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The Color of Magic

By Sheila Paulson
Page 1 of 45

The town was so remote it wasn't even on the map, just a little place tucked away at the edge of nowhere with a crossroads, two houses and a bar. It was the bar that Max noticed as they approached at the end of the day just as the light was fading, the neon letters springing out against the darkening sky as if the sign had been turned on just for them. Afterwards, Max said that should have warned him, but it didn't. The flat, bare reaches of western Kansas are not the sort of place to inspire belief in fantasy.

Max himself was a practical young man in his mid-twenties, and although he had begun to learn that many things in life were not as they seemed, he was not quite the type to leap to grandiose flights of fancy. Since he had met John Peter McAllister, ninja master, and begun to learn the ways of ninjutsu, he had discovered that life held many mysteries, and he was slowly opening up to strange new experiences. McAllister was a balding sixty-year-old whom Max had offered to help out of a tough situation when they had first met. But that was before he realized that he was the one who needed the Master's own brand of help. McAllister was a veteran of two wars and thirty years of ninja training. He had left his sect behind when he discovered that some of his students, led by Okasa, once his prize pupil and now a ninja master in his own right, had reverted to the old ways of ninjutsu, practicing terrorism and assassination. Now Okasa pursued him, intending his death, and McAllister eluded him as he traveled America with Max, teaching him the skills he had learned from his own master in Japan while the two of them searched for Teri, the daughter McAllister hadn't known he had. So far they hadn't found her, but they would one day. Max planned to enjoy every moment till then, and he'd come close enough to the Master by now to understand that finding Teri wouldn't end their friendship. For the moment, he was willing to take things as they came.

This time, though, he couldn't have guessed what was about to happen.

"The Cavern!" The lights flashed on and off like a signal, and the weathered boards that made an old fashioned porch seemed to go with the lanterns that hung around the edges of the roof below the one bright sign. "Suppose we can get some sandwiches here?" Max asked McAllister. Later on, he realized that he had felt a compulsion to stop, but right now it simply seemed chance that had brought them here.

The older man nodded. "But we'll be where we're going in another twenty miles. Why not wait?"

"Because I'm hot and tired and dry, and I could do with a cold beer and some food," explained Max as he pulled up in front of the tavern. "We'll just grab a sandwich and something to drink and be on our way. There's no hurry, is there?"

The Master smiled at his eager pupil. "No, I suppose not." He climbed out of the van as Max retrieved his pet hamster Henry from his cage mounted on the dashboard and stowed him in his pocket. "Just try to avoid trouble in there," the ninja cautioned as they headed for the door. "I know you and bars."

Max threw him a look of mock hurt. "And I thought I was doing so much better," he protested. McAllister laughed companionably. "So you are. But I don't want you to press your luck."

"Gee, thanks." Max pushed the weathered door open and led the way inside.

The interior was mostly one big room, the kitchen almost entirely visible through an open hatch behind the bar. The place was rustic, and Max half expected to find a collection of good ol' boys in cowboy hats standing at the bar drinking whiskey from shot glasses and listening to Willie Nelson on the jukebox, but instead the place was almost deserted. Max remembered he'd only seen one other car outside, a 1953 Chevy, plus a motorbike propped up against the side of the porch. The customers inside didn't seem to reflect either vehicle properly. There was a young man at the bar wearing a white home-spun shirt with billowing sleeves that flowed out from below the shoulders, and tight jeans tucked into suede boots that looked hand made. A metal loop belt hung low on one hip with a dagger in a metal sheath attached to it. He looked like a refugee from a Society for Creative Anachronism event or an attendee at a science fiction convention, and his long curly hair was pulled back in a pony tail like a leftover hippie's. He was too young for that though, a few years younger than Max, although something in the arrogance of his rather too good looking face gave him an air of being older than his years, at least at first glance. Max decided the motorbike must be his.

At one of the tables on the far side of the room sat a man in his late thirties or early forties. He had a profile like a Roman coin, and the look he threw down the length of his elegant nose was little better than a sneer. He wore a black shirt of unusual cut and there was a silver pendant on a chain around his neck. Put him in a suit and he'd pass for a convincing businessman, but the black silk shirt gave the appearance of a mildly dissolute hedonist, although the coldness in eyes that appeared black in the dim light and the fringe of bangs that almost reached his eyebrows made him harder to place. For a minute Max wondered if he was gay, but dismissed the thought immediately. Whoever he was, he was all male.

Then Max got a look at the waitress and promptly lost interest in both men. She was at least as tall as he was, and for the first moment, Max could only stare. A blonde Valkyrie of a woman, she should have been Aryan-fair, but instead her complexion was as dark as a surfer's who has haunted the beach year round in a warm climate. Something about the way her eyes tilted gave her a foreign look, but she didn't seem Oriental. Max couldn't place her, and that bothered him.

She gave him a warm smile that made him forget his questions and drew him to the bar as if she had issued a worded invitation. Aware of McAllister's silent amusement behind him, Max plowed forward. He wasn't the type of young man to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The young man shifted aside to give Max and the Master room, and Max glanced sideways at McAllister to find him surveying the place with a narrowed and thoughtful eye as if he were trying to place it. Then the Valkyrie said, "Welcome," in a voice that was warm and rich and soothing all at once. There was a note of accent in it, almost too slight to be perceived, and Max wondered if the bar were run by an immigrant family from one of the eastern bloc nations and that was why they seemed to unusual.

"Hi," he said cheerfully, discounting it as not important. "Any chance of some sandwiches and a beer?"

"Of course. For both of you?"

At her question, McAllister made an abortive movement beside him, and Max threw him a questioning look, but the Master wore one of his inscrutable looks, and Max decided to let it go. Everything they said in this place would be heard by the other three, and Max didn't want that. Better to keep the conversation normal.

"That's right. Roast beef?" Max asked, picking up the menu that was stuck in a holder behind the napkin container and passing it to the Master. When the waitress nodded, Max ordered a beer to go with it. McAllister glanced at the menu, ordered a club sandwich and a coke. A cook appeared at the hatch and pulled the order slips from a wheel, vanishing again before Max could add him to the collection of oddities. He was a nondescript little man with a pointy face, although there was enough of a twinkle in his eyes to make him stand out, too.

The sandwiches were ready almost immediately. Max noticed that neither the dark haired snob or the curly haired man were eating before the young man reached past him for a napkin and jogged his elbow roughly. Max's beer cascaded over his sandwich.

Hastily swallowing the one bite he'd been allowed, Max turned angrily. "What do you think you're trying to do?" he demanded in outrage.

McAllister caught his arm. "It was an accident, Max," he insisted.

"It's not my fault you are so clumsy," the young man said in an arrogant and surly voice. "It wasn't crowded before you came in."

Suddenly understanding what McAllister had known from the beginning, that the young man wanted to pick a fight, his realization was proven when the youth went for his knife, pulling it smoothly from the sheath. It was a type of dagger Max had never seen before, with an elaborately tooled hilt and a thin, well-worn blade, obviously frequently used. The young man fell into a crouch. "Well, come on," he urged. "Show me what you're worth."

"Easy, youngster," McAllister cautioned. "You don't want a fight."

The young man spared him one poignant look that said all too clearly, 'Don't I just?' then he lunged at Max with the knife.

If Max hadn't been studying with a ninja master for two years, he would have been skewered, but his training stood him in good stead, allowing him to skip lightly out of range, grabbing for his opponent's wrist. But the young man was light on his feet too, and he moved like a pro--no, he moved with the grace and agility of someone who did this naturally, both for survival and for enjoyment. His eyes danced, showing he was having fun, and he suddenly looked much younger than he had before. Max wondered unkindly as the blade missed his ribcage by a fraction of an inch if he were an escapee from a mental home.

The man at the corner table had risen, but he made no move to come closer. He was about Max's height and maybe twenty-five pounds heavier, but the one glimpse Max had of him showed that he was not a fighter. His hands were too well manicured, and when Max swung around to make sure he wasn't coming up behind him, he saw a fastidious curl to the man's lip.

He also glimpsed McAllister trying to circle around behind his adversary, and he called, "Stay out of this, old fella. I can handle him."

"You must let him," the waitress put in. "This is not your fight."

"If Max is in danger, this makes it my fight," McAllister told her. Max knew the Master wouldn't hesitate to intervene if he thought Max was getting in over his head.

But Max could handle it. He sparred with the man a little, finding his measure, and although he was trained differently than Max, he was very damn good. He wasn't a street punk; he had none of their deadly, economical and savage drive. Instead he fought elegantly, but no less dangerously, and behind the lazy curl to his mouth and the bright glitter in his eyes was a man who could kill without hesitation if he had to. Not a hit man, not a murderer, not a martial artist, not a terrorist. Max couldn't place him.

But he could beat him. If he couldn't, McAllister would already have intervened. Since the Master was standing back watching as if this was just another test he'd set for Max, it seemed that he could win, if he could just figure out how to disarm the other man. As they struggled for possession of the knife and for the chain that Max had taken from his belt, Max could sense a precision in his opponent's movements that spoke of long hours of training. Whatever he was, he was good at it. Although he'd deliberately picked the fight, it was becoming clear that spilling Max's drink had been nothing but an excuse for this bout, because he no longer looked either angry or surly, and if his blue eyes glittered, it was with happiness rather than malice.

Suddenly Max felt Henry struggling in his pocket and he remembered his hamster for the first time. Realizing that he must be more careful or he'd hurt his pet, he altered his stance to protect him.

It was a mistake. Suddenly off balance, Max could only retreat when his opponent lunged at him, smiling happily with a mouthful of perfect white teeth. Max jumped back and felt the window behind him. The glass shattered as he fell, and his last thought before he crashed through and landed flat on his back outside was that the Master would never let him live it down.



*****




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