From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories, an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams

Fiction

Crossroads

John came to the crossroads at just shy of noon, where a man dressed all in black stared up at another man hanging from a gallows-tree. No, not hanging; he was being hung, the loop still slack around his neck, his body dangling in mid-air. That, John thought, his pack heavy on his shoulder and his hat pulled low, was not something a wise man would get involved in. And yet, he could not resist asking, “What did he do?”

The man in black turned around and glared at John. “He asked too many impertinent questions.”

The man with the rope around his neck laughed at that, a rueful, amused sound, and John decided he liked the dead man.

“You might want to move on,” the man in black continued in a voice that wasn’t a suggestion. “This is a bad place to be for a lone traveler.”

“Looks like he might agree,” John said, but slung his pack off his shoulder, resting it on the ground, and looked up at the hanging man. “You okay with this?”

“It’s not my first choice for nuncheon,” the man admitted, but did not try to explain or ask for help.

John stepped forward and around, circling the man in black and coming up alongside the gallows-tree, carefully out of reach of the hanging man’s potential to kick. You met a stranger out here, miles from the nearest town or farm, it paid to suss him out. They were both long, lean men, their boots spit-shone where John’s were dusty and worn, but he did not mistake either for city-folk. The man in black still stared at the hanging man, who seemed to be watching something far over the horizon, unconcerned by his predicament.

John studied them both, casually, the way a catamount watches a man. No, not city-folk, nor farm-folk, either. Didn’t take a college boy to figure it out. Crossroads were bad places. Magicians and devils were bad news. Dusk and dawn and noon overhead were bad times. Every child knew that.

John rocked back on his heels, considering. Magician or devil, this wasn’t his place, this wasn’t his business. It wasn’t his responsibility. He should just move on, and not get involved. Let them do what they would do, and be done.

A prickling against his chest reminded him it wasn’t all that simple, for him. He slipped the pack down from his shoulder, feeling the smooth leather, the shape of his belongings below. He breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth. The air was warm already, and filled with the dust of the road.

Sunrise and sunset, and high noon overhead. The crossroads. Places and times of transit, of coming upon and slipping away. Power ebbed and flowed and could be taken from another, if you knew how.

John knew what he was about, as another might not. He had sworn an oath.

These two were no business of his, by the letter of that oath. The spirit, though….

Every step of the road was a choice.

“Some things, there’s no real choice at all,” he said softly, and slid his hand under the flap of the pack, his fingers touching cool metal.

“Stay out of this, boy,” the man in black said, misinterpreting his action.

John hadn’t been a boy in decades. The slip made the edge of his mouth curl slightly, even as he tilted his head to look at the man in black from under the brim of his hat. Magician or devil, it made no difference to John. Immortals were always trouble. Two immortals meant twice as much trouble.

The silver flask under his fingers seemed to almost shiver, and John drew it out slowly, not allowing his actions to be misinterpreted. “Was just planning to drink to your health,” he said to the hanging man, raising the flask in salute. “Might I know your name afore you aren’t using it no more?”

“Benjamin,” the hanging man said. “Benjamin West.”

Magician, then. Magicians took their names from one of the four weatherly winds. Devils took their names from their masters.

“Your memory, master Benjamin West,” John said, and took a swig. Cool, fresh water washed down his throat. Others might think he carried rotgut or whiskey; water was safer. Water couldn’t be magicked. Silver and water, and the dead man’s name; that should cover all possibilities….

“So what question did he ask?” Folly, to query a magician, but every detail could help.

The man in black had turned back to the hanging man, his hands raised as though to cast the final spell. John’s question arrested the movement, although the man’s back and shoulders did not betray any emotion.

“Why do you care?”

John shrugged, letting the silver flask hang from his hand, casually. “Naturally curious?”

“I wanted to know where he got that lovely walking stick.” The hanging man’s voice was filled with laughter. Laughing at himself, laughing at John. He knew. He knew what John intended to do.

John didn’t look around for a stick, but kept his gaze on the man in black. He wasn’t so easily caught, him: The dead man was as dangerous as the man in black, and only a fool lost sight of that. “Is that so?”

“What do you think?” The man in black’s voice was gritty and hard now, and although he lowered his arms, he didn’t turn around.

“Must have been a hell of a question you didn’t want to answer.” John took another swig from the flask, his body loose and gangly, just passin’ time, three strangers on the road. He could play the fool, when it suited him.

Casually, he made a tip of the flask, here, and a step and a step and a third step away, then another tip of the flask. Bare splutters in the dust, a dark splatter left behind. Step and a step and a step, all the way around the gallows-tree, all the way around the man in black and the hanging man: locking all three within. Locking any innocents out.

Damn magicians never gave a thought to the innocent.

“If you’re to kill him, don’t let my bein’ here pause you,” John said conversationally as he walked, taking another sip when he was done. “I’ve no mule in this pull.”

A hesitation in the breath of the world. John’s fingers sweated against the cool silver, his pack abandoned outside the circle, the leather shape casting a low shadow on the dirt. The dead man’s gaze sharpened like he saw something coming over that horizon, and the man in black growled. John felt the sharp knife of risk scratch against his spine, but merely let his fingers rest on the flask, and studied the sun overhead.

“Mighty warm out, once sun hits directly. Be a mercy to finish him off by then. Or not, if’n that’s what you’re aiming for.”

The flask was near-empty now, and it shimmered again under his hand, like a warning. Sun directly overhead. The man in black had no choice but to choose, and now, or the dead man’s power died with him.

John’s heart beat too hard, his chest tight until he felt the first whisper of enchantment like the roll of thunder in the distance, barely recognizable until it swept down over the plains and knocked you out of the saddle or off your feet.

The dead man didn’t move, not resigned so much as simply waiting. They had forgotten John now, dismissed him in the greater business of their battle.

Taking advantage of their concentration, he tilted the silver flask in the four directions, making an offering of spirit if not flesh, and then tilted it in towards the center of his water-bound circle, to where the two magicians posed, gathering their will.

After that first warning rumble, the wind was still, the air silent, the sun too hot for a spring afternoon. A normal man, a man set about his own business, would think it odd; suspect a storm rising, or a predator in the woods. He would not be wrong. John let his breath exhale, and waited.

The sun shifted, barely a twitch in the shadows, and the man in black set himself hard against the ground and raised his arms until his hands cupped the sun, settling into position directly above.

“Hang or fly,” the hanging man said, lifting his hands to the mid of his chest, palms pressed together, fingers likewise pointing toward the sky.

Magician duels were iffy things. To chance upon one was rare and risky, and it could easily all go wrong. John moved his arm slow, taking that last drink of water. Silver and fresh water, and a dead man’s name. If he was wrong….

Dying at the crossroads meant being trapped there, forever.

When it happened, it happened all at once.

The man in black did not move but his shadow did, the first direct shaft of sunlight dancing it forward, reaching up and yanking the rope tight. The hanging man jerked, legs kicking high and arms falling low, and the shadow swarmed but John moved faster, the water in his mouth spitting high and clear.

Shadow and water spluttered and sparked like an old campfire, and the man in black swore but did not turn. A battle of nerves, now, as the hanging man danced and stilled, water dripping down shadow, shadow sizzling-dry water, and the dead man’s power hanging between them.

John had no sweat, no moisture for his breath, everything he had gone to tie him into the battle raging around him. The silver flask fell to the ground and water spilled into the dirt, his throat cracking and swelling like the fever had taken him, but he did not relent.

Magicians named themselves for one of the four winds, drifting across the surface of the Earth, unstoppable, mostly unseen. And they killed each other; only each other, never anyone else, and so nobody cared, because one less magician in the world did nobody any harm. But John knew better. One magician dead meant one less magician, not one less bit of magic.

Crossroad rules: Killer had claim, killer took the power, and made it his own. Master Benjamin West had been caught and killed fair by his rules.

But their rules didn’t allow for someone like John, with clean water and pure silver, and the strength of his oath to drive him on.

The man in black whispered one single word, sweet and ragged, too strange for John to hear, but it hit the air like a rock into water. The rope turned bronze, then black under the direct noon light, and the hanging man’s skin seemed to ripple, like wheat under wind, and tightened around his bones.

“Give over,” the man in black ordered. “Fair caught, fair bound, under the midday sun. Give over. It is mine.”

“Take it,” the dead man said, but meant “if you can.”

Thunder cracked. The air smelt burnt, the dry dust at their feet swirling faintly. Magic filled the air, an ugly black-blue hiss. John felt his skin crawl, sweat now running under his clothing like a summer’s blast, but he held steady, bending to pick up the silver flask, holding it with its mouth angled out and up toward the two magicians. The water he had dripped into the soil sizzled, and the magic curled back around, turning like eddies in a stream, like souls in a devil’s hand.

“I will,” the man in black said, and clenched his fingers together. The dead man’s skin burst into flames, the rope squeezing tight, and his heels kicked up, drumming at the air. The man in black sucked in his breath, and the magic, thick and strong, streamed toward him.

Magic went to the strongest, the quickest, the most determined to win. But that did not mean it always went to the magician.

“Benjamin West,” John whispered. The flask shimmered, the flask filling; clear water resisting the magic’s pull, holding it still and safe.

The man in black, cheated, snarled in rage, and the dead man danced at the end of his rope; John screwed the cap on tight. A dead man’s name bound the magic he once held while breath still warmed his lungs, if not one beat longer. More fool them, if they did not guard such knowledge from men such as him.

The man in black turned, clenching his hands in anger, even as afternoon light filled the spaces and painted the hanging man’s shadow with long strokes on the ground behind him.

“Damn you.”

“No doubt,” John said, not meeting the magician’s eyes.

“You cannot use it,” the man in black said, his voice gritty and soft, the voice of a man who already knows more than he can exploit, and yet always wants more. “You have not the skill.”

“It went to the man quick enough to catch it,” John replied, feeling the menace in the man’s voice. He slipped a hand under his coat, and let the silver star pinned beneath shine. “Usin’ it’s not my intention.”

Magicians were none of his business, but he was likewise none of theirs—unless the man in black chose to make it so. If he did….

Then all hell might break loose, for certain.

They stared at each other, deadly and calm, and then John turned, stepping across the circle to where his pack waited. Silver and pure water, and sigil-cut rounds for his gun hung low and ready at his hip. A wise man was prepared. A smart man was ready. A lawman in these territories needed to be both, and more.

He slid the flask back under the flap, closing the lacing tight. “What’s done is done, and done square and fair.” It was not a threat, merely an observation of fact. When he turned around again, the man in black was gone.

John tilted his head back, the brim of his hat still shading his eyes. The sun would be past-direct in a matter of moments. The crossroads was safe for travelers; he could move on.

“A good day, sirs,” he said to the afternoon air, for it never harmed a man to be polite, and walked out of the crossroads, the hanging man slack and sunlit behind him.

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Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne GilmanLaura Anne Gilman is the author of the Cosa Nostradamus novels, most recently Pack of Lies, and the award-nominated Vineart War trilogy (Flesh and Fire and Weight of Stone), which concludes in October 2011 with The Shattered Vine. Her linked-story collection, Dragon Virus, will be a limited edition hardcover from Fairwood Press in June 2011.

A member of the on-line writers’ consortium BookVew Café, she writes the “Practical Meerkat” advice column for writers on their blog every Friday. Learn more at www.lauraanegilman.net or follow her on Twitter: @LAGilman.