Category Archives: Nicole DragonBeck

Olderealm by Nicole DrangonBeck

For Siri – hannad ten i yesta en i narn, Turwaithiel

Watching the altimeter, he pulled firmly on the joystick; nothing happened.

This was precisely what Koval had meant when he told Jak that creatures without wings did not belong in the sky. He’s never going to let me forget this, Jak thought, gravity straining his body and blue and green spinning around him as the strange flying machine plummeted to the ground, the drop reflected in the spinning dials in front of him.

No matter which buttons and knobs Jak tried, nothing stopped the free-fall. In frustration, he slammed his fist against the ancient console, and it flickered to life, reconnecting with the engine.

With a whoop of exhilaration, Jak yanked the joystick down and sent the machine skyward, narrowly missing the lithe form of the dragon shadowing him. A roar echoed his cry, and gave Jak a divine sense of invincibility. At almost twice the size of the flying machine they’d found, Koval would save Jak if he fell from the sky.

The dragon wouldn’t be pleased to know he was a safety net, but Jak wasn’t going to jeopardize one of the few perks of being the youngest prince: no one cared what you did or where you went, provided you didn’t cause an incident or get yourself killed.

Jak watched the orange-gold shape of Koval spin in graceful arcs in front of him, wings out and then tight against his side, then spread again as he danced through the ether.

“Show off,” Jak muttered, but he smiled.

Jak gave his companion a wave through the port window, then turned his attention to the controls of the machine to continue discovering what each did. It would have been prudent to have spent slightly more time familiarizing himself with what they all did before taking the machine into the sky, but Jak had been so excited when he’d finally gotten the engine to work, and what better way was there to learn than to do?

The various dials and markers were glowing with an odd light that almost looked like mage-fire, but it lacked the distinctive warmth. Jak reached for a set of three colored knobs just as the control panel and engines died. Pounding on the metal box did nothing to revive them this time.

At the edges of panic, what little Jak had learned about the machine fled his mind, and he pressed his palms against the console, casting out to gather the warmth around him and channel it into the metal. It still didn’t like it when he that, and the energy backflashed and burned through his hands up to his elbow, making Jak yelp and flinch back.

The nose of the craft dipped further down, black smoke trailing from twin propellers. One of the propellers gave a weak attempt to come back to life, but gave up after a the third spin. Toggling the ignition key was as useless as everything else, and Jack took precious seconds to clear his mind and focus his thoughts before he flipped it with a single, deliberate motion.

The odd light flickered in the console, and with a feeble cough the engine obeyed, though the stuttering rumble didn’t auger well for how long it would remain operational. I’ll be lucky to set eyes on this machine again, much less fly it, Jak thought, accepting that it wasn’t a good idea to stay in the air any longer, though he wasn’t happy about it. He glanced out the window to see where Koval was, and saw something that set his heart pounding more than the temperamental flying machine had.

He was flying dangerously close to the shimmering border between Maerland and Olderealm, and the nosedive had sent Jak even closer to the sparkling grey mists that would eat his soul, if the legends were true.

Jak pulled the joystick to turn the machine towards the forests of Maerland, but the machine shuddered and the stick would no longer move. A red light started flashing, and though it was nowhere near what Jak had learned to be the fuel gauge, and the engine continued to whir, something about the blinking dot made Jak’s skin crawl. What now? Jak’s heart sank when he felt the craft turn, and fly straight for Olderealm.

It took Koval a split second to see where Jak was heading, and a few more to overtake the machine. The dragon tried to grab it with his powerful limbs and claws, but the craft began to dodge and roll as if it had a mind of its own, and then it started shooting bursts of red energy at the dragon.

Jak held on with one hand, throwing random switches and levers as Koval swerved, plummeted out of sight, and then came after the flying machine again, evading the projectiles, but unable to reach the machine. The mists came closer, and Koval threw caution to the winds, diving closer and impaling the craft with formidable claws. The metal and seams protested, but resisted the dragon’s efforts.

As Jak was about to hit the shimmer, a flash enveloped him, making everything white, and then black. Jak woke up to a pounding head, his body tender like an overripe pulpfruit. At first he could see nothing, but blinking cleared the dark, fuzzy patches from his vision and the roof of the flying machine resolved above him. Through a tear in the metal, trees and pale bits of sky waved.

Jak sat up with a groan. He tasted blood, and felt for his face. A cut on his lip stung, and his jaw ached, but nothing worse than that. Inspecting the rest of his body for broken bones, Jak relaxed when he found none.

He slowly picked himself up, pushing through debris, and crawled out onto the forest floor. He looked around and heaved a sigh of relief. The flying machine had protected him from the greatest impact, though it was in several pieces littered around the forest floor, and Koval had managed to pull him away from Olderealm. The dragon was nowhere in sight.

“Koval?” Jak called out. “Koval?”

The forest was still, as if it were watching and waiting for something to happen. Shivers crawled up Jak’s spine, and he looked left and right and over his shoulder hoping he didn’t see anything other than his friend. When Jak found the dragon, he thought for one agonized instant that Koval was dead, but then the chest rose and fell in a labored breath. Jak ran over, and examined Koval’s still body. He could find nothing wrong, but the dragon could be injured inside.

Jak ran back towards the wreckage, tripping twice and not stopping to stand, scrambling through the autumn-painted leaves like a dog until he found traction and his feet again. He recovered his travel pack, and ran back to Koval. Dropping next to the massive head, Jak rummaged through the pack and withdrew the first-aid kit his mother made him carry. In the last pocket, was a vial of red liquid. The elixir cost a pretty penny, but it could bring anyone back from the brink of death, spellcast or otherwise.

He pulled back Koval’s leathery lips, and poured the contents of the bottle between the dragon’s fangs, then waited impatiently for it to work. Koval’s breathing evened out, but the dragon did not come to, even after many minutes. Jak held open the outer lid of Koval’s eye, and saw the pupil contract through the second lid.

“Koval?” Jak whispered. “Please don’t die on me.”

The dragon took a breath, then opened both eyes and spoke in a faint voice. “Didn’t I tell you something bad would happen if you went up in that thing?”

“I’ll pay more attention next time,” Jak promised, his hands shaking with relief. “Do you remember what happened?”

“You turned for Olderealm, foolish boy. Why would you do that?”

“The machine flew itself. I didn’t touch it, I swear,” Jak told Koval.

“It’s infested with demons, just as I said,” Koval growled, but ire cost him, and he closed his eyes. “I tried to pull you away, but it was too strong. There was a flash of light, and I know not what happened after that.”

“At least we’re still in Maerland,” Jak said, looking up at the silent trees. “I’ll go get help.”

Koval head barely moved when he shook it, but the meaning was clear.

“We crossed the border?” Jak gazed at their surroundings with wide eyes. “How is…? What…? They told us Olderealm was dead.”

“Maybe they lied, maybe they didn’t know, but can’t you feel it?” the dragon asked, the words coming between labored breaths. “The nothingness?”

Jak cast out, and shrank back from the cold void that greeted him. No wonder the forest is so quiet.

“I still have to go for help,” Jak said. “Stay here.”

Koval wheezed a laugh, then fell still. “I’ll try not to run off.”

Jak put the travel-pack on his back, and looked up through the trees, trying to discern which direction to go, but a white film obscured the sky and sun. He picked a heading and set off, marking every second or third tree with his knife.

Jak wondered when night would come and what trials and devilry that would bring. The legends said that OldeRealm would leave an empty, lifeless husk, but they also said that it was a desolate wasteland devoid of all life. The second being demonstrably untrue, Jak was questioning the second, but hadn’t discounted it entirely. For as long as he could remember, he’d been fearless, surrounded by the known dangers of Maerland, and his new trepidation was uncomfortable.

Something rustled in the underbrush, and Jak froze. His imagination bombarded him with every creature from every horror story he’d ever been told, sending his heart racing. He held out the knife, feeling under-armed and at a severe disadvantage.

“Hello?” he called out, trying to make his voice as deep and formidable as possible.

Three small figures crept out of the bushes. They came up to Jak’s hip, their skin was mottled and brown, though not from the sun, and their eyes glowed yellow. Sharply pointed ears similar to Jak’s stuck up past their scalps. The word they brought to mind was gremlin.

They carried smooth-jointed metal implements, pointed at Jak. He had no idea what they were, but the gremlins clearly meant to look threatening. He held out his hands in a peaceful gesture, then realized he was still holding the knife.

“Sorry,” he apologized as he lowered the weapon, and thought fast what to say. “My name is Jak. My friend is injured. Can you help me?”

The creatures made some squeaking sounds, which Jak could only assume was a coherent response in a language he didn’t understand. They kept their implements pointed at him while they discussed something amongst themselves. Then Jak found himself being herded along, and he wriggled from their clutches, shaking his head.

“I can’t. I have to get help for my friend.” He pointed back the way he had come, gesturing at the mark he’d made on the nearest tree.

Some more discussion ensued, and the creatures motioned for him to lead the way. Jak wasn’t sure it was wise to bring them back to Koval, but what choice did he have?

The dragon lay where Jak had left him, eyes closed and breathing slowly but evenly. A high-pitched shriek brought Koval awake, and he reared up on reflex, then collapsed. A beam of red light – not dissimilar to the weapon the flying machine had fired at Koval – went wide over the dragon’s shoulder, into the trees.

Jak dove in front of Koval, arms spread wide, a motion insufficient to protect the dragon from the gremlins, but it would hopefully attract their attention. The creatures warbled and chattered, and amongst the sounds, Jak caught a word he knew.

“Dragon? Yes! Dragon!” Jak nodded. “No! Dragon good! Don’t hurt him!”

The creatures looked at Jak, then at each other, then lowered their weapons. One of them pulled out a different metal thing and fiddled with it directing it’s high-pitched warbling at it. Jak waited for it to respond, but the gremlins just stood there, no longer interested in it. After a short while, chattering announced the arrival of others. Jak wondered if they ate elf or dragon, then wished he hadn’t.

Half a dozen of the gremlins filed into the clearing. The one in front hobbled, hunched over a gnarled cane, squinting at the world with filmed eyes. Jak knew he was someone important, and not just from the entourage. Faint warmth sparked around creature, warmth Jak couldn’t feel anywhere else in Olderealm.

The old gremlin stopped in front of Jak, then said something brief. Again, the only word Jak understood was dragon. He shrugged helplessly, and pointed at Koval. The gremlin nodded, and waved at its companions.

They pulled metal rods from strange cases, and Jak tensed, preparing to fight. A four-fingered hand on his arm kept him from lunging at the gremlins as they gathered around his friend and assembled what looked like a litter under the unconscious dragon. Jak couldn’t see how they would lift the large creature, then familiar lights flared to life like glowing blue eyes at the ends of the rods, and the litter levitated at knee height.

Jak didn’t understand what magic they were using, and his curiosity was frustrated by the inability to communicate. He trekked through the forest at Koval’s side, keeping both eyes on the dragon as the gremlins maneuvered him through trees and over roots, wondering what fate the mysterious denizens of Olderealm had in store for them.

 

P.S. For the continuation but (knowing DragonBeck) probably not the conclusion, look out for the Ink Slingers Guild annual anthology, coming fall/winter 2018!

 

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Zephyr by Nicole DragonBeck

For Gabby – miss you!

Take me to the ocean; let me lie there awhile.

The voice echoed through the ether, gentle and soothing, but to Kalima, it rang through her head, torturing her like nails on a chalkboard. The disembodied voice had started following her about a week ago and steadily worsened over the following days.

She rubbed at her temple, gritting her teeth.

Under the bridge, the troll awaits. Go to him not, for your heart he will eat.

Kalima groaned. Nothing it said made any sense, and any time she tried to think about it only made her head hurt worse. Perhaps it was time to see the Healer. It took several more nonsensical chants throughout that day to convince her, and it was by the light of the night-torches that she made her way to the Healer’s premises, her head bowed to avoid being recognized.

She knocked at the simple wooden door and waited impatiently, looking around for any witnesses. When the door swung open, she stepped inside and almost bowled the young Healer over in her haste.

“Kalima!” he exclaimed as he regained his balance and closed the door behind her. “It’s a…it’s a pleasure, as always.”

Kalima rolled her eyes, though her back was to him, so he couldn’t see. She was recalcitrant and uncooperative and rarely followed through with his prescribed remedies.

“What troubles you at this hour?” he said. “Are you having trouble sleeping?”

“Yes, and no,” Kalima said, rubbing her temples. The water takes you where you’ll go, the golden eye where the west-wind blows.

“Ah. A headache, then.”

“Yes, and no.”

His silence prompted her to look up at him. He was looking at her with an extremely patient expression which made her feel like she was being scolded for taking up too much of his time.

“I have a headache, and I’ve been having trouble sleeping for the past few nights, but that isn’t what I’ve come to see you about.”

“Right,” he said. “I’ll make some tea, and we can sit and you can tell me what is really ailing you.”

Kalima sat on the low cushioned bench in front of the hearth. The fireplace was empty at this time of year, and in a few short weeks, the palm fronds in the corner would be needed to stir the oppressive heat to something bearable.

“Thank you, Healer,” Kalima said, taking the cup of tea he handed her.

“Please, call me Doland,” he said.

Kalima frowned. “The Healer always preferred to be spoken to with the deference befitting his station.”

“Yes, but you may notice that I am not he. His hair was quite a bit whiter, I recall, and liver spots claimed most of his skin, while mine is still unmarked by age,” the young man said, his voice even.

“Of course,” Kalima said, shifting uncomfortably at the slight rebuke, and scalded her tongue on the gulp of tea she took to hide her discomfort. “I’m sorry. You must feel his loss quite sharply.”

“I manage,” Doland said, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he smiled at her. “Now, tell me of the purpose for your visit.”

“It’s very strange,” Kalima began, stalling for time. “I’m afraid you’ll think I’m going mad.”

“Why don’t you tell me what it is, and I can judge whether or not your sanity is in question?” he suggested.

Kalima took a deep breath. “I’m hearing voices. Well, actually, just one voice.”

“I see. What does it say?”

“Everything. And nothing at all. It makes up childish rhymes. Or chilling statements that have nothing to do with anything going on around me. Sometimes it gives me riddles with no answer,” Kalima told him, the floodgates now open. “Mostly it gives me orders that I have no idea how to follow, such as the water takes you where you’ll go, the golden eye where the west-wind blows or under the bridge, the troll awaits. Go to him not, for your heart he will eat.” She shuddered. “There haven’t been trolls here for a hundred years.”

“Yes, but perhaps it doesn’t know that,” Doland said. “What does it sound like? A woman? A man?”

“A woman,” Kalima said without hesitation. “A young woman, almost a girl.”

“And do you always understand the words?”

Kalmia nodded. “It is always in a language I understand, yes.”

Doland stared into his cup with a pensive expression, then glanced up at her. “One moment.”

He left the room, and was gone for some moments, which Kalima spent in agony thinking of the horrible diagnosis he would come up with, and the worse remedy. I’m probably going to die, she thought, and blinked back tears that sprung up at the notion. I’m too young to die.

She was brought from her morbid imaginings of flesh rotting off as her mind slowly and painfully disintegration by the Healer reentering the room. He had a large, forbidding tome in his hands, with blood-red pages, and a moth-eaten ribbon to mark the place.

“From what you’ve described, and what I can decipher from this book, what you have is called the Zephyr,” Doland said, frowning.

Kalima didn’t like his words or his expression. “What is that?”

“It’s like a third eye or a sixth sense,” Doland explained, his frown deepening. “But you shouldn’t have it.”

“And why not?” Kalmia asked.

“It disappeared with the witches. Around the same time as the trolls,” he added.

“So you’re saying I’m a witch?” Kalima blinked. “I’m not going to die?”

“Well, you might, if you were tied to a stake and set alight, but short of that, I think it’s safe to say you’ll live to see the morning at least,” Doland said.

“This is not a joking matter,” Kalima said, with great effort to keep her voice below a shriek.

“I wasn’t joking,” Doland told her and closed the book with a snap. “You’ll have to go to the Maribondi.”

“The what?” Kalima said.

“The Wise Women of the Sea,” he said. “They may be able to help you.”

“You can’t give me anything? Or recommend something?” Kalima asked, flutterings of panic in her chest. Leaving was almost as bad as dying in her estimation.

“I just recommended something: going to see the Maribondi,” he said.

“I meant like a tea or a bedtime prayer,” she said.

“I can give you something to help calm your nerves,” Doland said. “But I doubt it will do anything for the voice in your head.”

The sachet he handed her at the door was fragrant with orange and chamomile, but it did little to soothe her nerves. Kalima left the Healer’s with the Zephyr reverberating in her head. Down the river, swift and true, beware the one with three faces, and the words of two.

 

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Watcher and Listener by Nicole DragonBeck

For Danny, I hope you enjoy!

Piper let the branch go and the piper fell from it.

The trap sprung perfectly, and the odd little man plummeted to the ground with a scream and landed on his back. Piper was surprised, not that she had known what to expect when she laid her trap for whoever was following her through the forest, but she was certain it wasn’t this. It didn’t matter now, she had found the culprit, and now she had to figure out if he was friend – or at least friendly – or foe.

“What are you doing, spying on me?” she demanded, looking at the scrawny man at her feet with a fierce expression.

He spluttered, spitting leaves from his mouth and wiping dirt out of his eyes.

“I wasn’t spying!” he protested, holding his silver pipes out like a shield. “I was watching, only watching!”

“Watching what?” Piper said, still not sure of the little man’s intentions though she decided he didn’t look particularly threatening.

He wore a ridiculous floppy hat, and the brim fell into his eyes. He flipped it away and trained a bright gaze on Piper.

“Watching the others who’re watching you,” he replied, with a sly smile.

Piper looked around the woods, and for the first time felt a twinge of uncertainty. These trees were her home, and here she was queen. Her strange power kept those in the forest with teeth and powers of their own from bothering her, but the ancient giants held many secrets beneath their boughs and in their roots, so she could never let down her guard.

“Who?” she said.

“Don’t know,” the piper shrugged. “Just felt them staring.”

“You felt them staring?” Piper raised an eyebrow, and flipped her red braid over her shoulder. That was a new one, and her interest perked up. “What are you anyway?”

The piper huffed and stood up. He came to Piper’s knee, and muddy brown marks covered what skin she could see. He had no beard, but a thick mop of curly brown hair highlighted with green and gold stuck out from under the hat. “I’m a brownie.”

“Not much of your kind left,” Piper commented.

The brownie huffed again and muttered something rude under his breath. She chose to ignore it.

“So, why’re you helping me?” Piper said, cocking her head and studying the little man.

He in turn studied his pipes, turning them over and over in his rough hands, which looked large on his small body. “Because maybe you can help me.”

“With what?” Piper was more intrigued despite herself.

“I want to leave.”

“The forest?”

“No, the whole world. Yes, the forest.”

“Why?”

“You ask a lot of questions,” the brownie grumbled.

“I’m sorry. I don’t get to talk to a lot of people,” Piper confessed.

“Okay, I’ll ask a question. How did you know where I was hiding?”

“The music told me,” Piper said.

“I wasn’t playing.”

“You don’t have to,” Piper said. “I hear the music all the time. It tells me things, helps me.”

“And what do hear when I play?”

“More,” Piper shrugged, satisfied with the answer though it was woefully inadequate.

The brownie looked at her askance, then raised the pipes to his lips. He blew a simple tune, sets of three notes repeating over and over, tumbling over and under each other but never bumping into anything.

Piper closed her eyes and smiled. She heard water and earth. She heard the obstinate courage of the boulder that refuses to be moved by the river. But the theme which wound throughout was loneliness, a single star in a black sky, the first bird call to a new dawn, which echoed forever answered.

The notes faded, leaving a moment of respectful stillness in their wake, before the forest came to life with a song of its own again, the rustle of leaves, the chitter of small creatures, and the soft thoughts of the trees and stones all combining to create the familiar melody and constant backdrop to Piper’s life.

“So?” the little piper asked.

“I heard you,” Piper replied.

The simple statement struck the man dumb. His mouth hung open and he stared at her wide-eyed as a single tear rolled down his nose. It broke the spell and he swiped the wetness away, muttering something about a fly in his eye.

A feeling that Piper only remembered feeling in the dimness of the distant past washed over her, and on impulse, she knelt down and wrapped her arms around the man. For a long moment, he stood stiff and unmoving, then his arms came up to return the hug. The silver pipes clutched in his hand were warm against Piper’s back.

“So, what about leaving can I help you with?” she asked him, drawing back and looking at him earnestly.

He looked around, craning his neck to gaze up at the sky speckled with deep green leaves, and heaved a great sigh. Then his mottled face was creased with a shy smile. “Actually, I think I’d like to stick around for a bit longer. Would you care for some company?”

“Yes,” Piper smiled back, glad he had said it first. “Yes, I think I would.”

 

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Lucky Substitutions by Nicole DragonBeck

For Erika

I don’t think lizard eye is a vital ingredient in a love potion.

“It’s what it says!” Mayva protested, pointing at the old page with one hand, the other hovering over her cauldron, posed to drop an eye of Newt into the seething potion.

Well, I think it sounds fishy. You should read it again.

Mayva sighed and looked at the recipe again. “It says lizard,” she confirmed. “Hang on-” she leaned closer. “It looks like the first letter is rubbed out. Maybe blizard?

Blizard eye? You do know that word is spelled with two z’s, right?

“Hey!” Mayva barked. “If you wanted to come down here and do this, be my guest. Oh, wait, you don’t have a body. So if you have something valuable to contribute, by all means, speak up. If not, shut up!”

An ominous silence greeted her tirade. She waited for George to say something, but the silence just stretched on.

“I’m sorry,” Mayva said at last. “That was low.”

It’s fine.

The curt reply wasn’t reassuring, but at least it was something.

“Okay,” Mayva said, infusing her voice with enthusiasm she didn’t feel. “Let figure out this thing, so we can get paid, and then move on.”

Wizard.

“What?”

It says wizard eye. It’s just half of the first letter that’s missing.

Mayva looked again and saw George was indeed right. Her disembodied friend had his uses. She searched through the witch’s cupboards.

“There’s no wizard eye in here,” Mayva said.

Don’t you dare start think about substitutions now.

“If I don’t get the duchess her love potion, we’ll be eating potato eyes and carrot peelings while sleeping in a doorway.”

Well, you’ll be eating peelings and sleeping in the doorway. I’ll be as comfortable or uncomfortable as I ever was.

“Thanks for the support,” Mayva muttered, already flipping to the back of the grimoire for the substitutions. “Okay, one wizard eye is equivalent to three drops of blue moonlight, the kiss of a dragon, two-sevenths of a thimbleful of ashes of a baptized witched burned on a cedarwood fire.”

Sounds like it might be simple to go find a wizard and dig out his eye with a spoon. You don’t think this hedge witch has those kinds of things here, do you?

“Actually she does,” Mayva said, holding up the moonlight and dragon’s kiss with a triumphant expression.

And the ashes?

“That’s what this is for,” Mayva said, flipping through the charts of substitutions.

She had to go back and forth quite a bit because the only listing for ashes of baptized witch was burned over a fire of oak and ironwood, so she found a substitute for cedarwood and fire, which included several more substitutions for rare ingredients like second-sight of a blind babe and shame of a broken warrior. After some fancy footwork, Mayva was left with a table of half-empty bottles and pouches and a steaming cauldron of thick, pink potion.

“Well, at least it looks like it’s supposed to,” Mayva said.

Haven’t you ever heard looks can be deceiving?

“Enough with the pessimism,” Mayva said. “We’re almost done.”

She filled a stopper with the potion and turned. She stepped on something underfoot and windmilled as she tried to steady her balance. She steadied herself on the table and managed to keep her feet, though the table wasn’t so fortunate. The ingredients and the cauldron slid to the floor with a great crash, and the essences and powders and the love potion spewed everywhere.

Mayva blinked and looked at the mess she’d made of the witch’s cottage.

“So much for getting out of here unnoticed.”

Mayva screamed in shock and spun to find someone standing next to her. “Who’re you?” she asked.

“You might not recognize the face, but don’t you know the voice?” the young man asked.

“George?” Mayva said, an incredulous expression on her face. “How…what happened?”

George shrugged his very solid shoulders. “I don’t know, but if I had to guess I’d say it had something to do with those substitutions you made.”

Mayva looked down at the vial of pink liquid she had in her hand. “So this is not a love potion then?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then what is it?”

George touched his face, his nose and lips, and his arm, then shook his head. “Something much more powerful.”

 

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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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