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Olderealm by Nicole DrangonBeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Koval?” Jak called out. “Koval?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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True Romance by Dalia Lance

From Dave McGrath (Via Submissions Page), I hope you enjoy.

He snapped his underwear band two times, Becky knew the code, and a romantic night was ahead.

She smiled at him and said, “You know how terribly cheezy that is, right?”

He looked over at her, his blue eyes sparkling in the firelight. “First, if I snapped my fingers, it would be degrading even if it is my desire to see you get all flushed. Second, you purchased these for me and I thought you liked my appreciation of them?”

When the last word left his lips, he stood up, and she could see that he was very excited to see her get all flushed.

As she stood there biting her lip waiting for him to approach her, she couldn’t help but think how lucky she was that such a gorgeous man found her alluring.

He came up and wrapped his arms around her. Pulling her to him, close. She could feel his eagerness and her lips parted to meet his.

At first his lips were quite gentle, and then there was an urgency to them. His taste was intoxicating. His tongue moved with hers as her fingers played with his hair. Then suddenly he lifted her up by her bottom. A small squeak escaped her lips as he smiled at her again.

“I believe you are flushed, Ms. Jones,” he said with a small growl.

He moved her to the counter in the small kitchen of the cabin they had rented for the event. She laid back, legs still wrapped around him, letting him pull her top and bra off, slowly admiring every inch of her. She loved the way he looked at her.

Then he unwound her legs from his carefully so he could remove her shorts and panties. Using her toes, she pulled down the red boxer-briefs she had given him on Valentine’s day.

As his hands moved her into position, she felt his desire as she looked at the man who had stolen her heart.

Then just as he was about to slide in, there was a noise. Before she could figure out what it was, the door in the kitchen opened and her mother and grandmother walked in carrying a platter.

“Hey Shelly, we thought…” Her mother’s words were cut off as both of her relatives were now staring at her erotic moment.

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Error by Erika Lance

To Nicole who submitted through the website. I hope you enjoy!

Geocode was not successful for the following reasons: ERROR

Martin looked at the screen again. This couldn’t be correct.

The data within the system had taken years to gather. It was the most in-depth analysis of humans that had ever been undertaken. Every other sector’s numbers had computed perfectly.

Martin, as the humans had called him, tried again: ERROR

He pulled up the zone in question on the map. It was an affluent neighborhood in the state of California in the country called the United States.  As he scrolled though the information, he also began the diagnostic protocol.

If there was any chance of zeroing in on the error and getting off this planet which was at the farthest end of the galaxy, contained behind a rather formidable asteroid field, then he would have to find and correct this ‘ERROR’ and submit his information.

As the images rolled past, one in particular caught his eye. He scrolled back and pulled it up. At first glance, it seemed fairly mundane.  Small children played in an area of grass and sand. One of them was using some kind of plastic item that was launching soap in the shape of circles in the air. He knew what they called them… Bubbles!

He zoomed in on the bubble that had just been launched. There in the reflection he saw not a small earth child standing there, no, this was something different. This had gills.

At first, a smile crept across the human mouth he was wearing. He had found the error. Then almost as quickly as it had appeared, the smile vanished.

These were not humans.

A feeling of dread began to build within him. Was this possible? he thought to himself.

He knew that this planet had been studied before; it was a terribly good resource for certain mineral components and the inhabitants were still behind in technology that any time they saw a potential visitor it was dismissed. This is what made the idea of full planetary reaping so appealing to his high ruler. But here it was, right in front of him.

He moved to the genetic samples that had been taken from that region. Although they were ‘mostly’ human, there were other markers.  When he broadened the scan, he found them to be traces of Reedbarnt gene sequences.

They were hiding here. How?

He had to submit this right away.  This was above his pay-grade.

Pulling the arm-sleeve of flesh from his right hand, he extended his small gathering of tentacles to the screen. Although he was mandated to leave the human covering on for the length of his mission, he knew that what he had to gather and send would take hours if he had to use the small human appendages.

He gathered all the evidence and sent it to his superior. He then reattached his arm-sleeve and paced up and down the ships data storage area. This was a human habit, but he knew that he could not remove the whole flesh suit without it deteriorating.

It was many earth hours before he received a reply.

It said only one thing: Abort!

 

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The Hopeless Student by Dalia Lance

For Jessica Kuyper Stadler – I hope you like it.

So as they parted, their hands slipped apart and…

“Is this seriously your ending?” Allie’s tone did not seem impressed.

“It is a forbidden love story,” I began to explain, but her face was still questioning. “You know, star-crossed lovers, never really able to stay with each other because fate has torn them apart.”

She put the papers down and picked up her latte, taking a long sip. “You know this was an assignment on how females are represented in modern literature versus one hundred years ago.”

I took a deep breath. “Of course I know that.” I didn’t, really. I never paid much attention to the syllabus that the teachers handed out.

The only reason I was in college was because my parents said that I “needed an education” if I was going to succeed at all in life. I disagreed.  My goal in life was to meet a wealthy doctor, or something, and write romance novels while sitting poolside with a butler.

Allie narrowed her eyes. “Then why did you write over ten thousand words of a cheesy romance story?”

“You think it is romantic?” I asked. Her exasperated sigh told me that was not the right thing to say.

She closed her laptop and slid it into her messenger bag, slung it over her shoulder, grabbed her coffee, said, “I need to find a different roommate,” and walked away.

I watched her go for a second and then gathered up the pages.

I was so excited! She thought it was romantic.



I hit the send button on the assignment.

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Jumping Back by Nicole DragonBeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Xs & Os by Nicole DragonBeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow the Xs and Os.

 

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Quiet by Nicole DragonBeck

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

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

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

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

“But Winnie can’t you…”

“No! Not Winnie either!”

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

“But Wi…”

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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