I wake up on the back of an alligator crawling slowly down Main Street. Trumpets blare. Knights with shields of flame and blood-encrusted swords descend on the train depot at the end of the drag. They’re on the march, hunting the last big game. General Slaughter wants a new head on his wall.
General Slaughter came to town, riding his pale, 350 horse, ’68 Charger. He was hunting the Orion clan, as he had for two hundred years.
The Orions and the stars they carried, that infernal fire, burned order from the land. It had burned his parents and his childhood. Now it burned his soldiers, burned his people, burned away his soul. Like a rabid dog, it needed to be put down.
So General Slaughter brought his nightmares, his carefully researched demon seeds, and planted them in the water supply of every town in Orion Valley. The menfolk went insane with rage, and within the women, new hells gestate, born slaved to the General’s will.
Once a town was in his grasp, clinched like so many before, the General and his posse growled into the next and then the next, until they rode into the mountain’s shadow toward the Orion homestead.
In the dark, the General’s headlights blazed, and woke up Rex Orion. Patriarch, warlock, menace most wanted. Rex and his kin lined up on their porch, hands pitching flames at the town doctor, the town judge, the town drunk, and the General just laughed. The General walked like a ghost through the fray, no fear this near to victory, and one by one he snuffed Orion flames with a silver bullet between the eyes.
Rex Orion stood alone. He dropped his hands and kneeled. The men of the town, the men of rage, subdued his wife and youngsters. Rex Orion was made to watch as the General buried silver in their heads.
But the last thing Rex Orion saw before he met his end was little Wheeler, barely six, hiding behind the woodshed, where he conjured a palomino pegasus, golden wings and all, and rode hard toward the moon.
Rolling off the back of the alligator, I follow, ducking into doorways. In the alcove of the antique store on Fifth, the door opens slowly and a tractor lawn mower rolls out. On the black vinyl seat is a girl drinking a can of Coke. Her lilac eyes meet mine and she flashes me a grin.
“Hop on, cowboy. I need your help.”
As I step on the back of the mower, she lets off the brake and we go careening up the block and around the corner. We outpace the advancing troops, wind whipping the girl’s dusky hair in my face, carrying smells of pine and passion and sweat.
Wheeler hated The Surgeon Duke, the General’s Chemist, the mind behind the demon seeds that drove good people to great evil. He’d practiced his quickdraw and his rope tricks and his fingertips were steady and deadly accurate.
But Wheeler wouldn’t kill The Duke, not outright, anyway. Wheeler had questions. Wheeler had business.
“So how ’bout me gettin’ some of those seeds?” Wheeler tossed a duffel bag full of cash toward The Surgeon Duke and shot him a roguish grin. Drums, or giant’s footsteps, echoed across the Duke’s compound.
“Yes, yes, I have your seeds.” The Duke sweated as he wandered between the cupboards in his kitchen, hunched over like so many television Igors, nodding his head as he pulled a bottle from one, a bag from another, a scoop from another. Once the bag was filled and the contents of the bottle poured over the seeds, The Duke handed the parcel over to Wheeler. “The General will be pleased. Yes.”
Wheeler’s grin got even bigger. “Well, I don’t know ’bout that,” he said, and waved his hand, pointed a finger at The Surgeon Duke and saw the labored sweat become a cold and fearful sweat. “The Orion clan thanks you for your support,” he said, and pulled the imaginary trigger. The Duke’s heart exploded in his chest, and a small trickle of blood ran from his mouth before catching in the peppered hairs of his beard.
“I’m A— !” I can hardly hear her voice over the roar of the mower and the wind and the crescendo of my pulse.
We roll to a halt in front of the double-doors of the depot.
“I’ve given you my name, cowboy. You mute, or just don’t know how to address a goddess?”
I stare, slack-jawed, as her skin becomes the darkening sky, her eyes stars; even the little hairs on her arms are comets.
“You can call me Wheeler.”
“There, that wasn’t so hard. Now, Wheeler, we’re going to go in there and rescue my sister before those soldiers kill her.”
A rolls her eyes, stars orbiting stars. “My sister, Alula. You know, trees, animals, hunting. The forest comes awake at night. I’m the goddess of twilight. I bring the night, she brings the life. Sometimes death.”
“Does she have a gun?”
“She doesn’t need a gun.” That settles that.
As he turned to leave The Surgeon Duke’s home, Wheeler was greeted by the impassive face of a beautiful woman.
“Ma’am,” he said, without missing a beat, and tipped his hat in her direction. As he did, another impassive face of another beautiful woman appeared beside the first. They looked the same. And again, Wheeler tipped his black hat and said, “Ma’am.”
“You’ll need help,” said the first.
“To cast your spell,” said the second.
Wheeler shrugged. “And how do you ladies know I’ve got a spell brewin’?”
“We know you, Wheeler Orion,” said the first.
“And we know you are a dying breed in a dying world,” said the second.
“Everyone’s dyin’,” said Wheeler. “Doesn’t mean there’s any magic in it.”
Both faces smiled, and the bodies beneath them tensed.
“But there is,” said the first.
“There is,” said the second.
Wheeler spit on the white tile floor and nodded slowly. “So, if we’re goin’ to work together, I best know your names. Especially since you know mine.”
“We know more than your name, Wheeler Orion,” said the first.
“We know you,” said the second.
“I am Sunrise,” said the first.
“I am Sunset,” said the second.
“I am The Forest,” said the first.
“I am The Trees,” said the second.
“You can call me Aziza,” said the first.
“You can call me Alula,” said the second.
Again, Wheeler nodded. “Alright. Follow me.”
As they emerged into the heart of The Surgeon Duke’s compound, Wheeler divided the seed and told Alula and Aziza the plan. They sowed the ground with a helm of awe, ancient, cold, and North. They spread the seed in dotted runes around the towering spires of the laboratory.
“There are ghosts inside,” said Aziza.
“And giants,” said Alula.
“The spirits of those dispatched by General Slaughter,” said Aziza.
“The spirits of your parents and siblings,” said Alula.
“That’s enough.” Wheeler was smoking, the rage boiled off him. “That’s enough. I’m finishing this. And then the General is finished, too.”
Wheeler stood in the center of the giant emblem, the heart of the helm, and raised his arms. It looked as if he were dancing, but if he had a partner it was Death himself. The seeds released their demons, and Wheeler choked off their screams, pulled them into his white-hot lungs. He breathed gasoline, shot cannons from his fingertips, ignited the polar rune into a roaring, sun-strong bonfire where ghosts were put to rest and giants turned to ash.
But in all magic there are demons, and some too much to contain. The fireworks turned to mushroom clouds, and the little victory Wheeler Orion had won turned into nuclear fallout. His palomino pegasus flew toward the moon alone.
We approach the splintered doors of the station, and I give them a good kick. When the dust settles, we saunter in.
A crystal chandelier strung with a hundred thousand beads illuminates a white marble stairway. The stairs stretch up into blackness. As we begin our climb, I see the stairs are not really marble, but the porcelain ribs of a giant whose head I cannot see. Each bone is engraved with the words of a love song, and beneath us I can hear the thrum of a golden heart, the ribcage both prison and protector.
The top landing opens into a long hallway. Behind us, the flaming shields of the knights begin their ascent through the shadows. Their armor echos through space, sounding like a greased machine. We start down the hallway, eager to stay ahead of the steadily advancing soldiers.
Doors slide and shift along the walls, realigning rooms, closets, and corridors. Some are open, others closed. At the end of the hall we see a tall wall of wooden lattice covered in fat grapes and wide leaves the color of blood. Screaming—a mad wail—fills our ears from behind one of the doors.
“Ignore it,” warns A.
I wonder why, even as I turn the handle. As the heavy mass of oak swings inward, I see a robed man lashed to a chair, a single knight standing over him. His eyes meet mine the instant before his head rolls off his shoulders. The knight turns toward me. Flames dance beneath his armor, as if he’s made of flame. He charges, bloody sword leveled at my chest. I’m ready to run, but A tackles me from behind.
“Stay down, cowboy.”
This time I comply with A’s suggestion. As I lay on the ground, the room goes pitch black. A cold metal boot crushes my hand as the now off-balance knight hurtles through the door. His momentum carries him straight through the bannister which has appeared on the other side of the hall. The knight’s terror echoes as he descends into the blackness rising behind us.
Pulling myself to my feet I notice the hallway has shortened. Doors line only one side and the bannister, cracked from the impact of the knight, extends as far as I can see in both directions. Behind us, shadow creeps ever closer, its soft edge staying ahead of the pursuing legion. I watch as more flames suddenly disappear.
I throw A my roguish grin. “Nice trick.”
“I don’t do tricks. I bring the night. Sometimes the night brings death.”
“So all this darkness is ’cause of you?”
“Of course. How else do you think you’re able to continue eluding the soldiers? Even the straightest path is a maze in the dark.”
I give a sigh of relief. “So, they’re gone?”
“No, just lost. Other paths may present themselves.”
My confusion only grows. I don’t know why I’m here, don’t know how I can fight an army, don’t know why a goddess would need me to help save her sister.
My head hurts, my eyelids are heavy.
“We should keep moving,” A says, “no one is safe until I reach my sister.”
“True!” Another voice booms from somewhere above us.
Looking up I see someone standing on a stone balcony. Not a man. A beast in gleaming white plate mail, a boulder in steel, a giant. His eyes are onyx set in a fat face, swollen over the neck of his armor like too much wax sloughing off a candle. Only a few wisps of greasy white hair dance on his head. As I take in these details I realize, for the first time, I’m afraid.
“Who are you?” I ask, trying to sound calm.
The man twists, becoming taller, thinner. His face caves in, a skin-wrapped skull with cold voids boring into me. His armor melts into a straitjacket, restraining his arms. It wraps around his legs, encasing him like a deranged mummy, or a snake of canvas, buckles, and chains.
“Don’t you recognize me?” He pauses and winds his way closer, bending so our faces are level. “This is no train depot. It’s a mad house, a panic room, a death trap, a ghost town. I would know.” He smiles and his face begins to melt and stars appear in his eyes. “I built it myself.”
I try to back away, but the hallway has shrunk to the size of a small room, and A is nowhere to be seen.
“You’re here because you break the mold. You’re a destroyer, a bringer of chaos. A goddess? You don’t need a goddess. A gun? You don’t need a gun. You have magic, the real deal, burning you up inside. They don’t want that. They want you to be me, a zombie, a corpse. But you’re a cowboy, Wheeler. Heart of gold. Yippie yi yo kai ay and all that. Give ’em hell.”
His jaw unhinges, and so does my mind. He closes the distance, and the white walls of the room disappear into the gloom of his eyes as he swallows me whole.
“What are you standing there for?” It’s A, and I’m back in the hallway.
“Sorry,” I say. “Having a moment.”
A shrugs. “Let’s go.”
Before we take a step, I place my hand on her shoulder, spinning her toward me. I need some answers.
“Who was the man I saw die?”
“He was the last one I found. I thought he could help, but we didn’t make it very far. He kept asking questions, delaying us. After a while he got bold. Stupid. He ran into the night. Tried to fight off the soldiers. He got lost and was captured.”
“You just left him?”
“He was never going to get out alive, anyway.”
The cold indifference in her voice sends a shiver up my spine. “You said he was the last one. What’s that mean?”
“He had a gift. Like you. I can control one thing, the night, and it’s more than you’ll ever be able to do. But you’ve got the fire. You can see things, feel things nobody else can. Stars. You can open doors, even if they aren’t there.”
As if on cue, the doors in the hallway disappear, leaving only the lattice at the end of the hall. Behind the walls we hear the sound of whirring machinery. Grinding gears, the percussion of pistons, a burning sound, an inferno in a colossal steam engine. As we approach the grape vines, the noise stops completely, and we are left with only the sound of our breathing.
One hand on the lattice and the walls explode, pouring out soldiers and jets of smoldering ash. A and I begin climbing away from the soldiers. For the first time I take a moment to look up. The ceiling is the skull of the giant, and we are ascending toward the mighty jaw of this decaying beast. Beneath our hands the grapes are crushed; the heady scent of strong wine assaults us as the blood red fluid drips onto our attackers below.
A is panting. “We have to get to the roof.”
“Sure,” I agree. “I didn’t know immortals could get tired.”
She swings an arm at me, nearly knocking me off the wall. “I am not tired, cowboy. I’m scared. You need to rescue me now.”
Below, I can hear the soldiers as they draw closer. “Get him! Don’t let him escape!”
Truth hits me and I scream at A. “They can’t see you!”
She smiles. She smiles and says, “Of course they can’t. I’m asleep on the roof, but I’m also with you. You’ve got to wake me up. Come on, cowboy, come give me a kiss.”
I leap the last distance up the lattice, but there is nowhere to go. Trapped between solid bone and flowing wine, I break.
I put on a black hat, and boots made from the alligator I woke up on. What good is magic if you don’t look wicked? The glint of my Sheriff’s pin is the final touch. Taking aim with my fingers like a five-year-old I shoot a second mouth in the giant’s face and crawl in.
Without seeds to grow his hate, without giants to grind people into ghosts, General Slaughter rode out of town in his pale, 350 horse ’68 Charger. The gasoline was full of lead, like his feet, and when he ran out, the free people of Orion Valley threw him beneath their wheels until he was generally slaughtered, then fed him piecemeal to their skyscrapers.
They sang hymns with jaw harps and banjos and knew that somewhere, magic would rise again.
This is the roof. A field of black tar stretches to a forest of tall pines and glowing flowers. Above me is the night sky, a shifting expanse of blue and darker blue. It looks like A’s face.
“Find me in the clearing,” says A, though I can no longer see her.
So far the soldiers haven’t followed me to this place. I ask questions as I walk.
“So, what do I call you?”
“Oh, Wheeler, you can call me anything you like. Do you like Aziza? It was my name once. Sometimes it still is. It’s got an edge, like the night.”
“What are you?”
“Crazy. Wild. Rabid.” I can hear the wicked smile in her voice. “I’m a goddess. How else do you think I found you?”
I honestly don’t know. “Why did you really bring me here?”
My last question hangs unanswered as we enter the clearing. It is breathtaking. Sleeping in the center, on the back of a skinless alligator, is Alula. Aziza. A. It doesn’t matter. Her skin is milk, her lips apple slices. She wears only a veil of stars. Her body is covered with animals. Rabbits nuzzle her. A swan rests its long neck across her chest, inches away from her clenched fists full of arrows. Mice nest lazily in her auburn hair.
“You haven’t told me why I’m here.”
An earthy whisper in my ear, “Night has come and brings the stars. The forest awakes.”
I bend and press my lips to hers, which taste of raspberries. Alula opens her eyes. They are peacock feathers and porcupine quills. The moment shatters as the soldiers burst into the clearing. Arrows fly.
My heart erupts in my chest as tip, shaft, and fletching pass straight through me. I spin with the world, and see the bodies of our enemies collapse. My only consolation is knowing the bait always dies quickly.
A crow caws. Above me I see a wolf. It licks golden blood from my hand.
Somewhere in the inky sky, I hear A laugh. “Because I needed you, cowboy.”
Wasn’t so bad. The ground was warm, the tall blades of foxglove were cool. Wheeler lay for days in the high-noon sun, distant whispers playing in the grass. Gradually, the whispers resolved themselves like the cadence at the end of a church song. He heard his mother and father, heard his brothers and sisters, heard the echo of the dinner bell. The lingering smell of gasoline slowly blew away, and the air was filled with home—chicken and cornbread, fresh cream, sawdust.
Standing, Wheeler brushed himself off, adjusted his hat, and rode toward the hymn of the horizon.
Nolan Liebert hails from the Black Hills where he lives with his wife and children. His proximity to the Sanford Underground Research Facility feeds his obsession with dark matter, as his farmboy roots fed his obsession with herbs and alchemy. His literary experiments appear or are forthcoming in An Alphabet of Embers, Liminality, and elsewhere. You can find him editing Pidgeonholes or on Twitter @nliebert.