[Black text on white]

Rabbit Stew
by Jenn Dolari

       Jana first became aware she was laying face flat on the ground when she came to. If it wasn't for the feeling of grass beneath her, it would have been that great feeling you have after a long sleep - the creak of freshly rested muscles, eyes firmly snuggled behind closed eyelids.
      Jana raised herself to all fours and squinted her eyes open. Looking down at the ground all she could see was grass, framed by a mass of curly blonde hair. Her hair always did this until it was brushed in the morning. Momma would be mad if she saw Jana outside with messy hair.
      And then it came to her...she wasn't supposed to be outside. She was eating reptile scales of some sort with her parents in a restaurant. Jana stood up on long legs, straightening herself up, pushing the curls from her face, and looked around. She was standing in long ruined building, with hints that it may have been a restaurant millions of years ago. Pieces of long faded tile and linoleum peeked through spaces in the dirt and grass, the ruined wainscoting were all that remained of burned and decaying walls. Outside, hints of asphalt were slowly being worn away by time.
      Looking down past her chest at the asphalt also brought to her attention the fact that the world wasn't the only thing that changed. Jana found a large shard of window somehow still in a window pane and looked at her reflection.
      The face was obviously hers, but thinner, more mature. The tailored leather skins and beads covered up the frame of a shapely eighteen year old with a remarkably surprised look on her face, topped with a mass of curly blond spiral hair with the occasional tribal braid hanging off it.
      Jana's first thought was what a Halloween costume this would make. Her second was who those three people behind her in cloaks. Spinning around, she put her hand on a knife that sat sheathed on her belt by pure instinct. She knew it was there, and yet, didn't know how she knew. A question for another time, these three could have answers to what had happened.
      "You there!" The clear adult tone of her voice surprised her. "What's happened here?"
      The three men in cloaks were tromping down a large path that was probably Broadway Street, two carrying a litter with a dead doe hanging off of it. The third, the pathfinder, regarded her with amusement. "Alright, boys, we've still got a long way to go. Let's set down for a break," said the pathfinder. As he approached Jana, she hunkered down to a crouch. Just in case. "Take your hand off the knife, girl. We're on a deadline, and don't have the time to subdue a slave today, not with this load. Besides, it's not every day we get to feast our eyes on such savage beauty." The two others snickered at that. "Sit. You look like you could use it," he said pulling out a canteen and passing it around.
      Jana cautiously sat, a few feet away. She couldn't explain why she was worried about these people, just that she felt the threat it in her bones. "What happened here?"
      "Vengeance wanted a banquet for this evening, we were hunting out in the old Green Mountain area for game."
      "Green Mountain?"
      "Yeah, where the old Loop 1604 and Nacogdoches Road used to cross. Quite a ways from here now without cars. If we weren't so beat, you'd be coming with us in chains."
      "Cars. What happened to all the cars?"
      The pathfinder pulled back his cloak, revealing the face of a older man whose beard was grey with age. "I shouldn'a said that, love. There've never been cars here. There's never been a 1604 or Nacogdoches Road. But some of us have had the dreams about them. Millions of cars on highways, threading the cities together. Going cross country in hours instead of taking hours to see a neighbor. Dreams, child. Nothing but dreams with echoes here."
      Jana's curiosity allowed her to relax slightly. "There were cars. There were cars in the parking lot! There was this restaurant! On Broadway Street!"
      "You've had them too, girl. You're lucky. We don't all share the dreams."
      "It wasn't a dream! It was real."
      "Perhaps, but it's not what matters now."
      The pathfinder stood up, causing Jana to tense back into her crouch. "Vengeance doesn't want a midnight snack, boys, the buffet's waiting on us." The two men reached for the dead doe's litter as they raised up the hoods on their black cloaks. "You be careful girl, these aren't safe roads to travel alone. Not all of Vengeance's friends are as tired as we are."
      Guiding his way down the remnants of the road, she watched them recede into the the distance. She gave them what felt like an hour and left in the opposite direction.
      Jana had been walking for hours up what was probably Broadway, but she'd never paid attention to the roads as a little girl. If she ever left the path, she'd never know how to get back. And even then, she only knew Broadway back to the shell of a burned out restaurant that wasn't going to provide much in the way of shelter.
      Jana flopped down on a rock. She hadn't eaten in a while, and while the leather skin boots kept the cold out, but weren't very cushioned. And it was kind of chilly. And getting dark. The threatening feeling had left her as she made distance from the three men, vanishing the warrior Jana, and leaving just the confused thoughts of the eight year old Jana inside the eighteen year old body. With nothing, absolutely nothing, recognizable, the eight year old wanted to cry badly.
      "You'll catch your death of cold out here in that outfit, hun." Jana spun around, jumping at the voice. "Why don't you come inside? You look like you could use the rest." What Jana saw melted the eight year old's heart: A woman, robed all in purple and a witches hat upon piled up red hair, but what brought on her broad smile were the friendly clear blue eyes of her waitress at the restaurant.
      "Sylvia! That was your name! Sylvia!" She rushed up to crush the one thing she recognized in a great big bear hug, but slammed into what looked like a transparent gold wall. After stumbling a few steps back, Jana saw it fizzle away into nothingness.
      "I said come in from the cold, not rush me with that knife on your belt. Now come inside. Leave the knife on the coffee table."
      The old oak cabin wasn't far from the road. Far enough to be invisible, close enough to be convenient. Inside lamps and glowing balls of some kind of gold magic dimly lit the one room house. Jana moved the candle on the table to one side to see her hostess, sitting directly across from her. "I know you."
      Sylvia nodded. "I know you, too."
      Jana's eyes widened in anticipation.
      "I'll get right to the point. You've been hunting rabbits in my begonias, stomping through my gardens and making a mess of the flower beds. So if you don't mind, please stop and I'll show you how to build a proper rabbit snare."
      Jana cocked her head.
      "A rabbit snare?" Sylvia repeated, attempting to get the girl's synapses to fire. "Rabbit trap? Thing for catching rabbits?" Jana's wide stare gave her little hope. "You do know what a rabbit is?"
      "I've never killed a rabbit. Ever." Jana wasn't so sure anymore, though. She'd never killed a rabbit, ever, but something was leaking through out of her subconscious. An idea that maybe she had killed a rabbit, and how easy it was to skin one once you'd killed it. Cooked just right-. She shook the memory out of her mind.
      "Oh, dear. A lie. Well, I was hoping we could have had a nice talk over some tea and stew, but I guess we'll need more drastic measures." Sylvia stood up, and a globe of glowing gold began to form up in her hand. "I was hoping it wouldn't come to this, but maybe a few years as a rabbit might drill some sense into you. And it was such good stew, too."
      She had to remember, thought Jana. Something. Anything. And she couldn't convince the former waitress as a rabbit. And then it came to her. "You'll get more good out of that asparagus if you eat it! Pushing it around your plate is cute, but unless its running a race, it's not gonna win any awards, honey!"
      Sylvia froze, her globe of gold magic popping like a soap bubble. A memory replayed in her mind, clear as day, of a small girl sitting in a diner, playing with her food.
      "You were my waitress. Your name was Sylvia, and I was playing with the green spiky things."
      Sylvia dropped back into her seat. "You know. You know about the old world. You remember it."
      "I was in the restaurant. You offered me dessert, and asked me-"
      "What you wanted." Sylvia interrupted. "And you asked for everyone...to get...YOU!" Jana startled back in her seat. "You were the one who started this whole mess! You destroyed the old world!"
      "Not on purpose!"
      "Not on purpose?! Do you realize what kind of hell you've put us through? The lives we've had to rediscover?" Sylvia's blue eyes flashed gold, for a fleeting second.
      Something awakened in Jana at that point. The same feeling she got when she saw the three men in her reflection. That same something sensed the threat of this person and was beginning to take over. Her wide eyes squinted down to a peer, and her muscles tensed.
      And then Sylvia softened again. "No. You probably don't realize what's happened. You were only a kid. How could you have known?" Sylvia put her head in her hands. "I'm sorry, this is probably as hard for you as it is for all of us." She recomposed herself, pushed back her seat and headed for the back door. "We've got a lot to talk about...I'll get the stew."
      "So you see, Jana, you got your wish." Sylvia served up another mug of tea. "We don't know why or when, but when you asked for everyone in the restaurant to have their wish, they got it. No matter what it was, they all received it. All the changes around us are the twisted reality of these wishes in those people's hearts."
      Enraptured by the story, Jana asked, "What happened to the city?"
      "Someone in the diner wished for some kind of fantasy-world empire, and he got it along with a new name. 'Vengeance.' It warped the city into his perfect city-state and everyone within it changed." Sylvia gave a slight smile as she tugged at her velvet purple robe. "It made me a bonafide witch. Sure makes a nice change from serving food for tips."
      "But, you aren't a witch, really. Are you?"
      "I am, actually. Well, I am now. I was born in this little cabin, I grew up in a family where my mother was a witch and my father was a woodsman. Mother taught me her craft, and in time, I was doing magic alongside her. She's long gone, though. Father, too.
      "It's all a lie, though." Sylvia added. "I have these memories, but they're not real. What's real was that, once upon a time, I was a waitress raising two children on her own, in a city in Texas. That was as real to me once as me being a witch is now."
      Jana began to realize the extent of the damage her small words had caused. "And your children?"
      "I don't know."
      Jana ached at those words. A feeling she'd never considered before, but in her new world, one she somehow knew: the feeling of a mother who'd lost her children. A feeling Sylvia was also experiencing. The witch attempted to change the topic.
      "So...you've certainly grown up into a fine young huntress. How old are you now? Sixteen? Seventeen?"
      "I'm eight. I just don't look it, anymore."
      "Eighteen? You look just right, to me. So about ten years has passed now?"
      "No, I'm eight. Not eighteen."
      Sylvia's eyebrow arched up a notch. "You're....eight."
      "Yes. I'm eight and a half."
      Sylvia put her head back in her hands, rubbing her eyes. "Okay. You're eight. What's the first thing you remember after asking about everyone getting their wishes?"
      "I woke up a few miles away. Where the restaurant used to be, I think. Then I saw these three men who-"
      "And how long ago was this?" She'd dealt with eight year olds before, and knew they loved going off into tangents.
      "Dunno. A few hours ago? I don't have a watch."
      "But definitely today?"
      Sylvia sat back and considered the ramifications of this revelation. She'd known about the Old World all her life, right back to when she was a little witchling helping her mom with spells. But in reality, this world had only existed a few hours. And Jana, the innocent eight year old who brought this calamity on everyone, was sitting across from her eating her stew.
      One thing was sure, Jana couldn't remain eight years old in this world. If Sylvia could get a hold of some of Jana's reconstructed memory, maybe she could mature her up a bit.
      On the east side of the cabin, were Sylvia's flowerbeds and her prize begonias. The two walked up to the flower bed, Sylvia pointing out a rabbit path heading to them with a golden trail of magic. "You were running down this path, chasing a hare yesterday."
      "But I didn't."
      "Hear me out, Jana. The rabbit came this way, right into the flower beds, then took off along the side of the house. You came the same way, tromping right into the flower bed, and along the cabin."
      "But I didn't!"
      "You see this mashed up part here?" She highlighted a spot in the begonias which had been mashed down. "Put your foot there and see if it fits."
      Jana looked over at her cautiously then back down into the flowerbed, and put her booted foot in the crushed begonias. It fit perfectly.
      "It's your foot alright. Can you remember anything about that chase?"
      Jana stared into the flowerbed.
      Jana stood completely motionless.
      A rustle came from the far end of the bed, and a rabbit poked up its head. Like an arrow finally being let free from a pulled bow, Jana and the rabbit took off down the side of the cabin. Sylvia rubbed her forehead a headache began to form. "Right through the begonias."
      Jana sped through the front yard with the speed and grace of a seasoned hunter dashing after the rabbit, never once losing sight of it. After two tight zigzags Jana had moved into position, and pounced on the rabbit. With no knife, she broke its neck to silence the screaming.
      Running after the huntress, Sylvia huffed her way to where Jana laid holding the now dead rabbit. Jana looked at Sylvia with eyes much older then before. "There should be enough here to feed two, if we add it to the stew stock for the morning. I'll skin it before then."
      Sylvia sat down on her knees. "How did you do that, hun?"
      Jana smiled at her with a grin that made Sylvia uneasy. "I've been alone in the forests for years, you learn these things." As Jana stood up with an almost animal like grace, Sylvia decided that she would probably want to keep Jana on her side and agreeable as long as they were together.
      "But you just got here, didn't you?"
      "Well, yes...I just...." And the connection broke. "I just...got here. I..." Jana looked at the dead rabbit in her hands. The hands that killed the rabbit. She dropped the dead rabbit on the ground. "I killed it."
      "Yes. I'm sorry." The witch put one arm around the shoulder of the now crying Jana, and with the other, placed a protection spell over the dead rabbit. She would come back for it after she had put Jana to bed.
      Jana's sleep was interrupted by fitful dreams. Images of playing in her old front yard with plastic dolls danced across her eyes. Dreams of bike riding down streets with friends, playing house under the trees in the backyard intermingled with images of living in the forest, foraging, escaping slave seekers, and keeping out of the many eyes of Vengeance.
      And with each dream, the new world firmly latched into her psyche, each memory door opening brought a bit of her new history back to her. And as she assimilated all the varied images, her unconscious made note of one omission - no mother. Not a single memory of her in this new world, only memories of a father as a blacksmith, hammering a something into shape.
      It was a long and uncomfortable sleep.
      "Stupid stringy rabbit," Sylvia cursed under her breath as another strip of skin tore off unevenly. She was never good at skinning animals. She preferred heading into town to the butcher's for a good clean cut of anything, over skinning her own any day. "Dad made this look so easy. Why won't you just come away clean?!"
      "You're cutting along the tendons." Jana sat up rubbing sleep from her eyes. "It's faster and cleaner if you cut against them." She walked up to the cutting shelf, taking the rabbit from Sylvia. "I'll show you. Watch."
      Sylvia watched as Jana skinned the rabbit with a skill and grace she didn't have yesterday. Large strips of skin peeled away with little effort. "How old are you, Jana?"
      "And you've skinned rabbits before?"
      "You can't live in the forest without learning to skin well."
      Sylvia examined Jana. She didn't have a far away look in her eyes like before, or the frightening mannerisms of the savage. "You killed that rabbit like a professional, last night."
      Jana dropped her head and looked down at her hands. "I know. I know." She went back to skinning the rabbit. "Last night, while I slept, some of the memories you talked about came to me. They taught me to skin a rabbit. They taught me a lot." She grinned at Sylvia. "And you were wrong. I didn't run down that path into your begonias. I ran through the begonias up it the other way, back into the forest."
      As Sylvia began serving up bowls of the rabbit stew, there was a knock at the door. "Get that, Jana, would you?" Dutifully, Jana opened the heavy oak front door to see a heavyset Japanese man at the door, dressed in trading furs.
      "I'm looking for Sylvia. Is she in?"
      "We're not interested!" she shouted from the back of the cabin, wondering if "No Soliciting" signs would be any good in this world.
      The trader moved his gaze back at Jana. He didn't look like he wanted to sell anything. There was something else in his eyes, some sadness. "I'm not here to sell anything. There was a merchant down the ways that said Sylvia had an open door policy to travelers. I was hoping..."
      "...she might feed you?" Sylvia crossed her arms behind Jana. "My hospitality is getting a little too well known." She waved him inside. "I'm going to need to have a little talk with Colin, that little blabbermouth."
      "He also said...you had...memories."
      Jana sat back down to her bowl at the dinner table, as Sylvia served up another bowl of the rabbit stew to the traveler. "Why does it seem no matter where I go, I'm serving up food?"
      Jin's face soured. "Is this rabbit?"
      "Fresh." Jana smiled proudly for a second before remembering how they got the rabbit in the first place.
      The trader sighed. "Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit."
      Sylvia frowned. "I'm sorry, but it's all we've got."
      The traveler put on an apologetic smile. "Oh, no, no, no. This is fine. It's just that I can't seem to get away from rabbit. Breakfast, lunch and dinner." Sylvia sat as the traveler continued. "Rabbit stew is fine. What I really came to see you about were, well." He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Memories."
      "You know. Where we were. Before."
      "No idea. Do tell." Jana looked at Sylvia quizzically. Why would she lie about the memories? Especially to someone who obviously shared them?
      "My name is Jin, and I'm a trader in silver. I own a mine out in the west, which is how I met up with your friend Colin. I was selling him some ingots for his jewelry shop when I mentioned to him that my wife once had a beautiful pair of silver earrings.
      "I don't have a wife. At least not here. I didn't mean to really say anything to him, but Colin figured out what I'd meant. He told me to see you."
      Jana tried her best not to look completely taken by his story. She loved a good story, but whatever Sylvia had in mind, she didn't want to blow it.
      Sylvia considered Jin's story for a second, before responding. "What was the last thing you remember in your other memories?"
      "I was sitting in a restaurant with my wife, celebrating her birthday. She's gone, though." He waved his hand towards the surroundings. "Somewhere out there."
      Jin stared into his bowl of rabbit stew. "You know...I remember I ordered the liver and it was terrible. I'd seen a menu item for rabbit in butter sauce. I'd wished I had that instead." He pointed at the bowl in front of him. "Every day. Every meal. After a few years of this, that liver seems so so good."
      Sylvia stared at Jin for a bit, reading his face as best she could. He seemed genuine, and even she remembered that Earl's liver wasn't his best dish. "Jin? Meet the person who is responsible for this rabbit dish, and probably all the others you've had." She motioned to Jana, just turned a bit red and tried to make herself smaller in her seat.
      "Well, you came to the right spot," Sylvia interjected. "Those other memories are real. You were at a restaurant where I was a waitress, and our huntress here was there as well."
      Jana waved sheepishly. "Hi."
      Jin breathed a sigh of relief. "You don't know how nice it is to know there are other people who are having the same memories." He shifted in his seat, after a moment, uncomfortably. "If this isn't the real world, how do we get back?"
      "We don't know. I may be a witch, but not much of a seer. The only thing I'm sure of is we haven't been here for long. Maybe a day at the most, if Jana's memory is right. But I think we're in this for the long haul."
      Jana stared at Jin's untouched bowl. "You don't want your rabbit anymore, then?"
      Sylvia threw a scolding look over at Jana. "Jana."
      Jin just sighed. "No, I don't want rabbit anymore. I don't want rabbit ever again, to be honest."
      Suddenly, with a flash of light flashed in the room, Jin threw his head back and his back arched. Sylvia and Jana jumped to their feet, protected by a gold magical shield conjured up by Sylvia's reflexes. The flash concentrated at Jin's chest as a small glowing jade gem floated out from his chest. It floated gently about a foot in front of him before the flash faded, and the gem fell to the table with a thud.
      Jin had passed out after the ordeal, more from shock than injury, but seemed otherwise fine. The gem's exit from his chest left no marks or wounds, and it took the two of them to drag him over to one of the beds while he recovered.
      Sylvia was more worried about the gem on her table. She'd put a protection spell on it almost immediately, more for their protection than the gem's. She waved Jana back, away from the table. Sylvia was sensing magic from it, but not at very high levels. Removing the spell, she picked up the gem. Not very heavy, not very powerful. There was a design inside the gem, but she couldn't make it out.
      "There's a rabbit in there," Jana chimed in. "You see the two ears? And the whiskers? That's a rabbit." She stared at it a bit longer. "I'm pretty sure it's his wish. He wished for a rabbit dinner, and then gave it up just before this thing came out."
      "There's something to be said for possessing a child's imagination." Sylvia said. Jana smiled. She popped the gem into the air, caught it, and put it in a pocket in her robe. "But if all you had to do is give up your wish, why hasn't this happened in the past?"
      "You said we've only been here a day. Maybe no one knows this can happen yet?"
      "Maybe. But if you're right, we have the key to getting our world back. If it really is Jin's wish, then we need to get Vengeance's wish back. Then get all the gold in Fort Knox, count all the angels on the head of a pin, and find Judge Crater." Sylvia's brow furrowed. This wasn't going to be easy.
      "What was his wish?"
      "Vengeance runs this city state. I'm pretty sure he's the one we'll need to convince to give up all this. If that's even what this gem is about."
      "Not Vengeance's wish. Judge Craters'?"
      The next few weeks their lives were simple, given what they were planning. Sylvia spent her days helping Jana regain her memories of the new world, and was rewarded to see the eight year old slowly becoming more like the eighteen year old she actually was, while teaching her to tone some of her eighteen year old's savageness. She had become fond of the girl she was raising, and relieved that a lot of the fire that remained went to serving their common good, instead of wild barbarian whims.
      Jana spent her time hunting small game for food, but was enjoying her lessons in magic as she saw more results from her practices. The dreams were showing her more of her life, and as she learned more skills, she felt more confident in her abilities and in herself. She had also become fond of the witch who was caring for her, when she couldn't care for herself.
      Jin often came over to share in their thoughts about the old world, to compare notes and reminisce about old times, as well as to eat anything the two served up that wasn't rabbit. In appreciation for releasing him from the disastrous results of his wish, he'd given the two a beautiful carved wooden jewelry box, lined in silver culled from his mine. He'd also become a bit pudgy.
      And always, they would scheme about how to get into Vengeance's court. Elaborate plans. Joke plans. And even plausible plans.
      It took them about two months to come up with one that worked.
      Jana, Sylvia and Jin had been walking for hours, almost all uphill, up the remnants of Broadway Street. Most of the center of the city the three knew as the old San Antonio had become a blown out caldera of a long inactive volcano, and as they walked over the crater wall, the entire caldera crater spread out before them. "Almost ten miles from wall, to wall," Jin said. "Can you make out that black castle in the center of the village, Jana?" She nodded. "That's Vengeance's castle. Seven spires of obsidian surrounded by a molten moat. Definitely more imposing than the pink granite capital in old world Austin."
      Jana squinted at the castle for a moment and then back from the pass down the road, remembering the ruins of the restaurant just a mile or two behind them. So much had changed since she was last there, and in ways that twisted her head into knots. She'd considered stopping, just to pay respects to the world that had long stopped living. It wouldn't have changed anything, though, and they'd decided to move on.
      After the three had passed around their canteen and had a light lunch, they stretched out in the grass for a bit. Jana stared at the sky, watching the clouds go by. Sylvia, hiding her eyes under the wide brim of her purple witch's hat spied on her. What she saw was the look of a kid thinking the kinds of deep thoughts kids shouldn't have to worry about.
      "Sylvia? Do you like being a witch?"
      And there it was. Sylvia smiled. The big question would be coming soon. "Of course I do. If you use your talents for the right reasons, it's very rewarding. And I grew up in it, so it's second nature to me. Pays pretty well, too, hun. See this robe?" She pulled on one of the lapels. "Real Tyrian purple!"
      They both giggled for a second, before Jana returned to her worried tone. "No really. Do you like being a witch?"
      Sylvia pushed her hat back to look Jana in the eye. "Yes I do. Frankly, I like it a lot more than being a waitress back in the old world."
      "Then why should we even try going back? If you like it, maybe everyone else does, too."
      Sylvia hitched herself up on her elbows. "Ask Jin there how he liked his first decade or two of rabbit. Not everyone's wish is perfect. Some don't know what they're getting into, others probably don't care what their wish may be doing to others. But there's another reason we need to go back. Jin?"
      Jin turned towards them from his perch on the pass.
      "You're good with facts and figures, Jin. How many people are in the village of San Antonio down there?"
      Jin twisted in his seat to face the two women, rubbing his chin in thought. "Last I heard it was something like twenty five thousand or so."
      "And in our world?"
      "I really never gave it much thought. About..." Jin's eyes widened as he realized her point. "A million and a half."
      "And that's just one city," Sylvia said grimly.
      Jana continued to stare at the clouds, already overwhelmed the tasks ahead of them. "All gone."
      Glistening gold and white marble reflected light from the torches, illuminating the Main Hall of the castle, where Vengeance sat heavily on his throne. The forty year old's silver pony tailed hair stood out from the black obsidian of his throne, and his eyes pierced bright orange from his pale face. The black armor blended into his throne, making it hard for anyone to draw a bead on his body. Not that anyone had been successful in harming him anytime recently.
      Assembled along the hallways were the court witnesses - witnessing more of the buffet than the court proceedings - and the petitioners, Jana and Sylvia among them.
      Vengence pondered as the Castellan approached with tonight's docket. "Just a few petitions today, sir. A Mister Cobbler wishing to annex some of the Harlandale Crownlands, and the Witch Walker asking for an adoption approval."
      "Adoption approval? There are lower officers for that."
      "This is an adult adoption, sir. Your approval is required for such matters."
      "Adult adoption?"
      "Apparently the adoptee has..." They both looked at the shapely young barbarian woman staring transfixed at the glittering grand ballroom chandelier. "She has...issues, My Lord."
      Vengeance nodded approvingly, "I see. Call Mister Cobbler to my presence."
      The acoustics of the hall took the Castellan's already formidable voice and echoed it throughout the chamber. "Call Mister Robert Cobbler to the floor!"
      A small dark mustachioed man in his finest peasants clothing made his way to the center of the hall, exactly halfway between Lord Vengeance, and the witnesses. He dropped to one knee, head never looking up. You didn't look directly at Vengeance when starting your petition, he considered it rude. "Rise. You wish to acquire some of the Crownlands on the edge of your quarter. Explain."
      Robert looked up at Vengeance from his kneeled position. Slowly, gently, he rose up, trying not to look into Vengeance's glowing orange eyes. He swallowed hard before clearing the lump from his throat. "My Lord. My wife is expecting our third child in a few months, and I'd like to expand my land a bit to support it. Water is scarce in Harlandale, the irrigation systems aren't as advanced as other parts of the empire. And as I border the Crownlands, I would very much like the extra land to devote to my child."
      "You cannot sustain another child with what you have?"
      "No, Lord. Not without some more watershed."
      Vengeance considered the man's request, putting his hands to his temples in thought. His eyes flashed as he made his decision: "No." Robert's face fell. "I cannot have anyone receiving Crownlands simply because they have had a child. I would quickly lose those lands to anyone bordering one. And what of those who do not border the Crownlands? No."
      Robert bowed his head in disappointment. "Thank you, sir. Your wisdom is sound, and I bow to your better judgment." He bowed and moved to leave the chamber.
      "I did not dismiss you, Mister Cobbler. There is more." Robert turned, and for the first time gazed directly into Vengeance's glowing eyes with fear. "How bad is the water situation in Harlandale?"
      "It's livable, but the irrigation system can't supply us as it used to. We haven't had the upgrades some of the other areas have and the fountains run dry often, as well. It's not just our family, Lord. It's most of Harlandale."
      Vengeance glared at his Castellan. "Is this true, Castellan?"
      "There have been...reports, My Lord."
      Vengeance's orange pupils drilled into his suddenly horrified soul. "Castellan, call the Castle Warden and King's Architect. The Architect will inspect the irrigation canals and fountains then offer suggestions to upgrade the system in Harlandale. Have the Warden choose twenty of his strongest prisoners and have them upgrade the canals by hand."
      Vengeance turned his piecing gaze to the petitioner. "You, Mister Cobbler, will be my eyes on this project. Make sure the repairs are being done to your satisfaction. And as I seem to be unable to trust the Castellan on this matter, you will report to me and me alone on the progress, every two weeks. We cannot have a new subject of the Crown see its empire in disrepair."
      Robert smiled, bowed slightly, and backed out of the audience chamber, turning into a joyous run once past a supporting arch. Vengeance's face never once betrayed any emotion, if there was any to betray.
      "We caught him in a good mood." Sylvia whispered from their seats in the back. "We just might not die tonight. Is Jin ready?"
      Jana twisted to see Jin at the buffet stuffing his face full of anything that wasn't rabbit. "He hasn't left the buffet table since we got here."
      Jana snuck a quick glance at Vengeance. "Are you sure Vengeance's one of the wishers?
      "I think so. I'm getting a feeling from him I got from that stone that popped out of Jin. Vengeance is a magic user, like me. But he has a faint hint of magic that doesn't jibe with normal magic users."
      The Castellan's voice boomed, somewhat shakier, throughout the hall "Call Witch Sylvia Walker and her ward to the floor!"
      Sylvia stood, and grabbed the hand of her ward. "Stay close."
      The two approached the emperor, head bowed, Sylvia never once taking off her hat. She dropped to one knee, and when Jana didn't, tugged her arm to make her kneel as well.
      Vengeance considered the strange pair before him. Witch Walker was a fairly well known witch in the northeastern city, and her reputation never hinted that she was the type to want a family. The blonde warrior seemed familiar, even though he was sure he'd never seen her before. "Rise. You wish to adopt this adult as an heir, Witch Walker? Explain."
      "Not so much heir, your Lordship, as child."
      "Child? From her shape she is no child." He addressed Jana directly. "How old are you, woman?"
      "Eight and a half!" she responded proudly.
      Sylvia stepped in front of her, breaking into Vengeance's line of sight. "Quiet, noble savage." She straightened up and continued her pre-rehearsed speech. "She is not so much a child of the body as she is a child of the mind. I found her hunting near my home, obviously feral, and took her in. I've been trying to educate her and feel that I have done as much as I can as a teacher, and I don't believe it's enough. I'll need to begin caring for her as her guardian."
      Vengeance beckoned Jana closer. Jana at first didn't move, but a gentle push on her back from Sylvia let her know it was okay to move forward. The butterflies in her stomach began to flyas Vengeance reached for her chin, inspecting her face like he was looking for defects. His eyes gave her an uncomfortable once over.
      "A woman needs not intelligence to make her way in life. Only the strength to bear children when she is young, and the willingness to care for other's when she is old. This woman needs no further upbringing. Her body has given her what she needs now, and you, Witch Walker, have already given her enough of what she will need later. Your petition is denied."
      Almost immediately the sound of clanging plates arose from the buffet table, and a crowd surrounded the fallen figure of Jin. Guards went to attention surrounding the figures of Vengeance, Sylvia and Jana. It was the Castellan who got there first. "He's choking!"
      Vengeance stood up, pointing to three of his six guards. "You three! Take that man to the infirmary!"
      Sylvia nodded to Jana, conjured up a globe of golden magic and hurled it at the remaining three guards, trapping them in a globe of magic. Reaching into her boot, she quickly threw Jana's sheathed dagger to her.
      Letting herself go, Jana allowed her huntress instincts to take over, dashing to Vengeance's side and wrapping her arms around his head, her now unsheathed dagger at his neck.
      "Get on with it, Jana!" Sylvia was putting a lot of power into her holding spell, she'd never tired to immobilize more than one person at a time, and usually those people were scared, not enraged.
      Jana pressed the dagger closer to Vengeance's throat. "You were one of the wishers at the restaurant, Vengeance. For you to be in charge of all this you'd have to be. Recant your wish and I'll spare your life."
      If there was any fear in him at all nothing revealed its presence. In the same cool calm voice, he said "I was in a restaurant, yes. A lifetime ago. A lifetime I wouldn't trade for anything."
      "Stop talking and give up your wish!"
      "Here, I have power. Here, I rule completely, but not heartlessly. I even tolerate talks of dissent in the name of free speech..."
      Jana began getting nervous. Her instinct told her those who bullied their way to power were cowards. Vengeance shouldn't be this strong with his life on the line. "I said stop talking and give up your wish!"
      "...but I will not tolerate acts of sedition in my own house!" Green light erupted from Vengeances body. While something deep down in Jana hoped this was his wish stone, her huntress instincts knew better. She seemed pushed away from the suddenly bulkier body of Vengeance, landing on her back. She scrambled backwards from his growing glowing frame. His skin went from pale to red, as had his eyes. Hands turned into claws. The temperature in the hall rose dramatically as Jana looked into the eyes of a half-dragon half-human form
      "I do not know how you know about me! I do not know if you even could force me back! But I will not allow you to try!" His mouth opened unnaturally wide, and a spray of fire shot from it towards the wide-eyed barbarian.
      The only thing that saved her was the sudden appearance of a gold magic shield, absorbing the impact of the blow. Sylvia was busy working two spells now, and her body was rapidly losing strength from the effort.
      Not ready to give up so quickly and knowing that she couldn't lose the chance to bring back the million who disappeared on a whim, Jana rushed the Vengeance monster head on. She had no idea what she would do when she got there, but she had a few seconds to decide. Vengeance easily deflected her with a backhanded slap, spinning her through the air. She threw her dagger at Vengeance before crashing heavily into an arch pillar herself. Her aim was true, though, and the dagger embedded itself in an arm.
      From out of the corner of a hall, the guards that had escorted Jin to the infirmary returned. Sylvia flicked her wrist, flinging the globe that held the first guards, and the guards themselves, against the arriving guards. Another flick of her wrist and the globe encapsulated them all. Sweat soaked her hair as the strain began to get to her. Sensing her exertion, Vengeance turned his wrath upon her with a fire blast. Sylvia's free hand flew up, gesturing another gold shield to protect herself from the attack.
      Vengeance felt a piercing pain in his leg as Jana, who had grabbed a butcher knife from the buffet near where she fell, impaled it deep in his thigh. He roared in pain, losing his focus on Sylvia.
      The effort of protecting herself, however, caused the sphere holding the guards to break. She hadn't realized how weak her reserves had gotten, and now they had a shape shifting warlord to worry about as well. "That's it, Jana! Out! Now!"
      The guards did not give chase right away, standing in awe of the monster that was once their ruler staring at the two retreating women. Without once dropping his gaze, he growled "Get them!" Fearing their transformed emperor more than a witch and a huntress, they went off in pursuit.
      The two fugitives continued running down hallways, always heading down. "That went better than I expected," said Sylvia between breaths.
      "But we didn't get his wish!"
      "We're alive." She retorted. "I honestly wasn't expecting that!"
      They turned a corner down a side hall where a familiar voice called to them. Jin beckoned them inside an old dusty unused room, and the two quickly followed.
      The two women sat, catching their breaths, as Jin acted as lookout. "I was supposed to be your distraction, not the other way around. You two made such a commotion the guards left." He cracked open the door a bit wider at a sound. "Not that I'm complaining...they were already beginning to think I hadn't choked on anything at all." Sylvia began to reply when Jin shushed her. Faintly they heard the rising footfalls of the guards in their pursuit, but just as quickly, they faded off into the distance. "I think we're okay for now."
      "But we can't stay here," Jana said, "they'll double back on us for sure, once they realize we're not ahead of them." She reached for her dagger only to notice she no longer had it. "We'll need to find a way out of here as quickly as possible."
      Sylvia felt a bit of pride at how Jana was reacting. That was the eighteen year old savage talking, but a tad more restrained, thinking a dash more critically and soundly, and a lot less impulsively. Her work with the child, both of them, was finally beginning to show itself in real-world situations. If only this wasn't such a deadly one, she'd thought.
      Jin grinned "If you need a fast way out of here, you'll love what I found on my way up from the infirmary."
      Motorbikes. Row upon row of motorbikes. The large garage had at least twenty of them. "How?" enquired Jin. "There's no gas here, no reason to build these."
      "Echoes," responded Sylvia. "If the ruins of the restaurant where all this began exists, then I'm sure there are other ruins, maybe even other towns with more technology. He'd have the resources to import these from there." Sylvia examined one of the bikes with her old world eyes. "Gasoline engine with no gasoline. I'll have to power it myself." She dabbed her forehead with her sleeve. "I can probably make this thing run on a full tank of magic, but I'm almost out of energy, never had to use so much at once. Should last a while, though."
      She kick started the nearest bike, a red motorcycle with the words "Ninja" written on the sides. The bike glowed gold for a split second before turning over. "Oh, man, I'm gonna sleep good tonight. If there is a tonight."
      Jana hopped on the bike behind Sylvia, scrunching forward to make room for Jin. "You coming?
      Jin looked down at the bike, more to avert their eyes than in admiration of the cherry red Ninja. "I'm not going with you. Vengeance doesn't know I was part of the plan to take his wish, so I'm safe, and I need to find my wife. I'm sure she's still in the city somewhere. Go on, be safe. I'll be alright." Before Sylvia could protest, Jin had run to the garage door and opened it for them. He waved as they drove off into the night.
      "We need to get home, Jana. I'm exhausted."
      "I don't think that's a good idea. I know if I was Vengeance, that'd be the first place I'd look."
      "We'll need some provisions at least, and I'm not going to last long in this state. We won't stay long, just enough for me to catch my breath and for you to gather up some supplies from the cabin."
      Jana furrowed her brow. This was a bad idea.
      Jana had tucked Sylvia into bed fully clothed, with a traveling cloak as a sheet. No time for bedtime stories or lullabies, they were going to need every spare minute they could buy. Jin's jade gem rolled out of Sylvia's robe pocket thumping on the floor next to her. Jana realized she'd need something to hold that gem, and any others she happened along.
      Looking around, Jana found a leather bag, a pack and the wooden box Jin had given them as a thank you. Jana put the gem in the bag, and the bag in the pack. Opening the large woodworked box, she began putting supplies in. It wouldn't be much, but she could hunt the rest down if she needed to.
      There was a thud at the door. At first she thought it might have been a knock, but it was too light to be someone rapping at the door. Looking around she found a sturdy looking coat rack and held it close as she opened the door. Imbedded in the door was her dagger. And staring her down from the front lawn was Vengeance, still showing aspects of the dragon, and the very insignificant scars of their battle.
      "You didn't finish what you started." He inhaled much more than she thought he could handle, and slammed the door before he could blast her with a breath of fire.
      She ran to Sylvia, "You need to get up. Vengeance is here, and he's not happy."
      "How long have I been out?"
      "Just a few minutes." Jana replied, attempting to bar the door with furniture.
      "Don't. You'll just make the cabin into an oven." Jana looked at her quizzically. "This cabin is wood and he can breathe fire. That makes this a bad place to be barricaded into."
      "This was a bad place period." Jana creaked open the door, and sure enough, while not ignited, the door was smoking and scorched. She slammed the door before another blast hit, but not before pulling the dagger from the door.
      "I'll do what I can, Jana. Get the gem and some gold and get out of here." She took a deep breath, looked over Jana one last time, and opened the door to face Vengeance. Jana grabbed her pack, threw some coinage in and followed behind.
      "You're burning my house down, Vengeance. And if you've so much as touched my begonias, you're going to pay dearly."
      Vengeance was never one for words. He flew at her, tackling her down. Sylvia was too weak to create any kind of shielding and took the full force of the blow. She threw a glance to Jana, a look that couldn't be misinterpreted: "Get out of here."
      Jana hopped on the bike and kick started it. Vengeance, hearing the motor, noticed the bike, and began to float up, preparing to pursue it.
      "You didn't finish what you started!" Sylvia grabbed his leg and pulled him back down. She mustered up as much magic as she could to form a blade of magic and drove it deep into his side. Vengeance screamed, his eyes going white hot with rage. He'd had enough of this witch, and with one gigantic bellow, flashed her with the full intensity of his fiery breath. No longer just a regular fire, but a white hot jet that blasted her at point blank range enveloping her, the force shoving her inside and through the front door of her now burning cabin.
      Jana's eyes opened wide. There was nothing left of Sylvia but charred bones and seared and burning flesh. Jana screamed, throttling up the bike and ramming Vengeance head on, toppling him over and breaking one of his legs. Jana and the bike tumbled back into the cabin through the front door. Vengeance watched as the house began to collapse on itself. With no other way out, the girl Jana was trapped between him and the quickly disintegrating cabin.
      Jana scrambled over to what was left of Sylvia, the blast had torn flesh and hair away from the bone. She'd failed herself, she'd failed Sylvia, and failed all the people who had disappeared thanks to her silly wish.
      And she heard an anguished painful voice come from somewhere. "I had a wish, too." Opening her eyes, she saw no one but the dead form of Sylvia in front of her. "I was in that restaurant, too, and I had a wish. It seems whatever put us here is keeping that promise."
      She realized the voice was coming through the skull. She closed her eyes, and pulled away from it. "You'll need to do something terrible Jana, but you'll have to do it," the voice groaned. "You need my gem, and in order to get it, I'll need you. You won't be able to drag around my dead body.
      "Take off my head."
      Jana, already horrified, felt like she needed to throw up. She was going crazy. Too much in too little time, she had to be. At the very least, it had to be a bad dream. "This can't be happening!"
      "Do it, Jana. You need me. And now I need you. Just get us both out of here. Decide later whether this is real or not."
      She closed her eyes to the smoldering body before her, closed them to the firestorm of a cabin. She made a quick prayer that this really was all a bad dream and made a deep and powerful cut with her dagger.
      The bloodcurdling scream was heard for miles around. Vengeance smiled - he would not tolerate sedition in any form. The witch was dead, the girl was baking alive in the oven he'd created for her.
      "Put me in Jin's box for now. The bike has enough power in it to get you out of Vengeance's way, and the box will allow me to sleep and gather some strength. Just go. Go anywhere. Away from here. We'll worry about where we are when we get there."
      Jana wasn't sure she hadn't imagined the whole thing, but if Sylvia was right, there was no gemstone coming from her, and that meant she had to still be alive somehow. She took the skull of her mentor, put it in Jin's box and put that in her pack, too.
      Outside Vengeance watched the back wall of the house collapse, causing the cabin to wobble unsteadily. Plumes of black smoke escaped from the rear and from the front door into air already acrid with smoke. And as the house collapsed, he thought he'd heard the roar of a motorbike fleeing from the cabin. He'd lost a lot of blood from the long-gone blade in his side. He needed his wounds tended, and he convinced himself the young woman couldn't have escaped the cabin before it collapsed. Weak and hurt, he flew slowly back to his castle, leaving behind the still glowing ruins of Witch Walker's cabin.
      "We examined the remains of the house, Lord, and we are not satisfied that the two were immolated with the house."
      "Explain." The Castellan looked up at his Lord. Vengeance's leg was in a crude splint, his doctors unable to heal it through spellwork. Ironically, he would have called on Witch Walker for healing, but would have to make do with the more primitive medical solutions until he could have it fully worked over by a sorcerer.
      "My Lord, we found remains in the ashes of the cabin, but only a charred skeleton. No other bodily remains or wreckage of your motored chariot. There was also one more thing."
      "The body had no head." Vengeance looked up at his Castellan. One body, no bike, no head. They were still out there. Somewhere.
      The bike got them as far as a river crossing before finally sputtering out. They'd both been driving for hours, nonstop since escaping the cabin through the collapsed back wall. An old rotted street sign said they were in a town called Mineola, but there were no signs of civilization except for clearings where roads may have been.
      The young huntress had finished cleaning the skull of her mentor in the river there, taking the time to catch some fish along the way. What was left of Sylvia had not said much after they left the cabin, and Jana, for one, was relieved of that. As much as she figured Sylvia was in shock from some of the things Jana had heard her say, Jana was as well from everything she'd experienced.
      How many people were left out there with wishes? She was sure all of them would fight to keep them, and even if they all recanted, would they all return to their old world ways? Jin had given up his wish, but was still part of this world. Would every fight be this hard? Would every fight end up this badly?
      There wasn't much that she could figure out either way, not until Sylvia decided to speak again. She made her way back to the grove of trees she'd found near the river where she'd hidden the bike and their few belongings. The thick underbrush surrounding the trees would protect them from prying eyes for some time. She put the Sylvia's skull back in Jin's box, stripping away some of the silver work to make it look less conspicuous. She didn't have much gold, the silver might be usable if she ran out.
      She lay back on grass, peeking through the canopy at clouds, and fell into a deep sleep. She wasn't in the mood for fish anyways.

Material, HTML and text contained on pages originating from DOLARI.NET and DOLARI.ORG are written by Jenn Dolari. Copyright 1992-2019 Jennifer Dolari. All Rights Reserved. Individual stories are copyright their respective owners, all rights reserved, used with permission.  All other materials are copyright by their respective owners.