May 15th. I don’t write too much fantasy but I have dabbled. Here is Part 1 of an effort I am putting together called “Bob, The Annihilator.” I like fantasy to be fun. Not too dark or dystopian. I get enough of that sort of fantasy in the newspapers.
“Bob, the Annihilator”
Willie’s lawnmower jolted as if wrenched by some fallen angel. An instant later there was a nerve-grabbing, capital-letter BANG. Even a vet like Willie started and flinched at the noise. She pulled the mower back and dug the claws of her feet into the grass. Angrily, she whispered something in a tongue not known to men. Her tail whipped behind her legs and thrashed at the solid earth.
I sighed. We seemed to repeat this every time we mowed. We’d talked about hiring a kid to come cut the lawn for us. But we could never find one that wasn’t afraid of being eaten alive by his prospective employers.
“Rocks, rocks, rocks,” Willie shook her head.
The soil here on the Tug Hill was a gravelly mix with plenty of large, hidden stone. The Mundane Timeline indicated that a prehistoric Ice Age had once pushed glaciers through this region. The ancient ice had carved beautiful lakes and vales but had scattered megatons of stony residue. The so-called topsoil was in reality a bane to generations of farmers.
Lawnmowers didn’t fare very well either. And it wasn’t always the stray rocks. You can’t mow your lawn in the Haunted Lands without coming across some remnant of the War, after all.
It’s a hazard, I suppose, of the veteran resettlement programs. Now, given the resource depletion caused by so many Scoured Realms, the dedicated bureaucrats who run the world see that we, as a people, have little choice but to settle such places. Thus we homesteaded what we were offered. Quietly, despite all that had happened to us, we built cabins, planted gardens, and mowed lawns in places only recently wrested from elves and fairies and other keepers of the Old Dark.
In a sense, we were following the last orders of our weird enlistment. We only guessed at the truth much, much later.
Willie stepped back and wiped her brow. The afternoon was late but the day remained hot. Willie regarded the quiet mower. Deer flies and scourge bugs ringed her sharp-featured goblin’s head. Biting, biting, but only the most determined cut through her tough hide. Nearby, our bug zapper droned away but neither light nor noise ever drew the pests away from us. We had talked about getting a better zapper…maybe next time we could afford a better one.
Despite the insects…both Mundane and Faerie…our 100 acres _was_ lovely. The grass stretched to the edge of pines and bordered gardens fat with alyssum and coreopsis. Soothsayer beetles darted skittishly across the woodpile. Birds sang in the trees that surrounded our homestead. Cicadas buzzed insistently. I sucked in the idyllic moment until Willie suddenly swore an oath with her Great Voice.
Such a curse!
It was one that neither of us had used since we both slogged through the surf and darkling sands of the First Beachhead. That was in Fanglore, where so many thousands of our comrades had died…or worse. We had been with the First Occult Expeditionary. FOEmen one and all! Tierney’s Two-Fisted Talismans. Why we’d rather fight than…no matter…we were younger then.
And perhaps a little more foolish.
“Maybe time for a break?” I asked. My voice was a whisper in her ear and did little to break the silence of the surrounding forest. I also exuded a touch of Calm into her bloodstream. Just to soothe her. She hadn’t slept much last night…bad dreams, she told me. She had had plenty of those in the years since we had been invalided out of Wellness Castle.
“Mmmm,” Willie growled. “Maybe so…I’m thinking that iced tea I made this morning might be good and cold. Feel like a porch sit?”
“Sure, the sun is starting to burn my back,” I said.
“Really?” She sounded very surprised. “I thought only the vanes of your wings could burn.”
“I dunno…I just feel hot, is all.” I thought how good it was that she listened to my tiny voice. How easily we conversed. There were horror stories about other vets in our situation. When I asked her about that she had only said, in her gruff way: Well, you lost your life to save me, after all. Listening is the least I can do.
She was kind beneath that hard exterior.
Willie gripped the mower’s handles and gave it a nudge over whatever had impeded its progress. Something beneath the mower’s wide circular base grated. She lifted the mower and shoved it aside. A wide ring of dark grass cuttings had fallen down from the mower’s housing. Near the center was a dark stone with a clean white scrape on it.
Willie picked it up. The stone fit in the palm of her hand but was quite heavy. She examined it briefly. It was not like the gray stones that lurked just below the soil. It was dark and oblong. Its inky surface seemed to absorb light. Despite curiosity I could still sense her anger over the broken mower. She dropped the stone back onto the ground. It landed within the ring of grass clippings.
We would have left it there except that it hit the ground with a solid thud that shook the very earth itself. The pines quivered and the windows in our nearby cabin rattled. It was a strange effect and certainly not normal. Willie halted mid-step and peered at the ground. A puzzled expression crossed her face.
“What’s that all about?” she asked.
Willie stooped down and pushed the black stone aside. Pinching and teasing the grass aside she worked her way down from green blades to whitish shoots. The pebbly-brown earth was soon revealed…and something within it. Long curved shapes shined under the sunlight. A tiny, oblong skull came within view. The skeleton attached to it could fit easily into a child’s hand…if there were any children who might dare touch the damned thing.
“A fairy,” Willie hissed. She wiped her hand on her blue jeans. She pointed. “And look, there are more.”
Truly, the area within the broken ring of grass clippings held a good half-dozen skeletons. After catching her breath Willie smoothed out the grass here and there to get a better look at the little cohort. Sparkles showed where the tiny warriors’s jewel encrusted helms and swords had fallen.
Where Willie had dropped the dark stone it seemed to exude shadows. Digging about, Willie’s thick fingers soon found similar rocks. They formed a rough chevron behind which the fairies had fallen. The shape stirred an old memory within me.
“This was a defensive outpost,” Willie surmised. “Probably with a direct relay back to the Lore Mound.”
She picked up the black stone that had damaged the lawnmower. “This was probably a calling-ansible,” she surmised. “Burned out, obviously.”
With a grunt she threw the rock toward the tree-line. It vanished behind the pines, a dark form amid shadows. Twigs and brush offered a brief cacophony to mark its landing.
“How do you think they died?” I asked.
The thickset shoulder that formed part of my perch rose and fell nonchalantly. A sigh. And then: “Fighting got pretty heavy through the Tug Hill. Likely a capon-mounted dragoon unit came through here. Maybe someone dropped a querning grenade on them.”
“Rough way to go, querning,” I said. “Your weapons animate and hack you to death.”
Willie scratched her head. “Been here two years now and none of my crops have had any QG poisoning. Not like Sergeant Sark down in Thunderkettle. Nope, probably just stomped on by the dragoons’ capons. Nasty birds.”
“Well, we’ve mowed over them a dozen times, at least,” I said conversationally.
Willie looked about. “I wonder if there’s more? Fetch a pretty penny. Sark’s wife will pay a pretty penny for these.”
“Miranda Sark, yes?”
Willie barked a big laugh. “Shoooot! Her name’s not Miranda!”
“No, every bride that the government pays to marry a vet and come to the Fairy Haunted Lands calls herself Miranda. They think it makes them fey. And when my old drinking pal Gertie Gladwell married that boy volunteer from outside Ottawa he changed his handle to Prospero, of all the silliness!”
“Then Miranda is not Miranda?”
“Nope, try Amber.”
“Amber is a pretty name.”
“Sounds like resin to me.”
“What does Mrs. Sark do with fairy bones?” I asked. The hazy sun was really starting to burn.
“Turns them into wind-chimes and sells them to the tourists.”
I felt queasy. “oh,” I managed to say in my tiny gargoyle voice.
Willie pushed the mower over to the shed and we headed for the porch of our cabin. She paused as we walked up the flagstones past the flowerbeds. She pointed to several holes that had appeared in the soft black earth between zinnias and nasturtiums. “Squirrels have been diggin’ again.”
Our pause so near the tree-line led to more bugs assaulting us. I flapped my wings and snapped at a passing deer-fly. If not for the fact that everything from the waist down was melded into Willie’s shoulder I might fly about and give those insects what for. I sighed. We really needed to purchase a better bug-zapper.
The iced tea was cold. A large one for her and a tiny one for me. We settled onto the cushions of the big comfortable chair that Willie had carved. The battle-scarred oak had fallen in whatever fight had happened on our hundred acres. Our drinks were cool and we enjoyed a comfortable silence. A woodchuck slunk along the tree line, nibbling, looking up, nibbling, looking up. Furtively, a satan darted across our driveway to hide in the shrubs beyond, mindlessly whittering to itself. Overhead a red-tailed hawk wheeled in the hazy sky, uninterested in a meal but enjoying the sheer pleasure of flying.
A rattling sounded on the distant roadway. We were a good half-mile off the main drag but the distinctive clatter was readily discerned. I lowered my cold mug and squinted northward. “That time already?” I asked.
Willie looked at the extheric timekeeper that glowed on the rough wall of the cabin. “Seems early,” she said.
The rattling grew louder and there was a groan as if the Earth’s axes were being braked by some mad operator. Next to the screened porch door the timekeeper flared. Tiny sparks of probability drifted downward to pop and sizzle on the deck. A few embers fell into the garden. Something cheeped indignantly. A lithe quadruped leapt from the clutch of nasturtiums and onto the porch railing. A chipmunk the size of a house cat crouched shivering on the rough hewn rail. I flapped my bony wings in surprise. Willie returned the ‘munk’s bright blue gaze and clucked her astonishment. An instant later the big rodent was on the ground and running along the grass at the very edge of the cabin.
We had no time to comment on this as the plowboat was now grinding its way down our driveway. An iron plow that was as ornately carved as it was sharply pointed churned through the gravel of the drive like the prow of a ship. Great spiked wheels ambled along despite being partially submerged below the surface of the driveway. These rotated like waterwheels and sent a cascade of grit up into the air. The grit fell onto the sifters that hunkered amid the boilers and flywheels atop the plowboat’s main deck. What wasn’t collected was sent over the back in an immense cascade of stone and dust. This cataract split along either side of a plow that was identical to the one in front. This device glowed faintly and sealed rather than seamed the driveway.
The entire affair ground to a halt in front of our porch. Within a settling cloud of summer dust the vehicle gurgled to a rather plaintive and inefficient idle. A hatch clanged open in the side of the plowboat and a giant figure in a greasy jumpsuit and leather apron clambered out into the sunshine.
“Hello Jack. Hello Backjack” Willie greeted.
The green glass in his thick goggles captured multiple reflections of the surroundings. Willie and I stood waiting on the lawn next to the steaming, ticking machine. The giant, like his machine, seemed all out of proportion. Four arms sprouted from the wide shoulders that sat atop his barrel torso. When he turned around we saw another face and jaw attached to the back of the head. Another set of goggles peered down at us. These were raised to reveal a friendly face under fiery red hair. A toothy grin spread across the wide mouth.
“Offer you an iced tea?” Willie asked.
“No, not just yet,” Jack said. “Just stopping in to see how things are going. Big extheric storm coming through near evening.”
I flinched at that. The Tug Hill could be Extheric Central thanks to the big mascon it sat above. The cabin was girded with a combined ishmael grid and faraday cage. We should survive it with only our hackles tickled. We had ridden out others, after all. Still, the focused extheric energies that had morphed Willie and I that day on the enchanted beach could do worse…far worse.
“How big?” Willie asked, tilting her scaly head.
“Around a 7 on the Ish scale,” Jack said.
Willie nodded. “That’s why the plowboat is out running.”
“Yep, I’ll cut a nice storm break around your place. Should keep the worst of it away,” Jack said. Then, being an honest tradesman he asked: “Pentagram or triquetra?”
“Triquetra, please,” Willie said. “I may look like a goblin but I’m still an Irish girl at heart.”
“How do they tell the difference?” Jack scoffed.
“You!” Willie laughed and gave the giant a push.
Jack smiled and lowered his big green goggles. He spun about and Backjack said goodbye. He patted me on the head where I perched on Willie’s shoulder. Willie frowned but allowed that. Backjack was a little simpler than Jack but much stronger. The two had been at the invasion down the coast from us that day in Fanglore by the Outcast Sea. Twin brothers in a mangonel unit. Backjack probably didn’t realize how integrated Willie and I were. A pat on the head was transmitted directly to her neck. She would have bit anyone else’s hand but the Jacks were good sorts. She smiled amiably as the giant climbed back into the machine.
Jack got to work and we stood and watched from the porch. The plowboat followed a pattern around our grounds, the big iron plow cutting and re-ordering the soil and the energy within. By the time all was done I could see a steady flickering at the edge of my vision. Jack stopped in front of the cabin and took some iced tea. Then he was off, the big plowboat steaming up the drive and beyond the pines.
The wind blew and the trees sighed. Next to us the reeds of a wind chime knocked fitfully. Leaves skittered like old parchment across the driveway. Although the air was clear the barest wisps of streamers could now be seen in the sky. Phantom lines of extheric energy were reaching outward from the coiled depths of the mascon above which our humble 100 acres sat. It would be a busy evening, I reckoned.
“This weather,” Willie groused.
“Maybe we should move to Florida,” I suggested.
She shook her head. “Too many sea myrsies.”
“But no mascons…except near Hallabassa Bay.”
“Isn’t that where their kraken problem originates?”
“Likely,” I said. I stretched my wings and flapped them in the growing breeze.
Pixies, fairies, gnomes, whimsies, sprites, leprechauns, wee-folk, or whatever you choose to call them: enchanted mites were enchanted mites. And dangerous. Nearly all outbreaks of such creatures arose not from subterranean caverns or hidden castles but from the very earth itself. We lived above such a spot. Given the right geophysical detection equipment such areas had been identified as mascons, or mass concentrations.
Essentially mascons occurred where the concentration of material deep underground had a greater density than their surroundings. Such places had been known to display, at minimum, weird magnetic effects. Other, stronger mascons could actually tug at satellites passing high above in orbit. Before the War, geologists had been studying the phenomena. An old pre-War magazine I had once read said that planetologists had even found similar mascons on the Moon and far planets.
None of us, before the War, suspected that mascons held anything more than inert matter. But if you remember those dark days then you know how innocent we were of the World…not the mundane material world but the Fey and Magic World. Now we knew better.
We also knew that any single fairy had all the intelligence of a hummingbird. Two might constitute a robin. But three to four could have all the guile of a wolf and a half dozen were on a par with a human. Allow thousands to join…and you got something like the Crucible Keeper. And that was what all of us veterans were fighting that day in Fanglore.
History now. Like the dusty books I used to love. My history. And Willie’s. I suppose, in a sense, by living here on the Tug Hill we were still guarding the Known from the Fey. That was one use they had for all of us old FOEmen, after all.
We pushed the mower into its shed and locked it up. Then we puttered around in the garden a bit. The bugs offered us momentary torment but the breeze picked up and I guess they figured we weren’t worth a struggle. Weeding and trimming, while all the time the hidden seams of the triquetra flickered at the edge of my eyes. If I closed them, I could just make out the pattern. It was pretty and powerful. We should be safe from the storm.
I heard a skittering and looked in time to see a brown and white caramel-patterned critter leap behind the garden’s low rock wall. Willie tossed some ivy into a bucket and became quiet. After an hour bent over a vegetable bed I had to ask her the question. I hated to do so but it was my fate as well, after all.
“That storm…” I began in my pipsqueak gargoyle’s voice.
Willie paused what she was doing and drove her hand trowel into the soil. “Yes,” she said after nearly a minute.
“Should we go out in it?” the words fell like lead weights.
“Thinking on it,” she said. “You know our luck.”
“Since the battle, sure. But…” I began.
“You know, whoever got that idea out there should be returned to Fanglore.”
I shivered and she could feel my distress somewhere within her bosom. Nobody deserved a return trip to Fanglore. Well, almost nobody. The Traitors who had gone over to the Keeper in those last hours…well, they were as dead as dust. I tucked my wings in tight around my troglodytic sprout of a body. With a grunt Willie rose to her splayed feet and whipped her tail impatiently. Its tip was as sharp as the dagger sheathed on her belt.
“Harsh,” I whispered.
“Sure,” she answered. “No storm can change us back. That’s just a silly story. False hope. The charge we got hit with was designed to warp, when it didn’t kill.”
I knew that, of course. As a medic I had seen many transformed and dead on the beach that terrible day. Willie had somehow survived the weapon that hit her unit. I had just patched her up when we were struck again. I remember one long scream as the humanity was sucked from my bones, blood, and very molecules. The spell decoders later said we had been hit by a weapon called _Bleak Essence_.
Days later we awoke in a hospital room with no mirrors or polished surfaces. As if those hid the truth! The first doc we met was a shrink. He broke the news. I would be permanently attached to Willie’s shoulder. An odd, perching monstrosity upon her goblin back. Somehow, after immense personal trials, we had found compromise. And a life. Which I was now making the case to change…or perhaps end.
“There have been cases where exposure to any storm over an Ish 6 has caused the transformed to be altered. And for the better,” I insisted.
“Name one,” Willie replied.
“The Handsome Boy out in Rochester,” I recalled.
“A face like a wax figurine? You call that an improvement?” Willie shook her head. Stringy hair slapped my face.
“But he started as a grotesque,” I maintained. “No one could look at him.”
“But in that state he could talk, see, read. Now what? He mumbles behind a pleasantly smiling but immoveable face. I’d rather be a grotesque, thanks.”
I sagged. “But I just thought we might try, just try. It might allow us to separate. Wouldn’t that be worth the chance?”
I could hear Willie grinding her sharp goblin’s teeth. She turned from the garden and began walking toward the cabin. The sun was a loud orange smear behind the pines as it coursed toward the western horizon.
From behind us a pleasant baritone called: “You know, Willie, your little friend might just be right.”
Willie jerked to a halt. When she spun around she dropped into a half-crouch, blade in hand. Visitors in the Fairy Haunted Lands were fine. Unannounced visitors were another thing altogether. On the rock wall an over-sized chipmunk sat. The creature’s strange blue eyes stared at us calmly.
Willie rose slowly from her defensive crouch. Her tail whipped her legs. The dagger remained in her hand, ready to be thrown. “I know you,” she hissed.
The chipmunk tilted its head and grinned its sharp rodent grin. A tiny paw reached up to its sleek brow and offered a mock salute. I noted it wore tiny gauntlets that revealed the curved fingers and sharp claws of the forehands. A strap that held a tiny bag cut across its pale breast and brown shoulders.
“Lieutenant Robert Himpthtype reporting, sergeant,” the chipmunk said.
I gasped a tiny gasp. With a lightning quick motion Willie threw the dagger at the chipmunk. The blade’s deadly point plinked impotently off the mossy rock where the apparition had sat just a moment before.
My tiny claws patted Willie’s shoulder. Her response was admirable. Of course _that_ was no chipmunk. Willie said the accursed name before I could: “Bob the Annihilator!”
**end of Part One**
Note: The image at the top of this post is part of a 17th-C Icelandic manuscript featuring Ratatoskr from the Poetic Edda.