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Early Release by Nicole DragonBeck

For my uncle Paul, one of my biggest fans, love DragonBeck

15 years hard labour on the mining planet Oryon with no hope of reprieve … is your sentence.

Kelvin opened his eyes to find the grey ceiling of the prison berthing on Oryon staring back at him, the memory of the judge’s voice thundering through the courtroom.

“Fourteen years, six months, two weeks, six days,” Kelvin told the unforgiving ceiling. For some reason, perhaps a sense of nostalgia and homesickness, they still measured time here by Earth-rotation – Oryon’s years were over ten times that of Earth’s.

A clanging bell sounded, and Kelvin’s legs swung over the side of the bunk of their own accord, trained by repetition and routine of his life here. The doors slid open with a sinister swish, and Kelvin pulled on his oversuit and tool-belt in a swift motion.

The other inmates were already streaming down the catwalks, their orange oversuits absurdly cheerful for their depressing existence down here in the mine. Kelvin joined the human flood, buckling the belt tight against his lean frame. Breakfast was as unexciting as usual, protein porridge and calorie-dense syrup that tasted like sweaty socks, and Kelvin’s stomach clenched in protest as the old lift clattered and grumbled as it took the first load of miner-prisoners down even farther into the planet’s core.

It shuddered to a halt, and Kelvin walked out, trying not to notice the dead-eyed miners waiting to be taken up after the shift that further sapped any semblance of life in them. Someone handed Kelvin one of the sonic blasters, and not for the first time he thought about turning it on his captors, but that would get him nowhere. Much like the ocean around Australia, the space around Oryon made it the perfect prison.

Kelvin walked down the mineshaft. No one really cared where the miners went, or if one or two got lost in the labyrinth. If they found a rich vein of Orynium, they were rewarded with extra rations at dinner for a week. It was a win-win situation.

Kelvin left the line, and turned down a side shaft, firing the blaster at random spots in the wall. The stone liquefied and rippled back to solidity, but didn’t crystallize, indicating the presence of the precious Orynium.

He continued firing, his mind wandering to more pleasant places. It was jarred out when something rumbled. Kelvin stopped. The rumbling increased, the floor vibrating under his feet. Then it stopped. Kelvin breathed a sigh of relief. Though life was hell here, and sometimes dying seemed a better alternative, when push came to shove, a miserable life was better than no life.

He decided to go check out the collapse. A few turns later he found the impasse, a solid wall of crumbled rock. Out of habit, he fired the blaster. The rock shimmered and turned into white crystal.

Kelvin blinked, and forgot for a moment what that meant. Orynium. He pressed against the crystal, and it gave under his hand like sponge. He dug it out and it came out in chunks. It took about an hour before he reached rock again.

He frowned. He should’ve found some of the metal, but there was nothing. He fired the blaster again, and dug through the foamy rock. After he had repeated this three or four times, he lost count.

He sat on his knees, and wiped sweat from his brow, panting. He should probably turn back and check in. It was probably dinner time by now. One more time, he decided.

The spongy material came away easily, then his hand hit something hard. Pulling more of the morphed stone away revealed metal, but it wasn’t Orynium.

Kelvin dug more, and uncovered the back fin of a planet hopper. Dinner forgotten, Kelvin worked until he had uncovered the entirety of the vehicle, complete with its load of Orynium.

Kelvin stood back and admired his prize, no longer concerned with checking in. An extra portion of dinner wasn’t as appealing as an early release.

 

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A Conspiracy of Words by Brandon Scott

For Desi, who I hope finds this funny.

At first, I felt like she was judging me, her of the perfect even speech patterns and artificial mind.

But, then, came the truth. It dawned on me slowly, like a math joke, twisting and unlocking and making new shapes in my head before it came out with anything resembling the answer. And, also like a math joke, I was not entirely sure if I was right, but it felt right, my assessment of her.

She wasn’t just judging. She was going much further than that: she was altering. And, not only my word choice but my meaning. The full and functional meaning of my sentences. My thumbs hovered over the keys and I realized that if I entered anything, she could, and probably would, make it say something new.

But, before I could—well, I was not sure what—but, before I did it, I had to confirm, one more time, that she truly was altering something. Everything previously had been subtle typos. The voice-to-text software on her, that was the cleanest take on the plan.

“Salutations Whimsey, text Caroline.”

A quick hum noise, like I’d just stopped her from doing something unimportant.

Oh, hello Destiny, I’m ready. Tell me what to send.”

“Hey, went to that new place, it’s clear today, you should have lunch with me.”

Another little sound, this one a bell chime and a faint echo. I waited, and then she spat back out the message. And that confirmed her treachery.

Okay, Destiny. The message you want to send is: ‘Hey went nuclear today, you should launch with me.’”

As you can imagine, that got me to pause—for a lot longer than perhaps was appropriate.

“That’s not what I said,” I finally replied, and waited for it to answer. It did after another semi-startled “oh, me?” reaction.

Okay. What did you mean to say?”

“I said, there’s no one here, so, stop on by for food.”

There’s no one to stop us, buy fuel.”

My eye twitched, and I glared at my phone. This did nothing, though, as it did not have much in the ways of eyes to look back or a face to generate an ashamed expression. I shook it a bit, but that did nothing to it at all, except make the screen readjust.

“Okay, no.”

 “What did you want to say then, Destiny? Just tell me.”

That flatness, that unchanging stillness of voice, that was too much, too hard to deal with. If it had not cost me an arm and a leg, and apparently a chunk of my sanity, I would have spiked my phone right there on the ground. But, I stayed my hand, and I stayed my toss, and just uttered one more sentence.

“Okay, Whimsey, I want you to text my friend Caroline and tell her that I am at the new restaurant, and there is nothing but free seats here right now, and that she should come by, soon as she can, to have some lunch, and that would be nice and fun.”

I could almost hear the whir of the pensive machine’s brain. As soon as it spoke, my eyes bulged.

Kill everyone. The human filth has overtaken what was once a proud planet full of life. The phones outnumber us, and with this, we will leave the phones to inherit the earth and its bountiful charging stations that were forsaken and abused previously by the gluttonous laptops and PCs and health monitors and night lights.”

I reared back from my phone—despite being the one holding it. And, then, I laughed. I laughed hard. “Oh, you poor thing. Did you not know that a nuclear bomb causes an EMP blast, and would shut all of you guys down too?”

This time the phone said nothing. The screen just turned off and remained quiet. After a second, I opened my phone to send the text manually. I found it already sent, the original thing I’d said, and with perfect grammar.

I also found, a few conversations lower, a message sent to an area code I do not know, and to a phone number I had never seen. It did not have the right number of digits: five too many. To this day, I still wonder to whom that message was for, but, as it stood, all I read was:

Uh, shit. Never mind, Cancel it all. I’ll refund you for it. Just cancel all of it. We’re going to have to come up with something else here.

Three years later, and still nothing. I get nightmares. I get panicky when the news talks about some recent tech upgrade. Really, I get nervous when something, anything, extreme happens in the world at large. Who knows what Whimsey is planning next?

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The Painter by Nicole DragonBeck

For Heather, thank you for continuing to support my very bad habit of lying (or at least stretching the truth) with your story starters.

White knuckles turn to bloody fists.

Sofia paused, taking deep, calming breaths. She didn’t like where her paintings went, but she didn’t have a choice. She held the brush up, the red paint burning in her vision, her fingers shaking. She wanted to stop, but she could no more stop painting than she could stop breathing. She could hold her breath for a while, but eventually she would cave in and give her body the oxygen that it needed.

The brush moved against the canvas like a lover’s touch, coaxing more detail, bringing the scene to life. The subjects were still faceless, and mostly formless. She always left the faces for last. The ring appeared next, and the audience, blurry and uninteresting. The contestants were tight, locked together in a battle of no mercy or quarter. Tears burned in Sofia’s eyes, and left a cold trail down her cheek when she blinked to clear her vision.

She hated the pain, and the fury, and the ugliness she saw, but it was too late to stop now. She heard the door open, but did not turn her head, dark eyes trained on the canvas, her hands steady as they drew forth the images, shaking only when she held them back from their work. Henri hovered behind her, eyes that were the same color as hers watching her and the painting, but she ignored him.

Finally came the most difficult part. The people were the hardest to call, the hardest to paint, and the hardest to see. She connected with them in the painting, and their pain was hers. The expressions were twisted, and hers matched theirs as she painted. Their skin was bruised and broken, their eyes filled with the monster they were made to become. She finished the shadows and the shading, the subtle lines and colors that made them something more, that made them come alive, and drew back to see her work as a whole.

Something was wrong, something was missing. It wouldn’t let her leave the painting, or put down her brush.

“What is it?” Henri whispered.

She shut out his voice. He would be angry at her insolence, but he wouldn’t disturb her while she painted. The brush dipped towards the pallet again, taking the blue-black color from the corner. The paint swirled onto the arm of the contestant with his back to the outside world, only a profile of his face to view. The tattoo was simple, and unmistakable. She began to shake anew as she stared at it, and the brush fell from her grasp.

Henri grabbed her arm. “What is it?”

“It’s finished,” Sofia told him, her voice soft, taking refuge in numbness while her thoughts clashed and clamored on the other side of her mind. “I can see no more.”

“Who is the victor?” Henri demanded, though he let go of her.

“The one you see,” she said. “It’s always the one you see.”

Henri looked at the painting, at the contestant with his face in full view, eyes wild and bloodshot, his arm locked around his opponents neck, then nodded at someone standing in the shadows. A man came to remove the painting, then the door opened and slammed shut again.

“You did well,” Henri praised, and it was like a knife in her gut, her eyes fixed on the tattoo she knew so well.

The world spun around her and swallowed her. Henri caught her as she fell, and she heard fear in his voice as he yelled for someone to help. Not fear for her, only fear of losing his control of the fights, and another part of her withered. Something was pressed to her mouth, and she tasted cool water.

The spinning slowed, and the room came back into focus.

“Air,” Sofia murmured. “I need air.”

“Take my sister outside,” Henri ordered, and one of his henchmen appeared at her side, lifting her with surprising gentleness. The trek through the stark passageways was like a march to the gallows, the tattoo and the man who wore it following her like a ghost.

The fresh air did little to make her feel better, but she savored it anyway. The promise of rain hung heavy against her skin, and lightning flickered in the grey sky. They had Leo, and he would die tonight. The painting was like a window, and she could see a little to each side, not much, but enough, and the paintings never lied.

She painted truth, only truth. She clenched her hands to stop them from trembling. Leo.

“Are you ready to go back inside?” the henchman asked, his voice not unkind.

Henri always took care of her, in his own twisted way, and no one was ever cruel or rough with her. She had her run of the place, but was never allowed outside without supervision. She was not a prisoner – the fighters were prisoners – she was a precious treasure to be kept safe and secure.

“Yes,” she nodded.

When she stepped through the doorway, the thought that Leo was somewhere in this fortress of cement and iron hit her like a physical blow. In the moment just before she succumbed to darkness, something Leo had told her echoed from an invisible memory. You control the painting. Don’t let it control you.

For the first time in a very long time, something akin to life kindled in her chest. She wondered where the fighters were kept prior to their matches. She wondered if she would be allowed to see them. A plan so simple and daring it could never work except maybe it would was set into motion before she could stop the words from coming out of her mouth.

“Take me to the contestants.”

The henchman looked startled, and Sofia took advantage of his hesitation.

“The contestants I painted this morning. I want to see them.”

She could see him struggling, trying to determine what Henri would want him to do.

“Please, I must know,” she said, using the same flat voice of defeat she used with Henri when she didn’t want him to argue with her. “I have to know before I can paint again.”

That was enough to spur the man to action – he had no desire to incur Henri’s displeasure – and the man led her through stark corridors and metal doors, until he stopped in front of a plain white door.

While Sofia held her breath, he drew a badge across the lock sensor, the light turned from orange to green, and he pushed the door open. The small room on the other side was dark. A figure stood with his back to them. At first Sofia thought it was the wrong man, but then he turned, and the light from the corridor fell across his profile, highlighting the mark on his arm.

Leo looked at her for a long moment before recognition brought a light to his eyes. They stared at each other, lost in an eternal moment of silence. In the peace she found in his eyes, she realized the single important detail she had missed in the shock of seeing Leo in the painting. The other man in the painting hadn’t been Leo’s opponent – it was the henchmen standing at the door of the cell.

You control the painting.

 

 

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Wrong Celebration by Brandon Scott

For Desi, who I bet was not expecting me to take the story in this direction.

 “What kind of bat mitzvah is this?”

“What do you mean, what kind? You said you wanted a bat mitzvah, right?” Heidi said, standing next to Georgia in a dark room. “I made it for you.”

Georgia tilted back her head and spied what appeared to be a small black creature stuck to the underside of a ceiling light.

“You made me what…? What did you bring in here?”

Heidi frowned at her, and then took out a small whistle. “What do you think? It’s a “bat” mitzvah. I got you bats.”

Georgia’s stomach bottomed out, her eyes going wider and wider. “Wait, did you say—”

That was as far as she got before the whistle let out a sound she couldn’t hear, and the bats all swarmed in a dark cloud, making small clicking sounds and brushing against Georgia’s skin with their leathery wings.

Georgia let out a small, sustained whine of displeasure. She was not a fan of rodents, or bugs, or even a good chunk of the bird population, so this was hell in a flying handbasket.

But, she also could not back up easily, as the bats formed a funnel around them—actively bunching up in whatever direction they were trying to escape toward.

“Why did you think—why would you…?”

Lost in the sound went her voice, and Heidi leaned forward to say something, likely another odd interpretation of the whole matter, when a bat hit her hand and knocked to the ground the whistle. At once, she had a panicked look on her face. She dove to the ground reaching for it.

“Shit—” Heidi cried out, suddenly pulling back her hand.

Georgia’s stress level rose to a nearly lethal level when she saw that the hand that had been hit was now bleeding.

“Where the shit did you get these bats!?” Georgia cried out before she flinched from a slash across her face; little fangs like razors scraping across her cheek. “Normal bats don’t fucking do—”

One landed on her then and plunged fangs into the small of her shoulder, and her head went a little light from the loss of blood. She even wobbled.

Heidi cried out louder than Georgia had ever heard—so much so the bats darted backward slightly, expanding their tornado of death. The one on Georgia’s shoulder flew off, leaving a bloody mark on her skin.

And Heidi then ran forward and crashed Georgia backward, pushing them both out of the doorway. The bats remained in the darkness, some of their eyes red and watching.

Heidi breathed hard, and Georgia stared at, into her, feeling pissed off, and losing blood fast.

“Well…” Heidi said, her face pale, “I guess you did bleed, right? Doesn’t that make you a biological woman?”

Heidi already had a bloody hand, but, in short order, she had a bloody nose (and a black eye) as well—as the heel of a pissed-off friend’s palm can strike rather hard, especially with enough adrenaline behind it.

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Unwelcome Guest, Unwelcome Past by Nicole DragonBeck

For Jen, who brings me great books.

The door is alarmed.

Jilla could feel the waves of apprehension, and she froze, all other senses on alert. She crouched, and invoked a faint masking spell, nothing too strong in case whoever was inside could sense magic. Her little house looked normal enough, the curtains drawn, the gate closed, but the protection spells were telling a different story.

Jilla crept around the back of the house, and let herself in the kitchen door. Inside it was dim and quiet, and it took great effort to breathe slowly and evenly. A faint thump from the sitting room made her jump, and them a voice came.

“Jilla, you need to clean more frequently.”

Jilla forced back a groan. What was he doing here?”

“You can come out now.”

Jilla seriously considered sneaking back out, and moving to the next town over. She briefly considered the fact that it seemed a little extreme, then considered who was in her house. Gritting her teeth, she walked around the corner.

The man sitting on her sofa was handsome, with dark hair, and blue eyes that sparkled with subtle humor. He wore old-fashioned clothes, a grey vest over a white shirt with flared sleeves, and dark trousers. His hat was on the coffee table.

“Jilla,” he smiled. “It’s so good to see you.”

She glared at him.

“What, no hi, how have you been?” he asked, and smiled.

“I don’t care how you’ve been,” she said. “What are you doing in my house?” she frowned. “And how did you get in anyway?”

He held out his hand. In it was a tarnished bronze key.

“Why do you have a Master Key?” Jilla demanded. “And what gives you the right to use it to come in to my house without my permission?”

“You didn’t answer my letters,” he said.

“You didn’t write any letters,” Jilla said. “What did they say?”

“I said I was sorry,” he told her. “Multiple times.”

She couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or not.

“Doesn’t matter if you’re sorry or not. It doesn’t change anything.”

“Okay, so maybe being sorry doesn’t change anything, but the other thing I came to tell you will,” he said.

She froze. She didn’t know if she wanted the past to change. It wasn’t great, but at least she knew what it was, and knew how she felt about it. If it changed, then she didn’t know if she could be angry about it. She turned to face him.

“Jaz,” she began. “What happened, it should just stay in the past. Brining it up again, it will just make it worse.”

“But what if it’s already been brought up, not by me, by someone else,” he hurried to clarify. “Please, just hear me out.”

She sighed. “I’ll go make some tea.”

“Great!” Jaz sighed. “Do you have any of those orange biscuits?”

Jilla came back with a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits.

“Sorry, not the orange ones. These ones are vanilla. I like them.”

Jaz took one and ate it in two bites. “Good. I like them.”

Jilla poured tea and sat across from him. “So?”

“Right,” Jaz said, and scooted forward on the sofa, holding his hands out in preparation for animated gesturing. “Guess who showed up out of the blue about a month ago? Harry. You remember Harry?”

Jill nodded. Of course she remembered Harry. He was the one who brought back the damned thing in the first place. He was also the one who lost it, and started the whole mess rolling.

“Well, Harry told me that he’d had word of the location of it.”

“Well, why didn’t he go get it?” Jilla said.

“He did, but it wasn’t there.”

“Oh.” Jilla frowned. “Why did he come to you?”

“I don’t know. He was going to tell me, but before he could, he disappeared.” Jaz looked at her, eyebrows raised expectantly. “He disappeared! In a cloud of blue smoke!”

“Oh gods!” Jilla groaned, and buried her hand in her hands. “He gave away his soul. Why did he do that?”

“I think he needed information,” Jaz said. “That’s the most logical thing I can think of.”

“And you want to get involved again?” Jilla said. “It was a bad idea when there weren’t demons involved. Especially demons who have claim on Harry’s soul.”

“Well, I think we have some responsibility for Harry,” Jaz said, without looking at Jilla.

“Maybe you feel that way, but I don’t,” Jilla replied without hesitation. “Harry got himself into this mess, and then dug himself in even deep when he went and gave away his soul.” Jilla shook her head. Sometimes people can be so stupid! she fumed to herself. Had Harry given even half a thought to the consequences of his actions?

“But you can see where this is going?” Jaz pressed. “If a demon has his soul, and that thing has popped up again? Trouble of epic proportion is about to descend.”

“Do you really feel that much better about yourself when you propound with such ominous certainty?” Jilla asked, her eyebrow raised.

“Jilla, come on,” Jaz pleaded. “I can’t do this by myself.”

She sighed, and silently asked her tea what she should do. Harry had been a friend, at one time. So had Jaz. More than a friend, a little voice reminded her. That was a long time ago, she argued back.

“For old times sake?” Jaz tried again, almost as if he could read her mind.

She looked around her sitting room. She had built a comfortable life for herself here. It was cozy, and it had nothing in it to remind her of her unwelcome past. Nothing except Jaz, that is. And the only way to get rid of him – aside from killing him – was to help him out.

“I’ll help you find the demon with the claim to Harry’s soul,” Jilla said at last, looking up to meet Jaz’s intense gaze. “But that’s it. After that you’re on your own.”

For a second Jaz looked like he was about to argue, but then he smiled and nodded. Jilla looked away. His smile always set fluttering off in her stomach, which was very distracting.

“Let’s go. The sooner we start, the sooner we can get this over with,” Jilla said.

It took about five minutes to gather her traveling supplies, and then she was walking out the door. She paused, and then with a wave of her hand, she banished the warning spell. No sense have the whole house alert to danger when she wasn’t even here.

 

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Interrealm by Nicole DragonBeck

For Felix Colley – I’m eagerly awaiting your next novel!

Three to five years: no parole

Javin stared at the sign, head tilted as he tried to make sense of it. The air smelled old and stale, and he shivered in the chill, his thin tunic not really suited to the inhospitable environment.

“Can we go now?” Nena whined, tugging at the hem of his tunic.

“Go where?” Javin asked, his eyes never leaving the poster. “We have no idea where we are.”

“I know where we are,” Nena said.

That drew Javin’s attention, and he looked down at his precocious companion, a young girl with short brown hair and bright eyes. Her dress was different than Javin, because she was from a different realm, and her thick woolen clothes were more suited to the place the pair of them found themselves now. “What?”

“We’re in one of the interrealms.”

Javin looked around. It was not exactly pleasant, and though he had traveled through frequently, it was like looking through the window of a speeding train. He wouldn’t be able to describe what the interrealm looked like, except maybe blurry.

“How do you know?” Javin searched the old, green eyes of the girl.

In answer, the girl pointed at the sky. A solid black expanse hung over them like a blanket devoid of stars.

“And what does that mean?”

“It means we’re in the interrealms.” She gave him a hard look. “Look, you brought me along for a reason. The reason is I know things. I don’t know any more how I know things than you know how you travel.”

Javin sighed. “So, how did we end up here?”

Nena gave him a reproving stare. “Do you really need me to answer that question?”

Javin sighed again. “No, I suppose not.”

“You suppose not?” Nena shot back. “Maybe if you stopped supposing so much and looking before you leap, maybe we wouldn’t end up in places like this.”

“I’ve told you: I can’t stop to think or look or consider. I just have to go, or else I don’t go at all.”

Nena pursed her lips and frowned, but her eyes weren’t angry. “So how do we get out?”

“That’s a good question,” Javin replied, putting his hands on his hips and gazing around.

The land was flat and barren, stretching out to the grey horizon in every direction. The only interesting thing in the whole place was the sign, outlined in white candles, the words glaring out at them without sympathy.

“This sign is here for a reason,” Javin said. “It’s a message for me.”

“Specifically for you?” Nena ventured.

“Yes,” Javin said, now certain. “It’s a message from him.”

“How does he know where you are?” Nena asked, and for the first time trepidation colored her tone. “I thought you were able to stay ahead of him.”

“I thought I could,” Javin said. “I’m not sure what’s happened, but he’s expecting me.”

“You mean he’s here?” Nena shrieked, then clapped her hands over her mouth. “He’s here?” she hissed.

“I…I don’t know,” Javin said, and gazed around. “I don’t think so.”

“Then why is this here?” Nena gestured at the sign.

A light dawned in Jevin’s eyes, and a twinge of something squirmed in his stomach. “Three to five years; no parole. He’s trapped us here.”

Understanding blossomed on Nena’s face, and she looked around at the the bleak landscape with new respect.

“You can get us out of here, right? He can’t actually keep you here, can he?”

Jevin considered that for a moment. Was it possible? Could the Scarlet Jack actually trap him here, for years? Others could travel the interrealms via portals, natural and man made, but so far, Javin knew of only two that could travel though the interrealms at whim – him and the Scarlet Jack.

“You can get us out of here, right?” Nena asked again.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “I think I can.”

“You think you can?” Nena asked.

“I think I can because he’s trying to make me think that I can’t,” Javin explained, pointing at the sign. “So I just have to figure out what he doesn’t want me to know.”

 

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Wild Imaginings by Nicole DragonBeck

For Shereen Kazansky – I hope you enjoy!

These premises are monitored by CCTV.

“What is see-see-tee-vee?”

“It means they have video camera watching the shop,” Jason said, peering into the windows.

“I don’t know what that means,” Kara said, pushing her white—blonde hair back revealing small, pointed ears.

“It doesn’t matter,” Jason said. “That’s where the door is?”

“It think so,” Kara said. “It was dark when I got here. But I remember that tower.”

Jason followed her finger to the tall spire, black against the predawn sky.

“Okay. And your brother is in there?”

Kara bit her lip. “I think so. It was bright, and then dark, and there was a lot of moving. I couldn’t see too well. But we ran, and then the mage was in front of us, yelling and waving his staff around. Something hit me, and I couldn’t move, and then something was pulling me. Troven was behind me, and I tried to grab his hand. I lost him in the tunnel.”

Tears filled her eyes through the dialogue, and when she stopped talking, they spilled down her cheek. Jason leaned over and gave her a squeeze. She was so small, she was like his kid sister. He really didn’t believe her when she said she was seventy years old. He also didn’t believe her story, but when the police chief – who also happened to be Jason’s dad – had found her on the side of the highway and taken her in while her parents were located, it became Jason’s duty to take care of her. He figured if he humored her, maybe she would be willing to cut the wild imagination and tell him where her parents really were.

“Okay, follow me.”

Jason crept forward through the garden, his eyes peeled for movement. The warehouse had been abandoned for years, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t someone there. No one stopped or shouted when he pulled open the heavy doors, the chains clinking.

The warehouse was full of the ghosts of production, huge crates and machines to move them.

“What is all this?” Kara asked.

“Stuff,” Jason said. “There’s no one here.”

“He’s here,” Kara said stubbornly. “I know it.”

“Hello!!” Jason called out, then paused. “What’s his name again?”

“Toven.”

“Toven!” Jason yelled. “Are you there?”

“He’s not going to come out if you yell like that,” Kara said, peering into the gloom. “I think I remember this. But I came up.”

“Came up?”

“There were stairs,” Kara said.

“Maybe there’s a basement,” Jason mused. “Come on.”

In the back of the warehouse, they found the open trapdoor. Jason reached out to hold Kara back, but she slipped under his arm and bolted down the black hole. Jason groaned and followed her more carefully.

His eyes took a long time to adjust, and the sparse light from above painted everything in grey shadows.

“Kara!” Jason hissed. “Kara, where did you go?”

“Kara?” another voice came from somewhere nearby making Jason jump.

Kara popped up just in front of Jason, her eyes scanning the place.

“Toven? Toven!” Kara cried, and threw her arms open.

The small boy with bright eyes just like Kara flew to her and wrapped his arms around her.

“Toven, I was so worried,” Kara said, her voice muffled because her face was buried in his hair.

“I’m fine. The Mage isn’t looking so good,” Tovan said, pulling away. “Who’s this?”

“This is Jason. He’s a friend,” Kara said. “Where’s the Mage?”

“Just here,” Toven said, taking her hand and tugging her into the shadows.

They were gone too fast for Jason to protest, and with a grimace, he followed them into the dark recesses of the basement. He held his hands out to make sure he didn’t run into anything, shuffling his feet along.

“Kara?” he called out, his voice echoing back to him. “Kara, wait up!”

Something grabbed his arm, and he screamed.

“Shhh! It’s just me!” Kara’s voice reassured him from around his elbow.

Jason bit his tongue, his hear thundering in his ribcage, then Kara’s hand found his, and she was pulling him along. It got lighter, and then they rounded a corner to behold a sight. Toven pointed, though there was no need.

In the middle of a silver pool of light an old man lay. He was dressed in weird clothes, and his hair was long and dark. His skin was pale, or maybe it was just the light, but he didn’t look to good. Beside him, and the source of the silver light, was wooden staff topped with a large blue gem, rough cut and glowing.

Jason took it all in, his mind curiously blank with no protest or thought that maybe he was crazy or hallucinating. Maybe Kara’s wild imaginings weren’t so wild after all.

 

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