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Part 6

“Dan, are you nuts?” Christine demanded sharply. “Hold still,” she hissed, shoving at the Gellboar with her gun. “Dan, you can’t do that.”

“I have to,” he quavered, shoulders heaving as if he held back tears. “This is my daughter we’re talking about. She’ll die if I don’t.”

“You’re not thinking clearly. Look, Dan, we’ve captured the creature who’s responsible for her illness. All we have to do is call the police —”

“Now you’re crazy,” he retorted with shrill desperation. “Look at me!”

That gave her pause, as if she had somehow forgotten he was wearing pantyhose and a red satin dress.

Casually, as if she believed herself already triumphant, the Gellboar turned to remind Christine, “That would be most unwise. I, too, have forbidden knowledge. If I am accused, there is no reason I should not retaliate.”

“You won’t if you’re dead,” she barked, but even Dan could tell she didn’t mean it. And he didn’t have time to waste arguing.

“Look, I appreciate your help, but you’ve got to get out of the way.” Christine frowned dauntingly. “I’ll stand the risk, if that’s what it takes to save my daughter. It’s my fault she’s so sick. I have to make it right.”

“That’s a bunch of bull! You’re…”

“I know what I’m doing,” he insisted, hoping she would pick up the subtle message.

A low wail interrupted them. Dan turned to see Grace huddled against the head of her bed, as far from the tense tableau as she could get. Her eyes were dazed with interrupted sleep, the thin face striped with vertical tracks of tears. A soft doll was crushed against her chest.

A single step and Dan knelt beside the bed. “Grace, honey, it’s me. It’s Daddy. I’m here.”

He tried to take her in his arms, but she struggled and shrieked, panting with exertion her gaunt frame was not prepared to sustain. Her eyes remained fixed on the Gellboar. Seeing Daddy wear a dress and the strange woman with the gun didn’t frighten her, but the monstrous presence was just too much.

“It’s okay. You’re okay,” he murmured urgently, shifting his body to shield her from the sight. All that got him was a clout from a flailing arm. He rocked back momentarily, rubbing his chin, and reluctantly raised his wand. The sleep spell washed over her, and she fell back with a choked gasp. As her frantic pants gave way to even, deep breathing, Dan eased his daughter down gently.

“I’m sorry, darling,” he murmured.

“Allow me,” said a cold, grainy voice.

Dan tensed as the Gellboar leaned past him, but she merely touched Grace’s temple with a forefinger. The hand was humanlike, except there weren’t enough fingers and a cluster of tentacles curled purposefully against the wrist. Dan felt a flare of psais which quickly faded. He elbowed his enemy back and covered his daughter gently.

There was no need to fake a tremor in his voice as he stood. “Let’s get this over with,” he announced to no one in particular.

“Dan,” Christine started again.

“Shut up.”

He pushed past her and her arguments. The Gellboar’s heavy tread and Christine’s lighter steps followed him into the kitchen. The parchment was still in his purse on the sofa. He had to sign it before the creature noticed his revisions. Dan yanked the document out and whirled, slapping it onto the kitchen counter. Quickly he applied the marker to the stiff sheet.

A moment later he felt a strong tingling, as if he had lost circulation all over his body. Dizzy, he leaned on the counter. The sensation localized as a throbbing ache on the back of his left hand. Dan felt a momentary nausea as he realized what he’d done. The Gellboar was at his elbow again, and he shoved the page at her.

“There,” he said hoarsely. “Now get out.”

The creature took the sheet with an insouciance that made his blood boil. Her inhuman eyes gleamed with… what? Satisfaction? Contempt? Dan saw no mercy, at any rate. She carefully folded the parchment and slid it into the trench coat’s inside vest pocket. The door swung open and then shut. Just like that, she was gone.

Dan leaned on the counter for a moment longer, staring at the door. He absently rubbed the back of his hand, where the pain had died to a nagging itch. Under his fingers, he now saw, was a written mark, one of the runes on the  alien creature’s sheet.  The blunt lines were the vivid color of a new scab.

Beside him, Christine stood half-dressed, with her arms folded and the pistol lying over the crook of her elbow. She gave him a long, hard stare.

“What are you smiling about?”

* * *

While Christine was in the living room, finishing her change of clothes, Dan retreated to his bedroom to do the same. Tired as he was, he longed to wear his own pants, to put on a man’s shirt with the buttons on the right side. It was even more of a relief to get out of the lingerie. The padding, which created the illusion of a female form, was hot and sticky with sweat. The wig caught painfully in his natural hair as he yanked it off.

Dan wadded up the whole outfit and stuffed it into a plastic shopping bag. This he shoved on the upper shelf in his closet as far back as it would go. But he still felt the weight of cosmetics on his skin, clinging like the static in the dress. He hurried into the bathroom, and was jarred by his image in the mirror.

Even with his natural hair, a dark crew cut, he might have been looking at Marilyn. He hadn’t realized how much he patterned his stage persona on her, but it was true. He wore her clothes, did his makeup and wig just like her. It was as if, somehow, he was trying to keep Marilyn alive.

Dan could no longer meet his own gaze in the mirror. He looked instead to the rust-stained bowl of his sink and twisted the knob to turn on the water. In the coldest possible spray, he scrubbed until he felt breathless. With a towel pressed to his face, he slumped down on the toilet seat.

Everything was off tonight, his whole life turned upside-down. It was as if the interior landscape of his grief and fear distorted the mundane world around him. The unpleasant realities he had become immured to were suddenly intolerable.

His head pounded and his eyes burned, but Dan did not cry. He would not cry. Grace needed him. He had to keep going for her sake. He had let Marilyn down, failed to protect her from the monster that sapped her vitality. He couldn’t stand it if he blew it again.

There was a shuffle outside the bathroom door, and a fast, hard tapping. “You okay in there?” Christine asked from the other side of the door.

“Suck it up, Dan,” he said to himself, and stood. Aloud, he answered, “Fine.”

“Then get out here.”

A narrow silver band sat on the counter above the sink, just where he left it when he went to work. He slipped the cold weight onto his finger. With the towel draped over his shoulders, Dan joined Christine in the kitchen. It felt strange to be bare-faced, wearing men’s clothes and his own hair. He could see her pale eyes roving, taking in the details of his altered appearance. As for Christine, she had completed her transformation from glittering performer into everyday citizen by putting on a pair of blue jeans and tucking in the tails of her shirt. Her pale hair was pulled into a long braid, neat and tight.

She must have gone through his cupboards, because a pair of plastic juice glasses sat on the rickety card table in the kitchen. Ice glinted within them. An elderly folding chair creaked as Dan sat down. Christine casually drew a flask from her hip pocket and poured an amber liquid into one of the cups.

“Want some?” she offered crisply.

“No thanks.” He pushed the glass away.

Since Marilyn died, Dan was no stranger to drink. But being a cross-dresser meant never losing self-control, so he also had a good sense for when not to drink. Besides, his stomach still felt sour. Across the table, pale eyes narrowed.

“So this is it,” Christine said in the same flat, unfriendly drawl she had used earlier.

“What is what?” he asked.

“This is it,” she repeated. “The monster wins. You take the life link, it eats you up and makes more monsters. Then you die. The end.”

Dan stared at his left hand, where the dark sigil branded him as the Gellboar’s meat. He covered the mark with his right hand.

“It’s not the end.”

“Then what?” she demanded.

Dan shut his lips firmly. From his bedroom window he had seen the red glare of a neon sign, a brewer’s logo of fire. The sign stood in the heart of an alien enclave called Styggold. It was only about ten blocks away, an easy walk for the Gellboar. Trains ran night and day from Styggold Station, so it was too late to find his enemy there. She could be anywhere by now, and the life link would operate no matter where she went.

But, Dan thought with dark satisfaction, the Gellboar had accepted the contract without seeing that he’d added a clause. That meant this link wasn’t limited just to psais. Dan could cast any spell he wanted through the link, and the Gellboar’s magical defenses would not protect it. He just needed time to think up a fitting punishment for all it had done. One curse might not be enough.

To be continued…


More coming on Tuesday. Meantime, I’m still running a subscription drive. Sign up for my newsletter and win a free E-book, The Weight of Their Souls. Just to go my Facebook page, AuthorDebyFredericks, and click the link on the left that says “Join my mailing list.” Easy, right?

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If you’re enjoying the story, please consider buying the e-book. Just $.99 on Amazon or Draft2Digital. Buy it now!

 


Part 5

When he relaxed his concentration the car had slowed, nearly idling as Christine crossed a huge divot in the pavement. A moment later, they were on his block. The apartment building was a plain, eight-story cracker-box built of bricks. Its windows were uniformly dark.

“Pull into the lot here,” he pointed to his right. “I’ll get the parking.”

“Fine with me.”

Dan dug in his purse for cash while Christine turned into the parking lot. He was out of the vehicle before she even parked. Trying not to break an ankle, he jogged over the potholes and shoved enough money into the pay box for a whole day.

His companion joined him as he hurried to the front of the building. A low brick wall surrounded it, with a narrow strip of lawn pinched between. There was a yard light and a security camera above the main entrance, so Dan made an effort to restrain himself and walk like a lady. Meanwhile, Christine loped along beside him with an easy stride. It annoyed him that the woman made no effort to appear feminine. He tapped his security code on the keypad beside the glass door. There was a loud buzz, and he pushed the door inward.

If the security system was new, it was the only thing about the building that claimed such a distinction. The carpet in the lobby was faded, the wallpaper peeling, and the air held a cloying tang of mildew. The elevator groaned as it descended in response to their call.
The ride up seemed even longer than the wait for the elevator. Finally, they reached the sixth floor. The air was a little fresher in this corridor because one of the windows was stuck half-open, revealing the curt lines of the fire escape beyond.

Keys jangled as Dan turned the deadbolt, and then the knob. With the speed of habit, he turned on the lights and dropped his purse and coat on a ratty sofa, which crowded most of the tiny living room. Christine strolled in and he shut the door behind her.

“Nice place,” she drawled with unmistakable irony.

Dan frowned. Without Marilyn’s income, he could hardly afford even this dump. “Wait here. I’m going to check on Grace.”

“Sure thing.” Christine smirked at his annoyance and dropped her gym bag on top of his coat.

To the left of the living room was the equally cramped kitchen, and a darkened hallway parallel to the living room. Dan bent to take off his shoes before crossing the linoleum, and carried them down the hall. Grace’s bedroom was straight ahead. He stealthily turned the knob and eased into the room on stocking feet. A night-light in the shape of a yellow plastic moon gave enough radiance for him to approach the bed.

The little girl lay on her back, face half-turned toward the wall. Both hands were clasped behind her head, fingers tangled in a spray of dark curls. Her eyelashes made two crescent moons in reverse, and her mouth was like a budding rose. But she lay so still that for a moment he thought she wasn’t breathing. An instinctive, parental panic squeezed his guts. Then Grace sighed deeply, and one sleepy hand rubbed at her nose. The tight knot of grief and worry inside him eased.

Even in the dim light, he could see how thin she was. The bones of her wrist stood out from her arm. In recent weeks, Grace had become so weak that it winded her just to walk to the kitchen for breakfast. Now, he knew why.

Despite his resolve, Dan felt his lips tremble with emotion as he bent to kiss his sleeping daughter. But a muffled sound behind him made him tense. He straightened and whirled to confront a nightmare.

“You!” he gasped.

The Gellboar was in the closet. There was no mistaking the misshapen bulk among the child’s dresses hanging in the shadowed recess. It stepped forward with deliberate menace, and the hangers chimed plaintively behind it.

Gray lips grinned above the black trench coat. “Welcome home, Mommy.”

Rage filled him. How dare this creature, this monster, invade his home and make fun of him after what it had done?

“You… I’ll kill you!” Dan dropped the women’s shoes he was holding and planted his feet. With a snap he lifted his wand, summoning his psais.

He moved too slowly. The Gellboar charged, tentacles lashing out. One pinned his right arm to his side and another wrenched at his left wrist, forcing his wand upward. As it came at him, its weight threw him backward. Windows rattled as he fetched up against the wall.

“Chris —” he started to call, but a cluster of tentacles wrapped about his throat, squeezing, tightening.

“Not so loud,” the alien creature grated with menacing mockery. “You’ll wake the child.”

Dan’s head was swimming, and he could feel its power trying to subdue his will. He threw his head back and squeezed his eyes shut, hardening his psais in self defense. His mouth worked, but he could not draw breath to speak.

The Gellboar rasped, “Be still, and you will live.”

Dan fought anyway. His arms were caught, but his legs were not, and he flailed them wildly, beating against the walls and the too-soft mass of his enemy’s body. The hollow thumps, like a wildly beating heart, sounded muffled, ineffectual. Would anyone hear him?

The creature slammed him into the wall again. His head snapped back against the hard surface. The resulting thud echoed hollowly in his skull, and yellow lights flashed before his eyes.

He was faintly aware of a rustling nearby as Grace moved in bed but he could not turn his head to see her. Mother-God, please don’t let her wake. A child shouldn’t have to see her own father murdered. Creeping numbness infiltrated his limbs. It was all he could do to draw breath through the fiery bands about his throat.

“Do as I say,” his enemy growled, “or you’ll regret it.”

The door slammed inward. Light from the hallway flooded the room, blinding him temporarily. Dan felt a jerk as the Gellboar started to move and stopped suddenly. When he blinked his vision clear, it was to greet a welcome sight: Christine Cooper stood behind the Gellboar.

“I think,” she was drawling with grim sweetness, “that you’d better do what I say. And I say, the man breathes.”

“But I also have something you want, do I not?” It answered with a cautious defiance. Nevertheless, Dan was able to draw in a full breath for the first time in what seemed an eternity.

Christine had changed clothes, trading her flashy stage costume for a flannel shirt which hung loose about her lanky frame. A part of him couldn’t help noting that her legs were bare beneath the garment’s hem. The more important detail was a gleam below the brim of the Gellboar’s fedora, something dark and metallic: a gun. He hadn’t thought Christine would carry one, with her command of psais, but he was extremely glad she did.

“You willing to bet on that?” Christine pushed with the nose of the gun in a demonstrative manner. “Let him down now, nice and slow, and keep your hands, or whatever they are, where I can see them.”

Dan’s head was clearing, and he had a moment to think. The Gellboar could have strangled him or broken his neck, but it hadn’t. It wanted to coerce, not kill. As he’d hoped, the creature’s hunger for psais could be its weakness.

The alien must have decided Christine wouldn’t miss at that range. Dan felt himself sliding down the wall, his feet touching the floor.

“Very nice,” Christine said. “Now step back toward me. Slowly! What in the hells are you doing here?”

It answered without fear or shame, “Merely minding my own business.”

Did that mean killing Grace, hiding the evidence of its crime? Or had it really come for Dan, knowing he would check up on his daughter as soon as he got home? It sure didn’t expect Christine to come home with him. He was more than lucky she had.

Christine bristled. “Business? Look, you. We’re not cattle for you to feed on.”

“I do not feed.” It was the same unfeeling statement. “The energy is essential, and I do as I must to have it.”

Dan stared, feeling slightly queasy. He hadn’t thought there could be a motive besides vampiric survival. Not that he cared what it might be.

Christine wouldn’t let it rest. “Essential for what? What’s so important?”

For the first time, the alien eyes showed a trace of some emotion, dark and intense. It kept its lips shut, until she shoved again with the gun.

The Gelboar turned slowly, stared at her with its flat black eyes. “I want what any female wants, and there are no males of my kind here.”

Christine’s lips curled in a disgusted sneer. “You did this to… What, clone yourself?”

“It takes great power to fertilize eggs without sperm,” the Gelboar replied.

Dan wasn’t sure what offended him more, that this alien creature was a woman, or that she had murdered his family to create more horrors like herself. It didn’t matter. He had an opportunity to get revenge, but he had to move fast.

“I’m fine,” Dan interrupted. “Let it go, Christine.”

The two of them eased back, and the tentacles’ grip slackened. He threw them off with disgust. To the creature, he said, “I’ll give you what you want.”

The Gellboar had the nerve to grin at him.

Dan swallowed his hatred, using every bit of acting skill he had picked up to appear a distraught, beaten father. “I’ll sign it. I’ll do whatever you want. Just take the life link off Grace.”

“I accept,” the Gellboar smirked.

To be continued…


More coming on Saturday. Meantime, I’m still running a subscription drive. Sign up for my newsletter and win a free E-book, The Weight of Their Souls. Just to go my Facebook page, AuthorDebyFredericks, and click the link on the left that says “Join my mailing list.” Easy, right?

Part 4

Carefully, Dan spread the parchment on his lap. His wand had been tucked beneath his right arm. He now held it with his left hand, point-down toward his lap, while his free hand steadied the document. On the road ahead of them, the broken line between the lanes came on in gleaming strobes.  Within that rhythm he released a slow breath. Psais, honed by years of furtive practice, responded at once.

With that sixth sense, Dan felt a ghost-sensation like the pricking of pine needles, smelled a phantom scent of turpentine or whiskey. Temptation tickled his mind, to probe more deeply and learn if Christine Cooper could be trusted. She had probed him first, and fair was fair.

But no — she was driving. She might crash the car if they got into a real fight.

Wan radiance outlined the shape of his wand, and the parchment’s pale face sprang up in the darkness. He blinked against the light, and for a moment it seemed the black runes were moving, swarming across the sheet like so many crawling things. He stared, and the markings became steady.

Still, Dan sensed a restlessness. The sheet was almost a living thing, though without true awareness. The writing must contain a spell, awaiting some action to bring it to life. As his signature would have done? Carefully, in case there was some hidden trap, Dan let his will sink deeper, sliding between the parchment and the lettering upon it.

The alien runes began to drift as if they floated on oil. Heavy lines narrowed and angular strokes grew rounded; words slithered across the page, changing sequence. Line by line, the translation flowed toward the bottom of the page. Dan’s ears rang slightly with the force of his concentration. Beside him, he felt a prickle: Christine watched, impatient.

“Almost done,” he muttered.

The swirling stilled and liquid lettering congealed into a familiar tongue. Well, not exactly. Technically it was English, but clumsily put together, and it was the kind of over-complicated verbiage intended to obscure meanings rather than clarify them. Dan held his wand steady and skimmed the document.

His eye caught on a particular word, vitalis. He read that passage carefully, and felt his heart grow cold.

“Well? What is it?”

In the quiet of the car, his companion’s harsh voice startled him. Numbly, he replied, “It’s to set up a life link.”

“Never heard of it.”

That surprised him, but the forced explanation was a welcome distraction. “It’s a spell to share psais between two people. I’ve seen it done before.”

Years before, when he first came to Chantain, there had been a couple he knew, Frankie and Tony. They were gay, but it hadn’t seemed to matter when they let him sleep on their sofa rent-free. Both men were cross-dressers, and they’d helped him a lot in developing his feminine persona. But Frankie got sick. It took too long for the cancer to be identified. After treatments failed, Tony insisted on establishing a life link, giving his own psais to prolong his lover’s life.

“I don’t get it. Why would you want to give someone psais?”

“It’s done as a life-saving measure.” Dan tried to speak crisply, as she did, to distance himself from his fears. “It doesn’t really do that. It just prolongs life until a cure can be found. If there is no cure, then it eventually drains the life from the donor. My friends who used it, they both died.”

Christine grimaced. “So it was shaking you down to sign your own death warrant?”

Dan winced from her callousness. “I guess so.” In the dim light, he could see her shake her head in disgust.

“It almost makes sense, doesn’t it? Take something that’s meant to preserve life, and twist it into an instrument of death. Seems totally his style.”

Dan swallowed heavily. “It gets worse.”

“How so?”

“I’ve seen that creature before. At least once, maybe twice.”

He heard a sharp catch of breath, and she demanded, “Did you sign something?”

“Yeah.”

“No,” she breathed. Then, “You said your daughter is sick and medicine isn’t working.”

There was a long silence as Dan tried to think how he could have missed something so obvious. The same mysterious wasting that killed Marilyn was what sickened Grace now. Yes, it had been years since he went to Tony’s funeral. Still, he should have recognized the symptoms.

“Didn’t you say that?” Christine insisted.

“Yeah. My wife, too.”

The more he thought about it, the more sure he was that he had given the Gellboar his autograph. People spoke carelessly of signing their lives away. Now Dan was haunted by the thought that he had done just that. Only not his own life.

His hand began to shake, and the light of his wand flickered out. There should have been a mark on her skin, the emblem of the spell’s potence. Grace had been in diapers when she fell ill, and even now he still helped her bathe. He should have seen the mark. But her hair was black, like his. If the mark was on her scalp, that might hide it. Even so, he should have known what it was. How could he not have known?

Christine interrupted again. “This is the Brambles, right? We should be getting close.”

“What?” Dan blinked. It took him a moment to orient himself. He had been watching the landmarks as they passed, and yet, he didn’t quite know where he was or how he got here.

The car sped southward, crossing the harbor on a low concrete span. Before them lay ranks of older buildings, wood and brick structures huddled like beggars in the shadows. Few lights showed there, and in long stretches the darkness was complete. Those were the areas never rebuilt after the Spellwar. Only the most impoverished humans lived there, or those like Dan, with something to hide. He hadn’t thought of himself as vulnerable, living in a blighted district. Perhaps he should have.

Hoarsely, he said, “Take the exit after this one. Turn right.”

Dan had been reluctant to let Christine see where he lived. Now, he couldn’t have cared less. All he wanted was to get home, to see Grace and reassure himself it wasn’t too late to save her.

“Left at the third street,” he said. “Straight ahead for two more blocks, then left again on Fafft Street.”

“Okay.”

When they left the highway, they entered a murky realm of pitted asphalt and few street lights. No other cars moved at this hour. Christine slowed to a careful pace, frustrating Dan’s desperate need to reach his daughter.

“So your wife’s dead? Well, that explains one thing,” she remarked as the car bounced between potholes.Her lack of pity annoyed him.

“What?”

“How a guy ended up with a kid. Usually it’s the woman who gets stuck.”

Insulted, he snapped, “I’m not stuck! She’s my daughter.”

“Fafft Street,” Christine interrupted again. “Left here, did you say?”

It was all he could do to answer. “Yeah.”

Turning the wheel, she said, “You know, it’s not your fault. That creature is preying on your family. You couldn’t know.”

The woman’s voice was bland, her expression dispassionate. Dan bristled at her insensitivity. Then he caught her quick glance, and realized she was just doing her best not to pass judgement, to respect his feelings and boundaries. Dan had no time for such niceties. The Gellboar had killed Marilyn, drained her psais, used her up. Now Grace was nearly spent, too. It was ready to move on to Dan, the last survivor.

Dan stiffened his shoulders, controlling a shudder. More important than blame was to remember what he knew about life links. He hadn’t cast Tony’s, but he’d watched the signing. It was so many years ago. Dan prided himself on his memory, that he could see a spell done and remake it himself. Now, when he most needed it, his memory failed him. He didn’t know how to break a life link.

There was one thing he could try, though. He concentrated, and his wand began to glow again. By its light he felt inside his purse and drew out a marker. Dan scribbled for a few moments, then capped the pen. He extended his psais again, willing the document back into its original language. Reversion was quick, and when he was finished his additions were indistinguishable from the rest of the page.

He let the light die, hoping he had done enough.

To be continued…


More coming on Wednesday. And when this link is active, you’ll be able to buy the whole book!

Meantime, I’m still running a subscription drive. Sign up for my newsletter and win a free E-book, The Weight of Their Souls. Just to go my Facebook page, AuthorDebyFredericks, and click the link on the left that says “Join my mailing list.” Easy, right?

Part 3

The alley behind the restaurant wasn’t quite as narrow as the hallway, but it was much darker and it reeked of garbage. Before they left the building, Dan looked carefully for any sign of the Gellboar. Seeing none, he led his unwanted companion along a narrow path between open dumpsters and other half-seen obstacles.

The sirens were close enough to make his ears throb as they turned from the alley onto a larger street. To their right, a loose crowd of club patrons and employees stood on the sidewalk in front of The Cauldron.

“Hang on.”

Christine jogged down to talk to the manager. Faintly, Dan heard her making excuses for leaving early. The manager, in return, promised there would be a better crowd on Friday.
Impatient, he put his back to them and walked the other way. As the drone of heavy engines drew closer, the sirens’ wail abruptly died out, but he could still see the flash of emergency lights as they walked off down the street.

The night air smelled stale and damp, as it often did at this time of year. Fog from the harbor mixed with fumes from industry to make a kind of ceiling over the city. The reflected glow of street lamps turned it a chalky white. You never saw the stars in Chantain.

“You have a car?” Christine abruptly asked.

“Are you kidding?” Dan snorted. He couldn’t afford fuel and parking, let alone car payments.

“Right. Sorry. Well, this is my rental.” With a jingle of keys, she gestured to a plain, dark sedan. “We’re done for tonight. I’ll give you a lift.”

She didn’t really ask, just as the Gellboar hadn’t, and there was no reason for Dan to trust her. But the door was open, and Christine stared at him impatiently. Well, it would be a long wait for the next bus. He got in on the passenger side, keeping his knees together demurely, just as a lady would do.

The doors shut firmly, but the car didn’t move. Instead, Christine asked, “So what’s your excuse?”

“My what?” Dan bit out.

He felt a slight tingle, as if the faintest breeze tickled the back of his neck. She was probing him. Instinctively he hardened his psais against the intrusion. “Cut it out.”

“Huh.” She shrugged, then challenged, “Come on, tell the truth. What’s so important that you had to go to these lengths?”

“I did tell the truth,” he insisted.

“Oh, yeah. Your sick daughter,” she whined in a sing-song voice. Before he could protest, she went on, “But why cast spells in the first place? I’d think the death penalty would be a deterrent.”

Years ago, his mother spoke almost the exact words. Time had not provided Dan with a better answer.

“I don’t know.”

In the dark cab, he saw the gleam as she rolled her eyes. “Try again, pal.”

Through gritted teeth, he went on. “It’s just, it’s something inside me that’s always been there. I tried to hold it in, but it wouldn’t go away. It had to come out.”

Christine said nothing. Dan swallowed, trying to hold in his anger. He hated this, being forced to explain himself to a virtual stranger and trying to win her sympathies so he could just be left alone.

“Do you think this is something I would choose?” he pressed bitterly. “Believe me, I tried to find another way. I took my pills. I played basketball and pretended to like it. But the pain never went away, because my psais never went away. I couldn’t be happy until I ignored what people think and trusted what’s inside me.”

“And your folks just let you do this?” she asked with dry doubt.

“Not exactly.”

Dan’s home province, Ettloes, was so conservative that it was practically Medieval. Lacking athletic talent, he had been drawn to a life of the mind, to reading, and most of all to sorcery. Dan wanted magic from the moment he first heard the word. He devoured any story with enchantment in it, ran to the television if there was a spell in the news. It had been a painful blow when his father told him, straight out, a boy would never be allowed to work magic. Eventually he ran away, finding his own path to what he must have.

Still Christine did not speak. He could sense her waiting for more. The silence annoyed him, as if he could feel her judging. He threw the question back in her face: “What about you? Why are you a sorceress?”

She shrugged at the question. “I guess it’s just a talent I have. It’s fun to use it. Besides, I live on a farm in the ass-end of Ishe. It’s nice to get out and about sometimes.”

Dan stared out the windshield, trying to subdue the most poisonous envy he had ever felt. Just because she was a woman, she was encouraged to develop her talents, while he was punished for doing the very same thing.

“Fun,” he grunted. “Don’t I wish.”

Irritation overcame him, and he laid his hand on the door handle. “Are you going to drive, or should I just start walking?”

His companion gave him a sarcastic look, but she turned the key. “Which way?”

Dan hesitated, not sure he wanted her to know where he lived. A silly impulse, when he’d already told her so much.

“Go south on the Holy Road until you get to the Brambles.”

She nodded curtly. “Okay, I think I know where that is.”

At last they pulled away from the curb. The Cauldron was near the highway, so they soon rolled up a ramp and onto the Holy Road. As the car sped on, the city unfolded before them. Skyscrapers made lighted patterns against the pale night. Proudest of these was the High Temple of the Mother God, a domed vision of limestone and gold. Glittering lights reflected on the harbor’s glossy dark waters in broad streaks, like the stars he could not see above them.

Chantain was a big city now, but once it had been a magnificent metropolis, capital of a great nation where magic achieved whatever machinery did not. But the Sorcerer-Kings had reached too far, into realms beyond their own, and that provoked the alien residents. The Spellwar brought economic depression and biological destruction. After the final battle the Earth lay maimed, twisted together with sections of the alien realms. This, the Holy Mothers said, was the evil of male hands. In the aftermath, they decreed men’s banishment from the halls of power.

The alien creatures who remained were not so easily dealt with. Most of them weren’t evil, merely soldiers following orders. Now they existed as second-hand people, tolerated in enclaves where the monitors constantly watched them.

What Dan couldn’t understand was the Gellboar’s interest in him. It hadn’t threatened him until he delayed signing. Signing what?

He drew the crackling parchment from his purse and squinted at the runes. It was dark in the car, and passing street lamps didn’t give enough light to make anything out. Frustrated, he sat back, letting the sheet rest on his knees.

“What is it, anyway?”Christine’s voice, bland and businesslike, startled him into answering truthfully.

“I don’t know. He wanted me to sign it, but I can’t tell what it says.”

“So read it.” Her tone left no doubt what kind of reading she meant.

He’d have to cast a translation spell. Warily, he asked, “You don’t mind?”

“Huh!” She gave a bark of laughter. “Not everyone follows the Holy Mother like a whipped puppy, you know. We do things our own way in Ishe.”

Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to him that there could be a world outside Chantain, where theology was not so dominant. Or rather, he knew, but his daughter and his disguises kept him too busy to think beyond the moment.

Christine went on, “It never made sense to me, anyway. That men can’t do magic, I mean. I always thought you could, you just weren’t allowed to.” She sounded pleased with herself for being correct. “It doesn’t bother me, so stop looking at me like I might pull a gun on you.”

Dan retorted, “That’s funny. You weren’t acting like it didn’t bother you.”

“You just surprised me, that’s all.” Her voice was neutral again. “So do your spell.”

That was almost a challenge, but for the first time in his life, Dan didn’t want to call on his magic. Not with her watching. Even now, she might still doubt. Once she saw him cast, there would be no more question.

On the other hand, the Gellboar had said ‘sign’ and tried to force his obedience. Maybe he’d better find out why.

To be continued…


More coming on Saturday. And when this link is active, you’ll be able to buy the whole book!

Meantime, I’m still running a subscription drive. Sign up for my newsletter and win a free E-book, The Weight of Their Souls. Just to go my Facebook page, AuthorDebyFredericks, and click the link on the left that says “Join my mailing list.” Easy, right?

Here is the second installment of The Gellboar, my forthcoming dark fantasy e-book and podcast.


Part 2

Dan stared at the creature, his wand still poised defensively. With his free hand, he groped for a napkin to wipe at the unpleasant wetness across the back of his neck. Only one kind of alien had tentacles. That was the Gellboar. He’d heard rumors, that they were predators on the other side. Since the Spellwar, they might be involved in any sort of dirty work. Nobody wanted much to do with them. After meeting one, he knew why.

“Did it hurt you?” The other Christine rested her hand on Dan’s shoulder. There was a crackle of charged psais, and she drew back with a gasp. Her eyes, pale blue, ran up and down his body as if she could see through the red satin dress to the padding beneath.

Dan stared back at her. He had thought he was prepared for the moment when someone guessed his secret, but now he stood numb and stupid. The patrons at nearby tables were staring. He had to get away before the manager showed up.

“I’m fine,” he stammered, stepping back. “Fine, thank you.”

Before he could escape, Christine grabbed his arm again. Their eyes were nearly on a level. In a low, hard voice, she demanded, “What’s going on?”

“I don’t… don’t know,” Dan wailed, as if he were a normal, frightened woman. “It wanted me to autograph something, and —”

“Don’t give me that!” she growled, and yanked on his arm to draw him closer. Her accent was very thick now. “I touched you. I felt your psais. Who are you?”

“I’m Christine Cooper. You know that.”

As he babbled out more excuses, a shrill buzzing drowned all other sound. Dan jerked around to see the Gellboar’s broad back disappearing out the fire door.

The announcer came back on the overhead, speaking with obvious exasperation. “Ladies and gentlemen, that is the fire alarm. Please go to the nearest exit, and we’ll all get back to what we were doing just as soon as we can.”

Christine’s glare drilled into him, and she had not let go. Dan swallowed against the dryness in his throat, wondering if she was about to shout his secret to the world.

“We should…” he began.

Her pale eyes narrowed, and her mouth formed a thin line. “Come on,” she ordered, and yanked him toward the kitchen door.

Something scraped underfoot, and his high-heeled shoe slipped. Tottering, Dan broke away and knelt to pick up the parchment the Gellboar had dropped. Before he could get a good look at it, Christine whipped around to grab him again.

“Come on, you!” She dragged him after her.

“Wait!” he protested, but he didn’t fight hard. Whatever happened next, this was one time he didn’t want an audience.

Between the stage and the kitchen was a narrow concrete corridor, bare except for a time clock and rack of punch cards. A low bench lurked beneath the motley assortment of coats on wall hooks. Grumbling cooks and waitresses shuffled from the kitchen and filed toward the exit at the end of the corridor. Dan moved to join them, but his companion hissed in his ear, “Don’t you go anywhere.”

After the buss boy passed, she yanked him in after her.

“Get your stuff,” Christine ordered curtly. “We’ve got to talk.”

As the door slammed behind them, the buzzing of the fire alarm was reduced to a low whine. Dan reached woodenly for his coat and purse. He glanced at the parchment in his hand, and then stuffed it into his purse.

“I’d rather not,” he said firmly in his own voice, a man’s voice. It must have sounded strange coming from a lovely and graceful woman, but his companion paid it no mind.

Christine Cooper whirled to poke his chest with a fingernail painted the same brilliant blue as her brief top. “Don’t be stupid! You’ve got a real problem, pal. What the hells do you think you’re doing?”

She pulled a leather sports bag off the wall and dropped it onto the bench. Staring at Dan, defying him to move, she yanked off her spike-heeled pumps and tossed them in. In their place she put on black canvas shoes, tying the laces with sharp jerks.

The immediate fear of discovery and the Gellboar’s attack was giving way to anger. “I don’t have to explain myself to you,” Dan said. He shrugged on his coat, a threadbare wool duster, and put his purse strap over his shoulder.

“The hells you don’t!” Christine whirled, hands raised. Dan lifted his wand in an answering threat.

“I don’t want any trouble,” he told her. “I appreciate your help back there. Really. But don’t get in my way.”

She did not move, but her voice sounded strained. “Not until you tell me why. Just why? It isn’t against the law to dress up like a girl, but you know the penalty for this.” She tapped the tip of his wand, and he felt a jolt of psais.

Dan twitched the rod upward, breaking contact. “My life is none of your business.”

Christine blew out a breath. “All I have to do is tell the firemen an alien assaulted a human, and there’ll be monitors all over the place. You’d rather talk to them?”

She had to know he didn’t.

“I have no choice,” he answered tensely.

She laughed harshly. “That’s a lie! Of course you have a choice. We all have choices. You chose this.” She gestured to take in his feminine attire.

“I don’t!” Dan stepped toward her, and his high heeled shoes made a sharp report on the barren floor. “Maybe at first I did, but not anymore. My daughter is sick, and her medicine costs more than the rent every month. There’s no other way I could make that kind of money without stealing.”

Christine blinked, and her gaze softened. Dan turned away, rejecting her pity.

“This isn’t the life I wanted, but it’s the one I have now. Don’t make it harder for me.”
The hard tapping of his high heels echoed like gunshots in the narrow space. Somewhere outside, sirens were going up and down scales like a bunch of bad opera singers. If Christine wasn’t going to fight about it, he had no more time to waste.

A moment later, he heard the sigh of a zipper, and then the soft plop of her shoes following him.

“What’s your name?” Christine asked softly. “Your real name.”

He turned warily. “Why should I tell you that?”

“Because I don’t like talking to myself.” With this wry retort, she pulled on a boxy leather jacket. Her right hand jerked her ponytail out of the collar, while her left threw her duffel over her shoulder. Her gaze was steady, no longer accusing.

Reluctantly, he answered. “Dan.”

She nodded. “Well, Dan, let’s go somewhere quieter.”

He didn’t want this complication, but he had to get out before the firemen arrived. Some companies had monitors with them.

“Fine.”

To be continued…


More coming on Wednesday. And when this link is active, you’ll be able to buy the whole book!

Meantime, I’m still running a subscription drive. Sign up for my newsletter and win a free E-book, The Weight of Their Souls. Just to go my Facebook page, AuthorDebyFredericks, and click the link on the left that says “Join my mailing list.” Easy, right?

As promised, here is the first installment of my forthcoming e-book and podcast, The Gellboar.


Part 1

“And now,” blasted the loudspeakers, “here she is again: Miss! Christine! Cooper!”

Sparse applause greeted the woman who bounded on stage. She was tall and athletic, wearing a brilliant blue-sequined bustier above tight black pants. A flaxen ponytail cascaded behind bare shoulders. The harsh lights bleached her skin and hair nearly white, but those clothes kept their color. Music swelled, fast, aggressive, electronic. The performer sketched a figure eight in the air before her and clapped her hands. With a throaty bang, a moebius strip of fire appeared. The inattentive audience jumped in their seats, turning toward her.

At midnight on a Thursday, The Cauldron was mostly empty. Vacant tables made pale discs in the shadowed club, like lily pads floating on dark water. Beneath his tone of noisy hype, even the announcer sounded bored. With few customers to serve, the waitresses had begun turning up chairs well before the second show started.

Sitting at a table near the stage door, the other Christine Cooper watched critically. This one had dark hair falling to “her” shoulders in glossy waves. A crimson satin dress was tight over small breasts, then flowed in gentle pleats below the waist. At least there was no way the two of them could really be confused. The performer on stage was blue and gold, her style was fast and loud; her counterpart was red and black, softer, more feminine.

It had been something of an insult to learn they would be sharing the stage tonight. In fact, the Christine Cooper currently wowing the crowd was the real star. She had come all the way from Ishe, in the western provinces. The second one’s presence was just a gimmick. When the manager learned there were two magicians named Christine Cooper, he got the brilliant idea of hosting “Christine Week,” including a faux duel on Saturday night to decide who was the real Christine Cooper.

If only he knew. Of course, if anyone did find out that one of the performers was actually a man, Dan Forster, the club would be closed on the spot. Men were forbidden to use magic in Chantain. If Dan was caught, he might well be killed. But there were no monitors in The Cauldron tonight. He could spot those witches in a heartbeat, even when they didn’t shave their heads. And if there was, he had faith in his skill as a female impersonator. The invitation might be hollow, but Dan needed the money desperately, because Grace needed her medicine. Two years ago, he’d fallen behind on his bills after his wife, Marilyn, died. He never again wanted to see one of those alien creatures the hospital sent to collect.

But there was more to it than that. Dan needed magic even more than money. He needed the power, the thrill of bending the world to his will. The twin compulsions of magic and money made him put on women’s clothes, drew him to these cheap clubs. With his own show over, he leaned forward, staring intently as Christine turned her flaming hoop into gold foil, which quickly shaded into silver. A wave of her hand and it transmuted into water, showering the audience with sparkling droplets.

That Christine Cooper didn’t need a magic wand. She used only her hands, shaping her will on the air with quick strokes timed to the music. Her rival glanced anxiously at the shiny black wand lying on the table, as if it might somehow vanish. It was hard to imagine casting spells without a wand, and the Christine who watched wanted badly to know how his name-twin managed it. Eyes half-closed, he tried to sense the flow of psais, that mysterious energy which formed the basis of all life and magic.

Since the disastrous Spellwar, no one would teach a man magic. Dan had to learn when and what he could. If he picked up another spell or two this week, that would make up for the short pay.

“Miss Cooper?” A voice above his head distracted him from the performance.

“Yes?” Instantly he assumed the soft smile and sweet voice of his stage persona.

The smile became forced as he looked up at the alien standing over him. There were lots of these creatures in a city the size of Chantain — refuse and refugees of the Spellwar. This one looked familiar. And repulsive.

Like many aliens, it shrouded itself in a trench coat and fedora, a gesture of respect to the sensibilities of the humans who, however reluctantly, gave it sanctuary. But it stood too broad for its height, and the coat covered bulges that suggested something ugly underneath. Dan saw a flabby, grayish face. No hair showed beneath the hat. In the shadow of its brim, eyes glittered black and strangely refracted, too large for its face.

“Will you sign this, please?” The voice was a buttery growl, too high for such a heavy frame.

Dan swallowed his revulsion. He was sure he’d seen this creature before, had already signed his autograph at least once. Well, a fan was a fan, grotesque thought it might be. He didn’t have many.

“Of course,” he said in his nicest Christine voice. “It’s sweet of you to ask.”

Their hands touched as he accepted the paper and pen, and he did his best not to flinch from the clammy skin. All the while, he tried to keep one eye on the stage, where the other Christine had turned a broomstick into a snake and was swaying with it in a weaving, winding dance. Dan’s pulse quickened. She hadn’t used that spell during her earlier performance.

A hand fell onto his shoulder, ice cold through the thin fabric of his dress. “Miss Cooper,” the creature insisted.

“Oh, of course,” he tittered. “I’m sorry.”

Dan looked at the paper again, searching for someplace to sign, and paused, frowning. The sheet wasn’t paper, but some kind of parchment covered with angular runes. Although he couldn’t read the language, it had the unmistakable look of a legal document.

Canned music got louder, more dramatic. Dan looked up to see Christine juggling a set of rainbow-colored balls which she sent spiraling upward. They folded in on themselves and became a flight of rainbow-colored birds. He watched intently, following the flow of the magic.

As the birds winged over the audience, the alien’s hand tightened. Something slippery touched Dan’s neck. A tentacle! He jumped despite himself, trying to throw off the disgusting appendage.

“What are you doing?” he squealed in Christine’s voice. The tentacle tightened, not enough to choke him, but the threat was clear. An iron hand held him in his seat. The  alien creature bent over him.

“Sign.” It was not a request.

Dan stared into the gray, fleshy face. His mouth worked, but no sound emerged. Those eyes, like black tar, dragged him down, smothered his will. The music reached its climax and the audience gave meager applause, but the sounds were distorted, as if heard over a distance. Dan jerked feebly at the constricting band, fighting for breath, for sanity. He felt ice cold, and terribly weak.

“Sign,” the creature insisted.

Then a new voice shouted, “Hey! Let go of her, you!”

There was a kind of pop, and suddenly Dan could breathe again. And move.

“Get off me!” he screamed, clinging to his feminine persona even in an emergency. Dan yanked the tentacle away from his skin and thrust his elbow as hard as he could into the  alien creature’s mid-section. It yielded to the blow with unhealthy softness, but he was able to wrench free. Dan snatched up his wand and scrambled away.

His name-twin stood on the opposite side of the table, her left hand outstretched, palm up. Concentrated psais gave her hand a piercing glow. A stern frown was directed at the alien.

“Leave this place. You are not welcome here.” She spoke with a flat drawl, the accent of her native Ishe.

“It is you who are unwelcome,” the creature answered with a guttural snarl.

It came after Dan, tentacles whipping out of its coat sleeves. The few occupants of nearby tables shrieked and scattered. Stumbling a little on high heels, Dan came to Christine’s side. He knew the spell she was using by its feel. He stopped and raised his wand. Psais answered his will, and he joined his rival in the summoning of pure force.

The creature rushed at them, tentacles arcing like whips. Christine shoved at the air with her raised palm and Dan riposted with his wand, timing his thrust with hers. There was a deep report, a brilliant flash. The creature flew backward, striking the wall with a blubbery smack. Its hat fell off, revealing more tentacles in a tight coil. Then it slumped to the floor beside the fire door.

To be continued…


More coming on Saturday. And when this link is active, you’ll be able to buy the whole book!

Meantime, I’m still running a subscription drive. Sign up for my newsletter and win a free E-book, The Weight of Their Souls. Just to go my Facebook page, AuthorDebyFredericks, and click the link on the left that says “Join my mailing list.” Easy, right?

I can’t resist sharing this dragon poem by my good friend, Kenn Nesbitt. It’s from his collection, The Biggest Burp Ever. Kenn is a former Children’s Poet Laureate who has built his life around making kids laugh out loud. Check out his web site, poetry4kids.com. You won’t regret it!

MY INVISIBLE DRAGON
by Kenn Nesbitt

I have an invisible dragon.
She’s such a remarkable flyer.
She soars through the sky on invisible wings
exhaling invisible fire.

Read the rest here…


Subscribe to my newsletter and win a free E-book, The Weight of Their Souls. Find out how on my Facebook page, AuthorDebyFredericks and click the link on the left that says “Join my mailing list.” Easy, right?