Brother Wendell Wilhelm-Gracy was a smoker, practiced in the art. He never put a cigarette in his mouth and puffed on it. That was uncivilized, an error made by school-age boys who wanted to be gangsters.
Brother Wendell moved like a calligrapher. He drew one fine silk-cut from his pack, barely touched it to his lips, and then produced his silver-plated Dunhill lighter.
That lighter was his pride and joy. He rolled it in his palm, seeming absorbed by the feel of it. When he did use it for its intended purpose, it was always decisively.
The lighter hiccuped, spitting out a tiny gold flame. Brother Wendell inhaled, and exhaled with his eyes closed. It never took him more effort than that to light a cigarette. He was master of his craft, supremely elegant and efficient.
As he ought to be, I thought to myself.
The cigarette he'd just lit was his third in the last two hours. The man was an addict. His skin carried a yellowish sheen, and the whites of his eyes were red. He smelled like illness, and insufficient washing. Probably, he was dying of something awful. I wondered if he knew.
Tendrils of smoke drifted towards me. I wrinkled my nose. I couldn't stomach the smell of cigarettes, but the only protection I had was the "bandanna" around my neck. Really, it looked more like a dinner napkin than a proper bandanna. John Wayne movies were one of my brother's guilty pleasures, so I had some notion of what cowboys should look like.
The four of us were dressed in the usual fashion of Missionaries, which meant white linen shirts and khaki slacks. One of the higher-ups with some knowledge of desert travel had issued us hats for the sun, bandannas for the dust, and decent boots – all of which I was thankful for.
Brother Wendell even had a gun. It wasn't an archaic six-shooter, but I enjoyed pretending it was. Nobody would give me a gun, not that I was surprised by that.
I raised both of my hands and pointed my index fingers at Brother Wendell.
"Bang," I said, mostly to irritate him. "You look like a cowboy. An old, crusty sheriff," I continued. "Can you wear a shiny badge, or will the Order write you up for that?"
He either didn't hear what I said, or chose to ignore me. Missionaries took their vows very seriously, and one of the tenants of their faith professed that vanity was sinful.
Smoking was also sinful, but virtually every Brother or Sister succumbed to some small vice. Most Missionaries smoked or drank to relieve the stress of their duties, and the Order tended to ignore them. Of course, there were others who strayed further from the path. The act that had finally resulted in my expulsion from the Order was particularly spectacular, and had raised the bar for disobedience to an unprecedented height.
I still wasn't sure why I'd agreed to come back.
I sighed. Brother Wendell wasn't much of a conversationalist. In fact, he barely conversed at all. From the way he looked at me, I suspected he knew who I was. My identity was supposed to be a secret, but secrets were rubbish. I never kept them for long.
"How much further is it?" I asked, attempting to fill the silence.
"How should I know?" He demanded.
"This is so boring! Why won't you talk to me?" I pressed.
I knew why, but I was feeling malicious and wanted to hear his answer. I enjoyed battles of wits, and old Missionaries were usually good sparring partners. They were wrong about virtually everything, but they were well-educated and understood how to defend an argument, even a stupid one.
"It's not my duty to entertain you. Go to sleep," Brother Wendell replied.
He still wasn't humoring me. That was disappointing.
"I can't sleep," I protested. "Not with Brother Allen driving!"
I had nodded off a few times, but the road we traveled was unpaved and filled with holes. More importantly, our Mission Commander wasn't known for his skills behind the wheel.
"That's not my problem," Brother Wendell retorted, drawing on his cigarette.
Sulking just a little, I turned away from him. "Switch places with Brother Samuel," I said.
"Brother Allen doesn't like me smoking," Brother Wendell reminded me.
"I don't like you smoking either," I snorted.
"Will you stop complaining?" Brother Wendell demanded. "You drew the short straw!"
Four passengers in one truck meant that two of us had to ride in the back with our provisions. Brother Wendell volunteered, and the Brother Samuel and I drew lots. I'd lost fairly, but I was still sore about not being able to hear the radio. Like so many other things, popular music was considered "sinful" by the Order. No one would object to the news, however, and that was what I was most interested in. I'd bet a lot of money on the Kingstown Classic and wouldn't rest easy until I knew the results of the race.
I sighed heavily and tried to relax, at least until the wind kicked more dust into the air. I coughed and rubbed my eyes. Brother Wendell didn't seem to notice. He drew on his cigarette and stared at nothing. In fairness, there was nothing to see.
Our truck wasn't enclosed, only protected with a dozen old army tarps. Their purpose, as I understood it, was to protect us from the sun. They did that admirably, but they also hid the view. The canyons of Harrakan were exceptionally beautiful, or at least I envisioned them that way. I'd read about them, but I'd never actually seen them before.
I squinted, trying to peek through the laces that held the tarps together. I couldn't see anything except clouds of swirling red dust.
"Do you have a better view over there?" I asked. "Can we switch places?"
"There's nothing to see. Only ruins," Brother Wendell replied.
He didn't even look.
"I like ruins," I argued. "And I've always wanted to visit Harrakan."
Brother Wendell was not amused. "This isn't a vacation, it's a Mission," he reminded me.
"Brother Wendell, I used to be a file clerk in the Restricted Records Department. I've read some reports on Missions like this one. Limited or non-existent objectives, flagrant breeches of protocol, conflicting accounts, pages of censored material!" I sighed. "This is a wretched business and you know it. The Order is always doing something, but it's never doing what it says it is!"
"Interesting observation, coming from you," Brother Wendell replied.
He hadn't said the "h" word, but he was implying it.
I scowled. The burning ember on the end of Brother Wendell's cigarette wasn't much of a flame, but I could still seize it. Feeling particularly spiteful, I reached out with my mind and pushed that elemental fire, telling it to grow.
"Heretic!" Brother Wendell sputtered, almost falling backwards out of the truck as his cigarette incinerated itself, crumbling into a pile of ash. If Brother Wendell had any doubts as to who I was before, he didn't then.
Years ago, if a priest had uttered that dreaded "h" word in my presence, I would've curled into a fetal ball and prayed for deliverance. Fortunately, I'd come to terms with a lot of things since leaving the Order, and heretic was one condemnation I no longer considered an insult.
From the perspective of a Missionary, the magic I worked was evil. I was willfully changing the shape of the world in a manner that the gods did not intend. "Let's get one thing straight," I said, poking my very-threatening index finger at Brother Wendell's nose. "You've got a hostage situation involving demons with guns in the Tombs of Harrakan. If you want to survive long enough to negotiate the release of your friends, you need me."
Brother Wendell twitched. He knew I was right.
"A wizard, yes. But..." He hesitated, and then decided that he might as well speak his mind. "Why you?"
"That's easy," I replied. "Nobody else would take this job."
Several more hours passed in irritating silence. Interrogating Brother Wendell wasn't productive, so I dug up some paper and decided to work on a spell. Those who don't practice magic often view it as a wild and dangerous thing. Invocation does appear that way, but a perfect five-second explosion actually involves considerable preparation and lots of tedious mathematics. I chewed on my eraser and considered the problem in front of me. No matter how I modified the spell I was playing with, I still stood a good chance of blowing myself through a wall. That was... less than ideal.
I cracked my knuckles, deciding that it was time to get some real work done. I'd have piles and piles of grading to do when I got back from our Mission, and no time at all for my own projects. See, in addition to being a heretic, I've spent the better part of the last ten years teaching other people how they can be heretics too.
Of course, that was when our truck rolled to a stop. I sat up straight, a little surprised that we'd already reached our destination. Although I was eager to get out and see the canyon, I scrawled some notes on my paper for later. I was still poking unintentional holes between numbers with my pathetic stub of a pencil when Brother Allen came to meet us. Our Mission Commander was a heavyset man of middle years. Like Brother Wendell, he wore a holster. Two guns rested on his hips.
Only the best Missionaries were permitted to carry weapons. Still, the lopsided sunburn Brother Allen had gotten from sitting in the driver's seat of the truck made me snicker. His left ear was so red it was already starting to peel. His beard was prematurely gray and made him look almost like a young, disgruntled Santa Claus.
I didn't look very professional myself, sitting cross-legged between two crates of provisions with my white "bandanna" still over my nose. My outrageously curly hair wouldn't stay tied back and had collected an impressive variety of desert botany, including pieces of a few prickly shrubs. I'd also broken my good glasses, so I wore a pair of ugly plastic ones with thick black frames. They were covered in red dust and graphite finger-prints from my crumpled notes.
"What is she doing?" Brother Allen asked Brother Wendell, eying me suspiciously.
"Math," I told him truthfully, which did not set him at ease.
"Well, we've arrived," Brother Samuel announced cheerfully, coming to stand beside Brother Wendell. He was the youngest of my three traveling companions, a Novice on his very first Mission. If I had to guess his age, I might have placed him at twenty. He was blonde, slight, fresh-faced, and still young enough to believe that his Order was the last line of defense between hell and earth.
That was all about to change. A Missionary's first assignment was generally an ugly thing. The Order had a lot of secrets that Novices weren't privy to, and one of those secrets was that Missionaries often employed "the tools of heretics" to accomplish their goals. I wasn't supposed to work "obvious" magic myself, but if things turned sour and I did need to use an offensive spell, I hoped that Brother Samuel wouldn't lose his mind. When our Mission was complete, Brother Allen would have a long talk with the kid. I'd sat in on that talk several times in my Missionary days. It never went well. Half of the young people who heard it immediately quit.
The rest took up smoking, and eventually turned into Brother Wendell.
I cleaned my glasses and climbed out of the truck. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the sun. I guessed it was around noon, though I didn't know for sure.
A golden lizard skittered over my foot. The heat was as oppressive outside as it had been under the tarps, and I wondered belatedly if I'd remembered to put on sunscreen. We were stopped on a sandbar, the very edge of an almost-dry riverbed. There were several pools of stagnant brown water, and the ground had a softness to it that reminded me of powdered chalk. Cliffs of orange and crimson stone towered above us. The rocks looked like taffy, pulled, stretched, and shaped in unusual ways.
Very powerful magic had once been worked in Harrakan, and I could feel the remnants of it in my bones. The first tribes of wizards had buried their dead in the canyon for a reason. It was a safe place for those who possessed the Gift. For anyone without Sight, it was a deathtrap.
If they were honest about their goals, the Order would never have sent Missionaries to Harrakan. I took a deep breath and steadied myself. I couldn't afford to be distracted by the "whos" and "whys" of the Mission I'd accepted. My job was to detect active spells in the area before one of my companions triggered a trap. I reached out with my mind, considering every turn and crevasse.
"That way," I pointed. To my left, I could sense the remnants of an enchantment. It was not the work of ancient wizards. Although the caster was powerful, he or she lacked finesse. There was no geometry to the spell. It was just a ball of wasteful, swirling energies fueled by a whole lot of willpower. From a wizard's perspective, it's very easy to recognize a demon's handiwork.
"F," I said, grading the mess for my own amusement. "F-minus, if there is such a thing."
My traveling companions gave me odd looks, but they didn't see what I saw. As I plodded ahead, they fell into single file behind me.
"I've got the map," Brother Samuel volunteered.
"I don't need it," I told him.
"Have you been here before?" He asked innocently.
"Not in this lifetime," I replied. Ignoring the distracting trail of energy leaking from the demon's sloppy enchantment, I evaluated the magic in the canyon itself. An intricate diamond lattice was constructed over many eroded areas, causing the rocks to balance precariously. They wouldn't fall on anyone unless they were especially careless. A good-sized explosion might still cause a rockslide, but nature had been halted in her path. The builders of Harrakan controlled the river, the wind, and the earth. It was all brilliant.
Brother Allen attached himself to my heels, turning where I turned and keeping his right hand on his gun. Another lizard zipped in front of us, and he almost shot the poor thing. He was obviously nervous, and I didn't blame him. I'd dealt with demons before, and I had a healthy fear of them.
These demons, however, were desperate. They'd agree to trade us back four captured priests in exchange for water and basic provisions. That was a rare thing.
"I heard you make a deal with a demon once," Brother Wendell remarked.
"I didn't sell my soul," I replied.
"I never said you did," he said, not amused by my efforts to dodge his question.
"Look, I did what I had to," I sighed, still saying nothing.
"A deal with a demon?" Brother Samuel echoed, sounding as naïve as he looked.
"Most demons aren't too bright," I explained. "But they're devastating fighters. If you can avoid trading blows with them, you should. I prefer to blow them up from as far away as possible."
"Sound advice," Brother Wendell agreed.
I hadn't expected him to take my side. He took a drag from his cigarette and stared up at the sky, watching a buzzard circling above us.
"I think I see why they call this place Damnation Canyon," Brother Samuel observed, his gaze following Brother Wendell's.
"They call it what now?" I eyed him suspiciously.
"Damnation Canyon," he repeated. "On account of all the heretics buried here."
"Feh," I snorted, which summed up what I thought of that. Some of my own ancestors were buried in Harrakan. I'd never met any of them, but I felt certain that they didn't deserved to be damned. Being a wizard was a more respectable profession than being a Missionary, at least in my opinion.
"The last coordinates we received were from this spot," Brother Allen announced. He checked his watch and glanced up at me. "Anything?"
"I'm still looking," I said.
I was looking, not that Brother Allen would understand. I closed my eyes and let the raw magic guide me down an even drier tributary of the ancient river. We passed between two stone pillars, nearly as old as the canyon itself. Carved into the rock in front of us was a staircase leading up to a great temple. The arcane symbols above the entrance warned grave robbers not to enter, and professed that the magnificent building was the final resting place of five great women, all wizards most skilled with fire. The inscriptions glowed faintly red. The ancient spells of protection still had a little "punch" to them. I smiled slightly at the thought.
The Tombs of Harrakan had many entrances, and clearly, we'd just found one.
"Is that where we're going?" Brother Samuel asked, pointing.
"Any traps?" Brother Allen nudged me.
"There's one I can see from this far away," I replied. "More inside, most likely. Fortunately, we don't have to deal with them." Though I would have preferred to see the graves of my ancestors, I was still holding onto the remnants of the demon's enchantment. The trail didn't lead into the tombs. "That's where we're actually going." I pointed to a cave almost sitting on the canyon rim, probably a hundred feet up from where we stood. There was a path, although it was frightfully narrow and eroding in places. "These are some smart demons. If not for me, you'd have walked right into that tomb and probably gotten yourselves obliterated. How many hostages do they have?"
"At least four," Brother Wendell replied.
"Are we really going to give those demons supplies?" Brother Samuel asked. "Isn't that dangerous?"
"Not as dangerous as fighting them. As I see it, they can have anything they want out of our truck," I replied. "We won't beat them hand-to-hand. We either make them happy, or we blow them up from far away. In this case, they have hostages... so we deal. Keep behind me, and when we do run into them, don't say anything," I ordered, taking point.
Brother Wendell glanced at Brother Allen, who nodded and assumed his position, his gun right over my shoulder. I whispered a little incantation under my breath. If we were attacked as soon as we entered the cave, I wanted to be ready.
We reached the entrance, and I craned my neck, trying to listen for voices or sounds of movement. It was much too quiet, and because of how the sun was positioned, I couldn't see more than a few feet ahead of my nose.
I sniffed the air. It smelled like rain, and that worried me. It almost never rained in the desert, and the scent most people associated with an oncoming storm meant something very different in the magic business.
"Down!" I shouted, dropping to the ground as if I'd just had my legs cut out from under me.
A bolt of white-hot lightning took my hat right off my head. Brother Wendell swore, and Brother Allen immediately unloaded his gun, apparently unconcerned by the fact that I was still in front of him.
"You said they'd be shooting at us!" I protested, reaching for the weapon I wasn't wearing. Although spells were my first line of defense, I knew how to shoot and bullets were faster than fireballs.
"I said they stole guns!" Brother Allen corrected.
"So why aren't they using them?"
Bullets I could deal with. A simple ward would render even large-caliber rounds useless. Spells were sneaky. Not all of them were what they looked like, and it was impossible to determine the extent of another wizard's repertoire in the first few exchanges. A friend of mine was a competitive duelist, and I'd seen him utterly destroyed on more than one occasion by simple spells modified for very specific circumstances.
A second lightning bolt seared the ground only a few feet in front of me. I'd expected the demons to know some magic, but I hadn't expected lightning. It took a lot of power to call lightning. Every hair on my body stood straight up.
"They probably don't know what they're doing. The demons may be an ancient race, but they've been stuck in the Stone Age for ten thousand years," Brother Wendell replied. He was infuriatingly calm, rolling his lighter around in the palm of his hand. "A little magic we can deal with."
I took a deep breath. "I'm firing back!" I said, not asking for permission.
"Absolutely not!" Brother Allen barked. "Too dangerous!"
"You're the one emptying clips into the darkness! I can hit the spellcaster and no one else," I informed him. "Watch me."
Brother Samuel stared at me, wide-eyed. He must have felt it then, the change in the air. Raising my left hand to the level of my heart, I twisted air with my will and spoke the words I needed to ignite it. While it was dangerous to throw any spell beyond one's line of sight, the invocation I'd just worked was specifically structured to ride the remnants of whatever someone else hurled in my direction. A torrent of fire poured from my fingertips, copying the trajectory of the lightning bolt in reverse.
The reaction inside the cave was fantastic. A whole lot of stuff got knocked over and made a bunch of noise. Something, probably a demon, snarled like a wounded animal, and a gun discharged into the ceiling.
Behind me, I heard someone swear.
It was Brother Samuel. "H... heretic!" He gasped, pointing at me.
I ignored him. I couldn't see much through the smoke, but my fire was obviously still burning something, and the demons inside the cave were distracted. A lot of cursing followed, and I heard a shotgun being loaded.
But that wasn't all. A distinct clunk suddenly caught my attention. Something about the size of an egg hit the dirt in front of my face. It rocked back and forth just slightly, and as the dust and smoke cleared, I saw what it was.
"Run!" I shouted.
Brother Samuel shrieked and went down, rolling head over-heels. Leaping out of the cave, I tackled Brother Allen. He almost shot me in the face. We both slammed into Brother Samuel.
I scrambled to grab the kid's collar, but not quickly enough. If he hadn't caught his foot on Brother Allen's belt, he would've fallen to his death.
Brother Wendell did not panic. He stepped forward, picked up the grenade, looked at it, and pulled the pin. Then, with the ease of a professional ballplayer... he hurled it back into the cave.
For a moment I thought I'd hallucinated. Had there really been a grenade at all? Gods help him, had Brother Wendell just killed the people we'd come to save?
Heretic that I was, I would've prayed for his soul if I'd had the time.
Not two seconds later, the cliff exploded with a force that blew huge chunks of stone in the air. All of us would have been thrown into the riverbed, but I'd prepared another spell, one that I'd hoped I wouldn't have to use. It was a defensive ward, and as fast as I could invoke it, I drew it up around myself. Brother Allen and Brother Samuel both hugged me, clinging to the sleeves of a damned heretic like I was their mother, or something similarly embarrassing.
I gritted my teeth, wincing each time a rock bounded harmlessly off of my spell. When the rocks stopped falling, the two of us were perched on the only section of the path that hadn't collapsed, a six-foot long chunk some fifty feet above the ground. As the dust settled, a figure approached us. It took me a moment to realize that it was Brother Wendell, striding towards us with the sun at his back.
I had no idea how he'd survived the explosion, and found myself wondering if I was the only heretic in our unfortunate company.
"You idiot!" Brother Allen sputtered, as soon as he could find the words to speak. "What about the hostages?"
Brother Wendell gave his superior a look I knew only too well. It was an expression worn by any number of old Missionaries assigned to younger, greener Mission Commanders. He'd come to Harrakan with orders of his own, no doubt received from someone who outranked all of us. Without saying a word, he produced a cigarette. Very casually, he rolled it between two fingers and then reached for his lighter.
I took a deep breath. "Give me one of those, you old bastard."
"I thought you didn't smoke," Brother Wendell observed, a slight smile on his face. He offered me his pack, and I snatched it, my hands still shaking.
"This is a hell of a time to start," I replied.
I'd made the mistake of looking west. I could see where our truck had been, and what was left wasn't pretty. It was completely buried in rubble. Without any provisions, we'd never make it out of the desert. Between the four of us, we didn't have more than two days of water.
"Oh god," Brother Allen murmured, as he saw what I was looking at.
Brother Wendell offered me his lighter, not that I needed it. I took the thing anyway, felt its cold weight in the palm of my hand and studied its beautiful craftsmanship. I ran my thumb over the flint, and struck it decisively. It didn't light, so I struck it again.
I examined how the sun caught the silver. It wasn't nearly fair, what I was considering. It wouldn't avenge the poor hostages, but there was something in the pettiness of the act that still appealed to me. I smiled slightly, rolling the lighter in my palm as Brother Wendell often did. As he moved to take it back, I incinerated it.
He gasped as the lighter blew up right under his hand, and fell from the edge of the path. Brother Allen and Brother Samuel both stared down at his body, contorted in a horrible position on the rocks below.
"Did you just kill Brother Wendell?" Brother Samuel broke the silence. It was obvious that he knew the answer to his question.
"You got a problem with that?" I asked.
"N... no." The kid bit his lip. "Was it wrong?"
Brother Allen chuckled. "Congratulations, Novice," he said, unbuckling his gunbelt and passing it to the boy. "You're now a Missionary."