A man of inhuman proportions stepped around the corner into the frozen food aisle of the supermarket, stopped at the vegetables, and sat cross-legged on the floor. Waiting.
Even sitting down, he was tall, taller than most of the men and women who had come to do their shopping. His leather greatcoat fanned out behind him on the floor, and he creaked and jingled when he moved, as though there were still more layers of metal and leather underneath. His face looked like it had been carved from volcanic rock, with a single livid scar that slashed across his nose from one cheek to the other. He had long, silver hair that was bound with a red leather cord, and looked like someone who had stepped off the cover of a fantasy novel.
The other Sunday shoppers didn’t seem to notice him at all. One middle-aged woman with two kids in a shopping cart stopped next to him, reached past his face, and took out a package of peas. Her littlest started at the man, and made to say something, but the child was soon distracted by its older brother, who smacked it with a package of snack cakes.
The man sat there, cross-legged, eyes closed, for hours as the shoppers went by. They guided their carts around him, never really noticing that he was there. Perhaps some of them wondered why it was they should suddenly want to veer left and look at the frozen pizzas. Some of the more sensitive of them may have noticed the faintest smell of woodsmoke curl up into the deep recesses of their brain, but they would have dismissed it as soon as they walked by. Only a few very young children seemed to see him, and none of their parents were interested in following up on the strange fantasies of their toddlers.
The day wore on. More people came in to shop for dinner or to get their groceries for the week. As the night came in, the tide of shoppers slowed, and by midnight the store was populated mostly by the skeleton crew of employees and college students looking to meet their immediate snack and soda needs. The supermarket was quiet, except for the constant hum of compressors and the quiet melodies of the overhead music.
At about one in the morning, the man opened his eyes. They were a deep, terra-cotta red set in black, and they seemed to be following the movements of something outside his own vision. A moment later, a girl walked around the corner. She looked like she had pulled her outfit together from the first items she’d laid hands on in a thrift shop, with oversized combat boots on her feet and a fez on her head. She stopped in front of the man on the floor and flashed a grin that was brilliant under the fluorescents. “Been here long?” she said. She planted her feet and crossed her arms, and somehow managed to look more solid than the giant in front of her.
The man leveled his gaze at her. “All day,” he said. “Where have you been?”
She shrugged and twirled a finger. “You know. Out. About. Doing things and stuff and things.”
He unfolded himself from where he’d been sitting and sighed as he stood. “I should have set the bargain for a dusk limit instead of dawn.” He looked down at her. “I was told that you were more reliable.”
That grin again. “You were told wrong, big man.”
The man sighed, and it was a rumble in his chest. “Shall we begin?” he asked.
“Yup. Let’s get this over with.”
The man reached into a pocket of the greatcoat and pulled out a small cloth bag. He held it up to his lips and whispered to it, words too quick and too soft for anyone to hear. Then he gestured to the girl, for her to move closer. She did. “In this place,” the man said, “this sanctuary, we have come here to make a bargain. In honesty and good faith.” He poured red sand out of the bag, making a half-circle around them. “Siorad of the Western Hills does so swear.” He took the bag in both hands and presented it to the girl with all the solemnity of ancient ritual.
She swiped it from his hands, rolling her eyes. “We’re here to make a deal,” she said. “Nobody tries anything, nobody gets hurt.” She poured the rest of the sand from the bag, but now it was blue. When she completed the circle, she stood up straight. “I’m Liryl of the Underground, and I approve this message.” She tossed the bag to Siorad, who caught it with a look of disapproval. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again they glowed the dull orange of old coals. He spoke a word, and the supermarket around him seemed to ripple and change. For a moment, it wasn’t a supermarket at all. It was a great meeting-hall, ancient and dangerous. A place where even blood enemies could meet and parley without fear of betrayal. It was the place it had always been, even when it had changed beyond all recognition.
The strange waves subsided, and Siorad looked a little more relaxed. Liryl, on the other hand, was shuffling her feet and never letting her gaze settle. She kept away from the sand circle.
“Very well,” Siorad rumbled. “Let’s begin.”
To Be Continued… at some point.
Feyn lifted a coal from the brazier with a pair of tongs and lit his pipe with it. When he had a good head of smoke going, he dropped the coal back into its bed of sand, put the cover back on and buried his arms in his heavy, bear-fur coat. “Damn, but it’s cold.” he growled.
“Just as cold as the last time you said so,” Tanang muttered from his gameboard, one hand on his chin and the other scratching the head of the great mastiff he’d raised. Tanang was just as fur-decked as the hound, which sat in hypnotized ecstasy under his fingertips, but he much less likely to complain about the cold, which baffled Feyn. The two of them had been posted along the Laclund mountain range, overlooking the pass of the same name for more than a month now, and the one thing that Feyn found he could truly count on was that every day would be terribly, breathtakingly, ball-shinkingly cold. The weather would change. Sometimes he would beat Tanang at four-stone, and sometimes Tanang would beat him. Occasionally they’d see a silver-tailed eagle or one of the strange species of mountain goats that lived at five thousand feet. But no matter what else changed, it would always be cold.
The guardhouse was said to be vital to the defense of the republic of Lymdyn-ald. The mountain pass that it sat atop was the straightest, clearest way into the sprawling city-state, carved by a river through the mountains into a half-mile wide floodplain. It was said that one could approach Lymdyn-ald from the far end and never lose sight of it as you walked. This was all well and good for the royal processions of old or the grand festivals of the modern age, but when there was an army threatening to overtake your homeland, the Laclund Pass was something you wanted to keep your eye on.
In fact, the pass was so clear and so easy that guard duty there was considered to be a punishment of sorts. No general in his right mind would take his army through a place that was so perfectly set up for an ambush. It would take a leader of colossal stupidity to take bait as tempting and as deadly as the Laclund Pass.
For his sins, Feyn had been sent on guard duty. His sins just happened to include sleeping with his superior officer’s wife, which, in retrospect, was a bad idea. It took several other officers to keep Feyn’s head on his body, and he only managed to get out of the city a few minutes before the lieutenant arrived with his grandfather’s saber to do justice as he saw fit. With luck, he would calm down by the time Feyn was allowed back, which was supposed to be in a year. The more he thought about it, though, the less Feyn was sure that going back was a good idea.
Tanang had been up there much longer – ten years, by his count. He said that he liked it, though Feyn couldn’t see why. The cold, for one. The loneliness, for another. But Tanang claimed to not mind the cold, and felt much happier with only his thoughts and the local wildlife for company. Given his druthers, he’d rather the city stopped sending its reprobate soldiers to serve with him, but since he had been a reprobate soldier himself a long time ago, he was willing to bear the burden. Try as he might, though, Feyn was never able to get Tanang to tell him what he had done.
He took a chunk of jerky and tossed it to the dog, who roused himself instantly and caught it in mid-air. “Good, Tevyk,” he said, reaching over to scratch the beast’s ear. It had taken a while for Tevyk to warm up to him, but the dog was remarkably friendly once he got to know you. Before that, Feyn had tended to be extra sensitive about exposing his throat for any reason. He sat back down at the gameboard and looked at his pieces. Four-stone was a game with annoyingly simple rules – get four stones in a row – that he always managed to lose. “See anything today?” he asked, placing one of his blue stones.
Tanang shook his head, and swept some errant hair out of his eyes. “A fox, I think. And there was that eagle from yesterday.” He put down a white stone, and Feyn was pretty sure he could see where a line was growing. “Nothing important, though.”
“Right,” Feyn said. He picked up a stone and turned it over with his chilled fingers. “You never know, though,” he said. He put the stone down, blocking Tanang’s progress. “We could have an army or something today.”
The other man chuckled, which was a win in itself. He picked up a white stone and put it down, starting a new line that Feyn hadn’t seen coming. He cursed under his breath. “The odds that the Deynarch will be dumb enough to lead an army through here are about the same as you being able to go out and get a nice golden suntan.” He sat back, his fingers laced across his belly. He was a thin man, but the furs bulked him up, and he had a kind of serene, almost monastic face. Probably came from living up high for so long.
Feyn took another puff on his pipe. “Well, you never know,” he said. “Things have a way of working out.” He looked at the board, and was fairly certain that Tanang was going to win again. He sighed and set a stone down.
That’s when Tevyk stood up, growling.
It was a noise that Feyn had heard before, but not quite like this. This was a more wary growl, a growl that seemed to go right through him and into the floor. The hair on the dog’s back was standing up, and he was staring resolutely towards the east – the far end of the Laclund Pass. Feyn and Tanang exchanged glances. “No,” Feyn said, standing up. He accidentally nudged the fourstones board as he did, but the other man didn’t seem to notice, which spoiled it a little.
They took the winding stairs up to the lookout tower and uncovered the scopes. The brass seemed to freeze against Feyn’s skin as he looked through, squinting to try and make out what it was that had somehow gotten the dog’s attention. “Either that dog is a lot more clever than we are,” he said.
“He is.” Tanang was doing a slow sweep with his scope.
“Or he just didn’t want you beating me at stones again,” Feyn finished. He caught a glint of light and focused his scope. “There,” he said. “Just about at the Frog-stone.” He pushed forward against the scope, willing it to bring him closer, but to no avail. Next to him, he heard Tanang whistle quietly.
“Well. I’ll be damned,” he said.
“Too late,” Feyn muttered. “Where worse could they send you?”
The Frog-stone was so named because it looked like a frog. It was a testament to the imagination of the men who first built this lookout point, or perhaps to the lack of it. Either way, it was one of about a hundred landmarks that Feyn had been forced to memorize, and he was glad to finally get some use out if it. In this case, being glad meant being able to spot the vanguard of an advancing column of soldiers, led by the colors of the Deynarch himself. His blue-black banner was easy to pick out, bordered with silver tassels. The banner-bearer was ahead of a full company of armored soldiers on horseback, making their way calmly along the long, flat floor of the Laclund Pass.
Feyn looked over at Tanang, who was looking over at him. “You have got to be kidding me,” Feyn said. They looked again, but the scene hadn’t changed. The army was advancing at a walk, heading right for the city.
“Prep the Block,” Tanang said, dashing for the stairs. “Wait until they’re right underneath!”
Feyn had read about the Block. Much like memorizing the stones, it was required, even if no one had ever actually used it. “You sure it’ll work?” he asked.
“Hope so!” Tanang called back from inside the guard station.
That would have to do. Feyn climbed over the railing and slid down the short ladder that led down to the face of the mountain below. Despite the cold, there wasn’t much snow. Just bare rock with a thin covering of frost that would melt once the sun got to it. Feyn dashed down a dozen feet, careful not to fall and get himself killed, until he came to the boulder known as the Block. It was a little bigger than man-sized, and if you were riding through the pass you probably wouldn’t even notice it. From the other side, though, it was clear that the Block was not like other rocks.
For one thing, a framework was attached to the back of the boulder, and the framework was connected to a series of rails, chains, and a single lever.
Tanang came running down the slope, trying to stay behind the larger stones. He was carrying a large iron key in one hand, and a book in the other. He handed the book to Feyn as soon as he arrived and took Feyn’s stamp out of his pocket right after, along with an inkstone. “You have to stamp the page,” he said.
It was a bureaucratic necessity, which was not uncommon serving in any army, much less the army of Lymdyn-ald. The way it was explained to him was that the Block was a tool of last resort, and if it was used then it had better damn well be for a good reason. He rubbed the inkstone on his stamp and pressed it to the page. His sigil gleamed a wet blue, right next to Tanang’s.
“Okay,” Tanang said. “I’ll keep a lookout. Thrown the switch when I tell you.” He went further along the slope, keeping low and behind the rocks as he went.
The wait wasn’t as long as Feyn thought it would be. The Deynarch’s troops marched at a brisk pace through the pass, and soon Feyn could see the long trail of camp-followers and support wagons. He glanced over at Tanang, who was holding up one of his hands. Feyn counted to a hundred and then a hundred again before Tanang let his hand drop and Feyn pulled the lever.
The lever lifted the Block out of its cradle and set it rolling. It knocked against another large stone, which set off on rails that Feyn hadn’t noticed before. The two stones each bounced off more stones, which in turn bounced off more. In moments, the mountainside below them was a churning, rolling, thundering landslide, channeled by the shape of the slope, all heading right for the Deynarch and his army. Tanang joined him to watch the carnage.
They couldn’t see individual soldiers at this remove, at least not unless they went back up and looked through the scopes. But they could hear them. Men were yelling in a panic, and horses were screaming along with them. The horrible cracking and knocking of stone on stone almost overpowered to cries of moral terror, but not quite. As the landslide reached the army and flowed over it, Feyn felt a moment of pity for them. They may have been the enemy, but he was pretty sure the Deynarch had just led himself and thousands of his men to a pointless, painful death.
They stood and watched as the slide continued, and waited until the last rocks bounced and went still.
“Damn,” Feyn said. Tanang just nodded.
“You’ll have to go tell the city,” Tanang said. Feyn just nodded. There were risks to going back, that much was sure. Maybe if he could get down there and unearth the Deynarch’s banner. Or perhaps his head…
They were halfway back to the guard tower when they heard the rocks shifting and knocking together again. They turned around just in time to see the vast pile of stone and rubble begin to shift and bulge. It seemed to lift upwards from the center, where small stones and large boulders began to roll away towards the edges. Through the gaps in the rocks, a bitter green light leaked out, and it was like nothing either of them had seen before. They ran for the tower.
Through the scopes, they could see it more clearly. The rocks were moving off the army and away. Where the stones had been, an army still stood, all of them safe and unharmed. In the middle of the army, Feyn could barely make out a figure, sitting high on horseback with hands in the air. The green light seemed to come from this figure, and as it waved hands around, the stones moved and shifted. Soon, the army was uncovered, and the figure turned its attention to clearing the way through the pass.
Feyn stood up from the scope and exchanged glances with Tanang again. “This,” Tanang said, “is not good.”
For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.
Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.
Wish me luck!
One of the great realizations I had when I started doing this project was that while I certainly wanted to write something new every day, there was no reason why I couldn’t recycle ideas from time to time – especially ideas that I may not have been able to fully exploit when I first tried them out. That’s not to say that I’ve got a complete handle on them now, but I’m pretty sure I’m better than I was.
In any case, one idea that I had was pretty simple, all told. With all the stories of people who travel from one world to another, one of the things that doesn’t often get dealt with is the aftermath of their trip. How do you deal with living in a fantasy world and having the adventures that go with it, and then come back to the mundane world of bills and work and television? The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant probably handled it best of the books I know of – but poor Thomas didn’t handle it very well.
That seems to be the way of things, though. I mean, what other way could a person react to that kind of transition. that kind of experience? Really, the only way you could possibly handle it would be to either go utterly mad or to convince yourself that you had already done so. And that’s pretty much where I started this story – with Adam walking into his home for the first time since his adventure in Another Place. So let’s see what we know about him from day 76, A New World.
- He has a sister, who was good enough to take care of his home when he vanished to wherever he’d gone to.
- Prior to coming home, he had been in a psychiatric hospital for a few months.
- Certain stimuli can trigger flashbacks of his time in the other world.
- His doctor, Thomas Greer, was against letting him go, but Adam convinced him that he was healthy and ready to leave.
- Adam believes that he had a nervous breakdown, brought on by stress from work, the failure of his marriage, and the death of his mother.
- He was found in the middle of a field, laughing and crying, and was brought to the hospital.
- He left the hospital believing that he was fine, but is now really not so sure about that.
Again, this is kind of treading Thomas Covenant’s ground here, but Adam’s not exactly a leper. When he left the hospital, he was on board with the idea that he had “experienced a near-total disassociative state of mental dissonance.” But now that he’s home alone, that conviction is very quickly becoming more and more tenuous as his memories/delusion intrudes. Here’s what he remembers (or thinks he remembers):
- A snowmelt stream and high, impassable mountains.
- A woman with him by the stream.
- A great voice, possibly that of a dragon, saying, “Very well, then. We are agreed.”
- His arm being burned.
- A great mansion, gilded and perched atop a high mountain.
- A woman with eyes as blue as the sky on a late autumn day and skin that was deep, almost impossible violet, and her breath smelled of honey when they kissed.
- Red skies and rain that burned and great insects that flew and carried people off only to drop them from the sky.
- A blade in his hand that sang to him and called down the lightning when he needed it.
- There was a stone, and that stone was a key.
- There was a door, but it wasn’t a door.
- “There was a path, and it was a path he could not see but he walked anyway and it led him to her. To the keep. To the dragon and the battle and the promise. And the field.”
Okay, then. How about them apples?
I could ride the idea for a while that maybe Adam really had this experience and maybe he really is nuts, but that would bore me pretty quickly. It’s the kind of story that has to be done with great skill and care, and honestly I’m not sure that I could pull it off without making mincemeat of the whole thing. And besides, I’m already convinced in my head: his experience was real. Very real. And it’s far, far from over.
There are a whole lot of questions that need to be answered here, and part of that is because I’ve started him off at the nadir of his adventures.
You see, in really good hero stories, the hero has to be brought low. Really low. And he has to ask himself if all that he’s going through is really worth it, or if he should just give up. And at this point, the author stands there in front of a nice, shiny door and holds it open for him, and says, “Look – we can end this now. You go your way, I go mine. Sure, there are plot points that need to be resolved, but if you’re not ready to take this all the way, I understand. Here’s the door.”
The hero needs to look long and hard at that way out, that simple means of getting off this insane ride. And if the story is going to work at all, then the hero has to want to see it through more than he wants that nice, easy way out. So he turns his back on the door, and the author smiles and shakes his head knowingly and you hear the soft, irreversible click of the door closing forever.
That’s where Adam is as we start this story. He could go back to the hospital and have treatment after treatment until he’s well and truly sure that everything he’d gone through was a delusion. That would be the easy way out. Or he could find his way back and finish what he started.
Seeing as how this nadir usually comes in right in front of the big climax of the story, that means I have a whole lot of back-story to deal with. Including, but not limited to:
- What is this world that he went to?
- How did he get there in the first place?
- Who was that woman?
- What bargain did he strike with the dragon?
- What role did he play in this other world?
- Why and how did he come back to his own world?
- What does he still need to do to complete his quest?
- How will he get back to that other world?
- Will he ever return to his world again?
Exploring those questions is going to be a hell of a ride. I look forward to it, though.
For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.
Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.
Wish me luck!
You know you loved the Spin Doctors too. Just admit it and get it over with.
As you may have noticed from previous character sketches, making a good character is a lot of work, and it takes time and some trial and error. You have to go to work on them and make decisions about who they are, decisions that will affect how your story plays out. If you make the wrong choices, the character might not be right for the story you want, so you have to start again. It’s like carving a statue out of marble, really. You hack away at all the bits that aren’t your character and hope you don’t manage to knock off an arm or a nose in the process. In the end, if you’ve done it right, you’ll have a good character – and only you’ll know how much goddamn effort went into making it.
Every now and then, though, a writer gets a gift. It comes from somewhere deep in your subconscious, in a hidden place you couldn’t get to if you tried. Once in a while a character walks out of this strange, secret room in your head, and it’s fully-formed and ready to go. It has a voice, it has a personality, likes and dislikes, a history all its own and it will very happily walk straight into the story you’ve written for it. All you can do, as the writer, is hope to keep up with what your character does.
Such is the case with Calaris and Rissandir den Raud, princes of the realm of Ardenspire. These two boys walked out of my head and they were already bickering. They may well be two of my favorite characters that I’ve done so far.
Here’s what the story says about them:
CALARIS DEN RAUD:
- He’s the older brother
- He’s the crown prince of Ardenspire
- He starts shouting when he is afraid or upset
- He cares a lot about his brother’s well-being
- He admires Royal Wizard, Canucog
- His name shortens to “Cal”
- He’s risk-averse
RISSANDIR DEN RAUD:
- He’s a tinkerer
- He’s the younger brother
- His name shortens to “Sand”
- He really wants to fly, so he’s building a flying machine
- He tested his machines on models first
- He’s not comfortable with being a Royal
- He believes in the ethic of work
- He would rather get by without magic
To understate it, the brothers have an affectionate rivalry. Rissandir is very aware that he is the second son during a time of peace, that Calaris is very much his father’s son and will probably be a fine king. Rissandir was born to test things and try things, he has a very scientific mind, unusual in a magic-heavy kingdom, and is more than willing to risk his own health and safety to accomplish something without magical influence.
On top of that, he seems to be aware of and uncomfortable with his privilege as a Royal. In his speech before he takes off, he says:
“Flying is not a new thing for our family,” he said. “King Alden den Fevre led his twelve bravest through the air against the tyrant king Vysoli. With the flying rings they wore, they were able to soar through the air and defeat their gravest enemy.” He looked down at the wizard. “And if I asked, you’d give me one just like it, wouldn’t you, Royal Wizard?”
Canucog chuckled. “I don’t know about ‘give,’ young prince.” Everyone laughed gently at that, even Rissandir.
“But that’s just it,” Rissandir went on. “Isn’t it? If we want to fly, then flight is given to us. If we want…” He searched for what he wanted to say. “If we want clean clothes, there’s a simple talisman for that. If we need to sleep well, we are given an amulet.” He gestured to the faraway castle. “Half that castle was raised by magic! Given to us.”
He paused to take a breath. “Given to us,” he said again. “Not earned.” He took a moment, and Calaris looked to his father. The king’s face was hard enough to read, and the wizard’s gave away nothing at all.
“Maybe because we’ve been at peace for so long,” Rissandir said, “but we’ve forgotten what it’s like to work for things. To make things. To earn things.” He glanced out towards the villages beyond the castle. “The people of Ardenspire – the common people – they work and make and earn. We in the castle ask for things and they are given to us.”
He took off a glove and gently caressed the machine he’d built. “If this succeeds,” he said, “it’s due to my own skills and talents. If this fails…” He made sure to look right at Calaris, who looked away. “If this fails, then it’s due to my own mistakes and impatience.” He patted the machine and put his glove on again. “Either way, this is mine. I worked for it. I made it. I earned it.”
He knows that he’s bucking the trend, that he should appreciate what he has and just get about the business of being a prince, but he doesn’t want that. He doesn’t want to be known for being lucky in birth – he wants to be known for what he actually does. Thus, the flying machine. And that look to the King is important – King Raud has learned to let Rissandir have his own head, to let him try things. Maybe because the boy succeeds more often than he fails, and maybe because he knows what a pointless life a second-born prince can lead. Either way, Rissandir generally has his father’s blessing to try his wacky schemes.
One day, however, I’m sure he’ll push his father too far. I can easily see Rissandir leading some kind of republican movement in Ardenspire, insisting on some kind of democratic reforms against either his father or his brother. That would be a fun one to write…
Calaris, on the other hand, lacks his brother’s confidence. He generally avoids risk, even as he knows that risk is inevitable. What’s more, he knows just how much he doesn’t know about being a king. Like his brother, Calaris is highly self-aware, and he’s known since he was a child that he would one day be the king. Despite generations of peace, however, he’s been raised on the tales of kingly heroism, of kings that stood against the forces of darkness and won. Even without those tales of heroism, running a kingdom smoothly takes immense skill, patience, and tact. He believes wholly and fully in the responsibilities that come with being a king – protecting his family and protecting the people of Ardenspire to the last breath in his body.
His greatest fear is that his father will die – and he knows that he will, some day. When that day comes, Calaris will have to take over, and he is utterly certain that he will ruin everything his father worked for. Calaris has Impostor’s Syndrome written all over him: no matter how good he really is, he will always see himself as a fraud. And that’s why he doesn’t want to be king, why he doesn’t take risks or stick his neck out.
In fact, I might go so far as to say that the real reason he’s so concerned for Rissandir’s well-being is because secretly – so secretly that even Calaris isn’t aware of it – he wants to abdicate to his brother. In his heart of hearts, Calaris believes that his brother would be a far better king than he would, and so must do everything he can to keep him alive.
So you see, these boys showed up on my mental doorstep, baggage in hand and walked right into their story. There is nothing so cool as that.
Of course, there’s always a caveat to this kind of character: they don’t like to do as they’re told. Instead of shaping the character for the story, you end up shaping the story for the character. These are the ones who refuse to follow the plots you lay down, the ones who go left when you really want them to go right, or the ones who sit down right in the middle of the story and say, “Nope. I’m not going anywhere.”
What has to go from there, of course, is a delicate re-adjustment both of story and character. You may have to re-tool the story in order to get the character to do what you want. This means not telling the story you thought you were going to tell when you embarked on this project. If you do it right, though, and find a story that both you and your character are happy with, you will have something wonderful indeed.
- Calaris has taken the throne. Rissandir gets pulled into a reform movement. Chaos ensues.
- Calaris becomes king. Tries to abdicate to Rissandir, who refuses.
- Pretty much any story where Rissandir drags his older brother into chaos.
I was surrounded by mimes.
The Estervale Civic Center was packed to the walls with mimes from all over the world. There were booths set up to display the latest in mime costuming, props, and makeup; mimes of international renown selling autographed head shots for twenty bucks a pop, and hundreds of people – mimes and mime wanna-bes alike – wandering through the convention center, toting giant bags full of stuff that they’d probably throw away the moment they got home. People came dressed as their favorite mimes and posed for pictures to put up on the Internet, and a couple of guys were done up to look like birthday clowns, just for the shock value.
I didn’t care about any of that. I was there to catch a killer.
People were filing in to the Great Hall for the convention’s keynote panel entitled “The Sad Clown: Emotional Perspectives on Post-Modern Mimery,” whatever all that meant. Three of the world’s greatest mimes were going to lead a discussion on the main stage.
Yes, mimes can, in fact, talk. They just choose not to.
Raul Jiminez-Péron from Spain was slated to lead the discussion, along with his colleagues Michel LeMarch from France and Hiroyuki Hasugawa from Japan. The talk was scheduled to begin in fifteen minutes, and there were hundreds of suspects filing in as I watched. Any one of them could have been the Mime Killer, a man who harbored such a hatred of mimes that he had embarked on a killing spree. Ten performers had died in the last year, and the city was getting tired of taking the blame.
The police presence at the conference was strong. There were uniformed officers patrolling the building, outside and in, and plenty of plainclothes guys like me. If anyone made a move, we’d know about it. This place was going to be our honeypot. No one with a need to kill mimes would be able to pass this up.
But what really gave us the advantage was my golem. I gave it a fresh coat of face paint and a change of costume and put it backstage to watch the crowd. So far, the golem had been useful. True, the police department had already received dozens of complaints from all kinds of official magical organizations, who were affronted and appalled that I would “create life,” as they saw it. Fortunately, the mayor’s office had promised to shield us from the worst of it if the golem worked out, and I honestly didn’t care what they thought anymore. I watched people walk in, and then I ducked in through the backstage door to join the golem and the chief.
For once, he didn’t have his mouth full of gum. I took a sniff to see if he’d been smoking again. “This had better work,” he said. “We’re taking a big chance with this many people.”
I nodded. “He’ll be here, chief. We just have to wait for him to make his move.”
The chief tapped the golem’s chest, and it made a dull thumping sound. “Can’t your flowerpot here find him?”
I shook my head. The golem had brought me to the killer’s house, which brought us here. But no matter how I commanded it, the golem didn’t seem to be able to bring me to the killer himself. Honestly, after all the time I’d spent with it so far, I don’t think I understand how it works any better than I did when I made it. And if I had known what it would be when I made it, I might have agreed with those people who thought it was an abomination.
The golem just kept getting more… real. Maybe it was just obeying the Words I’d put in its head as far as it could, maybe there was something else going on. I really had no idea, but I was already starting to worry about what we’d do with the thing when this case was over.
The lights in the hall dimmed, and the audience quieted down right away. The emcee, a well-known TV mime named Lucas Allbridge, took the stage to eager and polite applause. He thanked the audience for coming, made a few jokes about how he really shouldn’t run off at the mouth, and then introduced the panelists. I watched the golem, and it watched the crowd.
I didn’t really follow the discussion. The bits I did hear didn’t make much sense to me – the meta-re-imagining of the role of the negative in anthro-centric performance modes and all that. The peace and quiet were beginning to bother me, though. Everything said that the killer should be there. Everything pointed right to this place, this time.
That sinking feeling hit me again. Was this guy really this clever? That he’d send us on some crazy chase while he runs around free as a bird? I imagined him coming home to find the door smashed, a dent in his desk and the convention flyer missing. He probably put two and two together and figured out that we knew what he was up to, so he stayed away. Stayed at home to plan his next hit while we twiddled our thumbs and watched mimes discuss mimery.
But could he really do it? That bedroom wasn’t the den of someone interested in killing mimes – it was the den of someone obsessed with killing mimes. And here was the mother lode, the greatest concentration of mimes for hundreds of miles around. Would the man who owned that room really be able to stay away?
A tiny red light answered my question.
I saw it about a second before he golem did. The darkness underneath the Spanish mime’s chair turned a dim, pulsing red. I bent down to get a better view, but the golem was already on its way. The audience murmured as it walked on stage and then started shouting as it lifted Raul Jiminez-Péron bodily from his chair and pushed him away. The other two mimes stood – Hasugawa moved to help his colleague while LeMarch started shouting at the golem in rapid French.
He stopped, however, when the golem turned the chair over and ripped the tape off a small radio receiver that was stuck into what looked like half a pound of modeling clay. A small red light was blinking on the receiver.
“All right,” I shouted, holding my badge as high in the air as I could. The men on the stage were already starting to scramble off, and the people in the first few rows were just beginning to guess what it was the golem held. “I need everyone to move away from the stage in an orderly -”
The explosion was deafening.
I was thrown twenty feet, skidding on my back. My ears hurt like hell, and everything sounded like I had my head wrapped in layers and layers of wet wool. I could hear shouting, and something that sounded like drumbeats, like strong hits on a snare drum. I opened my eyes and staggered to my feet, gun drawn. My vision was bleary, but what I saw was impossible to mistake. A man in a mime outfit was standing over the fallen golem, shooting it and screaming.
I pointed my gun at him and fired. I missed, but got his attention. “Police!” I wondered absently where the other officers were.
He responded by lifting his gun and taking a shot at me, yelling something as he did so. He would have had me dead if the golem hadn’t saved my life.
Its hand – cracked and broken and missing two fingers – darted out and grabbed the gunman’s leg, pulling him off-balance. The gunman fell to the ground and emptied his weapon into he golem’s face, sending little chips flying and tiny clouds of white dust into the air. Still, the golem wasn’t stopped. It stood up, still holding the killer by the ankle, and I got my first good look at the damage that had been done.
The golem had used its body as a shield and absorbed as much of the blast as it could. From its collar to its groin, half its torso was just… gone. The only thing holding it up was the clay of its back, and yet it stood as tall as it ever had. It lifted the gunman high in the air and squeezed its hand. The gunman screamed, and I knew my hearing was coming back because I heard that just fine. With its other hand, the golem took the gun. Casually, without even looking at it, the golem crushed the gun one-handed and threw it over its shoulder. It looked at the screaming gunman, and then it turned its ruined face towards me.
The paint was gone. A jagged crack ran across its face, from jaw to ear, and the remaining eye was shattered and crumbling. But still, it looked at me. It looked at me as if to ask what I wanted to do with this man. This thing. This living being that had less regard for life and law than a creature made from dust and clay only a week ago. The golem looked at me. And waited.
The other officers were pouring into the auditorium, shouting orders and all-clears, but the golem heard me anyway. “Golem,” I said. “Put him down. Gently.”
The golem didn’t have eyebrows – not unless I painted them back on – but I’m pretty sure it cocked one at me before it let the gunman down to the splintered stage floor. The guy was crying and holding his ankle, and begging for mercy in between promises to destroy the abomination. And I wasn’t sure if he meant the golem or me.
Mercy. I was too tired to banter with a crazy man. I let one of the other officers do the litany this time and I watched them take him away, struggling and screaming. “Golem,” I said. “You did good work.”
I was answered by a great, shattering thud behind me and I spun around.
The golem’s body had finally given in to the damage done, and I cursed myself for not seeing it coming. I had used cheap clay, and that much C4 is not something you can shrug off, golem or no. I ran to its side, and a groan escaped me when I saw it.
The head had cracked open and lay shattered on the boards, leaving only a small piece that would be recognizable as its face. There, in the dust and pottery shards, were the Words that I had put into its head. The paper I had written them on was fragile and brittle, the sigils were faded and gray. Great power had come through those words somehow, and they crumbled to dust in my fingers.
I knelt in the shattered remnants of my golem until the chief came over and put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s over, Zoltaire,” he said quietly. “Your golem worked. No one died.” He patted me and I shrugged has hand off with a wordless grunt. “Whatever,” he said. “Back to the station. There’s paperwork to do.” I smelled spearmint and I wanted to stand up and punch him.
Before I left the convention center, I made sure that every last speck of dust, every tiny piece of clay was collected from that stage. I brought it all back to the station and shut myself in my workshop for days. I reconstituted the clay, dug into my my bank account to pay for some of the good stuff to mix it in with, and didn’t sleep until I had built it a new body. Then I went back to the library and cursed out those harpy librarians again to re-build the sigils. I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t want to admit what I wanted. It felt stupid, getting this upset about a golem, a made thing, for crying out loud! It was no more alive than a car or a cell phone or a chair. I knew that.
But I didn’t care. I just wanted it – him – back.
The chief came down and offered to let me go on leave for a while, but I didn’t listen. I shut him and all the other officers out of my workshop while I kept at it.
Finally, after days, I was done. I was exhausted, I was starving, and I stank, but I was done. I had the body. I had the Words. I knew what I wanted.
I was ready.
The ritual was the same as before. I had to cleanse. I took a quick shower with that herbal soap, then came back to the office and dropped onto the sofa to meditate. I tried every visualization technique I could think of to calm my mind – ocean waves, a flower bud opening, a mountain stream gurgling past me – but nothing worked. So I got up, went to the golem, and started the ritual. I threw the Words into its head, rubbed my hands together and started walking around it. I chanted, quickly, quietly, through teeth clenched in frustration at how long this was taking. I chanted the Words and tried to pour everything I had into them. I lost track of time and who I was and what I was doing.
And then I passed out.
When I woke up and got off the floor, I looked at the table.
The golem lay there, inert. Not moving, not wanting to move. There was nothing there but clay.
I slumped down in the corner and wept. Part of me was astounded, amazed that I would be crying over a golem. A golem, of all things. The rest of me just wheeled around and punched that part of me in the mouth until it shut up. I stayed there for a while, at least until the pain broke and I could stand up again. I didn’t look at it as I left.
The chief gave me two weeks. He told me that the International Mime Union would be willing to take the failed replacement off our hands. They wanted to display it as a sign of their gratitude for saving so many of their members’ lives. They said that they didn’t know how to repay me or the department for all that we had done, and that they would honor the memory of the golem forever.
I didn’t care.
I took the two weeks and spent most of them indoors, in bed, with the lights off.
After a while, though, I couldn’t stand to be cooped up inside anymore. I put on a jacket and headed out, squinting into the sunlight. The air smelled fresh, but that was probably just because I’d been indoors for days on end. The people looked happy, but that was probably just because I was a miserable sad sack.
The park nearby was quiet, as always. I bought some bread at the corner store, found a bench by the tiny duck pond, and went to feed some ducks.
While I sat there, I noticed motion out of the corner of my eye. A white flash. I glanced over, and my breath caught for a moment. It was a mime. A little guy, walking smoothly through the park, soon followed by another, who was pretending to be tied to the first by an invisible rope. I heard something from my other side and turned around – three more mimes, making their way towards me and the pond. Soon, there were ten. And then twenty, all coming towards me, and my heart was beating to break through my chest. The only thing I could think of was how I had given up my gun at the police station, and that after all this time, this was how it would end.
They stopped some ways from me, and lined up around the pond. There were enough of them that they went all the way around it and off to the sides. All of them, staring at me with white, unreadable faces and graceful, unpredictable poses.
Then, in a wave as fluid and as perfect as any on water, they bowed. The one closest to my left started it, and the bow traveled through the crowd, passing from one mime to another, all the way around the duck pond until it reached the mime to my right. They had their floppy hats and berets off, heads hanging low to the ground. And then, left to right, they stood again, one after the other.
Without a word, the mimes left. Each by his or her own way, as though there had never been a group there, but that they had all come there by random, unknowable coincidence. In moments, they were gone, and I was once again alone with the ducks.
The sadness was gone, though. Something in the mimes had taken it from me and replaced it with warmth. With… gratitude.
I sat back on the bench and turned my face towards the sun, breathing easy for the first time in days. There would be work to do tomorrow.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Seriously, I had no idea this would go on as long as it did. I meant it to be a nice, tight 1,500 word piece for Worth1000.com, and it just… didn’t want to stop. So thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it.
There was a crowd by the fountain in the middle of Blue River Park, watching a mime. Every now and then they would applaud or laugh, and there was the occasional tinkle of coins as people showed their appreciation in a more tangible way. The mime would walk against the wind or pretend to climb a rope or stumble and fall and roll around, and the people just ate it up.
I stood at the edge of the crowd, glaring at each and every one of them.
The plug in my ear vibrated and I tapped it with a finger. “Yeah?”
I could hear him chewing gum as he spoke, and my stomach turned. “Nothing yet, chief. I think we’re making enough money that we can buy some better coffee for the station, though.”
“Dammit, Zoltaire, it’s been a week! I thought your golem-mime-thing was supposed to lure the killer out of the woodwork!”
I looked over at it. The mime was pretending to pull flowers from a little girl’s hair, and the child was shrieking with laughter. I don’t know how it knew how to do that, to be honest. I just wanted to make something that looked like a mime to solve some murders. A little clay, some Words, and a week later, it was entertaining small children left and right. Whatever I had made, it was starting to creep me out, and I hoped that the Mime Killer would strike so that we could put all this behind us.
“I’m sure it’ll happen, Chief. Just make sure the boys are ready when it does.” I tapped the plug again and disconnected. I sat and watched my mime perform for a crowd that was slowly growing bigger. They clapped at all of his – its – antics and moves, and I even found myself chuckling once or twice. Then I reminded myself: that thing wasn’t human and never would be. It would keep walking against the wind until I told it to stop, and if I wanted it to perform until the end of time then it would.
The sun was dropping towards the trees and I sighed. I tapped the plug in the other ear and said, “Golem. Finish your act and return to base.”
It pulled one more rose out of the little girl’s hair and mocked bone-deep sorrow at their tragic yet inevitable parting, then turned to the rest of the crowd and took a bow. Everyone applauded heartily, throwing more coins into its hat. With luck I’d be able to treat the guys in my department to donuts in the morning.
Suddenly, the golem stood straight upright, it’s expression hard and cold, and quickly started scanning the crowd. The people who had been applauding stopped instantly and started to back away. This wasn’t the friendly mime that they had come to see – this was clearly something else, and whatever it was it scared the hell out of them.
I made my way through the crowd to the golem and tried to look where it was looking. As I did, I noticed a hole that had been made in its head, near the temple. Flakes of clay still fell out when it moved. The killer had finally taken his shot.
My eyes hit on a man who was walking swiftly away from the scene, trying his best to look inconspicuous. “Golem!” I yelled. “Get him!”
The golem burst into a run, its heavy clay feet pounding on the pavement. It ran like a freight train – unstoppable and deceptively fast. The man he was chasing heard the thunder of its footsteps and took off in a run of his own, but there was no contest. Within seconds, the golem had him on the ground, hands clamped together in an unbreakable grip.
I caught up a few moments later, breathing heavy and holding my side.
Hey, I’m a thaumaturge. We’re not famous for our physical fitness.
“You have the right,” I wheezed, “to remain silent.” My heart was pounding in my ears, and it took a few breaths before I was able to say the litany all the way through. “You say anything, you better damn well believe we’ll use it, so if you have a lawyer, get one,” I swallowed hard. “Got it?”
The man’s eyes were pinned to the golem’s cold, unchanging face. “I didn’t do anything,” he said. “Get this… this thing off me!”
“Sure you didn’t,” I said. “Golem. Let him up.” The golem stood, hauling the man to his feet. I started to pat the guy down, and right away I had a sinking feeling. There was no weapon. “Where’d you throw it?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as I could.
“Throw what? What are you talking about?”
I wanted to smack him. “The gun! Where did you throw the gun?”
“I don’t have a gun,” he babbled. “I hate guns, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
That sinking feeling was getting deeper. Just looking at the golem’s damage, I knew a couple of things. The shooter had to be using a heavy caliber weapon, probably from close range – there weren’t a lot of good spots for a sniper to sit. And secondly, if they did, then they’d be using a silencer, so as to blend in with the applause of the crowd. That meant I was looking for a pretty sizable weapon, and I didn’t see anything like that on the run over.
And there sure as hell wasn’t anything like that on his person.
“Why did you run?” I asked him. The man didn’t answer, but just looked at the golem. It lifted the guy off his feet, and a large wet stain spread across the front of his pants. I sighed. “Golem. Put him down.”
The golem hesitated. Just for a moment, and no one else would have noticed. But I did.
Slowly, it set the man on his feet. He promptly fell to the pavement. I handed him a business card. “Here,” I said. “For the cleaning. My apologies, sir.” I reached out to help him up, but he shrank back. “Fine,” I said. “Golem. Come with me.” I walked away without looking back, and a moment later I heard its heavy footsteps behind me.
I brought it back to the station, pulled out the bullet and patched up the damage. Then the chief spent a good half hour hauling my ass over the coals for the screw-up in the park. His main concern was that we’d blown our cover, which I thought was nonsense. The thing was a mime, for gods’ sake – a quick paint job, new clothes, and no one would ever know.
But I did agree that what we were doing wasn’t working out. If the golem had been a real mime, it would have been dead and the killer would have escaped scot free. We needed a new plan.
It was right there that I had my idea. I almost didn’t want to think about it at first, it was that weird. If I thought about it at all, there was a chance that I’d actually think it could work, and if I really thought it could work, then there would probably be nothing but disappointment when it didn’t. But it felt like inspiration, a bolt from the blue.
So what did I have to lose?
I went back to my office and got the bullet that I’d pulled from the golem’s head. “Golem,” I said. It sat up from the table where I had left it. “Hand.” It reached its hand out and I dropped the bullet into it. The golem looked down at the bullet and then back at me. “Find the person who shot this,” I said.
There was no real reason it should have worked. Golems aren’t bloodhounds. They don’t work by sympathetic magic the way a voodoo doll does. They operate on a whole different plane of thaumaturgy, one of life forces and animation and intention. Nevertheless, the golem got to its feet and immediately started walking, bullet in hand. I grabbed my jacket and followed it. I wanted to yell as I passed the chief’s office – tell him I had a lead and I was going to finish the job once and for all. But if the golem decided to walk me straight into the middle of the Blue River Pond, well… I can only stand so much humiliation in one day.
The golem took a relentless course due east from the station. It navigated streets without a pause, stopping at crosswalks and only crossing on the green. “Who told you to do that?” I wheezed as I followed it. I wanted to tell it to slow the hell down, but for all I knew that might have ruined the whole thing. Anybody in its way moved to the side right quick – a tall, slender mime, with footsteps that thundered and a concentrated stare that made it look like it could walk through a brick wall. Which it may very well have.
I followed it for nearly an hour as we made our way to one of the more residential neighborhoods. Oak Hollow had been the preferred borough for grandparents and young yuppie couples from time immemorial, and the neat lawns and well-trimmed shrubbery made the whole place look more like the set for a TV show than a place where people actually lived. The golem strode through the neighborhood, setting more than a few curtains a-twitching, and then finally, blessedly, stopped.
The house it was staring at was a small blue one-story, with some dead flower beds and peeling paint. It was the worst-maintained house on its street, and it looked like the owner had just given up. I looked over at the golem. “This is it?” I asked. It didn’t reply. “You sure?”
This time the golem did reply – by walking right up to the front door and smacking it with the flat of its hand. The door flew off its hinges, spinning back into the dim recesses of the living room, and landed halfway in the kitchen. “Oh, that’s not good,” I said as the golem walked straight into the house, the bullet still gripped in its hand. “We’re supposed to get a warrant, you stupid pile of -” I finished my sentence with an inarticulate growl and followed it into the house, drawing my gun as I did so. I felt goosebumps when I entered the house and hollered “POLICE!” There wasn’t anything magical involved – just years and years of police procedure. The thought of investigating a place without a warrant was just… wrong.
I suppose I could say I was following lost property. Yeah, that would have to do.
There was no answer to my shout, so I called it again. Still, silence. The golem went upstairs, and I followed with my gun at the ready. It stopped a few steps into a small bedroom, and I felt the blood drain from my face when I went in.
The walls were covered with photographs, paintings, drawings, sketches – of mimes. Hundreds of black and white faces stared out at me from all directions, and it was all I could do not to run from the room screaming in terror. There were newspaper articles stuck to the wall, in classic serial-killer fashion, and they were all meticulously highlighted and underlined. Each one, as near as I could tell, was a story about a mime. New mimes debuting on the circuit. Veteran mimes retiring. Avant-garde mimes trying out new and controversial material.
Walking with the wind or something. Damned if I know.
In one special section of this Wall of Mimery, there was a corkboard with several glossy photographs pinned to it. The photos had clearly been taken from a stealth location, but they all showed the faces of the mimes clearly and distinctly. Except for the large red X that covered them. Upon closer inspection, I was pretty sure that these were the mimes that he had killed. The rest of them surrounded me, covering the walls nearly completely. I scanned the faces, and sure enough – there was the golem. It was a photo from a few days ago, when it had been performing in front of city hall. The golem almost looked like it was smiling in this picture, as it reached out a hand to a young woman.
A loud THUD behind me shook me back to attention, and I spun around. The golem had slammed its hand down on the desk, leaving the bullet sitting there on top of some scattered papers. It stood there, staring down at the desk, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say it was excited. There had been no change in the way it moved or stood – it was stock-still, without any of those countless unconscious movements that humans make. But the way it was staring, it seemed to be ready to dash off again.
I looked at the papers on the desk. Most of them were handwritten notes, varying from simple reminders to buy bread and ammunition, all the way to tightly-scrawled screeds about mimes and the horrors they inflicted on society. I picked one up and started to read it:
By their very actions, the mimes are simulacra of reality, fakers and frauds who deny the reality of our reality, a world in which we must all live. They paint their faces a dead white, for they are the dead, the haunted, the living ghosts of our subconscious desire for simplicity and for a way to face the world in a way that makes sense to our simple, sheeplike minds. Those of us who protest, who fight, who see the world for what it is, we are the ones they mock. They mock us with their invisible boxes and their walking against the wind and vanishing down stairs that aren’t there – YOU’RE JUST CROUCHING DOWN YOU FRAUDS WE KNOW HOW IT’S DONE! They see us and they know how we struggle. But they are the agents of the Absurd, the carriers of the cosmic joke of which we are all the punchlines, and until they are gone, until the mimes are wiped from the earth, I cannot have peace, fight the fight against the forces that truly control our world and enslave us all.
I looked up at the golem, which was still staring down at the desk. “This guy’s nuts,” I said.
The golem stabbed a finger down onto the desktop, nearly punching a hole through the wood. It had pinned down a printed flyer, one that was done up on nice glossy paper. When I saw the title, I wasn’t sure if I should jump for joy or throw up. Instead, I clapped the golem on its rock-hard arm. “Good police work,” I said. The golem didn’t reply, of course, but it did seem to stand a little straighter.
I took out my phone and dialed the station. The chief answered, and I started talking before he could take a breath. “There’s a convention,” I said. “All mimes, all the time.” I looked down at the glossy flyer, which was advertising the first ever Estervale International Mime Conference. Mimes from all over the world, all in one place to talk about the craft. “I guarantee he’ll be there.”
I closed the phone and looked up at the golem. “Think you can find him?” I asked.
The golem turned its head with deliberate slowness and looked at me. Its white, ceramic expression and its glassy, dead eyes never changed. But I was pretty sure it smiled.
TO BE CONCLUDED! (I hope)
“Carl, no you don’t.”
“I do! Seriously, Annie, I do!”
Annie sighed and slammed her pencil down on her desk. The teacher looked up from the front of the classroom and raised an eyebrow – they were supposed to be reading silently, not arguing with each other. Annie ducked her head in apology and the teacher went back to writing. She flipped back to the page she had been reading so she could get back into the story. This lasted about three minutes before Carl leaned over and slid a note onto her desk.
She stared at it and sighed. Her friends had told her that the new kid was weird, that she shouldn’t have anything to do with him. They had already started their special brand of high school harassment on him: whispers in the hall, lying to him about classes or where rooms were in the building, that sort of thing. They hadn’t started beating him yet, but she could see that coming on the horizon.
He seemed kind of weird, true. He dressed like he’d never heard of co-ordination and wore an old fedora that he said his grandfather had given him. He was an absolute catastrophe in gym class, he did his summer reading report on a twelve-issue comic book maxiseries that no one else had read and went into great detail about how universe-shaking it was. With PowerPoint.
Still, he was cute, in a nerdy way, and he was relentlessly upbeat. Annie just didn’t get it, but he came to school in a good mood every day, really seemed to enjoy his classes, and at the end of the day he was just as cheerful as he was when he arrived. In her experience as a teenager, that wasn’t just bizarre – that was downright alien. But as alien as it was, she found herself wanting to be nice to this poor, weird kid, and took the time to introduce herself and welcome him to Ravensbrook High.
Then he started talking about his dragon, and Annie saw the rest of her high school career going down in flames.
She picked up the note and slowly unfolded it, glancing up at the teacher. When she saw it, she sighed and put her head on her desk:
I really do have a dragon. Do you want to see it?
[ ] Yes
[ ] No
[ ] Maybe (please elaborate)
This was the third day he’d asked, and she had said in the nicest way she knew that she thought he was insane. she’d laughed it off and argued it away and outright dismissed it, but it seemed like no matter how she tried, there he was. And he wanted her to believe in his dragon.
Maybe that was it. He wanted her to believe him, and he was so sure that she would if only she gave him a chance. It was crazy, of course. There were no dragons and never had been, and even if there were, why would one be living with him? Why not on some mountaintop somewhere, with a giant pile of gold? Or a small country with a few extra virgins?
But he didn’t seem crazy. Excited, eager, a little baffled that she wouldn’t even entertain the notion, maybe. Somehow, for whatever reason, Annie found herself checking the little “Yes” box. She wrote down below, Don’t think that I believe you. I’m just doing this so you’ll stop bugging me about it. Keeping an eye on the teacher, she slid the note over to his desk. She felt her shoulders tighten up as he unfolded it and read it.
Carl managed to keep quiet for about an eighth of a second before crying out, “YES!” this earned him a stern rebuke from the teacher, and by this time everyone was looking at him. At them. Annie put her head down on her desk again and wonder what she had done to deserve this.
They agreed that she would come to his house at four, and then she made him promise not to talk to her again for the rest of the day. He seemed almost gleeful when he agreed, and Annie set about making sure no one else knew.
That, of course, wasn’t going to happen.
Becky was the first one to find her, and certainly not the last. “So,” she said, and the insinuation was clear in her voice, “You’re going with weird kid now?” She clucked her tongue, opened her locker and shook her head. “Never would have expected it of you, Annie.”
Annie counted to five, but that didn’t work, so she just slammed her locker shut. “I’m just humoring him so he’ll stop bugging me,” she growled.
“Oh, of course,” Becky said, batting her eyelashes. She patted Annie on the shoulder gently. “Good luck with that.” She flashed a patently artificial smile and flounced away. Annie tried not to think of how she wanted to just grab that pretty brown ponytail and throw her against the wall and -
Annie took a deep breath. This wasn’t helping. She opened the locker again and grabbed her iPod. Skipping biology class would give her a chance to cool off, so she headed to the library and found a quiet place where no one would come looking for her.
After school, she made her way to Carl’s house slowly. His family had moved into an older housing development that was within walking distance of the school, which meant they had some money. Maybe the dragon’s gold, she thought, and that got her the first smile of a very long day. The houses were much nicer than hers, and she was starting to feel a little underdressed just walking around there.
When she rang the bell, Carl’s mother opened it and got about halfway through saying, “Oh, you must be Annie,” when there was a thunder of footsteps and Carl practically shoved her out of the way. “Annie!” he said, breathless. “You’re here!”
“Yeah,” Annie said. “I’m here.” She avoided looking at him and pretended to be very interested in the shrubbery around the front yard. “So, are you gonna show me that dragon of yours or what?”
Carl looked to his mother, who rolled her eyes. “Carl Andrew Stockman,” she said, “what do we do when we have a guest?”
He seemed to think for a moment. “Offer a drink?”
“Offer a drink, yes.” She opened the door a little wider, inviting Annie in. and then walked ahead to the kitchen.
The house looked barely lived-in. She knew Carl had been coming to school for about two months, but from the emptiness of, well, everything, it looked like they didn’t expect to stay for long. The walls were mostly unadorned, and there were still cardboard boxes in the corner of the kitchen. The whole house had an un-lived-in feel to it that made her uncomfortable, and it was worse when Carl’s mother had to check three different cupboards before she found the glasses.
“Sorry the place is in such a state,” she said. “We’re a little slow to unpack.” She smiled as she put a glass of fruit juice down on the kitchen counter. “Something to eat?” she asked, looking at the two of them. “Snacks?”
Carl was practically vibrating. “Mom, Annie’s here to see the dragon, okay?” He sounded like he was begging with her, and she didn’t seem at all bothered. Annie wondered how often they had conversations like this. “Can we go? Please?”
There was that moment of thought, and then she threw up her hands. “Oh, go ahead,” she said. “Have fun with your dragon.”
Carl leaped up and grabbed Annie by the hand, dragging her to the back door. “Okay,” he said. He glanced out the window. “He’s out there, but I don’t want you to freak out or anything, okay?” He looked at her intently. “He’s really nice. Really.”
“Okay,” Annie said, not quite sure what else would work.
He grinned broadly and opened the door, leading her out to the backyard. He stood on the porch and gestured proudly out to the backyard. “Well?” he said. “What do you think?”
What she thought was that Carl was, in fact, insane.
The backyard was empty. The grass was overlong and needed to be mowed. There were some flowers in the middle, poor faded things that huddled together in a tiny patch of mulch. The whole yard was bordered by tall, scraggly hedges that just blocked out the other houses. And that was it.
She looked out at the yard and back at Carl. Then out in the yard again. “I’m leaving,” she said. She turned around and opened the door back into the house.
“NO!” Carl yelled, and he grabbed at her arm. She pulled it away, her anger rising at him. She had trusted him, taken his crazy seriously enough, and now he shows her his stupid empty backyard? She wanted to snap at him, to yell at him. To hit him, even. He looked furious at her, that she would try to walk away, and all that cute nerdiness seemed to slip right off him. “No!” he said again. “You made a promise!”
“A promise?” she said. “Look out there, Carl! There’s nothing there! Your crappy yard is empty – no dragon, no nothing!”
He looked from her to the yard, and for a moment he seemed genuinely puzzled. He looked out again, and said, “But he’s right there!”
“No, Carl,” she said. “He isn’t.” She crossed her arms, not sure if going for the door again was a good idea.
He seemed to think for a moment, and then burst into laughter. “I get it now!” he said.
“You mean you realize there’s no dragon?” she asked.
“No, no,” he said. He lifted a finger and pointed out into the yard. “He’s shy!”
She blinked. “Shy?”
“Shy! He’s never met you before, he doesn’t know anything about you – he’s shy! So he’s made it so only I can see him!”
Annie stared at him for a moment. “You’re kidding me,” she said.
He shook his head. “He really doesn’t get out a lot,” he said. “He stays in the yard, or maybe in the garage.” He turned and cupped his hands around his mouth. “You don’t have to hide!” he yelled. He waited for a moment and then laughed again, looking over at Annie to see if she was laughing too.
“What?” he said. “Don’t you get it?”
“His joke! ‘Monkey doesn’t see!’ It’s great!” He started laughing again until he realized that she wasn’t laughing with him. “What?”
Annie sighed. “Let me guess,” she said. “You’re the only one who can hear him. Right?”
He shook his head and looked disappointed. “Oh, now that’s just ridiculous,” he said. “You’re being silly!” he shouted out into the yard. He shrugged and looked back at her. “Like I said. Shy.” He waggled a finger out at the yard like he was chastising his dragon.
Annie wasn’t sure if he was trying to pull one over on her or if he was completely insane. If he was trying to trick her, then it was an awfully long game, and he wouldn’t gain anything from it. In fact, once she went back to school and told everyone what happened, his chances of ever having a normal high school life would be effectively zero. If he was insane… She thought that night explain a lot, actually. The cheerfulness, the intensity. The dragon.
If he was insane, then all she could do was humor him. She just wasn’t sure yet.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s assume there’s a dragon.”
“Okay, okay,” she said, holding up her hands. “If there’s a dragon out there, then…” She gestured out to the lawn. “Look at the grass.”
He looked. “What about it?” he asked.
“Well,” she said, “a dragon is a big creature. If there was a dragon out there, it would be trampling the grass down. But yours is all sticking up.” She crossed her arms over her chest and tried not to look smug. “And it needs a mowing, too.”
He stared out for a moment and then back at her. “Well,” he said, “you’d be right if he wasn’t floating.”
She blinked. “Floating?”
He nodded. “Yeah. He floats, because of all the hot air he’s got inside.”
Annie narrowed her eyes at him for a moment, and then said, “Ah!” She grinned widely. “My dad has these infrared glasses he got from a catalog. I can get those, put them on and take a look! If he’s full of hot air, then he should light up like crazy!”
Her smugness drained away as he shook his head. “For one,” he said, “if he doesn’t want you to see him, you won’t see him. And even if that worked, it wouldn’t matter. Dragons are room temperature.”
That was too much. “You’re saying that your fire-breathing dragon is room temperature?” He nodded. “That’s nuts!”
“No,” he said. “They have to hold in all their heat so they can fly, spit fire, all that. So from the outside, they look cold – none of their heat escapes.”
Annie leaned on the deck railing. “And if I run out there and try to grab him?”
“He’ll probably just move away, yeah,” Carl said, starting to figure out where her logic was going.
She sighed and stared out at the yard. At this point, she wished there was a dragon out there, just so the crazy would stop. But stare as she might, she couldn’t make it appear, and she was beginning to get the feeling that she’d walked into a very weird and not-funny joke. Somehow, perhaps, this was his way of striking back for the teasing and the problems everyone was giving him at school. Maybe he thought that somehow this would get him some kind of weird respect, for having pulled a prank so far. Annie felt her temper rising again, and she wanted to stand up and yell at him for treating her like she was one of them. Like she had been one of the people making his life miserable instead of being the only person to show him any kind of kindness.
Instead, she looked up at the sky. It was starting to get dark. She stood up straight, took a deep breath, and said, “Carl, I have to go home.”
“What?” He looked up at the sky. “No, you – you can have dinner here! My dad is away, and mom always makes too much when he’s on a trip.” He started to move to the door. “It won’t be a problem, I promise!”
“No, Carl, I…” Her mind raced for an excuse. “I have to get home. My aunt is coming over tonight. It’s Friday – she comes over every Friday for family dinner.” She rolled her eyes and shrugged, trying to sell the lie. Her aunt lived in Winter Falls, and hadn’t visited in years. “It’s totally boring and everything, but she’ll give me hell if I don’t go.”
Carl looked deflated. “Oh,” he said. “Okay, I guess.” He looked out at the darkening lawn, then back at her. “You really can’t see him?” he asked. Annie shook her head. “Okay.” He looked down, and then brightened. “Maybe I can talk to him,” he said. “See if he’ll come around!”
“Maybe I can convince him to show himself to you! Are you busy tomorrow?” He grinned up at her, bouncing on his toes.
She wanted to say yes, to make up another visit or another relative, anything to put an end to this. The longer she went along, the worse it would be when he finally gave in and told her that he’d been messing with her the whole time. She’d look like even more of an idiot if she humored him, and she knew it… but a new thought blossomed in her mind. Okay, she thought. You want to take this to another level? Fine. I can do that.
“Tomorrow?” she said, smiling sweetly. She dropped the smile as quickly as she could, as it was probably suspicious. “Sure. I’ll come over in the morning. Okay?”
Carl showed her out through their curiously empty house and stood at the door until she was out of sight. As she walked her bicycle around the corner, she took out her phone and started sending texts. If that was how he wanted to play, then she would show him what happened when you tried to make Annie Deaver look like an idiot.
The next morning at ten thirty, Annie showed up at Carl’s house carrying a duffel bag. His mother opened the door again, a bandanna tied around her head and paint-stained clothes on. “Oh, yes, Annie!” she said. “Carl’s been waiting for you. He’s out in the back.” She let Annie into the house, and she went back to her painting. Annie hefted the bag onto her shoulder and checked the time on her phone. Another five minutes and she’d be ready to show Carl just what being embarrassed and humiliated meant.
He was in the yard, fixing his bicycle, and he stood up when he saw her. “Annie!” he cried. “I think I can get him to show himself!” He wiped his hands on his jeans and ran over as she came down into the yard. “I talked and talked to him, and I convinced him that you really are a good person. So, all he wants is an apology for being mean yesterday and he’ll let you see him!” Carl looked up at her expectantly, and then glanced down at the duffel bag. “What’s in there?” he asked.
“Well,” Annie said. “I was thinking about your dragon last night, actually.” She put the bag on the grass. “He can make himself invisible and talk inside people’s heads. He can hide his heat and float around, and all that is really cool.” She bent down and unzipped the bag. “But there was one more thing I wanted to try. Just to, you know, satisfy my curiosity.” She glanced around. “Can you tell me where he is right now?”
“Sure,” Carl said. He pointed to an empty space a couple of yards to her right. “He’s over there. What’re you gonna -”
He didn’t get to finish his sentence before she stood up, pulling a large water rifle from the bag. As she did so, she shouted, “NOW!” and a dozen kids from school erupted from behind the hedges, all of them armed with water guns and all of them yelling at the top of their lungs. As one, they began to shoot. Annie fired into the empty area first, and some of the kids joined her, but most of them just shot at Carl, soaking him in water that had been dyed different colors. Soon there were streams of blue and red and virulent green water flying through the air, accompanied by the cruel laughter of Carl’s classmates.
Worst of all was Annie’s laugh. It was high and shrill and mean in his ears, and he could see her face even as he tried to block the sharp sprays of water that were trying to hit everywhere they could. She looked happy, for the first time since he’d met her, but it wasn’t a good kind of happiness. It wasn’t the happiness he’d had in mind for her when he invited her over. It was the happiness of cruelty. Of anger. Just like all the other kids in school, it seemed that Annie was happy to tear him down just because he wasn’t like the rest of them. Carl sank to his knees under the onslaught of water and put his arms down, just letting them hit him where they wanted. He’d tried, and he’d lost. Just like all the other times and other schools.
It was a few moments before he realized that the water had stopped, and so had the shouting. All the kids were staring at something behind Carl, their faces white and slack with a mixture of terror and amazement. Carl turned around and looked up.
The dragon was hovering in the air behind him, dripping a dozen colors of water and glaring at the children with glowing cobalt eyes. Its iridescent silver scales glimmered wetly in the morning sun as it floated so very impossibly for a creature the size of an SUV. It stuck its head out on a long, sinuous neck, past Carl, and raised itself to look down on the small crowd of terrified teenagers. The dragon’s nostrils flared, and two wisps of grey-black smoke started to swirl upwards past the rest of its head. It made no sound as it moved, but the way the light came off it, and the way its eyes glowed, it should have sounded like metal uncoiling, like a furnace just about to roar into flame.
The dragon looked at each of them in turn and then slowly, carefully, it opened its great, fanged mouth.
“Run,” it said, and its voice was like an avalanche.
The kids scattered, flying back through the hedges as fast as their feet could carry them. All except for Annie, who was backing up slowly, her eyes never leaving the dragon’s. It came closer, more smoke escaping its nose and its mouth, and a low rumble started in the back of its throat.
Carl could barely hear her speak when her mouth started to move. After a moment, he realized she was saying, “It’s real. It’s real. It’s really real.”
The dragon chuckled, and said, “Yes. It is.” It snorted, and two jets of flame touched the grass right in front of her, instantly burning down to the soil. She jumped back, but never took her eyes off the great and terrible monster. “Now, woman-child,” the dragon said. “I will not tell you again.” It inhaled deeply, its chest expanding like a bellows. In the depths of its gaping, blackened mouth, a roar was coming. It was low, and it sounded far away, but it was the roar of firestorm that was ready to burn the world. Ahead of that roar, the dragon said again: “Run.”
This time Annie ran. The great gout of fire that blasted forth from the dragon’s mouth barely missed her before she could pass through the hedges and escape with her life.
The dragon chuckled and then watched as Carl walked, slump-shouldered, to get the garden hose. He came back and sprayed down the bits of burning lawn and hedge, and then turned to the dragon. “Did you really have to do that?”
“They were not worthy of you,” the dragon said, its eyes softening. “You deserve better.”
Carl nodded. He’d heard that before, too. “I guess this means we’re going to have to move again,” he said.
The dragon let go of the earth and lifted back into the air, its expression one of unconcern for the social damage it had just done. Carl sighed and walked with heavy steps back into the house. His mother was going to be furious.
This story was inspired by Carl Sagan’s excellent “Dragon in my Garage” essay that was part of his book The Demon-Haunted World, long considered an indispensable book on skepticism. I have, of course, taken certain liberties with it in the name of fiction, but I’m very nearly certain he would forgive me. The characters are, of course, named for him and his wife, Ann Druyan. No actual resemblance intended, of course, unless Ms. Druyan has enjoyed reading this story, in which case, OMYGOD – HI!!!!
Rick sat on the subway as it pulled into the station and watched all the men who got on. His eyes flickered over their features, taking in the shape of their nose, their eyes, looking at their legs and shoulders and trying to see the form beneath the clothes as each one stepped through the doors and sat down or found a place to stand. Most of them weren’t very appealing. They were too old, or they had let their body go to seed. It was one thing that disappointed Rick about having to live in the United States – so few people took care of themselves anymore.
One young man caught Rick’s eye, and he focused his attention on him. Maybe eighteen. Tall, slim-hipped and broad-shouldered. Baggy jeans and a jacket made it hard to get a good idea of what he really looked like, but his face had a kind of delicacy to it that appealed to Rick. He ran his gaze down the young man’s jawline and cheekbones, trying to guess what his hair might be like under that wool cap he was wearing.
Good enough, Rick thought. He took a deep breath, adjusted his focus, and began to steal the young man’s body.
“Steal” wasn’t quite the right word for it, of course. The guy would still have his body when Rick was done, and aside from a slight itching feeling, he’d never know that anything unusual had happened at all. But if he happened to glance over at Rick during just the right moment, a brief second, he would have been startled to see himself sitting there.
Rick’s mind’s eye filled with information about the young man as a body-form built itself. He was clearly in good shape, probably an athlete in either high school or college. The long, muscular legs and broad chest suggested he was a swimmer, which brought a smile to Rick’s face.
Which wasn’t, strictly speaking, his.
He knew what his original face looked like, of course. That was kept safely in his mental gallery, where all the forms he’d copied over the years were stored. His was in the back. If his mind had been a physical place, his body would have been under glass, kept behind great steel doors that never opened. He hadn’t worn his face, or the rest of his original body, since he learned how to copy others, and he wasn’t about to start doing so now.
He settled back in his seat and felt his body shift in tiny, nearly imperceptible ways as he picked and chose which features to change. His fingernails got a little longer, his hair about an inch shorter. The bridge of his nose filled out a little, and his skin color darkened ever so slightly. Other things came along with it – an ache in the knee, a sore back from some injury or another. He erased them quickly and breathed a sigh of relief. His fingers started to twitch, and he suspected that the young man knew how to play the guitar. A useful skill sometimes, but not now. It would fade in a few hours anyway, so there was no reason to think too much about it.
When he got off the subway train, he looked much the same as he had when he got on, but the tiny changes added up. He smiled at his reflection in a store window above-ground and appreciated the white, straight teeth that flashed in the glass. The young man he’d taken from had left him with a sour feeling of anxiety, but he was able to force it off. After a few blocks, he was as cheerful as he’d ever been.
When he got back to his apartment, the excitement had him taking off clothes almost as soon as he was in the door. By the time he got to his living room, he was able to admire his new body in the floor-to-ceiling mirror that he had installed when he moved in. It was a large studio in the middle of the city, which was perfectly fine for him. He got good money from modeling, and used it to fashion a stylish little nest for himself.
He spent a long time admiring himself in the mirror. His skin was a light brown with hints of gold, his eyes bright green and his hair a lustrous black that was almost blue. He had high cheekbones and almond eyes, and a straight and clear jaw.
His body was tightly muscled without being bulky – slender, strong arms, and a broad chest. He rubbed his flat stomach with delicate, long-fingered hands and then glanced down. He grinned again and waggled his hips back and forth a bit. When he’d started to get a hang of his powers, he’d convinced himself that becoming better-hung was part of testing his limits, and to be fair, it did help. He learned that he only had the mass of his body to work with,and that increasing the size of one part – perhaps to ridiculous degrees – would result in losing mass in others. He weighed more than he looked like he should. He’d been shocked when he weighed in at just above three hundred pounds. At the same time he could look like a skinny hipster, and the payoff was that he could make himself – or parts of himself – much bigger than he should be.
It had been an entertaining weekend, to say the least.
He stretched and moved to the opposite comer of the room, where he’d set up a black backdrop and some photography lamps. He set up the camera on a tripod, set the timer, and got pictures, front back and sides. They’d go into his computer for his records. He still didn’t know what he was going to do with those pictures, but he couldn’t bring himself not to take them.
Inspection complete, he started to get dressed again. The day was still young, and he had the weekend to himself. It couldn’t hurt to go out scouting again. There was no end to the beautiful people on Corsair City, after all.
He put on some baggy clothes, which would accommodate any changes he felt like making, and headed back out into the city. He practiced his speed-changing as he turned corners. From November Boulevard to Fifth Street, his skin darkened and he became taller and thinner. A beard sprouted on his face, and he became at least forty years older in a blink. He adjusted his stride to more of a shuffle until he got to October. He turned left, and his hair burst from his head into a long, red mane. Freckles popped out on skin that was now a pale pink, and a gap opened between his teeth. He adjusted to more of a strut for a few blocks. On Eighth, he turned right, this time shrinking down a full foot. His features became more delicate and childlike, and curly ash-brown hair dropped down in front of his eyes. He laughed and ran across the street to Juno Park, where he shifted again into the form he’d built earlier.
He had no idea why he was able to do what he did, and he didn’t care. It was what had saved him from his old life, from his old self, and whatever price he’d have to pay, he would do so gladly.
The cafe in the small park was one of his favorite places in the city. It was small, it was trendy, and it was expensive. The other customers tended towards the Beautiful People, which suited Rick just fine.
He took a seat in the corner where he could see as many people as possible and ordered a latte. A magazine gave him the pretense of reading, and he settled in for an afternoon of people-watching.
One man caught his eye nearly immediately. He was seated a couple of tables away, just within the range of Rick’s senses, and he looked like no one Rick had scanned before. He had a narrow, cleft chin and a nose with a graceful curve to it. His skin was pale to the point of translucence, and thick hair cascaded down to his shoulders, more gold than blonde.
I could use some of that, Rick thought, and reached out to scan him.
The pain that shot through him was enough to not only make him cry out, but he rocked back in his chair hard enough to hit his head. He then fell forward, tears in his eyes and a warm wetness leaking out of his nose.
A waitress came over, wide-eyed and worried. “Are you okay, sir?” She helped him sit up and winced at the blood that was running from his nose. “I’ll just… I’ll just get you some napkins,” she said. Rick rubbed his eyes, which sent another pain through his head, but nowhere near what there had been before. When the waitress came back with a pile of napkins and a large glass of ice water, he thanked her and worked on stopping the bleeding. He could fix it himself, but that would take concentration. He didn’t have a whole lot of that right now.
He’d never felt anything like that. Ever. He’d gotten feedback before, when he tried to copy a woman’s body, and once when he tried to copy an animal. It seemed to be one of the limits of his power – he could only copy men. Human men, at that.
The thought lingered in his mind for a moment as clarity returned to him. He sealed off the bleeding and used the napkins to clean up the blood that covered his mouth and chin.
He glanced over, wincing as he did so. The guy was still sitting there, perfectly calm and seemingly unaware of what had just happened. A number of thoughts ran through Rick’s mind, each more ridiculous than the last. He tried to think of reasonable explanations for what had just happened, but kept bumping up against the problem that what he did wasn’t exactly reasonable.
Carefully, very carefully, he extended his senses out towards the blonde man.
The pain this time was slower to hit. Rather than feeling like he’d been shot through the head, Rick felt like he was having a hot wire shoved through his brain by a very slow and very sadistic torturer. He felt the blood vessel in his nose go again and was vaguely aware that he was getting blood on his shirt. His jaw hurt from the effort of clenching his teeth, and he realized that he was making a high-pitched whine when the waitress came over to him again and shook his shoulder. “Oh, sir, you need to get to a hospital!”
He broke off contact and took a deep inhale that turned into a cough. Blood spattered over the table as he doubled over, and finally the blonde man glanced over in his direction. The waitress ran to get some more napkins, and maybe some help. Rick tried to do repair work, settling his lungs and his nose so that he could at least see again, and when she came back, he was already cleaning himself up. He had to thank her several times before she would leave, and that was when he noticed that the blonde man was gone.
Rick stood up like a shot and was halfway out of the restaurant before he dashed back, tore a twenty from his wallet, and ran out again. I must look like a freak, he thought, but the thought didn’t stop him. He dashed about outside until he got a glimpse of gold-blonde hair and went chasing after him.
The man didn’t seem to notice, so Rick slowed down a little. He took some deep, heaving breaths. For all that he had the muscles of an athlete, he really wasn’t in the habit of using them all that often, and made a note to find someone with a really good heart next time he was out. He grabbed some napkins from his pocket and tried to scrub drying blood off his face while the blonde man walked several blocks down September to a subway station. He hopped down the stairs, and Rick went down after him, shifting fluidly as he did so. By the time he got to the bottom of the stairs, he looked like an exhausted businessman on casual day.
He followed the blonde man through a turnstile and shifted again, but when he got to the other side, the platform had changed.
There was no one there. A moment ago, the station had been bustling with afternoon traffic, but now? Now it was utterly empty and silent. He looked around, and no matter where he looked, he was the only one. Then he caught his reflection in one of the public service posters that hung on the wall and started to scream.
He was himself. For the first time in nearly a decade, he was in the body he’d been born into, the one he’d been so happy to be free of. His face was pale and soft, with eyes that looked small and too close together, a nose that sat like a lump in the middle of his face and thin, grayish lips that made his mouth look more like a gash across his face. Under his baggy clothes, he knew what his body looked like. It was pasty and flabby and spotty. It had scars and freckles and moles, and hair where he didn’t want hair and looked nothing like what he always thought he looked like in his head. He desperately tried to change, to shift into any other body but this one, but nothing happened. He was trapped, and beginning to panic.
“Why were you following me?” The voice was deep, and had a slight accent underneath it. Rick turned around to see the blonde man standing on the edge of the platform. He had his hands in his pockets and looked for all the world like he was just having a casual conversation, waiting for the train to come.
“What did you do?” Rick wheezed. He felt weak and leaden.
“I asked you first,” the man said. “Why were you following me?”
“I… I wasn’t,” Rick said. “I just wanted to ride the subway.”
The man shook his head and sighed. “I can leave you here, you know,” he said. “Trapped on this platform, in the body you detest. Is that what you want?” He raised an eyebrow, and Risk said nothing. “Good,” he said. “Now let’s try this again. Why were you following me?”
It took Rick a few moments to decide to tell the truth. He looked down at his nail-bitten hands and said, “I wanted to know who you were.” He looked up at the man, whose expression hadn’t changed. “I wanted to…” He laughed, and it was high and nervous. “God, this is going to sound stupid – I wanted to copy your body.”
The man nodded slowly. “Not stupid,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think I’m the best choice you could have made, but still. Thanks.”
“But,” Rick went on. “But I couldn’t read you,” he said. “And I wanted to know why.” Now that he’d started talking, the panic was giving way to that excited sense of mystery that made him chase the man in the first place. “I mean, I can read any man, you know? It’s easy. But you…”
“Yes,” the man said. “I saw the nosebleed. Looked terrible.”
Rick stared at him for a long while before he said the thing that he’d been thinking ever since the restaurant. “Are you…” He licked his lips. “Are you an alien?”
The man responded by bursting into laughter. He laughed so had that he had to lean over, hands on his knees, and take great heaving breaths before he was able to control himself. His laughs echoed off the tiled walls of the subway platform and finally, after a long while, he wiped tears from his eyes, straightened up, and looked Rick right in the eye with a straight face that seemed to lock in from nowhere: “No,” he said. “I am not an alien.” Then he turned and started to walk towards the turnstile.
“But – wait!” Rick ran up to him and grabbed his sleeve. Another spike of pain, not as bad as in the restaurant, shot through him and he let go. “What…” The pain subsided instantly. “What are you?” he asked.
The man smiled at him, and it actually made Rick feel a little better. “You’ll find out another time,” he said, and the harshness had gone from his voice. “But not now.” A smile flickered across his face and he walked through the turnstile.
As soon as he did, Rick found himself caught in a crowd that came from nowhere. Suddenly, people were all around him, pushing by and cursing him out for getting in everyone’s way. He weaved through the crowd until he got to a bench, sat down, and then – gingerly, carefully – tried to shift.
He felt that familiar feeling of everything changing, and let out a deep sigh as the body he’d built for himself slid into place. He stood up straight, stretching his fingers and his neck and running his hands down his sides just to make sure he was who he thought he was. A young Asian college student walked by and Rick reached out to him. There was no pain, no agony. Just a quick sketch of the young man’s shape and form, and Rick let it go without keeping it.
Everything seemed to be normal, or at least as normal as he got.
Part of him wanted to count his blessings and head back to his apartment. He could order Chinese food and watch TV and go to his gig in the morning and forget that all this had happened. Whoever that blonde man was, he was not someone that Rick wanted to make angry at him. Not. At. All.
And yet… He’d never met anyone like that before. Like him before. Someone who could do things, things that they shouldn’t be able to do.
This would take time. And care. And serious consideration. He sat back down on the bench a a subway train came past and disgorged its passengers, and he watched people go by.
And he thought.
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)