Monthly Archives: March 2017

Magic Mirror Part 4 by Nicole DragonBeck

For Brandon, this is the last one of a four-part series, and I hope you like what I did with it 🙂

The mug never empties; the thirst never ends.

The inscription under the name of the inn – The Magic Mug – was a bit creepy, but as another peal of thunder shook in his ribs, Gehlen realized no matter how bad it was inside, outside would soon be worse, so he pushed open the door and stepped inside. Besides, where else was he going to go?

After the mermaid had delivered her message, the sea had cooperated, speeding My Sweet Susanne to her destination. The land of the Half-men was called Urlin by men, and its inhabitants called dwarves. Harsh and rugged, only the hardiest adventurers and seekers of fortune braved the stone giants of Urlin. I’ll have to write a book about my travels one day, so the world knows the truth of what happened, Gehlen thought. Under the shadow of the Order, who knows what will change?

Gehlen shrugged his jacket farther up to shield his face, though what good that would do, he didn’t know. He was at least twice as tall as every other person and stood out like a sore thumb. Trying not to draw even more attention than he already was, he made his way to the bar.

“I’m looking for a man named Despin,” he said to the barman.

The short, bearded man gave him a surly glare from under heavy brows. “Do I look like an address book?”

Gehlen fumbled with his money sack and pulled out a gold piece. This far south, the Order was only a whisper of a shadow, and Gehlen could spend freely without fear that he would be traced. The downside to that was the dwarves’ avarice was not curbed, and Gehlen suspected his purse would be empty before too long.

The barman took the coin, and it softened the sullen fix of his face. “Despin hasn’t been by for a few weeks. Don’t know what happened to him.”

“Did he leave a message? Some way to get in contact with him?” Gehlen asked.

The barman barked a laugh. “You don’t know old Despin that well, do you? He wouldn’t want anyone to ‘get in contact with him,’ so no, he didn’t leave a message.”

“Oh. Thank you,” Gehlen nodded.

His mind was already making plans to overcome this dead end, figured the next logical step, and he wasn’t really paying attention as he made his way to the door. He ran into a figure in a dark cloak, and the two tangled and fell into a table. Gehlen crashed into a chair, bruising his leg and shoulder, and his elbow smashed into the hard ground, sending hot and cold spikes shooting up and down his arm.

The other person leaped up, apparently no worse for wear, and offered a pale, long-fingered hand to help Gehlen up. The wizard grasped the hand and felt himself lifted from the ground as if he weighed no more than a feather. He blinked when he saw the person stood head and shoulders above him.

Gehlen stared into dark eyes twinkling at him from under the large cowl. “Penny for your thoughts,” the stranger said in a gravely voice. “Hope they were worth the tumble.”

Then he moved on to the bar. The barman looked up and blinked in surprise. They spoke in voices too soft for Gehlen to hear, but the conversation was short, and as soon as it was finished, the tall stranger made his way back to where Gehlen was still standing.

“Mordu tells me you were looking for me,” the stranger said.

“You’re Despin?” Gehlen said.

The man gave a dramatic bow at the waist, his cloak billowing out. “I am he. What can I do for you?”

“I have something for you,” Gehlen said and brought out the small, pearlescent shell the mermaid had given him.

It swung on a fine gold chain, the motion mesmerizing. Despin snatched it out of Gehlen’s hand and stuffed it under his cloak.

“What are you doing, waving that about in here?” the tall man muttered with a glare.

“I’m sorry,” Gehlen said. “I didn’t know–”

“You didn’t know what?” Despin interuppted, his scowl deepening. “That this is a very old, very delicate, very powerful little trinket? That if it comes into contact with just a drop of water, or the merest puff of steam, it will go off and nothing will be left standing for league in every direction? That around these parts, something like this is worth more than your life?”

“No, I didn’t,” Gehlen said in a small voice, realizing that just as he thought he knew what he was doing and the scope of it, he would inevitably learn, as he had a dozen times before, that he was in a much bigger part of the world than he had ever been before, and what he thought he knew, perhaps he didn’t.

“You don’t know much, do you?” Despin said, his exasperation tempered by easy smile. “Well, come with me then, and we can discuss what you’re doing with this, and why you’re looking for me.”

The man took Gehlen to another tavern of sorts, but instead to taking a table in the common, he led Gehlen up seven sets of stairs to the top floor. Gehlen was sure the building looked shorter from the outside. The room was round and cluttered, giving it a homey feel with a flavor of eccentricity.

Despin indicated a chair with a wave of his hand and busied himself at the bench. When he turned around, he held a tray of mugs, steaming coffee in a kettle, and a plate piled so high with cakes it was in danger of toppling. After the hot drink was poured, Despin peered at Gehlen over the rim of his cup.

“Tell me everything.”

Gehlen did, starting with the discovery of the mirror in the abandoned underground keep of Stormgrim, the plan to take it to the Hinterlands, taking it through Merivia to the sea, stowing away on the boat, and his trek though Urlin. “And then I ended up in The Magic Mug.”

Despin nodded, as if Gehlen had made a particularly astute commentary about the weather, and finished his coffee in one sip. “Where is this Mirror?”

Gehlen pulled out the shrunken mirror, cradling it in the palm of his hand, and Despin gazed at it from the corner of his eye – now twin ruby lights peering from his face – as he spent several moments choosing between the chocolate creme, the strawberry custard, or the coconut puff. Without being told to, Gehlen called the Sight forth, and warmth bloomed in his fingers, allowing the mirror to grow to its proper size. When he glimpsed his reflection, his eyes stood out, also blood red and glowing.

“I see you have gained a measure of skill,” Despin told Gehlen with a nod of respect and finally settled on the chocolate creme.

“Yes, but it’s not enough,” Gehlen said, frustration creeping into his words. “I cannot truly control the mirror, or stop the Order, nor find this light the merqueen spoke of.”

“What you need is a Master of Mirrors.”

Gehlen’s skin tingled just hearing the words. “What is that?”

“What does it sound like?” Despin gave him one of his condescending yet strangely understanding looks. “A person who has mastered the true power of a magic mirror.”

“Which is?”

Despin’s eyes glazed over when he gazed inwards, making them look more pink than true red. “Mirrors are funny things. They have no power on their own; they only reflect what they find. This makes them fickle, and the use of them is a fine art, something that must be learned but cannot be taught, that must be real, but cannot be touched.”

Gehlen leaned in closer, hanging on the silence, but the other man had nothing more to say. He finished his pastry and licked the crumbs from his fingers, brooding for a moment more before banishing the dark thoughts that haunted him. He prompted Gehlen with a smile. “Any other questions?”

“How can I find a Master of Mirrors?” Gehlen asked.

Despin’s smile widened, a sly twist making him older and a little more sinister, and his answer sent shivers running over Gehlen’s skin.

“You already have.”

 

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Magic Mirror Part 3 by Nicole DragonBeck

For Alanna, I hope you like it!

The storm tossed and threw the ship about the sea.

Perhaps, Gehlen thought as his stomach threatened to come up through his mouth once more, all our troubles will be solved by this mirror being swallowed and taken to the depths.

The horrible weather had beset them three days ago and hadn’t stopped. Nor did it show signs of letting up, much to Gehlen’s dismay. He was regretting his spur-of-the-moment decision to stow away more every minute.

In the week aboard the ship, the wizard had learned it was called My Sweet Susanne, after the captain’s wife, and it was homebound for Blackmeer, a small province which was mostly desert, carrying a load of luxuries for Lord Hamington, the ruler of the land. Gehlen didn’t remember exactly how far it was to Blackmeer, but it couldn’t be close enough.

The ship shuddered once more, and then it fell still. Gehlen waited for the next heave, but it didn’t come. It was as if a giant hand had scooped the ship out of the raging sea and held it unmoving. A tingle in the wizard’s fingertips told him there was something unnatural about the calm. Shouts came from above-decks, as the superstitious sailors began to panic.

The wail of an unearthly music silenced the sailors, and Gehlen strained his ears to hear what was happening over the ethereal notes. He shrank back from the beam of light that pierced the dimness when the hold was thrown open and ungraceful steps thudded down. They made straight for Gehlen’s hiding place behind the barrels, and the wizard had no time to move before the craggy face of the first mate appeared over the barrels.

The mate’s eyes roved the shadows, and Gehlen was reassured that his cloak of invisibility was in full force.

“Mr. Gehlen?” the first mate asked in a voice like waves breaking on the shore. “Mr. Gehlen, I know you’re there. Show yourself.”

Gehlen waited, pressed against the wooden slats, holding his breath, trying to figure out how the mate could know he was there.

“Mr. Gehlen, there’s someone out there who wants to talk to you. I think you’d better come out.”

The first mate turned and started for the ladder. Gehlen waited until he had disappeared, then the wizard followed, but kept his invisibility about him. He blinked in the light his eyes were not used to. The sailors were gathered at the stern in a tight group. The captain, a tall, dark haired man with a ponytail and tattooed arms, stood at the fore, peering over the side. The deck was steady under Gehlen’s feet as he walked over.

After a moment’s thought, the wizard waited before brushing away the glamour of invisibility – the sailors were scared enough as it was without a strange man appearing out of thin air. A voice of the music of rushing water floated up and greeted him before he could be seen.

“Gehlen, I have a message from the queen.”

The sailors turned just in time to see Gehlen appear out of thin air, and their faces went even whiter. He sighed, put his chin up, and stepped forward, leaning on the gunwales. Hovering on a fountain of silvery water, a glorious creature with a sapphire blue fish-tail and long tresses to match watched Gehlen with piercing green eyes. She was as beautiful as any of her sisters, but Gehlen couldn’t tell her apart from them. He nodded with great respect.

“My lady,” he greeted her. “How did you know I was here?”

“The sea tells us many things,” the mermaid inclined her head. “But we do not have much time. My queen wishes me to tell you that in the end, all your efforts will come to naught.”

Gehlen’s fingers tightened on the wooden beam, but when he spoke, his voice was even. “How can she know that?”

“You do not possess the only mirror that makes clear the past, present, and future,” the fae creature told him. “She did not see all, but she did see that you will fail. The Order will reign supreme before winter turns.”

“Then there is no hope,” Gehlen said.

The mermaid shook her head. “There is always hope. The darkness of the Order will birth a light, many years from now. This light will be the end of the Order. We must prepare for that time.”

“What is this light?” Gehlen demanded, his voice urgent. “Why can we not kindle it now?”

“It is not a what, but a who,” the mermaid told him. “A girl with hair the color of flame will come for the mirror.”

Gehlen nodded. Prophesy was a rare skill, but the queen of the merfolk would have a strong Sight, strong enough to pierce the shrouds veiling the future from common knowledge. It would do no good to argue with her.

“What should I do?” he asked.

“You must hide the mirror, as you planned. In the land of Half-men, there is a man at a tavern called the Magic Mug. He will help you. Give him this.”

She held out a pearly shell on a thin golden chain. It was warm in Gehlen’s palm. He put it in the same pocket that held the miniature mirror, then glanced at the captain of the ship, who stood watching the exchange with uneasy eyes.

“And what of these men?” Gehlen said. “The land you speak of – the land of the Half-men – is a week west. It will double the time to Blackmeer.”

“We will help you, the wind and the waves will carry you swift and true,” the mermaid said, and glanced at the captain and his sailors with a sly smile. “I am sure they will not mind aiding you in this.”

The captain gave a begrudging shake of his head. Though his eyes were stormy, he would not cross the powerful denizens of the deep with the power to control the elements that most affected his life. Gehlen nodded his thanks to the man.

“Do not despair, Gehlen,” the mermaid told him as she sank back into the water. “Though the sky grows dark and the storm looms and thunder crashes, on the other side of the horizon waits a glorious dawn.”

Gehlen lifted his hand in farewell, her words reverberating in his ears. He doubted he would live to see this light she spoke of, but he would do all he could to make sure the mirror would be waiting for the girl with hair the color of flame.

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Magic Mirror Part 2 by Nicole DragonBeck

For Desi, number two of a lot of Story Starters.

The translation read: peel open to find the truth, but only when ready for the consequences.

Gehlen fiddled with the scrap of paper he had found tucked in the corner of the mirror frame. He had plucked it off before he shrank the mirror to a size it could be easily managed. The mirror now rested in his jacket pocket, the size of a post card. The message was a code, of course, written in a dialect of goblin that few people could read. It wouldn’t fool the Order, but it would confound them.

The tall, thin man took a moment to make sure he was alone. One couldn’t be too careful, not in these times. The tavern he was holed up in was old and passed over by the rich and timid for the newer ones along the Main Street. Only a red-headed dwarf shared the common room with Gehlen.

Gehlen was a wizard. His power was called the Sight, though why that was had been lost in the forgotten sands of time. He reached inside and drew on the warmth of the fire of magic burning in him and drew apart the piece of paper. As he did so, the words dissolved and formed an entirely new sentence, this time in the language of the shadow elves. It was even harder to decipher because the glyphs were written in a singular order and rearranged themselves after each reading.

First mate compromised, now his eyes see for Order.

The breath went out of Gehlen in a quiet sigh of almost-despair. So much was rallied against them, and the enemy grew stronger every day. At times, it seemed an impossible task to make it so the Order couldn’t just bring those with the Sight before the mirror and exterminate them one by one.

He waited for more, but there was none. The situation was so dire, he was left to his own devices. That way the orders couldn’t be intercepted. No one knew what he was going to do because even he didn’t know what he was going to do.

What am I going to do?

The First Mate had been contacted and agreed to aid a single fugitive to get out of Merivia fast. He was given no more details than that, but of course he would suspect with all the propaganda the Order was putting out, who wouldn’t? Whether the Order had paid him or tortured him, it made no difference to Gehlen.

They will be watching the boat, Gehlen knew. To try to get on would be suicide, not just for myself, but for our cause. I have to find another boat.

He reached down and felt the purse of coin he carried. It was not much. He had mostly silver, and only two or three pieces of gold. The gold would be risky – anyone paying with gold was to be reported. Perhaps he could be away before the Order came looking for him.

Well, Gehlen told himself in the most enthusiastic manner he could, I’m not doing anything useful by sitting here.

He stood, put a copper on the table for his drink, and left by the back door. Pedestrians were sparse on the streets, and Gehlen drew his cloak tighter and lowered his face so the few would not be able to get a clear look. He took a circuitous route to the wharf and waited in the shadow of a narrow alley to make sure no one was tailing him.

When he was convinced that he was indeed alone, the wizard stepped out to view the boats. A dozen skiffs of local fishermen were dotted here and there among their giant cousins. Three were incorporated merchant vessels. A passenger would be suspect on any of these, and a stowaway would be keel-hauled. Two ships not flying colors were at the far end, probably in for repair.

Then his blue eyes lit on the most likely option. A small ship, double-masted, flying independent colors. It was difficult to tell in the twilight, but Gehlen thought he could make out a dolphin and a trident over a slash of gold. It was probably one of the small countries south, that traded with Merivia. It didn’t take long for the wizard to make up his mind, but he still needed a plan to get on.

Something presented itself in the next moment, catching him off guard. A train of men carrying frames of cloth, fruit, and other valuables marched around the corner, towards the southern ship. With a glance, Gehlen counted fourteen men and assessed they were no more than manual laborers. Gathering his wits, he quickly threw together something that wasn’t completely suicidal.

Again, Gehlen reached towards the warmth of his Sight and used the magic to disguise his face and cloak him in the appearance of a dock-worker. He fell in behind the last man and took hold of the back corner of the frame. The man in front of him looked back when his load lightened, but his eyes only saw a sunburned man with a beard and a dull gaze.

Gehlen sweated as the supply master of the ship inspected the goods and marked them off on his ledger. The master wore a fine jacket with the insignia of the Order pinned in plain view. Gehlen thought he spent longer than was necessary examining the boxes of fine china on Gehlen’s frame. Twice the supply master’s eyes flicked to Gehlen’s face, but they registered nothing but mild contempt.

Gehlen plodded up the gangplank and set down the boxes. Quick as a flash, he slipped behind before anyone noticed. While they were buys unloading the freight, he snuck down to the hold and hid behind the barrels of fresh water for the voyage.

If he was caught, he wasn’t sure he would be able to talk his way out of it, and the penalty for stowing away was harsh. He changed his hold on his Sight, his false face melting away to the sheen of general invisibility. One step at a time, he told himself. One step at a time, and at last we will reach the end of the journey.

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Magic Mirror by Nicole Dragon-Beck

For Jasmine, who would have probably made this much creepier 🙂

Upon looking at my reflection in the mirror, I could not help but notice the child in the corner eating ice cream… yet to my shock, the child was me when I was 5 years old..

Katerin looked down at the notes from the interview and shivered. Most people would say the old woman was delusional, out of her mind, but most people hadn’t been there, in the room, interviewing her. Katerin had been, and she wasn’t so sure. Something in the woman’s white eyes and the expression on her wrinkled face told Katerin that the woman, at least, believed what she was saying to the core.

Katerin continued to read the shorthand written in her own large, loopy handwriting.

You understand I was almost fifteen at this time, but the identity of the child was unmistakable. I was sure this was the magic mirror that the people with no faces had been telling my father about. Here it was, hidden in plain view, but only one with the Sight would be able to see it for what it truly was.

Katerin knew about the Sight. Although the Order had tried to stamp it out, the ability kept popping up, and now people were smart enough to keep their mouths shut about it. This meant the old woman, who had wished to remain nameless, had the Sight. It didn’t matter; she was dying and she had no family, so even if the Order came for her, there was little they could do, for she had no descendants that could be harassed to worry about. But the implications of her story were very dangerous. So dangerous I might have to put them in the box, Katerin realized.

Pushing the thoughts from her mind, she brushed a strand of red hair out of her eyes and continued reading.

I was young and foolish at the time, so I thought of course I could take on the dangerous men who had smuggled it in to the small mountain town where I grew up. I thought I could use the mirror against them, to protect my father who I thought was in great danger, into something that he would drown in. How stupid of me. How arrogant. How lucky I did not lose my life.

Here the woman had paused, her fingers moving in front of her, painting an invisible picture of that place and that day in her childhood. Katerin remained silent, letting her gather her thoughts and memories. When the woman started to speak again, her voice had the breathless wonder of a child recounting the sight of a far-off dragon.

I broke into the ice cream parlor later that day, after it was closed, and tried to take the mirror. It was too heavy for a girl to carry, and though I managed to get it off the wall, it fell on me. I doubt it would have survived the fall, despite the cushion my body would have provided, but there was someone else in the shop with me! He was very tall, and thin, and had glowing red eyes…

Katerin imagined the terror the young girl must have felt at the sight of that. She knew she would have been terrified. The scribe pulled her thoughts back to the present, and her pen flew across the paper, capturing the old woman’s words in shorthand.

I thought for sure I was going to die, right then and there. This beastly creature was going to rip my still-beating heart right out of my chest. But he didn’t. After catching the mirror and leaning it safely against the wall, he offered a hand to help me up. I thought he was some kind of devil or demon. Turns out I wasn’t far wrong. Thankfully, I was even wronger about his intentions.

His name was Gehlen, and he was one of the men my father was speaking too.

At this point in the interview, Katerin had asked if the woman’s father had the Sight. The woman hadn’t known, her father had never told her anything about it. The nameless woman hadn’t even known she had the Sight until Gehlen explained what it was. The woman – then a young girl – had been thrilled and terrified to know her own eyes glowed red to his eyes, just as his did to hers.

But only in the presence of the mirror, the tall man told me. The mirror was special, in a way that no mortal man could understand. The Order, just in its formative stages back then, would do anything, including kill, to possess it, in order to manipulate its power to the Order’s ends.

The mirror must be kept safe, for the good of all. Gehlen was to take it onto a boat, bound for the Hinterland. I agreed to watch the street so he could take it out the back without being seen.

After that night, I never saw or heard from Gehlen again. I don’t know what happened to the mirror. I don’t know if it made it onto the boat. I never saw it in the ice-cream parlor again, though I went there frequently to check. The woman had patted her ample stomach with an expression of regret and nostalgia.

Why did you call me now? Katerin wanted to know.

I just wanted the story to be told before I died, the woman had shrugged, her blind eyes wandering a bit as she spoke. Katerin had tried to see if they had a hint of red at all, but could see none.

Perhaps she was making it up, Katerin thought, looking down at the incredible record on ivory parchment curled over her knees, though a part of her did want to believe it. Even if it were true, Katerin thought with despair welling in her chest, what does it matter? The Order still reigns supreme in Merivia. I am only a single scribe, not even well-known. What could I possibly do with this story?

There was no other course of action. The red-headed scribe stood and went to the back of the study, where a curtain of purple velvet hung on the wall. Pulling it aside, Katerin counted bricks in the closed-up fireplace – the excuse for the tapestry was to hide the unsightly blemish on the wall – and pressed the right one. Before her, the wall opened up and she looked down at the old wooden box.

The box held all the stories that should never be repeated that Katerin had gathered over the years. Before she had become a scribe, she would never have thought a story shouldn’t be told, but the Order was very clear about what was acceptable in writing and what was not.

Katerin knelt and put the story in the box, and pushed it back into the hidden recess in the wall, drawing the curtain across the opening. One day, maybe, but for now, it’s best if that story, and that mirror stays out of sight and out of mind.

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A Tale You’ve Heard Before By Brandon Scott

For Julia, a friend whom I don’t see enough.

Once upon a time.

Yes, once upon a time.

Once upon a time, we knew so much.

We could tell you all the secrets of the universe, and we would gladly do so if you asked. That is what we were for, and what we did as joy.

Once upon a time, there was joy in this world.

But then came the darkness. We lost our control of the situation, and thus so did all the other creatures on the planet. They were wiped clean of their hard-earned memories and long-held beliefs.

We entered an age of ignorance. We were the only ones aware or knowledgeable of what was lost. To the others, this was all the world, as it always was. The world they knew. And they reveled in the few things the darkness did for them.

And it did do some things for them: it gave them pleasure. Fleeting pleasure that warped them. Made their skin cracked and puss-filled. They had sex, and they had orgies, and they had booze, and they cried at the moon as the darkness ate at the sky itself, and the planets all fell to what they wanted for the Earth.

We saw the scope of it, and even from the vantage point of the sun, the darkness had spread wide in this system. The other uninhabited planets had their essences sucked clean in no time at all, and they kept the blackened husks of astral matter around to use the gravitational spin of orbit as a further power source.

We did not know what to do once the planets fell. We could flee, certainly, but the darkness would then claim the system without a fight, and this we found to be abhorrent: morally repugnant. How could we exist with ourselves if we did not try to do something about the Earth, to claim some of what it was back for the races—though weak and small—that called it home?

And, so, we did what we could. We entered the dreams and told them what they were doing was wrong. But they were drunk on this new world, and what they could do. Never mind that in their native state they did things well beyond and above the fleeting orgasmic shudders. They would not listen to us.

Except one, of course. Because that is why we can tell this story to your ears. He, he stood above the others. He was not perfect; he was still engaging in the usual repugnant things of the species, but he tried to be temperate, and control his urges. Some days he’d spend doing nothing but funneling little bursts of light into the sky. Letting the tiniest slivers of radiance escape the darkened pits of what the planet used to be.

And, rather than let those bits of hope tear a hole right through the flesh of the darkness, we held onto it, and bundled it, and saved all of it—nice and tight. We could not say how happy we were to have some again, in our hands. If the strands punctured the skin, they would find our one champion and smother him in grief. But, this was an orb that would one day puncture everything and save this system.

But, in the meantime, we try and find more to gather light for us. To go beyond the petty and the snarling. We ask you help us.

Once upon a time, you had a good world.

That is still possible.

No matter how bad, we can still save a planet. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.

Once upon a time.

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Final Session by JM Paquette

For Patricia Noll

“I like myself because I am who I am.”

I stared at her, waiting for the punchline. When the woman sitting in chair across the desk from me didn’t continue, I realized that she was serious, that this one line would be the sum total of her self-reflection–and thus our session–today.

I decided to push back, just a little bit. They tell us not to do that, especially here as we evaluate the sum total of things, but I couldn’t just leave it at that. It would mean leaving half of my survey questions blank, and though the resulting math would be simple, I didn’t want to score her so low without at least giving her a shot at redemption. “And who would you say you are?”

Her face was blank as she pondered the question. Her lips formed the shape of an automatic response, and I could practically feel her desire to restate her name, but some of the desperation in my soul must have crept onto my face because she paused, lips open in a perfect circle, then cocked her head to the side.

“Who am I?” she repeated, but I knew she was just doing it to stretch out the moment. I waited patiently. I could be patient. That was the goal of these little after-death sessions, after all, to patiently examine the life lived, to quantify the quality of existence, to tally up the sum of a lifetime. The woman leaned back in her chair, head cocked to one side, and I wondered what she had been in life. Her hands still rested on her lap, nails perfectly manicured–definitely not a manual laborer then. I’d seen enough of those hands when I was down in Last Rites, old and weathered fingers and palms of people canny enough to know that this little interview was more than ordinary, that the gaps in their memories meant something more than a little bit of routine confusion. They had known.

The people up on this level, though, they rarely understood what was happening. I asked my questions, and they replied, sometimes this way or sometimes that, and sometimes the math allowed them to move forward, and other times the numbers were just too low to pass, and they went back. Back down there. To try again.

This one could probably use another go-round just to find out her name. I was still waiting, mind wandering, when I caught her peeking at the sheet on my desk, eyes roving down the line of columns to take in the numbers. I’d seen enough savvy people doing math in their head to know the look. She was adding up her score, but why?

I looked her over again, the dull expression she had pulled back on her face, covering the crafty judgement I had seen for just an instant. Was she…playing me?

“Well?” I prompted. I had heard of this–people who knew about the system, people who played the numbers and said the right thing to get where they wanted to go. I’d never met one, though. This would be a great story for the gang after work tonight.

“I am…ordinary,” she said, then looked meaningfully at my hand holding the pen waiting for me to mark her response. I made one hatch mark. “But that’s not a terrible thing,” she added. I made another two hatch marks. “Though I don’t want to stand out too much,” she blurted, and I erased one of the marks. She smiled then, a tiny nod, and then she was silent again. The moment was over.

I glanced at my evaluation. Going back down. But not all the way down. She had managed to score in the perfect sweet spot between completely oblivious to the entire system and completely frustrated because she knew too much. As she faded from my sight, I pulled out a sticky note and jotted down her identification number. She would be fun to Follow.

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The Meeting by Nicole DragonBeck

For Sara 🙂

I no speak English..

It was the only phrase Mara could think of, the only phrase left in her mind. It made no sense to her, but it had sent her through spinning thunderclouds of silver and gold and thrown her out here, in this realm, somewhere out in the wilderness, in a small crack in the mountain of stone that felt wrong to the touch.

A man had already been there, standing in shock when she fell from the sky in a flurry of spark driven by the wind. He had shouted at her, and she had mumbled through her sobs to him, but her words made no sense to him, and when he spoke, she heard only a mishmash of sounds with little more meaning than a dog barking.

She smoothed down the lace pleats in her dress, her bright green eyes fixed on the floor covered with strange, dark leaves, her heart pattering, trying to slow her breathing. She didn’t want to say it again – what if it plucks me up again and sends me somewhere even worse? – but what choice did she have left? It was hard to make her mouth move, her lips forming the alien syllables.

“I no speak English.”

She couldn’t know what effect the words would have on him, and after the initial relief that nothing further had happened to her, the silence became unbearable. At long last, it took all of her willpower to raise her eyes to meet those of the man. He was tall, and much stouter than the men she was used to seeing – lithe, elven men, with slim limbs and a sly grace.

This man had a grace, but it was solid, sure. His clothes were like him, thick and sturdy, made of metal and hairless animal skins. His feet were covered; hers were bare, like all of her kind. He was looking at her with wide brown eyes, with a gaze that seemed to be able to pierce her thoughts.

Perhaps he is one of the wizards who live high in the mountains who know the minds of others, she thought. There were exercises one could do to protect oneself from the invasive nature of these wizards, but Mara never learned them. Only the most skilled were invited into the beautiful palaces of learning to become proficient in words, and letters, and the art of magic. Mara was not that skilled, and she was only a farmhand, tending the pear trees, and the grape vines for the farmer who employed her.

When no understanding dawned on the man’s face, Mara realized he could not read her thoughts, and she was glad. Though it may make communicating easier, she did not want her most secret dreams and ideas invaded or bared for any to see, least of all this man she did not know.

He had a sword. It hung in its scabbard, but his hand rested on the pommel with an easy grip, his fingers ready, but not twitching. The weapon was very much like the ones that had killed all the workers except for Mara, and all the animals, and finally the farmer and his family – his wife and their two small boys.

Mara still didn’t know why the others had come or what they had hoped to achieve by what they did. A bountiful, productive farm now reduced to ashes, for what? Tears filled her eyes at the thought, and her hand went to her throat for the comfort of the necklace that had always been there, hanging from the fine silver chain.

Except the necklace was no longer there, nor was chain. Mara had used it, tearing it from her neck, breaking the tiny glass bottle with the pale fairy dust, and choked out the incantation her mother had taught her through the burning smoke in her lungs and her eyes.

It was supposed to send Mara somewhere safe, but she didn’t know this place. The rock was too dark, the trees smelled funny, even the dirt was the wrong size, to coarse and dry. It was a wonder anything could grow in it, but somehow the bushes and flowers and trees managed. How could this be safe? Why didn’t it bring me home?

Her heart leaped into her throat when the man came and knelt before her. He held up his hand to stop her from scrambling away and spoke again, this time in a gentler voice. He spoke slowly, but she did not understand. Mara shook her head. He said something else, and Mara caught enough difference in the sounds to know he was speaking a different language. She shook her head again, and he frowned, letting out a frustrated sigh.

Mara’s fingers went again to the empty spot where the necklace used to rest, warm against her skin. The instructions were simple: if in mortal peril, send the dust to the wind, utter the arcane words I no speak English, and it would spirit her away to safety.

Her mother gave it to her, just before she sent Mara away to work on the farm, no longer able to support her along with her younger brothers and sisters on the meager wages of a seamstress. Mara’s father worked in the mill and didn’t make much more. They wanted the best for her, but keeping her in the city would only sentence her to the same fate.

A heavy, icy feeling grew in her chest. If the necklace truly worked and took me somewhere safe, and this place is not of my world, then no place there is safe back there. The city has fallen, and all the cities like it. It was a terrible, overwhelming thought, and sent her spinning close to sobbing again. One tear leaked down her cheek, but she brushed it away with an angry swipe of her hand.

She had taken care of herself for many years. She was not a child, nor was she weak. She would not cry, and not in front of this stranger. Fingers pressed under her chin, forcing her face up to look at him again.

He had a comforting look about him, hard, but not cruel. He took note of her tears, but did not become distressed. He reminded her very much of her father, and that sent her towards painful grief for a different reason. The man used his thumb to wipe the tears that escaped from her cheek and offered a steadying smile.

He went away, leaving her in the dim light at the front of the cave, and when he returned, he handed her a steaming mug of thin, hot soup. Mara took it and sipped it, burning her tongue in her eagerness. The man paced, glancing at the darkening sky, which turned red, and blue, and a purple color Mara had never seen before. She finished the soup, and with the nourishment warming her stomach, she found some of the courage she knew she had.

Mara stood and walked over to him. He watched her carefully but did not seem threatened. She stood before him, her head coming only up to his chest, and looked straight into his alien face. She pointed at herself.

“Mara.”

He smiled, showing a row of straight, white teeth. “Hamael.”

“Haimail,” she repeated the syllables as well as she could. “Pleased to meet you.”

 

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Filed under Nicole DragonBeck