Darkness covered the city, flowing down the streets and collecting in the alleys. Silence sat heavily on the sleeping town – thick fog swathing the buildings or pooling in faintly orange, liquid puddles under the occasional street lamp.
The town drunk stumbled down a cobbled road, his head spinning from recently guzzled pots of ale. Reaching the nearest alley, he slumped against the wall and slid to the ground, then threw his head back and began singing loudly off-key. A brief flash of light a few feet further down the alley startled him and he peered into the darkness. “Who’s der?” he slurred, trying to make out anything in the inky blackness. No answer was forthcoming, so he shrugged and went back to singing.
The reason for the flash stood silently several feet away, his eyes adjusting to the sudden darkness. He wrinkled his nose at the putrid smell of rotting garbage and tried not to throw up.
Wonderful, he thought sourly. Backwater planet in the middle of nowhere and where do I materialize? In the middle of their garbage dump! He closed his eyes and settled his nerves. Well, it could be worse I guess. I wonder just how primitive these people are.
He picked his way through the darkened alley, avoiding the larger concentrations of refuse. By the time he reached the street, the drunk was happily snoring in the stupor produced by the ale.
Well at least, he thought as he pulled the drunk’s tattered cloak aside to study the man’s ratty attire, I look like they do. A frown darkened his expression as he glanced down at his seamless black jump suit. But I’ll never fit in, dressed like this. He dropped the cloak then stood, gazing around the street.
The fog drifted past swirling in the faint breeze.
Satisfied things were relatively safe, he stepped out of the alley and started up the deserted street while trying to stay well out of the light, hugging the rough brick wall of the buildings as he slunk past silent storefronts. The town ended after less than a minute and the street turned into a lane running out into open land.
The man stopped, sighed, and turned around. Better and better. Backwater planet, primitive culture, local inhabitants who appear to have the civility of poorly bred pigs, and now this. When I get my hands on the idiot who opened that warp…. He stared at the few buildings visible through the fog. Maybe the town’s bigger if I go the other way. I need clothes. Light spilled out of a doorway a few feet ahead of him as he started back up the street, and he froze.
A couple strolled out, waving behind themselves at a crowded, smoke filled room, and then wandered off down the street.
The man waited until they were lost in the fog before breathing a silent sigh of relief. Clothes, he reminded himself. And food. And sleep. Retribution later. After my powers come back. He glanced around for more signs of life, and then continued up the street.
As the alley came back in sight, he spotted a dark figure bent over the drunk. It drew a knife from a sheath and cut the strings of the drunk’s pouch.
As the thief opened the pouch and began rummaging through it, the man narrowed his eyes. Trained reflexes took over and he advanced, little more than a shadow. He flung one arm around the thief’s throat, grasped the knife hand with the other, bent the smaller man backwards, and forced his hand open.
The knife hit the ground with a dull thud.
The man twisted his prisoner’s arm up behind his back.
The thief struggled but stopped when pressure tightened around his throat.
“You know, for a thief you’re not very observant,” the man growled, his voice low. His captive struggled, but remained silent. He applied more pressure to the arm.
“Not only that, but your choice of targets is lousy.”
“Let me go!”
Language will evidently not be a problem, he thought with a small feeling of satisfaction. That’s one positive aspect to this. “Let you go?” he asked in a low, dangerous voice. “And then what? Wait while you pick up your knife and try to kill me? I think not.” He increased the pressure on his captive’s throat.
“No! Just let me go and I swear I won’t….”
“You’re right, you won’t.” The man’s voice was dark and threatening. “Because you won’t like what I’ll do if you try. I’ll let go, but if you move, you die. Understand?”
“Yes.” The thief managed through tightly clenched teeth.
The man released his grip and the thief stumbled forward, whirled around, and then stood uncertainly, rubbing his wrist.
The fog drifted past behind the tall, dark-haired man, diffusing what light the street lamp shed and giving him an unearthly backdrop. The thief stared up into a pair of brown eyes that appeared faintly to glow and gulped, his blood running cold.
The man crossed his arms, bent his head, and stared down at the thief. “Your name?”
“Why?” came the hesitant response.
“Because I asked.”
After a pause…. “Kheri.”
The man nodded and picked up the knife.
Kheri’s eyes darted to the street but prudence kept him from moving.
The man handed back the knife. “You can call me Dale.”
Kheri took the knife, sheathing it quickly. “So now what?” He stared up at someone who towered more than twelve inches over his slight, five and a half feet.
Dale pointed at the drunk. “First, give him back his pouch. Second, you just became my guide to this place. To start with, I need other clothing. You’re going to help me find some.”
Kheri opened his mouth to protest, noticed the expression that flickered over Dale’s face, nodded once, and then dropped the pouch next to the drunk. His gaze wandering over Dale’s strange attire. “What kind of clothes do you want?”
“Normal stuff. What any average, working man would wear.”
Kheri studied Dale’s jump suit while frowning in thought. After a moment: “All right. I know where you can get something but… we’ll have to leave town. The only stuff around here is either on someone’s back or in a store, and those’re locked.”
“And stuff outside town isn’t?”
“Well….” Kheri fidgeted and tried not to feel frightened. “My aunt’s got a farm a ways out. I can try to get you some of my uncle’s old things… unless you object to a walk?”
Dale caught Kheri’s eyes and held them until younger man shivered and looked away. “All right, which way?”
“Uh….” Kheri stammered, his heart pounding, “Th… this way.” He moved cautiously past his captor, stepped out of the alley, and then started up the street toward the center of town.
Dale followed silently behind him.
Kheri’s thoughts raced as he walked past the wooden buildings. The desire to dash off into the fog filled him and he fought it down, certain he would fail in the attempt. His arm still ached and he had no desire to find out just how strong Dale really was. He rubbed his throat and shivered. Clothes… he thought, trying to control his overly active imagination. I gotta tell her something…. Maybe I can offer to clean up… He pictured the ancient steamer trunk locked away in his aunt’s attic, full of his uncle’s rotting clothing, and then shook his head and frowned. She’ll have it locked. I gotta get her to give ‘em to me.
The brief events in the alley sprang back to the front of his mind, overpowering his shaky attempt at planning. Forcing himself to swallow, he took a deep breath and tried to consider what his aunt might accept. He was still deep in thought when the last few buildings came in sight. Dale dropped a firm hand on his shoulder, shattering his concentration, and he jumped.
“Stop,” came the soft command.
Kheri froze and glanced around. A movement in the shadows a short way up the street caught his attention and he flattened against the wall next to Dale, holding his breath.
A figure detached itself from the shadows and crossed the street, visible now as one of the town guards.
They stood motionless, waiting while the guard glanced around and then made his way on down the street.
“All right, let’s go,” Dale hissed after the guard had vanished into the fog.
Kheri looked curiously up at the taller man as they started walking.
Dale returned his gaze while lifting an eyebrow in question. “Yes?
“How’d you know he was there?”
“I heard him.”
Kheri blinked. “You heard him?”
A shiver ran up Kheri’s spine and he stopped, then took a deep breath and turned to face his captor. “Who… I meant what…,” he stammered, unable to translate thoughts into words.
Dale looked down into Kheri’s eyes. “Are you sure you want the answer to that question?” His voice was soft, yet full of hidden threat.
Kheri nodded, his eyes locked on Dale’s face.
Dale’s voice lightened, the threat less noticeable. “At the moment, I’m just a stranger who would prefer not to be noticed. You get on my bad side,” his voice took on a harder tone, “I might turn out to be your worst nightmare.”
Kheri shivered and fought to swallow, unable to turn away.
“You do as I ask and behave,” the tone lightened again. “And I may turn out to be a valuable friend,” Dale continued, still holding Kheri’s gaze with his own. “You want more explanation than that, earn it. How far is it to your aunt’s farm?”
“Uh….” Kheri shook his thoughts free from the frightening flight of fantasy they’d taken. “About three… four miles… not far. A couple hours walk.”
“She get up early?”
“Usually, yes. And this is market day too. There’ll be traffic coming into town in a while.”
Dale watched the younger man squirm for a few seconds. “In that case,” he said softly, a flinty edge to his voice. “I suggest you turn around and we get going.”
Kheri broke into a sudden sweat and turned quickly around, leading the way out of town.