimens she ever could examine were the non-ambulatory seedlings or mature trees blown to pieces to render it harmless. "I wish I could get it to her somehow."
The tracks of both trees, Tinker noticed, started in the Ghostlands. Had the willow been clear of the discontinuity at the time of the explosion - or had the tree died after reaching stable ground?
"Let me borrow one of your knives." Tinker used the knife Pony handed her to score an ironwood sapling. "I want to be able to track the rate of decay. Maybe there's a way I could accelerate it."
"A slash for every one of your feet the sapling stands from the ghost lands?" Pony guessed her system.
"Yeah." She was going to move on to the next tree but he held out his hand for his knife. "What?"
"I would rather you stay back as much as possible from the edge." He waited with the grinding power of glaciers for her to hand back his knife. "How do you feel, domi?"
Ah, the source of his sudden protectiveness. It was going to be a while before she could live down overestimating herself the night of the fighting. Instead of going quietly to the hospice, she'd roamed about, made love, and did all sorts of silliness-and of course, fell flat on her face later. It probably occurred to him that if she nose-dived again, she would end up in the Ghostlands.
"I'm fine," she reassured him.
"You look tired." He slashed the next sapling, and she had to admit he actually made cleaner, easier to see marks than she did, robbing her of all chance to quibble with him.
She made a rude noise. Actually, she was exhausted - nightmares had disrupted her sleep for the last two days. But she didn't want to admit that; the sekasha might gang up on her and drag her back to the hospice. That was the problem with bringing five of them - it was much harder to bully them en masse - especially since they were all a foot taller than her. Sometimes she really hated being five foot nothing. Standing with them was like being surrounded by heavily armed trees. Even now Stormsong was eyeing her closely.
"I'm just - thinking." She mimed what she hoped looked like deep thought. "This is very perplexing."
Pony bought it, but he trusted her, perhaps more than he should. Stormsong seemed unconvinced, but said nothing. They moved on, marking saplings.
* * *
With an unknown number of oni scattered through the forest and hidden disguised among the human population of Pittsburgh, Wolf did not want to be dealing with the invasion of his domi's privacy, but it had to be stopped before the Queen's representative arrived in Pittsburgh. Since all requests through human channels failed, it was time to take the matter into his own hands.
Wolf stalked through the broken front door of the photographer's house, his annoyance growing into anger. Unfortunately, the photographer - paparazzi was the correct English word for him, but Wolf was not sure how to decline the word out-in question was determined to make things as difficult as possible.
Over the last two weeks, Wolf's people had worked through a series of false names and addresses to arrive at a narrow row house close to the Rim in Oakland. The houses to either side had been converted into businesses, due to their proximately to the enclaves. While the racial mix of the street was varied, the next door neighbors were Chinese. The owners had watched nervously as Windwolf broke down the photographer's door, but made no move to interfere. Judging by their remarks to each other in Mandarin, neither did they know that Wolf could speak Mandarin in addition to English, nor were they surprised by his presence - they seemed to think the photographer was receiving his due.
Inside the house, Wolf was starting to understand why.
One long narrow room took up most of the first floor beyond the shattered door. Filth dulled the wood floors and smudged the once white walls to an uneven gray. On the right wall, at odds with the grubby state of the house, was video wallpaper showing recorded images of Wolf's domi, Tinker. The film loop had been taken a month ago, showing a carefree Tinker laughing with the five female sekasha of Wolf's household. The image had been carefully doctored and scaled so that it gave the illusion that one gazed out a large window overlooking the private garden courtyard of Poppymeadow's enclave. Obviously feeling safe from prying eyes, Tinker lounged in her nightgown, revealing all her natural sexuality.
Wolf had seen the still pictures of Tinker in a digital magazine but hadn't realized that there was more. Judging by the stacks of cardboard boxes, there was much more. He flicked open the nearest box and found DVDs titled: Princess Gone Wild, Uncensored.
Excerpted from Wolf Who Rules by Wen Spencer Copyright ©2006 by Wen Spencer. Excerpted by permission.
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