Richard Rank, private detective, sat slumped in the front seat of his black Monaro. The rain washed the road outside. Richard was glad to be inside.
He hated stake-outs. He would rather be in a bar trying to guess exactly where the legs of a gorgeous babe ended. He would watch the legs walk past. He would dream.
Only the dreams were no good now. The face of a troubled woman would not let him rest. She made him think of scones on a Sunday afternoon and white picket fences. A good woman like that shouldn't be at the mercy of gangsters.
Richard Rank slumped lower in his seat. The headlights of a passing car raked over the mud-spattered windows of the black Monaro. The car pulled up in front of the dilapidated house opposite Richard's car. A lean man scuttled to the door. He opened the frayed fly-screen and banged on the door. A burst of light announced the opening of the door and the visitor was swallowed by the house.
Richard eased himself out of his car and crossed the street. He crept up to the shabby window. He looked in. The rain was on his side now. The noise he made trampling the garden was masked by the sound of the rain on the rusty tin roof.
Inside the house he could see Larsen talking to a large man who sat slumped in a chair in front of a small electric heater. Richard had his camera set up just in time to capture the transaction. He took the photos he wanted. He slipped through the night and regained the dry interior of his car. He barely had time to slump in his seat before Larsen left the neglected residence.
The coast was clear. Richard Rank started up the motor of the car he called Bertha. She reminded him of a woman he once knew. She was comfortable and reliable and gave you everything she had if you put your foot down.
The dirty dishes cluttered up the bench in the kitchen. Richard made enough space to make himself another cup of coffee. The photos were hanging up to dry in the bathroom. The makeshift darkroom he had made up with some old blankets and kitchen utensils had worked quite well. He could prove that Larsen was in it up to his neck. But what could he prove about Raven . . .
Tossing back the strong coffee, Richard paced over to the coffee table and looked again at the evidence he had gathered in the last week. Time spent in greasy dives, pounding the pavement and pushing punks around had earned him this meagre collection. He had to put the information together. His brain, sharpened by years on the street, tried to build a case out of the photos and documents that lay, mute, on the table in front of him.
"It's not enough," he finally said in disgust.
"Greetings, son. I was wondering when you were going to surface. Your turmoil has hung like a grey mist over your castle at the end of the garden."
John Sortilege returned to inspecting and tending the rows of herbs that he grew in his back yard. He plucked blooms from the thriving borage clump. He nibbled at them, surveying the rows of healing: tansy and pennywort, nightshade and arnica, aloe and sage. The butterflies that danced above the garden caught his attention and began trailing glittering rainbows that hung like the trails from jet aeroplanes, before disintegrating.
Morgan hated it when his father was like this.
"I wasn't sulking Dad, I was thinking."
"So? What do you think?"
"I think I need your advice."
"Let's go inside. These plants have more patience than you or I, and I think I can smell the kettle boiling."
"Well, out with it. I can hardly give you advice if I don't know what the problem is - except that it involves that lovely child who was attacking you last night."
Morgan glared despairingly at his father.
"Calm down boy! Remember who it was that saved you from a fate worse than death. The colours of that girl!"
As a child John Sortilege had tried to be like all the rest. His parents had thoughtfully provided him with a very ordinary name, but he was no ordinary child. He was able to avoid using his natural talents - he simply never learned how. His ability to see auras could not be so easily ignored. Those around him marvelled at how sensitive he was to their feelings. As an adolescent his uncanny knack for "reading" people very nearly landed him in a lot of trouble.
One day his grandfather came to visit. After he left, John had begun to learn about that part of himself he had so far ignored. Today that knowledge weighed him down. His own father dead, he was left responsible for the family.
"Morgan, that young woman is crazy for you. Now tell me what the problem is."
Morgan paused and tried to clear his mind as he had been taught.
"I really like her, Dad, but, I just don't know if it's right?"
"Surely it's all right to like her?"
"Yes, of course, but . . . you know what I mean."
"Probably, but you'll have to spell it out. I can't read minds." John Sortilege sat back and sipped his tea. Morgan was suddenly angry with his father.
"Why not? You can do everything else, can't you? Sitting there laughing at me." Morgan stopped. His father was sitting perfectly still, his aura showing nothing but anxiety. "Why are you worried, Dad?"
His father replied with a gentle comment, "I'm your father. So why don't you talk to me?"
There was silence for a moment.
"I really like her, Dad. She doesn't care about the family being weird. I guess she doesn't realize how weird we are. But I don't think she has to - not yet, anyway." Morgan found it easier to talk this way, thinking out aloud while his father listened. "I didn't make her want me. But she does. I think she wants to . . ." He was suddenly lost for words.
"Share her body as well as her mind," came the gentle prompt.
"Yes," replied Morgan, blushing. "It's silly. You've always taught us that our bodies are nothing to be ashamed of. You taught us to take pleasure in physical sensations and to use them to increase our power. I shouldn't be embarrassed by wanting her!" Morgan's last comment became an accusation.
"I can't be held responsible for the influence that the world out there has on you, boy. I thought you'd learned to trust your instincts by now!"
"I don't know," whispered Morgan. "Dad?"
“I can't help wondering whether I did make her like me. Maybe without knowing it. What if I did?"
Morgan stared at his father.
"No!" John Sortilege smiled at the vehemence of his son's reply. "No, I didn't. But if I'd wanted to I could've!"
Morgan's words hung in the air. John sipped his tea. It was not yet time for him to speak. There was more he needed to know.
"Is that all that's bothering you? You know the rules about influencing the Children of the Earth."
"Yes, that's just what I mean. The rules don't stop me. The only thing they stop me from is letting people know who I am and what my family really is. I can do anything I want as long as nobody finds out! It's not right!"
"Why not? There are restrictions on the extent to which we of the Air can influence the lives of the Children of the Earth."
"And that's not right either! We're supposed to just stand by and let them . . . let them . . . Dad! Can't you see what's happening around us. The world's a mess. All this rubbish about the days of the Ancient People being over - we should be doing what we can to help!"
"So, son, because you feel a responsibility to the people we live among, you were reluctant to take advantage of one of their daughters, desirable though she was?"
"I suppose so. It wasn't fair on Linda either - she was upset. I don't know if she really knew what she was doing."
"Is that why you gave her Fey's `Hand Cream' amulet?"
"How did you know?"
"Your sister, quite rightly, told me. It's a powerful charm, Morgan, not to be treated lightly. Your joke name doesn't change the seriousness of the matter."
"Can't you see the funny side of it Dad? The book should be re-written - the only thing that you hear about that `soothes and protects' these days is hand cream."
John Sortilege twisted his mouth to hide his smile. He had already been old when he met Sheila. Their love had made him young again, and the children of their love had made it a joyful life. He looked at the boy, no longer anxious.
"It is time for you to listen, son."
When his father's voice took on the ceremonial tone, Morgan was surprised. Not knowing what to expect, he adopted the position of the disciple, acknowledging his father as master.
"Listen and remember, my child, for you will one day be father to a family - responsible."
His father's words, echoing in the cluttered study, seemed ominous to Morgan. What was so important?
"Alongside the history of man runs the history of the Ancient People. We will never know how we came to be or why - but we are. In the confusion before written history, the people of the Air were revered by those around them, or so we are told by our most knowledgable scholars. Throughout history and legend there are examples of our people who were honoured for their wisdom. There are also examples of persecution. Often innocent men and women died."
"So we must never show people what we are. I know that, Dad."
Mr Sortilege relaxed for a minute. "My sources tell me that you have been . . . indiscreet. A bunch of roses is a common trick, but disappearing beer?"
Morgan looked at the floor for a moment, then replied, "But what about what you did with Linda? You did tricks that can't be explained by sleight of hand or deception."
"Yes, boy, but as you know, Linda is different." John looked at his son, choosing his words. "You were right to give her the amulet. I have looked, and I believe we must help her."
John Sortilege stood. He took Morgan's hand and motioned for silence. "Look, my child. Listen and remember."
The walls of the study began to fade. Morgan had not yet learned to Travel, as his father could. His father had allowed him to be present, an observer on previous journeys. He was not shocked by the experience, merely curious.
The journey was accompanied by the voice of John Sortilege. Listen and remember! Morgan could not have described what he saw. His other journeys had been in a world with which he was familiar. Now he Travelled . . . where?
"Listen and remember, child. You have learned about the physical world in which we live, now see it as it is! This is matter, raw energy. Those who travel here can see and do."
As Morgan watched, his father manipulated the vibrant atmosphere that surrounded them. The swirling ether cleared and Morgan stared until the scene before him was sharp. He gasped and grabbed at John.
"It is the past, and cannot be altered. We must learn from it."
They watched as Linda and Ang crept in the back door of a nightclub. A small gesture from John and the tableau sped up, becoming slower only as the girls left the club in the company of Ralph Larsen. Morgan's ears detected no sound, but he understood that Larsen was driving the girls home rather than call the police to deal with two under-age drinkers. The inexpertly altered, out-of-date licences the girls had brought with them were now in Larsen's pocket.
Linda pleaded with him not to tell their parents. Ang sat, resigned, in the back seat. When Larsen suggested that he might know a way to avoid involving their parents, the girls were eager. Their driver made a brief call on his car-phone.
They drove to a small, isolated house. Three figures hunched through the night and into the empty building. Some minutes later an expensive-looking black car settled down outside the house. A stocky figure climbed out of the passenger-side door and hurried into the house. The picture seemed to follow this man into the well-lit sitting room. Morgan didn't really notice the fifth person who entered the house.
The girls were sitting nervously, waiting for the small, balding man. They tried to explain that they had changed their minds but Larsen told them it was too late. He drew a gun from his pocket and told them that they would not be harmed, as long as they did as they were told. Then he sat and watched.
Morgan watched helplessly as the girls began to remove their clothing, huddling together, pathetically seeking protection.
B.B. Raven watched the girls, talking to them all the time, telling them what would happen. When Ang began to cry he seemed pleased. He ordered her to come to him. When she refused, Larsen calmly rose, grabbed Linda by the hair and threatened to kill her. Still crying, Ang went to B.B. and stood in front of him.
The unpleasant little man began to touch Ang, obviously enjoying her attempts to shrink from his touch. When he tired of this game he turned his attention to Linda, still held by Larsen and less able to evade him. The gun in Larsen's hand kept Ang at bay, a pitiful spectator.
"No!" screamed Morgan, shattering the vision.
"Peace, boy," said John Sortilege. "It has already happened - some time ago."
Morgan turned to his father, now standing before him in their own lounge room, in disgust. The sight of the old wizard's beard, black with anger, stopped the harsh words that had passed through his mind.
"I think you have seen enough, child."
"I have to know what he did to her."
Morgan tried to control himself. Tides of anger and nausea dragged at him. His father steadied him with a firm grip on his shoulder and spoke.
"Fortunately the girls had a guardian that night. This man has been watched by us for some time now. Your Aunt Stella made sure that the only harm they suffered is the humiliation that the man wields to debvauch the innocents of the world around him. But that is too much."
He paused and Morgan commented, "That must be the bastard that Linda wanted me to . . ."
Father and son gazed into one another's eyes.
"Do you still want to harass this man?"
Morgan tried to avoid his father's eyes, knowing that lying would be useless.
"But . . ."
John Sortilege's voice had returned to the formal voice of ceremony. Morgan's attempt at an apparition could be excused. Refusing to abide by the law in the presence of the head of the family would be a different matter.
"No," Morgan replied at last, grudgingly.
"Why?" John asked more gently.
"The rules do not allow it."
"Is the law just?"
Morgan hesitated before answering, "Yes."
The head of the Sortilege family took a deep breath. As Morgan watched, his father exhaled and his aura began to glow. The healthy colours of joy and pride shed an eerie light in the small room.
"My son," said John, "you are now a man and must make the choices of a man. You have shown yourself moral of character and sensitive of spirit. Welcome."
Morgan accepted his father's formal handshake, bewildered to hear again the words from the coming-of-age ceremony.
"What's going on, Dad?"
John Sortilege gathered his son into the vice of his arms’ love. When he stood back Morgan saw tears in his eyes. He sat when his father gestured. John reached for his cup, full, as always, of the strong tea that he so loved. He sipped and spoke.
"You have told me that Linda doesn't understand how weird your family is. You," he said, "do not understand how powerful. And with power comes responsibility. The men and women of our people who made the laws and decided how we should live were wise. They knew that only those who are worthy should know of power that could be dangerous.
"Before you could begin your final training, you had to be tested. The head of each family is responsible for testing, at the time and in the way he or she chooses. But we have been observed."
A rustle of ghostly voices interrupted.
"Welcome. Welcome, Morgan," they said. "Welcome and farewell."
Morgan looked about, confused at only now noticing the spiritual presence of his relatives. The hazy auras glittered briefly. Then the room was still.
"They have seen what they need to. I will be meeting with many of them later, though. We have a great deal to discuss." John sipped his tea.
"If I hadn't said the right things I would never have been able to learn my full power?" asked Morgan.
"You would not have been allowed to," his father replied solemnly. "Do you remember your grandfather?"
"Yes." The memories were the unreliable snatches of early childhood. A bear of a man romped through picnics and beaches, and then disappeared.
"Do you remember being told he was dead?"
"Yes." A frightening person, his aura coloured with blood, had abruptly appeared. His mother had set her jaw while his father wept.
"His father - my grandfather - killed him." John allowed a little time for this to sink in. Morgan roused himself from his shock and questioned John Sortilege.
"Would you have killed me, Dad?"
The wizard, seeming suddenly frail, rested his hands on his son's shoulders. "If I had to, I would," he said sadly, "but I think it would kill me." He hugged his precious child, then briskly continued with his speech.
"My father had failed the test of his character when he was quite young. As is our way, he continued to live amongst we of the Air. But he abided by the rules and did not learn the ways of the Ancient People. He tried to raise me so that I would never have to face the situation he found himself in. When it became necessary, his father spoke to me. All that I know about our ways I learned from my grandfather. We all believed there was no reason to fear.
"We don't really know what happened, but the ether showed his mark. Somehow he had learned what was forbidden to him, and used it destructively. There is only one possible way to deal with such danger." He paused. "A father is responsible for his family.
"It is so important for you to listen to the wisdom of those around you. Understanding the full implications of your actions is difficult. That is why, when we do interfere in the affairs of mankind, it is done by a group, and only after careful study."
While Morgan groped for words his father continued.
"Mankind is, as you say, damaging this earth badly. They do this because their understanding is limited. They cannot see far enough to realize the way their actions disturb a delicate balance. The child who throws away a plastic wrapper can't conceive of it choking an animal to death. The factories polluting the oceans are run by men who are more interested in money than dying wildlife and disrupted ecosystems. The greed of men is short-sighted, but seems to have no limit. They persist in believing that climate change isn’t their problem.
"We Ancient Ones see this. There may be a chance, soon, for us to guide the thoughts of mankind."
"But Dad," said Morgan, finding his tongue, "the law forbids interference."
"We will only help make the message clear - ensure that it is delivered. The rest is up to the children of the Earth."
"Can I help Linda, then?"
"When you were small you were not allowed to play with matches. It would have been dangerous. You are now a man and trusted to play with fire."
"Then I can help Linda."
"Yes, boy. As long as you do the right thing."
"Be her friend, be her lover if she still wants you. But be gentle, boy. Her mind is scarred, not her body: the mind is more precious and fragile. And, son!" The tone was a command. "You are too young to start a family!"
Morgan grinned and blushed, a habit his father would never admit to enjoying immensely.
"But what about that . . . slime?" asked Morgan.
John Sortilege laughed. Linda would have been gratified to hear the demonic roar.
"Leave him to the experts, boy!"
Shawn examined his surroundings.
Light came cautiously through a small barred window that also served as ventilation for the tiny room. Underneath the inadequate window there was fungus growing, weirdly decorating the stone wall. Further from the miserable window the masonry was slimy with moisture and unable to support life. The floor, paved with roughly hewn boulders, was bare. There was a crude bucket in one corner; in the other was a pile of dank straw, on which, wrapped in the single blanket, Shawn sat.
The rough wooden door, bound with iron, had no handle. It was locked from the outside with an iron bar which was held firmly in position. Shawn could see no hope of escaping from this dungeon. Unless . . .
As he waited for someone to open the forbidding door, Shawn could not avoid the thoughts that crowded into his solitude. As he remembered days of sunshine and laughter he smouldered with rage and frustration. This was all wrong!
He could remember clearly, Sarah, wobbling towards him, unsteady on her tiny chubby legs. Then he turned and looked across the fields to see her running towards him, a lithe child with flowing golden hair. Suddenly she was a blossoming young woman and there was a buzz as the young men of the valley were unable to resist swarming about her.
The Baron's son had proved more persistent than most and less threatened by the aggressive stance that Shawn had developed to deter the eager suitors. Shawn had chaperoned his daughter diligently, mistrusting the youth's intentions. Everyone who lived in the area knew of the unfortunate young women who had been spoiled and then heartlessly cast aside.
Shawn found himself regretting his hasty words to the Baron. The people of his village were depending on him to negotiate a good deal for their harvest. Instead he had allowed the sight of the Baron's arrogant son to move him to anger.
The look in the youth's eye as he sauntered past had provoked Shawn to question the Baron's ability to control his son and heir. The altercation that followed had ended in Shawn's imprisonment. The welfare of the village, depending on their leader to bargain for their harvest, was in jeopardy because of Shawn's imprudent concern for his daughter.
Where was Sarah now?
Shawn longed to be home. In the snug little cottage there would be a cheerful fire in the hearth. The air, smelling of pine-smoke and stew, would be fresh and wholesome. Sarah would smile as she handed him the bowl of steaming food. He would hear the owl's melancholy cry, muffled by the steady stone walls of his father's house. Shawn had never before spent a night away from the tranquil valley that had been his family's home for generations.
The chilly cell was becoming dark. The sombre surroundings were best unseen, Shawn found himself thinking. He settled himself to sleep, trying to fight off the sense of injustice that made him restless.
This is wrong! One person should not have this power over others. There is enough room in our valley for everyone. It is not necessary for one person to try to keep the wealth of the land to themselves. The Baron and his kin can have enough to sustain them and more. There is no need for such all-consuming greed. He dreamed of a time when men cared for each other and the world around them, putting aside selfish greed and working to benefit all. That would be a time of true wealth. The ravening beasts would turn their shoulders to bearing the common load.
When would the shame of a history that told of man's oppression of other men, of thoughtless and profligate waste of resources, of the wanton desires of a few outweighing the needs of the many, when would this tragic saga end? In taking the apple from the Tree of Life, Adam and Eve were given the power to distinguish between right and wrong. It was this power which gave them dominion over the beasts of the field. When would humanity prove themselves worthy of their superior intellect and morality?
This is wrong!