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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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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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Magic Mirror Part 4 by Nicole DragonBeck

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

The mug never empties; the thirst never ends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Thank you,” Gehlen nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re Despin?” Gehlen said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What you need is a Master of Mirrors.”

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

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

“Which is?”

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

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

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

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

“You already have.”

 

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The Meeting by Nicole DragonBeck

For Sara 🙂

I no speak English..

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

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

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

“I no speak English.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mara.”

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

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

 

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Inspiration by Nicole DragonBeck

For Zhenya, one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life 🙂

I was sitting there looking at the best person I’ve ever met in my life.

Well, not exactly the best person, but it was the best person I could hope for right now. As I had the guards on my tail, and I had no way to get rid of the ruby necklace.

Harry looked down at the last line, mussed his already wild brown hair, and sighed. Setting his pen down, he took the piece of parchment and balled it up, tossing it over his shoulder in disgust.

This story is going nowhere, he thought miserably. How am I going to get my hero out of this one? He glanced around at the lumps of discarded paper littering his study. Preferably without spending a fortune I don’t have on reams of parchment.

He read back over the previous pages, pages he was tentatively considering not crumpling up and putting in the fire. Nathanial Dumond, the disgraced Duke of Northland, had gotten himself into a bit of a conundrum with a horde of goblins and some stolen goods in the third or fourth chapter of Harry’s latest attempt at a novel, and now Harry had no idea how to get Nathanial to the ship that was supposedly waiting for him at the port city of Albahedron, just over that mountain ridge with no name.

“If only there was some way…” Harry muttered to the empty room, rubbing his eyes. “Some way I could just make it all work out…”

“What if I told you there was?” a voice chirped right next to him.

Harry gave a startled yell and fell off his chair. Looking up from where he was now lying on the floor, he saw a small creature perched on the edge of his desk, feet dangling over the side. It was a muddy red color and had small, sharp horns, on which rested a glowing gold halo. Fluffy white wings protruded from its shoulders and it twirled something that looked like a trident in its hands. It smiled down at Harry, revealing sharp teeth.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” the thing told him.

Harry pushed himself off the floor and brushed the indignity from his clothes. “Yeah, that’s alright,” he said, trying to look anywhere else but at the creature. “What are you doing in my study?”

The creature gave a delighted beam. “Why, I heard your call for inspiration, and…” the creature spread its arms wide, “here I am!”

“What do you mean?” Harry asked, hoping he looked polite and not horrified.

The creature frowned and it became a lot less friendly. “What, you didn’t think inspiration just came from the gentle thought of a benevolent god, or the silver ringing of magic bells, did you? Or maybe a cup of particularly fine coffee, is that it?” it said with a faint sneer. “Well, it’s not that easy, I can tell you.”

“You’ve, um, had lots of experience with it then?” Harry replied, pulling his chair upright and sitting down.

He noticed the creature was sitting on one of the pages of his story.

“Lots?” the creature barked. “It’s all I do all day, cater to whingeing, whining, pathetic…” it stopped suddenly, collected itself, and forced a smile back onto its face. “But that’s really beside the point.”

“And what is the point?” Harry wasn’t sure of the wisdom of asking this question, but he couldn’t see anything else that he could do.

“The point is, you called for help, and I came,” the creature smiled. “Now let’s see, what are you writing here?”

It looked down, and pulled the disorganized sheaf of papers from under its bottom. It read for a bit, then turned the papers the right way up with an apologetic smile. “Styles differ, you know, and I thought perhaps it was a new way of expressing yourself, with no apparent grammatical structure. I’ve seen worse.”

“Oh, well, that’s good, I suppose,” Harry said, watching the little imp read the words he had attempted to wrench from his heart and soul, the intangible ideas he had tried to give corporeal form to with ink and paper. And blood and sweat and tears, lots of tears, Harry thought, his mind started to wander just a bit, as was not unusual. A sharp cough brought him back into the real world.

“It’s got potential,” the creature announced.

“Really? You think so?” Harry said, greatly cheered.

“No, that just what I have to tell you all, or I would be out of a job,” the creature sighed. “But it’s not horrible. I didn’t want to scratch my eyeballs out and set my head on fire when I was reading it.”

“Do you feel that way often?” Harry asked, trying to be sympathetic.

“Of course. Every time I set my head on fire after reading some particularly bad piece of…” the thing nodded and waved its hand inarticulately at the instruments of Harry’s work.

“Oh,” Harry nodded, and carefully extracted the complimentary aspects out of the creatures words, namely that its head was not on fire at the moment. “So, um, what are you here for exactly?”

The creature huffed impatiently. “I think that should be rather obvious, really. Intervention! Incentive! Inspiration!” It didn’t seem impressed with Harry’s blank look. “I’m here to help you finish your story!”

“Oh!” Harry’s expression morphed into something like hope. “Really?”

“No, I’m a figment of your imagination,” the imp said with a scowl. “Yes, really.”

“Excellent!” Harry said, and then thought of the million caveats that would most definitely come with something appearing on his desk with this offer. “What’s the catch?”

“You mean what is the price for the service?” the imp sniffed. “Well, we have several different options we are able to provide our clients…”

It whipped out a black ledger and shoved some brochures at Harry. Harry looked down at them, and saw pictures of people showing off stacks of books, people rolling in gold, people writing with beatific faces in exotic locations with cocktails and gorgeous sunsets. He looked at the prices and paled.

“Do you have anything, um, cheaper?” he asked.

“Why?” the creature demanded.

“Well, these are a bit out of my budget,” Harry explained.

The imp peered at him with unveiled contempt, then snatched back the promotion. “Well, we have our starter package, but I can tell you, everyone who has tried it would recommend going for the higher-end options.”

“I think I’ll start with the starter,” Harry said. “What’s the price on that?”

“One hundred gold pieces,” the imp answered promptly.

“One hundred!” Harry gasped.

“Or,” it continued as if Harry had not spoken, “your soul for two years.”

Harry blinked. “That’s a bit…”

“A bit what?”

“Steep,” Harry said softly. “I sort of…need my…soul.”

“It’s just a lease,” the creature said. “We give it back when the contract is up. Besides, how do you know you need your soul? How do you know life isn’t better without it?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s fairly common knowledge,” Harry said, but the creature just stared at him, unimpressed.

Harry vacillated, acutely aware of the imp squinting at him with beady eyes. Harry looked down at the papers filled with his frantic handwriting now scattered even more haphazardly across his desk, and recalled the happy writer in the picture, showing off the dozen books with his name on them. He looked around his dingy, messy office, and thought of the serene writer on the beach with the brightly colored cocktail in hand. Then he thought of the writer lying on the mountain of gold.

“You know, I rather think my soul is worth more than fifty gold pieces a year,” he found himself saying.

“That’s what they all think,” the imp rolled its eyes. “Inflation and all that. Fine. I can cut you a deal. One year.”

“A month,” Harry said. “My soul is in mint condition.”

“Six months, final offer,” the creature countered.

“Okay,” Harry nodded.

“Sign here please.”

“Can I read it first?”

The creature stared at him in shock, then handed over the contract. Harry read it through carefully, his finger following the line of tiny legalese. It looked straightforward enough, one measure of inspiration to finish the novel, in exchange for one soul for the time of sixth months, at which point it would be returned, in a condition not unlike it had been deposited, etc., etc.

“Satisfied?” the creature gazed at him over crossed arms.

“What’s your refund policy?” Harry inquired.

The creature gave him an impatient look, which made Harry wilt. He took the pen it handed him and signed his name in shining red ink on the bottom of the contract. The creature snatched it back, rolled it up, and stuck it in the black ledger. Then it stood up, making ready to leave.

“Wait! What about the…” Harry indicated the papers splayed out on his desk.

“Right.” The creature looked at its trident with shining eyes, then leaped at Harry and stabbed him with it.

“Ow!” Harry shrieked, the sight of blood on his arm worse than the slight sting of pain. “What was tha…”

His vision was going blurry, and his body felt heavy.

“Sweet dreams,” he heard someone say from a long way off.

Then all was black.

When Harry opened his eyes again, he did not know where he was. It looked like he was in the mountains, but the nearest mountains from where he lived was two weeks’ travel north. In fact, Harry had never seen a mountain in his whole life. They were nothing like he imagined, much harder and stonier.

He groaned as he sat up and realized he was not alone. He also realized his hands were tied. Someone was watching him, hunched close to the ground, a sword lying across his knees. The person looked familiar, the piecing blue eyes and the dark hair, fine features, and the scar that ran down his cheek.

Nathanial Dumond, the disgraced Duke of Northland!

The person started. “How do you know my name?”

Harry didn’t realize he had spoken aloud. He opened his mouth to answer, then thought better of it.

“Where am I?” he asked instead, struggling against his bonds.

“More importantly, how did you get here?” the Duke asked.

“I don’t know,” Harry admitted, giving up on the rope. “One moment I was in my study, the next, I woke up here.”

The Duke studied him for a long moment, then nodded. With a brisk motion, Nathanial stood and advanced on Harry, sword out. Harry closed his eyes, heart beating frantically, but the blade only cut through the bindings on his wrists. Harry sighed and opened his eyes. A horn blew, somewhere in the trees, and the Duke looked up that way, his face tense.

“Those would be the goblins,” Harry moaned to himself. Why oh why did I think stacking the odds so badly against him was a good idea?

“Those would be the goblins,” the Duke agreed. “And this is where we part ways.” He hefted a sack, which Harry knew contained some very old and powerful objects – objects which, Harry realized, the Duke had no idea what they were capable of – and began to make his way down the mountain. He rounded a boulder and disappeared from view, leaving Harry by himself on the mountainside.

This can’t be happening, Harry tried to convince himself. I must be dreaming.

Sweet dreams, the echo of an impish voice told him. Harry pinched his arm, hard enough to bruise, and gave a wounded yelp, though he had no one else to blame but himself for the pain. He definitely wasn’t dreaming. This was happening.

“How is this supposed to be inspirational?” he yelled at the sky. “I’m not going to be able to finish my novel if I die out here!”

The horn sounded, louder and closer this time. All of the sudden, Harry was rather less worried about Nathanial Dumond, the disgraced Duke of Northland, and more interested in how he was going to get himself out of this mess.

 

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And Then There Was One by Nicole Dragonbeck

For Desi, thank you for getting the flow going!

Forever 21 can kiss my ass.

Jane looked at her sweet, unlined face, which did not look over a hundred years old, and sighed. It had been exactly 97 years, four months, and three days since Jane, Katrina, Marianne, and Erica had concocted that potion and together, on the count of three, downed their smoking goblets. Contrary to popular opinion, immortality was not all it was cracked up to be. At times, it was better than others.

Jane tugged at the tight waistband and looked down at what she was wearing for the dozenth time. Fashions changed every two or three years, and though Jane had seen a lot, some things she still had trouble believing. Whoever had designed this had been drunk, high, or severely visually impaired and had forgotten to put on their glasses.

Marianne had been the first to give in to the madness of everlasting life. She had always been a romantic, and envisioned a white wedding, a blissful honeymoon, and a long life with many children, more grandchildren, and dying together when their hair was white and their mouths were more dentures than teeth.

After she had to leave Robert, she was miserable for a couple years, then she met Henry. That lasted for seventeen years, then she had to let him go when the grey started coming into his beard. After this, there were three more, but they were briefer, and her heart was no longer in it. Marianne had disappeared about twenty years ago, and though no one wanted to say it, everyone thought the same thing.

Jane put on the makeup with the quick proficiency of someone who had done an action so many times she no longer had to think, she just did. Her eyes were a delicate shade of brown with honey highlights. The green eyeshadow brought out similar shades in her eyes.

Next was Erica. After three decades, the adventurous, thrill-seeking, adrenaline junkie woman had done everything that could be humanly done three times over, from wing walking, to storm chasing, to shark diving in South Africa, climbing to the peak of Mount Everest, and racing motorcycles on the Dragon’s Tail. Then she ran out of things to excite her. Her eventual demise did not require guesses or suppositions like Marianne’s – what else was to be expected when you jumped off the top of a condemned building in the process of imploding?

Jane put on the jacket, made sure her keys and lip balm were in her purse, and let herself out of the apartment. A silver sports car sat in her parking space. The blue license plate proclaimed it an antique. Jane smiled as she got in, savoring the feel of the leather. She grew attached to things, and had difficulty letting them go, which was why she spent so much money keeping this thing going.

Katrina had gone only two years ago. For her, it had been her friends that had prompted the regret for their rash, unthinking decision to drink the potion that would give everlasting life. With only Jane left after Marianne and Erica had gone, Katrina became afraid that soon there would be no one, that she would be left on her own with no one to talk to, no one who understood what her life was truly like.

She had been working on the counter potion for a while, and when she hadn’t shown up for their usual tea date on Sunday afternoon, something told Jane that Katrina had found the potion. Katrina had been found in her bed, and they told Jane she had died peacefully in her sleep. The fact that she looked like a woman of one hundred and ten, and not the young woman in her mid-twenties was a mystery medicine and science were still trying to figure out.

Jane was the last one left. She was still hanging on, determined to continue on with her very, very, very long life. It was her game, she was the one living her life, her life was not living her. It was hard sometimes, especially when she thought of Katrina, Marianne, and Erica, or when she tried to act normally with the people around her, but they and their concerns seemed so petty and shallow. She managed, mostly.

Putting the key in the ignition, Jane paused before starting the car. Her eyes went to the shiny brochures and promotions on the passenger seat. Just now she was on her way to apply to another college, where the teachers would try to help her to find her way, find herself, if you will, find what she wanted to do with this life, with no inkling that that the sweet, naive young woman in front of them had lived many lives in that time.

Jane remembered the last time she had gone to do this; it had been the four of them together. Tears pricked her eyes, but she blinked them away. It was going to be okay. She started the car and backed out of the parking spot.

 

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