By Milo James Fowler
Cayden watched them torment the creature as they had so many before it, five wicked men surrounding and overpowering a defenseless brute until it could no longer stand, poking with their red hot irons and stabbing away the life until it crumpled to the ground.
But this time it was different.
Today’s beast lashed out at them under the blazing sun, sending the men flying backward with screams of surprise and indignation as they launched through the air. Cayden had never seen anything like it, and she had to wonder where Liam had found such a strange animal.
Cayden remembered first seeing a rhinoceros in a book at the red schoolhouse in town: Wildlife of Africa. But the rhino in the black and white sketch stood on four legs, while this peculiar creature stood upright on two like a man, and it had no horn on the front of its head. It was bigger than a rhinoceros, some magical combination of human and beast.
Perhaps Liam had opened a doorway to a world where such things were commonplace. If so, then this creature may have had some elephant blood in it as well, judging by its size. The way Liam and his gang held their pokers reminded Cayden of a book about Africa that had sketches of dark men brandishing spears. The book said they were able to bring down a full-size elephant, kill it, and take its great ivory tusks to sell to white folks for keys on church pianos and such.
To do such a thing, to slay so mighty a creature, the natives needed spearheads able to pierce their prey, and they’d have to know that such a thing was possible; though the hide of the creature was thicker and tougher than their own, it was still possible to penetrate it.
Liam made a strange barking sound as the beast’s left arm swung to make contact with his midsection, knocking the wind out of him and sending him over backward like a discarded toy. The other men had widened their circle, darting uncertain looks at one another, each with eyes asking the same question none of them dared to speak: Had they met their match?
Cross-legged in the tall grass of a hill overlooking them, Cayden adjusted her tight-fitting bonnet and documented the scene from the field below in her leather-bound sketchbook. Her small left hand moved as if with a mind all its own to recreate the hulking creature with head bowed as it glared ferociously at the men around it. So far, the hot iron tips had been unable to pierce its hide. The men lucky enough to jab forward with their weapons and not be hurled sky-high had met the resistance of a boulder every time they made contact. Cayden heard the sound of iron clashing with granite.
“Send it back!” Percival cried. Like Liam, he’d been tossed onto his backside from a fall of twenty feet or more, but he was in no hurry to rise.
“Coward.” Liam struggled to his feet with a pained grimace. Retrieving his iron poker, he charged the creature with something akin to a rebel yell. “Now!” he hollered once he had the beast’s full attention, and the two members of his gang with enough foolhardiness in their guts plunged their irons into the creature’s back with all their might.
Cayden shut one eye, almost afraid to look, but her left hand continued to sketch the scene unimpeded.
“Holy damnation,” Percival gasped from where he lay.
The iron rods had bent in half upon meeting the great beast’s hide. The two men holding them froze, unable to believe their eyes.
Shouting incantations in the booming voice he saved for such occasions, Liam thrust his poker forward only to feint quickly to the side, dodging the creature’s next blow while swinging the rod sharply upward and striking the beast’s face. The head of the creature jerked aside with the impact, and for the first time, the men seemed to think they stood a chance against it.
Liam released a victorious howl, and forsaking his incantations for the moment, he swept his poker upward again at the creature’s face. But the beast seized hold of the iron rod in one large, stony paw and Liam’s throat in the other, lifting Liam from the earth as he kicked the air and grappled with the creature’s hold on him.
Scarlet-faced, Liam gurgled incomprehensible gibberish. His cohorts gave the beast a wide berth and stared slack-jawed, as morbidly curious as Cayden to see what would happen next. She’d heard these men break the bones of her doe, and she couldn’t help but wonder what sort of sound Liam’s neck might make.
She watched them every time, as they graduated from smaller animals like rabbits and dogs to her doe, to a neighbor’s cow, to another’s plow horse, then onto larger, more exotic beasts from Africa and other unimagined places, worlds either within the world they knew or somehow parallel to it, joined by magical doorways only Liam knew how to open, and always with only one aim: to torment and to hurt.
These were wicked men that no honest folk in town would ever hire for honest work, and as Pastor always said, idle hands were meant only for the devil’s business.
Some of the creatures Liam had summoned from those other places looked as though they might have come from the pits of hell itself. From what Cayden knew of the demons in the Bible, they all had horns and forked tongues and cloven hooves. But this great beast holding Liam — with the power to crush his skull like a walnut — didn’t look anything like them. It looked more like a magical creature made of stone, able to move as well as any giant could, standing at least nine feet tall and over half as wide, with arms and legs as thick as pine trees. Cayden made sure to get every detail right in her sketches.
They would be important later, when the time was right.
“No!” Liam managed, eyes wide, their whites a stark contrast to his red face.
“We’ll go for help!” Percival shouted over his shoulder as the men abandoned their leader, running as fast as their legs could carry them, almost spinning like windmills.
Liam shook violently, unable to free himself as he choked. Cayden smiled at the sight.
“Where am I?” The voice of the beast rolled like low thunder.
Cayden’s smile dropped away. The front of Liam’s trousers darkened as a wet patch formed and spread.
“What is this place?” the creature demanded.
Liam hung limp all of a sudden like one of Cayden’s rag dolls. With a low growl, the beast dropped him to the ground, and he fell with a puff of dust and lay still. Either out cold or expired in a permanent capacity, Cayden couldn’t tell from the distance. But she didn’t stop moving her charcoal pencil across the page of her sketchbook.
“You there.” The beast faced her, its deep-set eyes glinting in the sun like black marbles. It made no move to cross the twenty yards to the base of the hill or to climb another twenty to reach her. “Is this human your friend?”
She shook her head. “My brother.” She stood, surprised she could do so and equally impressed that she had a voice at the moment. It wasn’t every day, after all, that a beast spoke. “Did you kill him?”
“No.” The creature faced her like a bull about to charge. “Tell me where we are.”
“Wyoming,” she said, pausing her sketches and holding the book close to her chest. “Hannibal Flats, to be precise.”
“The sun—” It raised a large hand to shield its eyes. “Is it always so bright here?”
“Most always, in the summer. Where are you from?”
It shook its massive head. “Not Wyoming.”
She’d already figured as much. “I’m Cayden.” She tilted her head to one side, watching the beast closely and wondering if she could outrun it if she had to. What would Ma or Pa do if they saw such a beast chasing after their only daughter, dashing through the wheat fields? “You got a name?”
“Brawnstone,” it rumbled.
“And what might you be, exactly, Mr. Brawnstone?” It only seemed polite that she address him as a mister with his deep voice and all.
“You have never seen a trollgre before, I take it.”
“You’d be the first.” She squinted at him. “But I reckon they’ve got humans where you’re from.”
His craggy chin dropped. “Their numbers are dwindling.” He returned her gaze. “Why did you bring me here? For sport?”
“I didn’t. He did.” She pointed at her brother. He hadn’t moved an inch, and she couldn’t tell if he was still breathing.
Cayden shrugged. “Pastor says magic runs deep in my family. It’s why we were excommunicated. Do they do that where you’re from, Mr. Brawnstone?”
“He will know how to send me back.” The mighty trollgre returned his attention to Liam’s body. “Magic, you say?”
Cayden nodded. For the first time, an edge of humor had seemed to creep into the beast’s tone. “Let me guess. They don’t have magic in your world,” she said.
He glanced up at her from the corner of his eye. “As rare as sunlight — or even children.”
“I must find adequate shade. My flesh is not accustomed to your sun.” He reached down for Liam, slinging the man’s body over his broad, granite shoulders. As he did so, the hide on his thick forearm cracked, splitting from elbow to wrist. Brawnstone growled as if he’d been stung, surveying the wound.
Cayden noticed then that the stone-like surface all across the trollgre’s body began to look like cracked, sunbaked hardpan. Was it because of the sunlight? Quickly, she opened her sketchbook and retraced the beast’s outline with her charcoal pencil, shading first his forearm, then the rest of his body with quick, broad strokes.
“What have you done, child?” Brawnstone held out his arm, now made whole.
“Just a little magic.” She shut her book and held it tight. “There’s a grove over yonder with some pines.” She pointed a couple hundred yards away. “Sometimes I go there to cool off a spell.”
The trollgre nodded to her. Then he turned away with Liam dangling across his back.
“Will you kill him?” She took her first step toward the beast. “If he doesn’t tell you what you want to know? If he can’t send you back where you belong?”
“I do not destroy life,” the trollgre rumbled, setting off for the trees with heavy footfalls that punched into the brittle earth, seeming to shake it to its very core. “I will not kill your brother.”
“Good,” Cayden said, watching Liam’s head jostle on a limp neck. Then in a voice only she could hear, she murmured, “That’s my job.”
They held her down, the five of them — man-sized wickedness with foolish little boys behind their eyes. Cayden could barely see through her tears or breathe through her sobs, and despite how strong she was or how hard she fought against them, she knew it was no use. They’d overpowered her, and now they were in control.
A part of her mind fought to fly away like a hawk and go someplace where older brothers didn’t torture your pets to the brink of death and then threaten to do the same to you. Did such a world exist?
“Hold her still!” Liam wielded his buck knife, wet with fresh blood.
“C’mon now, you sure about this?” Percival had a hold of Cayden’s left arm, but his grip wasn’t as tight or as brutal as the others.
Liam’s eyes bulged from their sockets. “She’ll tell!”
“No she won’t.” Percival’s upside-down freckled face looked her in the eye. “You won’t, will you, Cay? Nobody needs to know what we do out here with these critters.”
“She was mine!” Cayden screamed up at him.
“There’s your answer.” Liam seized hold of her cheeks, squishing them in his rough hand. “Hush now.” He grinned as he brought the blade to her throat. “This’ll be over real quick, long as you don’t struggle.”
Percival held up a hand. “You can’t! She ain’t one of — she’s your sister!”
Liam snickered as he tore off her bonnet and cast it aside. The chestnut locks of her silky hair whisked about in the breeze as if they knew it was their last dance.
Afterward, as the men ambled off joking and shoving one another like boys often do, Cayden had crawled into the tall grass where she’d stashed her sketchbook, and she quickly retraced the drawing of her doe. She’d sketched it weeks before her brother and his friends had led it out here into this field for their cruel sport, and she’d known better than to think she’d be able to restore the poor creature to full health — it was too far gone for that — but she liked to think she’d eased its passing, as her tears wet the pages in her book.
Now, as Brawnstone carried Liam into the shade and she remained on the hillside, she flipped back to that last sketch of her dear pet, where the charcoal had smeared beneath the weight of her tears. Some tragedies left their mark. She knew that well.
There was magic in her family; Pastor was right about that much. Liam had a magnificent gift, but so did she. They were each special in their own way. And those ways were very different.
What Pastor and everyone else in town didn’t know was that while Liam always used his magic for hurt and Cayden most often used hers for help, there were times when she too strayed from the path of righteousness.
The silence of the night shattered like Mama’s glass vase that time Cayden allowed her doe inside the house, only this time it was Liam’s screams coming from his room. Cayden awoke to them, but not in alarm. She’d already half-expected as much.
She had gotten a brand-new eraser at the mercantile in town, the owner being one of the few folks who remained fond of her despite her family’s excommunication. He had smiled kindly at her and said there would be no charge. After sketching her brother’s right hand in full detail, she’d waited for him to fall asleep in his room that night, listening for his snores, until—
“My thumb!” He shrieked in absolute horror, invoking the name of the Good Lord again and again while he cussed a blue streak.
Cayden heard both Ma and Pa’s footsteps on the floorboards as they rushed to the bedside of their only son. Cayden quickly snatched the sketchbook from her nightstand, her left hand moving deftly by the moonlight glowing through a window above her bed.
“Just a dream.” Pa’s voice resonated sourly at being rousted from slumber by a full-grown son still living under his roof yet never around to help with any of the chores.
“I tell you it was gone!” Liam insisted with a string of fresh oaths.
“Well it’s back now,” Ma’s voice consoled, but not without a reprimand, as was her way: “And you watch your mouth, boy. Just because we don’t go to church no more don’t give you the right to befoul your mother’s ears.”
“Go to sleep.” Pa stumbled off to bed.
“Everything’ll be fine come morning,” Ma assured him before she took her leave.
She was right, of course. Though Cayden had to keep herself from giggling the next morning at breakfast, and luckily for her, Liam was too engrossed in turning over his hands and comparing one thumb to the other to notice much else.
He had every reason to be concerned. She’d drawn his right thumb just a smidge shorter than it used to be.
The trollgre’s booming voice came loud enough for Cayden to hear from the hill, but she couldn’t for the life of her make out Liam’s responses, now that he’d regained consciousness. Was he scared for his life? She certainly hoped so.
With a finger in her sketchbook to hold the place where she’d left off drawing the day’s events, she stole quickly down the hillside, coming within fifteen yards of the creature and her brother. Liam now lay on the ground with Brawnstone’s heavy foot compressing his chest, threatening to crush every rib beneath.
“No more fainting,” the trollgre rumbled. “You brought me here, and now you will send me back.”
Standing in the sun with her bonnet cinched tightly under her chin, without a single strand of chestnut hair to float in the breeze, Cayden cracked open her sketchbook.
“Alright!” Liam sounded as panicked as he had when he’d lost his thumb. He grappled with the trollgre’s foot, as immovable as a boulder trapping him. “I can’t breathe!”
“He’ll need his voice to open the doorway.” Cayden watched the scene unfold as her left hand documented every detail in charcoal.
Brawnstone turned his head a fraction of an inch to regard her from the corner of his eye. “Doorway?”
“It’s his magic. He recites a spell, and you walk on through. Leastways that’s how he got you here. I figure it works the same sending you back.”
“Is this true?”
Liam squirmed, nodding up at the beast.
“Very well.” Brawnstone lifted his foot, and Liam clambered backward, fighting for breath and staring up at the trollgre as if he were something from a living nightmare. “Open the doorway.” He looked at Cayden. “But I did not walk through. I was drawn into your Wyoming against my will.”
“I pulled you.” Liam seemed to notice his soggy crotch for the first time.
“Because I could.” Liam scowled, cursing as his face burned scarlet to the tips of his ears. “I should be able to push you back.”
“Just not yet,” Cayden murmured.
Liam stood and cleared his throat, preparing to recite the incantations that had come to him in a dream on the night of his thirteenth birthday — or so he claimed — when suddenly he doubled over and clapped a hand to his ear as if he’d been stung by a hornet. He drew back his palm with blood upon it.
“What did you do to me?” He stared first at his hand, then at the trollgre. The ear lobe on the right side of Liam’s head was missing a bite-sized piece of flesh.
“Open the doorway,” Brawnstone repeated, now with a sense of urgency in his tone.
“I will! You don’t have to—” Liam lurched backward with a wild shriek, hands flying to his scalp as a chunk of it, complete with straw-colored hair, disappeared.
Cayden couldn’t help it. She let a small giggle escape.
Brawnstone turned on her. “Is this your magic as well, child?”
She stared back at him. Raising her chin a smidge, she nodded, and as she did, she felt something powerful surge inside her. She’d never been so in control of anything in all her life.
“Don’t try and stop me,” she warned.
He glanced at the solid hide on his arm as if he knew that what she gave, she could just as easily take away. “I only wish to return to my world.”
She frowned. “But you said it wasn’t a nice place at all. No sun, no children—”
“It is where I belong. Where I am needed.”
“I need you here.” She’d blurted out the words before she realized she even meant them. But she did. And she wouldn’t take them back. She’d never had the courage to hurt Liam like this, like he’d hurt her and so many creatures before, without Brawnstone here to make the man-boy wet his pants. “He would’ve killed you, if he could.”
“You?” Liam raged at her as he bled. “How?”
“You think you’re the only one with real magic in our family?” Her hand jerked on the sketchbook. She watched Liam drop to the ground, his leg broken in half, and she relished his screams.
“You have been biding your time,” Brawnstone observed, his deep voice rising above the sounds of Liam’s agony.
“Isn’t it obvious, brother? You remember my doe, of course. And my hair.” She paused. “But the best reason is simply because I can.” With another jerk of her hand on the page, the sketch of her brother’s face lost its nose, and Liam released a strangled shriek as he writhed in the dust.
“Your hair?” Brawnstone eyed her without expression.
“He cut it off with that knife of his. After he killed my pet. And it hasn’t grown back, none of it.” She gave the bonnet a tug to make sure it was still in place. Her gaze remained fixed on Liam’s broken form. “It’s time for his comeuppance, Mr. Brawnstone.”
The trollgre inclined his massive head to one side. “You could not have waited until after he sent me back?”
Cayden had to giggle at that.
“Damn you straight to hell!” Unable to rise, Liam cursed with murderous intent, his face now crimson-wet and his eyes as wild as she’d ever seen.
“He is human,” Brawnstone said in an even tone. “He is your brother. In my world, as imperfect as it is, that would mean something.”
Cayden narrowed her gaze. “Send him back,” she commanded her brother, her left hand poised over the sketchbook. “Or I’ll end you at the waist.”
Liam stared back at her. There appeared to be no doubt in his mind that she meant what she said. Quickly, he spat to the side to clear his mouth and began the incantation, reciting it shakily at first and then with more feeling as he went along. Brawnstone turned sharply as a void opened behind him with a ripple, as if the air between the trees had turned into a pool of standing water. Whatever lay beyond, however, could not be seen.
Glancing at Liam, the trollgre moved to enter the doorway without another word.
“How can you tell?” Cayden stepped forward, halting him with her voice. “How do you know that’s the way to your world? My brother has opened doorways to many and taken all manner of creatures for his games. What if this one isn’t yours?”
“In my world, poison rains from the skies because of … magic. Because none could live at peace with their brothers.” Brawnstone eyed her squarely. “Fighting evil with evil helps no one, child. In this Wyoming, I have seen a different poison, and I would sooner leave in favor of worlds unknown than remain in such a place.” He stopped, staring down at his hide as it suddenly cracked across the surface in jagged lines.
“Then leave.” The last thing Cayden wanted to hear right now was a lecture.
Brawnstone stepped into the void. It swallowed him up like a pond would a big rock, only without a splash, and once he was through to whatever lay beyond, the rippling doorway vanished with a flash of light. Cayden found herself alone with her dear brother — or what was left of him.
“Go on. Kill me.” He scowled up at her. “If you don’t, I’ll tell everybody in town what you are. A damned witch! Then we’ll see what they do about it.”
Cayden could have easily killed him right then and there. He looked so much like the creatures his gang had tormented and left for dead, crumpled on the ground and bleeding out. But she also could have made him whole. It was within her power, after all.
She found herself in complete control of his fate for the first time in her life. Liam had taken her doe and her hair, and no doubt he would have taken her sketchbook from her if he could, but none of that really mattered right now. She held ultimate power over him at this moment, and the effect was dizzying.
“Open a new doorway,” she said, retracing the drawing of his broken leg but leaving the damage done to his nose, scalp, and ear. He would have to be able to walk — and run for his life, more than likely — where he was going. “Now.”
He stared first at his healed leg, then up at her. “Where the hell to?”
She almost smiled at the thought of it.
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a speculative fictioneer by night. When he’s not grading papers, he’s imagining what the world might be like in a few dozen alternate realities. He is an active SFWA member, and his work has appeared in more than 70 publications, including AE SciFi, Cosmos, Daily Science Fiction, Nature, and Shimmer. His novel Captain Bartholomew Quasar and the Space-Time Displacement Conundrum is forthcoming from Every Day Publishing.