The Graft Queen

He sliced the head clean off the Gath. Why didn’t it grow back?

Eureka Mounds felt his heart race as he ran under the ancient bridge. The bridge was covered in vegetation and vines, but he could see concrete railings that must have been designed to keep Old Earth vehicles from crashing to his current vantage point.

Original image By coka via Shutterstock

The Gath leaped over mounds and fallen trees with ease as Eureka sought shelter. He didn’t see any. The viaduct was nothing more than a break from the relentless sunlight. It offered no sanctuary from the quickly approaching Gath, who ran with the speed of a gazelle.

Eureka was armed with nothing but a long sword. He didn’t know its history as a Sumarai weapon kept by a rich hobbyist from Old Earth. All he knew was the lethal sharpness of its blade.

But his opponent was a bipedal weapons system, a humanoid equipped with enough weaponry to knock dead a platoon of Eureka’s kind. The sides of the viaduct offered no respite. Its sturdy walls were plain and filthy from storms and weather that demonstrated a long test of time, but they weren’t a hiding space. He saw no tree lines in the immediate distance, but he would not have been able to outrun a Gath running at even a tenth of its capabilities even if he did.

Worst of all, Eureka was a lousy magician. He couldn’t conjure up a spell for better hair, much less to kill a Gath. Survival of the fittest, he grunted to himself. Well, I guess this is it.

In a macabre way, it made sense to Eureka that natural selection should run its course this way. Anyone with such weak magical powers was not likely to survive this world, and that was that.

So he decided he would simply make his stand, and offer up his death in full resistance to his kind’s hated enemy.

Eureka doubted that the Gath would notice his last moment of defiance as he fell to whatever terrible weapon the Gath chose. For the Gath, killing was as routine as a drink of water or the scratch of an itch. If an ant were to lay on its back and try to fend off a human foot with all six legs, would the owner of the foot notice?

The Gath nearly upon him, Eureka crouched with his sword up and out in front of him in a pitiful display of courage. Would he even feel being vaporized by this Gath’s weaponry?

The Gath offered no satisfaction in their administration of death. Eureka wanted to feel something before he died. A gut wound, or a blow to the head, but he knew he’d instead momentarily morph into a cloud of bloody dust particles.

Sword up, Eureka waited for his final moment.

It never came. The Gath stopped in its tracks, its distinctly humanoid body, a look that always surprised Eureka, frozen as if chilled into an ice figure. Nothing moved, not even the frayed filigree of its sleeves in what was a windy day.

“Don’t move!” yelled a woman’s voice from the other side of the viaduct. “Don’t move your sword! It is a Blade of Time! Do NOT move!”

Eureka forced himself into a state almost as frozen as his Gath enemy. He didn’t turn to look as he heard footsteps running against gravel and branches, approaching quickly.

“Walk very slowly towards the heinous creature,” commanded the voice as it neared. “With your arms displaying the sword precisely as you are doing now.”

Eureka did so.

“Good,” she said as Eureka neared the ghastly thing. “Now, off with his head!”

“You know it’ll just grow back,” objected Eureka, but hopeful a few moments of extra time might save his life.

“Do it!” she insisted loudly.

Eureka pulled his sword to his chest then reared it back and to his right, then with a long swoop, sliced at the creature, but the head only partially severed. Eureka cursed and repeated the motion from the other side, and the head bounced onto the ancient weed-covered pavement.

The woman was a beauty, Eureka now noticed, with dark brown skin and metal jewelry embedded into her forehead. Braided hair fell to her waist.

She was gleeful as she kicked the Gath head with a foot covered in an ice blue moccasin studded with emeralds. He couldn’t imagine who she was, but she was amazing.

“Why isn’t he growing another head?” he asked with the innocence of a child.

“I won’t let him,” she said proudly with her hands on her hips as she stared at the corpse with the missing head.

Eureka had to laugh at that. “What do you mean you won’t let him?” He laughed again. “What gives you say over his biology?”

“I don’t know,” she said, smiling at Eureka. “A power that doesn’t belong to me, or to you. But that sword of yours, maybe it knows. There’s some power in that sword of yours, I can say that.”

“I come from a family of sword wielders,” he said. There was more truth to that than even he knew. Eureka had come from a long line of sword collectors and aficionados, but he had never known any of them. He never had any awareness whatsoever of any of their talents.

“All I know,” said the woman, “is that I can mess with their bioelectricity to circumvent their regenerative capabilities. I discovered it one day in the forests north of here.”

“There are forests nearby?”

She nodded quickly. “Uh-huh.” She looked sad for a moment before asking softly, “How long have you been alone?”

Eureka shook his head, not wanting to give an answer.

She nodded her head. “Well. Anyway, I got lucky one day. A Gath had me pinned to a wall. I guess its weapons systems were failing or something because it could have killed me long before that. And my companion at the time snuck behind it with a machete and lopped that head right off, he did.”

She made a swishing noise with her tongue against her teeth. “Well of course I knew that would buy me about five minutes of time, so I began to run, but before I did, I yelled out, ‘and stay off!’ I just imagined that head off permanently.

“Two weeks later I returned to the spot because it was a food storage depot serving the Northland, and its body was still there. It was the craziest thing. And I’ve found out since then that I have this power. All I gotta do is think it, and it happens.”

“Think what?”

“I just visualize it, you know? If the creature dies, no matter how it dies, it can’t regenerate in any way if I just imagine it, you know, dead.”

“You can imagine them dead, and they die?”

She shook her head. “No. I wish. That would make me one powerful woman, huh?” She laughed. She had an upper row of white teeth that looked like they had been carved by an artist with a perfect eye towards geometry. “No, alls I do is stop them from regenerating.”

“That’s still a pretty big deal,” said Eureka.

“It helps. Yeah. I’m likin’ it.” She gave the head another kick. “God I hate these things. It’s like I’m the opposite of what they want. But get this. And you won’t believe me unless I show you.”

“Okay. Show me.” He was liking her more with every word out of her mouth.

“See that tree just yonder?” she pointed to a lone adult elm in a small grove of small trees set apart within the flat grassland.

Eureka nodded.

“Go and cut me off a branch. A big one, as thick as you can reach.”

That was a strange request, but he was at the point where he thought he’d stand on his head for her, so he obliged. He returned with a thick branch full of leaves but few smaller branches.

“Perfect,” she said, as he handed it to her. She bent down and slid the thickest end of the branch firmly against the neck of the fallen Gath. “This part is fun,” she cackled.

Within a few moments, the Gath’s palms slammed into the ground, its elbows bent as if to push himself up, and Eureka swore loudly. “It’s alive!” He wanted to hack at it with his sword, but the woman said, “No! Watch!”

The Gath pushed itself off the ground and began to stumble around, with the tree limb now growing firmly from its neck. The woman cackled some more. “I can use its own bioelectricity to convince its cells that it is supposed to grow a tree branch from its neck instead of a head, using the beast’s molecular biology to change its cell structure.” She whispered loudly, “Don’t ask me how I know this. I just do.”

The Gath flailed around wildly as it stumbled around under the viaduct, looking ridiculous with the tree limb protruding from its neck.

“He’s nothing but a treehead now.”

Eureka was speechless. “And my sword,” he finally said after the woman stopped laughing at the ludicrous sight of the Gath’s helpless wanderings. “You said my sword is a Blade of Time. What does that mean?”

“Your sword kept the Gath moving one second back in time, then one second forward, then one second back, repeating over and over again, so that it remained in that one position. If you look really carefully when it is happening, you can just barely see the victim flicker. It’s almost as cool as grafting a tree limb onto a Gath neck.”

He stared at her, awed by her beauty and her words and her magic.

“It has the effect,” she said, “of freezing the victim in place.” She stopped for a moment, then said, “We would make a good team, you and I, at least until we get to MagicLand.”

His heart pounded.

“MagicLand? What is that? Where is MagicLand?”