The Color of MagicBy Sheila Paulson
Page 2 of 45
|McAllister observed the fight between Max and the young man with growing interest. recognizing early on that
Max's opponent had no real intention of hurting Max but was fighting him for another reason entirely, a reason he
was not yet prepared to explain. Whatever it was, he was enjoying himself and so was Max. McAllister was certain
that there was more going on here than met the eye. and that if the fight progressed to a draw or a victory for Max,
explanations might be forthcoming.
The dark-haired man in the corner had not spoken, simply standing there watching, but not as if he found the fight particularly interesting. The waitress made no attempt to break it up either, and the cook emerged through a door at the end of the bar and watched too. Of all of them, he was the only one who looked worried, but maybe it was his bar and he didn't want the place broken up.
Of course Max would fight at the drop of a hat, but usually he had a better reason for continuing a fight than he had this time. Something prevented McAllister from interfering, although he couldn't say whether it was his own curiosity, the expectant look on the face of the tanned Viking woman, the exultant way the curly haired man fought, or something else that he didn't understand. McAllister joined the woman. "Shouldn't you call the police?" he suggested.
"No. We don't need the police. Arran is no killer."
"Max didn't start it."
"Max didn't need to." She smiled a little, but it didn't take very well, and McAllister could see a grim and desperate worry in the back of her eyes.
"Max won't hurt Arran either," he felt compelled to reassure her.
"We must know how Max fights," she confided surprisingly. "You are his teacher."
"Yes," he admitted although she had not meant it as a question. For the first time he wondered if his old nemesis Okasa had something to do with this mad fight. It was too bizarre to mean nothing beyond two quick-tempered young men blowing off steam, not with a weapon like that knife. That was a real weapon, worn naturally as most men wear a watch or a tie.
When Max hunched around stiffly, McAllister thought for a moment that he'd been cut, and his heart leapt. Even as he started forward, he remembered Henry and realized that Max had turned to protect him. Then Max reeled backward and McAllister winced, grinning wryly as his pupil crashed through yet another bar window. He should have known it would come to this.
When Max didn't reappear, McAllister feared he'd hurt himself as he landed, and he started for the door to investigate. Behind him, the dark man finally roused himself enough to speak. "No!" he shouted. "Wait! Not that way."
But McAllister was too concerned for Max to heed him. He stepped out into darkness; night had fallen while they were inside, and the neon lights reflected off the side of the van, blinking on and off, on and off. A breeze had risen and the day's heat was beginning to dissipate. McAllister rounded the corner and came up to the window. It was darker here in the shadow of the building, and he couldn't see Max lying on the ground. He must have got up and gone around the other way. McAllister saw a square of light from the window and glanced up as he passed it, then froze, his blood going cold. The window was unbroken.
But it was the only window on the entire wall. Max had come through it, there could be no doubt of that. It would have been impossible to repair the window in the time it had taken him to come outside and walk around the building, and even if they could have done it at lightning speed, they could not have done it silently.
McAllister looked into the building and saw the others gathered there staring at him, their faces wearing various expressions. The dark man looked disgruntled as if he was fed up with the whole thing. The woman was worried, the cook even more so. But the young man with long hair only looked excited. He stepped forward and opened the window, leaning out. "Won't you come in, Master?" he prompted. pointing toward the door. "Max is waiting for you."
It was a trap. It couldn't be anything else. McAllister didn't think he'd been drugged, but it was possible that someone had dropped a mickey or some acid in his soda and he was hallucinating or dreaming. He reached inside himself to find his chi, the center of his being, and tried to calm himself, although he was far from calm. He didn't understand what was happening, and although he was wise enough to understand that many things in this world lacked simple explanations, he suspected there was far more to this perplexing mystery than met the eye. Wherever Max was, he was someplace, and Arran and his friends obviously intended McAllister to join him. But there were ways to vanish that McAllister understood all too well, ninja ways. A man could be knocked out without realizing it. They could have done that to him, it could be a half hour later, the window could have been repaired, his watch altered. Max could have been smuggled away.
They knew who he was; Arran had called him Master. It was almost as if he and Max were expected, somehow guided and manipulated here. Max had seemed awfully determined to stop here when they could easily have waited to reach their destination. There had to be a purpose to all of this, and McAllister was determined to discover what it was and rescue Max in the process. Max was too hotheaded to be plunged into something so offbeat without getting into even more trouble.
McAllister heaved a sigh and returned to the bar.
Once inside, he stopped dead. Although Arran had opened the window and it stood ajar, the glass was obviously broken. It was broken. But for some reason, the fractured glass didn't show from the outside. A hologram? An optical illusion? Hypnosis?
"The window is really broken, Master," said the dark-haired man with a cold and cynical note to his voice. "Surely your experience tells you that things are not always what they seem." He sounded bored with his explanation. "I had hoped you at least would accept this with an open mind."
"I'm sorry to disappoint you," retorted McAllister, "but I tend to take Max's disappearance as a threat. And I don't like threats."
"And yet, that sounds remarkably like one." Arran's voice held a teasing and amused note. "I think there's nothing for it, Dare. We'll have to show him. Besides, we don't have a lot of time."
"Not all of us are as impatient as you. You've been enjoying yourself. Surely a little too gaudy."
"But effective," said Arran brightly. "Max is there already, and soon his teacher will join him. Then nothing can stop what must be."
"I rather think Serralla will have something to say about it," Dare reminded him. "She doesn't believe in the prophecy. Max would be no match for her."
"Where is Max?" McAllister kept his voice mild with an effort.
The blonde woman tossed her hair. "He's in the Protectorate," she explained, which didn't exactly help. "Serralla won't be there."
"Won't she?" Dare glared at her. "You're a cheery little optimist, aren't you? Instead of standing here talking about it, suppose we send McAllister after Max?"
"And when I find him?" McAllister asked. "Since you're implying he's...somewhere else."
"Then you shall have to make your choices. When all is completed, you will be returned."
"Back through the window," Arran said with a grin. "It might not be 'here' precisely, but it will surely be 'here' if you define 'here' as the United States, planet Earth, 1986. It might even be this location, but that depends on how long it takes you and Max to finish what you must do."
"When I go through the window, I'll enter another world?" McAllister asked, feeling slightly foolish for asking, but unable to see any reasonable alternative to Arran's words. "I don't suppose you'll tell us what our options are?"
"That's not allowed this side of the gate," Dare replied. "And even if it were, Raban wouldn't permit it. He'll want to tell you most of it himself. He's a fool!" The sudden venom in his voice was not entirely free of some milder and warmer emotion, and McAllister turned toward him sharply. He hadn't been drawn to Dare until now, although Arran's cheeky good cheer was only slightly more bearable.
"Who is Raban?" he asked.
"Raban is Lord of the Protectorate," Dare told him. "And that is all you need to know so far. Serralla is Empress of the West." His lip curled. "Or so she would prefer to be called."
It would be pointless to ask for further information now. For all McAllister knew, this whole thing was a dream. But Max was gone and the window was both broken and unbroken, and the only way to find Max was to follow him through the broken side. "Will you come too?" he asked.
"We'll be there, although not with you at first," Arran replied. "But I'd fight at Max's side against a whole tribe of mur-wolves." There was admiration in his voice. "You taught him well. Different than my father's Guards taught me, but good. He might even be able to stand against Brin."
"Enough chatter," Dare cut in. "You have supplies in your van." He pronounced the word 'van' as if it were alien to him. "You may take your own weapons with you. You'll certainly need them."
"Will I?" McAllister realized that if he were to play this game, he would have to play it to the hilt, so he turned without a word and went to the van, where he dressed in his ninja robes minus the hood. He armed himself thoroughly, packed some weapons for Max, brought his young friend's jacket in case the Protectorate had a colder climate than Kansas, and returned to the bar. The blond woman handed him a knapsack of an unfamiliar design. "Food and water for your journey," she explained. "And this." She passed him an amulet like the silver one Dare wore. "This will draw you to Dare and Arran and them to you, if you need each other," she informed him. "It is tuned to you." Unexpectedly, she caught his hand and raised it to her lips. "Go carefully, Defender."
"Defender?" He lifted an eyebrow questioningly.
"Sentimental twaddle," Dare declared cynically.
"So you say." Arran flung him a truculent look. "If you don't believe in the legend, why are you here?"
"Do you imagine Raban gave me a choice?"
"Raban gives you every choice there is," Arran half shouted. "I don't know why he puts up with you. I don't know why I do."
"I don't believe you do," Dare responded in a deadly quiet voice. "Raban gives no choice."
"We know." The cook spoke for the first time, skeptical and amused. "We know."
"You know nothing." The words were dismissive, but the cook only grinned. He turned to McAllister. "If I interpret the prophecy correctly, you shouldn't see much of me in the Protectorate once it all begins," he explained. "But if Max needs me, I'll be there."
"Complaining all the way," snapped Dare. McAllister wondered fleetingly if they were brothers; they sparred like siblings.
Arran made a flamboyant gesture toward the window. "And now, Master, it's time for you to follow Max."
Dare smiled sourly. "Will you step into my parlor?" he quoted sotto voce.
The cook threw him a puzzled glance. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're supposed to have a brain, even though I doubt it," Dare observed. "Figure it out yourself, Chel."
McAllister smiled a little and stepped to the window. For a moment, he saw only the Kansas night, the glow from the window tracing a faint rectangle on the dusty ground, then it became superimposed over a warm and glowing night with moonlight almost as bright as day, casting stark shadows against unfamiliar trees. He didn't see Max, but he saw a place he hadn't seen outside. The window actually opened onto a different world. It seemed implausible if not impossible, but too elaborate to be a hoax. Maybe he would awaken and find it all a dream, but as long as he was awake, he must go after Max.
He climbed through the window. When he turned, he stood in a silent glen, and there was no trace of a building where the bar had been only a moment before. Max was nowhere in sight.
Back to B7 Top