Lola stared at herself in the mirror and ran her fingers through her long auburn hair. “This is great,” she said. “I mean really great!”
“I know,” Marisse said, coming into view behind her. She spun Lola around and stooped to look into her sister’s eyes. “Nice, nice,” she said. “Green is good on you.” She stood up straight and turned around to show off the short black dress she’d managed to squeeze into. “How’s this look?” she asked.
“You look great,” Lola said, and she actually meant it. Marisse was gorgeous – tall, with deep brown skin and hair that was nearly blue-black, even in the light of their bathroom. She stood like a supermodel, a hand on her hip and made a pouty face like the ones they’d seen in so many magazines. “Seriously,” Lola said. “That is amazing.”
“And thank you,” Marisse said. She ran a finger down the lapel of the jacket Lola was wearing. “You don’t look too bad yourself, my dear.” She picked up Lola’s pale hand and examined her nails. “Brava on your choice here, too.”
Lola smiled and blushed. “It’s the same blue as the suit,” she said. “I can’t believe I actually found it.”
“Well, you did, and you look amazing.” Marisse turned them around to look in the mirror. “We both look amazing. And you know what?” She put her arm around Lola, and Lola could practically feel the confidence welling over from her. “We are going to have an amazing Halloween this year.” Marisse hugged her close. “Mark my words.”
The morning sun was barely a hands-width over the treetops by the time they left their house and began the long walk to the bus stop. They tottered in their high heels and laughed about it as they walked, and they drew stares from everyone else who was waiting by the time they got there. Marisse made sure to stand next to a middle-aged businessman, and she tried flirting with him. She stood in the corner of his eye and smiled at him, and then looked away when he looked at her. A few more times, and he took out his phone and started frantically tapping away so that he didn’t have to look at her. It was all Lola could do not to burst out laughing.
The bus ride into Sylvania City took about half an hour, and they were on the edges of their seats the whole time. Lola pointed out the things that had changed since the year before – a new strip mall, a restaurant that had gone under, a house that had gone somewhat overboard on the holiday decorations. When people got on the bus, they giggled and pointed, and more than once made people stand up and move to other seats. Among the morning commute crowd, they were by far having the most fun, and even on Halloween, that was strange.
They stepped down from the bus in Bemrich Circle, in the most touristy district of Sylvania City, and squinted in the bright sunlight. “Okay,” Marisse said. “What time’s sunset again?”
“5:05,” Lola said. She’d had it up on notes around the house for a week, and made sure she remembered. “We have just a little over eight hours.”
“Well, then, let’s get to it!” Marisse gestured widely and grinned. “Where do you want to start?”
The choices were endless. Sylvania wasn’t the largest of cities – nothing like New York or Boston or Corsair – but it had an eclectic spirit all its own. The downtown was full of people and buses and cars, little bookstores and restaurants and huge national department stores. There were museums along the Hortus and a new walking park that had been built along the Edles River last year. They could spend days here, if they wanted.
But they didn’t have days.
Lola watched the people getting off the bus, tired and hurrying to catch taxis or run to their offices. “How about we get some coffee?” she said, pointing to a small shop on the corner that was doing brisk business with the commuter crowd. Marisse clapped her hands and they dashed across the busy street to join the line.
When they finally got to the counter, an exhausted barista greeted them with, “Welcome to Javaville, what’ll you have?”
Lola and Marisse exchanged glances, and Marisse struggled to keep a straight face as she turned to the young man. “I would like,” she said, over-enunciating each word, “one soy milk latte.” Lola started to giggle and Marisse gave her a slight shove. “And a blueberry muffin.” Lola started to laugh hard enough to attract the attention of the other customers, and the barista arched an eyebrow.
“Anything for your friend?” he asked.
Lola leapt to the counter. “Yes,” she said, her voice taking on the sing-song quality that people use when they talk to children. “I’d like a mocha espresso, please. And one of your delicious scones.” She smiled, showing as many teeth as she could, and the barista had to blink a few times before he rang them up.
They sat in the cafe and planned their day, occasionally glancing around at the crowd and watching the other customers as they came in. They would go to the Finamore Museum of Art first and see the traveling Picasso exhibition they were hosting. From there, they planned to hit some of the nicer boutiques in the heart of downtown and try on clothes. Not to buy, of course, but just for the fun of seeing themselves in something new and different. Marisse tried on the more risque outfits, doing her best to make even the saleslady have to blush and clear her throat and recommend that perhaps she would like to wear something a little more modest. Lola tended towards the more conservative, trying to imagine what she would look like at a fancy dinner party, or perhaps a wedding. She stood in front of the mirror and smoothed down the fabric and let the images form in her mind. No matter that they wouldn’t happen, of course. It was Halloween, and if ever there was a time to play dress-up, it was now.
They had lunch at the top of the Denton department store and ate small pasta dishes while looking out at the city.
“I never get tired of this,” Lola said. “I just wish we could do it more often.”
Marisse took a sip of water. “Me too,” she said. “Me too.”
After lunch they went to a bookstore and browsed for a while, followed by a subway ride to the Hortus, the great park that defined the heart of Sylvania City. The sun was on its descent by now, and they only had a few more hours left to them. The red and gold leaves glimmered in the sunlight as they walked around the Great Pond, enjoying the brisk autumn air. Their spirits were more subdued now, but they still looked at the world around them with glee and astonishment from time to time.
“I think I need to sit down,” Lola said after a while. She sat, took off a shoe and started to rub her foot. “You go ahead. I’ll meet you by the fountain?”
“You sure?” Marisse asked. She glanced across the pond to the fountain and back again. “I can stay here.”
Lola shook her head. “No, you go. I’ll be right behind you.” She smiled and shaded her eyes against the sun. “Don’t worry.” Marisse nodded, but still looked uneasy, glancing back a few more times as she walked away.
Alone, Lola closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out. She liked Marisse – loved her, even. They’d been together for ages and doing their Halloween excursions for as long as she could remember. But Marisse could be a little much sometimes.
Lola’s thoughts were sharply interrupted by the barking of a dog. She opened her eyes to see a golden retriever straining at the end of a leash at her, growling and barking. The young man holding the leash pulled and yelled at his dog. “Rocky! Rocky, knock it off!” He gave the leash a sharp tug, and the dog stopped barking. He bent down to hold it and looked up at Lola. “Sorry,” he said. “He’s usually not like this.” Rocky had gone quiet, but he was still staring at Lola with fear in his eyes.
“That’s all right,” she said. “Dogs don’t usually like me very much.”
The young man scratched Rocky’s ears and smiled. “I can’t imagine that,” he said. He turned to Rocky. “You gonna be good?” he asked. He stood up and Rocky growled quietly. The young man nodded at Lola. “He’ll be good.” He stepped over to her and offered his hand. “I’m Shane,” he said. “But you’ll probably remember me as the guy with the dog.”
Lola took his hand and smiled. “No,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll remember you.” She looked up at him and squinted. “I’m Lola,” she said. The sun was behind him, making it hard to get a good look at his face. “Would you like to sit down?” she said. “It might save me some eyestrain.”
Shane commanded Rocky to stay, and took a seat next to Lola. He looked out over the water with her for a while, and the sun dropped lower to the horizon. “It’s my favorite place in the city,” he said, not turning to her. “It’s one of the biggest reasons I stay here.”
She smiled. “I like it too. I just wish I could come more often.”
“You’re not from around here?” he asked.
Lola shook her head. “I live outside the city with a friend of mine. We… we don’t get out a whole lot.”
He nodded and leaned back against the bench, but didn’t push the topic. Instead he asked about her favorite places to visit, and offered some suggestions of his own for the next time she and her friend managed to get into the city. She, in turn, asked about what he did and how he lived his life, and she found herself resisting the urge to dig into every detail. They talked well together, and she had a conversation unlike any she’d had in a long time. With Marisse, there was nothing new to talk about. They knew everything about each other, but here she was finally in new territory.
And he was good-looking, too. That certainly didn’t hurt.
They talked for a long while, and only stopped when Lola finally heard Marisse calling to her as she ran along the path towards her.
“Lola!” she yelled. Marisse looked panicked, and she’d lost her shoes somewhere along the way. “Lola, the sun!” she flung out a hand across the pond. Lola looked, and to her horror realized that she’d let the sunset slip her mind. It was already dropping behind buildings, and she felt her insides go cold with panic.
“Oh, god,” she said, and stood up quickly. Rocky jumped to his feet and started barking again, and Shane tried to calm him down. “Oh, god,” she said again, “I’m so sorry…” She backed away from Shane and took Marisse’s hand. “I really.. .I really have to go.”
He looked up at her and glanced at Marisse. “Is everything okay?” he asked.
Lola surprised herself by smiling. “No,” she said. “Not really.” Marisse tugged at her, but Lola stood still. “I really wish I could stay, Shane,” she said.
He stood up and put his hands in his jacket pockets. “I don’t understand,” he said. “What’s -”
Lola’s scream cut him off. It was high and keening and terrible, and she doubled over and dropped to the ground, followed quickly by Marisse. Shane tried to go to her, but Rocky positioned himself between them, growling and barking furiously. All Shane could do was watch as the shadows grasped at Lola and Marisse and they started to change.
Marisse shrank and withered, becoming a skeletal version of herself. Her eyes burst into flame and sat in her dessicated face like two hot coals. Her hair whipped up around her head in an unseen wind and waved about, dry and rasping. Her mouth opened, a black and toothless maw, and a howl that chilled Shane’s blood filled the air.
Lola’s back arched and lurched, and two great wings burst forth. They were long and spindly, and webbed with tattered skin that was nearly thin enough to see through. Her skin turned the dull gray of unpolished granite and cracked at the joints. A dull red glow came through the cracks, like molten stone, and when she moved there was a grating and crumbling sound. She stood on thin, insectile legs and turned to Shane, who was on the ground covering his eyes with his arm.
She looked at him, wishing her true face were capable of expressing something other than unholy rage. She wanted to explain, to say that she was sorry, but her mouth couldn’t do that anymore. Her day as a human was done. From tonight, it would be another year of being the monster she’d always been.
Lola growled at Rocky, who whined and cowered behind Shane, who had finally managed to peek out from behind his arm. He was terrified, as he should have been, and Lola felt that strange ache in what used to be her heart. Other years had been fun. Little breaks from who she’d always been. But this was the first time she felt like there could have been more days, more time.
She ground her teeth and turned to pick up Marisse. Her friend was still groaning, and her groans lingered long. She held Marisse close to her and sprung into the air, her tattered wings somehow holding her aloft and giving her the lift to fly back to their house outside the city. It would be another year before she and her sister could venture out in daylight again, and she wasn’t at all sure that was what she wanted anymore.
For the first time in a thousand years, there were tears in her eyes as she flew.
This is done not only for Halloween, but for the Worth1000 Halloween 2 contest. Of course, I’ll have to trim it somewhat – maximum word count is 1,500 and I’m well above that….
The death of a world is a horrible thing to witness. The death of your own is only more so.
We had known peace for a thousand years. The great battles between the mages and the sorcerers, the wizards and the witches had ended in a treaty that narrowly forestalled the elimination of nations, and which would set a course for the future where the energies they wielded would finally create the paradise we all dreamed of. They put aside their differences in favor of a better world, and somehow, some way, it worked.
The greatest minds of all time worked together to put these powers to use, and they created wonders. Cities were wiped clean of poverty and hunger and crime, and great new edifices were built that rivaled the towering Dodovur mountains in their height and their grandeur. The great plains of Hakafi were made even richer and more fertile than ever, producing rolling waves of wheat that glittered in the sun like living gold and fed billions. The massive southern continent of Tas-tasenth was given over to the trees, and within a century it was home to more creatures and plants than any scholar would be able to count in a hundred lifetimes. The oceans teemed with life, the air was clear and clean, and we humans had finally, finally made a world for ourselves that met the hopes and dreams of all those who had lived and struggled and died before us.
But the sins of our past would not hide forever.
The great city of Amori, home to the ancient thaumaturgic research university of Ortasbura, turned to salt and crumbled into the sea over the span of twenty four hours on midsummer’s day. Six million people died and went missing, and no one knew why. The world was shocked and angry. And very, very scared.
Angogh, one of the Archmages of the Western Reach, brought a team to the remains of the city. He and his assistants worked tirelessly for a week, bringing to bear every tool of sorcery they could find against the loos of Amori. He called in the greatest minds he knew, and their conclusion, in the end, was inescapable.
The world, he told us, is dying.
The governing council chose to release his full statement to the five billion people living on the planet, full and uncensored. We all watched, rapt, as Angogh explained that the spells and curses and hexes of so long ago had not vanished when the Great Treaty was signed. Some of them had survived, deep in the earth, and waited. They traveled along lines of power and met and mixed and changed, becoming new and horrible, storing vast energies all over the world. The work being done at Ortasbura had created a thinness, a weak point in the world that finally broke free and allowed these horrors to reach out and touch our lives.
And they could not be stopped. The world, Angogh said, would be torn apart by forces that had waited under our feet for millennia. We had very little time if we wanted to act.
One team, a group that had made themselves famous in entertainment circles as sorcerous adventurers, decided that they would try to stop these curses, which soon were erupting elsewhere in the world. Laskund Shos and her team produced a live event, promising to bring an end to the horrifying predictions of Angogh. The man had gotten old, they said, and nervous in his old age. They traveled to the slate-planes of Tia’ia for their ritual, and set up a vast magical circle. They brought in twenty of the best wielders they could, all of whom had shown strength and promise in their work. The circle was lined with the most advanced magics they could think of and the energies they brought to bear were like nothing the world had seen in centuries. It seemed to everyone watching that their success would be assured.
They were incinerated less than thirty seconds after the ritual began. The endless plains of Tia’ia were turned to human flesh that screamed so loudly that people could hear it hundreds of miles away. When it died and began to rot, no one could decide if it was even more horrible, or if it was truly a mercy.
The only option, then, was evacuation. As many people as possible would be sent into alternate dimensions, pocket universes, magical realms that existed only a shadow’s width from ours. But to do so would require great talent, energy and resources, much of which had just burned to death on the slate-plains of Tia’ia. The Great Council, under the advisement of Angogh, drew up a plan. The most essential members of government and research, the great leaders and thinkers of the age, would have to go over. The young and the fertile, the skilled workers and the teachers and laborers, they would have to go. The people who would be needed if they should one day be able to find a new world.
For everyone else, there was the lottery.
Some people panicked and railed against the plan, but in the end there was nothing else to be done. Teams worked around the clock in as many cities as they could. Already, the destruction being wrought by these ancient energies had killed millions more, and they shook the earth at every opportunity. Portals were erected to take people wherever they could go, to new worlds from which they could never return. People streamed into the cities, hoping to make the lottery and have a chance to survive.
Some people took action on their own. The citizens of a small village in the province of Lisassa found enough power to fold their entire town into some alternate world. People found each other though the Hexnets and went away in groups of two or three or five. And some chose to stay away from the evacuation entirely, to wait it out on their own. Others failed spectacularly, releasing more of the horrors that waited beneath the surface of the world and bringing quick death to thousands, if not hundreds of thousands more.
Those of us who did escape watched it all unfold with growing sorrow and horror. Through magic mirrors, scrying pools, crystals and magic circles, we saw the way the world crumbled. To the end, people were still trying to get out. One of the last evacuation portals was held open by none other than Angogh himself. He stayed, standing on legs that were barely even human anymore, until the ground beneath him opened up and, with teeth that were built to rend and tear, swallowed him – and thousands of others – whole.
And then it was gone.
Our world, the one we had built and fought over and protected since our species emerged, the one that had cradled life since its inception so very long ago, was gone. It cracked and shook and crumbled. It split apart and suppurated like a wound. It undid itself from the atoms up, and left a void in the universe that cried out to all creation that something was lost. Something that had been wonderful, unique, and precious, was now gone forever.
There were places that I loved in our world. The rolling green hills of Yijal, where the sun would set more slowly than anywhere else. The towering spires of Jadorin, where the bird-people flew and cultivated the air itself. The brilliant ocean depths and the sunken city of Calaia, always in a blue-green twilight that hid some of the most profound mysteries of man. I will always remember them, not as the burning and twisting wreckages they became, but as the places I loved. The places I will never see again.
Our people are scattered, dispersed among worlds that we never thought we would see. The wonders of the human race are gone, and will likely never be seen again.
We are a hardy species, though. Humans never truly settle down, and somewhere there will arise a new world, a new homeland for those of us who had to flee the world we knew. There is still hope for us, out among the worlds.
For now, though, there is only sorrow, pain, and regret.
We mourn the world of our birth. May we serve these new worlds better in its memory.
Inspired by one of my favorite Legion of Super-heroes stories, “Requiem” (Legion of Super-Heroes v4 #38, 1992)
This story was also written for a Worth1000 contest, Day and Night With a Twist, which is a little involved. The idea was to take an image from one of their Effects contests and write a story around it. I chose the entry by Delpht, which placed 15th, but it really caught my eye. Let’s hope I can do it justice.
I couldn’t believe my guild was making me pay a penance. They knew I couldn’t make the raid, they knew I wasn’t going to be able to help them out – I mean, if I tanked my midterms, then there’d be no more gaming for me ever. And that’d be a lot worse than missing one night.
But no – next time I logged in there was a message from the guild leaders. Lignar, Vioniel and Asireg all wanted to see me in the guildhall. And that, friends and neighbors, is never good. There’s only two things they use the guildhall for – initiating new members and getting rid of the ones they don’t like, and I didn’t remember seeing any plebes brought in recently.
They put the ‘port token in my inventory, and that brought me right to the audience chamber. It was massive, as befits one of the most infamous guilds in Storms of War. Black marble pillars that reached up into the perpetual shadows of a storm-ceiling, brilliant wrought-silver floors that reflected the eternal light of the countless Victors’ Lamps that stood on tall brass stands. There was gallery seating for everyone in the guild, but this night, they were empty. It was just the three guild leaders and me.
“Unoldo,” Vioniel said, and her voice rang in the hall. She stood tall over me, her elfin armor gleaming in silver and bronze. “You let your guild down by abandoning us in our time of need.”
“Look,” I said, “I told you I wasn’t -”
“SILENCE!” Asireg hefted his war-hammer and smacked it into his broad palm a couple of times. “We don’t want to hear your excuses, Unoldo.”
“But guys, listen! I told you -”
Lignar’s sword slid from its scabbard with a long, drawn-out hiss, and in a moment that blood-red blade was pointed right at me. “Dude,” he said. “Shut up.”
I shut up. The two guys looked at Vioniel, who started again. “Unoldo, you let your guild down by abandoning us in our time of need. We lost some great warriors who might have survived if you had lent your magics to our cause.” My palms itched and I had to bite my tongue to keep quiet. Just to be on the safe side, I muted my mic.
“The standard penalty for abandoning your guild is to be expelled and branded a traitor, so that no other guild will accept you ever again. You would wander the world alone, never reaching your full potential in the Storms of War.”
“But,” Lignar said, stepping forward, “you’ve done well by us in the past. You’re a good guy, Unoldo, so we’re giving you a chance. One. Chance.”
Carefully, I unmuted my mic. This still was totally unfair. It was still a complete sham. But if I could get out of it and still stay in the guild? Hell, I could put up with whatever they threw at me.
“Okay,” I said. “I accept. Do your worst.”
* * * * *
I wandered through the night-forest, trying to find the path I’d been on, and I wondered if maybe it was time to give up Storms of War and maybe start playing games that didn’t involve other people. Tetris or something.
The new avatar I was wearing was ridiculous – a little robot creature, which was totally wrong for the server we played on. There are no robots in epic fantasy, none, but they borrowed a body from one of their friends on a sci-fi server and sent me to some custom-built hub for their little “quest.” Now instead of being a level 35 Elf, armed to the teeth with the best magical weapons I could buy, protected by ensorcelled armor and possessing so much treasure that I liked to just throw money at plebes, I was stuck in this stupid, slow, clumsy, fragile robot body.
The little blue dress and the ponytail were just adding insult to injury.
They had explained the rules, and I could hear their stupid smiles when they said it was “simple.” All I had to do was go to this hub and find the Wyrm. The Wyrm would ask me three questions, and if I could answer them before sunrise local time, then I’d be allowed back into the guild.
“No way,” I’d said. “It can’t be that simple.”
Asired shrugged. “We can make it harder, if you want.” And before I could say, “No thank you, I’ll take it as easy as I can get,” they had me teleported and re-avatared in the middle of a dark, trackless forest.
I had no map. There was no compass in my utility screen. Everywhere I turned, it looked exactly the same. Trees. Grass. Darkness. And the sound of crickets in my headphones.
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” I said. There was no response from anyone. I was pretty sure they were watching me, but if they were then they’d decided to keep that nugget to themselves.
“Okay, Unoldo,” I whispered. “Find the Wyrm. Answer some questions.” I drummed my fingers on my desk and checked the time. It was already one in the morning. I tabbed over to my browser and checked sunrise. 6:14 AM.
“Okay,” I said again. I waggled my fingers over the keyboard, took my mouse in hand, and began to walk.
At first, I walked in that shuddery, incremental way I used to do when I was a plebe. Back in the days when pretty much anything could kill me, so my instincts for self-preservation were pretty strong. Light taps on the keys, a constant shifting of view back and forth, just in case something was ready to jump from the shadows and take me apart.
As time crawled by, though, I started to relax. I still didn’t know where I was, but there was nothing there. No creatures had leapt out to devour me, none of the trees had reached out to rip me to shreds. Whatever this place was, it seemed like I was the only one moving through it.
Within half an hour, I was bored stupid.
There was nothing to do but walk, and I didn’t even know where I was walking to. Every path looked the same, every tree looked like every other tree, and for all I knew, I’d been walking in a tight little circle all night.
Which was why actually meeting the Wyrm scared the everloving hell out of me.
I had no warning, no sign that something different was up ahead. The trail bent right and BAM. There it was. An ugly thing, like what you’d get if a subway car had sex with a caterpillar and then dumped its horrible mutant child on top of a giant mushroom. With a hookah.
It seemed as startled to see me as I was to see it. The thing reared back, and a message started to scroll across its green, backlit face. If it had a face.
WHO ARE YOU?
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so I just stammered out, “I’m Unoldo. I’m on a quest. Umm.” I didn’t know what else to say. “You’re, like, supposed to ask me questions?”
AM I? it asked.
“Oh, for the love of – YEAH!” I lifted off my headset, put my head in my hands and just ground my teeth together so I didn’t scream. My clock said that it was just after four in the morning, and I had school the next day. I put the headset on again. “You have to ask questions. I have to answer them. Then I get back in my guild. Understand?”
The Wyrm just sat there for a moment, and its hookah bubbled. It was so still that I thought maybe whoever was running it had gone offline. Finally, though: BEST FRIEND AND GREATEST ENEMY. SAVES LIVES AND TAKES LIVES. WITH A BREATH, IT CAN BE BANISHED. WITH A BREEZE, IT CAN BE FED. WHAT IS IT?
“Okay,” I said. “Give me a minute.” I hunted around my desk for pen and paper. “Can you repeat that?” I asked. It did, and this time the words scrolled up along the side of the screen. I stared at them, and I swore I could feel time slipping away from me. The one thing I knew about riddles what they usually had simple things for answers, so I started running through ideas. I scratched answers down on paper and crossed them out as they failed the riddle. Not water or trees or clouds, those didn’t make any sense. If the rest of it was like this, then I was totally sc-
My head snapped up, and I shouted, “FIRE!” I flinched when I said it, and glanced up at the ceiling. No footsteps, but I couldn’t be too careful.
The Wyrm swayed slightly. CORRECT, it said, and I did a little happy dance in my chair.
A NEUTRON WALKS INTO A BAR AND ORDERS A BEER, it said, the words again appearing on the side of the screen as they scrolled across its face. IT FINISHES THE BEER AND ASKS THE BARMAN, “HOW MUCH DO I OWE YOU?” THE BARMAN REPLIES…?
I grinned and sat back in my chair. “He says, ‘For you – no charge.’” My chemistry’s teacher’s desperate desire to be a stand-up comedian was finally going to pay off. Just not for him.
CORRECT, the Wyrm said. I leaned forward again and cracked my knuckles. One more question to go, and sunrise was still a good hour away.
This time, the Wyrm reared up, lifting its body almost vertically above the mushroom’s cap. Its underbelly lit up, pale yellow in the darkness, and a crude line drawing blinked into existence. It was a square. Inside the square were two words, one on top of the other. “dice – dice”
“Dicedice?” I muttered.
INCORRECT, the Wyrm said, and my heart started pounding against my ribcage.
“NO!” I said, and then I dropped to a whisper. I wasn’t sure, but for a moment I thought I heard the bed upstairs squeak. “No,” I whispered. “I was just, you know, thinking out loud.” I had blown it, I had totally blown the whole thing, and right when I was about to pass. But the Wyrm didn’t move. It just stayed there, its belly flickering faintly in the gloom.
I muted my mic and started trying to figure it out. There were two of them, two dice… Why two? Doubledice? No… that wasn’t anything. Why two? Why two?
A thought jumped into my head. It seemed to make sense, but there was no guarantee that it would be right. And sunrise was coming sooner than I thought.
I turned on the mic again and said, “Paradise?”
The Wyrm swayed in the darkness and then dropped back down. CORRECT, it said.
“YESS!!” I hissed, and I pumped my fist. The breath I’d been holding came out in a rush.
The lights on the Wyrm’s underside flickered off, followed by the lights on its face. The forest was once again plunged into darkness, and my screen went blank. It stayed that way just long enough to make me start to panic again, but then faded into clarity. I was back in the guildhall again, alone this time. My armor was on, and a quick check on my inventory told me that everything I had was still where I left it. Spinning in the air in front of me was a glowing scroll. I grinned and took it.
Congratulations, Unoldo, it read. You passed your first-stage initiation. There will be two more tests. Pass them, and you will be granted the title of Guild leader. You will start the second test the next time you log in.
And at the bottom, in smaller type, it said, We really had you going, didn’t we? The sentence was signed by Lignar.
I grinned madly and put the scroll into my inventory. Yup. They had me going. I logged out and stretched. The sky outside was light, and I had maybe an hour before I was supposed to get up for school. I plodded over to the sofa and stretched out. I’d probably catch hell for staying up all night and gaming, but I didn’t care.
Some things were more important.
This is an entry for the Worth1000 contest, Everyday Instruction Manual. The mission: “Write a simple set of instructions for completing a simple everyday task.” I figured I could make a little money on the side. Enjoy.
Welcome, weary traveler, to the wonderful world of Napping™! Thank you for purchasing volume one of NapNow™ System, a five-volume set that will bring you napping pleasure and fulfillment. Remember that official NapNow™ merchandise can be purchased on our website, napnow-dot-com.
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Another small crystal sphere was lifted up by an air current and deposited gently onto Belesse’s workstation. She took it and, with swift and practiced motions, began to assemble a dream within it.
She had the rhythm down, made into a ritual she’d performed six days a week for nearly three years. Twist the sphere to iris open the top and reach up for one of the dozens of nozzles hanging overhead. Check the work order, and then start mixing. A touch of self-doubt and existential terror, an old love and memories of childhood infused with a delicate mixture of old television commercials and abandonment issues. Twist the sphere to close it, give it a good shake, and send it on down the line for packing and distribution. Another arrives, and do the same again. And again.
There had been a time, she was told, when dreams were individually crafted for people. When each and every dream bore the fine attention of a master dreamcrafter – or at least a skilled apprentice or two. But the world got bigger, the dreams got more complicated, and sooner or later everything falls to mass production. The little old men who knew how to put together intricately built nightmares and illusions were now forced out. Put in management positions if they were lucky. In their place were the ones like Belesse, who needed the money and didn’t mind the monotonous work. The pay was good enough, and it wasn’t like she had anything else she could do.
She passed a dream off onto the conveyor belt with her right hand and took a fresh sphere with her left. She looked at the work order and grimaced. It called for Wet Dream 33-G, a delicate mixture that she rarely saw on her workflow and was never sure if she got right. She reached under her workstation and pulled out the manual, a dusty three-ring binder that she almost never consulted these days. The pages were brittle and yellow, and still covered with notes that she’d made back when she was new on the job. Some tips that she’d gotten from other girls, a few notes on substitutions and her early experiments, which had nearly gotten her fired. The floor chief had dragged her off to the manager’s office, and she was told in no uncertain terms that she was not to deviate from the prescribed formulae.
Page eighty-two had it. She ran her finger down the list and nodded. Pretty conventional ingredients, actually, with just a few twists to it. Adolescent gender uncertainty, patriarchal culture paradigms, a composite of popular teen boy bands, and all topped off with run-of-the-mill lustiness. She grabbed hoses and started filling the sphere, smiling grimly at the symbolism of the whole thing as she did it.
She squeezed the handle for the objectification of teen male sexuality and nothing came out. She squeezed it again, and once more, and let the hose go. “Figures,” she muttered. She opened the manual and started looking for substitutions, which is when she smelled the floor boss behind her.
The workers suspected that Rachok knew how despised he was, and that somewhere in what passed for his heart he had a subconscious desire to give them a chance to avoid drawing his attention. It may have been true, or it may not have, but there was no other reason they could think of for the thick cloud of foul-smelling cologne that seemed to precede and follow him as he went on his rounds. His mission was simple: to look for workers who weren’t working fast enough and to goad them with the threat of yelling, verbal abuse and eventual firing. This time, Belesse had been too absorbed in the recipe to notice until it was too late.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing,” he grumbled, and she stood up straight as she spun to face him. He was an ugly, ugly man – broad and oily with a permanent scowl and eyes that never seemed to rest on anything. The cologne was really the best part of him. “Do you think we pay you to stand around and read, woman?” She opened her mouth, but he didn’t let the words get out. “Oh, or did you think that the job wasn’t important enough for your full godsdamned attention? Did you think you could just slack off whenever you got bored with doing the job we pay you for?”
“No – no sir,” she stammered. “I was just -”
“I don’t give two farts in a high wind what you were just,” he roared. He picked up the sphere she’d been working on and shook it under her nose. “You see this, you empty-headed girl? It’s wasted now!” He threw it to the ground. The sphere shattered and the dream sublimated into a fine mist. Belesse felt a warmth in her belly and she blushed hard. Rachok reached past her and grabbed another. “Here,” he said, forcing it into her hands. “Do it again, and for once do it right. No more delays.”
“But I -”
“No buts!” He leaned in, and she was vividly aware that he’d had curry for lunch. Or perhaps dinner the day before. “I have had it up to here with you people and your excuses and your gripes and your complaints! Nothing’s ever good enough for you, is it?” He smiled, and it was like an uneven army of yellow bricks had been shoved into his mouth. “Well, there are a hundred girls out there who would be happy to work for less than we’re paying you right now, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any reason why I shouldn’t go and haul one of those half-wits over right now to take your place.” He poked her in the shoulder with a thick-nailed finger. “Get working,” he growled, “or get walking!”
He stood there, his flat, pock-marked nose nearly touching hers, until she gave a short, meek nod. The show of submission that he was waiting for. Rachok grunted and went back on his rounds, but he glanced back at her several times before he turned the corner.
Belesse wiped her eyes before they could actually start welling up, and told herself it was just the fumes. She sniffed as she re-made the recipe and thought about all the things she wished she could have said. It wouldn’t have mattered if she had, though. In Rachok’s universe, people like her didn’t stand up to people like him. The cognitive dissonance probably would have gotten them both killed. More’s the pity.
When she got to the missing ingredient she paused again, staring up at the tangle of hoses. They reminded her suddenly of the trees she used to play under when she was a child. The trees were always heavy with vines, and she and her sisters would race to see who could climb the highest.
“Hell with it,” she said to herself, and she grabbed a hose at random to fill the sphere. When it was done, she released the hose in shock and covered her mouth to stifle the giggle. The sphere glimmered under the ugly fluorescent lights, and she wondered what poor boy was going to have an erotic dream about trans-Euclidean geometry tonight. She rolled the sphere onto the conveyor belt with her right hand and took a new one with her left. She still wanted to laugh out loud, but nothing would have gotten Rachok thundering over there faster than the sound of someone actually enjoying her job. Still, it seemed that there was still some fun to be had.
The work orders came in one after the other, and she filled them diligently. All with one added ingredient, of course, and even she didn’t know what it was going to be until she did it. Someone would be dreaming about murderous clowns who debated tax policy as they chased them in slow motion; another would have a dream about his mother, but it’s not his mother, but actually it is and she’s really a small nation of ants masquerading as Hillary Clinton; and some little girl would find herself dreaming that she was a Disney princess, forced to defend her marzipan castle against the onslaught of zombies that would have her brains for breakfast.
Would it get her fired? Probably. She squirted a bit of overt racism into a dream about kittens and rolled the sphere along. But as ways to go went, this was a pretty good one.
She picked up another sphere, closed her eyes and reached up with a small, forbidden smile on her face. Tonight was going to be fun for everyone.
The elves were singing so loud that Treva had to turn up her iPod and pick something metal to listen to. She sat in the shade of a great tree that was thousands of years old, whose branches blocked a sky that was the blue of old sapphires, and she tapped out a text message on her phone. She wouldn’t be able to send it, of course – there was never any reception in this place, but it was the only thing that made her feel even close to normal. She was lucky the thing even worked. The year before she’d just brought a bunch of books and sat under the tree by the stream and read until the pixies left her alone.
That reminded her – she reached back into the hood of her sweatshirt and fished around until she found the one that had decided to huddle in there. She assumed it was yelling something at her – the thing was waving its little arms and its wings were buzzing, but she couldn’t hear a damn thing. Which was the whole point, really. She flung the pixie off into the bushes and went back to her phone. The tree sighed behind her – she could feel its trunk expand slowly, and she was pretty sure it was trying to say something to her in its low, wooden voice. Probably something about respecting all living things, the importance of kindness and compassion and blah blah blah. If there was any kindness and compassion in the world, she wouldn’t have to spend her summers being packed up and dragged to Fairie just so she could meet her mother’s relatives.
When she was a kid it was great. What kid wouldn’t love fairyland? There were hills to climb and strange little creatures everywhere that could do magic just to entertain her. Hell, she even got to ride a unicorn for a few years, although it had led to a really interesting conversation with her father when she turned fifteen last year and all of a sudden that damn unicorn didn’t want a thing to do with her anymore. She wanted to blame Tony Dinkens for that, but it had been just as much her as him. And when it came right down to it, a unicorn was fine when you were a kid, but sex was for a lifetime.
After a while, it all got old. You could only go to the Magic Grove so many times before you’ve heard all the songs those trees are ever going to sing. You can only play so many riddle games before they start repeating themselves, and you can only go so far into the deep, dark woods before your mother’s henchmen decide that you really shouldn’t be out on your own and drag you back.
Her iPod sputtered, skipped and died, and the intricately woven, multi-part harmonies of the elves flooded into her ears again. “Crap,” Treva said. She snapped her phone shut. It would probably be the next to go, and she really didn’t think she could handle that right now. She stood up and brushed blades of perfectly green grass off her jeans, put up her hood and walked back out into the brilliant sunshine.
The estate was gorgeous, and by now Treva was completely bored with every inch of it. The stables, the fractal hedge maze, the pond where frogs jumped out and granted minor wishes if you kissed them. She felt like she’d done it all, and if her parents announced that they were leaving today and never coming back, she couldn’t be happier.
Speak of the devil. Her father was walking towards her across the sheep field, his hands in his pockets and his eyeglasses glinting in the sun. She couldn’t stand the way he looked. He couldn’t just look like a normal dad – overweight, tired from working a job that he hated, wanting nothing more than to sit down, drink a beer and watch TV. He had to be “interesting.” He wrote for literary journals, sometimes spending days holed up in that giant library of his to research whatever dead white person he had decided was important that week. He had graying temples and steel-rimmed eyeglasses and always looked like he had a secret that he was just dying to tell you. Treva sighed and looked down at the grass while she walked. He wouldn’t pass her by, but at least maybe she could convince him that she wasn’t up for another one of his “Isn’t-it-great-to-be-here” chats.
“Treva!” he called. She took a few steps and then looked up like she was surprised to see him. He seemed unsettled, though she wasn’t sure how she could tell, and he was holding something in his arms. It looked like a big blue egg, covered in sparkling gems. It glimmered faintly in the sunshine, and she could smell hot metal wafting from it on the wind.
She stopped, and, with great visible effort, popped the earbuds from her ears. “Dad,” she said, managing to pack an entire vacation’s worth of boredom into one word. “Another dragon’s egg?” She rolled her eyes. “Not like we can actually raise them at home or anything. They just sit there on the coffee table taking up space.” She rolled her eyes. “Lame.” She started walking again, but he stepped in front of her.
“You’re right, Treva.” He held out the egg, but she wouldn’t take it. “And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” He pushed his glasses up on his nose, and she was slightly unnerved by the expression on his face. “Treva, I’m afraid…” He took a deep breath. “Treva, we can’t go home.”
She stood and stared at him from under her hood. The elves’ song was repeating, and it was really starting to get on her nerves. Her father kept shifting the egg from hand to hand and blinking a lot, and it seemed like forever before she managed to say, “What?”
He chewed his lip and tried to put an arm around her, but she shrugged it off. “What the hell do you mean we can’t go home?” she yelled. The singing stopped abruptly. “We have to go home! Dad, all my friends are at home!” He flung her arms out, encompassing all of fairyland. “Dad, I hate this place, we can’t stay!”
He stood up to her yelling with his usual stoicism. She had become very good at getting her points across at high volume, and while it used to completely disarm him at first, he had become skilled at waiting until she was done and then continuing on as if nothing had happened. When the echoes died away, he reached out for her again, but again, she shrunk back. “Treva,” he finally said, “please understand that this is a very… complicated situation.”
“The hell it is,” she yelled. “How complicated can it be? We do it every summer! Pack our things, get in the minivan and go home!” She mimed the actions as she spoke. “It’s perfectly easy!”
He sighed, and then gently placed the dragon’s egg on the ground. “Treva,” he said, “I can’t think of a good way to say this, so I’m just going to spit it out.”
“Oh, this should be good,” she said. She crossed her arms and turned away from him.
“At sunset tomorrow,” her father said, “you are going to be married to Sundadar, Lord of the Dusk Hour, as the fulfillment of the bargain that was made when your mother and I married.” He stood back, hands on his hips, and waited for the explosion.
It didn’t come. Treva didn’t look at him. She didn’t say anything. Gently, carefully, she put the earbuds back in her ears one at a time and thumbed her iPod on. It didn’t work, but it didn’t matter. She shoved her hands in the front pocket of her hoodie and walked at a steady pace back towards the main manor house.
Her father watched her go and sighed. He picked up the egg and patted it gently. “It’s going to be harder than we thought,” he murmured, and started off to follow his daughter.
The idea for tonight’s writing comes from one of the writing prompts offered up by John Scalzi in his most recent column over at Filmcritic.com – go on over and try your hand at it!
Bruce Wayne turned around and scanned the crowd for a voice he was afraid he knew. The main banquet hall of the Gotham Imperial Hotel was full of the richest men and women in the country, all there for a charity auction of antiquities that had been out of the public eye for decades, if not centuries. The fact that they had been, until a few months ago, almost entirely in the possession of the Penguin was known to only a few people in the room. With Cobblepot’s timely arrest and conviction, it was decided that the objects he coveted should be put to good use, something that enraged Cobblepot to no end.
The charity had hoped to raise several hundred thousand dollars, but Wayne had done his best to see to it that they broke well over several million. Rich people were not naturally sentimental, but Bruce Wayne had a gift for getting people to do what he wanted.
He looked through the sea of tuxedos and silks, and for a moment he nearly let his pleasant socialite mask slip into the habitual grimace he was so comfortable with. He turned to the lovely young lady on his arm and said, “Would you excuse me for a minute, Adriana?”
She smiled, and said, “Of course. You captains of industry must have important things to talk about.” Her accent was beautiful – his ear-link to the cave computer had allowed him to place her from a small village just south of the Polish border. She traced his jawline with an impeccably manicured fingernail. “I will see you later, yes?”
Bruce took her hand and kissed it. “Absolutely,” he said. She blushed and turned before he could say anything about it.
“You know, I thought I was good with the ladies, Bruce, but you certainly put up quite the fight yourself.” Bruce turned and found himself looking directly into the eyes of Tony Stark. Stark had that annoying perpetual half-smile under his thin goatee that just made Bruce’s fists itch. It had nothing to do with the attempted takeover of Wayne Robotics last year, of course. Or the way he’d managed to undercut Wayne Industries in a government-sponsored hydroelectric project. No, nothing like that at all.
“Stark,” Bruce said
“Oh, come on, Bruce!” Tony clapped him on the shoulder. “Lighten up!” He deftly took a glass of champagne from one of the waiters that was working the room. He drained half of it in one swallow, and Bruce hated him just that much more. “Sure you lost, Bruce, but think about it this way – I’m out half a million, and I won’t get that back for -” He checked his watch. “Another twenty minutes, at the very least.” He grinned insolently and finished the champagne. He dropped it off with another traveling waiter and then adjusted his cufflinks. “And now I have a new conversation piece.”
“What I wonder, Tony, is what exactly you needed with a fifteenth-century Chinese sword?”
“What did you need with it?”
Bruce’s glare should have burned right through him. Stark just shrugged. “Open mail. Slice ham.” He struck a pose. “Pretend I’m a ninja.” Bruce rolled his eyes and Tony stood up straight. “I know, I know – Japan, not China. But that’s not the point.” He shrugged. “I liked it. I wanted it. I got it.”
Bruce glanced at his watch to make sure the data feed from his earpiece was working. The hour hand had turned red, meaning that the wireless signal was blocked. Bruce grimaced.
Tony laughed, his hands in his pockets. “Wow, you really don’t like to lose, do you?”
“No,” Bruce said, glancing up. “I really don’t.”
They started at each other for a moment, and Tony Stark’s grin just seemed to grow more insolent by the moment. The first thing Bruce had done when the new billionaire on the block moved in was to find out everything he could about him, and very little of what he found made him like the man. Stark Industries had grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years, mainly on the strength of Stark’s designs. Despite what looked like a serious problem with alcohol, the man was a genius, there was no denying that. But Bruce Wayne had seen genius many times before, and it rarely turned out well for anyone.
“Listen, Tony.” Bruce checked his watch again. Still red. “I’d love to stay and banter with you. I really would. But I have to go.” He forced a smile. “I have a lady waiting.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Tony said. “I wouldn’t dream of keeping you from a lady like that. However,” he said, taking a step closer. “If you want a closer look at that sword, it can certainly be arranged.” Bruce started to object, but Tony held up a hand. “You know there are quite a few people in Gotham besides us who would love to have it. And who would be far less willing to pay a fair price for it.” He raised an eyebrow.
Bruce wasn’t sure if he was hearing what he thought he was hearing. If anything, Stark looked excited by the idea that someone in the Gotham underworld would try to steal the sword, which raised all kinds of alarm bells in Bruce’s mind. Perhaps he was planning an insurance scam? But then why even hint about it? The man was about as far from stupid as it was possible to be, but this was pretty dumb. “Stark,” he said. “I don’t want anything -”
“Listen carefully, Bruce,” Stark said. The joking tone was gone from his voice, which sent Bruce’s mind off in all kinds of different directions. “I’ll be putting this on display in my Gotham headquarters, and I’ll get the word out that security is pretty lax.” He glanced around. “I reckon someone will come after it pretty quickly.”
Bruce snorted. “For a sword?” He shook his head in disbelief. Maybe Stark wasn’t as smart as he thought. “If you want petty criminals digging through your lobby, have fun with that. I don’t see how I need to be involved.” He nodded politely and turned to go.
“How about the Joker?” Stark said quietly. Bruce stopped and looked over his shoulder. Stark made a small gesture to come back over, and then went on in a low voice. “The Penguin murdered one of the Joker’s men to get the sword. The clown had wanted it for himself, and was very unhappy when it got swiped from him.” He glanced around again. “I put that out on display, and it’s almost a guarantee that he’ll come. Him, or someone who can be traced to him.” He looked Bruce in the eyes. The flippancy was gone, replaced with deadly earnestness.
“And what,” Bruce said slowly, “do you think this has to do with me?” He kept his face relaxed, concentrating on the muscles around his eyes and his nose to not give anything away. If Stark was suggesting what he thought he was suggesting…
Stark burst out in a laugh that startled everyone around them. “Oh, you’re good, Bruce. You really are.” He clapped him on the shoulder again. “You enjoy the rest of the party, okay?” He put out his hand and Bruce took it. “But give some thought to my idea, okay?” Tony squeezed Bruce’s hand, just hard enough. “I’ll keep the skylight open for you.”
Bruce just watched as Tony Stark walked away, wrapping his arm around the waist of a beautiful auburn-haired beauty that he probably hadn’t met until that moment. Bruce glanced at his watch. The hands were green again. He tapped the earpiece. “Alfred,” he said. “Looks like we have a problem.”
“I would be surprised if we didn’t, sir,” Alfred said in his ear. “I’ll put on some extra tea.”
Bruce didn’t bother to put his social face back on, and left the hotel without goodbyes. There was something about Tony Stark that he had overlooked, and he would be damned if he didn’t figure it out by morning.
Bruce Wayne is owned by DC Comics.
Tony Stark is owned by Marvel Comics.
Garus couldn’t see when he woke up. He thought he might have gone deaf, too, but he could hear the howling of wind, which carried the screams of the wounded and dying to him. He smelled blood and mud and smoke and felt a stabbing pain in his stomach, all of which together convinced him that he was not dead. Or if he was, there was a very unpleasant eternity in store for him.
He tried to lift a hand to wipe his eyes, but his right hand wouldn’t move. So he picked up his left, which still held his sword, and for that he gave a rare thanks to whichever gods had decided not to abandon him at that moment. It did leave him with a poor choice, though – leave himself blind, or let go of Endiel so he could see again. In the end, he pulled the sword close to him, so that it rested against his side. He tried to sit up, but the pain in his stomach made that nearly impossible. His right hand had been burned into a rigid claw, the burns so deep that he couldn’t even feel it anymore. Garus resented the burns. He wasn’t a bad swordsman with his left, but nothing like he was with his right. Slowly, painfully, he levered himself up and got the blood and mud off his face with a hand sore and stiff from clenching the sword hilt.
The field of battle looked worse than he had imagined. The long green grass where he and his men had made their stand was gone, now nothing but a field of churned mud and corpses, all wearing the colors of the Army of The Red Rocks. Long-shafted arrows pinned the ground as far as he could see, and rivulets of rainwater flowed red to a larger stream of blood that slowly seeped into the ground. The bloody mud was mixed with splinters and rags, and he could see hands and faces just barely sticking up above the pooling red rainwater.
He took up the sword again and used it to get himself to his feet. Endiel was brightly, bitterly clean against the mud, and its green crystalline blade seemed to mock the desolation around it. Garus grimaced and tried to sheathe it, but his scabbard was gone. Lost somewhere in the mud, probably. He turned around, but everywhere he looked was the same. Bleak, gray-brown desolation. His eyes started to fill with tears.
The Army of the Red Rocks had been charged with protecting this pass. The mountains were nearly impossible to climb in any season and served as an ideal protection for the city of Deroth behind them. And it should have been easy. The Steward of Deroth had contracted Garus’ band to raise an army to defend the pass, a chokepoint that could have been held by an old woman and her grandmother. Garus had raised an army of a thousand loyal to Deroth to see to it that the forces of the Echuskan Empire would find them a nut too hard to crack.
Not so hard after all, it seemed. He looked behind him. The carnage continued into the pass, and he could smell smoke on the wind. He didn’t need to see it to know that the city of Deroth was dead, or at least dying, and he had failed in his promise. They must have been betrayed. It was the only explanation. He tested his anger and found it flat and dull, and that was how Garus knew he was dying. If he thought he could live, even another day, he would spend that day seeking out the traitor. He would die in that quest. But somehow he knew. He knew that there would be no quest, no search and no vengeance. Not for him.
Garus spotted a glimpse of color in the carnage – a bright blue that somehow remained unstained, and he knew there was only one person it could be. He limped over and cried out loud when he saw what was left of Kal-Atem. His body was slashed and broken, his bright Toriian plumage crushed into the mud. His beak had been hacked off by a sword-stroke and left a gaping maw where once poetry and song had come from. His cloak, though, was unstained. It was a simple enchantment, but just the kind of thing that a performer like him would want. Garus thought of the songs that Kal-Atem would not sing again, and he sank to his knees. For a moment, he wished bitterly that they had never met.
His weeping caused him to cough, which turned into hacking, and moments later he spit out something red and thick. “Oh,” he said. He thought about standing, but what would have come from that? There, by the body of his best friend, was as good a place to die as any. He knew his other comrades were out there somewhere. Probably just as dead as Kal-Atem was, as he would be himself.
Endiel still glowed in his hand, and he hated it for a moment. Still clean, unmarred, as beautiful as the day it was created, no doubt. Not a trace of the violence touched it, and Garus was well aware that no none who had ever wielded it had lived to give it up. He had gained it when he was a boy, when it fell from the hands of the Master Knight who’d wielded it. The sword had glowed when he touched it, and they were bound together from that moment.
From that moment until this one.
He lifted the sword up, and with an effort that sent him to hacking up bloody chunks again, he slammed it into the mud, down to the earth beneath, until only its hilt stuck up above the ground. When he recovered, he reached out and gripped the hilt with a bloodstained hand and took a thick, shaky breath. “I am Garus,” he whispered, and the sword-light shined a little brighter as it heard him. “We were betrayed,” he said. “We were betrayed and Deroth has been taken. The Empire will continue to move until it devours all.” He started to cough again, and it was a long while before he could speak again.
“If you hear this, then Endiel is yours. Take her. Wield her.” He spit again. “It is too late to save us, the Army of the Red Rocks. Kal-Atem. Nuis. Lynala. Yatix.” He felt faint, like he hadn’t slept for a long time, and his grip on the sword felt soft and indistinct. He ground his teeth and tasted blood and took a shuddering breath. “It is to late to save us,” he said.
Garus let go of the sword and its glow winked out. Someone would find it, that much he knew. Not today, not tomorrow. But someday. He just prayed that the hand that wielded it would be strong enough to do what needed to be done.
He lay back, next to the body of Kal-Atem, and watched the gray sheet of clouds drift slowly overhead. The wind whipped across the field faster than the clouds, and Garus wished he could smell something sweeter than death as he went. “Good thing you’re not here, Kal,” he croaked. “You would have hated this ending.” He started to laugh, but the laugh cut off as his chest clenched and stopped his air. His heart followed soon after.
Garus and the army of the Red Rocks lay in the mud as the city of Deroth burned behind the mountains. It would be a long time before someone found the sword. It would be even longer before Garus and his friends were avenged.
Cory’s dream trembled under my fingertips. I was barely even touching it and I could feel its tenuous fabric try to shrink away from me.
Dreams are like that. You ever hear someone try to describe a really weird dream that they had? They search for words, they try to make comparisons that don’t make any sense. You know: “She was my girlfriend but not my girlfriend, and for some reason she was a robot, but not like a Terminator robot but like one of those things you see in an auto plant. And made of marzipan.” Right. They make perfect sense when you’re in them, and absolutely none from the outside. The internal logic is flawless, but to someone looking in, the whole thing is like a fragile, evanescent soap bubble just waiting to go.
It takes a lot of practice to get in and out of them without breaking the whole thing down around you, too. Fortunately, I’ve had that practice. And a little bit of luck.
I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer, and a touch – and I was in.
The dream was pretty boilerplate, and about what I’d expect of a sixteen year-old boy. Lots of dark corners, nothing really clear except when you were looking straight at it. It was hot and everything felt sluggish – when I moved, it felt like everything happened a half second too late. I focused, and everything snapped into sharp relief. All it takes is a shift of perspective. It’s like watching a movie and reminding yourself that the guns are shooting blanks and the explosions are largely computer-generated. It takes some of the fun out of it, yeah, but if you were living in it, then it might save your life.
The school hallway brightened a bit as I reminded myself of where I was, and what I was doing there. I heard screams. The notebook in my pocket told me what I needed to know about the kid: Cory Shillinger, he was a football player and probably the best on his team. A bit of a bully, but that came with the territory. And that wasn’t why I was there. Not to punish him for anything. Just to remind him of something.
The photo I’d pasted into my notebook was all the reference I had, so I pictured a much younger Cory in my head. Dirty blonde hair, skinny, teeth that hadn’t been fixed up yet. I felt the image wrap around me like a tight corset, and when I called up a mirror on the wall, I saw that I looked at least enough like him to pass in a dream. But there was one more thing I needed.
I pulled the badge out of my pocket and pinned it to the faded Star Wars t-shirt I was wearing. The badge had three simple words on it: I AM YOU. He would see it, but not really know what it was. It was a symbol, and nothing more, and it would be all that was really necessary to convince Cory of who I was supposed to be. Honestly, I could have decided to look like Mark Twain or Marilyn Monroe or Jabba the Hutt, but I figured it would be best not to push my luck.
The real Cory came barreling around the corner a moment later, and I banished the mirror. He was running feverishly from something that I’m sure was really horrifying. The way I saw it, he was running from symbols that I saw as just floating bundles of words. “Terror.” “Humiliation.” “Pain.” “Danger.”
The usual stuff.
Cory himself was gorgeous, or at least mostly so. He had the body of a teenage quarterback – all lean and tight and muscled from head to toe. And I do mean head to toe – all he was wearing was a pair of boxers, and even those were flickering in and out as I looked at him. His skin was breaking out in sores that pulsed and opened and closed and moved about his body. His hair was falling out, and as he screamed, I saw that he was missing teeth.
Very impressive. Poor boy was pretty much getting the grand package of nightmares. I cracked my knuckles. Time to get to work.
I put myself in his path and held out a hand. A great wind blew in from behind me, picking up papers and books and even the odd desk or two. It blew from me towards Cory, and bent in a tight circle around him to blow the symbolic monsters away from him in great tatters and rags. Cory screamed and wept as the wind blew past him and howled and shrieked horrible things that only he could hear.
I lowered my hand and the wind snapped off. Cory dropped to his knees, holding his head in his hands. I let him sit like that for a moment, or however long that was for him.
“Hey. QB,” I said. “You gonna sit like that all night?”
He looked up, and I could tell that he’d be a heartbreaker if he just had clear skin and all his teeth. I shook my head. “This isn’t gonna work,” I said. “Stand up.”
He looked at me dumbly.
“C’mon, QB. Stand up.” I crooked a finger and he stood on unsteady legs. I raised a hand to his chest and laid a hand against his skin. His form rippled for a moment, and all the deformities and disfigurement faded away. “There you go.” I patted his chest, and I’m not ashamed to say that I let it linger there for a moment. “You… um, you might want to think about wearing some clothes.” I glanced down, and so did he. “But you can take your time.” I winked. “If you want.”
He didn’t. An eyeblink later and he was wearing his football uniform, pads and helmet and all.
“All right,” I said. I shrugged and turned around. There were a couple of chairs there that hadn’t been there before. “Have a seat,” I said. “And take that helmet off. It makes me uncomfortable.” As he sat, I took another button out and pinned it to the football uniform that I seemed to be wearing as well. Gotta be more careful about that. This button read YOU TRUST ME. Manipulative? Maybe. But one does what one must.
I sat and he sat as well. We stared at me for a moment, then licked his lips and said, “Who are you?”
“Good,” I said. “You can talk. You’d be surprised how often that fails in here.” I handed him a drink in a cup labeled RELAX. He took it and blew over the top. Hot chocolate, probably. When he’d taken a sip, and the pads deflated from under his uniform, I started to talk again.
“Cory,” I said. “You’re in trouble.” I gestured over to one corner of the room, which had gone from being a school hallway to a bare stage. A spotlight clicked on and illuminated a strange tableau. Cory, holding another boy close, their arms wrapped around each other in mid-fall. Look at it one way, and it was the middle of a brawl – the other boy’s feet were about to come out from under him, and I could see Cory getting ready to pull an arm out for a punch. Cory’s face was a mask of rage, the other boy’s torn by fear.
Seen another way, though, and they were holding on to each other out of desperation. Cory was trying to hold the other boy up, his arms tightening around his waist and they both slowly dropped to the floor. The anger on Cory’s face warped to pain and anguish. The other boy’s face was still overwhelmed with fear, but it was altogether a different kind now.
We both looked at it, and then I turned to Cory. “So,” I said. “It looks like there’s something you might need to talk about.”