Refuge

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CHAPTER 35 – Enlightenment

PETALUMA

SATURDAY

As the shotgun barrel neared the kryl’s head, its hand flicked out and knocked it from Erin’s grip, flipping it up to slam into her forehead. Before the gun had even landed, banging and clattering across the floor, the creature’s other hand swept up its own weapon from the floor. Its fingers sought and found the controls as it raised the devise to align with the first target, Erin.

With a reflex matching the kryl’s, Jason slammed his makeshift crutch across the creature’s head. It staggered the thing and disrupted its aim, causing the violet beam of light to burn a hole through the wall behind Erin. But Jason had not been set on both feet nor balanced when he made the swing. Much of the force of the blow bled off in his own fall backward onto his tortured leg. The kryl spun, flicked its arm out and knocked the length of wood from Jason’s grip even as Jason was falling away.

Before the broom handle had bounced more than twice, Nate snatched it up and fixed his hold on what had now become, in his practiced hands, a highly versatile and potentially lethal quarterstaff. He sprang forward.

Nate concentrated his forward motion into a vicious thrust of the staff’s end toward his foe’s face. But, using its own strange weapon in the same manner as Nate’s broom handle, the kryl countered with a block and parry and knocked the aging human off balance. Nate’s training and experience proved a match for the unexpected move, though, and, spinning on the ball of one foot, his staff came around in a whistling backhand that caught the alien on its right arm with a satisfying thwhack! But, almost simultaneously, its weapon flashed out to deliver a glancing blow to Nate’s right thigh. Before the kryl’s weapon could be levered around to deal a similar blow with the opposite end, Nate’s flicked around to punish the thing’s side, then whipped about to send the opposite end to the knee of the leg on the other side.

Jason was unable to follow the lightning quick moves of the battle. It was like both Nate and the strange creature had been endowed with superhuman speed and equipped with magical, double pronged batons that spun, at times, like propellers between them while each performed a complicated, choreographed ballet.

The hollow, staccato sounds of the staffs colliding, peppered by muted blows landing on various body parts, echoed about in the open space of the museum’s central area. Their feet moved about on the smooth floor, shuffling for balance, stamping to distract the other or simply to impart more force to a blow. Both combatants remained silent.

Jason caught a movement to his side as Emmie scooted across to where Erin had fallen and lay stunned in Rachel’s arms beside the shotgun. Emmie exchanged frightened glances with Rachel, and then ran her hand gently across Erin’s face and eyes that squinted in pain and confusion. He eyed the white streak of a scar across the red welt of his own wound, still expecting to see blood trailing down from the opened gash, but it was still closed. Doing his best to dismiss throbbing pain, he climbed back to his feet. As he turned back to the fascinating demonstration of ancient fighting methods, he missed seeing Emmie pick up the shotgun.

Nate delivered a jolting jab to the alien’s midsection, followed by a smashing blow toward the side of the creature’s head. But the kryl parried the blow and followed up with a numbing jab into Nate’s left shoulder. As the kryl braced to deliver a smash across Nate’s lower face, the air in the confined space slammed everyone in a concussion of fire and a thunder.

The shotgun’s recoil knocked Emmie back against the wall where she bounced to the floor beside Erin as the gun clattered to the floor. The shot had missed the alien’s misshapen head by several inches, but it did break off its attack on Nate. While its attention went from Nate to the shotgun and the destruction of the wall behind it, then to Emmie as she flopped to the floor, Nate responded with a move to the offense.

The aging, retired mailman, who had for many years slogged through rain and sleet and the dark of night to meekly and cheerfully deliver his letters, wheeled around and, with his powerful leg muscles adding to his forward thrust, drove the end of the broom handle into the hollow beneath the alien’s chin. It was a blow designed to crush the Adam’s apple, that projection of cartilage at the front of the throat that is the top of a man’s windpipe, and even, if the force was sufficient, to penetrate through the neck, severing the spinal cord—a vicious, brutal, killing blow.

However, Nate’s opponent was not a man. And, although it had similarities in shape to humans, its physiology was different. It had no Adam’s apple.

Nate’s staff struck the flesh of the thing with a heavy thunk! As he gaped in amazement at its lack of reaction, and before he could withdraw his weapon for another blow, the alien snapped its head down, seizing the end of the staff beneath its chin. Then, in a move almost like it was swatting at a pesky fly, an upward swipe of its hand snapped the broom handle in two.

Nate gaped in shocked surprise as two-thirds of his weapon wrenched from his hands to land at Jason’s feet. The kryl released its chin-hold on the stub and let it fall to the floor. Nate eyed it, but it wasn’t even worthwhile as a club, the way it was broken at a long slant with the wood grain. Before he could bring his dagger into use, the alien grasped him about the throat and slammed him up against the wall at his back with his feet several inches above the floor.

Nate grabbed and clawed at the powerful hand closing off his windpipe. As he fought to gasp another breath, his eyes locked on the end of the alien weapon coming around and up to within inches of his chest. After a moment, the tip of the strange device tipped up further so that it was pointed at his forehead and away from his chest and its treasured strip of hide.

“You fought well, human.” The voice with the odd timbre came from the nimbus. “Many times, and with honor, I will remember your valor when I look upon—”

Putting the pain in his leg from his mind, Jason swept up the piece of the broom handle at his feet. Like he was swinging a baseball bat, he slammed the larger end of the broken staff across the creature’s face. Its weapon flew from its hands, and it released Nate as it staggered backwards.

But it was not disabled. After a pause too brief for Jason to reach it with a follow-up blow, it snatched up a nearby entryway table laden with brochures and snapped off one of the legs. Armed with a weapon as primitive as Jason’s, it whirled to face him.

Jason’s stumbling charge was slow and clumsy. The alien easily turned aside his overhead swing. It grabbed and held Jason by the throat with its free hand as it raised the club over its head.

Suddenly, like a marionette on jerked strings, the creature released Jason and the club from its flailing arms, rose into the air, and slammed against a floor-to-mezzanine pillar at its back.

As soon as it flopped onto the floor, it jumped back to its feet and glared at Jason. The other one, the gllurik, said something, again in a language the nimbus did not translate, sounds similar to the varied scoldings of a mockingbird mixed into the song of a humpback whale. The large kryl charged again to almost within striking distance when, again, it abruptly lifted and slammed back against the pillar.

It sprang to its feet, desperate, now, to disable the human before he could strike again. This time it didn’t take the time to charge; it drew back its arm to hurl the heavy table leg at Jason. Before it could throw it, though, the creature again slammed against the pillar.

The gllurik twittered something else as the kryl rebounded. In response, it spun, glared, and lunged—not at Jason, but at Emmie.

Her terror-stricken eyes locked onto the malevolence of the monster’s face as it raised the table leg and loomed over her.

Jason grasped the piece of Nate’s quarterstaff like a pole-vaulter gripping the pole, the splintered, tapered end pointing toward the alien. Driving forward with single-mindedness, he focused on the side of the creature’s neck and visualized Adam’s third arrow protruding there. The three steps it took him to reach his target flashed lightning bolts of tearing agony through his leg, but he shrugged them aside.

The sound and the motion of his approach caught the kryl’s attention at the last instant, but, by that time, even its inhumanly fast reflex was too slow. Its head had just begun to turn, the club’s downward motion stalled, when Jason struck.

The broom handle had broken along the grain, producing a long blade flat on one side with sharp, serrated edges tapering to a pointed tip of seasoned hardwood.

Bizarrely, it came into Jason’s mind that his weapon against this killer from another world was just a stick. A simple piece of wood. Maybe something whittled from one of Delmar’s oak trees. “What harm can a stick do?” they might ask.

With his legs pumping, driving him forward, Jason rammed the makeshift lance through the kryl’s neck until half its length protruded from the other side.

The table-leg club hit the floor, and the invader spun toward Jason. The sudden motion knocked Jason sideways sprawling on the floor. It flailed about to grasp the thing piercing its neck, first with one hand then the other. Its eyes flashed back and forth. It attempted to focus on what its hands gripped but could not. It slumped to its knees, and then toppled backward onto the floor. It gazed upward at the multicolored panes of the skylight on this planet unmeasured light-years from its home-world, and, as life faded from its eyes, the golden aura about its head blinked out of existence. The thing from another world didn’t thrash about, or gurgle odd sounds, or thrust out its misshapen hands in a belated, threatening gesture. It merely laid there, as dead as Carl a few feet away.

Nate still had his knife, but the others scrambled to grab what weapons they could—Jason picked up the broken table leg, Erin scurried into the stairwell and retrieved the shotgun, even though it was empty. She held it by the barrel end with the stock above her shoulder to swing as a weighted club. They all turned to face the other kryl, the one called a gllurik.

It made no threatening gestures, made no move to retrieve the other’s fallen weapon. It merely leaned over and removed a small device from the dead one’s chest. After placing it upon its own chest, a shimmering, golden halo appeared around its head.

“Please, humans,” it said. “I am not a threat to you. I have no weapon. I am not a kryl.”

Jason glanced around at the others before asking, “Then, what are you?”

“I am a gllurik. We serve kryls because we must. After they conquered us long ago, they decided our unique abilities would justify not exterminating us. They subjugated us, using us as tools, much as you humans might use a tracking hound. Yes, I am familiar with many aspects of your cultures. But with no kryl ordering me to track you and to identify which of you has the special abilities,” it glanced at Emmie before concluding, “I am no danger to you.”

“You mean you can track us but the kryls can’t?” Nate asked.

“Yes, we can sense human presence or recent presence, especially if they have special abilities, even if they are latent.” the creature said. “However, they don’t see it as any indication of superiority on our part, merely a useful facet of a servant.”

“Again, the mention of special abilities,” Jason said. “But your...the kryl kept saying they weren’t really special, just irritating.”

The gllurik slowly shook its head. “They are quite special. Even after all this time, they still don’t understand. Humans develop high technology in cultures that suppress their natural abilities—abilities you refer to variously as a sixth sense, ESP, psychokinesis and magic. On this planet, the current suppression among the majority of the population began a few hundred years ago. If the kryls would allow either one—either high technology or human magic—to develop, the other probably would not, not to a great extent, anyway. They do not understand that these innate human abilities make a pronounced emergence in response to a perceived threat to any large population of your species.”

“Huh?” Emmie said it, but it expressed the confusion of the others.

The gllurik nodded to her and said, “The emergence of these abilities seems to be controlled, probably subconsciously, by some mechanism we do not understand, although, it seems to occur more often in instances of severe stress. When a human population, especially on a planet-wide scale, feels threatened, the magic emerges more than normal. By conducting their culls, the kryls actually cause the latent abilities of a larger number of individuals—of survivors—to emerge.”

“You mean, like if something is going to hurt Daddy?”

“Yes. At one time, when we first determined this oddity about humans, we tried to make the kryls understand, but it is not in their nature. It is more natural for them to simply dominate.”

“But, why can’t they just leave us alone?” Erin asked. “If they have such a vast empire, and we are way out in the outer reaches of it, why can’t they just leave us alone to develop as we can?”

“Because you are within the realm they claim. They will not tolerate either human magic or high technology because either condition would give humans the ability to resist their domination of your planets, your species. And, as I said, kryls must dominate. They—the kryl species—are like one of your alpha animals. They must dominate all within their environment.”

Jason said, “You said you’re a gllurik and not a kryl. But, except for being smaller, you look just like them. Are glluriks related to kryls, like a subspecies or something?”

It jerked its head to peer at him. Although the alien’s face was impossible to read, Jason got a feeling he had just insulted it.

It slowly shook its head and responded. “We are not related to kryls. The only connection is their domination of us and our world.” It remained silent for long enough for Jason to wonder if that was going to be all it would say on the matter. Then it looked at each human in turn and added, “While we are in their presence, we are required to assume this form and to bear the indignity, as they see it, of wearing the multicolor of subservience. We must not resemble them in stature, though. They feel that would be presumptuous. We are shape-shifters. As humans can use magic, glluriks can assume other shapes. Our natural form is quite different from what you see here.”

Nate started to speak but it cut him off.

“Please, humans, I must leave. My world is held in thrall, and, unlike some of my kind who have taken another course, I am obligated to leave this planet with the kryls. They are preparing now. Will you allow me to join them?”

Jason looked at Erin and Nate. He shrugged, and she nodded. Turning back to the strange being, Jason said, “Very well. Go.”

Without another word, the gllurik turned to the door and walked out.

Erin turned to kneel beside Rachel and began examining her wounds. To Jason she asked, “How’s your leg? Are you still healing it faster than—”

Then Nate cut in. “Could you feel it in your head when you threw that thing against the wall? And how about when you slid that glass out? Did you—”

“Whoa!” Jason said, holding up his hand and glancing about. “How about a chair? My leg’s killing me.” Then, after easing down onto a chair Nate dragged across the room, he said, “I have no idea what happened. I was as surprised as anyone when it hit the wall. And I didn’t feel anything upstairs, either, except a sudden easing of pain, like the shard shrunk or the hole in my leg expanded. But that didn’t make it hurt more, like you’d expect. It must have been one of you, ’cause I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.”

Erin shook her head and looked from Jason to Nate. “But, I didn’t do anything. I was only about half conscious when you were fighting. And, up there, I was trying like hell to pull the glass out, but it wouldn’t budge. Good thing, too, the way it was curved. Nate, I need something for a compress. Make that two.”

Nate handed Erin his handkerchief, and then he tore off one of his shirtsleeves and handed that to her. While doing this, he said, “Well, I was just trying to breathe after that thing clamped down on my throat. And upstairs, I was concentrating on what to do with the tourniquet. Rachel?”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

Erin reached laid a calming hand on the girl’s arms. “Nate, she hadn’t even arrived yet.”

“Well, then...” Jason stopped talking and turned with mouth agape like the other two to face Emmie.

“It was me,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Does what he said mean I’m not a witch?”

They all stared at her, and she briefly made eye contact with each one, squirming a bit each time. The only explanation she offered was lacking. “When I started doing things...I got scared.”

“You mean other things besides performing life-saving surgery without touching the patient?” Erin asked.

Jason reached out to take Emmie’s hand in his. “I thought it was me, but I had no idea how, or even what, I was doing. That was really you that threw the kryl against the wall?”

She just nodded and shrugged with her face turned down.

“But, that thing was huge!” Erin said.

“I was scared for Daddy.”

Jason rubbed his fingertips over the throbbing but closed wound on his leg. “You pulled the glass out of my leg?”

She looked from face to face before answering. “I could see…no, feel…no, well, something, that the glass had to turn around a little before it would come out, ’cause it was like it was jammed in sideways and stuck. Sorta. I don’t know how to explain. I just wanted it to move the right way so it’d come out—and it did.”

Jason said, “Back up on the hilltop, when that plane tried to fry us. Something protected us. That was you?”

“I think so. I mean...yeah, I guess. I mean, I could feel something in my head when it happened, like my thoughts were sliding down a slide but it was all sticky and wouldn’t move, but then it suddenly got easier and...and...”

“But what did you do? How did you—?”

“I don’t know. I just wanted... I knew if I didn’t stop it—that light—it was going to kill you. I was just so scared I was going to lose you. But I don’t know what I did. I just...I don’t know what...just wished, I guess. I wished as hard as I could.”

Jason held Emmie tightly as he peered over her shoulder at his three friends. They returned his look of astonishment.

“Then that’s what it was upstairs when you swung that scythe that was bigger than you?” He pulled Emmie away and held her at arm’s length to peer into her tear-filling eyes.

“I’m sorry, Da—addy!” She suddenly burst into wracking sobs. “I—I was afraid h—he was going to kill y—y—you! I’m sorry!”

Jason pulled her close again and held her firmly, kissing the top of her head. “It’s okay, baby. It’s okay. He was going to kill me, and you stopped him. It’s okay.”

Nate knelt beside them and gently caressed the back of Emmie’s head. “Sweetheart,” he said, “some things are necessary. Not necessarily good, but not exactly bad, either.”

“Emmie, honey, listen to me.” Erin reached out and took Emmie’s hand, urging her to turn so they were looking into each other’s eyes. “We’ve got to understand something—all of us. This world has changed a lot in the last couple of days. And I don’t mean just the fact that magic is real, after all. Things that were bad before, or not right, are not necessarily that way, now. It’s just like Nate said. Some things are just necessary. And we’ve all got to believe it and be ready to live it—from this moment on. When Vince said the law was what he said it was, he was almost right. The law is what anyone says it is, but only if they are able to enforce it, because, honey, no one else can. We’re going to have to be ready to protect ourselves, with whatever it takes.”

Speaking to Erin, Jason said, “Maybe people will surprise us. Maybe they’ll band together and help each other. Maybe they won’t revert to the law of the jungle.”

“Maybe,” she answered with a smile. “Maybe. I have my doubts, but it’s nice to see you still have that much faith in people.” She reached out a hand to clasp Emmie’s hand again. She paused for a moment as she exchanged looks with Jason, then back to Emmie. “Honey, I can’t get the bleeding to stop. Do you think you can help Rachel?”

Emmie looked over her shoulder at Jason who met her questioning eyes with a smile and a nod. “If you can, sweetheart.”

Emmie knelt beside Rachel and peered at the ghastly gash across her arm after Erin pulled the compress away. She held her gaze on the wound for breathless moments before a collective gasp from the others signaled a noticeable reduction in the amount of bleeding. She stayed there, keeping her eyes fixed on Rachel’s arm for another couple of minutes after which the bleeding completely stopped and the raw edges of the wound began to draw together. She scooted around to Rachel’s right side and waited for Erin to bare the other wound.

After a couple of minutes, the bleeding there stopped, but Emmie looked about at her dad and the others. She said, “It feels different than her arm. I don’t know if… It’s harder to…put back together. The parts are different.”

Nate gazed in awe at the small girl performing another miracle before his eyes. Then, with a wry grin, “I’d say the variety of tissue types inside the abdomen as opposed to plain arm muscle might be causing a bit of confusion. Just a guess, mind you.”

Erin hugged her and said, “Oh, darling, just do what you can. You have already done so much, but please keep trying. Okay?”

Emmie glanced back at Erin then met Rachel’s frightened look with a weak smile. “I am. I didn’t quit. I just wanted to tell you it might take a little longer.”

Erin looked over at Jason for several seconds, then at Nate for another period of silent exchange. With tears streaming down her cheeks and a grin spreading across her face as she sobbed a short laugh, she quoted, “It might take a little longer.”

True to what the gllurik had said, the exodus had begun. The creatures trundled past, all headed northward and eastward toward the same place: the strange dome across the river. The humans were encouraged when a group of four kryls walking past the museum looked up and obviously saw the humans standing in the second-floor window but didn’t pursue and attack. When Jason was pretty sure no more were coming, they ventured outside and over to Main Street. To give his healing leg a rest, Jason made the trip in a wheelchair Nate salvaged from the ruins of a drug store across the street. Although she still had pain in both places, Rachel’s two wounds appeared to be well on their way to healing. She was even able to help get Jason’s chair over the curb.

For another two hours they sat on the grass in a little median park on Main at the south edge of the downtown area. They had just gotten settled and comfortable when Erin turned to Rachel and took one of her hands into her own.

“We did go back for you, but you weren’t in the shed.”

Rachel met her gaze and nodded with a weak smile. “I know you did. Vince raged on and on about it. Thank you for not forgetting me.”

“Oh, honey,” Erin took her into a close hug. “I will never forget you. You’re family now; we’re family. And, as a family, we are going to help you heal—and not just the bullet holes. I’m sure you will never forget the hell you’ve been through, but you did survive it. And, you beat him. You’re alive now, and Vince is gone. You won. You won because you were stronger than him. Now, we’re here to help you live with it, push it farther and farther away.”

Rachel had dropped her gaze to her lap while she listened to Erin’s words. Then she raised her head and met Erin’s gaze again as she said, “You told me I could, remember? When we were in the shed and I was so scared I… You told me not go give up; that I could win, and I kept that with me. I kept hearing to you say it even after you left. I kept hearing it in my mind, your voice telling me I could win, and I believed it because you did—I could tell. Even when…when things got so bad I…” She sobbed, wiped away the tears and went on. “But I didn’t give up. I was stronger. And I did win, didn’t I?”

“You did,” all four of her new family said in unison as Rachel returned Erin’s hug.

After a few minutes, Jason asked Nate, “What happened to your hands, anyway? You never got a chance to tell us.”

The old man raised his hands up, palms upward and slowly shook his head. He peeled the bandage away from one enough to look at the abraded skin for a moment. He eased the bloody cloth back in place and looked at each of his friends. After a moment, he spoke.

“I’m afraid…” he pointed up toward the sky in the direction of the shopping center where the aliens had landed. “I’m afraid Adam is going to be going with them when they go.”

Erin gasped, and Emmie slapped her hands over her face. Jason said, “Is there any doubt? Any hope, at all?”

Sitting there with his shoulders slumped, Nate looked years older. “I don’t see how.” He took a few slow breaths. “He and I stayed together after we got away from The Judge’s house. We went through yards and alleys and more yards until I was so turned around, I hardly knew which way was up. A couple of ’em got on our trail and ran us over half the town.”

Jason and Erin exchanged looks and slow nods.

“Now I know one of ’em was a gllurik ’cause it was a lot smaller, plus the sashes, so there was no way we were going to shake ’em. Course, we didn’t know that at the time, so we tried when we found a building that hadn’t fallen in or burned. We went in, and they followed. We went down hallways and through a regular maze, it seemed, and wound up on the second floor in the back. That’s where Adam found a rope and an idea. He looped it around a pipe and dropped the ends out the window. He let me go first, and I guess I tried to rush it a bit. I lost my grip half way down and slid the rest of the way leaving a good bit of skin on the rope. He come down right behind be, but maybe too fast, too, ’cause he limped a little afterwards. We pulled the looped rope down and figured we had just outsmarted ’em. That’s why we were so surprised when they caught up to us after a couple of blocks. We didn’t even know they were there until one of ’em shot Adam. But it didn’t sizzle and stink like burned meat; he just went down and out like he’d been pole-axed. I started to pick him up to drag or carry him somewhere out of the way, but they kept shooting. It was all I could do to dodge behind something and get away. And they didn’t take a chest-skin trophy, either. They just picked him up and took him back toward their base. I tried to follow, but others were in the way, and I had to back off. Anyway, since I don’t think he was dead, and from what we were just told, I have to assume he’s been harvested. I’m sorry.”

Silence filled the air around the little park. Finally, Jason spoke. “If they’re planning on him giving them a good hunt, they may be getting a lot more sport than they want or can handle.”

Emmie wiped away a tear tracking down her cheek. “He was nice.”

Erin reached over and took one of the girl’s hands, patted it, and kissed it. “Yes, he was—is. And you’re right, Jason. That’s going to be one expensive piece of hide to hunt down.”

After a while, Emmie broke the looming silence. “I wonder if Aunt Gertie got away.”

Silence hovered over the park, and each of the survivors gazed into private memories of new friends they feared might be gone forever. What had happened to The Judge, to Charlie and Vonnie with her baby, to Delmar and Bill and all the rest?

Jason caught a glimpse of movement in the northeastern sky and pointed at it for the others. Moving slow for Jason, they moved out from beneath the trees. The air show had begun.

The slanting rays of the westering sun glinted off the faceted sides of the alien structure as it lifted without a sound above the jagged skyline of the destroyed town. It continued to rise faster and faster into the hazy sky above Petaluma.

“Dad, they really are going.”

Jason’s voice quaked from emotion and the strain of the torturous days since Wednesday morning. “They really are.”

As the strange vessel rose, it arced over them and away to the south, accelerating at a rate that had Jason picturing the occupants being plastered against whatever they lay on. He imagined Adam struggling to withstand the G’s and passing out, perhaps even dying from the excessive force and denying his captors their sport. Far above it and waiting like a phantom specter in the brown, southern sky beyond the hills hung the mother ship above San Francisco.

Erin said, “I wonder how soon they’ll be back for more.”

Jason opined an answer. “Maybe a year. Maybe not in our lifetimes. Maybe next time we’ll be better able to fight them.”

“Not unless they ignore us for the next thousand years or so,” Nate said as he shook his head. “Meanwhile, folks are going to get things all mixed up again. There’s no tellin’ how many myths, legends and religions are gonna come out of this cull. Just look what happened from all the other ones. It’s a good bet most of the stories of goblins, trolls, devils, angels, witches, and whatever probably sprung from them. Knowin’ people like I do, I can’t see how next time’ll be all that different. So, when they do come back to burn us out again—or maybe they’ll use a flood again—it’ll be as much of a surprise as it was this time.”

Jason said, “Just think, though, if we didn’t forget about magic? It could be the thing that’ll make all the difference.”

“It could,” said Nate as he scratched his head. “But what is magic? If it’s real, is it still magic? We tend to call anything magic that we don’t understand. Frankly, I’ve always thought cell phones and laptops worked by magic. If magic is real, and apparently it is—or some kinds, anyway—then it has an explanation. I hope... Someday, before I die, I hope to have it explained to me.”

“Yeah, how about that? Magic really works,” Jason said, looking over at Erin. “I just wish we could have gotten more about it.”

She caught his meaning and smiled sheepishly back. “I’m sorry. If I had held onto my temper, maybe it would have told us more. But I just got so—”

Nate said, “I don’t think it would have told us anything of much value. Didn’t you notice how it kept trying to pooh-pooh the whole subject after it let it slip out?”

Now Jason smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, and I’m afraid I let my personal interest in the answers get in the way of my interrogation skills.”

“Anyway,” Nate said. “We do know it exists. We saw what Emmie did. And don’t forget Vince. He had some kind of power he used on Erin and Rachel.”

“Oh, God, did he! My insides are still sore.” Erin responded.

Rachel massaged her own belly and nodded. “But that wasn’t all he could do. Somehow, he could start things burning. I saw him do it back at the beach with Vic’s body. He never did it again, though, and I’m glad he didn’t.”

“Pyrokinesis?” Jason remarked. “Wow! With Vince, that is a scary thought. Back when Emmie and I were up on the headlands and watching the city burn, I saw a man just disappear and then reappear hundreds of feet away the next instant. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating or just confused in all the smoke and fury. I guess it was neither.” He peered at his daughter for a moment, grinned, and said, “And you stopped me from going over the cliff into the ocean, didn’t you?”

Her reply was a shy smile and a shrug.

Nate went on, “So, magic is real. I guess we can name it magic for now, until we know something better to call it. ESP and sixth sense sound too bogus, too elitist, and psychokinesis is too long and too hard to spell. Besides it may not be that, or not just that. Who knows? I guess we could call it peanut butter or maybe hippopotamus, but I like the word magic. It’s got that…something. That…magic.”

“You’re probably right,” said Erin. “There might be a lot more to this magic stuff we aren’t even aware of.”

Nate laughed. “I’d say there’s quite a lot we aren’t aware of when it comes to this magic stuff. But now that the cat’s out of the bag, we are sure going to have to do our best to find out. The kryls are not happy with our magic, and that most likely means it can be of very great value to us. But, aside from our little experiences with Emmie and Vince, and our very little erudition from the—what’d it say…gllurik?—where do we start? It probably wouldn’t be very productive to just go around asking people if they can do magic.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Jason said. “I don’t imagine it’s too likely that very many people have had the enlightenment that we have. Hell, we may be the only ones in the whole world that actually found out just what this invasion—no, what this cull was all about. We may be the only ones that know why they came, why they left and that they are coming back. How the hell are we going to convince anyone else? I hardly believe it myself. Refuge—humph!”

Nate nodded. “I’d say you’re right about that...about us being the only ones that know the truth. But I don’t doubt that there are going to be plenty of The Enlightened. You know, those that claim to know the truth—their truth. Some might even claim to be responsible for the invaders leaving. Some will probably even believe their own claims. It’s made to order for those kooks, shysters, and crooks that made a pretty good living out of setting up their own little cults before the kryls came. After what everyone has gone through, nothing will be too outlandish, too ridiculous, to believe, or to preach. Except, of course, the truth—the real truth—the truth we are going to have a hell of a time getting anyone to even listen to, even if we leave out the magic part. When you think about it, just about any other version, any other scenario would be preferable to the truth. At least most of the others that’ll be offered will have the appeal of having some sort of hope attached. What hope for the future can we offer?”

“Did you catch what the kryl said about a radical fringe wanting to stop the culls?” Erin asked after a moment.

Jason shook his head. “Yeah, but it also said these hunts and culls have been going on for a pretty long time. What are the chances that something that drastic could happen?”

Nate’s tone took on that quality of leaning on a rail fence, chewing on a straw of ripe wheat, and gazing beyond the horizon. “Well, now, the bigger the kingdom, the longer it’s going to take a fringe to work its way in to the core. And I guess we’re talking about a mighty big kingdom, here. But, you know, with a kingdom, empire, whatever, as big as that thing was talking about, just a fringe around the very edge could still be considerable. I guess it’s been around long enough for it to become common knowledge, so it’s not just some overnight spurt of someone’s conscience. And, too, there’s a funny thing about fringe beliefs. By the time they work their way in to the core enough for the establishment to start taking them seriously, it may be too late. Nope, it just might be something for humans, us dumb old hunting stock-humans, to hang our hopes on while we ponder the return of these devils for their culls and capture safaris.

“And here’s something to mull over. The Vikings’ religion taught that no matter what great deeds they did or how good or virtuous they were, in the end they were going to lose and evil or badness was going to win. To a Viking, the way to heaven—make that Valhalla—was to go down fighting even though they knew they couldn’t win. Now, do you suppose they might have been one of the holders of the real truth after a prior cull, after it had been seasoned by maybe a couple of centuries? Just about any of the old myths, legends, religious miracles and fairy tales could be explained with this stuff. Parts of them, anyway.”

Before anyone could respond, Nate said with a whimsical look on his face, “You know what? I’ve got a feeling the five of us are going to go down in New History as the founders of about the weirdest religious cult ever. In two or three hundred years, our followers will be leaving live sacrifices tied to a tree for the gods to take to the great, happy hunting-ground in the sky.”

Erin chuckled and gave Nate a friendly, come on, now, get real push and said, “You’re weird, all right.”

“You can laugh,” Nate came back, “but I’ll bet what I just described will be one of the more sedate practices that evolve over the next few centuries. That is, unless they do come back on a regular, frequent basis for replenishing their stock, and, then, only if they are out in the open about it. Otherwise, they’ll just confirm our grandkids’ campfire stories that the boogie-man will get you if you wander off alone.”

The look of amusement faded from Erin’s eyes as she peered at the dear friend she had made just three days earlier. When she reached over and took his hand, their eyes locked. “Nate, how are you…? How do…? What can I…?”

His face creased with a sad smile as his eyes met hers. “Yes, I’m hurting. I have to believe it will get better, but the hurt of losing Patty will always be a hole in my heart. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to spend the rest of my days incapacitated with mourning. I don’t think she would tolerate that. Not with so much to do, so much to build…rebuild. Let me tell you how she handled mourning the death of her mother a few years ago. We had just left the cemetery, and I commented that the folks on Patty’s route would be wondering what happened to her. She was also a letter carrier and had had the same route for quite some time. Her response was that they wouldn’t miss her because she would be there. She said her mother knew she loved her. She didn’t have to remove herself from the world to continue to love her. And with so many others so much in need of love it would be a shame to not be out there to give it. I imagine she would tell me now to spread it around just as she did…and as she would if our fates were reversed. No, like a good weapon, like your Viking dagger, love should not be buried with the person that carried it, where it would molder in the dark until it was nothing but a forgotten impression in the dark and the dust, but rather given to the next person worthy of receiving it, to shine in the sun like a beacon, to help make a better world.”

Erin squeezed his hand and released it. Then, with a wistful smile, she said, “I wish I had known Patty. She sounds like a marvelous person.”

“She was. She really was. I can hear her voice, now, telling me not to turn my back on what’s left of humanity; that no matter how mangled it is, it still teems with strength and beauty if I would use my heart and eyes to find it.”

Erin hugged his arm with both of hers and laid her head on his shoulder. “Sounds to me like a quest. And, you know what? I can hear her saying that, too. Knowing her only through you, I can really hear her saying that.”

Jason lifted himself out of his wheelchair to stand with his friends, letting Emmie on one side and Rachel on the other ease the strain on his leg by draping an arm over each of their shoulders. Even with the ashes of civilization blowing about his ankles, and his throbbing leg and aching body protesting his stance, he felt elated. He said, “You know, in these last four days, we have seen some pretty awful things, some of the real ugliness of nature—and of humanity, too. But they’re over. I’m sure new horrors will crop up, and we’ll have to handle them as they appear. For now, though, we’re alive—even if it is as the game in a game preserve. So, Nate, my friend, let me give you a start with your quest. We’ve already got three of the bravest and strongest, not to mention most beautiful, girls in the world—right here!”

Emmie looked up from under his arm with a sideways grin, and in her most affected almost-a-teenager-explaining-the-facts-to-a-parent tone, said, “Dad, look around. We’re the only girls in the world.”

Erin echoed Rachel’s laugh that was like a splash of cool, clean, mountain spring water.

THE END

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