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Unraveling by Nicole DragonBeck

For my mom, love, DragonBeck

 I opened the door and couldn’t believe my eyes. 

Standing on the doorstep was Glenson. He was a medium built man, half an inch taller than I, with dark hair and blue eyes. The only problem was that Glenson had died two days ago. I’d seen it with my own eyes, the blood, the death rattle, and the burning of the body. And yet…

“What are you doing here?” I asked, too stunned to stop him as he brushed passed into my house and marched through to the study.

“Not much time, not much time,” he muttered, beginning to rifle though my effects, pulling things out of drawers and off bookshelves, glancing at them briefly and tossing them aside.

Some of the things were quite valuable, and others quite old and delicate, but his jitters were getting on my nerves, and I had little attention for that. And all this about not much time…that didn’t bode well. That didn’t bode well at all.

“Glenson, tell me what’s going on,” I demanded. “You…you died!”

That made him pause. “Oh, did I?” he wondered in an absent voice. “Yes, I suppose I did.”

“So what are you doing here?” It was taking all my will-power not to scream. “This is not part of the plan! What is happening in the Underealm? Where are the others? What about the Homestones?”

For the first time, Glenson turned to look at me. His eyes were different, the eyes of a man who had seen things he would never forget, things that got stuck inside the head and changed the way one thought about things. I didn’t want to know what those things were, but with him standing in front of me, I didn’t really have a choice.

“What about the Homestones, Glenson?” I demanded.

“They weren’t there,” his voice was heavy. “Someone moved them.”

“They were stolen!” I said, my heart leaping to my throat.

“No,” Glenson was shaking his head. “Much worse. They were moved.”

I tried to wrap my mind around what he was saying. “What does that mean?”

“It means the whole world is in danger,” Glenson said. “If the Homestones have been moved to other locations…”

“Then the fabric of the universe is no longer held in place,” I whispered, the full scope of our problem becoming clear to me. “Are there…” I could barely bring myself to say it, “…unravelings?”

Glenson rolled his eyes and gestured to himself. I felt like slapping myself. Of course. People coming back from the dead would be one of the first, and indeed, milder things that would be expected to happen.

“Alright, so what do we do?” I asked. “What are you looking for?”

“I don’t rightly know,” Glenson said, turning back to my study and continuing his dismembering of it. “I think…yes, I think we might have brought it back from one of our trips.”

Now I rolled my eyes at him. We had been on a thousand excursions and brought back many artifacts, some of which were in my study. Others were in the vaults at the University, and in others’ homes, and some of the most powerful pieces were held in secret places known only to a few.

“Aha!” Glenson exclaimed, holding something aloft.

It was a small carved piece, from some ancient society that was no longer with us, a man with two faces and no features, and four arms with no hands. I speculated it was from some board game, but Glenson was looking at it as though it were much more.

“What is that?” I asked, reaching out for it.

He snatched it back, cradling it in his hands, shaking his head. The strange light in his eyes flared up again, making me cold inside. I knew then that it might look like Glenson, but it was no longer completely my friend. I withdrew my hand and waited for him to explain.

“I cannot tell you accurately what it is like to travel the deep, dark rivers between here and the Underealm. The Ferrymen are silent, and their eyes…” he shuddered. “I was on my way to the Underealm when the Ferryman disappeared. The creature that replaced him was unthinkable, unimaginable, not seen above ground. It told me that the Homestones were gone, and that if I did not put them back, then everything goes poof.” His hands came together illustrating the world collapsing in on itself.

“How did you get out?” I wondered.

“I dove into the water,” he said, as if that were something similar to going out for tea. “And swam upstream.”

He smiled a haunted smile in response to the expression on my face. He was always so dedicated, so headstrong, so certain of what he was doing. I was suddenly struck by the thought that there was a reason Glenson had been the one to die that day, some strange cosmic logic too big for mortal minds to fully understand. I shook off the feeling.

“So what do we do with that?” I nodded at the figurine.

“I don’t know,” Glenson said, turning it over and over in his hands. “I think we have to find them all, and put them together, and then something will happen.”

There was that cosmic logic, I thought, but what else did we have to go on?

“I’ll get the others,” I said, making to grab my coat and my bag.

Glenson shook his head. “No. There can only be two. You, from the Upperland, and me, from Underealm. Perfect balance.” He smiled sadly. “We are the last Homestone, holding the world together and apart.”

The responsibility hung heavily in my chest, and I didn’t like it one bit. It made me feel very alone and inexplicably doomed because of Fate’s terrible sense of irony. I imagined the ground tipping under me, sending everything into chaos and darkness.

“Let’s get this over with,” I told Glenson. “I’d like the world to go on for a little while longer.”

 

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Mystery Man by Nicole DragonBeck

Searching the corners of her mind, she could not shake the feeling that she knew this mysterious stranger.

Or perhaps Clara’s mind was playing tricks on her, trying to come up with a way to entertain her so she made it through this agony of boredom with some of her sanity intact.

Her father, Lord of Westin, was an important figure in the court, and as such, his family was obligated to attend such functions as this ball. With lavish decoration and scrumptious food, it could have been Clara Westin was simply a jaded, over-privileged young woman who had never known anything but her ostentatious life.

But if one could look past the disdainful eyes into the thoughts behind them, one might see a keen sense of balance of right and wrong, and an astute shrewdness that belied the smooth skin and rosy cheeks of youth.

Clara tried to figure out what it was about the man without staring outright at him. It took some study, but she finally decided it was something in the pleasing yet serious lines of his face, and the way his eyes watched the whole room, somehow seeing more than what was simply there. I do know this man, perhaps from somewhere long ago, but I know him.

It was disconcerting, knowing and not knowing at once. It bothered her, which irritated her. She was the daughter of a Lord, and she was above standing here being tormented by it.

As Clara made her way across the crowded foyer of the wealthy patronage of some artist who had their latest masterpiece on show, the man turned and disappeared. Clara walked through the rooms of the ostentatious home, trying to find him, but he was well and truly gone.

He may have been gone, but his face would not leave her mind. It turned up in her dreams. She thought she saw him in other men, but when she looked again, it had changed to less appealing countenances. She doodled his face on pieces of parchment and in the fog on the mirror after a hot bath.

And then he reappeared in the most unexpected way. Clara was browsing through the library and found a tome so old the pages were made of brown cotton instead of parchment, and the binding was frayed. Intrigued by the ancient runes of the title, which she could not quite make out, but thought they looked familiar, Clara pulled it out and went to sit by the window. The pages were heavy and resisted her wish that they turn. In thick ink made in the days when days things were made to last for ages, family names, details, and portraits filled the pages.

Clara was lost in the history of the realms of Westin and Hortford and Bellmast and Slatemore on the Sea, her eyes moving over the events written in the dry wordage of bookish historians and the precisely depicted faces in the pictures, until she had gone back through a ten of thousands of years and reached the Time of Flame and Frost, the earliest of the known histories, and then he was there.

She blinked and forgot how to breathe. Peering closer, she looked twice and then again, to ascertain she was seeing what she thought she was seeing. The same intense eyes, the same chiseled face, looked back at her from the ancient page. It was him.

Clara read the facts of this picture, still holding her breath, and somehow not noticing that the ancient semantics and inflection that made the language almost unrecognizable in the present did not hinder her in the least. His family name was Ir’Morgon. They owned estates up in the flatlands beneath the Hedran Mountains before they were carved up into the lands of Hortford and Bellmast. After assimilating all the dry information which told Clara precisely nothing, she turned her eyes back to what must be a family portrait.

An older man with a beard and the same eyes as the mystery man and a woman with grey curls and crows feet at her eyes sat in the middle. Two younger women with features like the older woman stood to the left, and each had a man beside them, hands clasped between them, obviously husbands.

On the right was the mystery man. Clara spent many long moments memorizing every line before she noticed there was one more in the picture.

Standing slightly behind the man, with her chin on his shoulder and her arms around him was a woman with wide eyes and dimple in her chin from her mysterious smile.

Clara stared at the woman who had her face and let out the breath she was holding.

 

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The Traveler and the Searcher by Nicole DragonBeck

For Ayla S.

I knew it was coming, but every winter when the humans leave and the wolves come, I hope this year will be different.

This year it got worse, just as the giant, staring eye in her dreams had told Sabra it would, in so many horrible, silent pictures with no color and stark lines. She sat on the benched, pressed between the enormous bulk of Mother Hansom, and Josie, who was four years older than Sabra, but an orphan and under the care of Mother Hansom, just like Sabra. For a moment, Sabra wondered if Josie saw the eye in her dreams. She looked at the other girl’s face, and knew she did not. Josie had not known any of this was going to happen.

“We’re not going to make it,” Old Benston said. “Not this year.”

The whole clan was gathered in the tight, smoky meeting hall. The fires were choked and smoldering to preserve the little remaining wood. Sabra looked around at the gaunt and worried faces. A stirring in the back drew eyes. Several people stood up, faces now angry. Because Sabra was twelve, she had to stand up in her seat to see, and only when the man came closer could she tell who he was.

He was tall and dark. His face was covered by a black beard, and what was left free of hair was covered with pale scars. His eyes were blue and piercing. In his left hand, he carried a staff made of sliver-green wood. The wood ended in a cunningly carved claw, which held a golden orb.

Sabra was transfixed. It looks like the sun in summer time, she thought. Not the pale circle that passed for a sun in the depths of winter.

“You have no leave to be here!” Old Benston’s voice thundered through the hall.

Old Benston was old, but in his prime, he had been the strongest fighter and best hunter. Now in his elder years, his brawn still showed. Next to the other man, though, he appeared frail and bent.

“You have no power to command me.” The man’s voice was soft, yet compelling, and everyone quailed when they heard it. “Only the gods and the seasons can do that.”

“What do you want?” someone called from the gathering.

The man’s eyes swept over the assembled people. “I have come for the Searcher.”

“There is no one here who has shown the promise,” Old Benston declared, but there was a tremble in his voice.

“Let me be the judge of that,” the man replied in the same calm, certain tone.

His eyes passed from face to face, and over Sabra’s. He caught her gaze for half a second, and in that time, her heart sped up and a warmth grew in her stomach. Then his eyes moved on, and Sabra was left empty. A shadow fell over her, and she looked up. This close, the man was much taller than she had at first thought, and his eyes were brighter.

“What is your name, child?” he asked.

“Sabra,” she told him.

“And where are your parents?”

“They were taken by the winter,” she said. “Four years ago.”

He nodded, his face full of compassion. “And what of the dreams?”

Sabra paled. How could he see into her mind like that? “I don’t know,” she whispered.

“Have you dreamed of me yet?” he pressed.

Sabra looked closer, examining the lines of his face, the way his left eye squinted when he wanted something, the strong muscles flexing in his arms, and the scars that covered his body, as if an army of thorny creatures with tiny blades had attacked him. He wore no shoes.

She shook her head. “I have never seen you before.”

He signed, gave a single nod, and turned away. Her eyes widened. Sewn into the back of his cloak was the giant eye, white and ominous, taking in the whole of the world with an unblinking gaze. He turned at her inarticulate moan, his eyes questioning.

“The eye,” she mumbled, pointing with a shaking hand. “On your cloak.”

He looked over his shoulder, then turned fully so his back was once again visible. The eye was gone. Sabra frowned, suddenly confused. Had she imagined it? Was she dreaming while awake now?

“There was an eye,” she explained. He waited in serene silence for further clarification. Sabra looked up met his gaze. “The eye that shows me the things that have not yet happened in my dreams.”

His eyes lit up and his elated expression made him more handsome and less frightening. “I knew I would find you here!” he cried.

“How?” Sabra wondered.

“The eye told me,” he answered simply.

“What does that mean?” she asked, though she had no doubt as to the truth of his words.

“You must come with me,” he said and held out his free hand. The glowing ball upon his staff grew more luminous. “To the Land of Eternal Summer.”

Sabra swallowed. “I thought that was just a dream.”

He shook his head. “I have been there, once before, many, many winters ago. But I cannot return.”

“Why not?”

“I am the Traveler.” He smiled. “Only the Searcher can find the way back to the Eternal Summer.”

Sabra took his hand, and the light on his staff exploded, enveloping them in warm brightness, bleaching the details of their surroundings, the shock on Mother Hansom’s face, Josie’s scared expression, the bulk of Old Benston beside the fire slowly fading until there was nothing but light.

Then the light was gone and they were outside, on a low hill. The village was nowhere in sight. Only a few twiggy trees broke the icy flatness of the land. Overhead, a single black crow flapped away, leaving behind a harsh warning croak.

“How did you do that?” the young girl asked.

“I am the Traveler,” he answered with a shrug. “It is easy as breathing for me, and I do not know who I do that any more than I know how my heart beats.”

“Where are we?” Sabra said, gooseflesh rising on her arms.

The Traveler handed her a cloak like his. It was thin, worn, the patchwork of colors almost indistinguishable from one another. Sabra did not believe it would be able to hold off the cold, but when she put it over her shoulders, she could no longer feel the chill.

“Beyond the borders of the Westland,” he told her. “That way…” he pointed with his staff, “is the city-state of Doheedron, and that way,” he pointed in the opposite direction, “Is the realm of Jarmander.”

“And there?” Sabra pointed ahead of them, where great mountains rose up.

“That is the Stria, the end of the world,” the Traveler told her. “Beyond that, I cannot say.”

“Have you been that far?” Sabra looked at him with wide eyes.

“I have stood atop the highest peak and seen the horizons of all the realms of this world,” he said. “But no matter how I have tried, I cannot pass beyond the boundaries.”

“So the land of Endless Summer is somewhere beyond the end of the world?” Sabra reasoned.

“What will we do?”

“Once we have found a way there, we will come back and bring all the people to the land of Eternal Summer,” the Traveler told her. “Now, which way do we go from here?”

Sabra gazed around. The horizon beyond the mountains called to her, and she started in that direction with confident steps, the smell of warm grass and the drone of lazy insects pulling her onward. Eternal Summer awaited, the eye promised her, and for the first time, Sabra was not alarmed by the picture it showed her.

 

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The Scheme of Worlds by Nicole Dragonbeck

For Sasha Player

If you are reading this, I am sorry to say that I am not around anymore.

Lucy Westborn looked at the first line of the note, scrawled in a child’s hand, her mind failing to comprehend what this meant. Just a moment ago, she had walked through the row of adjoining bedrooms on the third floor of the Bradley Manor to look in on the Lord’s six sons one last time before she retired herself.

Henry, John, and Samuel were already asleep. Thomas stirred slightly, rolled over, and nestled back into the covers. William was sitting up, waiting to be tucked in.

“I heard a strange noise the other night,” he said. “Brandon said there was a ghost.”

“There are no ghosts in the house,” Lucy assured him. “The old wards set by your ancestors, the very first Bradleys, are still in place, carved into stone pillars at the corners of the estate. Nothing supernatural or evil can pass through or harm you.”

William pulled the blanket up to  his nose and peered at her with solemn eyes. “Even down in the dungeons?”

Lucy paused. “Why would there be ghosts in the dungeons?”

“Because people died down there,” William said in a reproving tone. “Brandon says that means there have to be ghosts.”

“Perhaps there were ghosts,” Lucy replied, and then bent over to blow out the lantern beside his bed. “But I’m sure the wards would send them away in short order. Good night, Lordling. Dream well.”

“’Night, Lucy,” William mumbled.

And then Lucy went into the final suite, to tuck in Brandon, the youngest son of Lord Bradley. Brandon’s bed had been empty. He hadn’t even thought to put a roll of blankets to make it look like someone was sleeping. A piece of paper lay folded on the pillow.

If you are reading this, I am sorry to say that I am not around anymore. The first line taunted Lucy with sinister implications, her imagination feeding her worse and worse fates. She read on, her hand trembling, her breath caught in her throat.

There’s something here, and I tried to tell them, but they wouldn’t listen, so I’ve gone to find it myself, and they’ll see I’m right, even if I’m dead.

Lucy swallowed. Brandon had always had a flair for dramatics. But if he thought he might die going to wherever he thought he was going…Lucy looked down, but that was all the note held. It just stopped. He hadn’t even signed the note. She wondered if perhaps he was somewhere in the castle sulking. That would be more like him than to disappear like this. She sighed. She was going to have to search for him. Bradley Manor was not small, and she was tired.

William said Brandon said something about the dungeons, Lucy recalled. Perhaps he’s gone down there.

The young woman shuddered. The dungeons were below the Manor, the main house built over it. They had been abandoned and boarded up a hundred years ago when a more civilized age had been ushered in. It would be dark, cold, and most likely full of rats and spiders the size of dinner plates. But Lucy had no choice. She could not leave a son of Lord Bradley down there for the night, no matter how much she wished to fall into her own bed.

Lucy saw the lantern was already gone from Brandon’s beside table. She went to the closet and retrieved another. She stalled for time in lighting it. When the flame lit and golden light threw flickering shadows about her, she felt a little braver.

Making her way through the dark corridors of the Manor, she tried to stifle her over-active imagination. Ghosts couldn’t hurt the living, she told herself. Lord Bradley’s books say so. It’s a person’s fear that undoes them, not actually anything the ghost does.

She tried to hang onto that as she descended the stairs, down, down, down, down, into the underbelly of the Manor. She stopped on the final landing before she went into the dungeon proper. The big wooden door stood ajar, an ornate key head in the lock. Lucy pulled it farther open and peered into the darkness. Smells assaulted her, but nothing so foul as rotting human flesh. It was just old and musty, with the cold damp smell of water seeping through stone walls.

Lucy glanced longingly up the stairs. A prickling at the back of her neck made her glance over her shoulder. A shadowy figure watched her from just inside the door. When her gaze fell on it, it fled, speeding into the blackness like a breath of wind. She stood for a moment, holding out the lantern.

Thoughts sped through her head. It was a fake. This was no ghost. This was an intruder of flesh and blood. She should alert the Lord, who would alert the proper authorities.

The Shadow was getting away.

At once Lucy took off, chasing down stairs and narrow halls between stone cells and torture chambers. The figure flitted always just out of sight, taking her down, through the dungeons, and even deeper into the bowels of the castle, places where no one had set foot for a hundred years.

Finally, she couldn’t run anymore. She stopped, leaning against the cold stone wall, panting to catch her breath and massaging a stitch in her side.

“Psst!” She started, leaping back, brandishing the lantern like a weapon. Two shining eyes blinked at her from a hidden alcove, then moved towards her. A small body followed. It was Brandon.

“What are you doing down here?” she chided, rushing forward and clutching the child in a relieved hug, her heart thudding in her chest. “You know you’re not allowed to wander around the castle, especially not down here.”

“I know,” Brandon said with a stubborn pout. “But none of my brothers would believe me when I told them there was a ghost, so I went to find it.”

“Why on earth would you do that?” Lucy asked, her voice faint.

“Because they wouldn’t believe me,” he replied with perfect little boy logic. “I brought him cookies, and he liked those.”

“You did what?” She couldn’t keep up with the twists and turns of this tale.

“I stole some cookies from the kitchen and gave it to the shadow. I thought he might be hungry,” he told her in a small voice, looking up at her from under his lashes, eyes begging her not to be mad, as if this was the worst of the things he had done.

“Ghosts don’t eat cookies,” she said firmly.

“This one does,” he countered. “But I don’t have any more.”

“Come.” She took his hand. “Let’s go back up where it’s light and fresh, and get some more cookies, and leave this nonsense behind us.”

“No.” He pulled away. “I have to prove there is a ghost.”

She sighed. “Even if there is a ghost, he won’t come out and introduce himself just like that….”

“Excuse me,” a voice interrupted. “I couldn’t help but overhear you talking about me.”

Lucy shrieked. Her head went light and she was falling towards the floor, but she sank into a black cushion of oblivion before the stone caught her. She opened her eyes to see two faces staring at her. One was Brandon’s. The other was older, blurry around the edges and more transparent.

“Is she going to be okay?” the new face asked.

“I think so,” Brandon answered. “Miss Lucy? Miss Lucy, are you okay?”

Lucy struggled to sit up. “What happened?”

“I’m afraid I startled you,” the blurry face said. “I’m terribly sorry.”

“See?” Brandon stated proudly. “I told you there was a ghost. This is my friend Hemsworth.”

Lucy was frowning at the ghost, and her frown deepened the longer she examined him. He wore odd clothes. Lucy was no history expert, but she was fairly certain that had never been a fashion in any part of the realm. His features were odd too, too broad, too coarse, even for the Nethernorthmen.

“He’s not a ghost,” she said. Brandon looked all ready to argue, but she held up her hand. “Ghosts don’t eat cookies,” she continued. “Your friend is is a Shadow.”

Hemsworth smiled. “You’ve studied interdimensional particle physics then?”

“I’m not sure what that is, but I have studied the Scheme of Worlds from books in Lord Bradley’s library, and I know that some people can pass through the fabric of the walls of one world into another entirely separate world.”

“Well, not entirely separate…” Hemsworth’s eyes lit up. “You see…”

He began to ramble at some length about quantum mechanics, quarks, leptons, and something called a Higgs field. Lucy’s eyes began to wander, and her chin to droop. Brandon, however, remained enraptured.

“And so you see, that is how I came to exist here, in a fashion,” Hemsworth exclaimed, looking at her expectantly.

“That’s fascinating,” Lucy lied. “But…” she looked around. “You can’t be here. They’ll have you exorcised.”

Despite the fact that he did not know her world as she did not know his, the concept was clear. But instead of looking frightened, his eyes lit up once more. “Perfect!”

“What?” Lucy almost shouted. “You can’t be serious. No one knows what happens to ghosts and Shadows that get banished. No one knows where they go.”

This gave Hemsworth pause. “Well, I’ll just have to take that chance,” he said at last. “I’ve been stuck here for too long.”

Lucy was still doubtful. Brandon was the one who settled the matter.

“You said yourself he couldn’t be here. And if we have someone banish him, then I can prove there was a ghost!”

“Besides,” Hemsworth added. “The choice is not yours to make.”

“Very well,” Lucy said, though she did not think it was very well at all. “What is your plan?”

Brandon and Hemsworth looked at each other. They told her what to do. Lucy nodded, and hurried out of the dungeon. She took the note to the Lord of the House and showed it to him.

“He went down to the lower levels and the dungeons, I’m sure of it,” she told Lord Bradley. She refrained from pointing out he was a stubborn and proud boy like his father and would not be deterred or shamed.

“There are no ghosts in Bradley Manor,” Lord Bradley declared.

“No,” Lucy agreed. “But he may be a Shadow, wayward from another world.” Lord Bradley would not hold with ghosts, but the Scheme of Worlds, that could not be disputed.

“I suppose something like that could have happened,” he allowed, and a gleam of excitement lit up his eyes, eyes his youngest son had inherited. “I shall call the scholars and have them perform an exorcism.”

“And what of your son?” Lucy reminded him.

“After we find Brandon, of course.” Lord Bradley gestured to the Chief of House. The man nodded and disappeared. After a few moments, the house turned into an ant hill that has had a stick thrust into it. Lights came on, people were running about. A Scholar was procured from the town, rushed in on the carriage. He was not happy to be woken at this hour, but when he saw the bag of coin from Lord Bradley, he became most eager to help.

A train of people followed the Scholar down, but they would not go through the old door. Only Lucy and Lord Bradley accompanied the Scholar.

“There,” Lord Bradley pointed.

The dirt was scuffed. Two sizes of footprints were there: a boy-sized shoe, and a much larger boot. The Scholar set up his exorcism, drawing the lines in red and white chalk, and arranged the tallow candles at the appropriate points. He lit them with his consecrated matches. The air grew hazy, and a wind began to stir in a lazy circle.

“Brandon won’t be harmed by this?” Lucy asked anxiously.

The Scholar shook his head. “Only preternatural creatures, and they will not be harmed as such, only banished to…well, wherever they go.”

Lucy didn’t think it wise to point out this could constitute harm, so she kept her mouth shut. She stood by as the Scholar put the lodestones at the cardinal points of the compass. The wind got stronger. Lucy felt herself being tugged into the center of the whirlpool. Lord Bradley put his arms around her, strong like an oak.

“There,” Lucy whispered.

The vague form of Hemsworth drifted in the wind, going around and around, faster and faster until he was just a blur. He raised a hand in salute and was sucked into somewhere. Lucy sent a prayer for his well being after him, hoping the vortex would take it to him. After Hemsworth disappeared, the wind stopped suddenly, as though it sensed its mission accomplished.

“Father?” a small voice piped up.

Brandon Bradley followed his voice out of the shadows. He looked like a small boy in a blue dressing robe, hair tousled. “Father, you’ll tell them I was right, so they’ll believe me?”

Lord Bradley knelt down so he was eye to eye with his son. “My boy, I want you learn this lesson. Sometimes, in this life, you will be right, and others will not see it. Now, the right thing to do is not always to go off chasing proof that you were right. Sometimes you just have to know that you’re right, and leave it at that. Other men’s belief is not worth that much.”

“Yes, sir,” Brandon said, looking at his feet.

“Now, how about we lay this to rest, and go to bed?”

Brandon nodded. Lord Bradley smiled, stood, and led the party out of the dungeons.

 

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The Storyteller by Nicole DragonBeck

For Briana Jaeger, I hope you like it.

My jaw dropped as my eyes unveiled the secret before me…”

“And what was it?” a small boy in the back piped up.

“I’m getting there,” James said, a little crossly. He hated being interrupted when he was telling a story. He took a moment to remember where he was. “My jaw dropped as I saw what it was the ancient chest contained.” He paused, daring anyone to jump in. “It was an apple.”

“That’s all?” The small boy looked put out. “I have one of those every day.”

“But it wasn’t just any apple,” James said with a triumphant shake of his fist. “It was the last golden apple of the Tree of Time.”

“How do you know it was the last one?” a girl sitting in the front asked. “Maybe there were others.”

“Yeah, maybe there were others!” several other children chimed in.

James gave an exasperated sigh. “It’s a story. You’re not supposed to over-analyze it.”

“What’s over-analyze?”

“It means to come up with all sorts of questions that don’t have answers,” James said. “Now, do you want to hear the end or not?”

The children quieted down, and James resumed. “I very carefully drew it out of the chest. It was heavy, like a boulder-”

“But how…”

James killed the question with a withering glare.

“It was heavy, like a boulder, and warm like the sun. I could feel the immense power, pulsing in my hand. I could do so many things with it, but was that power really mine to use? For the Tree of Time only grew so many apples. So I did the only thing I could. I traveled far across the land, to the mountains, and I climbed up the tallest mountain, and buried the apple. I hope there might grow another tree, and so the world might never run out of time.”

He fell silent, and the silence consumed the room. A dozen and a half bemused faces stared up at him.

“The end.”

The children nodded solemnly, and their eyes were narrowed and cynical. James walked out of the classroom, feeling like a bent old man. It was taking so much more effort to get people to believe these days, even in something as simple as a story. He pulled his coat tighter, suddenly cold. Part of it was him, he knew. He didn’t have the patience for the practical, hard-nosed children who were taught that what they could see and touch was more important than what they could dream.

“I’m getting too old for this,” James grumbled to himself.

“Excuse me, sir,” a young voice said, and a small tug came at his elbow.

James looked down. The boy gazed up at him with big blue eyes, wide and innocent. He had not asked any questions inside. From the expression, he had been saving them up.

“Yes?” James asked, sure he was going to be regaled with another long Inquisition of the impracticalities of his tale.

“I think you got something wrong,” the boy said.

Here it comes, James groaned silently. “And what would that be?”

“The Time Tree didn’t grow apples, it was pears, and they weren’t golden, they were green and purple and blue, every color of the rainbow.”

James’ mouth hung open. “And how did you figure that out?”

“I got one as a present from my uncle,” the boy said. “I took the pear, and ate it, and when I ate the whole thing, it took me forward in time to when I was an old man. I talked with myself for a long time, asking all sorts of questions…”

The words rolled over James as the boy continued his story, and a smile began to grow on James’ face.

 

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Author Spotlight: Nicole Dragonbeck

At least once a month, we here at Stories My Friends Started, are going to do an Author Spotlight so you can get to know a little more about the amazing authors who take the story starters you provide and bring them to life.

This month we want you to meet the amazing Nicole Dragonbeck. She lives in a world of elves, fairies, magyc and DRAGONS!

In addition to being one of contributing members of the Ink Slingers Guild, she has now two novels First Magyc and Ria’s Mark published in her Guardians of Path book series (which is rumored to be a 10 part story) but don’t tell her I told you that or a dragon might end up on my doorstep.

Nicole also brings to life her fantasy world and is featured in the many anthologies published by the Ink Slingers Guild. You can check out all of her stories available here.

You can also follow and connect up with Nicole at:

nicoledragonbeck.com

facebook.com/nicolebeckauthor

twitter.com/DragonBeck

And as always, you send in the start to a story, maybe Nicole will create some magyc words for you!

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You Must Try the Strawberry Tarts by Nicole DragonBeck

For Mariajose Lopez

I was late, as always.

Mary didn’t know this was going to save her life tonight.

Just for once I’d like to have everything go right when I go out, the young woman thought as she looked around the grand hall of King Robert in Hamfordshire. Huge silver tables piled high with food surrounded the dance floor. A dozen crystal chandeliers hung high above, shedding a glittering gold light on the room. The celebration was in full swing, the hall crowded with men in swallow tail jackets and women in tied and layered ball gowns in colors that had names like chartreuse, emerald, amaranth, and periwinkle.

So many people, Mary thought, trying to quell the nervous butterflies in her stomach, and hoped all the guests weren’t staring at her as King Robert’s majordomo announced her in a loud, imperious voice. “Mary of Isle, third daughter of the King James of Isle and his wife Lady Warrwood of Nearton.”

Mary made an awkward curtsy in her lavish gown which still could not compare with the others in the room. Isle was a small kingdom, nothing to compare with Hamfordshire, or the other kingdoms of the realm. The few guests who had turned to see who the newcomer was returned to their eating, dancing, and conversing as if she were no longer there. Mary made her way down the elegant stairway in a very inelegant manner due to the tight and awkward shoes required by the dress code, praying she didn’t trip and fall on her face. Her cheeks burned at the memory of the last party she had gone to. It had been a masquerade hosted by King Harry of Georgton, and the peacock mask Mary had been wearing obscured her vision. She hadn’t seen the servant with the tray of drinks come up behind her.

Nothing like that is going to happen this time, Mary promised herself. I’m a little late, but I can do this. She hated parties. There were too many people, too many social “niceties” to follow, and added to the uncomfortable clothes, horrible music, and tedious waiting around from someone to ask her to dance even though she didn’t like dancing and wasn’t very good at it made for something close to hell.

Stepping into the middle of the room, she grabbed a glass off a tray just to have something in her hand and went to examine the buffet. Truly, she far preferred the company of canapés to that of people; canapés didn’t expect banal witty banter from her, nor did they mock her when she didn’t know the latest gossip about so-and-so.

“The fried shrimp are much better,” a voice behind her whispered as though sharing a great political secret that could topple empires or kingdoms.

“Oh,” was all Mary could think to say.

The man behind her was average-looking, boyishly round cheeks making him look younger than he probably was. A bit of hair trying to be a goatee failed to make him look dashing or distinguished. His warm brown eyes made one feel absurdly safe, as though he wouldn’t know where to start in causing mischief or doing something dangerous. He might even have a mild panic attack if someone even mentioned the idea of such to him. In short, Mary concluded, he was a perfectly typical attendee of parties such as these.

“The fried shrimp are much better,” he repeated, and looked at her expectantly.

“Um, thanks,” Mary said. “I’ll be sure to try one.”

He looked disappointed. “You’re supposed to tell me you’re allergic to shrimp.”

“I’m allergic to shrimp,” Mary stated, though it sounded more like a question. Maybe this is some new party game, she thought.

His safe brown eyes lit up. “Then you must try the strawberry tarts,” he announced.

He grabbed her arm and pulled her towards the dessert table. On the way, Mary managed to put the drink down without spilling it.

“I’m really not that hungry, Mr. Uh…”

“I know, I know,” he said. “I was briefed too. No names.” He paused. “That’s going to make it difficult to talk. You can call me…” he thought for a long time, “Tobias.”

Mary would have bet a carton of jewels, which she could hardly afford, Tobias was his real name, as he most likely lacked the imagination to come up with a pseudonym on the fly. He was looking at her, his eyebrows raised too high. She glanced at the party going on around her. A band was playing something to dance to. The sound of chatter and laughter surrounded her and made her feel very alone. Her only other option for the evening a boring time spent wandering around until her feet hurt too much to continue and leaving without telling a soul.

So she replied, “Call me Anastasia.”

He looked impressed. “That’s a really good name.”

“Thanks.” She batted her eyelashes at him.

He grabbed a round pastry covered with bright pink jam and held it out to her. She reached to take it, but he jerked it back.

“Wait, what’s your favorite fruit, Anastasia?” he said.

“Um,” she thought hard. “I really like peaches, especially when they’re fresh-”

“Perfect!” he beamed, and stood there, grinning at her.

“So do you have it?” he asked and crammed the strawberry tart into his mouth.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mary said.

Tobias frowned, and waved his hand impatiently, sending crumbs everywhere. “I gave the password. Now you have to give me the package.”

Mary began to suspect this was not a party game at all. Suddenly, she wished she hadn’t come. She blinked, and left her eyes closed for longer than was necessary, hoping the darkness would comfort her.

“No, no,” a loud, slightly whiny voice insisted nearby. “You have to tell me I must try the strawberry tarts!”

Mary turned to see a thin, excitable looking woman standing in front of the canapés, lecturing a fellow with a tangle of gold curls and eyes desperately looking for any route to escape the hellish torture he had gotten himself into. He locked onto Mary’s gaze. Despite the desperation-edging-towards-panic, his eyes were very nice, on the blue side of green.

“Ah, my darling Beatrice!” he cried out, disentangling himself from the woman waiting to be told to try the strawberry tarts, and sprinted over. He grabbed Mary and planted an enthusiastic kiss that would have landed on her lips had she not turned her head. “I’ve been looking all over for you!”

His eyes begged her to play along. This has really gone too far already, she thought, but his eyes wouldn’t let her leave him stranded. She beamed at him.

“I’m sorry, my love, I’ve – I’ve just been talking to my new friend Tobias here.”

The man bowed to Tobias, who returned the theatrical yet expected gesture. The woman who had yet to be told to try the strawberry tarts wandered over. She gave Mary a disapproving look and fanned herself with an elaborate white lace fan studded with pearls. It matched her dress.

“Who’s this?” she demanded of the blond man, nodding at Mary.

“My sun, my moon, and my stars,” the man declared proudly. “This is Beatrice.”

Mary curtsied, and almost fell over. The man caught her and righted her so smoothly, Mary hardly noticed. The others noticed not at all.

“Yes, well, she’s very lovely, if a bit plain, but we have more important things to be seeing to,” the woman sniffed at him. “The fate of the realm is in our hands!”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man said, a hint of pleading leaking into his voice. “I’ve never seen you before in my life. I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know anything about the fate of the realm being in my hands. If it was, I’m sure I would know about it! And I don’t know anything about the strawberry tarts!”

After his impassioned speech, he fell silent, his chest rising and falling rapidly as he caught his breath. Mary wondered why everyone was so enamored with the strawberry tarts, then something occurred to her. She toyed with the idea, playing with it in her mind, turning it over and around again. Yes, I think I’m right, she decided.

“Excuse me,” Mary said to the other woman. “Have you tried the canapés?”

The woman blinked at her sharply. “Yes. I have eaten so many canapés tonight, I never want to see another one. I was waiting for…”

She stopped suddenly, and looked as if she wished she hadn’t said anything. Mary kicked the man called Tobias in the ankle, and smiled sweetly into the air when he yelped.

“And which did you like best?” Mary prompted the woman.

“The salmon wasn’t bad,” she said. “Though, I confess, the ham and avocado was my favorite.”

“The fried shrimp are better,” Tobias muttered. “Much better.”

“I’m allergic to shrimp,” the woman said automatically.

His eyes widened, and her jaw dropped. They locked gazes.

“Then you must try the strawberry tarts,” Tobias said, very nervously, his hands moving to his waist, then under chin, then straight at his side.

The woman brightened up. She almost looked beautiful. She reached into the bodice of her dress and pulled out a small velvet sack tied with gold string and handed it to Tobias.

“My favorite fruit is peaches,” she said.

“I’m afraid there’s only strawberry,” he replied, looking down at the package he had been hoping Mary would give him.

The two went off, arm in arm, walking on clouds. Mary pulled away from the strange man.

“My name is actually Mary,” she told him.

“And my name is Henry,” he said. “I do profusely apologize for my unforgivably forward behavior.”

“No need,” Mary smiled. “I think you did me a favor as much as I did you.”

He smiled back, and his whole face lit up. They stood there awkwardly for a moment. The band stopped playing and in the silence, she groped for words, something sensible to say. Then music started up again, a lively waltz that moved one’s feet without consent.

“Would you care to dance?” Henry asked, holding out his hand.

Habit made Mary smile and nod, then she frowned and stepped back. “No, actually. I hate dancing. It seems quite pointless, and I’m not any good at it.”

She thought he was going to be put off. Instead he laughed. “I thought I was the only one.”

He looked at her, genuinely interested. “Would you like to see the gardens then? I’ve heard King Robert has the most fantastic collection of nymphs in his pool.”

“I’d like that,” Mary smiled.

She took the arm he offered her and they made their way through the crowd of happy, overly dressed, and slightly drunk people. The pair ascended the stairs and passed under the huge arching doorway into the crisp night air.

Mary turned and looked back for a brief second. She found Tobias and his mystery contact easily. They were standing by the champagne fountain, engrossed in the little velvet pouch. Mary wondered what was in it, then decided she didn’t need to know. It was probably some stupid party favor, like a silly hat or a top that wouldn’t spin properly.

“Something the matter?” Henry inquired.

“No,” Mary said, then laughed. “I’m very pleased to have an excuse to go.”

“Me too,” Henry agreed. “I think the pool is this way.”

They headed down the brick path into the darkness. They were just about to step onto the grass when an explosion made them spin and gape. The stream of purple and sliver sparks that shot out of the windows lit up the night, and then the place began to crumble, the stone falling in silent waves and disappearing in a hazy shimmer. In a moment, nothing was left to show King Robert of Hamfordshire had ever had a home here.

“What just happened?” Mary said, her voice eerie in the still and empty night.

“Maybe it was the strawberry tarts?” Henry suggested.

 

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