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The Color of Magic

By Sheila Paulson
Page 3 of 45

When Max crashed through the window, he couldn't help thinking of what McAllister would say to him about it. Max was trying to avoid leaving bars this way, and had been doing much better lately, but this was a definite setback. He landed hard, knocking the breath out of him, and he lay there struggling to breathe for a second or two, then, when air finally began to return to his laboring lungs, he checked himself for injuries. When he was satisfied that he had done nothing more than collect a few new bruises, he struggled up, prepared to return to the fray. This time, he would demand an explanation, find out what the fight was really about. Distanced from it, he was determined to think rationally as the Master would. Whatever this fight was for, it sure as hell wasn't because Arran or whatever his name was had felt the bar was too crowded.

To his astonishment, there was suddenly a stand of trees right where he'd expected the bar to be. Puzzled, he blinked a few times, half expecting his vision to clear, but when the view remained unchanged, he spun around to survey the rest of his surroundings. There were trees on three sides of the glen, but on the fourth, they opened out to reveal a distant valley. In the bright moonlight, he could see a jagged and terrible mountain range beyond the valley, its serrated peaks stark against the sky. Frowning, still not getting it, Max muttered, "What the hell--" and lifted his eyes to the sky.

Stars, brighter than he had ever seen, hung above him, and try as he might, he could find nothing familiar in any of them. No Big Dipper, No North Star. The moon was full, the only thing still recognizable. This was crazy.

Drawing Henry from his pocket, he clutched his hamster, the one familiar thing in this entire mess, and stroked his back. "Somehow, Henry, I don't think we're in Kansas any more," he muttered with an uneasy chuckle.

Henry refrained from comment, but the little animal was shaking and jittery, and Max couldn't tell why. He stowed Henry in the safety of his pocket again, just as he heard something behind him that resembled a low growl.

Spinning to face the new threat, Max saw nothing at first, then as the sound was repeated, he spied two glowing lights just within the trees. Eyes? Eyes that glowed red in the starlight. Wolves?

Max backed away only to realize there was nothing in this glade to put at his back. He didn't want to get any closer to the trees than he needed to. On the side of the clearing where the trees opened up, he saw a standing stone a little taller than a man and maybe twice as broad. If he could put his back against that, it would be easier to fend off the beast.

Carefully he began to ease in that direction. The eyes didn't move right away, and he was close to the stone before they shifted at all, pacing him just within the shadow of the forest but never coming out of cover.

As Max approached the standing stone, he saw another beyond it and a third past that, then a whole series of them marching down into the valley. It wasn't bright enough in this alien night to make out any details on the valley floor, but he did see lights there, possibly campfires. If he could reach them, he might be safe. On the other hand, he could wake up at any minute and find himself back in Kansas with the Master bending over him.

But only if he was really unconscious. There was too much detail to this dream. The strange stars were bright overhead even in the moonlight. The air was heady with the scent of pine trees, the grass was damp with dew beneath his feet and he could feel the moisture beginning to soak through his pant legs. The eyes gleamed at him and as Max edged along, never quite ready to turn his back on them and run, he could hear the snap of twigs and the rustle of brush as if something bigger than a wolf was pacing him. Determined to awaken from this bizarre experience, he pinched himself hard. It hurt.

"Where are you?" he muttered to the absent McAllister. "And where the hell am I?"

By then he had reached the first standing stone. It didn't bear much resemblance to the stones of Stonehenge, which he'd seen once when his family had taken a trip to England the summer before his senior year in high school, being smaller and far more irregular, but there had been a circle of smaller stones, Avebury, he thought it was called, that looked more like this. He suspected that, in daylight, these stones would be solid black.

The distant fires on the valley floor seemed to offer a better chance of protection than the stones did, so he continued to descend carefully, judging the distance between the stones and moving cautiously, not quite daring to break into a run. He was sure if he did the beast would be upon him instantly.

It paced him all the way down to the valley floor as Max grew more and more confused. What the hell was happening to him? Where was he and how did he get here? All he knew was that if he ever got back, nothing in the world would get him through another bar window as long as he lived.

He was still a hundred yards away from the safety of the campfires when the creature suddenly burst out of the trees and came for his throat.

Max had prepared himself. He wasn't as well armed as he would have liked, and he'd dropped the chain when he fell through the window, but he had a shuriken and a knife. Bracing himself, he threw the shuriken first, and the huge hairy creature jerked when the throwing star struck and hesitated, making a weird mewling cry that alerted the people around the campfire. Shouts came from there, but Max didn't think rescue could reach him in time. Shifting his grip on the knife, he set his feet firmly on the ground and waited. The creature charged him, favoring one paw. Max doubted that was enough to turn the odds in his favor.

The creature was not a wolf. As it sprang at him, he could see that quite clearly. It was much the same general shape, but tusks curled out on either side of his muzzle, and its ears were set flat against its head. Shaggy and grey like a wolf, it looked like no creature Max had ever seen, as if someone had taken a wolf and grafted alien parts onto it before turning it loose.

It was at least as big as a large wolf and it struck with enough force to fling him flat on his back. As he fell, he struck with the knife, desperation lending him strength. The blade slid into the creature's chest just behind the foreleg, scraped bone, twisting his hand with the force of the creature's spring, and Max cried out as pain flashed through his wrist. Ignoring it as best he could, he dragged the knife free and struck again, jerking up his other arm to shield his face. He felt teeth penetrating his shirt sleeve, and he blurted an involuntary cry of pain. The creature shuddered at the knife's penetration, but it continued to savage his arm.

When the attack stopped, Max didn't realize it immediately. He pulled the knife loose to strike again, but the creature went limp and collapsed on top of him, its fetid breath searing across his face for an instant before a long sigh shuddered out of the creature. Struggling wildly to free himself, Max tried to wiggle out from under it, shivering away from the touch of the thing.

Then he became aware of the shouting. Torchlight gave him a distorted view of the savage muzzle inches from his face, the eyes glittering for a moment, then going dull as life left the beast. A second later, it was rolled off his body and a huge man with sword in his hand looked down at Max and smiled benignly.

"By the power, that was a good fight!" he exclaimed enthusiastically. Passing the sword to a second man clad in an identical tunic--a uniform maybe--he stretched out a hand to Max and deposited him on his feet, bracing him for a second when Max's knees would have buckled. "Arm looks nasty, but we'll have you fighting fit in no time. Welcome. I don't recognize your livery, but anyone who fights a mur-wolf like that is one of us."

"Mur-wolf?" Max echoed dazedly. "Whatever it was, it was big."

One of the others in the background, a woman, exclaimed and held up Max's shuriken. The big man's eyes widened as if he'd seen something miraculous, and he plucked it from her hand, staring at it as if it was his hope of heaven. "A wheel?" he asked. "A wheeled weapon? What is it called?"

"A shuriken," Max explained helplessly. His wrist throbbed and his arm hurt fiercely where the teeth had savaged him.

His big rescuer turned his eyes from the shuriken reluctantly, saw Max sway a little and caught him up in his arms as easily as he would a child. "Well, come on," he urged his fellows. "Back to the fire. We've longer to wait for the Prince, but we've got a hero to tend."

"Hero?" Max echoed muzzily.

"That you are, my lad," his new friend assured him. "Anyone who can take a mur-wolf with a knife is a hero, and we've been waiting for your shuriken for years, we have." He grinned. "I'm Dagan, and this is my Guard troop. Let's get you bandaged and fed, and then it will be time for exchanging stories. Your name--you are perhaps the Acolyte?"

"I'm Max Keller," Max replied.

Dagan appeared satisfied with that. "I don't suppose you've seen the Prince this night?" he asked, depositing Max before the nearest fire and calling for water and ale.

"I don't know the prince," Max admitted apologetically.

"You came from the Sacred Grove," one of the others mentioned hesitantly.

"You mean up there?" Max gestured unwarily and winced at the motion.

"He crossed the Gate." Dagan's voice put an end to the discussion as he began the decidedly unpleasant task of cleaning Max's wound. Max grimaced as he pulled the sleeve away from the injury, and made himself look at it, relieved to find it wasn't as bad as he'd expected, at least not until Dagan ruthlessly upended the contents of an earthenware flask over it. With a screech that might have roused the dead, Max sat bolt upright, only to relax as he felt Henry scrambling frantically in his pocket. Dagan's hand clasped his shoulder apologetically. "Sorry, lad," he murmured. "Had to be done. A mur-wolf's bite can go septic if we don't care for it right away. I know it hurts. Better to have it hurt clean."

Max decided he preferred his own world's antibiotics, but he didn't say so. Instead he reached into his pocket to free Henry, settling him in the curve of his arm. His right wrist was starting to feel better; it had only been wrenched rather than sprained.

"What manner of beastie is that?" ventured one of the other soldiers.

"He's a hamster."

"Food?"

"A pet," Max replied, bristling at the thought of someone dining on Henry.

"Not enough meat on it to make it worth carrying for food," Dagan pointed out placatingly. "It's different across the Gate, Rad."

"How do you know, Sarge?" Rad asked. "You've never been there."

"The Prince told me."

It was apparent that the Prince, whoever he was, had been in Max's world, and Max wondered if he was one of the two men in the bar. Making a choice, he asked, "His name isn't Arran, is it?"

"So you did see him," Dagan said, relaxing. "What was he doing?"

"Seeing how I could fight."

"So he sent you here." Dagan grinned. "From the way you took the mur-wolf, he was right about you."

Max winced as Dagan poured something else on his wound, but this time it only stung a little. Max glanced down at his arm and saw that whatever it was was fizzing like peroxide. Maybe it was peroxide. At least it would clean the wound.

He was sleepy and drained from the fight, only dimly aware of one of the soldiers, a tall, lean woman who looked like she could take a mur-wolf with her bare hands, coming forward and offering his knife, thoroughly cleaned and rid of the mur-wolf's blood. "Your weapon, Sir Max," she muttered respectfully, and Max had to fight back giggles at the title. He decided he must be delirious. None of this could be real.

As Dagan fastened a rough but efficient bandage around his wound, another trooper brought him a blanket, and the next thing Max knew, he was lying before the fire, half asleep, sipping excellent ale from a jug. "When the Prince comes," Dagan told him, "he'll answer your questions."

"I'm glad somebody will," Max returned. I've got enough of them."



*****




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