Category Archives: Nicole DragonBeck

Never and Nowhere by Nicole DragonBeck

For Felix, who is one of my favorite people in the universe, and not only because he gives me marvelous story starters.

“P.S. I love you all” read the typeset note in her hand. Hopefully it would be enough of a clue to find out who she was – and how she died.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Katie said aloud, and turned it over to see if there was anything written on the back. “And I know who I am, thank you very much.”

The paper was blank, only the faint tracery of the letters “lla uoy evol I .S.P” showing through from the other side.

Katie sighed and sat down on the vast white ground under her, which stretched away forever, or perhaps it became walls which went up and up to a ceiling far over head, but it all looked white to her.

“Why would I bring this with me?” she wondered. “Wouldn’t a knife or a rope or a fire starter be more useful?”

She sat there for quite a while puzzling over this, until she became frustrated, and then bored. For no other reason than it was something to do instead of sitting there, she got up and started walking.

Katie walked and walked through the whiteness, and several times she thought about changing direction, that there was nothing in front of her, but she pushed on. Just as she was about to give in to the desire to turn and head off in a tangent, a black speck appeared in the distance.

Katie shielded her eyes and peered forward, but it remained no more than a black dot. She broke into a jog, and the dot grew, and grew, until she could tell it was a person, and then resolved some more until she came upon a very familiar face, although this one was scowling fiercely.

“Hi,” Katie said, looking down at Katie.

Katie looked up, and her scowl deepened. “What are you doing here?”

“I don’t know,” Katie admitted.

“This is going to get very confusing very quickly if we’re both Katie,” Katie snapped. “I’m Katie. You can be Katherine.”

“That’s a good idea,” Katherine said, and pushed blond hair behind her. “Do you know what this means?”

She held out the note to her counterpart on the floor.

“Why would I know that?” Katie said in a nasty tone. “You’re the one who’s got it.”

Katherine was going to answer, but a sound drew both their gazes.

“Did you hear that?”

“Of course I heard it. I’m not deaf.”

Katie scrambled up and started in the direction of the sound, and Katherine followed. They came upon a third person, who looked like the first.

“We’ll call her Kate, just to keep things simple,” Katie informed them.

“Are you always this bossy?” Katherine wondered.

“Who are you calling bossy, stupid?” Katie said.

Katherine pretended not to hear the insult, and looked at the person with their arms wrapped around their knees, making small frightened sounds as they rocked back and forth, eyes darting about.

“What’s wrong?” Katherine asked, putting a hand on the girl’s – Kate’s – shoulder.

Kate jumped and gave a startled shriek, looking at Katie and Katherine like they might eat her.

“It’s okay,” Katherine said in a soothing voice.

“Yeah, sure it is,” Katie butted in. “She looks real okay.”

Katherine was saved by a loud wail, and the three finally identified the sound they’d heard.

“That’s someone crying,” Katherine said.

“Oh, well done,” Katie clapped. “Where are you going?”

Katerine made her way farther into the whiteness and found a girl crying pitifully on the floor.

“Everyone, meet Kathy,” Katie waved her hand. “Aren’t we a great little group? Just missing the leper.”

The girl they’d dubbed Kathy was crying more now, loudly and messily, snot dripping down her chin.

“What’s the matter?” Katherine asked, and Katie snorted.

“Who cares? What are you going to do about it anyway?”

Kathy’s sobs increased in volume and frequency, and Katherine became alarmed that she might choke and asphyxiate herself. She knelt beside the crying girl and patted her shoulder.

“There, there,” Katherine said awkwardly, but her words only made Kathy cry harder. “It’s going to be okay…no, no, shh, now. Okay. Let’s just go this way and maybe there’s a way out.”

Katherine helped Kathy stand, and found a tissue in her pocket, which the other girl went through in two seconds and kept crying. They walked some more, Katherine mulling over her note, and keeping her eyes peeled for anyone else. She was rewarded a short time later when they happened across another one of themselves, standing there and staring down at her hands with an unblinking gaze, seeing nothing.

Kate wouldn’t look at the new girl and tried to hide behind Kathy, and Katie looked unimpressed. “Now you can ask what’s wrong, because there’s something definitely wrong with her. Her name is Mary, by the way.”

“Hi there,” Katherine said, ignoring Katie, and feeling a strange completeness now. “Do you know what this place is?”

“This is Never and Nowhere,” the fifth mumbled, her gaze not moving from her hands.

“How do we get out?” Katherine asked, pleased with the progress.

“You can’t,” the fifth said. “It’s no use. You’re trapped here forever.”

“This is ridiculous,” Katie grumbled. “I can’t take this anymore.”

Kathy started hiccuping along with her now silent sobs, eyes red and puffy.

This can’t be the way out. There’s no way the five of us are getting out of here like this, Katherine thought. It’s too complicated. It has to be simple. Katherine looked down at the note – P.S. I love you all – and then up at the group of people clustered here. Simple enough to write in in five words.

“P.S. I love you all.”

“What?” Katie snapped, as tears started pouring down Kathy’s face. Mary just stood there as if she hadn’t heard.

“I love you all,” Katherine repeated and knew how to get out of this Never and Nowhere. “I love you all.”

“No you don’t,” Mary mustered the energy to say. “Love isn’t real.”

“I love you all.”

“You’re lying!” Katie shouted, her face going red as a vein pulsed in her temple.

“I love you all,” Katherine said simply and knew it was true.

The white began to crumble around her with great crashes and shakes.

“Now look what you’ve done,” Kate said, her eyes darting about. “What’s going to happen to us?”

“I love you all,” Katherine said to herself and let the note fall from her grip.

Somewhere else, in a place that was Sometime, a real place with color and motion and good things, Katie opened her eyes.

 

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Jumping Back by Nicole DragonBeck

For Desi, thank you for the abundance of Starters for my round three of SMFS (yes, I’ve been doing it that long), I think it is fitting that this one is last ❤

What kind of disturbed mind would have created the sight before my eyes and why?

Dystrin took a moment he did not have to gaze with unveiled shock and disgust at the painting in front of him. Some fanatic of the neo-Neoclassic had poured his heart and soul into the canvass, and that just made Dystrin sadder. Whatever happened to the magic of capturing beauty and truth with the paint and brush? How did it come to this confused effort to impress with an pseudo-erudite aloofness?

The so-called work of art was a dissonant riot of stark lines that did not touch or align at any point, against a thundercloud of splotches painted by someone who used a color wheel as a dartboard and threw blindfolded. Dystrin’s mind, so attuned to the melding of color and shape to create a likeness of what is and capture the magic within spaces and objects, had trouble comprehending how a mind that would make this could function.

The sound of footsteps echoing in the dark recesses of the museum drew Dystrin’s gaze to the vast space behind him, and reminded him that he did not have time to be critiquing each painting as he went. He needed to find a specific one and jump back.

He ran through marble halls, trying to keep his own footsteps from giving him away, but it was hard on the polished floors. At last he came to the wing of old paintings, the ones with real magic, old magic that the painters of this day and age could only touch upon and dream about.

Here, everything was hushed by thick velvet curtains. At least the curators gave these paintings the respect they deserved, and instead of crowding them together like peasants in front of a street stage, each was given its own wall, and a single light above each haloed the painting with a soft glow.

It was even harder for Dystrin to restrain his urge to stop and gaze at these, with wonder and reverence this time, but he really needed to get back before they caught him. It would be difficult to explain his presence here, and he had none of those all-important pieces of plastic identification that they loved so much.

He could move faster here because the plush carpet swallowed his footsteps, and he quickly reached the end of the wing, where the painting he sought lay displayed on a tiered dais guarded by diamond columns. But as Dystrin’s eyes traveled the length of the great painting like a lover’s caress, his heart sank. No, it can’t be!

He looked deeper, blue eyes probing the visible, and the invisible, trying to find the pull of the magic, but it was flat and empty. To the eye, it may have been identical, but he did not look with only his eyes. They’d switched it out with a replica. The original was probably somewhere in the vaults under lock and key. Leaving Dystrin stranded here.

He glanced around with wild eyes, heaving great gulps of air as he considered his options, trying to quiet the panic in his mind as the guards with their dogs came closer. He looked up, left with only one choice. He was going to have to choose one of the others, and then somehow, figure out how to jump back here and get to his painting. It was a frightening concept, not the least because no one had ever been known to do that, but better to be stuck there than caught by the men here.

Some of the paintings here were still originals, he could feel it, and Dystrin thanked whatever gods watched over this place for that. It seems people get stingy with beauty when they forget how to make it. The first three paintings he passed as he backtracked were empty forgeries, and while the fourth pulsed with magic, the scenery was a vast and stormy sea, lightning illuminating the silhouette of a lone ship. He was willing to take a risk, but he was not suicidal. The next six were no good either, and just as Dystrin was starting to think of a back-up plan for his back-up plan, he found one.

It was quiet and soothing, drawing the eyes in to the detail with the promise of treasure in the subtle lines and carefully placed colors. The forest opened to a grassy hill, and at the top was a fortress beautiful in its simplicity. This one will do.

The lights of the guards’ torches flashed erratically in the darkness, illuminating walls and arches and then leaving them invisible an instant later. The dogs yipped and howled as they sensed their quarry nearby.

Dystrin steeled himself, grabbed the gilt frame, and hauled himself into the painting. Space and time undulated past him, his eyes watered and his ears popped. Behind him, the light and sound from the other world faded as the one at the end of the tunnel grew more solid, until at last Dystrin stood among the trees he had been looking at just a moment before.

He looked behind him and saw a vague shape of a painting in the air, depicting a room in a museum, dark purple hangings protecting the precious art like a mother duck folding her ducklings underwing. As the portal faded, the image too would fade, until just the soft stirring of the leaves and the twitter of birds in the trees surrounded him.

And if the guards in the museum cared to look at the painting on the wall, they would see that a tall, lean figure with dark hair now stood among the trees, shrewd blue eyes gazing at them as a small smile played on his lips, taunting them by being right in front of them and totally out of reach.

But none of them looked, they just rushed by with their dogs. A moment later the dogs doubled back to where the scent was strongest and sat, tongues out, panting with satisfaction while the guards tried to get them to continue the chase. In the morning, when the first patrons of the day began to filter through the hallowed halls, the figure in the painting was long gone, leaving the little forest as empty as it had ever been.

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Xs & Os by Nicole DragonBeck

For Kalvin, thank you for leaving out all the forty-two dollar words 🙂

Imagine my surprise when, upon answering a midnight call, I was greeted by my own voice.

“This is going to be a short story, because I don’t have much time and the universe is conspiring against me even as I speak. It’s cold here, in this other place with no time, but there’s a warmth to it as well.”

My voice sounded strange to my own ears, more so than usual. I sounded older, more worn. My skin prickled, and I fought the urge to slam the receiver down. Ignorance is bliss. But some inner strength made me listen further, a strength I suspected the person on the other end of the receiver knew a lot more about than I did.

“There are many steps between where you are now, and this place that is your fate. Someone is coming for you, someone you should listen to. Running is pointless. They will follow you and there is nothing you could do about. I already know what you’re thinking…”

This is crazy, nothing in the future is set. My actions will determine your face.

“This is cray, nothing in the future is set, but your actions will not determine your fate. Your fate has already been determined, but others of far greater power than yourself. They are the called the Dorfrenti, or the Faceless Ones, depending on who you ask.”

The name sent shivers down my spine, sending cold pools of ice settling in my stomach. Somewhere, in some other universe, I knew that I had come across these Faceless Ones. And it didn’t turn out too well for me. The thought came out of nowhere and hit me harder than a punch. A squeal from the recording rang in my ears then a painful tightening in my chest made me gasp. It was like some invisible hand had reached through my ribs and was squeezing my heart. For a second I was afraid I was going to die, then it eased up and I could breath again. The ringing in my ears faded, but my head pounded as if I had run a mile in the sun. I had to rewind the recording because I hadn’t heard it.

“They have powers that you cannot imagine, and if you go with them, you can learn the most wonderful things. Things of magic”

Another harsh whine spat from the machine, and the squeeze in my chest came again. Pain blurred my vision. Before everything went black, whatever it was let go of me, and I clutched at the bench. It took every ounce of my strength to remain upright. The words the voice was still speaking, but the words washed over me, meaningless.

“…that’s all I have to say, except one last warning. Don’t trust anyone, except yourself. No one is who they say, and nothing is what it seems. And whatever you do, do not follow the Xs and Os.”

The recording whirred and clicked and the fell silent. I was tense, waiting for another wave of pain. It didn’t come, but suddenly a heavy fog of fatigue descended, and I felt like I wanted to sleep for a month. This was too much for so early on a Sunday.

Trust no one. That wasn’t very helpful. And what about those Faceless Ones, the ones whose real name made my skin crawl – I couldn’t face these Faceless Ones on my own. I wasn’t that smart, or that brave, or that powerful. Trust no one. Then another thought came: does that mean I can’t even trust myself?

A shadow moved past the door, and my heart leaped to my throat and began pounding. Was it the Faceless Ones, come already? The shadow paused, the letter box rattled, and a white envelope shot out. I stood frozen, watching the shadow, then in a blink it was gone. In shaking steps, I moved to the door, and picked up the letter. Inside the envelope was one sheet of paper, with a simple message, written in a hand I knew better than anyone else’s, because it was mine.

Follow the Xs and Os.

 

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Quiet by Nicole DragonBeck

For Michael, thank you for your thoroughly enthusiastic story starter, I hope you like it!

“But Winifred my dear, all that work will…” 

“Don’t call me that, I hate that name!”

She continued to tear at the pink satin ribbon tied to the ends of her pair of shoulder length blond braids.

“But Winnie can’t you…”

“No! Not Winnie either!”

A pink tangle of ribbon with a few strands of blond crumpled with a soft bounce as it hit the floor.

“But Wi…”

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!”

Miranda woke up with a start, the scream that sounded like her own voice still ringing in her ears. This was the fourth time this week that she’d had that dream, and each time it was more vivid than the last. She couldn’t ignore it anymore.

Her desk called to her, with the pen and paper that promised relief, but her bed had an equally strong pull, the warm covers willing her to stay and be seduced by their promise of comfort and sleep. But sleep would not come, she knew this, the echoes of her dream taunting and tantalizing at the same time.

Dragging her legs out was the first step. Her torso and arms followed, and somehow Miranda ended up in her chair, hunched over the desk, a pen clenched in her hand. She closed her eyes, and in the darkness, she searched out the dream.

It came in bright flashes of light and color, and sounds that no human ear had heard. Her pen flashed out, scribbles and scratches doing their best to capture what she was experiencing in her own mind.

And then the quiet came. Miranda’s hand stilled, but there was something wrong. She couldn’t put her finger on it, and her eyes moved back and forth behind her eyelids, searching for what was out of place. Usually the quiet was the end, and everything returned to normal, but this was different. This quiet was incomplete.

Although she didn’t want to, Miranda opened her eyes. The bedroom was dark, and this darkness was overwhelming. She reached over and flipped on the desk lamp. The light hurt her eyes, and she shied away, holding her arm up to shield herself from the attack.

Her eyes fell on the paper, and at first she couldn’t make out what was written there. Squinting and holding the paper closer only helped a little, but word by word, Miranda made out what the cacophony had turned into in the real world. Winifred was apparently engaged to a man she didn’t want to marry, and was throwing a temper tantrum hours before she was to be wed. Her lady in waiting was pulling her hair out trying to dress her ladyship and put on her jewels.

Miranda sighed. Why did all these people come to tell her about their problems and woes? Couldn’t they just work it out themselves? If this Winifred didn’t want to marry the Count of Verdigrad, why didn’t she just say so? What was the point of disturbing Miranda’s sleep with her screaming and whining?

Silent vibrations of that screaming and whining throbbed in Miranda’s head, and she recognized the indefinable disturbance of her quiet. She waited for the rest to be emptied onto the paper, but the silence full of promise continued to burn in her mind.

Miranda sat at the desk for how long she didn’t know, and with a sinking horror, realized that she was never going to be given any peace unless she prompted the tempest. Her eyes flicked to her bed, cold now, but still inviting, and taking a deep breath, she gripped her pen tight, and probed the thrumming behind the blackness.

All of Winnifred’s woes and troubles came pouring out. Miranda had a hard time keeping up, and her handwriting got even messier. Winnifred ranted and raved, her handmaiden, cowered, pleaded, and simpered, and then, after pages of this, Winnifred finally saw the light. It was beautiful. The spoiled, naive, practically useless young woman took the first step to becoming something greater than fate had planned for her.

Winnifred fled the palace without writing a note, leaving her poor handmaiden shaking on the floor of Winnifred’s lavish chambers, imagining in terror the horrible punishment that Winnifred’s father was dish out when he found out his daughter was gone, and so was the alliance he hoped to consolidate with the neighboring land of Verdigrad and all the wealth and power it offered.

But this was Winnifred’s story, and Miranda didn’t have to worry about it any longer, as quiet returned to Miranda’s world. She dragged herself up one last time, stumbled over to the bed, and fell into the blissful embrace of the covers, and sank into the quiet.

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Violet’s Protector by Nicole DragonBeck

For Gabby, I miss you and our storytelling sleepovers!

How funny it seemed, that 12 years later he was still wearing that dirty blue hat.

Violet looked him over. Everything about him was the same. The same grey eyes, the same curly brown hair, the same brown jacket and snake-skin boots. It should have made her uncomfortable, invoking memories that should remain in the past, but she was pleased to see him. He sat at the table in the very back of the tavern, hands cupped around the tankard, staring into it as if held the answers to life.

As if he felt her eyes on him, he looked up, and a slow smile curved up his mouth. It was the same smile, though now it was accompanied by a few more lines at the corners of his eyes. He nodded to the other seat at the table. Violet made her way through the tables, her purple skirt swaying, her pale skin glowing against the cream cotton of her blouse, and sat across from him.

“Violet.”

The way her name slid out on the mellow tones of his voice made her feel the same way now as she did then – safe, like Fate was a protective aunt who would bring her little cakes and she could face all the evil in the world without flinching – and she couldn’t help smiling in return.

“Weston. I can’t say I expected to see you again. Certainly not here. But you’ve managed to find me.”

“As always.” He smiled. “I see you got my message.”

Violet nodded. “You wanted to meet to discuss something…something about what happened…” The memories floated up again, “…what happened in the Grindlevale those many years ago.”

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure you would come.”

“Why not?” She blinked in surprise.

“You never answered any of my letters.”

“I never got any of your letters,” she countered. “What did they say?”

He chuckled, the same wry, self-reproving laugh that warmed her when life got cold. “It has to do with what you saw, but it’s a bit more complicated than can be easily covered over a single drink.”

“Then we’ll have dinner,” she said. “I haven’t eaten, and I’m famished.”

He nodded, and Violet turned in her chair, searching for the barman. As her gaze traveled over the patrons, trying to pick out the rotund man with wispy hair and the stained apron who could bring them food, her eyes lit on a figure standing in the shadows beside the door, and her heart leapt to her throat. No, it can’t be. Not here. Not now.

Lurking under the pale skin and dark cloak was the harsh, deformed face of a darkling, stuttering in red flashes like the world illuminated in the brief glare of lightening, replaced by the visage of a normal face, only to reappear again, making her insides cold and her eyes burn. Violet’s hand tightened in her lap, and she turned back to Weston, her face drawn.

“I’m not as hungry as I thought,” she said, barely moving her lips.

“You see something?” he said, and took a casual drink from the tankard.

She nodded, and fought the urge to squirm in her seat. She itched to know where the darkling was now, what it was doing, but she couldn’t look, couldn’t draw its attention to them. “It’s a darkling. In here. By the door.”

Weston put down his ale, and took a pocketwatch from his jacket. The ticking of the hands sounded like thunder in the room, the voices of the patrons echoing dully in the void of impending doom.

Weston stood, and offered her his arm. She stood and took it, fearing to look up. He left a silver on the table, and started to walk away. Violet thought he was planning to waltz straight out the front, so she stumbled slightly when he turned to the back and led her down a narrow passage way, to small door behind the kitchens.

It opened into a small yard. Chickens strutted about the dirt and pebbles, and two pigs nosed in the slop pile, watched over by the lordly gaze of a ginger cat stretched out on the low wall. Weston peered around before stepping through the door and pulling Violet after him.

“Where are we going?” she whispered, trying to see over his shoulder, but his brawn blocked her view.

“To meet someone.”

“Who?”

A figure stepped out of the shadows and glided towards them. Violet’s insides clenched in an icy mass. The face was horrible to look upon, the eyes black and menacing. Violet tried to speak, but her voice was caught in her throat.

Weston held his hand up, and the darkling paused at his voice. “You’re late.”

A voice issued from the creature, though it had no mouth, and it resumed its approach. “We are running out of time.”

“Remember our deal?” Weston called out, and the creature stopped.

Slowly, it nodded and pulled up its hood, concealing its features, and Violet’s body relaxed. The figure stood there, silent. Its shoulders rose and fell as though it drew breath, but Violet didn’t think darklings breathed.

“Weston, what’s happening?” Violet whispered, forcing her still-frozen voice from her lips. “Why are you talking to it?”

“Violet, this is who I want you to meet.”

She stared at him, sure she couldn’t be hearing correctly. He grabbed her shoulders and turned her so she was facing him, and looked down at her with an earnest intensity that frightened her more than the darkling did. “You remember what you saw?”

The memories bubbled up again. The dark night. The silver pool. The reflection of the stars. The old woman who had the same blue eyes as Violet, the same scar on her chin, but white hair instead of blonde, the face weathered, not smooth. The apparition fading as the cold from the presence of the advancing darklings grew.

“You remember what you saw?” Weston pressed, his fingers squeezing painfully but not unkindly.

Violet nodded, because it was the only thing she could do. One day you will have to make a choice. This choice will determine the destiny of many. “What choice? What must I choose?” Violet had asked. You must choose only what your heart and your mind tells you is right. No one can tell you what you must choose. To do so will bring the darkness upon all.

“Do you remember?” Weston repeated.

“I have to choose,” Violet whispered. “I’m the only one who can choose.”

“And that makes you important,” Weston said. “More important than you can imagine.”

“You’ve figured out what it means?” Violet said, her eyes widening.

“I didn’t figure it out, someone explained it to me.”

“Who?”

When Weston’s eyes went to the darkling, Violet shuddered.

“His name is La’reque,” Weston said, his voice deliberately low and soothing. “He told me that the darklings are after you, but not for the reason you think. La’reque has been watching out for you, since you got here.”

“It’s…it’s been watching me?” Violet managed to get past the faintness rising in her head. “Why?”

“To protect you, of course,” Weston said. “While we put some plans into action, gathered some missing pieces, figured out what we have to do.”

“Who’s we? And what do we have to do?” Violet said, struggling to make sense of all this new, vague information.

“All in good time,” Weston said. “What you have to do is stay here.”

“Stay here!” Violet exclaimed, indignation pulling her face into a tight glare. “What did you think I was doing before you showed up?”

“Remember, La’reque has been watching you,” Weston said. “He can tell when you’re getting antsy.”

“I would’ve felt him,” Violet said.

“Only if you saw his face,” Weston smiled. “Do you still trust me?”

“I don’t know,” Violet told him. “I never thought you’d be working with a darkling.”

“La’reque,” Weston admonished. “If we’re going to pull this off, we’re going to have to be friends and work together.”

“And yet you won’t tell me what this is.”

“All it good time,” Weston said. “Right now, La’reque is going to take you some place a little more difficult to find, while I go fetch the others.”

Violet didn’t bother asking who the others were, because Weston wouldn’t deign to answer. Instead she glanced at the darkling, thoughts and feelings warring inside her. Weston’s warm presence beside her stilled the tumult. She still did trust him, even if what he was saying was counter to everything she knew. The darkling stood silent, and after several deep breaths, Violet nodded.

“Lead on then, La’reque.”

 

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Keldrin’s Story by Nicole DragonBeck

For Alexis, who is quite wonderful!

It was amazing to see him after all this time!

Valeria couldn’t contain her relief and joy at the unexpected pleasure, and a smile grew on her face. Her pace quickened, and she caught up to the tall man walking ahead of her on the street.

“Keldrin?” she asked, her hand reaching out for the broad shoulder.

The man stopped and turned. Valeria’s smile faltered. It was definitely him, but there was something off. He eyes were duller, the face tired and blank. Valeria noticed that his coat was threadbare, and his clothes needed patching. He was thinner, his belt barely able to keep his pants up.

“Keldrin?” Valeria asked again, her voice hesitant.

He searched her face with a frown, and finally a small spark lit his eyes, and brought this shadow of the man closer to her memory. “Valeria. It’s been so long.”

“Yes, too long,” she agreed. “Where did you go off to?”

He was silent for a long time. “Not where, but when.”

She blinked. “What do you mean?”

“I broke it.” Keldrin’s voice was so soft she had to strain to hear it.

“Broke what?”

“Everything.”

Valeria didn’t know what to say to that. She didn’t really know what to do, but she couldn’t stand there and do nothing, so she took his arm and led him along the street. He didn’t say anything, and he wouldn’t look at her, not even when they were seated at a small table in a tavern, surrounded by the warm sound of chatter and laughter, and the smells of meat and bread.

Valeria smiled at the young man who brought them plates of food and tankards of ale, twisting her skirt through her fingers. A terrible fear turned her mouth sour, a fear of what Keldrin might say. What on earth could he mean, he broke everthing?

Keldrin didn’t seem to notice there was food, though it appeared he had not eaten regularly for some time. Valeria pushed the plate towards him, and his eyes flicked to it. Again, it took him some time to really see what was in front of him. When he did, life sparked to life, and he dug in enthusiastically. Valeria had no appetite whatsoever so she just watch him demolish his plate, then hers, without stopping for breath.

When both plates were cleaned, Keldrin leaned back, and a small smile played on his chapped lips.

“That was mighty fine,” he murmured. “Almost like it was before.”

“What happened?” she asked.

He sighed. “I went to the Raladam, and fell through. It was so dark, but the bindings got easier and easier to find, and I pulled myself back. But the cracks followed me, and there was nothing I could do to stop them. The bindings were coming loose, and I don’t know how to tie them up. I don’t think I have much time.”

Valeria was lost. She didn’t understand anything after Raladam, and even that she didn’t think she fully understood what he was talking about. The Raladam was an area, and also the people who lived there, but little was known about them.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to stay long,” Keldrin continued, the regret in his voice made her flesh crawl.

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. The cracks never tell me.”

He chuckled at a private joke, but it was hard for Valeria to do more than breathe. Something inside her was desperately trying to understand something she instinctively knew was more than she could handle.

“Goodybye Valeria. I’m glad I got the chance to see you again.”

He held something out. She looked down, and his fingers uncurled to reveal a single flower with wilted petals. It looked like nothing she had ever seen, and though it was hard for Valeria to believe it, she knew it was from a land that she would never go to.

She looked up just in time to see Keldrin walk into the tavern and stop just inside the door. His left leg dragged a little, and a white scar closed his one eye. Wild brown hair was knotted around bones and feathers. The staff he carried was topped by the skull of a creature with two mouths full of fangs.

Valeria looked at Keldrin, who sat at the table with her, and her eyes widened as he faded until just the hint of his smile remained, and then that too disappeared totally.

A heavy thunk on the other side of the table made her look up, and Keldrin glared at her with his one good eye, his hair rattling as he looked from side to side. She didn’t know what to do, but she couldn’t do nothing, so she waved over the serving boy for more food.

 

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Liabilities of Language by Nicole DragonBeck

For Desi, from Story Starter number four.

I could not make any sense of her words.

The writing was formed by graceful, flowing script, unfaded despite the obvious age of the fragile paper Gelma held in her hands. The dialect was strange, and the grammar just a bit off, so Gelma often had to reread the sentences to make sure she had it right before she wrote down the translation. Concentration creased her forehead, and her mouth held tight, lips pressed together. The world faded, and only the ancient account had any force of reality.

The beautiful creature continued to speak to me, her words tumbling over one another, too fast for me to understand fully. She kept saying something about the golden crown, the golden crown. I held my hand up, trying to slow the rush, but she was too frightened to heed me.

Gelma sighed ,pulled her dark hair over her shoulder, and bent forward, her eyes beginning to pound as she glared at the paper with a predatory gaze, her fingers white around her pen, her hand slow and careful in the formation of common glyphs. The store of ancient scrolls, tomes, and scraps of paper had been found almost a year ago, and the best translators had been gathered from the four lands to decipher the wealth of knowledge.

Gelma had been working on this unbound sheaf of paper for two months. It appeared to be part of a journal. Markings at the top suggested a record of the date, or time passing, though she was still waiting for a mention of an eclipse or other significant event to correlate the marks to anything.

She was lost in the nuances of the next sentence – was that “will be destroyed” or “may have been destroyed”? – when an insistent knock interrupted her. She looked up to find a thin, awkward-looking young man with a shock of blond hair and a pen behind his ear glaring at her. A red band across his chest marked him as a messenger he ran dispatches between departments.

“What can I help you with, Murin?” Gelma asked, already turning back to the sentence she was working on.

“I’ve come from Liabilities,” he announced.

Gelma sighed. Liabilities of Language crosschecked the data and translations to find discrepancies. Gelma appreciated the importance of the department, but sometimes she wished they weren’t such a nuisance.

“What is it?”

“They want you to look at this piece-” he glanced down at the paper, “number twenty twenty four. There’s just one line,” he added helpfully.

Gelma sighed and waved her hand at him. “Give it here then.”

He gave her two sheets – the original and the translation. It was short, only seven lines.

“It’s the third line,” Murin said, peering over her shoulder.

“Thank you Murin,” Gelma said, reading and rereading the line.

It said the same thing each time. Over and under, up and down, it comes and goes, the golden crown. The translation said the same thing.

Gelma shrugged and handed the papers back to Murin. “Seems fine to me. What’s this about?”

“I’m sure I have no idea. You don’t think they actually tell me anything, do you?”

Gelma gave him a look. “I know you have ears and a brain between them.”

Murin looked pleased, and he leaned close to whisper to her. “If you want to know, I’m to take this to Sensitive if you confirmed the translation. They want anything to do with that phrase, the golden crown. Do you know what it means?”

Gelma shook her head. Sensitive was the department that handled anything that might dangerous, confidential, or more than unusually important for any reason. She didn’t really care for Sensitive any more than she cared for Liabilities. She liked her place here and the work she did.

“Well, off with you then,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll want it up there five minutes ago.”

Murin gave her a nod and rushed out of the room. Gelma turned back, reread the sentence she had been working on, and still couldn’t be sure about the tenses, so she determined to diagram it to be sure. No need to cause extra work for Murin or Liabilities.

 

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