At the top of the ridge, Rick paused in the shade of a lone oak and set down the cracked water tank he'd lugged for the last eight miles. He'd won it in a coin toss against a cyclops, but wondered if it was worth dragging all the way to market. Probably wouldn't get much for it.
Slipping off his pack, he pulled a canteen from his belt and took a swig of water. Tasted like warm spit, but it'd keep him hydrated. He gazed at the stream snaking through the valley below and scratched his unshaven chin. Rick had the habit of rubbing the scar below the right side of his mouth where no whiskers grew.
If that's the Miw River, Marketland's not far.
He replaced the canteen and pushed back his battered, wide-brimmed fedora to wipe his sweaty forehead. He picked up the tank and his pack and plodded through the grass along the ridge, searching for an easy way down. Traveling on foot was slow going. He missed his horse. Belle had been a good mare. Didn't even shy when that minotaur attacked. Damn good horse.
"Greetings," said a voice from behind. Rick stopped. He recognized that voice. Nobody but the owner of that voice could sneak up on him like that. He pivoted around on his boot heel to face a large, white unicorn.
"Hey, Elp." Rick's voice was rough. The same childhood incident that scarred his face had damaged his throat. "You're back. Couldn't keep away from my charms, eh?"
"Indeed," Elpinoina said. "I see you still live."
Rick looked down at himself, patting his frock coat as if checking that he was all in one piece. "Seems like it."
"Your inclination to charge into hazardous conditions with little preparation causes your survival to be...surprising."
"That's not fair," he protested. "If you're talking about what happened in Marsh Vale, Mr. Ratton had it comin'." Rick shook a finger at her. "That dice game was rigged. And how could I have known his wife was a harpy?"
"To begin with, he told you."
"Well," said Rick, "I thought it was an exaggeration. Ratton had the tongue of a man trying to sell dust to the thirsty."
Elpinoina raised her head and looked around. "Where is Belle?"
Rick studied a random rock at his feet. He glanced at the unicorn. Her nostrils flared, but she kept an accusatory silence. Rick decided to come clean. "I didn't lose her gambling, if that's what you think." He'd lost a previous horse in a game of blackjack.
"I was tracking this windigo into the desert wastelands down south." He swallowed. "They got those dash-dang electrical storms down there..." He kicked the rock. The truth was he felt awful about what happened to his horse.
Elpinoina sighed. "How is it that you are still alive, Richard?"
He shrugged, wishing she'd stop saying things like that."Bad luck, I guess."
"I assume you are on your way to Marketland as well."
"Yep." They made their way to the river and followed it to Marketland, the adobe-walled trading post where, it was rumored, anything in New California could be bought or sold.
As they entered the market's wooden gates, a voice grunted, "Name and purpose." A hulk of a man with leather armor studded with rivets and metal spikes grabbed Rick's arm. He nearly took a swing at the guy before realizing he must be a Marketland guard, judging from the scarlet sash across his chest. While Rick answered a few perfunctory questions, Elpinoina entered the gate freely. Aside from a backward glance, she didn't acknowledge Rick's detainment at all.
Bah! Unicorn privilege.
When a trio of dwarves approached, the guard had new prey to question and let Rick enter the city. Well, "city" was an overstatement in Rick's opinion. Marketland was nothing more than an open courtyard enclosed by a quadrangle of two-story buildings. It was built during the Spanish occupation of California, which, depending on your point of view, ended about sixty years ago or else two hundred odd years ago, give or take a few. The oldlanders and moderns never agreed about historic timelines.
When the Great Quakes screwed up time, roughly three decades back, they jumbled up two distinct eras in history. They also threw a variety of magicals into the mundane world. But magicals didn't care about human history. They just wanted their portal to reopen so they could get home. Occasional tremors still rocked the land. Sometimes they'd replace a meadow with a grove of trees or reroute a stream, but usually there were no changes, or none detected. Rick suspected there was always some little difference, even if nobody noticed.
Marketland stank of too many animals and people in close quarters. Rick was unimpressed. It would live up to its reputation of a crap hole, but as a central hub of trade? That remained to be seen.
A variety of merchant stalls occupied the dusty courtyard. Rick strolled past vendors selling roasted meats of who knows what sort of animal, leather goods, and mechanical gadgets. It seemed some of the women were for sale as well, but they may have only been for rent.
He gave a wide berth to men who looked so tough they'd let a rattler take the first strike in a pit fight, and half clad women who'd probably do the same. Most folks were armed with swords, clubs, or other oddments that might have been tools, but could be used to crush a man's skull. Though skilled with a sword, Rick didn't want to set off some hothead and be forced into a fight. Not when he'd just resolved to keep out of pointless trouble. Besides, he was starting to feel too old for brawling, though he'd never admit it.
He sidled up to an alcove set into a mud brick building where a blacksmith swung a hammer against an anvil. The clang reverberated through the smoky air. Rick dropped his water tank onto the ledge of the stall and waited to catch the smith's eye. After several more whacks, the burly man laid the metal hook he'd been making onto a bed of coals. He strode over to Rick.
"Bartering or selling, Señor?" he asked.
"Hoping to sell," said Rick, "unless you have a horse or dragon-hide helmet you're willing to part with."
The smith examined the water tank with a frown. "What else you have?"
Rick swung his pack off and took out two fist-sized stones. They were irregularly shaped, with smooth fingerprint-like pits. He set them on the ledge. "Meteorites, I think," said Rick.
The smith took a shiny, black lodestone from the pouch at his belt and brought it to each rock to test the magnetism. He nodded his shaven head. A bead of sweat hung precariously from the tip of his nose. "There is a good amount of iron in these. I tell you what, Señor. For the meteorites and tank, I get you a stallion hermoso del grullo."
"I don't need it to be beautiful, just strong and fast. And I need gear."
"Of course. Currito is all of that. Maria!" He roared so suddenly, Rick's hand flew reflexively to his sword. A little girl who'd been sitting under an olive tree scurried to the smithy. The man rattled off something in Spanish too quickly for Rick to catch, and the girl ran across the square. "Maria will fetch my cousin. He will bring the horse."
Rick made a noncommittal half smile. "Gracias." He leaned on the ledge of the stall, scanning the crowd for Elpinoina, but the only four leggeds in the square were a couple of mules, a few goats, and a centaur. He did a double take at the centaur. He'd never seen one this far west. They typically kept to themselves and stuck to the eastern mountain region.
Rick's thoughts tumbled from his mind when the ground started shaking. Stalls rocked and people dove to protect their merchandise. Rick braced himself against the ledge until the quaking stopped. Most quakes were accompanied by an increase in static electricity, and the familiar tingling made the little hairs on the back of Rick's neck stand up. When he touched his hat, he received an annoying static zap.
"They are happening more and more, these shakings," said the blacksmith. "The old women are saying los tiempos de la muerte are coming."
Rick's brow creased. "Death times?"
"Ah, here is your Currito, Señor." The smith gestured. A gun-metal gray stallion was being led by a large man who could have been the smith's twin, but for his long hair pulled back into a thick pony tail. Rick swiped off his hat and set to inspecting the horse. He ran his hand down the lean, muscular frame. It was a beauty. The eyes were clear and the hooves healthy, but the riding gear looked worn.
Rick turned toward the smith. "The cinch and stirrups are pretty shoddy." The man slapped a promissory note onto the ledge. Rick gave it a glance. Promissory notes were not accepted currency in most places. Rick whisked up one of the meteorites. "Maybe I'll take my business elsewhere." The smith grunted and dumped some coins on top of the note. Rick released the rock and nodded. They had a deal.
Marketland didn't disappoint. Rick found the items he sought, then bought bread and dried beef, before leading the horse toward the city gates.
"Honey, you need a place to stay?" A woman leaned against the wall. Her lips were full but her eyes had a dull, careworn look. She shifting her weight, and her blouse slid off her shoulder. One tattered, purple wing peeked out.
"No, but thanks, ma'am." Rick touched his hat. As he ambled out the gate, he heard her hiss a curse in his direction. He mumbled under his breath, "Classy."
A gathering of people were crowded outside a wooden shack. One small group on the fringe caught his attention. Two human men and a dwarf were crouched down, taking turns tossing wooden dice onto the hard packed dirt. Rick couldn't pass a game of craps without his fingers twitching. Soon he found himself kneeling down, dice in hand. His coin pouch was a mite heavier before he grew curious about the cluster of people around the shack.
"You all waiting for something?"
One guy jabbed his thumb over his shoulder toward the shack. "Opening time."
"Bit small for a saloon." Besides, Rick judged from the vapor from the guy's breath that he'd already begun his imbibing for the day. The dwarf pulled a wrapped parcel from the folds of his tunic.
"It's an oracle, man. You know about the prophesy?" He opened the cloth wrappings to reveal a round, tin object. Rick cocked his head, waiting for an explanation. The dwarf rewrapped his parcel and stood up. "Rumor is, a thing called The Clock of Wonder will save the world from some wicked disaster that's coming. And I've got it." The dull bit of tin didn't look like any 'Clock of Wonder' to Rick.
A man standing nearby turned around. The hawk on his arm partially extended its wings to steady itself. The man grunted. "I heard they were buying up parts to build a magic pocket watch to fight an even force coming over the eastern mountains."
"Typical human." The dwarf threw back his head, laughing.
"Whatta you mean by that?" The hawk man snarled. Rick sensed trouble. He and the other two men stood up.
"Humans don't know dung about magic." The dwarf raised his chin and sneered.
"I know you magicals tipped California on her butt and warped the damn time continuum," said hawk man.
"It's a lie!" said the dwarf.
"You all should crawl back under the slimy rock you came from." The hawk man nodded to Rick to get his confirmation, but when Rick steeled his gaze, the guy glanced around for an ally. The crowd was mainly made up of humans, but with a sprinkling of magicals. Among them were an orc and a powerfully built and hairy kapre smoking a pipe. Both stepped out of line to size up the man and make it known they'd heard what he'd said.
"I'm gonna slice out your liver." The dwarf drew a barbed dagger and stepped toward the hawk man. Rick thought it a good time to slip away. With a fight brewing, nobody would bother demanding a chance to win back their losses. He strolled away from the crowd, leading his new horse Currito down a narrow road. They hadn't gotten far when the horse suddenly shied as the earth began rumbling.
"Easy boy." Rick stroked the trembling horse. "Just a quake." Currito's eyes looked wild. His nostrils flared. As the quake grew in magnitude, Rick put a hand on the horse's halter. "Steady." Screams and creaking sounds filled the air. Currito reared up, and Rick barely managed to step out of the way of being kicked.
Back down the road, where the shack had once stood, there was only a huge sinkhole in the ground, and the area was sickeningly devoid of a once large crowd. But Rick had no time to dwell on that. A trench was forming, eating up the road he'd just traveled. Like a ripping seam, it grew. Gripping the saddle horn, he jammed his foot into the stirrup. Currito sped off at a gallop and it took several tries before Rick could mount the horse. The noise of cracking earth followed them. Currito flew forward as Rick held on. Suddenly, Currito's back end dropped into the fissure.
"Heeya! Heeya!" Rick urged. The sky disappeared from view as they sank into the earth. The horse fought to climb out of the pit, clawing against the earthen tomb. "Come on. Giddup," Rick shouted, though he suspected it was useless.
He realized there was something in the fissure ahead of them. A dark mass, a phantom, blacker than the hole they were in. Its head twisted around and Rick saw gleaming eyes and a single black horn. Unicorn? Then, like a marionette on invisible strings, Currito, with Rick still astride, was lifted out of the fissure. They landed lightly beside a stream a short distance from the cracked road. There was no sign of the phantom unicorn, as if Rick had only imagined it.
The quaking had stopped. Rick flopped out of the saddle and patted his horse's sweaty side. "Whoo, buddy. That was some adventure." He gestured toward the stream. "Drinks are on me." Currito leaned down to lap up the water. Rick crouched down to splash water on his own dusty face, cleaning grit from the corners of his eyes. He dried his face on his sleeve. Sitting on his haunches, he opened his pack and withdrew a hopelessly dented cup, and scooped some water. It looked clean, but you could never tell with streams this close to a settlement.
Blast. Elp's horn would be useful right about now.
Elpinoina's horn could render the foulest water drinkable. Back when they'd journeyed together, Elpinoina would touch her horn to all water Rick took from steams. It was simpler than boiling it and safer than drinking it straight.
Rick pulled a bota bag from his pack and uncorked it. He splashed liquor into his cup. Not a foolproof water purification method, but if the world were meant to be foolproof, it wouldn't have someone like Rick in it. He swizzled the liquid with his finger and swallowed it in three gulps. He moved to scoop another cupful, but something glittering near the other shore caught his eye. It was nestled between a gray plant and a rock. Gold?
He hadn't been gold panning since his papa died, his real father, back at the time of the... Well, way back when. Rick usually kept his childhood memories well crammed into the deep caverns of his mind. But every now and then he'd come across a nugget, or some soil that was rich with gold dust, and the urge would overtake him. Gold was still valuable currency. He patted Currito's neck.
"Wait here." He yanked off his boots and socks, rolled up his trousers, and stepped into the chilly creek. He put out his arms for balance as he stepped across smooth rocks. Again, he caught the glint under the water and plunged his hand in, wetting his sleeve. The object felt smooth.
That ain't a nugget. What is it?
In his hand, Rick held a round, brass object. A pocket watch, no doubt, though the hinged cover was shut. After drying it on his shirt, he examined the twining vines etched on the cover. This would fetch a good price. What a find! Flipping open the cover revealed the watch's face. Rick's brow wrinkled. Every number, except the one, was missing. He turned to walk back and saw that, beside his horse, stood Elpinoina. In his surprise, Rick stumbled on a rock and fell to his knees in the stream.
"Crap," he said. Currito pawed the ground, but Elpinoina simply stood watching as Rick made his soggy way back to shore. "Elp. Take a look." He stepped onto the bank and held the watch under her nose. "Whatcha think?"
The unicorn stepped back, dipping her head to eye it. "You did not just fish this from the waterway."
"Yep. I did."
She was silent a moment. A woodpecker hammered away in a distant tree. "Open it," she finally said.
"Open it," she repeated.
"Oh, I thought you said 'Open it,'" said Rick with a grin. Elpinoina stared at him. She never called him a smart ass, but Rick was pretty sure she thought it. He eased open the cover of the watch to reveal the face.
"Richard, are you aware of what this is?"
"A broken, but still pretty valuable, pocket watch?"
"This object is not a literal watch," she said. "But a protrusion of magic into your realm." Rick started to laugh but realized from her look, Elp was serious. His laugh became a slight snort. He held the watch to his ear. It didn't tick, but gave off a weak hum.
"And its purpose is...?"
"Richard, in the hands of The One, it has the ability to repair the time rift."
"Ah-ha, of course. The one," Rick said. "The one what, exactly?"
The magnitude of what she was saying began to sink in. Repair the time rift? He raised his brows. "The One? You don't think that's me."
"Most assuredly not."
Relief swept over Rick, followed by a wave of indignation. "Hey, you didn't even hesitate. You don't think there's even a possibility?"
Rick didn't think so either. He wasn't the hero type. He was just a sloucher on the road, with no home and no family, who gambled too much. Still, he couldn't shake the sting he'd felt when Elp had so quickly reached her conclusion. But, man, repair the time rift? Was that possible? He studied the watch face, with its missing numbers. It didn't look capable of repairing anything. It wasn't even whole itself.
"So, Elp, why was this watch, that isn't a watch, just sitting in a stream waiting for any slob to come along and pluck it out?" He watched her silently gaze at the water. Light reflecting off the ripples shone on her horn. Something occurred to him. "Elp, a strange thing happened during that last quake. I fell into a hole and saw what looked like," he paused, "a black unicorn." Rick had never heard of such a creature.
Elpinoina jerked her head up. One ear flicked. Then both of her ears flattened against her skull. Rick had rarely seen her so agitated. "Guard the watch, Richard." She said, trotting away.
"Hey, where you going?"
"I shall return to you soon."
"Bosh! This is me you're talking to," Rick called. "Don't go pulling that mysterious nonsense." He raised the fist containing the watch as Elpinoina disappeared into the brush. "I'm selling this thing at the first trading post I come to. I mean it."