By Thomas Giles
Jones flicked a finger at the pewter tankard, producing a dull ring. A flurry of bubbles shot up from the side of the mug, meeting the thinning head on the surface. He hadn’t been born before the Change, but in the twenty years since, it seemed no one could make beer that tasted better than a puddle a drunk had stepped in.
He picked up the pint, spun round on the bar stool, and surveyed the mayhem before him. The migraine-inducing flicker of gaslight, intensified by some Lensmith trickery, illuminated the crumbling bricks. A half-drunk Clicker snapped his fingers, sending darts flying across the room and drilling into the wall. Begoggled traders from the sands haggled an arm and a leg off of potential customers, who in return haggled for the traders’ own hair and teeth.
His pa always kept up with the best of them, talking about how he’d leave this craphole to join the nomads. So when he up and disappeared, all Jones could do was drink a salute and surrender the last of his family to the sands. All he had left was their last name.
With a sigh, Jones looked at the dregs in the bottom of the mug, his stomach churning at the thought of finishing it off. He slid off the stool and turned back to the bar, slamming the tankard onto the flaking chipboard. He took a gnarly gold tooth from the pocket of his duster jacket and slapped it down next to the mug. It was a generous tip, but exact change was hard to come by, and an honest deal harder still. He turned and staggered towards the door and watched his feet to make sure they didn’t do anything stupid.
He pushed out into the chill black of night and strode into the road, gazing up at the dark sky and breathing deeply. The stars were obscured by patchy clouds of dust. Moonlight dappled through, shafts of light slashing across tin roofs and rubble.
With a shake of his head, he stared down at the shattered tarmac and continued onward. The city was mostly shanty now, large swaths of shacks and lean-tos all vying for position along the broken streets. What buildings the Change left standing were constantly ground away by the dust and grit in the air.
Maybe the nomads had it right, spending their days scavenging and trading in the wastelands. At least their goggles were cool. But even so, every road ended with the sands, just as his would one day.
Someone stepped out from the shadows to his right. The figure wore dark, flowing clothes, a mere silhouette in the night. As it stepped forward, moonlight sparked about its head, betraying a pair of goggles. Jones stopped in his tracks, pulling back his coat with his right hand.
“Keep it slow, son,” said a muffled voice. The silhouette hefted a long, heavy object, training it on Jones.
“You must be rich, friend,” Jones spat back, “to be carrying such a heavy piece.” A shot of adrenaline began to sober him. “Though the bullets must be even harder to come by.” He hitched the coat behind the gun strapped to his side by a leather thong. “Nines are far more common.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” the stranger said, their hand moving up.
Jones’s grip tightened around the pistol. “Your turn to stay slow, I think.”
The figure froze. Then, nodding slowly, it pulled the scarf down from its face. “It was just for show, in any case. You can’t walk around with nothing on your hip, can you?”
The voice was female, but gravelled. Fifties, then? Sixties? Jones swallowed. “It’s rare to see a seasoned veteran such as yourself in these parts,” he said. “Or at all.” Veterans—those who were around before the Change—were all but gone, either killed in the chaos, hiding in bunkers with cans and recycled pee, or taken by the sands.
The woman nodded, letting the gun hang at her side by a frayed rope. “And that is true as well,” she said.
The woman slowly pulled her goggles up and perched them on her forehead, letting her hood flop back. The moonlight shimmered in her short, spiky, silver hair and lit her face to reveal laughter lines and tired eyes.
“So,” Jones said, swallowing a lump in his throat. “What is it you want?”
“I want nothing,” she said calmly. A smile crept across her lips. “But I offer everything.”
Jones froze, jaw clenched, eyes wide. He whipped out his pistol and shot off a couple of rounds, bolting to the left. The woman whirled to the right, diving away from him. He unloaded the clip over his shoulder, ducking behind the corner of a building.
“You’ll never take me alive, slaver!” he yelled. But when he peeked around the breeze block, she’d disappeared. There was no silhouette, no movement. Where could she—
A flash of light in the alleyway sent him ducking back into cover. But there was no explosion, no crunch of lead on concrete. What was she, a Silencer? An Illusionist, maybe? What had the Change given this devil of a woman?
A hand clamped over his mouth, a knee in his back. “Keep still, would you?” the woman hissed. “I’m just here to—”
With a yell, Jones slammed his elbow into the attacker, dropping the gun. Her grip faltered and he stumbled forward into the road. “You’ll never take me alive!” he shouted again, wheeling about. “You’ll never…”
But she was gone. She was a dirty Illusionist! “Come out here and fight me!” he yelled. “You… you…” He spun around, trying to spot the next point of attack. Illusionists could bend light around objects, but only in small areas. He might be able to make out—
Something hit the back of his neck, sending the world spinning as he crumpled to his knees. “Have you been drinking?” the woman said. “You have, haven’t you? Where are your parents, young man?”
Jones grimaced, chest heaving for air. “You’ll never…” He reached out to the cool, moist air around him. “Take me…” He could sense the water vapour, the condensation on a shard of glass sheltered from the wind, the sweat on his brow. “…Alive!”
With a sudden surge of focus, he called the water from all around—sucking it from the ground beneath him, pulling it from cold surfaces and warm flesh. He slowed the water down, feeling it freeze as he sent it back at the woman, sharpening and hardening as it zipped through the air. He rolled onto his back and watched the ice shimmering in the air, his would-be attacker at the centre of a silvery web of death.
A smile flashed across his face. He had her!
The woman’s skin flashed with a sharp, inner light. The glow moved out from her body to meet the icy darts. As each missile met the wave of light, they were engulfed, consumed by it until there was nothing left.
The light died, and the silver-haired woman was left standing, intact and unharmed. This was no illusion. And not even a Whirlwind or Dust Devil could’ve reacted in time. The four elemental powers could manipulate matter, but they would’ve left steam, or vapour at least. The water wasn’t blocked. It simply ceased to exist. This woman wasn’t natural. She wasn’t human.
“What…” Jones muttered, jaw slack. “What are you?”
She spoke softly, striding forward and reaching out a hand. “A woman who can offer you a different life.”
The boy pushed himself back along the tarmac, retreating from the witch’s touch. “You’ll never—!”
“I’m not a damned slaver, okay?” she yelled. She waved a finger at him. “Call me that again, and I’ll give you a good hiding, you hear?”
Jones nodded and looked down, shocked by the sudden reprimand.
She crouched down next to him, shaking her head. “We don’t have to live like this—in fear and squalor. We can leave the past behind. A new world is on the horizon!”
He shook his head. “I’m not going out there,” he said. “You can’t make me!”
“The sands are dead, too,” she said, calmly. “There is another place. A place of solitude and of peace. A place where possibility still exists.” She reached out her hand once again. “Please. Help me build it.”
Jones frowned, looking up into the woman’s soft, blue eyes. There was no hidden agenda, no facade, no con—just a simple, honest kindness. His lip quivered, tears blurring his vision. “I…”
She caressed his cheek. Her skin was old and weathered and soft. “It’s okay, son. You’ll see.” Her warmth spread to the tips of his fingers and on, down his spine. All the worry, the hate, the fear was gone.
With a sob, he curled up beside her, his head in her lap. His father was dead to him now. But maybe that wasn’t the end, after all. He closed his eyes and wept.