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Day One Hundred and Sixty-two: A Day Out

October 30, 2011 6 comments

Lola stared at herself in the mirror and ran her fingers through her long auburn hair. “This is great,” she said. “I mean really great!”

“I know,” Marisse said, coming into view behind her. She spun Lola around and stooped to look into her sister’s eyes. “Nice, nice,” she said. “Green is good on you.” She stood up straight and turned around to show off the short black dress she’d managed to squeeze into. “How’s this look?” she asked.

“You look great,” Lola said, and she actually meant it. Marisse was gorgeous – tall, with deep brown skin and hair that was nearly blue-black, even in the light of their bathroom. She stood like a supermodel, a hand on her hip and made a pouty face like the ones they’d seen in so many magazines. “Seriously,” Lola said. “That is amazing.”

“And thank you,” Marisse said. She ran a finger down the lapel of the jacket Lola was wearing. “You don’t look too bad yourself, my dear.” She picked up Lola’s pale hand and examined her nails. “Brava on your choice here, too.”

Lola smiled and blushed. “It’s the same blue as the suit,” she said. “I can’t believe I actually found it.”

“Well, you did, and you look amazing.” Marisse turned them around to look in the mirror. “We both look amazing. And you know what?” She put her arm around Lola, and Lola could practically feel the confidence welling over from her. “We are going to have an amazing Halloween this year.” Marisse hugged her close. “Mark my words.”

The morning sun was barely a hands-width over the treetops by the time they left their house and began the long walk to the bus stop. They tottered in their high heels and laughed about it as they walked, and they drew stares from everyone else who was waiting by the time they got there. Marisse made sure to stand next to a middle-aged businessman, and she tried flirting with him. She stood in the corner of his eye and smiled at him, and then looked away when he looked at her. A few more times, and he took out his phone and started frantically tapping away so that he didn’t have to look at her. It was all Lola could do not to burst out laughing.

The bus ride into Sylvania City took about half an hour, and they were on the edges of their seats the whole time. Lola pointed out the things that had changed since the year before – a new strip mall, a restaurant that had gone under, a house that had gone somewhat overboard on the holiday decorations. When people got on the bus, they giggled and pointed, and more than once made people stand up and move to other seats. Among the morning commute crowd, they were by far having the most fun, and even on Halloween, that was strange.

They stepped down from the bus in Bemrich Circle, in the most touristy district of Sylvania City, and squinted in the bright sunlight. “Okay,” Marisse said. “What time’s sunset again?”

“5:05,” Lola said. She’d had it up on notes around the house for a week, and made sure she remembered. “We have just a little over eight hours.”

“Well, then, let’s get to it!” Marisse gestured widely and grinned. “Where do you want to start?”

The choices were endless. Sylvania wasn’t the largest of cities – nothing like New York or Boston or Corsair – but it had an eclectic spirit all its own. The downtown was full of people and buses and cars, little bookstores and restaurants and huge national department stores. There were museums along the Hortus and a new walking park that had been built along the Edles River last year. They could spend days here, if they wanted.

But they didn’t have days.

Lola watched the people getting off the bus, tired and hurrying to catch taxis or run to their offices. “How about we get some coffee?” she said, pointing to a small shop on the corner that was doing brisk business with the commuter crowd. Marisse clapped her hands and they dashed across the busy street to join the line.

When they finally got to the counter, an exhausted barista greeted them with, “Welcome to Javaville, what’ll you have?”

Lola and Marisse exchanged glances, and Marisse struggled to keep a straight face as she turned to the young man. “I would like,” she said, over-enunciating each word, “one soy milk latte.” Lola started to giggle and Marisse gave her a slight shove. “And a blueberry muffin.” Lola started to laugh hard enough to attract the attention of the other customers, and the barista arched an eyebrow.

“Anything for your friend?” he asked.

Lola leapt to the counter. “Yes,” she said, her voice taking on the sing-song quality that people use when they talk to children. “I’d like a mocha espresso, please. And one of your delicious scones.” She smiled, showing as many teeth as she could, and the barista had to blink a few times before he rang them up.

They sat in the cafe and planned their day, occasionally glancing around at the crowd and watching the other customers as they came in. They would go to the Finamore Museum of Art first and see the traveling Picasso exhibition they were hosting. From there, they planned to hit some of the nicer boutiques in the heart of downtown and try on clothes. Not to buy, of course, but just for the fun of seeing themselves in something new and different. Marisse tried on the more risque outfits, doing her best to make even the saleslady have to blush and clear her throat and recommend that perhaps she would like to wear something a little more modest. Lola tended towards the more conservative, trying to imagine what she would look like at a fancy dinner party, or perhaps a wedding. She stood in front of the mirror and smoothed down the fabric and let the images form in her mind. No matter that they wouldn’t happen, of course. It was Halloween, and if ever there was a time to play dress-up, it was now.

They had lunch at the top of the Denton department store and ate small pasta dishes while looking out at the city.

“I never get tired of this,” Lola said. “I just wish we could do it more often.”

Marisse took a sip of water. “Me too,” she said. “Me too.”

After lunch they went to a bookstore and browsed for a while, followed by a subway ride to the Hortus, the great park that defined the heart of Sylvania City. The sun was on its descent by now, and they only had a few more hours left to them. The red and gold leaves glimmered in the sunlight as they walked around the Great Pond, enjoying the brisk autumn air. Their spirits were more subdued now, but they still looked at the world around them with glee and astonishment from time to time.

“I think I need to sit down,” Lola said after a while. She sat, took off a shoe and started to rub her foot. “You go ahead. I’ll meet you by the fountain?”

“You sure?” Marisse asked. She glanced across the pond to the fountain and back again. “I can stay here.”

Lola shook her head. “No, you go. I’ll be right behind you.” She smiled and shaded her eyes against the sun. “Don’t worry.” Marisse nodded, but still looked uneasy, glancing back a few more times as she walked away.

Alone, Lola closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out. She liked Marisse – loved her, even. They’d been together for ages and doing their Halloween excursions for as long as she could remember. But Marisse could be a little much sometimes.

Lola’s thoughts were sharply interrupted by the barking of a dog. She opened her eyes to see a golden retriever straining at the end of a leash at her, growling and barking. The young man holding the leash pulled and yelled at his dog. “Rocky! Rocky, knock it off!” He gave the leash a sharp tug, and the dog stopped barking. He bent down to hold it and looked up at Lola. “Sorry,” he said. “He’s usually not like this.” Rocky had gone quiet, but he was still staring at Lola with fear in his eyes.

“That’s all right,” she said. “Dogs don’t usually like me very much.”

The young man scratched Rocky’s ears and smiled. “I can’t imagine that,” he said. He turned to Rocky. “You gonna be good?” he asked. He stood up and Rocky growled quietly. The young man nodded at Lola. “He’ll be good.” He stepped over to her and offered his hand. “I’m Shane,” he said. “But you’ll probably remember me as the guy with the dog.”

Lola took his hand and smiled. “No,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll remember you.” She looked up at him and squinted. “I’m Lola,” she said. The sun was behind him, making it hard to get a good look at his face. “Would you like to sit down?” she said. “It might save me some eyestrain.”

Shane commanded Rocky to stay, and took a seat next to Lola. He looked out over the water with her for a while, and the sun dropped lower to the horizon. “It’s my favorite place in the city,” he said, not turning to her. “It’s one of the biggest reasons I stay here.”

She smiled. “I like it too. I just wish I could come more often.”

“You’re not from around here?” he asked.

Lola shook her head. “I live outside the city with a friend of mine. We… we don’t get out a whole lot.”

He nodded and leaned back against the bench, but didn’t push the topic. Instead he asked about her favorite places to visit, and offered some suggestions of his own for the next time she and her friend managed to get into the city. She, in turn, asked about what he did and how he lived his life, and she found herself resisting the urge to dig into every detail. They talked well together, and she had a conversation unlike any she’d had in a long time. With Marisse, there was nothing new to talk about. They knew everything about each other, but here she was finally in new territory.

And he was good-looking, too. That certainly didn’t hurt.

They talked for a long while, and only stopped when Lola finally heard Marisse calling to her as she ran along the path towards her.

“Lola!” she yelled. Marisse looked panicked, and she’d lost her shoes somewhere along the way. “Lola, the sun!” she flung out a hand across the pond. Lola looked, and to her horror realized that she’d let the sunset slip her mind. It was already dropping behind buildings, and she felt her insides go cold with panic.

“Oh, god,” she said, and stood up quickly. Rocky jumped to his feet and started barking again, and Shane tried to calm him down. “Oh, god,” she said again, “I’m so sorry…” She backed away from Shane and took Marisse’s hand. “I really.. .I really have to go.”

He looked up at her and glanced at Marisse. “Is everything okay?” he asked.

Lola surprised herself by smiling. “No,” she said. “Not really.” Marisse tugged at her, but Lola stood still. “I really wish I could stay, Shane,” she said.

He stood up and put his hands in his jacket pockets. “I don’t understand,” he said. “What’s -”

Lola’s scream cut him off. It was high and keening and terrible, and she doubled over and dropped to the ground, followed quickly by Marisse. Shane tried to go to her, but Rocky positioned himself between them, growling and barking furiously. All Shane could do was watch as the shadows grasped at Lola and Marisse and they started to change.

Marisse shrank and withered, becoming a skeletal version of herself. Her eyes burst into flame and sat in her dessicated face like two hot coals. Her hair whipped up around her head in an unseen wind and waved about, dry and rasping. Her mouth opened, a black and toothless maw, and a howl that chilled Shane’s blood filled the air.

Lola’s back arched and lurched, and two great wings burst forth. They were long and spindly, and webbed with tattered skin that was nearly thin enough to see through. Her skin turned the dull gray of unpolished granite and cracked at the joints. A dull red glow came through the cracks, like molten stone, and when she moved there was a grating and crumbling sound. She stood on thin, insectile legs and turned to Shane, who was on the ground covering his eyes with his arm.

She looked at him, wishing her true face were capable of expressing something other than unholy rage. She wanted to explain, to say that she was sorry, but her mouth couldn’t do that anymore. Her day as a human was done. From tonight, it would be another year of being the monster she’d always been.

Lola growled at Rocky, who whined and cowered behind Shane, who had finally managed to peek out from behind his arm. He was terrified, as he should have been, and Lola felt that strange ache in what used to be her heart. Other years had been fun. Little breaks from who she’d always been. But this was the first time she felt like there could have been more days, more time.

She ground her teeth and turned to pick up Marisse. Her friend was still groaning, and her groans lingered long. She held Marisse close to her and sprung into the air, her tattered wings somehow holding her aloft and giving her the lift to fly back to their house outside the city. It would be another year before she and her sister could venture out in daylight again, and she wasn’t at all sure that was what she wanted anymore.

For the first time in a thousand years, there were tears in her eyes as she flew.

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This is done not only for Halloween, but for the Worth1000 Halloween 2 contest. Of course, I’ll have to trim it somewhat – maximum word count is 1,500 and I’m well above that….

Day One Hundred and Sixty-one: Time to Go

October 29, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

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Inspired by one of my favorite Legion of Super-heroes stories, “Requiem” (Legion of Super-Heroes v4 #38, 1992)

Day One Hundred and Fifty-nine: Paying Penance

October 27, 2011 Leave a comment

This story was also written for a Worth1000 contest, Day and Night With a Twist, which is a little involved. The idea was to take an image from one of their Effects contests and write a story around it. I chose the entry by Delpht, which placed 15th, but it really caught my eye. Let’s hope I can do it justice.

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I couldn’t believe my guild was making me pay a penance. They knew I couldn’t make the raid, they knew I wasn’t going to be able to help them out – I mean, if I tanked my midterms, then there’d be no more gaming for me ever. And that’d be a lot worse than missing one night.

But no – next time I logged in there was a message from the guild leaders. Lignar, Vioniel and Asireg all wanted to see me in the guildhall. And that, friends and neighbors, is never good. There’s only two things they use the guildhall for – initiating new members and getting rid of the ones they don’t like, and I didn’t remember seeing any plebes brought in recently.

They put the ‘port token in my inventory, and that brought me right to the audience chamber. It was massive, as befits one of the most infamous guilds in Storms of War. Black marble pillars that reached up into the perpetual shadows of a storm-ceiling, brilliant wrought-silver floors that reflected the eternal light of the countless Victors’ Lamps that stood on tall brass stands. There was gallery seating for everyone in the guild, but this night, they were empty. It was just the three guild leaders and me.

“Unoldo,” Vioniel said, and her voice rang in the hall. She stood tall over me, her elfin armor gleaming in silver and bronze. “You let your guild down by abandoning us in our time of need.”

“Look,” I said, “I told you I wasn’t -”

“SILENCE!” Asireg hefted his war-hammer and smacked it into his broad palm a couple of times. “We don’t want to hear your excuses, Unoldo.”

“But guys, listen! I told you -”

Lignar’s sword slid from its scabbard with a long, drawn-out hiss, and in a moment that blood-red blade was pointed right at me. “Dude,” he said. “Shut up.”

I shut up. The two guys looked at Vioniel, who started again. “Unoldo, you let your guild down by abandoning us in our time of need. We lost some great warriors who might have survived if you had lent your magics to our cause.” My palms itched and I had to bite my tongue to keep quiet. Just to be on the safe side, I muted my mic.

“The standard penalty for abandoning your guild is to be expelled and branded a traitor, so that no other guild will accept you ever again. You would wander the world alone, never reaching your full potential in the Storms of War.”

“But,” Lignar said, stepping forward, “you’ve done well by us in the past. You’re a good guy, Unoldo, so we’re giving you a chance. One. Chance.”

Carefully, I unmuted my mic. This still was totally unfair. It was still a complete sham. But if I could get out of it and still stay in the guild? Hell, I could put up with whatever they threw at me.

“Okay,” I said. “I accept. Do your worst.”

*     *     *     *     *

I wandered through the night-forest, trying to find the path I’d been on, and I wondered if maybe it was time to give up Storms of War and maybe start playing games that didn’t involve other people. Tetris or something.

The new avatar I was wearing was ridiculous – a little robot creature, which was totally wrong for the server we played on. There are no robots in epic fantasy, none, but they borrowed a body from one of their friends on a sci-fi server and sent me to some custom-built hub for their little “quest.” Now instead of being a level 35 Elf, armed to the teeth with the best magical weapons I could buy, protected by ensorcelled armor and possessing so much treasure that I liked to just throw money at plebes, I was stuck in this stupid, slow, clumsy, fragile robot body.

The little blue dress and the ponytail were just adding insult to injury.

They had explained the rules, and I could hear their stupid smiles when they said it was “simple.” All I had to do was go to this hub and find the Wyrm. The Wyrm would ask me three questions, and if I could answer them before sunrise local time, then I’d be allowed back into the guild.

“No way,” I’d said. “It can’t be that simple.”

Asired shrugged. “We can make it harder, if you want.” And before I could say, “No thank you, I’ll take it as easy as I can get,” they had me teleported and re-avatared in the middle of a dark, trackless forest.

I had no map. There was no compass in my utility screen. Everywhere I turned, it looked exactly the same. Trees. Grass. Darkness. And the sound of crickets in my headphones.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” I said. There was no response from anyone. I was pretty sure they were watching me, but if they were then they’d decided to keep that nugget to themselves.

“Okay, Unoldo,” I whispered. “Find the Wyrm. Answer some questions.” I drummed my fingers on my desk and checked the time. It was already one in the morning. I tabbed over to my browser and checked sunrise. 6:14 AM.

“Okay,” I said again. I waggled my fingers over the keyboard, took my mouse in hand, and began to walk.

At first, I walked in that shuddery, incremental way I used to do when I was a plebe. Back in the days when pretty much anything could kill me, so my instincts for self-preservation were pretty strong. Light taps on the keys, a constant shifting of view back and forth, just in case something was ready to jump from the shadows and take me apart.

As time crawled by, though, I started to relax. I still didn’t know where I was, but there was nothing there. No creatures had leapt out to devour me, none of the trees had reached out to rip me to shreds. Whatever this place was, it seemed like I was the only one moving through it.

Within half an hour, I was bored stupid.

There was nothing to do but walk, and I didn’t even know where I was walking to. Every path looked the same, every tree looked like every other tree, and for all I knew, I’d been walking in a tight little circle all night.

Which was why actually meeting the Wyrm scared the everloving hell out of me.

I had no warning, no sign that something different was up ahead. The trail bent right and BAM. There it was. An ugly thing, like what you’d get if a subway car had sex with a caterpillar and then dumped its horrible mutant child on top of a giant mushroom. With a hookah.

It seemed as startled to see me as I was to see it. The thing reared back, and a message started to scroll across its green, backlit face. If it had a face.

WHO ARE YOU?

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so I just stammered out, “I’m Unoldo. I’m on a quest. Umm.” I didn’t know what else to say. “You’re, like, supposed to ask me questions?”

AM I? it asked.

“Oh, for the love of – YEAH!” I lifted off my headset, put my head in my hands and just ground my teeth together so I didn’t scream. My clock said that it was just after four in the morning, and I had school the next day. I put the headset on again. “You have to ask questions. I have to answer them. Then I get back in my guild. Understand?”

The Wyrm just sat there for a moment, and its hookah bubbled. It was so still that I thought maybe whoever was running it had gone offline. Finally, though: BEST FRIEND AND GREATEST ENEMY. SAVES LIVES AND TAKES LIVES. WITH A BREATH, IT CAN BE BANISHED. WITH A BREEZE, IT CAN BE FED. WHAT IS IT?

Aw, hell.

“Okay,” I said. “Give me a minute.” I hunted around my desk for pen and paper. “Can you repeat that?” I asked. It did, and this time the words scrolled up along the side of the screen. I stared at them, and I swore I could feel time slipping away from me. The one thing I knew about riddles what they usually had simple things for answers, so I started running through ideas. I scratched answers down on paper and crossed them out as they failed the riddle. Not water or trees or clouds, those didn’t make any sense. If the rest of it was like this, then I was totally sc-

My head snapped up, and I shouted, “FIRE!” I flinched when I said it, and glanced up at the ceiling. No footsteps, but I couldn’t be too careful.

The Wyrm swayed slightly. CORRECT, it said, and I did a little happy dance in my chair.

A NEUTRON WALKS INTO A BAR AND ORDERS A BEER, it said, the words again appearing on the side of the screen as they scrolled across its face. IT FINISHES THE BEER AND ASKS THE BARMAN, “HOW MUCH DO I OWE YOU?” THE BARMAN REPLIES…?

I grinned and sat back in my chair. “He says, ‘For you – no charge.'” My chemistry’s teacher’s desperate desire to be a stand-up comedian was finally going to pay off. Just not for him.

CORRECT, the Wyrm said. I leaned forward again and cracked my knuckles. One more question to go, and sunrise was still a good hour away.

This time, the Wyrm reared up, lifting its body almost vertically above the mushroom’s cap. Its underbelly lit up, pale yellow in the darkness, and a crude line drawing blinked into existence. It was a square. Inside the square were two words, one on top of the other. “dice – dice”

“Dicedice?” I muttered.

INCORRECT, the Wyrm said, and my heart started pounding against my ribcage.

“NO!” I said, and then I dropped to a whisper. I wasn’t sure, but for a moment I thought I heard the bed upstairs squeak. “No,” I whispered. “I was just, you know, thinking out loud.” I had blown it, I had totally blown the whole thing, and right when I was about to pass. But the Wyrm didn’t move. It just stayed there, its belly flickering faintly in the gloom.

I muted my mic and started trying to figure it out. There were two of them, two dice… Why two? Doubledice? No… that wasn’t anything. Why two? Why two?

A thought jumped into my head. It seemed to make sense, but there was no guarantee that it would be right. And sunrise was coming sooner than I thought.

I turned on the mic again and said, “Paradise?”

The Wyrm swayed in the darkness and then dropped back down. CORRECT, it said.

“YESS!!” I hissed, and I pumped my fist. The breath I’d been holding came out in a rush.

The lights on the Wyrm’s underside flickered off, followed by the lights on its face. The forest was once again plunged into darkness, and my screen went blank. It stayed that way just long enough to make me start to panic again, but then faded into clarity. I was back in the guildhall again, alone this time. My armor was on, and a quick check on my inventory told me that everything I had was still where I left it. Spinning in the air in front of me was a glowing scroll. I grinned and took it.

Congratulations, Unoldo, it read. You passed your first-stage initiation. There will be two more tests. Pass them, and you will be granted the title of Guild leader. You will start the second test the next time you log in.

And at the bottom, in smaller type, it said, We really had you going, didn’t we? The sentence was signed by Lignar.

I grinned madly and put the scroll into my inventory. Yup. They had me going. I logged out and stretched. The sky outside was light, and I had maybe an hour before I was supposed to get up for school. I plodded over to the sofa and stretched out. I’d probably catch hell for staying up all night and gaming, but I didn’t care.

Some things were more important.

Day One Hundred and Fifty-eight: NapNow™

October 26, 2011 2 comments

This is an entry for the Worth1000 contest, Everyday Instruction Manual. The mission: “Write a simple set of instructions for completing a simple everyday task.” I figured I could make a little money on the side. Enjoy.

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Welcome, weary traveler, to the wonderful world of Napping™! Thank you for purchasing volume one of NapNow™ System, a five-volume set that will bring you napping pleasure and fulfillment. Remember that official NapNow™ merchandise can be purchased on our website, napnow-dot-com.

Napping is an art that has been practiced by people around the world for centuries, from the ancient Mayans to the mysterious Far East, and now its secrets can finally be shared with you. By following these careful, time-tested instructions, the wide world of napping will reveal itself to you!

First, it is vitally important that you keep safety in mind at all times. So, step one: check your surroundings. Are there other people in the room? Are you immersed in water or other fluids or fluid-like substances? Is there a risk of fire? Would napping cause sudden injury, death, or long-term unemployment? If so, please avoid napping until the danger has passed.

If you have determined that napping is safe, then please proceed to the next step: finding a napping environment. Many amateur nappers prefer to use a sofa, hammock, or bed. For the ultimate in napping satisfaction, however, we recommend investing in a NapNow Total Sleep System™, which can be purchased for only $4,999, shipping and installation included.

Once you have established your napping environment, prepare yourself for the ultimate in consciousness-obliviating experiences!

Be sure to lie down in your napping environment. Standing up may seem like a good idea, but NapNow™ laboratory tests have shown that standing while napping can lead to such health hazards as concussions, broken limbs, and death. In addition, falling may cause damage to your valuable bedroom décor.

If you have purchased a NapNow Future Perfect Pillow™, be sure to place it under your head. This is the ideal orientation of a pillow, as has been proven by over twenty years of the most rigorous laboratory testing.

WARNING: Do not place the Pillow™ on your face, as involuntary asphyxiation may result.

Now that you are lying down in your sleep environment, with a Pillow™ under your head, you may want to make use of our patented NapNow Millennial Blanket™ thermal regulation package. Be sure to check the Blanket™-compatible digital thermometer (available on our website for only $29.99) to determine the amount of Blanket™ coverage and density you will need. Apply the Blankets™ until you have reached the desired level of warmth. If you feel that you have become too warm, carefully remove Blankets™ until you have reached the desired level of coolness.

It is at this point that you should be prepared to close your eyes. If you close your eyes prior to this step, serious injury may occur. Gently allow your eyelids to cover your eyes, without squeezing or fluttering. If you are uncertain as to how much eyelid pressure you should exert, our patented Blink Monitor™ will assist you to find the ideal level of eyelid tension as you prepare to fall asleep.

Be sure to take deep breaths, using the NapNow Pneumo-Plastic Breath Regulator™ to accurately judge both the rate of breathing and the breath pressure involved. Use the Integrated Metronomic Music-Assisted Breathing System™ (patent pending) to time your breaths at exactly eight breaths per minute, a rate discovered by NapNow™ scientists to produce the optimum napping experience.

In a few minutes, you should begin to notice a loss of consciousness. Congratulations! You have successfully joined the millions of people who are happy and successful Nappers™!

Day One Hundred and Fifty-six: Character Work

October 24, 2011 1 comment

Sean slammed the door and started piling furniture in front of it. The pumping station was quiet, except for his breathing and the scraping of  steel desks against the concrete floor. He had blocked the main entrance, but the zombies would get through that pretty quickly. All he had to do was keep them out, and he’d stay alive.

But for how long? With the door blocked, he lit a flare and propped it in the corner, filling the station with red, flickering light. The great machines cast terrible shadows against the high ceiling, and those shadows made him nervous. Too many places to hide. He wanted to check his watch, but there was no point to that anymore. He’d locked them out, yes, but unless they decided to go off and hunt someone else, he’d also locked himself in. 

He took a deep breath and reviewed what he had. A handgun, with no ammunition. A shotgun. Also, with nothing to fire. No more grenades, only a couple more flares. He still had his knife, though. The one he’d gotten when he finished SEAL training. It had never left his side, and he hoped that he’d be brave enough to use it on himself if the zombies did manage to break through. No food. No water. Soon, he’d be able to hear the ungodly gurgle and howl of the zombies outside the door.

Sean gripped his knife and took a few deep breaths. One way or another, he was dying in this room tonight.

Wes practically slammed the enter key when he finished that line and fell back in his chair. He took a deep breath and let it out, and then rubbed his eyes for a few moments before saving the document. He had been writing that sequence for days, and when he finally got his teeth in it, he blasted the whole thing out in a couple of hours. He did a quick check of the word count – a hair under seven thousand, which wasn’t bad at all. Great, actually, considering the story had been coming in drips and drabs for the last few weeks, barely shuffling along any faster than the zombies that were supposed to be the driving force.

“Why did I choose zombies?” he asked himself as he saved the file again and set it to print. This book had been sitting on his hard drive for ages, taunting him. He’d have an inspiration, spend a weekend pounding out the pages, and then it would all go away again, and he had no idea why. He liked his characters – even the ones he’d killed in gruesome ways. And Sean Danfield was a good character. You can’t go wrong with a Navy SEAL in this kind of story, and what with the abandonment by his father when he was a kid, Wes figured he could have the poor guy searching for some kind of psychological closure all the way up to the end of act three.

It was just getting him to act three that was the problem. “How the hell am I going to get you out of there?” he muttered.

“Wait just one goddamn minute,” a voice said. A man stepped out of his hallway, bloody and exhausted. He probably would have been handsome in a normal setting, if he wasn’t covered in gore and looking like he was about to snap and kill someone. And holding a giant knife. He had glossy black hair and deep brown eyes that Wes knew drove the women nuts. Or at least, they had done in the first chapter, before the zombies showed up. He strode towards the desk, the knife clutched in his hand. “What the hell do you mean you don’t know how to get me out of there?”

“Now isn’t a good time, Sean,” Wes said.

“The hell it isn’t!” He slammed the knife, point-first, into Wes’ desk and the wood nearly split.

Wes looked up at him. “Please, Sean. This is IKEA. It can barely withstand the tremendous pressure of just being a desk.” He put on what he thought was a kindly smile. “Don’t worry, Sean. I’ll find a way out of there for you.”

The big man was trembling as he stood there, and then he walked to Wes’ big overstuffed chair and slumped into it, his head in his hands. He didn’t cry – Wes was absolutely sure that Sean Danfield didn’t cry – but he was as close as he’d get to it. His voice was thick and quiet. “When?” he asked. “When are you getting me out of there?”

Wes levered himself up. “I don’t know, Sean. Eventually.”

“Eventually?” Sean looked up and his eyes were rimmed with red. “No no no no.” He stood up and rand his fingers through his short-cropped hair. “I can’t do eventually. Not like the time you left me in that police station for – what was it, six months?”

“A year,” Wes said. He almost felt ashamed.

“A year,” Sean whispered. “Jesus.”

Wes watched him for a moment, and then went into the kitchen to make coffee. It usually did a good job of calming Sean down. The first time Sean had shown up in his living room, Wes was terrified. That would, of course, be the only rational reaction to having a complete stranger, armed to the teeth and scared out of his wits, show up out of nowhere in your apartment in the middle of the afternoon. But once it became apparent what was going on, the relationship between the two men turned… different. Sean was well aware of the fact that Wes technically controlled his destiny, but Wes was equally aware of the fact that he needed Sean if he was going to finish the book. And so an uneasy detente was formed. Sean agreed to spend as much time as possible in the story, or wherever it was that he spent his time, and Wes agreed to write the story to the best of his ability.

Would that it were that easy. Wes’ poor habits made it hard to keep Sean’s story moving, or even necessarily making sense. More than once he’d had to backtrack and start a section again, just so he could get Sean out of a bind that had no exit. And it looked like he might have to do that again now. The problem was that they further he got in the book, the harder it would be to unmake the plot without starting over.

He carried two cups of coffee out to the living room and set the black in front of Sean. The man had his head back, and was staring at the ceiling. Wes sat across from him and sipped in the silence.

“Did you know that Leah was going to die?” Sean asked. He bent forward and cradled the mug in his hands.

The silence lingered for a minute. “No,” Wes replied quietly. “Not until it happened.”

Sean put the mug down. “How could you not know?” He put his head in his hands. “How could you not know something like that?”

All Wes could do was shrug. “Sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes the story surprises you. The characters surprise you.” He picked up his own cup. “I mean, it was something she would do, of course. Saving your life like that.”

“I didn’t want her to save my life,” Sean said. “Not if it meant losing her.”

There was really nothing to say to that, so Wes didn’t say anything. He just let his coffee cool on the table for a while. Sean sat, immobile, staring at the floor.

Finally, Wes stood up. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get to work.” He held out a hand and waited for Sean to take it.

The other man didn’t move. Wes offered it again, but still Sean sat still. Finally the man said, “What if I don’t want to?”

Wes’ hand fell. “What?”

Sean took a deep breath. “What if I don’t want to go on like this?” He looked up, and his eyes were full of despair. “I can’t do this anymore, Wes,” he said. “Losing my friends? Running just a half-step ahead of certain death all the time? Watching the world I knew just…” He spread his fingers and stared at his empty hands. “Just fall apart?”

He shook his head. “I can’t do this anymore, Wes. Let them in.” He stood up and walked slowly over to the computer, caressing the screen. “Let them break down the door. The blockade I made isn’t that great, after all. They’ll get in eventually.” He tugged the knife from the desk. “Give me a moment to use this, and it’ll all be over. For both of us.”

He stared at the knife, turning it to catch the light, and Wes felt for the first time like he was in some real trouble. “Sean,” he said, carefully putting an arm around the man’s shoulders. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Why not?” Sean whispered.

That was a tough question. Wes had an answer for it, of course, and any good writer would have had the same answer. He just didn’t think that Sean would believe him. He took a deep breath and let Sean go. “Because that’s not the kind of character you are, Sean Danfield. And you know it.”

Sean crumpled to his knees and – to Wes’ shock – started to weep quietly. The moment was terrible, but there was a part of his writer’s mind that was absorbing the whole thing, thrilled by the revelation that there was a place Sean could go that he hadn’t forced him to yet. That there was still another layer that could be stripped away. Wes could use that, and he felt like a monster even to acknowledge it. He got down beside his character and helped him stand up. “Come on,” Wes said. “Let’s get you out of there.”

He pulled over another chair, sat Sean down in it, and then settled down in front of the computer. He jiggled the mouse to turn off the screen saver and went back to where he had left off. “Okay,” he said. “You’re in the pumping station, the zombies are right outside. What do you do?” He looked over at Sean, who was still staring at the floor. “Come on,” he said. “Is this what they taught you in SEAL training? To give up?”

That got his attention. Sean looked up, and his face finally had some life in it. “No,” he said.

“Okay then!” Wes cracked his knuckles and waggled his fingers over the keyboard. “So. What do you do?”

Sean stood up and retrieved his coffee before answering. “It’s a pumping station, right?” He nodded. “Okay. So there’s probably, what… Maintenance tunnels or something?”

Wes grinned. “There are now,” he said, and started typing furiously. Sean sat down next to him and watched the words pour onto the page and offered ideas where he could. They worked that way long into the night.

When the chapter was finished, and Sean was safe – for the moment – Wes sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. When he opened them, the chair next to him was empty. The other coffee cup was cold. He stretched, saved the chapter and then shut down the computer. Four in the morning, another five thousand words.

“Nice work,” he said. “Thanks for your help.” His jaw cracked in a yawn and he plodded off to bed for a long sleep.

Day One Hundred and Fifty-three: The Factory Floor

October 21, 2011 4 comments

Another small crystal sphere was lifted up by an air current and deposited gently onto Belesse’s workstation. She took it and, with swift and practiced motions, began to assemble a dream within it.

She had the rhythm down, made into a ritual she’d performed six days a week for nearly three years. Twist the sphere to iris open the top and reach up for one of the dozens of nozzles hanging overhead. Check the work order, and then start mixing. A touch of self-doubt and existential terror, an old love and memories of childhood infused with a delicate mixture of old television commercials and abandonment issues. Twist the sphere to close it, give it a good shake, and send it on down the line for packing and distribution. Another arrives, and do the same again. And again.

There had been a time, she was told, when dreams were individually crafted for people. When each and every dream bore the fine attention of a master dreamcrafter – or at least a skilled apprentice or two. But the world got bigger, the dreams got more complicated, and sooner or later everything falls to mass production. The little old men who knew how to put together intricately built nightmares and illusions were now forced out. Put in management positions if they were lucky. In their place were the ones like Belesse, who needed the money and didn’t mind the monotonous work. The pay was good enough, and it wasn’t like she had anything else she could do.

She passed a dream off onto the conveyor belt with her right hand and took a fresh sphere with her left. She looked at the work order and grimaced. It called for Wet Dream 33-G, a delicate mixture that she rarely saw on her workflow and was never sure if she got right. She reached under her workstation and pulled out the manual, a dusty three-ring binder that she almost never consulted these days. The pages were brittle and yellow, and still covered with notes that she’d made back when she was new on the job. Some tips that she’d gotten from other girls, a few notes on substitutions and her early experiments, which had nearly gotten her fired. The floor chief had dragged her off to the manager’s office, and she was told in no uncertain terms that she was not to deviate from the prescribed formulae.

Page eighty-two had it. She ran her finger down the list and nodded. Pretty conventional ingredients, actually, with just a few twists to it. Adolescent gender uncertainty, patriarchal culture paradigms, a composite of popular teen boy bands, and all topped off with run-of-the-mill lustiness. She grabbed hoses and started filling the sphere, smiling grimly at the symbolism of the whole thing as she did it.

She squeezed the handle for the objectification of teen male sexuality and nothing came out. She squeezed it again, and once more, and let the hose go. “Figures,” she muttered. She opened the manual and started looking for substitutions, which is when she smelled the floor boss behind her.

The workers suspected that Rachok knew how despised he was, and that somewhere in what passed for his heart he had a subconscious desire to give them a chance to avoid drawing his attention. It may have been true, or it may not have, but there was no other reason they could think of for the thick cloud of foul-smelling cologne that seemed to precede and follow him as he went on his rounds. His mission was simple: to look for workers who weren’t working fast enough and to goad them with the threat of yelling, verbal abuse and eventual firing. This time, Belesse had been too absorbed in the recipe to notice until it was too late.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing,” he grumbled, and she stood up straight as she spun to face him. He was an ugly, ugly man – broad and oily with a permanent scowl and eyes that never seemed to rest on anything. The cologne was really the best part of him. “Do you think we pay you to stand around and read, woman?” She opened her mouth, but he didn’t let the words get out. “Oh, or did you think that the job wasn’t important enough for your full godsdamned attention? Did you think you could just slack off whenever you got bored with doing the job we pay you for?”

“No – no sir,” she stammered. “I was just -”

“I don’t give two farts in a high wind what you were just,” he roared. He picked up the sphere she’d been working on and shook it under her nose. “You see this, you empty-headed girl? It’s wasted now!” He threw it to the ground. The sphere shattered and the dream sublimated into a fine mist. Belesse felt a warmth in her belly and she blushed hard. Rachok reached past her and grabbed another. “Here,” he said, forcing it into her hands. “Do it again, and for once do it right. No more delays.”

“But I -”

“No buts!” He leaned in, and she was vividly aware that he’d had curry for lunch. Or perhaps dinner the day before. “I have had it up to here with you people and your excuses and your gripes and your complaints! Nothing’s ever good enough for you, is it?” He smiled, and it was like an uneven army of yellow bricks had been shoved into his mouth. “Well, there are a hundred girls out there who would be happy to work for less than we’re paying you right now, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any reason why I shouldn’t go and haul one of those half-wits over right now to take your place.” He poked her in the shoulder with a thick-nailed finger. “Get working,” he growled, “or get walking!”

He stood there, his flat, pock-marked nose nearly touching hers, until she gave a short, meek nod. The show of submission that he was waiting for. Rachok grunted and went back on his rounds, but he glanced back at her several times before he turned the corner.

Belesse wiped her eyes before they could actually start welling up, and told herself it was just the fumes. She sniffed as she re-made the recipe and thought about all the things she wished she could have said. It wouldn’t have mattered if she had, though. In Rachok’s universe, people like her didn’t stand up to people like him. The cognitive dissonance probably would have gotten them both killed. More’s the pity.

When she got to the missing ingredient she paused again, staring up at the tangle of hoses. They reminded her suddenly of the trees she used to play under when she was a child. The trees were always heavy with vines, and she and her sisters would race to see who could climb the highest.

“Hell with it,” she said to herself, and she grabbed a hose at random to fill the sphere. When it was done, she released the hose in shock and covered her mouth to stifle the giggle. The sphere glimmered under the ugly fluorescent lights, and she wondered what poor boy was going to have an erotic dream about trans-Euclidean geometry tonight. She rolled the sphere onto the conveyor belt with her right hand and took a new one with her left. She still wanted to laugh out loud, but nothing would have gotten Rachok thundering over there faster than the sound of someone actually enjoying her job. Still, it seemed that there was still some fun to be had.

The work orders came in one after the other, and she filled them diligently. All with one added ingredient, of course, and even she didn’t know what it was going to be until she did it. Someone would be dreaming about murderous clowns who debated tax policy as they chased them in slow motion; another would have a dream about his mother, but it’s not his mother, but actually it is and she’s really a small nation of ants masquerading as Hillary Clinton; and some little girl would find herself dreaming that she was a Disney princess, forced to defend her marzipan castle against the onslaught of zombies that would have her brains for breakfast.

Would it get her fired? Probably. She squirted a bit of overt racism into a dream about kittens and rolled the sphere along. But as ways to go went, this was a pretty good one.

She picked up another sphere, closed her eyes and reached up with a small, forbidden smile on her face. Tonight was going to be fun for everyone.

Day One Hundred and Fifty-two: My Summer Vacation

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

The elves were singing so loud that Treva had to turn up her iPod and pick something metal to listen to. She sat in the shade of a great tree that was thousands of years old, whose branches blocked a sky that was the blue of old sapphires, and she tapped out a text message on her phone. She wouldn’t be able to send it, of course – there was never any reception in this place, but it was the only thing that made her feel even close to normal. She was lucky the thing even worked. The year before she’d just brought a bunch of books and sat under the tree by the stream and read until the pixies left her alone.

That reminded her – she reached back into the hood of her sweatshirt and fished around until she found the one that had decided to huddle in there. She assumed it was yelling something at her – the thing was waving its little arms and its wings were buzzing, but she couldn’t hear a damn thing. Which was the whole point, really. She flung the pixie off into the bushes and went back to her phone. The tree sighed behind her – she could feel its trunk expand slowly, and she was pretty sure it was trying to say something to her in its low, wooden voice. Probably something about respecting all living things, the importance of kindness and compassion and blah blah blah. If there was any kindness and compassion in the world, she wouldn’t have to spend her summers being packed up and dragged to Fairie just so she could meet her mother’s relatives.

When she was a kid it was great. What kid wouldn’t love fairyland? There were hills to climb and strange little creatures everywhere that could do magic just to entertain her. Hell, she even got to ride a unicorn for a few years, although it had led to a really interesting conversation with her father when she turned fifteen last year and all of a sudden that damn unicorn didn’t want a thing to do with her anymore. She wanted to blame Tony Dinkens for that, but it had been just as much her as him. And when it came right down to it, a unicorn was fine when you were a kid, but sex was for a lifetime.

After a while, it all got old. You could only go to the Magic Grove so many times before you’ve heard all the songs those trees are ever going to sing. You can only play so many riddle games before they start repeating themselves, and you can only go so far into the deep, dark woods before your mother’s henchmen decide that you really shouldn’t be out on your own and drag you back.

Her iPod sputtered, skipped and died, and the intricately woven, multi-part harmonies of the elves flooded into her ears again. “Crap,” Treva said. She snapped her phone shut. It would probably be the next to go, and she really didn’t think she could handle that right now. She stood up and brushed blades of perfectly green grass off her jeans, put up her hood and walked back out into the brilliant sunshine.

The estate was gorgeous, and by now Treva was completely bored with every inch of it. The stables, the fractal hedge maze, the pond where frogs jumped out and granted minor wishes if you kissed them. She felt like she’d done it all, and if her parents announced that they were leaving today and never coming back, she couldn’t be happier.

Speak of the devil. Her father was walking towards her across the sheep field, his hands in his pockets and his eyeglasses glinting in the sun. She couldn’t stand the way he looked. He couldn’t just look like a normal dad – overweight, tired from working a job that he hated, wanting nothing more than to sit down, drink a beer and watch TV. He had to be “interesting.” He wrote for literary journals, sometimes spending days holed up in that giant library of his to research whatever dead white person he had decided was important that week. He had graying temples and steel-rimmed eyeglasses and always looked like he had a secret that he was just dying to tell you. Treva sighed and looked down at the grass while she walked. He wouldn’t pass her by, but at least maybe she could convince him that she wasn’t up for another one of his “Isn’t-it-great-to-be-here” chats.

“Treva!” he called. She took a few steps and then looked up like she was surprised to see him. He seemed unsettled, though she wasn’t sure how she could tell, and he was holding something in his arms. It looked like a big blue egg, covered in sparkling gems. It glimmered faintly in the sunshine, and she could smell hot metal wafting from it on the wind.

She stopped, and, with great visible effort, popped the earbuds from her ears. “Dad,” she said, managing to pack an entire vacation’s worth of boredom into one word. “Another dragon’s egg?” She rolled her eyes. “Not like we can actually raise them at home or anything. They just sit there on the coffee table taking up space.” She rolled her eyes. “Lame.” She started walking again, but he stepped in front of her.

“You’re right, Treva.” He held out the egg, but she wouldn’t take it. “And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” He pushed his glasses up on his nose, and she was slightly unnerved by the expression on his face. “Treva, I’m afraid…” He took a deep breath. “Treva, we can’t go home.”

She stood and stared at him from under her hood. The elves’ song was repeating, and it was really starting to get on her nerves. Her father kept shifting the egg from hand to hand and blinking a lot, and it seemed like forever before she managed to say, “What?”

He chewed his lip and tried to put an arm around her, but she shrugged it off. “What the hell do you mean we can’t go home?” she yelled. The singing stopped abruptly. “We have to go home! Dad, all my friends are at home!” He flung her arms out, encompassing all of fairyland. “Dad, I hate this place, we can’t stay!”

He stood up to her yelling with his usual stoicism. She had become very good at getting her points across at high volume, and while it used to completely disarm him at first, he had become skilled at waiting until she was done and then continuing on as if nothing had happened. When the echoes died away, he reached out for her again, but again, she shrunk back. “Treva,” he finally said, “please understand that this is a very… complicated situation.”

“The hell it is,” she yelled. “How complicated can it be? We do it every summer! Pack our things, get in the minivan and go home!” She mimed the actions as she spoke. “It’s perfectly easy!”

He sighed, and then gently placed the dragon’s egg on the ground. “Treva,” he said, “I can’t think of a good way to say this, so I’m just going to spit it out.”

“Oh, this should be good,” she said. She crossed her arms and turned away from him.

“At sunset tomorrow,” her father said, “you are going to be married to Sundadar, Lord of the Dusk Hour, as the fulfillment of the bargain that was made when your mother and I married.” He stood back, hands on his hips, and waited for the explosion.

It didn’t come. Treva didn’t look at him. She didn’t say anything. Gently, carefully, she put the earbuds back in her ears one at a time and thumbed her iPod on. It didn’t work, but it didn’t matter. She shoved her hands in the front pocket of her hoodie and walked at a steady pace back towards the main manor house.

Her father watched her go and sighed. He picked up the egg and patted it gently. “It’s going to be harder than we thought,” he murmured, and started off to follow his daughter.