Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon Wheels of Fire
Mercedes Lackey & Mark Shepherd When the Bough Breaks
Mercedes Lackey & Holly Lisle Chrome Circle
Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon Urban Fantasies Knight of Ghosts and Shadows
Mercedes Lackey & Ellen Guon Summoned to Tourney
Mercedes Lackey & Ellen Guon Bedlam Boyz
Ellen Guon Also by Mercedes Lackey From Baen Books
Bardic Voices: The Robin & the Kestrel
Bardic Choices: A Cast of Corbies
(with Josepha Sherman) Fortress of Frost & Fire: A Bard’s Tale Novel
(with Ru Emerson) Prison of Souls: A Bard’s Tale Novel
(with Mark Shepherd) The Ship Who Searched
(with Anne McCaffrey) Wing Commander: Freedom Flight
(with Ellen Guon) If I Pay Thee Not in Gold
(with Piers Anthony)
Born to Run
A dark red Mustang perched beside the ribbon of highway, alone but for the young man resting against its door. It was an unusual sight for such a place, here where the shallow water of the wetlands reflected moonlight, and endless silvered marsh grasses whispered in the breeze. The cicadas didn’t care if the man was there, nor did the night-birds, nor the foxes and raccoons—they were used to the comings-and-goings of men in their loud machines, and would avoid him. There would seem to be no reason for him to be stopped here—no smoke or steam poured from beneath the nostrilled hood, no line of shredded rubber marked a newly departed tire. A highway patrol officer would have been very interested—if there had been one anywhere within twenty miles. And that, too, was unusual; this close to Savannah, there should be police cruising this stretch of road.
“One of these nights,” griped Tannim to no one in particular, “I’ll have a normal drive, with nothing chasing me, pestering me, shooting at me . . . no breakdowns, no detours, no country-western music, no problems. Peace, quiet, and the road. No place to go, no one to save, no butts to cover except my own.”
Tannim pulled himself up onto his old Mach 1, faded black jeans shushing over the hood. Its cooling engine tick-tick-ticked, radiator gurgling softly as it relaxed from its work, the warm old American sheet metal satin-smooth and familiar. He ran a hand through his long brown hair, catching fingers in his uncountable ratty knots of curls, and snorted in cynical amusement. Casting his eyes skyward, scratching at his scalp, he said wistfully, “Man. They keep telling me, ‘Y’knew the job was dangerous when ya took it.’ Thanks for giving me the job description after I’ve signed the contract, guys.”
The cicadas answered him by droning on, unimpressed.
The road was deserted, the air clear, the bright country sky shining off of the curved fenders. Tiny pinpoints of light twisted into sweeping contours only to be swallowed up in the flat black intakes of the hood.
The beauty and peace of the evening softened his mood. No finer job in this world, though. When it works out—wish Kestrel were here to help. He’s better at this than me. Tannim thought about his old friend from high school back in Jenks, Oklahoma, with more than a twinge of regret—regret for Derek’s curious blend of talents, compassion, and guts. Derek Ray Kestrel was gifted not only with a sexy name but with a knack for magic that just wouldn’t quit. Deke spent his time with his cars and guitars, now, and didn’t do road work anymore. Guess he didn’t have the stomach for it. It can get gross enough to freak a coroner. Damned if he didn’t have more than just talent, though.
He gave up on his hair and adjusted his jacket, a third-hand Battlestar Galactica fatigue he traded a Plymouth carburetor kit for. Both he and the other kid thought they’d gotten the better deal. They were both right. Tannim didn’t know from carbs then, and had let go of a rare five-hundred-dollar sixpack. Deke had sure given him a hard time about that! The other kid had no idea how hard the battle-jackets were to get. Live and learn. He dug around in one of the many pockets he’d sewn inside the jacket, and pulled out a cherry pop, whistling along with the Midnight Oil tape on the Mach 1’s stereo, occasionally falling into key.
Decent night for a job, though. Not raining like last time, and no lightning to dodge, either. Tannim was a young man, but he was not inclined to die that way, despite the reckless pace he kept up. Better to run toward something than away, he’d always thought, but the scars and aches all over his wiry body testified that even a fiery young mage can be harmed by too much running. Or perhaps, not running hard enough . . . He had been self-trained up to age twenty, and then someone from elsewhen had taken him in and really shown him the ropes of high magic. Their friendship had built before their student/teacher relationship really began, Chinthliss admiring the boy’s brazen style, wicked humor, and dedication to the elusive and deadly energy of his world’s magic. That was, in fact, the reason Chinthliss had taken Tannim on in the first place; it had not escaped the young mage that he and his mentor were a great deal alike in many ways. There were a lot of words to describe the two of them, the best of which were creative, crafty, adventurous, virtuous—well, maybe not virtuous—but their many critics had other choice adjectives, none flattering. Tannim had a way of taking the simplest lesson and turning it around to befuddle his “master,” who in turn would trounce the boy with the next one, and giggle about it for a week. It was Chinthliss who had given Tannim his name—it meant “Son of Dragons.” It fit, especially since he thought of Tannim as he would his own offspring.
Eventually, the lessons simply became jam sessions of experimenting, and Tannim began teaching Chinthliss a thing or two. What was about to occur on this lonely stretch of road was something he’d come up with himself years ago—something that had scared the scat out of Chinthliss. It was the kind of “job” he had done a couple of times with Deke Kestrel in tow. He unwrapped the cherry pop and began chewing on it absent-mindedly, humming along with the tunes. He crumpled the wrapper and slipped it into a pocket, and his humming became a chant through clenched teeth.
He pulled his shoulders back and stretched, neck and back popping from road fatigue, and let in the rush of energy that heralded a major spell. Around him, the cicadas rose in pitch, to harmonize with Peter Garrett and the young man’s chanting. Harmonizing with Garrett was no small feat, and he noted it as a good omen. He kept his arms raised toward the crescent moon overhead, and his eyes perceived a subtle change in the starlight as he entered his familiar trance.
His body went rigid, as if rigor mortis had suddenly frozen him in place.
To say that Tannim died then would be misleading—although he was not precisely alive anymore either. The trance he entered was protected well, and he was being monitored by otherworldly allies, but the young mage’s soul was now connected to his body by the thinnest of threads—much more tenuous than anything most mages ever depended on during out-of-body work. Most of them would have been terrified at the notion of trusting their lives to so fragile a bond. But most mages weren’t Tannim. He had been trusting his life and more to far more fragile bonds than this for a long time now.
As he stabilized his spirit-form, there was the sensation of everything being well-lit and dark at once, and of infinite visibility—the dizzying effect of mage-sight in the now-and-then hereafter.
He “felt” completely normal, right down to the candy tucked in his cheek and the feel of the Mach 1 beneath him. He tapped his worn black high-tops against the chrome, focusing his thoughts and getting comfortable, teeth gnawing on the pop’s soggy stem as he drew energy up from the earth through the frame of the Mach 1, tempering it through the sheet metal, grounding the wild-magic resonances into the engine block, radiating the excess through the window glass.
Good so far; now to find him.
With that, he pulled his spirit away from his body, his shadow-image standing upright, stretching, and adjusting its jacket while his body remained seated on the hood, connected to it by a shimmering field of gossamer threads, the only traces of the spell visible to the trained eye. He stepped away from his anchor, and crossed the gravel shoulder.
A figure wavered and coalesced before him, a fortyish man in a plaid workshirt and chinos, standing with his hands in his pockets, looking away from the road. There was a half-smoked cigarette hanging slackly from his lips. He was an ordinary man, the kind you’d see at any truckstop, any feed store in the southern belt, lines etched into his face by hard work, bright sun, and pain endured. The only thing that set him apart now was that he was edged by a soft yellowish glow, which seemed to fill in every shadow and crease in that face, and followed him as he stepped towards Tannim.
His brows furrowed, as if trying to remember something. He took a drag off the cigarette. It glowed, but did not burn down. Smoke curled up around his face, a bright blue and violet. “Haven’t seen you here before,” the man said. “Hiya. Canfield, Ross Canfield. . . .” The man stepped forward, reflexively offered a hand. Tannim bit his lip, stepped forward again, and grasped his hand. Well, I’ve got him. Oh God, I thought this was going to be easier. He doesn’t know.
“Hello, Ross,”he said. “I’m Tannim.”
Ross nodded; he seemed distracted, as if he wasn’t entirely focusing on the moment at hand. “Tannim? Good ta meetcha. That a first name or a last name?”
“Only name,” Tannim replied cautiously. “Just Tannim. How are you? I mean, you look a little stressed, Ross; are you all right? How do you feel . . . ?”
If Canfield was surprised about this atypical show of concern from a stranger, he didn’t show it. “Been better. Strange night.” Ross took a pull off of his cigarette. Its tip glowed again, but still didn’t shorten. Its smoke wisped up violet and vanished above his head, and he blew smoke from his nostrils in a wash of reddish-purple.
“Mmm. As strange as usual.” Tannim smiled inwardly at the oxymoron. “Where you from, Ross?”
Canfield focused a little more on him as the question caught his attention. “Louisiana. Metairie. You?”
Tannim moved a little farther away, unobtrusively testing the energies coming from Canfield. “Tulsa.”
Now Canfield’s attention was entirely focused on the young mage. “Why you ask?”
“Just curious; I wondered if you were local.” It was time to change the subject “You know, Ross, you seem like a friendly fella, laid back, able to handle ’bout anything. Got something kinda serious to talk to you about.”
“Uh huh.” Ross Canfield set his jaw, and the glow around him turned a rich orange. Not a good sign. Red would be worse, much worse, but orange was not a good sign.
“Ah, look, Ross, I have some bad news for you, so don’t get mad at me. . . .” They always blame the messenger don’t they?
“Bad news?” Another drag on the cigarette, which now glowed a fierce red—echoing the glow of energy swirling around him. “My wife just left me, kid, and you say you’ve got bad news?”
Abruptly, Tannim was no longer the focus of Canfield’s anger. “That sonuvabitch Marty Lear tore the hell outta my lawn with her in that goddamn Jap pickup of his and—and—took her away—”
So; there was the reason for it all. Uh oh. Fast work, boy, you hit it right the first time.
Tannim’s eyes narrowed, and he took the mangled pop stick out of his mouth. Power fluctuated around them, silent and subtle, but there. Tannim noted their patterns, setting up buffer fields with a mental call. He saw a fan of lines spread around them both, channels waiting to be filled if needed.
“What did you do?”
Canfield did not take offense at what should have been considered a very personal question. “Went after ’em. We was fightin’ and she’d already called the bastard; he showed up and she jumped in. Caught up to ’em. Have this old ’Cuda, hot as hell . . .”
Tannim was the focus of Canfield’s attention again; he felt the hot glare of Ross’s stare. “What?” Canfield asked.