Authors: Michelle Modesto
To my children, Donkey and Butters, for always being there . . . even when I’m trying to write
Westie had left the valley at dawn to head home. The sun had risen soon after and followed her throughout the day. By four it just felt spiteful. Though her skin was burned and blistered, she preferred the sun over darkness during her travels. The road between the valley and Rogue City was a long, perilous one with dense woods on either side.
She tried to push away any thoughts of danger. They’d taken up too much space in her head on her journey. All she wanted to think about was home. Only a mile now stood between her and a hot meal that didn’t consist of canned beans—she’d be home in plenty of time for supper.
Twigs snapped behind her like breaking bones, and Westie twisted in her saddle. There were plenty of harmless things that lived in the forest, but there were plenty of other things too. For the last hour she’d heard cracks and creaks, too uniform to be commonplace.
Ahead of her the road was barely wide enough to fit a stagecoach. The idea of trying to run her horse over its deep wagon ruts to escape made her nerves hum.
Another branch cracked, this time on her right. She gripped her reins tighter as she gazed out into the forest, searching for unlikely shapes or movement, too absorbed in finding the thing that stalked her to notice the dark figure on her left until it was right beside her.
Her muscles stiffened and she held her breath. Slowly turning, she saw the familiar hunched figure sitting atop a painted horse, looking at her with a smudge of a grin.
“Dammit, Bena, you scared the shit out of me,” Westie said, her entire body sighing.
She slid from her saddle and reached for her horse’s reins with the copper clockwork machine that had replaced her missing right arm. A labyrinth of brass gears and cogs moved when she flexed her metal fingers around the leather.
Bena Water-Dancer, named for the way she glided through the water while fishing, was a hunter in the Wintu tribe and moved like a shadow. She’d tried teaching Westie the technique once, but as birds scattered from trees and rabbits darted back into their holes, it became obvious Westie was more battering ram than cougar.
“If I’d been a creature, you’d be dead by now,” Bena said, her accent dull in comparison to the beautifully fluid tongue of her native Wintu language. She too jumped down from her horse. Her long black hair was pulled away from her broad face into a braid as thick as her wrist. Though Bena was thirty, she still moved like a girl
half her age and looked no older than when Westie had met her seven years ago.
Westie shrugged. “Creatures don’t bother me none.” It was common for creatures to attack travelers, but Westie had never run into any problems. She assumed it had something to do with the strangeness of her metal arm, or the creatures’ fear of what she could do with it.
Bena scanned Westie’s unwashed hair and her filthy clothes. Disapproval seemed the final judgment.
“It’s no wonder. I could smell you from across the cow pastures. Let’s get you home and in the bath before someone uses you as a weapon.” Bena’s eyes were crushed between her low forehead and high cheekbones when she smiled.
Westie grinned back and climbed onto her horse, cringing from saddle burn.
Ten minutes later they reached Rogue City. The tension that had been building up over the last two months melted from Westie’s shoulders. She pulled at Henry’s reins to stop him before crossing the shimmering dome of magic that surrounded the city. Like a soap bubble, it glistened with color and was near invisible if one wasn’t looking for it. Westie was watching the last of the sunlight glitter across its surface when the dome suddenly vanished.
She gasped. “Did you see that?”
Bena looked around. “See what?”
“The dome—it disappeared.”
It was only gone for a moment before it flickered back into place.
Had she blinked, she would’ve missed it. She stared in stunned disbelief, wanting to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Bena squinted up at the sky even though Westie knew the woman’s eyesight was better than any creature’s. “It’s still there. You have been on the road too long. Perhaps you are seeing things.”
“Perhaps,” Westie said, becoming suspicious when Bena didn’t make eye contact. It wasn’t like Bena to dismiss anything when it came to the protection of her people.
They passed through the watery-looking membrane. When Westie had first crossed paths with the dome on her way to live with Nigel as a child, she’d thought her clothes would get wet with the way it sparkled like water, or that she’d feel somehow changed when entering a place of magic, but it was the same as being on the other side.
The road cut between the parallel storefronts of Rogue City, each painted a different shade of ordinary. Ahead of them on the right was the Tight Ship saloon, a squalid hole in the wall with piano music and cigar smoke rolling out of the open windows. Westie’s horse reared up as an elf and a young man crashed through the swinging doors into the street, a twisting ball of fists and foul language. Westie grabbed the horn of her saddle before she could be dumped off and glared down at the pair.
An ogre and a dwarf (or what Westie thought was a dwarf; she was always getting them confused with the bakhtak—stocky little creatures blamed for causing nightmares) stepped out of the saloon behind them to watch the fisticuffs. As soon as the dwarf saw Westie and Bena, he crossed his arms protectively in front of
himself and went back inside.
The elf, nimble and rather beautiful with his long, fair hair and soft features, was fast, avoiding the brunt of the young man’s advances. But the human was quicker with his feet, kicking the elf’s legs out from under him each time he tried to stand.
Each seemed too drunk to get the best of the other until the young man noticed Westie and Bena nearby. His eyes went wide, mouth falling open as he looked at Westie. The distraction allowed the elf to gain the upper hand and pin the human against a hitching post.
“You’re strong for a girl,” the young man said to the elf, a cocky grin moving his lips. He couldn’t have been older than sixteen, an aristocrat from the looks of his clothes, with skin that looked as smooth as the petals of a spring magnolia.
The elf’s prominent forehead was even more so when he frowned. “I’m a male.” He spit out another word in a language Westie couldn’t understand.
The young man’s brows rose high on his forehead. “You are?”
With a growl, the elf pushed the young man into the ogre’s waiting arms.
“Hello, beautiful,” the young man said in a strangled voice. The ogre squeezed him in a vise grip around his torso and then flipped him upside down. Coins fell from the young man’s pockets onto the ground.
The ogre, built like the trunk of a redwood with boils and warts covering its greenish skin, released a noxious odor—reminiscent of a
polecat—that nearly knocked Westie out of the saddle.
She pulled her kerchief over her nose and laughed as Bena shook her head. Most creatures kept to the wilds, but those who wanted luxuries only humans could provide, and chose to live under the dome, behaved just like any other fool. Though Westie couldn’t say she liked them much, at least they were entertaining.
“That’s enough,” Westie said, her laughter trailing off as the ogre exposed jagged, bloodstained teeth. The boy was no match for a creature. “Put him down.”
When the ogre didn’t let go of the boy right away, what remained of Westie’s smile slid from her face. “Go on now. Let him go before this gets ugly.”
A vein protruded from the young man’s forehead, his face red and swollen from being hung upside down. “I think this got ugly five minutes ago,” he said with a not-so-subtle nod toward the ogre.
Westie rolled her eyes. Clearly he had no idea of the danger he was in. The Wintu might have cast a spell over the town making it impossible for creatures to kill humans without giving up their own lives, but there were things worse than death.
The ogre looked from the young man to Westie’s mechanical arm, then dropped him to the ground.
On the opposite side of the road, at the blood brothel, a group of vampires cheered for the fight to continue, only a glimpse of pale faces and the glint of dark-lensed goggles visible under the awning that protected them from the sun.
The young man stood up, brushed the dust from his clothes, and
ran a hand over his dark, oiled hair, never taking his eyes off Westie. The color came back to his face, leaving a beautiful flush in his cheeks.
Frowning, Westie covered her chin with her hand, wondering if there was a blemish worth all his attention. She was used to people staring, but it was usually at her mechanical arm.
“Are you some kind of dummy?” she said.
He blinked up at her. “Pardon me?”
She pointed a metal finger toward the elf and the ogre as they receded back into the saloon. “Picking a fight with creatures like that.” She didn’t like getting mixed up with creatures—not only because of their penchant for violence, but also because they were known for holding grudges.
“I didn’t start that fight. . . .” He tilted his head in thought, a smile spreading across his face. “Actually, I suppose I did. You see, the elf had been killing me at cards all afternoon. I tried flirting to throw her—er,
I should say—off his game. I don’t think he liked me running my hands through his hair, but how was I supposed to know he was a male? I thought all the hitting was some sort of creature foreplay.”
Bena snorted behind her.
Westie shook her head. “The ears,” she said, exasperated. “Males have longer, pointier ears.”
“I see.” He chuckled, looking around, up at the dome. “What a strange place, this Rogue City.”
“You new in town?”
Of course he was. Westie knew everyone in their small town.
Not too many humans liked the idea of cohabiting with creatures, and the ones who did were often hiding from something.
He pulled a flask from his hip pocket. “Just arrived today.”
Westie watched him take a drink and felt her mouth begin to water. “You’ll be lucky to survive the night at the rate you’re making enemies.”
He had the kind of slick smile that could turn sharp girls into simpletons. “Luckily, I have you here to protect me.”
Bena cleared her throat. “We should get you home. It’s getting late.”
“Perhaps I’ll see you again,” the young man said.
“Let’s hope not.” Westie tugged at her horse’s reins, urging him in the opposite direction. “You seem like the kind of trouble I want no part of.”
His laughter came easily. There was something oddly familiar about the sound of it that put her at ease. She wondered what a dandy like him was doing in a place like Rogue City but didn’t want to give him the wrong idea by asking such a personal question.
Past the east side of town there were few creatures to be seen. No laws had been set in place or lines drawn in the sand, but creatures kept to the east side of town and humans kept to the west for the most part in order to avoid one another.
Westie slowed her horse, and they strolled at an easy pace through the center of town. The buildings looked a century old even though Rogue City had been only in its infancy when Westie had first gone to live with Nigel seven years ago. Two traveling men stood
outside the Roaming Inn, their heads bent in discussion. When they looked up and saw Westie and Bena, their hands eased toward the weapons at their belts. Curious townsfolk looked out from their shop windows to catch a glimpse of the pair.
Westie wasn’t concerned for herself. It was Bena the townspeople had eyes for. They didn’t trust the natives. They didn’t trust the creatures either, but all the creatures had were teeth and claws—natives had magic. No matter that Wintu magic was the only thing that kept the teeth and claws of creatures from tearing out human throats.
Bena ignored the fear in the eyes of those watching. Westie raised her arm to them, sun beaming off her metal hand as she made a rude gesture with her fingers. The corner of her mouth hooked into a smile when she heard the yelps of women and disapproving grumbles of men before they scattered back into their holes like cockroaches.