Hurt & Comfort

Book 11: Creating Comfort

©2020 MultiMapper
All Rights Reserved

Chapter 22: Natty Voices

"How are you doing, Steve?" Lee asked as they appeared in the middle of a desolate hellscape.

"Whoa! This is incredible!" Steve said in amazement as he quickly looked around trying to see everything at once.

"Yeah." Lee confirmed with a glance, then asked again, "How are you doing?"

"I'm fine. Why?" Steve asked as he focused his attention back on Lee.

"I just know what it's like to be new to the group and have questions and not know who to ask. I thought that I'd take a minute to pull you off to the side to make sure that you're okay with everything that's happening. I'd hate for you to feel like you've gotten yourself into something that you don't know how to get out of." Lee said frankly.

"I don't want to get out! This is what I've been dreaming of!" Steve passionately exclaimed, pleading with his eyes for Lee to understand.

"I didn't really think that you did." Lee quietly assured him, then explained, "But sometimes when people get what they always wanted, they realize that they don't really want it after all. I just want to be sure that you know that I'm here for you if you suddenly find yourself in a place that you don't want to be."

"Did that happen to you?"

"I suppose it did, even though it didn't have anything to do with me being a mutant... in fact, at the time, I didn't even know what being a mutant was. My problems had more to do with drinking and drugs... and maybe some mental illness."

"Are you saying that I shouldn't blame all my problems on what I look like?" Steve asked cautiously.

"I can't say anything about your situation. I don't know what it's like to be you or how much of what you've gone through has to do with your appearance. All I'm trying to do is let you know that you're not alone in all of this. That's it." Lee said firmly as he looked Steve in the eyes.

"Okay. Yeah." Steve responded slowly, then added more confidently, "I got it."

"Good. Then let's get back to the group meeting. After all the talk, I want to see what kind of power Beau really has." Lee said with a smile.

"I have a funny feeling that his power is probably going to be a whole lot scarier than literally being in hell." Steve said frankly as he glanced upward at a flaming vortex swirling in the sky.

"Hell's not so bad." Lee said simply, then added with a grin, "It's a dry heat."

Steve laughed as the world seemed to turn to dust and dissolve all around them.

* * * * *

"What'd we miss?" Steve asked as he looked around.

"Beau just agreed to let the Meerkats stay and witness the ritual." Andrew said simply.

"Just let me know if we're going to have to wait a really long time because I really need to visit with Doctor McCoy for a few minutes." Steve said anxiously.

"I'm going to summon Emily right now, then I'll have to wait on Fallen to arrive so that we can confirm that he wants to go through with this. That should give you plenty of time if you want to go and take care of that now." Beau said thoughtfully.

"Actually, my sacs can wait. Summoning ghosts and talking to them sounds awesome! I don't want to miss a minute of it." Steve said frankly.

"Oh? Alright. If no one has anything else that they need to do, I could do the summoning right now." Beau said cautiously.

"Even though I've got a class to get to, I'm really interested to see your summoning ritual." Andrew said honestly.

"Okay. It's a simple one. This'll just take me a minute." Beau promised, then began to gather items from around the work station that they had just assembled.

"I'll go ahead and get you the water before I forget about it." Andrew said as his eyes briefly flared golden.

"I won't need it for this, but I will need it later." Beau said absently as he placed items on the floor, just inside the front door.

A moment later, a gallon jug of water appeared on the countertop on one of the baker's racks.

"I just need to be sure, you haven't magically or by way of your mutant ability altered this door in any way, have you?" Beau asked as he indicated the front door of the 'Gingerbread House'.

"No. I haven't done anything at all to it." Andrew assured him.

"But Seth did." Slash hurried to remind him.

"Oh yeah, that's right. Thanks for reminding me." Beau said gratefully.

After a moment to consider, Beau slowly continued, "Seth's ability is a known quantity. I understand enough of how it works to know that it won't impact what I'm doing with the spell. I just had to be sure that Andrew hadn't done something that I didn't know about so I wouldn't accidentally hit some hidden enchantment or locking spell when I invoke the summoning."

As the others watched, Beau began to very precisely pour salt onto the floor in a semi-circle in front of the door, creating an intricate design with it.

"Are you going to need me to close the portals?" Andrew asked quietly, not wanting to take a chance of breaking Beau's concentration.

"It won't make a difference for what I'm doing. In fact, most of this is just precaution. The salt boundary keeps anything other than what I've summoned from coming through the door." Beau carefully explained.

"So you cast the summons on the doorway, then limit what can respond to it?" Andrew asked curiously.

"Yeah. I mean, I could craft the spell to seek out and notify only Emily of my summons, but it would take a lot of extra time, effort, and supplies and probably wouldn't be as effective as a general summons carried on the ethereal wind." Beau said frankly as he completed his salt diagram.

"I've used salt barriers before, but I've never tailored one to a specific task like that. It's really ingenious." Andrew said with a smile.

"I wish I could take credit for it, but Mrs. Durtnal taught me this. Her magic was of the common folk. It's usually not much to look at, but it gets the job done." Beau said as he placed a blank piece of parchment in an open area of the salt diagram.

"I think all of us can respect that. While there's a time and a place for showmanship, I'm all for functionality." Andrew said seriously.

"Glad to hear it." Beau said as he opened a jar of ink, then unceremoniously dipped in a brush.

"I can't even guess what you're..." Andrew began to say, but fell silent as he watched Beau draw a complex symbol on the parchment in long precise strokes.

"Is that Japanese?" Andrew asked uncertainly.

"It's a little older than that, but in essence, yes. This symbol says what I need to say clearly and directly without having to muck around with spoken language." Beau said as he added three simple marks on the right side of the larger symbol.

"If you say so..." Andrew said slowly.

"Remember, we're going for functionality." Beau cautioned.

"Oh, I know. I just... I don't see how this is going to work." Andrew said honestly.

"Hand me those candles and I'll show you." Beau said as he motioned toward the main table of their work area.

"The white ones?" Andrew asked to be sure.

"Yeah." Beau confirmed as he set the ink and brush out of his way.

Beau took the candles from Andrew and placed them around his salt diagram.

Those watching were surprised to notice that the placement of the candles had obviously been accounted for when the diagram was drawn, although it didn't appear that anything was missing before the candles had been added.

"Before you start, do we need to be prepared to run for cover or anything like that?" Lee asked cautiously.

"No. This is just a simple summoning. If all goes well, a ghost will appear. And most likely, I'll be the only one who'll be able to see her." Beau said honestly.

"If all doesn't go well, Dad and I can port everyone out." Andrew added confidently.

Lee made a point of making eye contact with Steve and giving him a slight nod of assurance to let him know that he was covered.

"Okay Beau, we're ready when you are." Andrew said seriously.

The candles simultaneously burst into flame without any obvious encouragement from Beau.

"You don't need to do the words or gestures to access your fire spells?" Andrew asked cautiously.

"No. Along with being a necromancer, I'm also a fire mage." Beau quietly admitted.

"So am I, but I still have to use gestures and spoken words to access my fire. There's no way someone as young as you could have advanced to that level, not even if you worked at it every day of your life." Andrew said suspiciously.

"I'm a born witch. Things are a little different for me." Beau quietly explained.

"You mentioned that before. Although I've heard of a 'born witch', I'm not sure that I've ever met one before. How exactly does that happen? Are your parents both witches?" Andrew asked curiously.

"That's something we don't talk about." Beau timidly answered.

//Beau, tell him. He can handle it.// Jesus interrupted.

"I would rather you didn't look in my mind without my permission." Beau said in a warning tone.

//You know how it is when you hear a noise and you automatically turn to look at it? That happens with telepathy, too. I wasn't snooping, but sometimes things will catch my attention and I'll glance to see what they are.// Jesus explained.

"I'd still prefer it if you would try not to look." Beau said simply.

//I won't snoop on purpose and I won't tell anyone what I accidentally saw, but from what little I did see of it, this looks like something that needs to be carefully navigated so that we can come through it with all the members of our team intact.// Jesus said seriously.

"If it's something really personal, I don't need to know. I just want to be aware of as much as I can in advance so that I won't be as likely to be blindsided by it later." Andrew said quietly.

"It's probably not that big a deal to anyone but me. I've just been afraid that if anyone found out that they'd decide that I'm too dangerous to be allowed to... just to be allowed." Beau finished quietly.

"Does it have something to do with you being a 'born witch'?" Andrew guessed.

"Not exactly. You see, the thing is, I actually have to work to suppress my fire; it's always on." Beau said frankly.

"I've never heard of a witch with an 'always on' ability." Andrew said cautiously.

"Well, now you have." Beau said uncomfortably.

"What about your other magic? Is it just your fire or do you have other abilities that you have to fight to suppress?" Andrew asked curiously.

"Actually, that's the main reason that I practice necromancy. I have to. Otherwise I might accidentally resurrect an entire graveyard just by walking past it or dinner as it's being prepared. As it is, I can see and talk to spirits all the time. I don't need to use a spell to 'reveal' the spiritual plane to my eyes. It's always there, even when I don't want it to be." Beau said frankly, then disjointedly added, "I'm going to start now."

Andrew nodded and watched with interest as Beau used a piece of chalk to draw a series of symbols within the semi-circle of the salt diagram on the concrete floor at the foot of the door.

"Is there some reason that I couldn't do what he's doing?" Steve asked curiously as he watched Beau's ministrations with interest.

"Beau has access to magic. You don't. So, if you did exactly the same thing that he's doing, most likely nothing would happen. But, except for the pointlessness of it, there's no reason that you couldn't try." Andrew said seriously.

//I can see what he's doing, but I can't sense his ability like I would a mutant ability. It's like there's a void that I can't see into.// Jesus said frankly.

"That's probably a good thing." Lee said honestly.

Abruptly Beau began to speak in a clear poetic cadence, "Displaced spirit, lingering essence, Emily Evans, by the terms of the pact we share, I summon you. Find your way to me, by whatever means. The one who anchors you to this world requires your presence. Come forth."

After staggering back a step, Andrew said in amazement "This isn't right. Your power level is insane!"

"I don't know if it's his magic or not, but I can sure feel something." Lee said in a slightly quaking voice.

"Yeah, my hair is standing on end." Slash said anxiously.

//Think of how it is for me. It feels like I'm becoming a porcupine.// Jesus added apprehensively.

Before anyone could respond to that, there was a faint tapping on the heavy wooden door.

"She couldn't answer the summons that fast, could she?" Andrew asked cautiously.

"It takes as long as it takes. Spiritual energies aren't necessarily constrained to three dimensions, although most of them don't know that." Beau said as he stood forward and put his hand on the doorknob.

"If that's true, I have a funny feeling that you're not going to need me to take you to the Mizrith Magic Shop next time." Andrew said slowly, watching carefully for Beau's reaction.

"I don't have any spells that I could use to travel like that incarnate. But, to be honest, I've never really looked for one, either. I can't think of any reason that I couldn't do it. All it would take is a little research." Beau said honestly, then pulled the door open.

"If research is what you're needing, I think I know where you can find some books that might help." Steve said as he made a show of looking through the portal into Dawn's room at the immense magic library.

Everyone watched with anticipation and were equally disappointed when the open doorway didn't reveal anything but the beautiful view outside the front door.

"Only she summoned may enter. All others return to cowering in your dark places. You are not welcome here. You are NOT granted entry. Be gone." Beau said firmly.

"Did she come?" Andrew asked curiously.

//My telepathy is telling me that nothing's happening, but the chill running up my spine is telling me something else.// Jesus slowly injected into the conversation.

"Yeah. I can feel it." Andrew said simply.

"Me too." Lee confirmed.

"The creeps. That's what we're feeling, isn't it?" Steve asked to confirm.

"Yeah. I have total goosebumps." Slash said in a slightly shaky voice.

"That's not all." Lee said as he pointed to the shelf that Slash was leaning against.

"Sorry! I didn't mean to do that." Slash said as he quickly lifted his hand.

"Don't worry about it. I think it looks better that way." Andrew said easily.

"Step forward, Emily. I have a task for you." Beau said firmly.

Everyone felt their goosebumps and chills ramp up to the next level as Beau watched something that only he could see walk through the doorway to join them.

* * * * *

As Beau closed the door, Jesus cautiously said, //Even though I can sort of feel that something's here, I can't see it, either with my eyes or with my telepathy.//

"Slash, would you mind helping me out with something?" Beau hesitantly asked.

"Sure." Slash immediately agreed, even though he couldn't imagine what help he could be.

"Can you do like you did in the corner and encase us in darkness? We need to be able to see each other, but not the light from outside." Beau asked hopefully.

"Yeah. I think so. At least, I can try." Slash said as he began making dramatic gestures with his hands and arms.

//Does that flapping around do something or is it all just theatrics?// Jesus asked curiously.

"If I act out the pushing and pulling, my dark cloud seems to go along with it... mostly... when it wants to." Slash fought to explain, then thought to add, "Maybe later, after I've had a lot more practice with it, I'll be able to make it work without having to 'whip it up' like this."

//I wasn't complaining about it, I was just trying to understand how your ability works.// Jesus explained, then thought to add, //The way you described it makes sense to me.//

As the darkness engulfed the group, the candles at their feet became their only source of light. Once everyone had adjusted to that, they were surprised to see a vaguely humanoid form standing in their midst.

"Everyone, this is Emily. She's my spirit helper." Beau said calmly.

"You're a ghost?" Steve asked with surprise.

Even though Emily appeared to speak, no one but Beau could hear what she was saying.

"It takes quite a bit of spiritual energy for Emily to manifest even this much. It's very difficult for her to make her voice heard on the material plane, sometimes it's actually impossible." Beau carefully explained.

Emily turned and said something to Beau, then patiently waited.

After a moment to consider, Beau finally responded, "We've gathered the necessary items to help your new friend, Piotr. I called you here to ask you to go and find him and invite him to join us, here in this cabin. I would like to ask him for his final decision, if he wants to go through with the embodiment ritual or not."

Emily said something quickly in response, then waited for Beau's nod of agreement before fading from sight.

"This might take a few minutes. She doesn't know exactly where he is right now. She's going to check his bedroom first." Beau said thoughtfully.

"I didn't know Peter that well, but he was always nice to me. I mean, we didn't hang out or anything, but at least he acted like I existed." Steve said quietly.

"It would probably be best if we got into the habit of calling him by his team name, at least until everyone who knew him before has had a chance to deal with the changes in his... situation." Beau finished with a slight cringe at his inadequate choice of words.

"Do you want for me to keep the dark cloud up?" Slash asked cautiously.

"It'd be nice to have it for when 'Fallen' gets here, it could make it possible for you to see him. But if it's easier for you, you can take it down, then put it back up later, when we need it again." Beau said simply.

"No. It doesn't take anything to keep it going. I just wanted to make sure that you still needed it." Slash quickly responded.

"I'm going to stay long enough to welcome Peter back, but then I'm going to have to get to my class. I'm already late." Andrew informed the group.

"Once she finds him, it shouldn't take long." Beau said honestly.

"I can leave the MedLab portal open when I go, if you think you'll be needing it." Andrew quietly offered.

"It'd be great if you could. That way Lisa can visit with Marc when she wants, Steve can get his venom sacs drained and Tara can come and go whenever she needs to." Beau said seriously.

"Consider it done." Andrew said simply.

"Should one of us go and get Lisa? I wouldn't want for her to feel left out." Slash asked uncertainly.

"There's not really much for her to see at this stage of things. All that I'm expecting to happen is a little question and answer session." Beau said frankly.

"Be sure to get her before you do the embodiment ritual. I think that's the part that she would regret missing." Andrew said seriously.

"It's going to take time for me to get everything ready." Beau reminded them.

"Are you still going to be able to do it today?" Andrew asked with concern.

"Yes. I should be able to, some of the preparation takes time. Have you ever made a homunculus?" Beau asked, not daring to hope.

"I've looked at the spell a few times, but that's leaps and bounds beyond anything that I've ever done magically." Andrew said frankly, then cautiously asked, "You're not going to have to create a homunculus as part of the preparation, are you?"

"No. But the embodiment that I'm planning to do will follow the same basic steps." Beau explained.

"If it's anything like the spell that I saw, then you're going to need a full coven of witches working with you to call up and keep the forces balanced long enough to stabilize the final invocation." Andrew said thoughtfully.

"Past a certain point, raw power can be used to create its own balance. With the firm application of unrelenting force, just about anything will eventually yield." Beau said seriously.

"But spirits can be impossibly fragile. How likely is it that your 'unrelenting force' will damage Peter?"

"I'll use the force to 'prepare' his vessel. I promise, when I'm dealing with Fallen directly, I'll be as gentle as possible." Beau said confidently.

"I believe you, but how likely are your gentle intentions to translate into gentle results?" Andrew asked cautiously.

"Did you have another option that you were considering? Because as far as I can tell, this is it. We embody Fallen into an object or he fades to nothing and is lost forever. If you have any other ideas, this is probably your last chance to tell me about them." Beau said firmly.

"No. I just wanted to be sure that we were taking every precaution for Peter's safety." Andrew hurried to explain.

"Listen, the truth is, when it comes to witchcraft, I can really do only two things, fire and necromancy. I have to struggle to do even the most basic spell outside those specialties. In fact, by most people's standards, I'm barely a witch at all."

Andrew slowly nodded that he understood.

"But within those specialties I have phenomenal power and exceptional natural ability." Beau said seriously, then turned at a movement that only he could see.

* * * * *

A collective chill fell over the group as the faint blur that they had come to know as Emily appeared within their shroud of darkness.

"I'm glad you could make it Piotr. Did Emily explain why I asked you to come here?" Beau asked curiously.

The others searched by the light of the candles of the spell diagram but none of them could detect even a glimmer of Peter.

"Of course. It's really simple. I'll install your essence into a cloak that Lisa can wear to gain access to your fighting skills and motor control. While she's wearing it, the two of you will function as a combined being." Beau carefully explained.

Slash, Steve, Andrew, and Lee shared a look which confirmed that none of them could see anything other than Emily.

"Outside of battle, you'll exist in a form where you'll be able to participate with the team as much or as little as you choose. If you like, you can act like an object, to be used by Lisa to empower her in battle or, if you’d rather, you can choose to act as an independent participating member of the team." Beau assured him.

There was a pause, then Beau responded more quietly, "What you do about your former life is up to you. If you want to hide who you were, that's your business. If you want to reconnect with your old friends, no one is going to try and stop you."

//Please don't be mad at me, but at the risk of revealing the secret of the emperor's new clothes, I thought I should mention that I can't hear Fallen's thoughts or psychically feel his presence. I just wanted to be sure you knew that before we got too deeply into this and start doing things that can't be undone.// Jesus cautioned.

"As soon as his spiritual essence is bound to something physical everything else should resolve itself... I can't tell you exactly how it will manifest in telepathic terms, but something that physically exists in the material world and is imbued with spiritual energy should be detectable to a telepath." Beau said thoughtfully.

"From my experience back home, I've learned that things like this can end up going a lot of different ways. It's usually best to go into something like this ready to adapt to the way things turn out instead of trying to force them to go exactly the way that you want them to." Andrew said seriously.

"That may be true when you're holding a cup full of magic and deciding what's the most efficient way to use it, but when you're channeling an ocean of it, you have to focus on exactly what you want and accept nothing else. Even the slightest variation can lead to a catastrophic miscast." Beau said frankly.

"Can't you hold it back and only use a cupful if you want to?" Andrew asked with concern.

"I lit the candles just now instead of blowing the gingerbread house off the face of the earth, so yes, I can. But even when I only express a cupful of magic, the vast ocean is still there, pressing in on me, wanting nothing more than to burst forth into the world in a spectacle of glory." Beau said seriously, then turned his attention away from Andrew and quietly said, "Sorry Peter. I got distracted. If you've decided what you'd like to do, tell me and I'll do my best to make it happen."

The anticipation hung heavily in the air as everyone watched and waited, trying to get some sense of what Peter's answer was going to be.

Emily seemed to be nervously waiting as well, although her image was so vague that those present might well be assigning their own emotional reactions to her.

"Yes, of course. In fact, I think that's an excellent idea. Hold on while I take care of that." Beau said seriously, apparently responding to Peter.

Everyone looked on and waited curiously for Beau to explain.

"Could someone go and get Lisa? Peter would like to talk to her before he commits to doing anything." Beau said frankly.

"She's in the MedLab, right?" Steve asked curiously.

"Yes. She'll be in the recovery room with Marc." Andrew confirmed.

"I'll go get her." Steve volunteered, then passed through the shroud of darkness covering them.

"Hang on, I'll go with you." Lee said as he followed.

* * * * *

"Is there a way that you can make it so that Fallen can be seen and heard? I mean, so that Lisa can look him in the eyes and know that she's talking to a real person?" Slash asked urgently.

"That's kind of a tall order. Pretty much anything that I could do now to Fallen to make him more visible in our world would interfere with the embodiment spell that I'm going to be performing later." Beau reluctantly responded.

"If Lisa has to make her decisions based only on faith, then so be it. Peter's too important to us to take a chance with his safety." Andrew said firmly.

Beau glanced away for a moment, then back to Andrew and said, "Fallen wants for me to tell you that you're a precious friend to him, too... And that he's sorry that he left you the way he did."

"Don't worry about how you left. Right now, just try to focus on coming back. That's what we're all here to do. That's today's mission." Andrew said firmly and clearly.

//Excuse me, but even if there's not a practical way for you to make Fallen more visible to us, would it be possible to do something to Lisa so that she might be able to see him better?// Jesus asked curiously.

"I hadn't thought of doing it that way. That actually might work." Beau said thoughtfully, then explained, "There is a spell, it's kind of high-level, but it's based in fire and necromancy. It could be used for something like this."

"Fire and Necromancy? It sounds like something that's right up your alley." Andrew said frankly.

"Yes. That's why I studied it. Normally you'd have to convene an entire coven to perform a spell like this." Beau said seriously.

"How dangerous is it?" Andrew asked cautiously.

"Not at all. But it's really complicated and I've never actually tried it before so I'm not sure how it's going to turn out." Beau said anxiously.

"But it's not going to hurt us?" Andrew asked to be sure.

"No. There's no physical component to the spell so there's no danger in that regard." Beau assured him, then explained, "It's possible that there may be some minor side-effects, but I just don't have any way of knowing about that."

"It's your call. Do what you believe is right and we'll support you." Andrew said seriously.

"The 'Divine Torch' doesn't take that much in the way of supplies, it just needs a butt-load of power to fuel it. Fortunately, I've got that covered. I think we should have everything else that we're going to need." Beau said as he looked around.

"How long is it going to take?" Andrew asked cautiously.

"I'll basically be using my fire to penetrate the divine layer of the realm of the dead to let the light shine through into this world. From what I've heard, piercing worldwalls can take some concentrated effort. I really can't predict how long that will take." Beau said seriously.

"You're going to pierce heaven?" Slash asked uncertainly.

"Not really, I mean... yeah, but just enough to let a sliver of divine light shine into this world. In that light, spiritual beings appear to have substance." Beau quietly explained.

"But the divine light won't do anything to Peter to change him?" Andrew asked to be sure.

"No. The change will be to our perception of him. In a way, it's like the light from our world won't reflect off a spiritual being. The light of heaven will. When the heavenly light shines on him, we'll see him, but it won't change him in the process."

//So there's no chance of sunburn?// Jesus asked, only half-jokingly.

"Not that I know of. But to be honest, I haven't read any accounts of this being done, so I'm not entirely sure of what to expect." Beau reluctantly admitted.

"Will you only be able to do this for Lisa or will it be for all of us?" Slash asked curiously.

"All those present when the light shines on Fallen... and Emily, for that matter, should be able to see them clearly, as though they were corporeal physical beings." Beau said professionally.

"Will we be able to hear them too?" Slash hesitantly asked.

"Logically, I'd say no. There's no reason to believe that shining a light on someone would make you able to hear them better." Beau said frankly.

"Except that we're talking about magic." Andrew quietly added.

Beau nodded, then explained, "That's right. Because of that, we'll just have to wait and see what happens."

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes: As always I will be waiting impatiently to see what happens.

Beau is certainly quite an interesting person, but then everyone in this adventure is interesting in their own right. I have learned over the years that when it comes to MM's stories, he doesn't really have characters, he has people. In my lifetime, I have only read stories by three or four people who can bring a story into reality the way MM does.

One of those people is Dark Star. Another author is Story Lover, and another one is Robert Heinlein. ACFan can do it, too, but it takes him a lot longer for the life to come to fruition. Jeff Fort's and Akeentia's stories also do it, but it does take more chapters for that to happen than it does with the first ones I mentioned.

Heinlein once said that people in stories can have souls, if they are well enough crafted, and that those people will be able to exist in whatever afterlife they would be expected to acquire if they were in our own universe. His theory was that if we made it into the afterlife we would be as likely to meet one or more of the people from said stories as we would to meet a friend or relative.

Thank you, very much, MM for another amazing chapter!

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher