Alan had always been just a face in the crowd and he preferred it that way. He stood out to nobody and could go about his day like a normal person. But he wasn’t a normal person.
Taking a deep breath, Alan stepped out off the step of the store and into the semi crowded street. He pulled the sleeves of his red jacket down over his hands and tucked them into his pockets. He kept his head down and walked, weaving in and out of people.
He hated crowded streets the most. Too many people, too many chances of physical contact. He pulled up short as an older lady brushed against him with a quiet “excuse me.” It had been an involuntary stop but he found himself holding his breath, waiting for the visions to fill his head. After a few seconds of nothing, he continued walking, his hands shaking.
He looked up just in time to dodge a street vendor who was pushing his cart and not noticing where he was going. Pressing his back against the brick wall of a flower shop, he sucked his gut in, trying his back to stay away from the moving cart.
“Seriously?” he snapped at the man after he had gone by. “Pay attention to where you’re going.”
“Sorry!” the man yelled over his shoulder.
Alan’s cheeks blushed, not knowing that the man had seen him. He was an older man, slightly bent from pushing his cart for so many years. He was on the shorter side, his grey mop of hair barely visible above the stack of material on the cart.
For a moment, Alan felt bad about snapping at him but the feeling was gone the moment an older woman grabbed him by the collar and ripped him away from the wall.
Where did she come from? he wondered as she threw him into the middle of the sidewalk. He stumbled for a split second before finding his footing. How is she so strong?
“What are you doing?” she yelled at him, greying hair tucked behind her ears. “I just painted that wall!”
He could hear her but he couldn’t see her. All he saw was black and for a moment, he didn’t know what was happening even though it had happened many times before. The edge of her knuckles were against his throat, just enough contact for him to see something he didn’t want to.
A white hospital room surrounded him, several posters about pregnancy and childbirth surrounded him. A happy laugh reached his ears and he turned, looking for the source of it. A middle aged woman lay on the white sheeted bed, a tiny baby crawled in her arms. Its eyes were squeezed close and it held the woman’s thumb in its tiny fist. A man stood at the side of the bed, a happy smile on his face.
“He looks just like you,” the woman said quietly.
“Does he?” he gave a small laugh as he reached out the stroke the baby’s soft head. “What name have you decided on?”
She smiled as she held the baby close to her. “Jason.”
Alan jerked back from the woman, eyes wide. She let go of him, leaving a slight wrinkle in his jacket. He looked at her confused.
“Make sure you didn’t get any paint on your nice jacket,” she said, turning to leave. She was obviously satisfied with the lecture she’d given him even though he’d heard none of it.
“Your son, Jason-” he blurted. She stopped and turned.
“What about him?” she asked, eyes dark and narrowed.
“Um, so his name was Jason?” he asked.
She nodded slowly. “Do you know him?”
He shook his head no before turning and heading back down the sidewalk. He straightened his jacket and zipped it up the whole way. Pulling his hood over his head, his brushed his red hair out of his face and stuffed his hands into his pockets.
A couple minutes later he stood at the base of a fifteen story apartment building. He looked up, stepping back a couple feet to see the top floor. He listened, straining his ears for any sound of music. For a moment, he heard nothing but then, he did. It was a quiet and dainty sounding song that floated through the air slowly, like a lazy snowflake.
With a small smile, he pushed open the metal gate at the bottom and entered, heading for the elevator. He tapped his foot impatiently against the ground as the elevator went up. The button for the 15 floor glowed red telling him where his destination was.
After five seconds of screeching chords and cables, the elevator came to a stop and opened up to the dimly lit floor. He stepped out and headed towards the roof access, hearing the squeak of the doors closing behind him. Taking the rusted metal stairs two at a time, he quickly climbed the twelve stairs and opened the door to the roof.
There was a small wooden platform on the far end of the roof that was about a foot and a half off the ground, serving as a chair and table for those who liked to eat on the roof. For the boy that was laying on it, it served as a bed.
“Vernon!” Alan yelled, lowering his voice.
The boy jerked up, eyes wide, startled. When he saw Alan’s laughing face, he grinned but the paleness of his face remained.
“What do you want?” he called to him, still laughing.
“I was waiting for Ari to return with the food,” he answered, turning the music down.
Alan slid onto the wooden platform and layed out on it, staring up at the white clouds in the sky.
“What’s she getting?” he asked with a sigh. He stretched, finally feeling safe from the flashbacks of strangers.
“Fried chicken,” Vernon flipped through his playlists as the current song ended. “Are you hungry?”
“Yeah,” he nodded, sitting up. “But why are you here?”
“To hang out,” he answered. “Mom and Dad left for a business trip for the next week so I’mma be here a little bit more.”
Alan sighed and rested his hands in his lap. He sat cross legged, slightly slouched. He listened to the song that Vernon had chosen for a moment. It was more upbeat than the last one, the beat in the back more subtly than before.
“Is this the best song you’ve got?” he asked, looking at his friend out of the corner of his eye. The mousy blond boy gave a small laugh. His green eyes always seemed to sparkle, but in the sunlight, they looked to have flecks of brown and black in them.
“No,” he answered, looking at Alan. “This is just the one I thought fit the mood.”
The door at the far end of the roof swung open and Ari appeared, carrying two plastic white bags. She kicked the door shut behind her with her foot and held the bags up victoriously.
“I’ve got the goods!” she proclaimed, dropping them down between Vernon and Alan.
Ari, who was Alan’s twin, looked exactly like him only she was a girl. Her red hair was shoulder blade length, brushing against her arms and high back with every step she took. Her brown eyes were also lit up as she sat down behind the two boys and opened the bags up.
“Chicken for you,” she set a medium box in front of Vernon. “And chicken for you.”
She handed a box to Alan.
“Oh, I see how it is,” he said, taking it from her. He held the box with both hands, the sleeves of the jacket stilled pulled over his hands. The last thing he wanted to get a flashback from was a chicken box from some street corner shop.
“Did you see anything?” Vernon asked, leaning forward, forgetting about his chicken for a moment.
Alan set the box down and displayed his sweater paws to Vernon. “No.”
The boy turned to Ari, “And you?”
“The bags are going to be recycled and the money I gave the cashier is going to be handed to some college girl with the clearest skin I’ve ever seen,” she said, taking a bite of her chicken. “Or just a really good makeup job.”
“And how is that helpful?” he looked at her scornfully before taking a bite of his own chicken.
She leaned over and grabbed the speaker that sat next to him and held down the power button till it turned off. He stared at her wide eyed and then down at his speaker before doing a fake pout.
She smiled and slid it away from them. “That’s what you get.”
He leaned back, supporting himself by his hands. He looked at his piece of chicken which he had set back into the container.
“What’s it like?” he asked. “Having abilities and all?”
Alan stopped chewing for a moment, thinking. Ari shrugged.
“It’s nothing big,” she answered. “It’s actually kind of stupid, always seeing someone’s future and not knowing what yours is.”
Vernon turned to Alan, raising an eyebrow.
He thought for a moment, slowing chewing. He swallowed, remembering the first read he had ever done. All he saw was flames and all he felt was a terrible burning all over his body. He had been visiting the hospital to talk to his friend Lucas when he accidentally made contact with a burn patient. He remembered the habits and nightmares that had followed the encounter.
“I... it’s terrible,” he picked up another piece of chicken and studied it before continuing. “I feel what they felt in their worst days, I see what they saw, I experience what they experience and it honestly stinks.”
Vernon raised an eyebrow.
Alan gave a small smile before going back to eating, looking at the chicken leg after taking a bite out of it.
“I wish I had something that made me... special,” Vernon remarked with a shrug. Ari set her chicken down and took a deep breath.
“You are special,” she said, patting his shoulders. “If everyone was special, nobody would be special. We need people like you to exist so people like us can exist and be more special.”
“That was not helpful at all,” he narrowed his eyes and took an exaggerated bite out of his chicken. “That made me feel so much better.”
Alan studied his friend for a moment, watching him. His green eyes that had been lit up earlier seemed to lose a bit of their shine and his face had fallen.
There was something Vernon wasn’t telling them.
This is a rough draft so please excuse any misprints. (I tried lol) Thanks for reading and if you want to be tagged in future chapters, let me know!!
I don’t know why they gave me the pen. They didn’t ask me to write anything. Well, they didn’t exactly give it to me, I pulled it off the desk, but still. Why would they sit it there where I could reach it? I just sat there, absentmindedly clicking it so that it makes that tic-tic-tic sound that drives adults crazy. I drive a lot of adults crazy. Tic-tic-tic. The clicking sound that is the reason I am here. I just couldn’t stop clicking. Tic-tic-tic. I found it strangely therapeutic - more therapeutic than therapy. Tic-tic-tic. The pen was taken away from me, it’s ticking fading into ominous silence.
“Do you know why you are here, Miss. Clementine Emmanuel-Forsolaz?” asked Dr. Marsheen, the person I had come to see.
“I’m here because I have major depressive disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, anxiety, anorexia although I force myself to eat, psychotic symptoms, anger issues, suicidal thoughts and actions, self-harming tendencies, and psychopath something or other. Oh, and paranoia.” I rattled, ticking off the list as I went.
“But why are you here?” asked Marsheen again. I was pretty sure she was Asian. She sounded Asian. I ignored her.
“You therapists all think you’re so original, that no one could be as good as you because you are doing things in a way that is new and different. But with everyone, they ask me the same questions. ‘Standard procedure,’ they say, but it’s BS. They never do anything different.”
“How many other therapists have you been to?” These therapists. Not only do they ask the same questions, all they do is ask questions. Jesus. When does it end?
“11, including you.”
“Well, let’s get to the real stuff, shall we?”
“Go ahead.” I sassed.
“How old were you when this started?”
“It’s always been there,” I said. In truth, I gave a different time to every one of my therapists. Maybe it had always been here. I wasn’t keeping track. Or maybe it was post-traumatic stress, like they said.
“Hmm. Did anything happen to you?”
“Other than my parent’s death? No.”
“Do you know what happened to them?”
“Why do you think that is?”
“My brain can’t handle it.”
“That’s a brave accusation.” It was the first thing she said that didn’t end in a question since our session began.
“Just spitting back what everyone else says,” I explained.
“Ah. And why do you think they all say the same thing?”
“This is something I’ve noticed a lot, not just with therapists. You have to go through it to understand it. Horrible, but true.”
“So you think no one understands you?”
“Some do, a little bit.”
“A little bit?”
“Well, you know, a whole bunch of my friends are depressed,” I answered uneasily. Time to change my strategy.
“Do they cut like you do?”
“No.” Umm… yes.
“Is this boring you?” Marsheen asked.
“What would you like to do?” My hands twitched. I hoped she didn’t see.
“I want to shove your perfectly manicured hands down your throat until they come out your ass,” I burst. I didn’t mean to say that. I didn’t mean to say that… but it was true. Dr. Marsheen’s eyes widened.
“I think… that concludes our session today. May I meet with your aunt?” No, I thought, but it didn’t matter. I was sent out and my aunt came in. Of course Marsheen ended the session. Adults always do, when faced with something they can’t understand. Tomorrow I went back to school. I was almost looking forward to it, I hadn’t seen my friends in so long. Bored, I leaned over to the door to try and overhear. They had white noise machines to cover the sound, but if anyone tried, they could hear clearly.
“Your child has some issues… Keep bringing her here… She seems to have some Psychopathic tendencies…” Psychopathic tendencies. That was what it was. “She is mentally unstable and may need to go to a behavioral school, if you consent…” If you consent. No. Aunt Tracy couldn’t do this to me. Take me from all my friends and put me in a boarding school? Like that would help? I ran to the bathroom and let out a sob. Nothing had been right since Mom and Dad died. Nothing. The red lines across my arms were proof of that. I took out my shard of mirror that I had kept from the accident. I had lied to the doctor. I remembered the accident just fine. I wish I didn’t. They were in a car crash. This mirror was from their car. From the rear view mirror. And I had been using it to cut now for the past week, carrying it around with me like a good luck charm. I used it to cut now, and I cut deeper than I meant to and started to bleed. Oh sure, the last time they had caught me cutting, they searched everywhere, but the piece was so small that they didn’t notice I had hidden it in my mouth. Deep, dark, red lines. Deep, dark, red lines. The drops of red swirled in the toilet water. It looked like I was on my period. My salty tears fell on the wound and made it sting. It was only one cut this time. Only… ha. I was crying silently. Someone came in and didn’t hear me… or care. Mom, Dad, where are you? I thought. I miss you.
(Note: I started and finished this story a while ago, but it needs to be almost completely rewritten...)
The Infinite Imagination of Isabella Ives (Chapter One: Wishes)
A mix of sultry jazz, clanking dinnerware, and minimal chatter swam through Isabella’s ears, while the scent of decadent dishes swam through her nose. Draped in an elegant red gown, she rested comfortably at the velvet-covered table for two. The flickering candlelight illuminated the pair of water glasses and lovely rose bouquet at its center. She glanced down at her menu and the empty plate before her. “May I take your order, Madam?” a handsome voice called. She always heard the voice but could never see who it belonged to. It was hypnotic yet somehow satisfying. It had to be a waiter this time, she assumed. “I’ll wait for my date,” Isabella sighed. “Very well,” she sensed him nod and turn away. Isabella peered at her watch. “Time seems to be moving awfully slow,” she pouted, shooting her gaze back over to the entrance door, “And he seems to be moving awfully slower.” Suddenly, an alarm rang out. “Fire! FIRE!” everyone began yelling as they ran in a panic. Disappointed, Isabella slumped back in her chair. Just as heat began filling the restaurant, the sprinkler system activated. Drenched, Isabella finally popped up and ran for the door.
Isabella awakened drenched, head resting on her open window’s sill. “It must have rained last night!” she scoffed, shaking her head as an alarm rung loudly in her ear, “I have a full-sized bed, but somehow I always manage to fall asleep in the window.” Reaching to silence the clock, she caught a glance of her cell phone. “Thirty-nine new notifications?” She sighed in annoyance. As she read through them, she soon remembered what day it was.
“Guess what? It’s June Thirteenth!”
“Happy Birthday, Izzy!”
“The big TWO FIVE!”
“Happy Birthday, honey! We love you.”
“Isabella, we have to do something awesome.”
“You know it’s Friday, right? #superstitious #happybirthday”
“How could I forget?” she asked, slapping herself in the forehead. She rushed to the bathroom to shower and get dressed.
She locked up her little house and rushed off the front porch. Glancing up at the giant clock tower in the midst of her gated community, she smiled, noticing the rainbow arched above it. With her head in the clouds, she wasn’t paying attention to where she was going and tripped, kicking something heavy on the ground. Yanked out of the rainbow’s trance, she looked to see a small smooth stone. She knelt to pick it up, rubbed it with her thumb, and placed it in her pocket. Then, she loaded into the red bug parked in her driveway and started off to work.
At the Coffee Corner, her co-workers insisted she go out to the club with them later that night for her birthday. “You know I don’t go to clubs like that,” she protested. “It’ll be fun! You’ve been legal for four years and you still haven’t had your first drink,” Sharlisa snapped. “Or your first kiss, for that matter,” Michelle bragged. “I know, guys, I just really don’t think all that stuff is so important right now,” Isabella shrugged. “When WILL you think it’s important, Izz?” Sharlisa said, bucking her eyes. Suddenly, a man swaggered in. “Can I get a choco latte with light foam, four creams and six sugars in a large paper cup to go?” he smiled, licking his lips. “Yes, sir! Coming right up,” Sharlisa beamed, trying to contain her attraction. “He is so cute!” she whispered after relaying the order to Isabella who was standing at the coffee machine. She peeked back to see who her co-worker was swooning over. “Well, a little I guess…” Isabella cringed. “A little??!!” Sharlisa shouted in disbelief, smacking Isabella in the shoulder. “Hey!” she whined, “You made me spill his coffee.” After Isabella added the creams and sugars, Sharlisa wiped off the cup with paper towels and handed it to the gentleman. “Here you are, sir,” she squirmed in falsetto. “Thanks to the pretty little girl back there who actually did all the work,” he cheesed, handing Sharlisa a folded note, “Can you slide this to her? Thanks.” he turned and left out. “How BOLD!” Sharlisa stomped in anger. “What on earth did he say?” Isabella questioned with concern. “It’s his phone number and a five-dollar tip,” Sharlisa frowned. “Well, alright. You keep it then. That was sweet of him, though.” Isabella shrugged. “If I call him, he’ll think I’m a dishonest twit who didn’t give the stuff to the person he really thought deserved it, so I don’t even want it anymore,” Sharlisa slurred, tossing the number into the recycling bin, “But I WILL keep the five dollars, though. He won’t have to find out about that.” she raised her eyebrows as she slid the money into her bosom.
At noon, she punched out to take her hour lunch break, Isabella drover her little red beetle to the nearby grocery store. She bought a tiny celebration cake and twenty-five golden candles. “This’ll be for later. No one wants to celebrate my way, so I’ll celebrate by myself. It’s MY birthday after all. I don’t need anyone else.” Looking at her watch, she saw that she didn’t have to be back at work until forty-five more minutes had passed. “I think they’re having a bazaar at the park today. Maybe I should swing by since I have a little extra time.” Because of this, she picked up a baguette to feed the birds while she was there.
She drove to the park and halted her car in the lot. She glanced over at the tents and booths that were set up not far off. There was a table with jewelry, a seller advertising exquisite garments, and an old man selling antiques. Curious about the treasures of old, she walked over to the booth. The first thing that caught her eye was a golden lamp. It was extremely shiny, glistening in the sun as if it longed for her to reach out and touch it. She couldn’t resist the urge. Seeing that the seller was heavily engrossed in a heated conversation with a bargaining customer, Isabella quickly reached out and rubbed the smooth artifact. Once she did so, the lamp moved to reveal a price tag that read ”$399.00″. Worried to be blamed for any consequential damages she couldn’t afford to cover, Isabella left the table and ran to the bench where she sat for a while, breaking bread and scattering crumbs. Suddenly, a ladybug landed on her hand. “Aww… so cute,” she sighed, admiring its beauty for a while until it flew away. After she was done, she got up from the bench, accidentally dropping her phone from her lap. Kneeling to pick it up, she noticed a dandelion. After making a wish and blowing the seeds, she walked down the path to the parking lot. On the way to her car, she found a deep bronze penny glistening on the ground. She started to step over it, but it was so mesmerizing that she couldn’t take her eyes off of it. She stopped, bent over, clasped it in her hand, closed her eyes, and shoved it into her pocket. As she continued, she came upon a fountain. She fumbled through her pockets, pulling out the penny but returning it because she just couldn’t bring herself to let it go. Finally, she retrieved a quarter and tossed it in with a wish before she headed back to work.
As her shift neared its end, she was ‘elated’ to get home, binge watch her favorite TV show and stuff her face with cake all by herself. Just as the crew was done locking up, wiping down tables, mopping, and cleaning the windows, they all gathered around Isabella. “Before you go home, we have a gift for you!” Michelle squealed, handing her a sparkly red bag. “Oh, thanks guys,” Isabella smiled, “See you all tomorrow… I mean on Monday.” Isabella headed towards the door. “No!” Sharlisa screamed. Shocked, Isabella stopped and turned to her friends. “I mean, it’s a dress. PLEASE try it on now to make sure it fits.” the girl smiled. “Ohhkay?” Isabella sang in suspicion. “I just-- you know. I want it to be perfect for you. If you don’t like it, I’ll take it back and get you something else.” “You guys are so sweet,” Isabella laughed warmly. Inside the bathroom, Isabella pulled out the garments. The dress was more red and sparkly than the bag itself. “Wow. It’s actually kinda cute,” she gasped, “It’s not even too revealing for me.” “Cool, girl!” her co-workers shouted from the lobby, “Come on out here so we can see you, girl!” Isabella stepped out and spun around. The body of the dress flared out ending just above her knees. The sleeves were three-quarter length, and the bust wasn’t too low. “I love it! Thank you guys so much. This is just my style.” she cried, giving the girls a group hug. “What if I told you we bought you shoes to match?” Michelle grinned. “OH WOW! I’m feeling so spoiled. Thank you.” Isabella gaped as she removed her red sneakers and slipped into the red sparkly pumps and clicked her heels together. Little did she know, while she was inside trying on the clothes, her co-worker Vincent was outside sabotaging her car by letting out the front left tire’s air.
“Now, you look perfect, birthday girl,” Sharlisa smirked, “Let’s get outa here. You’re too fancy for Coffee Corner.” The three laughed arm in arm skipping out of the door. In the parking lot, Vincent sat in his big black shiny SUV with the windows down. “What were you guys doing in there, working a second shift?” he joked. The two girls shot him a look as Isabella waved goodbye to him and headed towards her car. Suddenly, she screamed in shock noticing that her tire was flat. “What is it?” Michelle asked, sounding genuinely concerned. “Oh my gosh. Her tire is like SO flat,” Sharlisa gasped. “Don’t worry, Izz. We’ll give you a ride home. Right, Vincent?” Michelle smiled. “Sure we will,” Vincent said slyly, revving his engine. “Wait, you guys ALL got a ride with Vincent today?” Isabella asked, raising an eyebrow. “Just a typical little carpool, you know,” Michelle sang. “Yeah. We do that sometimes,” Sharlisa nodded, “SAVE THE EARTH, right?” Isabella sighed and retrieved the grocery store bags from her car. As she climbed into Vincent’s passenger seat, she noticed his silky blue half-buttoned shirt and black pants. “Where are YOU going tonight?” she asked, “You and Michelle got a hot date?” “Something of the sort,” he exhaled, one hand resting on the wheel. She looked around for the girls, but she couldn’t see them anywhere. “Where’d they go?” she asked. “Oh, I think they forgot their purses inside,” Vincent said plainly. “Oh,” Isabella nodded in deep thought, “Both of them?” Vincent nodded. Just then, everything clicked. “NO.” she shook her head as she saw Sharlisa and Michelle emerge from the coffee shop, uniforms and sneakers replaced with cocktail dresses and heels. “No no no. Let me out of this car!” Isabella begged, trying to yank open her door. “Too late, sister!” Sharlisa shouted as she and Michelle climbed into the back. Vincent started the engine and sped off followed by the laughs and cheers of his companions. “This is NOT funny you guys. I said I didn’t want to go to any club!” she puffed, slamming back in her seat. “It’ll be fun. We promise!” Michelle grinned. “This is kidnapping,” Isabella murmured with her hand to her forehead.
As they arrived at the club, they exited the vehicle. A valet attendant stared her down as he took the keys from Vincent. She tried to look away from his hungry eyes attempting to lock with hers. Inside, the music was loud and rambunctious, and so were the people. She heard words uttered that she never even imagined ever coming out of her mouth. “Oh yeah!” Michelle shouted. “OOUUWWW!” Vincent howled, loosening another button on his shirt. “Let’s get this party started!” Sharlisa yelled. Isabella inched slowly behind them, gazing all around her, trying hard to resist the urge to plug her ears. “Izzy! Keep up!” Michelle barked, hunching her shoulders. Isabella felt like a fish out of water. She smelled liquor everywhere, and dancing people kept bumping into her. “Isn’t this fun, girl?” Sharlisa grinned, “Look at all the cute boys!” Isabella let out an awkward whimper. “I’m gonna go talk to that fine gentlemen over there. Deuces!” Sharlisa said, running over to the corner where a couple of men were standing. Isabella shook her head.
Suddenly, she felt a hand on her shoulder. It was Michelle dragging her to the bar. “Two martinis please,” she smiled with an eyebrow directed at Isabella. “Make one of those virgin?” Isabella quickly added. “Killjoy!” Michelle pouted, folding her arms. “I’m not going to do it, Michelle,” Isabella insisted, “And if you spike my drink, that’s a federal offense.” “FINE.” Michelle huffed playfully, yanking up her chin and swinging her shoulder. “Can I pay for your drink, hot chick?” slurred a man seated at the counter who already obviously had at least one too many himself. “Ugh,” Michelle breathed, turning away from him, “That-- is NOT the kind of guy you want. Okay? You want somebody like Vincent I’m sure.” Isabella glanced over at the boy out on the dance floor, cup in hand, who looked just as drunk (if not a tad bit more). “Look,” she started, scrunching her nose, “I’m sure Vincent probably works for you, but I-- I just don’t think I’ll find what I’m looking for here.” “Wait. So you mean to tell me you’re actually LOOKING?” Michelle gaped. “Well, I’M not looking, but, I’m sure that me and whoever the guy may be will find each other at the perfect time in each of our lives.” “What on earth are you expecting?” Michelle laughed with a gulp, “A sappy rom-com?” “Well…” Isabella sighed shyly, looking down into her drink. “Not exactly, but, you know. I’ll be able to tell when it finally happens,” she drawled, stirring her cocktail around, “I know it won’t be perfect-- nobody’s perfect-- but it will be ideal. Someone like me who’s trying their best, you know?” She looked up to see Vincent had moseyed his way over and was making out with Michelle. “I’m sorry, what was that Izzy?” she gasped pushing away from her boyfriend. “Oh, nothing. Never mind,” Isabella exhaled looking away. “Come on, babe!” Vincent smiled, pulling Michelle out onto the dance floor with him. They began dancing and running their hands through each other’s hair. Isabella glanced over to Sharlisa who had obviously hooked up with the first hot guy she saw. “Just as expected,” Isabella sighed, “All of my so-called friends are distracted. I’m sure they wouldn’t even miss me if I were to leave right now.” She paused, realizing her brilliant idea.
Isabella arose and walked outside. She went to the valet section and asked to get her bags out of Vincent’s car. “I’m not supposed to do this, but I recognize your sexy self from earlier when you got out of the car with your three friends,” he smiled, sizing her down. Isabella laughed nervously, more uncomfortable than flattered. After retrieving her items, and rejecting the valet attendant’s request to give him her phone number, she stood out on the curb and hailed a taxi. Inside the vehicle, she peered out of the window at the high full moon. She looked to it, closed her eyes, and sighed.
Finally home, Isabella sulked to the couch with a deep exhale. “I can’t believe that! Even after I told them no, they did it anyway.” she suspired with a facepalm, “I’m sure they meant well-- er, I THINK they meant well…but… dang. They know me by now. They know I’m not into all that junk. Would they really slash my tires just to make me let them give me a ride and trick me into going with them to the club? Should I think that they are really good friends for premeditating all this, or should I question their very purpose in my life? I realize now that I have no true friends in this world that really understand me.”
She headed to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and retrieved a carryout carton. Shoving it into the microwave, she grabbed a large bottle from the counter, a wine glass from the cupboard, and a lighter from the drawer. She lit a candle on her living room coffee table and collapsed back onto the couch. The microwave beeped. “Leftover Chinese is done.” she sighed. Returning with the dinner, fortune cookie, and celebration cake, she sat back down on the couch and turned on the television. She laughed and nearly cried at her favorite shows, all the while chugging sparkling water and scarfing down lo mein. When she was done with her meal, she placed and lit the twenty-five golden candles on her celebration cake. “Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me. I’m twenty-five, you see. Happy birthday to me.” she sung, then closed her eyes, made a wish, and blew out the flame.
After eating nearly half, she was gorged out on sweets, but she couldn’t resist the urge to read the fortune, so she cracked open the cookie, prayed, and at it. Then, she unfolded the paper slip from her fist. “If you can shape it in your mind, you will see it in your life…” she read curiously. Near eleven forty-three pm, she finally turned off the TV and headed straightaway to her room. “I’ll clean up this mess in the morning,” she dragged, glancing over at the coffee table. On her bed was the Peter Pan novel she’d been reading this week. “I guess I could sneak in a few more chapters,” she shrugged. Without turning on the light, she knelt in the window, lying the open book upon the sill, and reading by the light of the moon, stars, and clock tower. After a few pages, Isabella’s eyes wandered up to the night sky, fixing their gaze upon the second star to the right. “straight on ’til morning…” she sung drowsily. As she rested her head and elbows on the windowsill, her eyes drifted shut.
Pearl Before Swine Prologue
I cannot see, cannot hear, not by the usual definitions of those words, but I possess an awareness that sets me apart from the other rocks. I am a speck, a spark cradled in the sand’s coarse embrace. It churns, ebbs, and flows, heavy, then not.
Grains scrape my sides, and I capture them, consume them. The circle of my being pushes outward, slow but steady.
Light waltzes with the water, clothed in warmth, and shadow herds the dance, its voice an empty chill. I like them both, the balance, the variance, and as my awareness expands, so does the minutia of those differences.
For a moment, light strokes my sides with a slow touch, and my spirit leans into that weightless hand. It taps in rapid bursts, and I want to move with it.
Why do all things move except me?
As a speck, I did not understand motion, but as I catch up in size to the pebbles that litter the sea floor, I see it everywhere, and I want it with the same want owned by the electric things above me.
They fulfill their wants, long, lean bodies dashing to and fro somewhere between me and the light. They work with the water, a give and take, chaos always imbued with some level of grace.
The longer I watch, the more layers I perceive. Water does not keep a set form, sloshing and twisting, two droplets rarely meeting again. Yet, though they bend, these creatures have a limited range of shapes, and within their basic outline, all movement is organized—a beating heart, a flapping gill, a ticking mind.
Do I move on the inside like that?
I imagine pushing against this prison formed of my own body and swimming toward them. Though my round sides do not leave the sea floor, I touch the creatures and sink into their thoughts. It is another sea, and I flow with its waves.
Is this freedom? Is this enough?
The want burns, ever more hungry, and I clutch at the liquid thoughts around me. If I can stay in here, does that mean I belong? Can I travel with these fish when they leave, see what lies beyond my dimple in the sand?
Energy slides through the cracks of my fantasy hands until I hold nothing, and I jump to the next fish. And the next. And the next. They are all the same.
Why am I alone? Are there others like me somewhere? Can they show me how to do this right?
Light flees from a large shadow, and ice shoots through my small fish. The feeling pushes them faster than I have ever witnessed them move, but for the one weighed down by my attention, the shove is too weak. The larger creature draws it in, and the cold flame of fear explodes into a hot, sticky sensation.
Water constantly rips and crashes, never the same shape from moment to moment, heedless of its shifting form, but for this solid creature, tearing apart hurts.
I flinch away, a new flare growing beside the desire, but it dies as quickly as it arrived. The prey’s pain does not last, and everything the creature had been soaks into the clockwork of the larger fish, filling in its missing pieces. Warm, soft satisfaction blossoms in the surviving animal, equal to the pain of before.
Balance and difference, like with the light and shadow. This is right, never too much of one or the other.
Where do I fit? The fish consume each other as I consume the sand, but I am not sand. It does not feel, yet I do, so what am I?
As always, the fish swims away, and I cannot follow. Where do they come from? Where do they go?
I continue to capture the only thing I can until I am the largest of the pebbles within my range of awareness, and as I grow, so does the breadth of my senses. More exists above the water, the domain of air. It does not move like ocean or sand. What would it feel like rubbing against my sides? Softer? Faster?
A bird soars through the currents of the sky and dives, spearing a fish before taking off again.
Notice me! Carry me away like that.
The birds come again and again, and none hear me.
The sand trembles in rhythmic crescendos beneath weight I cannot fathom, and water makes way for humongous paws. The sea floor squelches and dips, and finally, I move.
For the first time, light caresses my underside, but it lasts less than a moment as I roll, not far. The sand catches me again, an abrasive but gentle-handed prison guard. This imprint is larger than mine was. As the beast that made it splashes along the shore, chasing fish trapped in tidepools, I wonder at its size.
Can I grow that big? Other creatures will have to notice me then.
I gobble sand as quickly as I can, but I do not seem to expand any faster.
Why am I alone? Why does no one see me? Do I even exist?
Watching the other beings—fish of the sea, beasts of the land, birds of the sky—and experiencing the world through them brings something similar to the satisfaction they feel when they fulfill their wants. Yet, it is incomplete, one raindrop to quench a drought while laden storm clouds wait above, just out of reach, crackling with the thunder of my frustration.
Then, it happens. The sand shifts as it so often has beneath the feet of many creatures, but none have been like this. Light describes a face rippling through the water, eyes nowhere near as round as a fish’s, a short, pointed nose, a wide mouth, and a strong chin. He is looking at me.
A hand cuts through the surface, and fingers scoop beneath my curves. His touch is tentative as if he fears I will break, but firm, not allowing the retreating waves to haul me away. Fear nips within me. How many times have I witnessed prey’s capture? Will he consume me? Will it hurt?
It will mean becoming a part of him. In that way, I can leave this place.
Will it still be me, though? Will I still experience it?
I rise and at last taste the air. It is cold and bright, weightless and smooth. I barely feel it at all as he pulls me closer to ever-widening eyes.
His thoughts are an ocean deeper than any creature’s, a chasm stretching further than all the others combined, and as he stares at me, that sea within him fills with wonder. Excitement swells and undulates the electric waters.
Can he feel my emotions like I feel his? Can he hear me? Am I like him?
Vibrations pour from his mouth, and he runs from the water, showing me to others. They form a cacophony. Is this how they communicate, by wild gestures and discordant noises?
None of them can hear me either.
He drops me in a silken bag, and light shrinks as he pulls the top closed, but still I listen, studying the vibrations. They form patterns. Some repeat.
This is me. This is what they call me, and as their mouths mold the sounds, they think of the depths of a night sky, the radiance of a thousand sunsets. That is what they see in my curved sides, and it saturates me with a feeling that bubbles and laps at my circumference. My body is still a prison, but when they look upon me, they experience such wonder, their gaze lost within me as if they can see my thoughts.
Why can they not? These bipedal beings are better than the fish, the beasts, and the birds. Am I better than them because I can do something they still cannot? Or are their nuanced noises simply too advanced for me? How I wish I could at least hum. I want to join the conversation blaring all around.
We move. He walks with an uneven gait. He rests. He repeats the process, and the further he travels, the duller the sounds. Tall, slow-thinking creatures line his path, amused by the chirping birds that flit through their branches.
I am torn between two emotions, sitting in the palm of fear while fascination shines upon me. Each time he takes a step, I traverse new land. With every stride, I notice something I did not before, and I never want this to end.
Yet, his hunger grows, and so fear refuses to release me. Why would he carry me if not to satisfy that void within him? Why does he wait? His middle growls. Can he understand it?
On top of this, a wrongness surrounds him, as if he, too, has curved sides extending in all directions. It incites all who can to flee. Wary birds watch from far above, and the trees whisper that he does not belong.
At long last, he stops and kneels, pulls me from his pocket, and carefully divests me of the bag. Light is weak and slanted, but I am so starved of its touch, I rejoice at its return, tugging it around me like the cloth that wraps this man. It is a rebellious and difficult material, spearing off in disjointed rays, and my bearer stares, awe boiling over.
The emotion shivers through me, and my giggle ripples the light. His lips peel back, revealing teeth, and I tighten my grip on the glow. This is it. He will eat me.
But he does not. Spikes of fear pin him to the ground, cushioned by hope, as shadows shift and part. An entirely different being approaches, and every spark within me stills. The new presence washes over and through me, heavier than a whole ocean. Every mote of my attention is captured and drawn in.
“Terra,” the man whispers, and the mighty being acknowledges the address with an inclined face. While similar in form to the man’s, Terra’s features comprise the sharpest of angles and smoothest of planes as if chiseled in stone and metal instead of molded of clay.
He is a tempest, powerful and chaotic yet calm at his core, every part swirling by his design. The man chatters to him, and when Terra speaks, it is thunder. The rock walls shake, but my fear has vanished. Though loud and deep, his voice is akin to luminescence and warmth. The man trembles, but I want to feel it again.
I toy with my cloak of light, weaving it into bold flickers and dark lulls. Will he notice?
As the man lowers his head and lifts his hands, Terra’s gaze falls on me. Gold glints in burnt brown irises, matching the twisted walls of this cave. The corners of his eyes and lips pull back as he steps forward, hoof clicking against rock and arm extended. The man’s fingers tilt, and I roll into Terra’s grasp.
Though I had nearly filled the man’s palm, to Terra, I am a grain of sand just barely too large to sink between the stitches of his ruddy skin. Giddiness hums within me, and I wave my light faster. Keep looking at me.
If they stare for long enough, can I use this to communicate?
Terra speaks again. Curiosity shimmers across his edges.
I recognize some of the man’s reply. “Sea stone.”
Several sensations pass through Terra, but like him, they are so immense and quick, I glimpse only their corners before they are gobbled by his tranquil center. Shock. Regret. Hope. Wonder.
Am I the cause of these feelings? Does he know what I am, where I should be?
Now that I have seen his core open its mouth, I perceive its cracks. As the man leaves, bursting with satisfaction, I find something too familiar in Terra. The feeling of being unseen, trapped, alone.
Why would he feel this way? The man clearly knew of him and traveled a great distance to interact with him. He is leaving now, but he will return. The fish always returned, and they did not even know I was there.
“Ah, it is a feeling you know.”
Again, everything within me freezes. What is this? A thought that is not mine. It is his, yet it is meant for me.
I sculpt a reply, scraping its outline clean. “I have always been alone. But you can hear me?”
He chuckles. “Because we are the same, you and I, in more than just our loneliness.”
“Why? You are not alone.”
He strides further into the cave, and I revel in the rhythmic clack of his four hooves, in the breeze that brushes my sides and tousles his russet hair beneath his curved horns. It means we are moving, and though this motion is not in result of my own will, I feel I can add a “yet” to that sentiment. Someday I will move because I wish it.
We pass other creatures, small things with fur and tiny insects who ignore us like my fish. Others formed of stone pause in their work as if awaiting a command that does not come, faces turned toward us always.
“What are they?”
“Golems. Creatures of Essence. They live because I wish it.”
I languish in the feel of having an answer, even if I do not fully understand it. It is a start, and I hold it even closer than the light. But the satisfaction fades quickly, trampled by a myriad of more questions.
“What are we?”
Terra releases something between a sigh and a hiss. “I am the Essence of the Land. Stone and soil belong to me, and you are full of questions, as is typical of one so small, I suppose.”
I am not only full of questions. I am overflowing. Is that also normal?
He waits for me to ask another, expectation pulsing against my sides. The spaces between those beats hold my attention—snapshots of emptiness so vast, my wonderings could never fill it.
A statement attempts to instead, an echo of something I have already said. “You are not alone.”
He stops. We stop, and his hand rises to bring me level with gigantic brown eyes.
“No, I am not alone as some would define it, but everything that rises, falls, and everything that comes, leaves.”
Continued in Chapter 1: The Essence of the Sea
Thank you for reading!
Decided for me, my “Ignoring evil” piece could be a jumping off point.
He stepped out of the carriage and looked up at the sky with annoyance. The rain was coming down in torrents. He turned back to it, but the moment his feet had hit the pavement, it was away.
He glared up at it. “OI! Back down here! Now!”
The carriage shuddered to a halt and descended. “How many times do you need to be told?” He yanked the door open and grabbed his hat off the seat. “Make sure I’ve got everything before you leave! For Pell’s sake! When are they going to come up with a more intelligent animation spell?”
He jammed his hat on and stalked to the stone steps of the main municipal building, looking up at the statues on either side. On one side, Pell, the god of retribution. Raven perched on his left hand, chains held in the other. On the other side, his wife, Cassoa, the goddess of Justice looking sternly down on the people below.
He remembered the awe he’d held for them the first time he’d been here. Now, they only conjured a sense of gloom. Another day, another ducket and in this rain, he couldn’t even loiter outside.
He trudged up the steps with a sigh, shoved his way through the revolving doors and, removing his hat, made his way to the reception desk, reaching into his pocket as he did so.
He pulled the cigar out of it and let out an even deeper sigh. “Shit! That’s all I need.”
It was sodden, utterly useless.
“Owdo, Sarge. So”
“Why is it raining, Ban? Did they all go out on a bloody bender again last night up in weather?”
“It isn’t meant to be, I know that much. They’re freaking out a bit up there, to tell you the truth.”
“Why? It has to be their doing, doesn’t it? Did they know I’d be in today? Is that it? A little retaliation for that bet I won last week?”
“Seriously, they’re in a panic up there. There’ve been five reserves called up in the past hour. They can’t get rid of it. You’d better get up to enforcement. Major kerfuffle.”
“Oh gods, what now?”
“I only know something huge happened somewhere. This rain may be a part of it. They never tell me anything.”
“That’s all I need, I suppose I’d”
“Before you go though...” Ban waved his hand over the sodden cigar. “You’ll probably need that before too long.”
Within seconds, the cigar was dry. It even resumed it’s previous shape, not the droopy sodden mess it had been.
Sergeant Moril smiled. He held the cigar under his nose, inhaled deeply and sighed. “Thank you. I wish I could do that.”
“We all have our talents, sarge.”
He nodded and glanced at the newspaper on the desk. His finger twitched, then took a clockwise circular motion as he continued to look at it. In his minds eye, pages flipped, then the paper was gone and another took its place. A few more page flips and… There…
“Two-twenty, Farron Field, Crazy little diamond, fifty to one.”
“Is that a sure thing?”
“Nothing’s a sure thing in this game, my friend. Until the start, everything’s in flux. I’d give it five-to-one rather than fifty, though.”
“Why they didn’t assign you to the augers, I’ll never know.”
“I’m more useful to them out in the field. I never could get to grips with anything beyond a few days and I’m no prophet. Probability’s the best I can manage. Besides, my other… party tricks are more valuable.”
“Thanks for that, anyway. You’d better get up there.”
“Don’t tell your bookie you talked to me, they’ll axe the odds… and don’t bet your rent.”
Ban chuckled. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“I’ll see you later. Tell me how the wager went.”
Ban nodded as the sergeant walked to the nearest cubicle. He stepped inside and closed the door.
A Judder, the cabinet shot up and he was on his way.
The municipal building of Camoria was the largest of its kind in the four continents, taking enough space in its own right to count as a city. Every function a nation requited was housed within it. Commerce, tax, weather control. His destination, the headquarters of the imperial peace department. Some of the more die-hard employees even lived within the complex, rarely setting foot outside and the only way to get from one department to another, short of walking the corridors and climbing countless stairs for half a day was to use the transport cubicles.
Another few jolts as it changed direction and it came to a halt.
He opened the door to reveal the ever familiar clamour of the office. It was a huge open plan affair, desks as far as the eye could see in three directions. The babble of overlapping voices, the scratch of pen on paper, a few more distinct voices raised in anger as suspects, arms manacled to their sides were led to the cells.
He nodded at a few fellow officers as he passed, laid his hat on his desk and continued on to the far wall. To the chief’s office.
He froze and turned. “Oh, what is it, Varon?”
“All I know is, he’s been yelling for you for the past hour. Don’t you ever answer your disk?”
“Not when I’m off the clock, no. I keep it inactive. I thought I told you that!”
Varon grinned in anticipation as he pointed. “Well, I’d get in there if I were you.”
“And just where did you think I was going before you stopped me?” A roll of the eyes, he continued.
He paused and took a deep breath before opening the door.
“Meril, where the hell have you been? I’ve been calling you since six!”
He slid inside and closed the door. “And now, it’s seven fifty. I start at eight. What’s the problem, anyway?”
“I’d prefer to stand, sir.”
“I said, sit!”
He rushed over and slumped into the chair. “Well? What’s so urgent?”
“Simple. The shit’s hit the fan this morning. I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your attention that it’s raining?”
“How could it? I had to run through it to get in here.”
“It’s caused flooding in maintenance, the southern half of the city’s ankle deep and”
“Sir, what’s that got to do with us?”
“I’m getting to that. We’ve also lost contact with Talyin’s Forge.”
The sarge looked at him and shrugged. “Never heard of it.”
“I’m not surprised, but you know we have operatives in every town and city in the empire. Talyin’s Forge is a small town on the east coast.”
“Again, I don’t see what this has to do with me. I’d never heard of the place until just now.”
“Why wasn’t your disk active?”
“I nullify it when I’m off duty. Why shouldn’t I? My time is mine to do with as I please. I’m paid for my duty cycle and nothing more.”
“Well, that changes now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m sending you there. I believe your gifts are perfect for this operation. Find out what happened to our operative. Find out what’s going on in that town. If it’s serious enough, we’ll send in the troops to suppress any insurgents, but in order to do that… Well, that’s your job. Find out.”
“But… The east coast? That’s barely on the edge of the stone’s influence! I’d be lucky to be able to produce even a spark there! As for my other talents...”
The sarge retrieved his cigar, bit the end off and flipped his thumb as if mimicking a lighter. A flame appeared, he lit it and blew his thumb out.
The chief glared and leaned forward. “You might lack the ability to access such a weak magical essence, true. So I’m assigning you a partner.”
“What do you mean? I’ve always worked alo”
“I’m assigning you a partner and you have no say in th”
“But if I can’t do anything, he won’t be able to either!”
His jaw dropped in surprise and the cigar fell from his mouth. He retrieved it before returning his attention to the chief. “What do you mean, she?”
“And yes, she will. She’s far more attuned to the essence than any human can be. She can also act as a boost for you. She can provide you with the magic you require should you need it.”
Meril groaned. “You’re partnering me with one of them?”
“I don’t know what your problem is. The last war was well over two hundred years ago. They’re allies now. Have been since the treaty of bones in ten thirty-two.”
“But we’ve all heard the stories.”
“We both benefited from that treaty. Humans and Saurians realised that together, we’re stronger. You’ll need her.”
“Why can’t you just send her then, if she’s so capable!?”
“Because she can’t do what you can, of course. Her power’s much more… physical in nature. She can act as your bodyguard as well as your backup power supply.”
“But it’ll take weeks to get there. Even if we did take a carriage she wouldn’t have enough oomph to keep it afloat. It’d conk out before we got half way! I don’t want to crash and burn in the middle of the Yamati desert!”
“Just as well you’re not going that way, then, isn’t it? You’ll be in Talyin’s Forge by midday.”
“Midday?” Meril yelped. “Translocation?”
“But that… It’ll take every skilled spacer in the whole city to punch through that far!”
“I know, but it’s the only way.”
“Why is it the only way? Clearly there’s still enough magic out there to communicate, so why not send in one of your other agents. You said yourself there’s one in every town.”
“Because, my dear sergeant, the nearest town is over one week away on horseback. They live simple lives out there. With so little in the way of magic the only power they tend to be able to harness is when they slaughter an animal for food.”
“Oh god, it gets better and better. Blood magic, now?”
“I know it’s repulsive to your cosmopolitan sensibilities, but out there, use what you can is the rule to live by and if they’re going to be eating the animal anyway, why not use it to aid the community in other ways, first? You’ll be a long way from home.” He slid a folder across the desk. “Requisition forms. Get to stores. You need a change of clothing, survival pack, enhanced communication disk and recording crystals among other things. Document everything.”
Meril took the folder and examined the contents. “What’s wrong with that I’m wearing?”
“You’ll blend in. Fairly simple concept, don’t you think?”
“Right.” He took a long draw from his cigar and blew into his boss’s face. “I’ll blend in with a bloody velociraptor by my side.”
The chief wrinkled his nose but restrained himself. His eyes betrayed his displeasure. “You’d be surprised. The last report we received stated there were five living there. And they were accepted. Even valued.”
“If they have five of them, why in all the hells do they need blood magic?”
“Use what you can. Waste nothing, remember. They’re not miracle workers. Even with all five combined they couldn’t animate a bloody plough, let alone enhance the fertility of their fields or purify their water. Blood magic might be primitive but it has potency.”
“But no subtlety. OK. What about my pay?”
“Obviously, you’ll get overtime for your entire mission. We can send you there. We will not be able to retrieve you. Oh, and you’ll be provided with coin. Obviously no credit sticks there. How would you redeem them?”
The sergeant slumped so much into his seat it looked like he was deflating. “No retrieval? I hope you’re providing me with maps, at least. It’ll take months to skirt the desert, to get back here.”
“There is another alternative. It depends on the seriousness of the situation. You may be able to charter a ship. We won’t know until you get there.”
“I still don’t see how anything out there can cause it to rain here.”
“Yes. Well, that’s another reason for you to go. We lost contact with Renn at oh four hundred this morning. Around about eleven hundred there. It started raining at oh four thirty. There has to be a link. Find out what it is.”
“It could just be a coincidence?”
“That seems highly unlikely, don’t you think? The shapers up on six have been trying to banish this weather since it started and so far, they’ve been unsuccessful. They have no idea what’s causing it or why it’s so resistant to their efforts.”
He sighed and stood. “Yes, sir. I suppose I’d better get down to stores, then. When will I meet this… thing.”
“She’s a sentient being far more capable with magic than you are. None of that. She’d just as worthy of personal pronouns as you are. Considering their history, moreso. She’d not a bloody thing.”
“Well, what do I call her then? She’s certainly not a woman!”
“I’m sure you’ll be able to agree on a name for her when you speak.”
“You don’t even know it?”
“I can’t speak their language and you know how hopeless translators are with names. Just, don’t choose anything insulting. She will not appreciate that. And look on the bright side for once.”
“Bright side? What bloody bright side? I’ve just been informed on zero notice that I’ll be spending the next six months, at least, either sleeping in a ditch or the next two, seasick!”
“Yes, but you always complain you never get out of the city. That you’re sick of dragging in lowlifes who’s only crime is stealing for the fun of it or getting into brawls at the local. You’ve got yourself a little variety in your life for once. A little excitement. A chance to get some fresh air.”
“Well, thank you for the positive insight. I’m sure I’ll treasure it.” He turned and stalked to the door. “I just hope this fresh air stuff isn’t habit-forming.”
“Oh, one last thing.”
“A little common sense. No overt or wasteful magic.” The chief flipped his thumb. “None of that. They’re a superstitious people. They still tell tales of witches and warlocks and if you’re accused of that, you’re likely to spend the next month hanging upside down bleeding for them. If you kill any animals for food, use blood magic then. It’ll be seen as unusual if you let it go to waste. Blend in. Be careful in other words.”
“What the hell? They still use that form of execution? But it’s barbaric!”
“Waste nothing. How better to maximise their magic availability. It’s only when they have a steady supply they can perform more useful, as you said, subtle tasks with it. Like curing disease and healing injuries. They’re not a cruel people. They don’t make their animals suffer that fate but murderers, people they believe are working with devils… People out to cause them harm...”
“Yeah, yeah. I get it.” He wrenched open the door, yelled back “Thank you so much, sir!” and slammed it behind him before barging back through the desks, puffing on his cigar as he went.
He slapped the folder down on the desk with a grimace. “Got some things to book out.”
The man opened the folder and his eyes widened. “Oh, you’re the lucky bugger, are you?”
“Lucky? Get stuffed.”
“So, you’re not getting a months long paid leave, then? You can do whatever you like once you’ve done your job and that’ll be unlikely to take more than a day!”
“I get to spend months sleeping rough, you mean.”
“You won’t be on the road the whole time. Every village has an inn.”
“With no modern conveniences. No luxuries. Not even able to use what few spells I know unless I kill some critter to eat beforehand. Unless no-one’s looking and I can drain a little from a bloody lizard, I’ll be powerless. No better than a bloody ape.”
“I would’ve given my left arm to go on that assignment! A chance to see the world or a major part of it. Gods, you’re a miserable bastard. Have you always been like this?”
“Oh, no. I was springing around with all the joy in the world, looking forward to my exciting thrill filled life in law enforcement. Then I entered puberty!”
“Oh well, maybe you’ll see the positive in it once you get there. Hope you do anyway. It’ll be you making your experience unpleasant, not the experience itself. I often go trekking outside the city. Bet you’ve been too lazy to do even that.” He flipped through the remainder of the folder and nodded. “Strip.”
“It’s only a five-letter word. Even you can understand that. Everything off. And I mean everything. Put it in this crate, I’ll lock it away until you return.”
The sarge gulped. “Everything?”
“Right down to your underwear and socks. Yes. We’re giving you new clothing that fits in. Nothing from here goes there apart from that fleshy lump, your partner and a few finely crafted little magical trinkets designed to look innocuous out there. Now, strip!”
Muttering under his breath, he unbuttoned his tunic and shrugged it off. The shirt, tie and vest followed.
The man prodded his forearm. On it, an intricate series in interwoven lines.
“It’s a tattoo. So what?”
The quartermaster sighed. “Arm on the desk.”
Merin shrugged and obeyed. “Why, though?”
“My little talent, sergeant, and the reason I was assigned this position...” A wave of the hand over his arm was all it took. The tattoo vanished.
“OI! That cost me twenty duckets and that was twenty years ago! It’ll cost ten times that now, not to mention it hurt like hell to get it!”
“It’s still there, Moril. I just transformed the inks. They’re transparent and colourless. I can reverse it too. It’s too conspicuous. Anything that screams strange or unusual out there could get you killed.” He glanced at the sarge’s hand. “What does that ring do?”
“It’s clear it does something, so hand it over.”
The sarge sighed and twiddled his fingers over the gem mount. An image appeared. A man, woman and two children.
“And they are?”
“My mum, dad, sister and me.”
“A little sentimental for you, isn’t it?”
“Considering they’re all dead, now? No!”
“Hand it over. I’m sure you’ll survive without seeing them for a little while.”
“I suppose you’ll be wanting my teeth, too!?” He twisted it on his finger and wrenched it off, slamming it on the desk.
“Anything magical about them?”
“Of course not!”
“You’d be surprised what people do these days.” he glanced over the desk and nodded at Moril’s bottom half. “And the rest.”
A minute later, he was naked. Every thread of clothing, every possession, packed away in the crate. The quartermaster closed the lid, added a padlock and took it into the back room. He returned with two more crates and handed Moril a small metal ball.
“And this is?”
“Stick it in your ear.”
He shrugged and did so. The moment it entered his ear canal, its texture changed. It felt softer as he prodded it in. He looked at the quartermaster in alarm as he felt it moving in there.
“Now I suggest you grip this desk, hard, because it’d going to”
Pain lanced through his ear. It burned. It felt like a needle had penetrated his skull. His knees buckled and his hand shot to his head as he howled in agony. He crawled back to his feet and glared but as quickly as the pain had struck, it faded to nothing.
“hurt.” The man chuckled. “Sorry about that, but”
“What the fuck was that?”
“Your new communicator. The pain you experienced? It burned away your eardrum and replaced it. It also sent a barbed spike deep into the bone in order to make it permanent before healing all the damage it caused. You can speak, we will hear.. There’s no way for it to be removed. No way for you to nullify it. We can call you at any time. You’re on the clock 22/8, every minute of every day while you’re out there.”
“Now, wait a minute! I never agreed to that!”
“None of them ever do, but it’s required for undercover agents. That’s what you are now. Don’t worry, we won’t be listening in all the time, but we will know if you’re alive or dead and we have a call sign you can use to alert us if you’re in serious need of backup. Everything will be recorded though. A Perfect evidence gathering device wouldn’t you say? Everything you hear, we hear.”
“And when I get back?”
“We’ll stop listening when you’re not on duty. You will not be able to avoid a call from the chief with the excuse you’re on your own time though.”
“I thought you said it’d be like a bloody holiday for me once the job was done!”
“You’ll be expected to check in once a day unless something… untoward happens and you need to do it earlier. If you do run into trouble, report in any time you like. Other than that, you’re free and clear. This is a safety measure. This is why we were so alarmed by the loss of communication with Renn. The communicator should send out an alert when it detects the death of its host. It didn’t and we haven’t been able to hear anything from him for well over four hours. Not a peep and we’ve been calling him since five.”
“So now the chief could whisper sweet nothings into my ear any time he likes and there’s no way to even stop it? Wonderful. Fucking wonderful. My life just gets shittier and shittier.”
“Oh stop complaining, it’s for your own good. Now get dressed! Top crate first.”
He reached in and pulled out the first garment… He looked, turned around in his hand and held it against himself. “You expect me to… what is this?”
“That, my dear fellow is what counts as underpants out there.”
“But they’re huge! A man twice my girth could fit in them!”
“Yes, but they do have a draw string. Much wider size range. They can’t afford made-to-measure there if they’re buying complete garments. Most rely on their wives to make them.”
He pulled them up, tightened the string and looked down at himself in dismay. The legs extended all the way down to his knees. “Talk about passion killers.”
“For city dwellers, for people here, maybe. Get used to loose fitting clothing. It’s more practical, it’s harder wearing and some would even argue more comfortable. Comfort and utilitarianism are much more important to field workers than fashion.”
He took a sharp intake of breath and reached into the crate again. The next thing to emerge looked like a sock. A bright red, very long wollen sock with a couple of strips of cloth sewn to the top.
“Hose. Tie the top off to the drawstring of your underpants to hold them up and tuck the underpant legs into them.”
“Why bright red? I thought you didn’t want me to stand out. I thought the peasantry wore drab brown everything?”
Five hundred years ago, that may have been true. Fashion and a little prosperity right now means they prefer bright colours.”
“So they’re well off, now? Thought it was a hard life.”
“Hard work, hard play. They do have a few more pennies to rub together than back in the feudal days. Taxes are much more regulated. No more robber barons bleeding them for all they’re worth.”
“Why, though? Hardly practical is it?”
“I think they’re taking a page from the animal kingdom. Especially birds. Males often wear brighter plumage. They do have peacocks, don’t you know. Everyone’s seen a bullfinch. The women still favour browns, blacks and greys. Quite the reverse of here.”
He pulled out the other hose, put it on and then pulled out the next item.
“And now a blue bag with arms and a head hole.”
“Linen under tunic. In hot weather, that’s enough. Extremely hot weather and they’ll work the fields just wearing your bottom half.”
“And if it gets cold?”
“Put that on and get the next two items.”
He nodded and did so. It went down to his knees. The sleeves were the right length at least.“God, it’s hardly flattering, is it? I look like a sack of potatoes.”
“That’s because you’re not wearing your belt yet.”
“Right. That goes on next?”
“As I said, hot weather, yes. Put the over tunic on for now though. Next thing in the box.”
This one was a deep green, thick, heavy wool. It too almost reached his knees. It was a little shorter than the undertunic, leaving a stripe of blue visible.
Next came the belt. On it, a pouch on one side and a scabbard on the other.
“Yes. You do remember your training?”
“It was only ceremonial. I never kept up with it. I’ll be as rusty as shit.”
“Can’t be helped. Just, be careful and don’t pick any fights. You’ll be fine. I should warn you though, you may be expected to.”
He fastened the belt around his waste as the man reached in and held up a pair of boots. “Don’t worry, they’re your size.”
“Fine! Fine.” He stuffed his feet into them and… “Um… No laces?”
“Leather cord down the side there.”
He rolled his eyes as he fastened them. “At least they’re comfortable. How are they for walking?”
“It’s what they do there. Very few can afford a horse. They’ll protect your tootsies. Anyway, to finish off your normal clothing,” the man pulled out the last two items. “One cloak, ankle length, doubles quite nicely as a secondary blanket. Pull it around yourself for protection if it rains, hood up, obviously. And hat.”
The cloak was a deep green, matching the outer tunic. The hat was a bright blue cloth affair. It was more a misshapen bag than a hat.
He put those on too and looked down at himself.
“A mirror’s over there if you want a better look.”
Moril wandered over to it. He studied himself.
“So how does it feel?”
“Apart from weird, y’ mean? Actually, not that bad.”
“Good. The cloak is quite waterproof. That’s your normal travelling wear. There is more however.”
“Oh, nonono. Take the cloak and outer tunic off. The second crate’s where the fun begins.”
First to come out of that wasn’t what Moril expected. They were thick, padded trousers… No, not trousers. There was no crotch. Just legs attached to a belt. They were covered in brown and black stains. Next out, a padded jacket in a similar condition and a padded cap.
“Rightfully so. Brand new would stand out. We allowed them to gather some rust stains.”
He sighed in relief. “Rust. I thought it was”
“It’s rust. We wanted them to appear well worn after all, because what goes on over them...” Out of the crate came some leg armour, full steel plate legs with articulated knee caps, a chain mail shirt, vambraces for the lower arms and a helmet. All the armour had rust splotches and the odd dent and scratch.
“And you expect me to avoid trouble? Wearing armour?”
“What better protection? What better excuse to travel? Sell sword. Mercenary. Want an excuse not to fight? Simple. You’re not being paid, so, you don’t fight. You’re on your way to your next job. Now, legs on. The metal ones have leather straps that attach to the tops of the trousers. Keeps your knees aligned with the joints. Once you’ve got the chain mail on, belt it and pull a few inches through.”
“Takes the weight off your shoulders. Your belt bears most of the weight. You have a second belt for the mail. Put your tunic back on for the final bit.”
The final bit? A breast and back plate. With those on too, he returned to the mirror.
“Good Pell in heaven… I actually look good in it.”
“Finally getting into the spirit. Good. Oh, a little advice with regard to your outfit.”
“If it does get too hot, strip down to tunic and hose but wear it whenever possible when you’re on foot.”
“Carrying that lot will be a struggle. Wearing it, the weight’s evenly distributed. You might not even feel it once you’re used to it. That lot strapped on your back…” he shook his head. “Try to wait until you’ve got a horse. You should be able to buy one at Talyin’s Forge. You can strap your armour to the back of your saddle.”
He nodded at the wisdom of those words. He’d felt the weight of the chain mail as he was putting it on. “So what else have you got for me?”
“Ah yes.” He went into the back again and returned with yet another crate. “Equipment.” He opened it and began to place the contents on the desk. “Water skins, two of, Knapsack, wear it under your cloak. It contains two weeks of field rations. You’ll need to supplement those with food you’ve gathered, bought or hunted. The bottom straps of the pack are for this.” Next on the desk was a tightly bound roll of cloth. “Bed roll and spare clothing. I take it you know how to make a shelter?”
“Of course. All part of basic training. Never thought I’d ever get to use it though.”
“By the time you get back, you might be teaching the recruits. You may even like the outdoor life by then. The sack also contains cooking gear in the side pockets along with cutlery and cooking pan, mug, first aid, snares and fire lighting equipment.”
“You can never have enough of this when you’re out in the wilds.” He placed a coil of rope on the desk. “A thousand uses, if you’re imaginative enough. It’s silk, so it’s strong and light. Much better than hemp and there’s a hell of a lot more of it for the weight. And finally…”
A quiver containing twelve arrows and a short bow joined the collection.
“You did mention magical trinkets?”
“Yes, yes. I’m getting to those. The mundane stuff’s just as important. Get it all squared away before we continue.”
“S’pose.” He shrugged and began, attaching the water skins and quiver to his belt, strapping the bed roll, rope and bow to the sack and finally trying to put the sack on. It was too tight, so he loosened the shoulder straps before managing it.
The quartermaster rolled his eyes and continued. He took something from below his desk. “This...”
“Well, a sell sword’s not much use without a sword.”
“Not just any sword.”
“What’s special about it? Does it glow in the dark, perhaps? Burst into flame when I command it?”
“We want you inconspicuous, remember? Yes, it has a small enchantment but nothing visible and nothing permanent, either. You can place a small charge of power into it and it’ll become much sharper and more resilient as long as that charge holds. It should last about ten minutes a shot. More than enough for the odd skirmish.”
“And the next?”
He placed a sheathed dagger on the desk. “Not for fighting, but I suppose in dire straits it could be used for such. This does have a permanent enchantment. Place it in water for a few seconds and it’ll purify it. Saves you the trouble of casting a spell. Use it to gut and clean a rabbit or other animal and it’ll do the same. Make the meat safer to eat. Protect you from food poisoning if you under-cook it.”
Moril sighed. “I hadn’t thought of that. Last thing I want is to be knocked off my feet by a bout of dysentery. Especially if I might not have the power to rid myself of it before it gets bad.”
“Or worse. One added benefit. If you’re bitten by an insect, place the flat of the blade on the bite. It’ll prevent infection. There are some nasty diseases out there for those who’ve not been exposed before.”
He gulped. “Wasting sickness?” He unhitched his belt and threaded the sheath onto it before doing the belt up again..
“That’s one of the bad ones, yes, but there are others. Of course, you could, if you suspect you’re coming down with something, cast a purification spell… You… do know that one?”
“Who doesn’t? Basic training, again, but lack of power…”
“I know, but with a boost from your partner, it should be enough but be discrete about it. Now for your final item. Probably the most useful for you, too.”
“And that is?”
He reached down and slammed a quarterstaff on the desk. “This. And before you say anything, it will aid you if you’re walking and it’ll always be at hand if you’re jumped and don’t have time to unsheathe your sword.”
“It’s a magical walking aid? How does that work?”
“No, it’s a mundane walking aid. The magic’s hidden within. A recording device.”
“But you said everything I hear’s going to be recorded here anyway.”
“It is. That’s not what it records. It records impressions. Or in your case, what you see when you use your… talent.”
“Bloody hell! Really? I thought stuff like this was… It’d take me months to afford something like this!”
“Yes, it is rather a specialised enchantment. The crystal’s embedded in the staff. It can also play back the images so you can show your partner what you saw. That could prove useful.”
“Indeed it could. Good gods, what do you think’s happening there? This mission must be costing the department a fortune!”
“The point is, we don’t know. We have no idea and that scares them upstairs. The rain only added to the urgency, speaking of which...” He tossed another coin pouch.
Moril caught it and shrugged.
“Larger denomination. Twenty gold crowns. That’ll be more than enough to buy a horse and should be enough to charter a ship. Do not splash it about. The money in the pouch you already have should keep you fed for a month. If you need to change a crown, go to a mercantile guildhall. Otherwise… Try to earn as you travel. That’s for emergencies.”
“And if I do spend it all? It’s not going to be docked from my wages, is it?”
“That all depends on how you spend it. Chuck it away gambling, then yes, it most certainly will. Spent on something you need, no. Anything you have left when you get back, you return to us.”
“And this is everything?”
The man flipped through the folder again, ticking things off as he went. “Yeees… Yes, that’s everything. You’d better get up to transport.”
“Right then… I suppose I’ll see you in a few months.”
Moril opened the door.
“Oh, one last thing.”
“If you run into any mercenary bands and they’re travelling in the same direction, try to join them.”
“But they’re nothing but ruffians!”
“All the more reason. Strength in numbers. A lone sell sword might be seen as an easy target by some. A band of them…”
“Yeah, I get the idea.”
“They might be on the rough end of the spectrum, but some of them are good men. Even if they are only in it for the money, they’re still putting their lives on the line.”
“But most of them don’t give a damn who hires them as long as they’re paid.”
“True. Try to join them anyway. You never know, they could prove useful if you befriend them. A sell sword as a friend is very valuable. I hear there’s a loyalty they hold for each other that goes beyond money.”
“Wouldn’t I need to join them in the fight for me to gain that kind of respect?”
“Quite possibly. Still worth considering, though, wouldn’t you think?”
Moril groaned. “I suppose so. Thanks so much for your pearls of wisdom. I’ll think about it.”
He closed the door behind him and headed for the nearest cubicle.
At the very centre of the municipal building, at its highest point, sat a room like no other. It had a large domed roof made of the clearest glass it was possible to produce. Rumours abounded as to its original purpose. Some said the emperor himself would walk around the dome observing the city, others said it was used to observe the stars, to learn the mysteries of the universe. Whatever it was, it was lost to history. Even the augers couldn’t determine its original purpose.
Now? Now it was used by the spacers. It wasn’t used often. Most of their time was spend as nothing but glorified postmen for the wealthy and impatient. Rather than wait a few days or weeks for delivery, why bother when you could have something appear in your great hall within the hour?
This place though… This was used to send people. Normally only three were required for such a feat. This time, thirty men in hooded cowls, ornate mystical symbols embroidered into their raiments, lined the dome.
In the centre of the floor, engraved in gold and other precious metals, a geometric shape twisted as you looked at it.
Moril had never liked this place. It always made his skin crawl and his eyes cross when he looked at that thing on the floor, but clearly, to these… these benders of space… Obviously, whatever it meant, it meant a lot to them. He often wondered if they could even perform without it or something similar.
At the far edge of the design stood what he presumed to be his new partner.
She was six feet tall with arms far too short to be of much use for anything he could think of. It was an odd combination. Her snout and head were scaly and green with a crest of five feathers running down the back of her head, but below that she was covered in dull brown feathers from neck to toe… He took a deep breath and approached. “I understand you’re going to be joining me on this… venture?”
Her mouth opened to reveal dozens of needle sharp teeth and what could only be described as birdsong emerged. She warbled and twittered for a few seconds and closed her mouth.
“I’m sorry, I”
“Ah, so you’re the human. I will call you sergeant. I also share that rank so you will call me five feathers. Your vocal chords are incapable of saying my real name.”
He leaned a little closer, looking for where the voice was coming from.
Her slitted pupils widened and she tweeted and twittered again.
“Ah, you obviously have not mixed with my kind. I wear a harness.” she brushed aside the feathers on her chest to reveal an intricate talisman with chains that wrapped around her back both over her shoulders and under her arms. Another series of chirps. “This acts as my translator, but personal names…”
“Is it OK if I call you feathers? Five feathers seems a bit of a mouthful.”
“I suppose that may be acceptable, though it may become confusing should we encounter more of my kind. I am told five reside in the town we are destined for.”
“I’m sure we can come up with better names for each other when we get acquainted.”
“Acceptable. I sense discomfort in this arrangement?”
Moril sighed. “I’m not used to having a partner and as you said, I’ve never mixed with your kind before.”
“I understand. And you’ve heard stories of some of the atrocities committed during the war?”
“We are bound by the treaty of bones in ways you cannot imagine, sergeant. If even one of us were to break that oath, all would suffer, but if it will ease your discomfort…”
She began to trace something in the air with her finger and where the finger moved, a trail of pail green light followed. It was an incredibly complex design when it was completed.
Again, she chirped and twittered. “I pledge that I will, for as long as we are bound together as partners, protect you with all my power. Furthermore, I will harm no human unless said human bears either of us ill will. Should this promise be broken, my death will be the result. It would be appreciated if you would make a similar pledge.”
“What… I’ve never seen anything like that. What is it?”
“A spell of binding. When our hands touch in the centre of the design, both will be bound by the promise and the result should it be broken will be death to the breaker.”
“Is this really necessary?”
“I believe it is. I sense your distrust.”
He looked around as if trapped. His mouth dry, he swallowed a couple of times. He closed his eyes in prayer to Pell. “I pledge that I will, for as long as we are bound together as partners, protect you with all my strength. Furthermore, I will harm no saurian unless said saurian bears either of us ill will. Should this…” he gulped. “Should this promise be broken, my death will…” he took a deep breath and rushed the final words before he lost his nerve. “Mydeathwillbetheresult!”
“Good. Place your hand on mine.”
His eyes widened as their palms met. Her fingers ended in claws, but… Her hand was warm. He hadn’t expected that.
The design began to rotate and shrink. In the blink of an eye, it collapsed with a flash.
He let out a yelp and yanked his hand back, looking at it. The symbol that had been in the air flashed on his palm and was gone.
“I apologise. I did not intend to cause you pain. Such an oath is a standard in business practice between saurians. We never experience such a sensation when we make a promise between ourselves.”
“You… you make death oaths based on business?”
“Of course. A binding transaction should be just that. Binding.”
“But… But what if something goes wrong? A warehouse fire? A lost ship?”
“Neither will break such an oath willingly. If the oath is broken through no fault of either party, such as a ship lost in a storm at sea, the oath is null and void. Intent is the true power behind the oath. It is my wish that our relationship will grow in the knowing, beyond the need for such an oath.”
“So, it can be ended?”
“No. The oath that binds us, does so until the conditions are met. Until our partnership ends. It is my hope by then that friendship will replace the need for it.”
The corners of his mouth twitched. His normal frown vanished, to be replaced by a smile. “I’m sorry. You’re not what I expected.”
“I understand sergeant. We each have our prejudices. Just as your kind see us as cold hearted monsters, our kind see yours as hot blooded, angry and violent. We each have a lot to learn about the other.”
He nodded and extended his hand. “This is how we make an agreement. No magic involved though.”
“I know your customs.” She took his hand and shook it. “I have worked with many humans over the years.”
“Well, I must say, you look the part, at least.” The chief walked down the stairs to join them. “I take it you have everything you need?”
“Everything you decided I needed, yes, sir.”
“Then it’s time we sent you on your way.”
“What about her? She’s not got anything!”
“I require nothing, sergeant. I am quite capable of surviving in the wild indefinitely with no need for equipment.”
“Even so far from the stone?”
“Yes. We are well adapted to life without civilisation. Many of us prefer it.”
He shuddered. “Rather you than me. I like my home comforts.”
The chief sighed. “You have all the time in the world to acquaint yourselves. I came to give you your emergency call sign, to bid you farewell and I don’t have all day. ”
“And this call sign is?”
“What’s a bannerman?”
“An ancient standard bearer. When armies relied more on sword than magic, the men had to know where their leaders were and it isn’t a word that crops up in general conversation very often. Not unless you’re discussing military history, anyway.”
“And as that was never one of my interests… OK. Bannerman it is then. Where are you sending us? If we appear out of thin air in front of someone, I might very well spend the next month, as you said, hanging upside”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. We have the exact coordinates of Renn’s house. He has a room set aside just for such a situation. One shielded from any windows so none will witness your appearance.”
“Alright then. Let’s get it over with. The sooner I’m there, the sooner I can start making my way back.”
The chief nodded and pointed at one of the men on the edge of the dome.
The robed figure nodded and jogged down the steps. “Everyone not going and not involved in this ritual, step away from the Alkrist.” He glanced at the chief when he didn’t move. “Step away from the design!”
“Oh, well, why didn’t you say? I’m not familiar with your technical terms.”
“Please, just… Shoo!”
“Very well. Oh, before you go, take this.” The chief handed Moril a leather pouch.
“And this is?”
“It contains imperial survey maps of the town and the surrounding area and a large scale one of the continent, should you need to travel by land. It doesn’t cover everything but it should get you to the next nearest town. There, you can buy a map for the next leg of your journey. There’s a cartographer in every major town in the empire.”
“Thanks for remembering.”
The chief nodded, returned to the steps and turned to observe.
The moment he was gone, a chant began. At first, it was quite a pleasant sound but as it continued, each man lining the dome took on a different tone, a different register, chanting different words. What had been a harmonised and beautiful music quickly became a discordant babble.
The lead spacer knelt in the centre of the floor, closed his eyes and placed his hands together in front of himself as if in prayer.
The volume increased and the echoes around the room interacted with the cacophony to make it even worse.
A piercing white light appeared between the spacer’s hands, as, slowly, he extended them, drawing out the light to form a ring. As his arms extended the circle did too. A bright ring of light surrounding a circle of grey semitransparent emptiness, the spacer still visible on the other side of it.
When his arms reached their full extension, his eyes snapped open. “Go! I can’t hold it for long.”
Moril looked at the circle in dismay. “I’ve translocated before. I could see the destination. Why can’t I see anything?”
“We have the correct coordinates!” The spacer’s voice cracked with the strain. “I don’t know why you can’t see it, but go! Now!”
Moril prodded the void with his staff, then shoved three feet of it through before moving it around.
Beads of sweat formed on the spacer’s brow. “It opens into air, not rock! Please, stop pissing about or I’ll lose it.”
Moril closed his eyes, took a deep breath and stepped through.
He sensed the change immediately. His feet crunched on something. It felt like broken glass. A cool breeze brushed his cheek and then the smell hit him so hard, it made his eyes water. Burnt earth combined with the smell you get before a thunderstorm only much more powerful.
His eyes snapped open and he span in horror at the scene, just in time to see Feathers emerge and the portal wink out of existence. “Wait! Oh for all the gods, wait! Where the hell have you sent us?”
As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but scorched earth. No, not quite. In the distance, green hills and woodland. He returned his attention to his surroundings. In places the heat had even turned the soil to glass. No sign of any buildings… No, wait… That outcrop… It had a regularity to it. He ran over to examine it more closely. It was a wall, or what was left of it. The rocks that it had been built from were melted, fused to one another from an incredible heat.
He turned to Feathers. “Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
She shook her head and twittered agitatedly, but nothing emerged from her translator. The crest on her head sprang erect. She tweeted something else but again, nothing.
“Bannerman! You got it wrong, you pillocks! There’s no town here!”
He waited a minute, but there was no reply.
“What in all that’s holy is going on? I was told I’d have unbroken contact. Why isn’t your harness working?”
She did her best to shrug and he appreciated the gesture. At least he could understand that.
“Right then. First, let’s at least assume we’re in a location close to Talyin’s Forge.” He knelt, opened the pouch and pulled out the map of the town, laying it on the ground. She wandered over to observe.
“Now… North… Which way is north.” He closed his eyes and his brow furrowed in concentration before muttering “Sod all. I can’t even do that. Even a five year old can do that.”
She nudged him and pointed. The sun was almost touching the horizon.
He sprang to his feet in shock. “So now they’re sending people back in time, too? What the”
She shook her head and pointed at the map.
He took a deep breath. “Keep it together. Find out where we are. Find out where we need to be. Thanks… So, that’s west.” He turned north and knelt before the map again, aligning it appropriately. “That hill over there… It could be that one,” he prodded the map, “but how far… Dammit, I…” He took a deep breath, stood, held his arm out in front of him, extended his finger and side stepped a few yards, before sidestepping back. “About, two miles.”
Her pupils widened. She shrugged again.
“That? Oh, a little trick we picked up during basic. Think they call it parallax. Distant objects appear to move more slowly than close by ones. Good way to estimate distance.” He knelt by the map again, patted himself down and swore. “Idiot! He didn’t even give me a bloody pencil!”
He scrabbled about on the ground until his hand closed on a piece of charcoal. “This’ll have to do.”
Careful to measure the distance on the map with his thumb, he drew a circle around the hill. His brow furrowed. “This… It can’t be!”
He sprang to his feet and scanned the surrounding countryside again, glancing down at the map. “That copse of trees… That ruin on the hill… Oh Pell, no! Feathers… This is Talyin’s Forge! We’ve got to go. We’ve got to find somewhere we can setup camp for the night and I am not doing that here. The place sets my teeth on edge.”
He gathered up the map and started to walk. He didn’t care in which direction. She joined him by his side at first, but as they continued, she increased her pace, chirping and warbling as she went.
After walking for nearly half a mile, he saw it. A line, a boundary. On one side, destruction, on the other, grass, shrubs, trees, but the ones nearest to the line weren’t untouched. They appeared to be severed, truncated. Anything that had crossed that line was gone.
At the sight of it, Feathers burst into a sprint as if desperate to feel the grass beneath her feet and a second after crossing…
“Cannot be. It is impossible,” she froze, her gaze snapped up to the sky. “Oh, by the seven heavens, no! Sergeant. Hold!”
He froze in his tracks just before crossing out of the devastation. “What… Your translator! It’s working again! Why did you tell me to stop?”
“I did not sense it. Not until I was here. There is absolutely no magic in that area. None. In fact, I think there’s something else and it gets worse.”
“But… Why did you”
“I assume as my translator failed, your communicator failed too, judging by your words on arrival? Correct?”
“What happens when you die, sergeant?”
“No-one knows for sure. We’ve never spoken to anyone who has, but the temples state that our souls enter purgatory to be judged.”
“Look up, sergeant. Above what was once the town.”
He craned his neck and… “It’s not dark yet. Is that a planet? It seems too bright to be a star.”
“Have you ever heard stories of people close to death who were revived? About their experiences?”
“Yes… Yes, they spoke of a tunnel with a light at the end. Sometimes a voice calling, come into the light.”
“The gate isn’t closed. It still awaits their crossing.”
“The… I’m sorry, but…”
“We detected it thousands of years ago. For us, it is the briefest of flickers. Utterly unnoticeable, but our scholars developed spells and equipment that could detect the crossing of souls. The opening and closing of the gate to the otherworld. They couldn’t perform this task during the death of an individual because it happens far too quickly, but during major catastrophes, during battles, then, they could detect it. It closes the moment the souls have crossed. If it is still open, it means none have crossed. It awaits them.”
He stared at her in horror. “None of them? But this town looked big enough to house over a thousand people!”
“I am sorry, sergeant. That is why I asked you to remain. There is more.”
“More? What could be worse than this? Than that!?” He pointed up.
“How was it accomplished, sergeant? Even standing on the stone itself, such a feat would take the blood of a thousand sheep, to supplement the power requirements. It is impossible using any magical knowledge I have encountered and the area is imbued with something counter to magic. Something that nullifies it.”
“I agree… That is impossible.”
“In practice, I would have said before today, that was true, but you are a witness to the results. How familiar are you with thaumo-dynamics?”
“About the magical research conducted in the high energy laboratories?”
“I think I see something in the newspaper once in a while about the odd… discovery. Why?”
“Their purpose is to discover the fundamentals of the universe. The structure of matter. The energies and forces that bind it.”
“You know of the elements?”
“Air, earth, f”
She held up her hand. “Those are a magical shorthand, nothing more. In ancient times, your people believed everything was comprised of combinations of those four things. I mean the true elements. Iron, gold, copper…”
“Oh those. What about them?”
“Do you know of atoms?”
“Do you know how an atom is constructed?”
“An atom’s an atom isn’t it?”
“No. There is an inner structure to the atom. Smaller particles and within those particles, there are even smaller ones. All discovered by shooting atoms at each other at incredible speeds, but during those experiments they discovered a new form of matter. An opposite of matter, if you will.”
“What does that do?”
“Should a particle of this material meet a normal particle of matter, they would annihilate each other releasing a large amount of energy.”
“And you think that’s what happened here? Someone dropped this… opposite stuff in the middle of the town?”
She shook her head. “There has been an… idea. Mathematics used to calculate these reactions hinted at it. An opposite of magic, identical in every way apart from this… oppositeness. It could even be wielded in the same way, but if it were to meet normal magic, positive magic, again…”
“If such an event were to occur closer to the stone or within the stone itself, it could crack the world in twain. Out here, no boom, but it appears such negative magic has been used.”
“Where the hell did whoever it was that did this, get it?”
“Until this moment, it wasn’t even worthy of the term conjecture, sergeant. That is why I requested you halt while still on that side of the terminating line. You may wish to couch your words in a more… gentle manner so as not to induce panic when you report. I imagine when you join me on this side, your communicator will resume its normal function.”
“Oh, I’m not going to be gentle, Feathers. I’m going to tell it exactly like it is. The idea of them running around like headless chickens is very appealing.”
He stepped onto the grass.
The chief’s voice sounded in his ear the moment both feet were on the ground. “is minute! I repeat, for all the gods, answer me, dammit. Report in this minute!”
“I’m here, sir.”
“Why didn’t you respond when I called you? I’ve been trying for the past hour!”
“Oh, believe me, sir. I tried the moment I crossed over. My communicator failed. Feathers’ translator failed too, until we were well away from our drop off point.”
“Failed? What could cause it to fail? That’s impossible!”
“If you want to see impossible, chief, come here. Then you’ll see what impossible is.”
“What does that mean?”
Moril sighed. “First, tell those oafs in transport that… Wait… Did you say you’ve been trying to contact me for an hour?”
“The moment I returned to my office, yes.”
“But, I… I thought they’d screwed up, sir. I left at noon.”
“The sun’s setting.”
The chief sighed. “You really are a” he paused. “I told you during your briefing. It was eleven hundred hours when we lost contact there. Here, it was oh four hundred!”
“I… I’m not sure I”
“Moril, you’re an idiot! You never studied in school and”
“And as a result, I got a job in law enforcement. Why is the sun setting?”
“You’re over seven thousand miles away, to the east, idiot. The sun rises in the east. It sets in the west. Now, what happens to time?”
“I… don’t get you, sir.”
“The sun rises earlier the further you travel east and later the further you travel west. You’re seven hours ahead of us. For you, the sun is at its zenith when it’s only five in the morning here! Gods, you’re an idiot, sometimes. Now report!”
“And there I was thinking they’d screwed up and sent me back in time, or something.”
“Well they didn’t, what the hell is going on there?”
“I can only assume Renn’s dead, sir. Every single person in the town is dead, from what we can gather so far. If any managed to flee, they haven’t returned, so, we don’t know.”
“There’s nothing here, sir. The place is incinerated. It’s a burnt out wasteland within half a mile of the town, sir and it’s worse even than that.”
“Who did this? What caused it? And what do you mean, it’s worse?”
“You may need to consult with the saurian scholars, sir. About all of it. Feathers suggests some form of negative magic is involved. There’s a hard line. I’ve not walked the perimeter but I suspect it may be a circle. Inside, no magic. Nothing works. Outside, everything’s normal and the line that separates the two… The heat must’ve been intense sir, enough to turn soil into glass and melt rocks, but there are trees and bushes here cut in half. Nothing on this side was touched by the flame.”
“That’s impossible. I know, sir. But it happened. There’s something more.”
“And that is?”
“Something else for the saurian scholars, sir. They know how a soul crosses to the afterlife. They’ve witnessed it. None of the souls here crossed over, sir, according to Feathers, at least. The gate they travel through to get there. It’s still open, waiting for them. It’s like a star in the sky, sir. A bright one, right over the centre of what’s left of the town.”
“But that… That’s horrific! Can’t you use your talent to”
“I said, sir. Nothing… works… in… there… It’s getting dark, we need to set up camp for the night. I’ll try something on the perimeter line in the morning. I agree we need to find out what happened, and the only thing I can think of is a quick rewind to find out when. Maybe I can see into the village before it happened, but if none of the townspeople witnessed anything unusual, I’m at a loss. I just don’t know.”
“Very well. Get some sleep. Do not report in until at least thirteen hundred, your time. You’re not the only one who needs sleep after what happened today.”
He lay there. He tossed. He turned. It took hours for sleep to finally claim him. As far as he was concerned, he’d gone to bed at one in the afternoon, not eight at night and that left him disoriented, confused.
He awoke to see Feathers standing over him, watching him. By the height of the sun, it must be getting close to noon.
He groaned and stretched. “What happened?”
“I understand, sergeant. It is a difficult transition, instant transportation to such a distant time zone. I decided to let you sleep. You will accustom yourself to the local clock soon, do not worry.”
He tried to get up, but the weight of his armour prevented him. He rolled over and crawled to his knees before using his staff as a support to stand. “I knew this armour was heavy, but”
“It is permissible to remove it when you sleep, sergeant.”
“I know. But you know what? It wasn’t uncomfortable. I may sleep in it from now on, it saves the effort of getting into it each morning.”
“You will need to at least change your clothing eventually, you do understand that?”
“I know. I know. But that can wait at least another day or two. When we find a pond or river, then I’ll change, after bathing. Time for breakfast.” he glanced at the fire he’d started before bedding down and sighed. “First, I need to restart that, to cook.”
“Our people observed yours as you grew into what you are today. It always perplexed us, the need for fire and burnt flesh.”
He shrugged. “It’s safer, less chance of disease. It tastes better for us and I understand it’s a hell of a lot easier to digest. Those are the only reasons I need.”
He hadn’t used all the wood from the previous night, so at least there was no need to gather more. He built his fire and glanced at the saurian. “I don’t suppose you could…”
“I would feel better if you reserved my services in that respect for a genuine need, sergeant. Not laziness.”
“Fine! You’re not working on the friendship part of this, yet, then.”
“I believe I am. Self reliance is an important trait. Relying on another when there are alternatives… You will thank me before this is over.”
“You are welcome.”
“I know what you meant, sergeant. My people are not bereft of humour.”
For the next half an hour, he muttered, he cursed, he almost gave up but eventually, he managed to produce a flame and placed it in the heart of his fire. Another ten minutes later and it was blazing merrily. He set the pan on the fire for the water to boil and dug into his rations, emptying one pack into it, before reading the label.
“Chicken stew, should be acceptable, I suppose. Do you want to give it a try?”
“Our tastes differ significantly. We find your cooking revolting. I have already hunted and eaten my breakfast. I will not require further sustenance for several days.”
“Really? You only eat”
“We only eat when it is required to maintain our strength. Yes.”
“So do we.”
“You may believe that, but, I do not. I have seen many fat humans.”
He grunted. “There’s no arguing with that.”
* * *
“This time, I do need you. No-one can do this without magic, lazy or otherwise.”
“What is it you intend to do?”
“I can see things. Past, possible future up to a couple of days forward or back. The past is set in stone so, what I see happened. The future’s a different matter.”
“Simple. It isn’t written yet.”
“I believe our augurs may disagree with you, sergeant.”
“They’re fine with prophecies. Huge events years into the future. They’re hopeless with the little things.”
He sighed. “I bet I’d have a far better chance of predicting the winner of the ten-fifty horse race in Klatch, tomorrow.”
“You use your ability to cheat?”
“Not for myself and my predictions are far from accurate. They’re just better than the odds the bookmakers give. I don’t just use it for that. I can see what people intend, sometimes prevent a crime before it happens by putting the fear of Pell into them.”
“That is a much more worthy use of your gift.”
“And in my profession, bloody useful too. See a crime after it was committed or prevent one by seeing what someone intends to do.” He shrugged. “It’s also the reason I was sent here.”
Her hand rested on his shoulder and immediately, he felt in increase, a new vitality.
A twitch of the finger, he closed his eyes and started spinning it, this time in an anticlockwise direction.
The void was back, exactly as it had appeared from the portal. It blocked his vision, but he continued and, after a few minutes of rewinding, just over a day’s worth in fact, the greyness withdrew. It shrank and as it did so, it appeared to suck all the water off the ground and into the air. Onto itself. Then it was gone and the town stood, as it had been. A vibrant market town with people dashing from building to building to avoid the rain.
The quartermaster had been right. All the men were dressed in a similar way he was now and many wore even brighter colours than him.
“Got it. I see the town. I’ll just rewind a little more. Then, maybe we can get some insight into what happened. I’ll be as quick as I can, but it might take a while. I have an entire town to search through for some hint of anything unusual.”
“I believe I can sustain you. Please, continue.”
Many of the houses were empty. It was well into the working day, after all. Others just contained a lone woman, performing household chores. Some also had children but each time he sensed the void, he froze, rewound and continued with another building.
Then he reached the smithy. At first, nothing unusual. Just an extremely well built man hammering away at a piece of red hot iron. Occasionally, he’d plunge it into the fire and pump on the bellows for a few minutes.
A boy ran in, drenched. He looked like a drowned rat.
The blacksmith looked up from the his work with annoyance.
“Have you brought that bag of coke, Brin?”
“Sorry, sir. I… I was… There’s a man… in the street.”
“A man? So what?”
“The rain’s not touching him!”
Moril froze. “Got you, you little bastard… Right… Now it might become more stressful.”
“Why? What have you seen?”
“I’ll show you later. I’m going to try to see through the boy’s eyes as I rewind. I’ll also start recording.” He concentrated on his staff for a moment before continuing. “Slowly… Slowly...”
The point of view of his vision shifted. It was odd, seeing something from a lower perspective. It was even odder, seeing the world in reverse from a boy running backwards. He sped up the rewind as the boy ran backwards down the street, froze at the sight of a black cloaked figure. He was right. The figure was dry. He continued to rewind so he could see the full events in the right direction.
“Now, let’s see what this is all about.”
His finger switched direction.
“Scuse me, sir?”
“What is it, boy?”
“Boss sent me for a bag of coke. For the forge.”
“You have your money?”
“Hand it over, then!”
The boy slapped a copper coin onto the counter and the coal merchant dropped a sack on the counter in exchange.
“Don’t strain yourself lad. Fifty pounds, that sack.”
The boy shifted the sack to the edge of the counter and inched it onto his shoulder. He staggered under the weight of it.
“Keep that up lad, and when you’re a bit bigger, I might have a job for you.”
The boy giggled. “Thank you, sir.” He staggered out of the warehouse.
It was clearly too heavy for him. He meandered down the street narrowly avoiding bumping into a few people before he froze. There he was. The black cloaked stranger and seeing it in a normal direction, Moril noticed some details the lad had missed.
It wasn’t just that the rain didn’t touch him. As he walked, he left dessicated plants in his wake.
“That’s a new one! Right, the lad’s spotted him. I’m going to follow. Leave the lad behind.”
The moment he returned to his own sight, the man vanished beneath a dome of the same greyness that had cloaked the entire town. This time, it was only a dome of about twelve feet in diameter and this time, it continued to move at walking pace.
Moril followed for another half a mile when, without warning, the dome vanished.
The man turned towards the town and reached for the heavens while muttering something under his breath. It was too faint to determine the incantation, but… Moril shrugged. “Maybe Feathers has better hearing.”
“My hearing is more acute than a human’s. What have you discovered?”
“Patience. We’re not done yet.”
The stranger continued his utterances for another few minutes before his arms slammed down to his sides. At the same time, from the centre of the village, a dome erupted out of it, expelling every drop of water in the town as it did so, sending it showering down around them, but again, he couldn’t see through the dome.
The man stood, observing something. Maybe he could see through it?
Moril glanced up as smoke began to billow out of the top of the dome.
Her tweeting was showing signs of strain. “How much longer?”
“That depends what happens next.”
For the next hour, the man just stood, then, he stepped across the threshold into the void.
Moril ended the vision. “I lost him. He stepped back across into the town. How long will it take you to recover? We need to find out where he emerged. It could be anywhere along the perimeter.”
’I trust it will not take as long next time?”
“It shouldn’t. We just need to find out what direction he took. Find out what he did after he left the town.”
“I should be able to sustain a shorter use of your magic in an hour, sergeant.”
“If we move away, we may only need to perform a few short bursts. The further we are from this line, the more of it we’ll see.”
“Agreed.” Now what did you witness?”
“Ah yes.” Moril concentrated on the staff and the events played out. When the man began his muttering, he glanced at Feathers. “Can you hear that?”
“Yes. I can hear it, but, I cannot understand. It is not a language I have heard before.”
“Oh well, worth a try, I suppose.”
“I require rest.” She lay on the grass and closed her eyes.
“Please. Do not disturb me. It will only delay my recovery.”
He lay beside her with his hands behind his head, looking at the clouds scudding overhead.
He snapped awake to a voice.
“Sergeant Moril.” It was the chief. “Answer the question!”
He groaned, rolled over, forced himself to his feet and wandered a hundred yards away from her so as not to disturb her.
Remembering what she’d said about acute hearing, he lowered his voice as well.
“What question, sir?”
“Sleeping on the job?”
“I suppose I may have dozed off. It took several hours searching the village before it happened, sir. I witnessed the event but it has drained Feathers. She needed a rest, so I lay beside her. That was the question? Sleeping on the job?”
“You witnessed it?”
“As much as possible, sir. A man walked through the village. The smith’s lackey saw him and ran to his boss shouting about a man the rain didn’t touch. I followed that man. I wasn’t just the rain, either. Every plant within ten feet of him withered as he passed.”
“What the… But… But even here…”
“I know. I saw him bring a dome into being, sir. Just as he repelled water when he walked though, it did too. It expelled every drop of water from the town. I can only assume that’s when the fires started. It kept the heat in, but let the smoke out. I think it must have allowed air to rush in too, to feed the flames. Blast furnace, sir. He turned the entire town into a blast furnace and removed any means to extinguish the flames.”
“And the people?”
“Just as we couldn’t see the destination through the portal, I couldn’t see through his shield… dome… thing, sir. I headhopped when I found the boy in the smithy. Using his eyes, I could see. When I followed the man with my own sight, all I could see was the dome over him. It’s the same with the town. Even now, without a dome, I can’t see anything beyond the boundary when using my talent.”
“We have to stop him! Where is he? Which direction did he go?”
“That’s our next task, sir. Find out where he left the town. I lost him after he’d done it. He went back in.”
“Very well, report when you have something more concrete.”
“Of course, sir.”
It only took five ten minute bursts to witness the figure’s exit from the town by moving around the perimeter, half a mile from it.
They rushed over to the location as quickly as they could.
Moril sighed. “Right then, let’s see if we can get any clue as to what he went back in for.”
He rewound again and froze when the figure walked backwards into it, reversing his power to watch the event in real-time.
The figure held something in his fist. He paused on exit, pulled back his hood and then tugged a chain around his neck. Dangling from it, an amulet with ornate designs and what looked like six empty settings for the placement of gems.
He wasn’t what Moril expected in the least. He was young, fair-haired with a sadness in his eyes.
He sighed and opened his hand, rolled the contents between his fingers and held it up, to study it.
It was a gemstone, a perfect sphere and within it, its colours changed and shifted. Moril stepped forward to look at it more closely and what he saw turned his stomach. He gagged in horror.
A face drifted across the face of the gem. A face showing a torment it was impossible to imagine. The face of someone engulfed in flame.
He stepped back in shock and the man looked him square in the eye.
“You can’t stop me. I won’t allow it. I hope…” he sighed. “No. Even if you seek out what I left for you in the centre of the town, even then, you won’t stop your pursuit. I know that. I… I’m...” He paused and shook his head before pressing the gem into one of the mounts on the amulet, turned and strode off to the north, pulling his hood back up as he did so. He looked back, raised his hand, twisted it in a vicious manner and Moril collapsed to his knees as pain shot through his skull, his vision ended.
“Sergeant! Are you well?”
He gasped for breath for a few seconds before crawling back to his feet. “I don’t know how he did it, but he knew. He held up a gem, almost as if he wanted me to see it. He spoke to me. He…” He shuddered.
“He ended my vision. That’s never happened to me before. You have to see this.”
He concentrated on the staff and an image sprang forth. The events played out exactly as he’d witnessed them and at the sight of the gem, she hissed. “Abomination! This atrocity must end! It is forbidden!”
“What? I saw a...” he gulped. “I saw a face, Feathers. Does that mean what I think it means?”
He froze the playback. “I’m sorry… But… What?”
“You are familiar with blood magic?”
“Of course. Use the ebbing life-force of a dying creature to power a spell. I find the whole idea of it disgusting but I suppose some might see it as a mercy, normally, unless it’s one of those convicted murderers the chief talked about where they bleed them for a month.”
“Soul magic… I… I can not even…” She shuddered.
“Are you suggesting that the entire town’s in that gem? Locked away? Unable to reach the afterlife? To be used as nothing but a bloody… A bloody power source?”
“Captain, our race has not always been at peace with itself. When the stone’s power was discovered, many wars were fought to gain its possession and some of our kind were just as greedy and power hungry as the worst of your race, now. Soul magic has been forbidden for many thousands of years. Even the knowledge of its use was wiped from our history. The knowledge of what it was though, was used as a warning. Even our nursery rhymes sometimes speak of it, to scare the hatchlings into submission. It is a powerful magic. A magic even the stone itself would be challenged to surpass with so many souls at his command.”
“But… If it’s been erased, how could he… He’s not even saurian… How can he know?”
“I do not know, but this… This is… I apologise, sergeant. I have never witnessed such evil. The souls trapped within are still suffering from the flames that consumed their mortal shells. They are in torment. An agony that will only end if they gain release from the gem.”
The chief’s voice replied immediately. “”What? What is it? Getting yourself into trouble already?”
“No, sir. Everyone’s in trouble. Not just me. I had to get your attention quickly.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“What the hell have you got me into, sir? Every time we learn something new, it gets worse!”
“Worse? It was bad enough already!”
“We found his exit point, sir. Got up close and personal with him, so to speak. I know why he did what he did to the town, sir. He had a gem in his hand.”
“Wait… Just wait one minute. Are you trying to tell me, that this… This monster incinerated an entire town just to gain one single precious stone?”
“I hadn’t finished, sir. He spoke to me. He even showed me his face!”
“Why haven’t you apprehended him?”
“Oh for… Because he’s got a day’s head start on us. More than a day! He knew. I don’t know how, but he knew. He looked me square in the eye before saying he couldn’t allow me to stop him. But the gem, sir. It was… I’m sorry, but… Even Feathers is terrified by what we witnessed.”
“What about the gem! For all the gods…”
“It contains the souls of the townsfolk, sir. Every last one of them! He pressed it into a mount on an amulet he wore, sir. Feathers calls it soul magic. Something that’s been outlawed and even erased from the saurian record for thousands of years, it’s so nasty. And they’re still in the same agony they were when they died. When they burned.”
The chief sputtered… “What? I…”
“That’s still not the worst of it, sir.”
“Please don’t tell me it can get worse than this. I order you not to”
“Sir, there were five more mounts on that amulet and feathers says the power of that single gem alone could match the stone itself! There. I said it. I don’t see why we should be the only ones terrified out of our minds!”
The chief groaned. It was a very long one. So long, Moril thought his lungs might come out of his mouth if he kept it up much longer.
“You said he spoke to you.”
“Yes, sir. He said he couldn’t allow me to stop him, but he knew I’d continue to pursue him. He pulled his hood back, sir. He held the gem up right in front of me. There was something about him, sir. I think it might be our only hope.”
“What? What about him?”
“There was a sadness in his eyes. A hesitancy in his speech. I think he almost apologised for what he’d done. Maybe he’s being forced to do this by someone… Or something. He also said he’d left something in the centre of the town, sir. He’d left it for me to find.”
“And why in all the hells do you think this gives us a glimmer of hope?”
“I’ve met a few psychopaths in my time, sir. They don’t give a damn who they hurt as long as they get what they want. I genuinely think he’s sorry for what he’s done. For what he might do in the future. I think he might want to be stopped, sir. Why else would he show me his face? Show me the gem?”
The chief sounded exhausted. “What direction did he go?”
“That’s something at least. That may buy you some time. Travel south. Go to Port Arron.”
“But sir, I said, he’s heading north!”
“And at walking pace, you’ll be unlikely to catch up with him! It is ten days by horse to the nearest town in that direction. At least twenty on foot. It’ll take you ten days to get to port Port Arron if you hurry up about it. You may be able to take ship to Northholme. You might even be able to head him off. To beat him there.”
“Yes, sir. We need to find out about him though, don’t we? If we want to stop him, we need to find out how. I know with the power he wields, I wouldn’t stand a chance against him, even if I was backed up by the entire saurian army.”
“Can you describe him?”
“I could, but I don’t know how accurate your sketch artist would be and I can’t correct him as he goes, sir. Is there any way for me to send the contents of this crystal to you? Over this communication link?”
“Not that I’m aware of. I’ll consult with the maker and get back to you on that. Alright, what did you have in mind?”
“Continue to backtrack, sir. Find out where he came from and hope he didn’t travel for more than two days.”
“Three days is all I can manage, sir. I thought you knew that. It’s normally enough.”
“Let’s just hope he came in from the south, then, shall we? Go on then. Do it your way, you’re there and I’ve just about lost the will to live at this point. But find out what this thing he left for you is first. If you’re right about him wanting to be stopped, it could prove to be vital.”
Moril nodded. “Or it could be a trap. Yes, sir. I’ll go and look now.”
“And I’ll alert every agent east of the Yamati desert. Give me his description. Even without a sketch they should know what to look out for.”
“Yes, sir. Sandy hair, fair skin, blue eyes, he was clean shaven, but that may change. Five foot ten, slim build. About twenty-five to thirty-five years old and wearing black, sir. Black everything, not just his cloak.”
“Well, at least that should stand out, out there.”
“Unless he changes clothes, sir.”
“True, in fact, that is the most obvious course of action right now. Still, we have something to look for at least. I’ll send a garrison of imperial infantry to Northholme. The spacers are going to love me.”
“They may find it easier, sir. Sending them there. I did say there was this negative magic stuff getting in the way.”
“Good point. Report back when you find what he left.”
Using the map, it didn’t take long to find the centre of town and as everything in it was black, the… gift stood out a mile.
Moril rushed over to retrieve it. A crystal, pale yellow in colour. He closed his hand around it and concentrated. “For all that’s holy… I’ve got to stop doing that. We have what we came for.” He opened his pouch and placed the crystal carefully into it.
Feathers nodded and began to walk back the way they came when she froze, she span on the spot, he crest shooting up. She began to search for something too.
“What? What is it?”
She turned, pointed at her ear and continued.
“You want me to keep…” he dropped to a whisper. “Sorry.” He followed.
Curled into a ball, shaking, black from head to toe from the charred remains of his home, his face a rictus of terror, lay a boy. He couldn’t have been more than eight years old.
“Shit!” Moril ran over to him and gathered up the child. “Let’s get out of here. I know the street the bastard walked down, so it should be easy to trace him when we leave.”
* * *
Moril lay the boy on the grass. “I may need you again in a minute, Feathers.”
“What do you intend?”
“Nothing draining, just a physical checkup.”
The moment he felt her hand, felt the energy flow into him, he closed his eyes and whispered the spell. He nodded. “Physically, he’s fine. A little dehydrated, a drink’ll fix that but I don’t know any spells that can… well… find out what’s going on up here.” He tapped his temple.
“It was my belief that you had that ability?”
“You did say you saw through the boy’s eyes.”
“Ah. Well, that’s all I can do. I don’t hear their thoughts, I just sense what they sense. Sight, sound, smell… Is there anything you can do? I think it’s pretty obvious why he’s in this state but is there any way to snap him out of it?”
“The best I can do for now, sergeant, is help him to sleep and possibly make the dreams he will have pleasant. That may aid him. Where the mind is concerned, the last thing you should do is snap anything. Raise him, so I can reach, sergeant.”
He nodded and gathered the boy in his arms again as she rested her hand on the lad’s brow.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “His mind is broken. Not beyond repair but it will take time to mend.”
“Are you picking anything up?”
“Yes. It does confirm that he was outside the town when it occurred. There is just one repeated phrase. It was like the sun.”
Moril sighed, his head sagged. “The poor git, oh gods. He must’ve seen them burn. Every person he knew, poof, gone, up in smoke. No wonder he’s got that grimace.”
“I will do what I can.”
The change was immediate. The boy relaxed. His lips closed over his teeth. There was even the hint of a smile.
“Thank you.” He lay the boy down again. “And now, this. He removed the crystal and looked at it, closely for the first time. He blinked, closed his eyes and muttered. His eyes snapped open in shock. “Is that even possible? I”
“Is what possible?”
“I noted the state it was in. It’s got a lot of flaws, even a crack almost the whole way through it. It’s ancient. One hundred thousand years old, at least.”
“Can you get a more accurate age?”
He closed his eyes again. It… No… There… He sighed. “One hundred thousand, five hundred… That’s the best I can manage. I can’t pinpoint the exact decade using that spell. Maybe nearer the stone, but not here. I can sense it does still hold a recording though.”
“It is a saurian crystal, that much is obvious. Created during the time of the wars for the stone, when soul magic was at its height.”
“They did that?” he pointed at the town. “Regularly?”
“No, sergeant. Not even during the wars would our kind be so barbaric. The souls were taken individually or in small numbers during combat and released after use. After the battle had been won or lost.”
He sighed and nodded.
“Can it be replayed?”
“I’m almost afraid to. This thing’s so old, even the attempt might shatter it. I’ll ask the chief, he has the resources to find out if there’s a way to safely view it. Bannerman.”
“Yes? You have what he left?”
“We do, sir. It’s a crystal, but it’s ancient. Too fragile to view safely. I contacted you to seek advice. Is there a way to… I don’t know, fortify something so old. Strengthen it, so it can be viewed without causing its destruction?”
“Crystals have been known to last thousands of years. Just how old is it?”
“Over a hundred thousand, sir. Feathers says from a time when their people warred for possession of the stone. A time when they did indulge in this soul magic thing.”
“I’ll get onto our crystallographers. Ask their advice. I’ll get back to you.”
“Thank you, sir.” He sensed the connection drop. “I suppose we’d better see where he came in then.”
The usual rewind, the expected results. What made things even better? The stranger did come in from the south.
* * *
The road was a well travelled thoroughfare that, according to the map, didn’t have many branches and those that did exist only went off at right angles to enter farms. The very occasional village was over a day away.
As a result, there was no need to backtrack the stranger constantly. AT every branch, they paused. Moril performed his trick until he saw that black robed figure and they continued on their way.
They didn’t continue for long. All the time lost searching for him had added up and before they knew it, the sun was beginning to set.
This time, he did build a shelter. He had more to care for than his own comfort this time. He had a traumatised boy too, so, while he built a makeshift shelter from branches, undergrowth and forest moss, Feathers went out to hunt, this time, for him.
Using the last embers of life-force from the wild pig she returned with for him, he muttered a spell and waved his hand over himself and the boy.
The ash, grime and sweat vanished from both of them in an instant.
“A cleansing spell, sergeant? Wasn’t that a little wasteful?”
“We don’t have time to strip and take a bath, Feathers, and the boy was filthy without replacement clothing. You said yourself I’d need to change before long. Now, I’ve bought us more time before that’s necessary.”
He’d just lit the fire and put the wild pin on a spit suspended above it on two forked branches. It wouldn’t be cooked tonight, but by morning, it should be enough to live off for a week at least. He dug into his ration pack again.
“How far have you got?”
“Only a couple of miles, sir. We’re setting up camp for the night. I do have one more mouth to feed so it’s more important now.”
“One more mouth?”
“Boy? What boy?”
“Oh, sorry, everything’s getting too much for me. I thought I mentioned him and even if I didn’t, you hear everything I do. We found him in the ruins, sir. He needs to be cared for.”
“Yes, sir. This will slow us down, sir. I have the extra weight to carry.”
“Can’t he walk?”
“Physically, he’s fine but he’s unresponsive. Even Feathers can’t get anything more than “It was like the sun” out of him. She says his mind is broken. He saw it, sir. He saw them burn.“
“This is important! I didn’t hire you as a babysitter!”
“And just what would you have me do, sir? Leave him there to die? He’s eight years old. Even if he was capable of acting under his own volition he couldn’t survive for long! If we hadn’t found him he would’ve been dead in two days from thirst, sir!”
“Well, I suggest, not that anything I say seems to have any impact on your actions, that you dump him at the first farm you encounter.”
“In his state? He might never come out of it without help. No. Sir. Feathers might be able to heal him, but that’ll take time. He’s staying with us until he’s capable of telling us if he had any family outside Talyin’s Forge. Then, I might consider delivering him to them. If they’re on the way. Sir.”
Another groan emerged from the chief.
“I’d be careful with that, sir. You’ll do yourself an injury if you do it for too long. The last one broke the world record.”
“What did you expect? Anyway, the reason I contacted you is because, after a little research, they came back with a suggestion for your crystal.”
“If it’s too fragile to play back, copy its contents to a newer one. It doesn’t have to undergo the stresses involved in actual display. Just a transfer of information.”
“I don’t even know how they’re made. I’ve never even tried to record on one that hadn’t been designed to just turn on and off. How do you do that?”
Feathers let out a series of chirps. “Worry not, sergeant. I can perform that task. Hand me the crystal and the staff.”
He nodded and handed them to her.
She closed her eyes, let out a series of warbles and cheeps, something her harness didn’t even attempt to translate, and handed them back to him. “It is done.”
“Right then. As you’re on the link, you might as well listen in too. I’ll play it now.”
The image that sprang up was one of a huge circular cavern. In full view of whatever or whoever had made this recording, stood a saurian and hundreds more lined the outside wall.
The saurian began to chirp and tweet just as Feathers did but this time, there was no translation forthcoming.
Moril paused the playback. “I can’t understand him!”
“Her, sergeant. Even in those dark days, male saurians held no position of importance beyond the raising of hatchlings. It is an archaic dialect, but I believe my translator can accommodate.” She placed her hand on her chest and closed her eyes. “I have adjusted it. You may continue.”
Moril nodded and restarted the recording.
This time, Feathers’ translator performed its task. It even produced a different, deeper voice.
“I speak to the future. I speak to the clever apes with little hair. I imagine you will have a name for yourselves by the time you see this, but at this time, that is all you are.
You will rise. You will gain knowledge, wisdom and power and when you reach a maturity that compares to our own, know this.
Our race has existed for millions of years. Ever we do not know exactly how long, but we, with the grace of our augers, do know our history.
In a past time so distant it is unimaginable, even to us, there were many that could be considered saurians in all shapes and sizes. A race that flew, a race larger than a whale that swam the oceans and great mountain beasts larger than anything you can imagine. For millions of years, these beasts ruled the world but most were just that. Beasts.
One race among them was a social predator however, and as they worked together, they learned to communicate. As they learned to communicate, they learned to think. To plan. To build.
We are that race.
Then, the cataclysm came. A mountain fell from the sky. Where it came from, we have no knowledge but the result of its impact brought forth an era of darkness and chaos that lasted two hundred, thousand years. Very few survived and those that did, fewer survived unchanged.
The flying ones adapted by a reduction in size and an increase in feathers. We now call them birds.
Of the land and sea based saurians, only we survived. We used our minds, something the other races lacked. We also learned what the rock that brought about this catastrophe could do. We learned to manipulate its energies.
We call it the stone. It is the source of the most powerful magic ever encountered. There were others and still are, but the stone made those redundant. Those who wish to gain control of it, however, do still use those lesser magics.
Hear me, hairless ones, for a prophesy has been foretold and I tell it to you now.
In a time of plenty
When ape and saurian work together.
A great darkness will befall the lands.
But seven will arise at the points of the seven fold star.
And one of the seven will arise before the rest.
And he will bring them together at the appointed place.
And they will banish the darkness forever.
But both ape and saurian alike will oppose them in ignorance.
And should ignorance defeat the seven.
Should the seven fail,
A new cataclysm will end all life forever.
Take heed, future ones. Take heed. Our whole world depends on it.”
“Wonderful. So now we’ve got a world ending prophesy to deal with too. Just fucking wonderful. You don’t think this… cataclysm is the dark robed bastard, do you?” Moril groaned. “Please don’t tell me I’m the bloody chosen one.”
“Moril, you’re being ridiculous! How could you of all people”
It was Feathers’ turn to butt in. “Chief. It may well be the case. Prophesies are notoriously vague and cryptic. They do this to inform but not force. Events usually have to play out without interference. This… Monster has gained access to a power that can rival the stone. Why did he target this town? It is possible the first of those six should have been collected from there. We have a survivor. We may end up with five more.”
“If he’s targetting these… Places on the points of a star, though… It said seven and there were six mounts on that amulet.”
“Yes, sergeant. If you are the first, clearly, he has missed his opportunity to do to you what he did to the town. Thwarting this prophesy could bring about the end of everything and preventing you from gathering these other five seems to be a good way to do it. I do not understand his motivation.”
Moril shrugged. “Grief, perhaps? It can do some very destructive things to a person. Make them lash out. An “If I can’t have her, no-one deserves to live” type mentality? Possible?”
“I have witnessed several impossibilities recently, sergeant. No matter how unlikely it may be, nothing should be discounted now.”
Following the trail the next day proved extremely easy. There was no need to strain Feathers’ reserves, just a quick check every time they reached an intersection and they were few and far between.
Another camp, another sleep, Moril knelt by the boy again, doing his best to feed him, when the boy stirred, snapped awake and let out a yelp of fright.
“Calm down, boy. You’re safe with me.”
“Where am I? Who are you? I want to…” His eyes widened and tears began to flow and the cries were soon to follow.
Moril was about to grab him when he looked down at himself. He shrugged off his cloak, unstrapped his breastplate and swept the boy up into a hug.
He stroked his head. “You’re fine, lad. You’re safe. Let it all out. Everything you saw, let it out.”
The cries turned to wails. Those continued for a while before the boy began to tire and they were reduced with gasping sobs again. Slowly, he calmed down, tears still streaming down his face as he looked up into Moril’s eyes.
“I saw… I…”
“I know, lad. I know. I was there afterwards. I know what happened and I can guess the horrors you saw. If you want to talk about it, it might help.”
The boy shuddered. “I… I can’t…”
“I’ll be here when you’re ready, lad, if you ever are. I’ll take care of you.”
The boy sniffled, sucking in a long trail of snot that had begun to form as he did so. “Who are you?”
“The name’s Moril. I’m a sell sword. A mercenary.”
“You fight? For money?”
He nodded. “I was on my way to your town to collect my pay. One of your merchants wanted a delivery guarded. It appears I was lucky. If I’d arrived one day earlier, I may have been there when it happened. How did you escape it?”
“My ma…” he sobbed again at the realisation. “They’re dead, aren’t they?”
He nodded. “I’m sorry. What about your ma?”
“She sent me to the woods to pick mushrooms for the stew. I… I was only gone for an hour, then I saw the smoke. I ran, but I couldn’t… I tried. I tried. But something…”
Moril nodded, tears beginning to bead in his eyes, too.
“Why couldn’t I get to them?”
“Magic, lad. A terrible magic.”
“But my pa said”
“That magic’s not real?”
The boy nodded.
“Trust me, it’s real. But it’s not all bad. There are places to the west where people fly across their city in carriages, where injuries can be healed in an instant, you could talk to people from a thousand miles away. I’ve been there. I even picked up a few tricks myself. Even your town performed the odd feat of it.”
“They did. It was useful magic though, not harmful. You know what happens when an animal’s prepared for the butcher’s shop?”
“But that’s just something we do. My pa said it’s tra… trad…”
The boy nodded.
“It’s not something to be taken lightly, lad. Magic’s powerful and you’ve seen what can happen if it’s misused. It takes a lot of learning to be able to handle it safely. They likely would’ve told you the truth when you got a bit older. The magic they wield when they slaughter an animal has many uses. It can purify your water, fertilise your fields, even guarantee a baby’s born safely.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “I… Thought it was just stories.”
Moril smiled. “No. Well, not all of them. Until yesterday, I would’ve dismissed the stories of warlocks and witches as just something to scare naughty children.” He shuddered. “Now I’m not so sure. There’s nothing special about them, though. They’re still people. Just… Bad people. Enough of this talk of magic though. What’s your name, lad?”
“Well, Kalyn, we found you in the ruins over a day after if happened. Bet that means you’re starving?”
“Good. Because it’s time for breakfast. Now, I don’t want you to scream. I don’t want any fear. Look behind you.”
Kalyn did just that, but he didn’t scream. He smiled. “Scaly!”
“That’s what she’s called. She left the town too?”
“Sorry Kalyn. This is Feathers. We arrived together.”
The tears returned. “But I liked Scaly. She told me stories.”
Feathers twittered and her translator spoke as usual. “I do apologise, boy, but, I know five of my kind were in the town. I even knew two of them quite well. I am not Scaly. What name did scaly use when speaking to you?”
“I…” He sniffled. “She called all the kids little one. I didn’t like that, but I liked her stories.”
“Then I shall allow you to choose a name by which I can call you. You understand that I cannot use your human name, just as I cannot use his. To me, he is simply sergeant. My translator cannot produce human names, they are not a part of the common language, but simply nonsense words with no context.”
Moril shrugged. “I… wouldn’t go that far. There is a history behind some of them. What might have been a word in ancient times has become twisted and changed over time. Moril, I think comes from old Klatchian, medrill, meaning boar. I suppose back in the day it might have referred to a man who hunted them.”
“And you would prefer to referred to as boar? I understand your synonyms, sergeant. Bore, dreary, tiresome…”
Moril chuckled. “No, no. Sergeant will do. I was just making a point. I do understand why your translators find it difficult though. Some parents choose to warp the names even more just to make their children appear more unique.”
She nodded. “I will give you time, boy. Choose wisely.”
Moril handed the lad his canteen. “Now eat up. Pork, freshly killed and cooked overnight.”
While Kalyn tucked in, Moril got out his dagger and attacked the carcass, cutting more slices and folding them in the wrappings of his used provisions before putting them in his pack for later. Then he cut off one of a legs and sat beside the boy.
Kalyn looked up at him as htey ate, mumbling with his mouth full.
“Could you teach me?”
“Magic? No, it takes”
“No, not magic. Could you teach me to fight? If I find the warlock who did that, I’m going to kill him.”
“Kalyn, listen to me. Vengeance is never a good reason to fight. It’s a damned good way to ruin your life.”
“Because it becomes a driving force. An obsession. The only thing a person thinks about. People have been known to spend half their lives fixated on taking revenge against someone and when they finally succeed, they’re not satisfied. Some lose the will to live because there’s nothing more to live for. They take to the bottle and drink themselves to death. Others find they need the violence in their lives, they die in a bar fight or some lost cause. It’s an empty feeling, vengeance.”
“But you’re a sell sword!”
“Yes, and the best way to survive as a sell sword is to avoid the fight whenever possible. Use your brain, lad. It’s just as effective to scare your enemies or otherwise convince them to give up as it is to fight them. A mercenary who runs in, waving his sword at every opportunity won’t be a mercenary for very long. He’ll just be crow food.”
”Then there’s the other side of it.”
“OK, you spend ten years chasing down the man who killed your town, only to find he died a year ago. You’ll feel cheated. Robbed of it. Again, nothing more to live for and this time, you didn’t even have the satisfaction of the kill. There’s also the very likely possibility that if you did meet him, he‘d kill you. You saw what he did to the town. Do you think you could even get close to him? With that power?”
The boy gulped, the blood draining from his face. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Good. I will teach you to fight. But only to defend yourself. But not yet.”
“I’m always too young. They never let me do any”
Moril held his up hand. “Not because of your age. Because right now, we don’t have the time. We’re tracking the warlock who did that, but we’re not following him to his next destination. We’re finding out where he came from and I know he came into your town from the south. That’s where we’re heading.”
“What’s the point?”
“What he did to your town… Even close to the stone, the source of magic in the west, such a feat would be impossible. He used a power unheard of before and we need to find out how he learned to do that. It’s the only way to defeat him. Learn about him. Find out why he did it and how. If we know that, there might be a chance to stop him.” He tapped his temple again. “As I said, lad… Use your brain. It’s the most valuable asset a person has.”
Kalyn sighed and returned his attention to his breakfast.
Moril walked a few yards away and beckoned to Feathers. He lowered his voice.
“He seems find now. It can’t be that easy can it?”
“I will check him again soon, sergeant. Do not worry. I fear he may withdraw again when the nightmares begin. You may need to be on hand to comfort him on a regular basis.”
“I thought you could keep the nightmares at bay.”
“I can, for a short time. Too long though, and I will impede his mind’s recovery. I will harm the boy, and if that happens, I will die. I cannot afford the risk. Two more nights of peaceful sleep is all I can guarantee him.”
“What do you mean, die?”
“To knowingly cause a human harm. A human who means no harm to me? Remember our oath sergeant.”
“But… Oh by all the hells!”
“If I was ignorant to the problems the boy may face, it would not be a problem. The harm must be intentional, but I do know. I had not anticipated this when I made the vow.”
“And the nightmares are necessary?”
“Absolutely. The mind must work its way through the trauma. It must heal in its own time. Holding back the nightmares will bury the trauma. It will harm in ways even I cannot predict.”
He nodded and returned to find Kalyn had finished. “Still hungry, lad?”
“Thought you might be.” With a deft swipe of the blade, he cut another leg off and handed it to the boy. “You can eat it as we walk. We’ve got to pack up and go.”
* * *
For the rest of the day, they walked. As they continued, the country ahead became hillier. There were fewer farms and the landscape became much more wooded. They paused every few miles and Moril, with the aid of Feathers, continued his search and nodded each time the black figure was seen, and again, they continued.
It was nearly the end of the day and Moril could sense the limit to his power approaching when the figure failed to appear as expected.
“What is it, sergeant?”
“We’ve lost him. We’ll have to turn back. Find out where he turned off the road.”
Kalyn froze in his tracks. “Lost who?”
“Oh, I think you can guess.”
“But I thought you said he went into the town from this direction. Where did he go after that?”
“We’re tracking where he came from. Remember when I said I picked up a few tricks when I was out west?”
“You’re magicking… Now? But I didn’t see anything.”
“You wouldn’t.” Moril smiled. “It all happens,” he tapped his forehead, “up here. I can see where he went, but he didn’t get this far. That means he turned off before here. He must have entered the forest.”
They’d retraced their steps for two miles before he spotted him, ducking backwards into the woods.
“Lad, I need you to guide me now. I have to concentrate and I do that best with my eyes closed. I’ll tell you where we need to go, but, try to avoid anything that may trip me. Woods are prone to change, even over a few days.”
“But I don’t know how.”
“Just tell me when we’re about to reach an obstacle. A log, a low branch, a bramble shoot, stuff like that. I may well see it, but if it’s new, you’ll guide me over, under or around it. It’s simple.”
And that’s how they went. Kalyn pointed out the odd obstruction, most of them, he saw.
“There’s a branch in front of you.”
“Must be a recent fall. It wasn’t there three days ago. Is it possible to climb over or should we go around it?”
“Take my hand and guide me.”
Kalyn did just that, careful to avoid trapping them in the foliage. “Step now. About a foot up then forward.”
“Thank you, lad.”
This went on for another half an hour before something changed. It began to grow misty, a thick fog seemed to be setting in.
“It’s getting harder to see, Kalyn. I can just see him ahead, but”
“It do not believe it is a freak weather condition, sergeant.” Feathers warbled. “I sense it too. The magic in the area is weakening.”
“Weakening? Oh fot Pell’s sake, not more of that… that negative magic stuff?”
“I fear so, and as we progress, it appe… be… ting stron…”
“Feathers? I think you’re losing your translator again.”
“I know, se… but… oes indi… are get… ser.”
Moril cancelled his sight. “We can’t continue that way. We’ll have to return to good old fashioned tracking. We know where he went, which direction. We just need to continue.”
“How do you track someone from days ago, sir?”
“It depends on the time of year, lad. Now, in the woods, late summer. There.” he pointed at a boot print in the soft forest loam,“ follow them. “If he hits harder ground, it’ll be more difficult. Then, the trick is to find broken twigs both on the ground, if stepped on, or on the branches, if brushed passt. I’m just glad it’s not autumn.”
“I like the autumn. I like diving into piles of leaves. I always got yelled at but it was worth it.”
“Yes, but the leaves are the problem. Same with snow. They cover the tracks.”
Kalyn smiled and nodded.
Following the tracks was easy and before long they came to a cave mouth. A large slab of rock lay on the ground in front of it.
Moril knelt before it and looked up at the cave mouth, scratching his head. “It almost looks like it was shaped to fit.”
Feathers gave out a single chirp.
“It was? To conceal it?”
“Well he found it. Any idea how?”
“You’ve seen something like this before?”
“Right then. Kalyn, search fom some dry twigs, lots of them.”
“Why do you want sticks?”
“Torch. We need light to see in there.”
While the lad went in search of smaller bits of wood, Moril scoured the forest floor for a sturdy fallen branch. Finding one that looked suitable, he put it between two trees and kicked it with all his might. It split with a satisfying crunch. It was still in one piece, so he took out his dagger to cut the rest of the way through, nodding in satisfaction when he was done.
He held it aloft. A two foot length of wood, then he dug into his rations.
The lad returned with an armful and Moril smiled. “Bring them over here, lad. One good thing about pork. It’d a very fatty meat. Watch.”
Grabbing a bundle of sticks, he smeared the meat all over them. Cooled, the fat had congealed on the outside and now, that fat was going to provide the main fuel for the torch. He bound the twigs to the branch dry end down and using his fire lighting kit, lit it.
He chuckled. “I’m getting better at that.”
Feathers chirped and warbled.
“I think I can guess. OK. OK. You were right. Happy now?”
Her pupils narrowed and she nodded and gave one single chirp.
“Let’s get in there.” He ducked into the entrance.
It was a narrow entry that led to a narrower passageway but before long it opened into a cave there was certainly room to swing a cat in.
His boots crunched on something and he lowered the torch to the floor. Scattered across it were hundreds of crystal shards. He swung the torch around. The wall was lined with holes, many of them filled with the fragments of shattered crystal. In the centre of the cave stood a stone construction topped with the remains of what appeared to have been a glass sphere. Now it was just a bowl, a container for the shards of it that had collapsed in on itself.
There was a fireplace, laid with fresh wood in the corner. He walked over and plunged the torch into its heart. The light it provided was far better than that provided by the torch once it got going.
Above the fireplace, carved into the rock was a design. A seven pointed star. Moril unhitched his knapsack, cut a length of rope and studied the shape. Taking the length of rope, he measured each line of it. They criss-crossed the middle. It looked a little like one of those pentagrams they’d used in primitive times before magic was fully understood, though with seven rather than five points.
All lines were equal.
“Well, that might help. If the star those towns rest on follow the same pattern as this, at least. Something to report.”
He turned to find Feathers, crest erect in surprise turning on the spot.
“Let me guess. You’ve seen something like this, too?”
A single chirp.
Next in was Kalyn. He wandered around the place with a confused look. “What is it, sir? What are all these things on the floor?”
“When people with magic want to store things, they store them in crystals. Books, images, events… They can all go into one. Some of them can be very entertaining. Something tells me, these were far from that.”
“Like that one?” The boy pointed at a small indent in the wall and within it, a perfect, blue crystal, untouched by whatever had shattered the rest.
“Just like that one. Thank you Kalyn. I might’ve missed that. It could be important.”
Moril knelt to retrieve it and glanced at the saurian. “Do you think you can learn anything more here?”
She chirped twice, shook her head and pointed at the exit.
“Agreed. The place makes me uncomfortable too. I think we’ve found what we were looking for. Could well be we’ve explained how the bastard learned how to do what he did too. Let’s get as far away from here as possible.”
Moril sat on a log by the road, closed his eyes and concentrated. “I’m surprised I can even do this without your aid, Feathers. It’s new. Made one year ago and the recording was completed five days ago. Can you tell me what that place actually was, now?”
“It is very frustrating, being unable to use my translator, sergeant. It was a saurian archive. It is unusual for them to be hidden like that, but not unknown. It is possible it was intended for use by the first of the seven. If that is you, he has clearly prevented it.”
“And he’s learned a lot from it himself.” Moril sighed. “Let’s see what he has to say for himself. Lad, you may want to pay attention to this. It’s clear it was made by the man who destroyed your town.”
“Why? What’s going to happen?”
Moril smiled, concentrated on the crystal and the image sprang up between them.
He wasn’t wearing black in this image. In fact, he was dressed more brightly than Moril. Yellow hose, bright red tunic, bright blue cloak. Tears streamed down his face before he began. He stood in the chamber surrounded by intact crystals. Every hole in the wall held one. They varied in colour even more than his clothing did, from the yellow they’d seen to the deepest blues, greens, reds and pinks.
Moril gasped. “It’s beautiful. How can something so beautiful cause so much destruction?”
With an extra long sniffle, the man spoke.
“I don’t know if you’ll ever see this. I almost hope you don’t. Ma, pa, this is where I’ve been for the last five years. This is where I’ve lived. I had to. The voices wouldn’t let me alone until I got here and started to learn.” he burst into tears again. It took another minute before he gritted his teeth, took a deep breath and forced himself to stop. “Forget about me. Forget I was ever born. You had one son. Let Bodin be your legacy. I might’ve been called Wallin but I don’t deserve a name anymore. I’m going to do things ma, I’m going to…” He took a deep breath. “Horrible things. Things you couldn’t imagine a person could do, but I have to. I have no choice. I’m nothing now. I have no name. I have no history. I only have a purpose.” He looked up at the ceiling, fear filling his eyes. “It’s getting closer, ma. Nemesis is getting closer. It’s close enough now for me to do this.”
He held up his hand towards the ceiling and closed his eyes. He began to mutter again in that strange language he’d used when bringing the dome into being.
When he brought his hand down again, it held a ball of light. He stepped backwards into the doorway, opened his hand and the ball exploded into the cave. Every crystal shattered in an instant. Some even exploded out of their holes. The glass orb cracked and fell into itself.
“Now, no-one can learn what I learned. Goodbye ma. Goodbye pa. Do them good, Bodin. You’re an only child now. Forget about me.”
He swept his hand across himself and the bright colours of his clothing vanished in an instant. Now, he was dressed in the black they were familiar with.
Moril froze the image and pointed at the sphere. “What is that thing?”
“An ancient design, sergeant. It was used as a teaching device. In those days, it was clear there was no need for translators. Your people were barely capable of grunts back then. My people used it to directly implant information into the mind. A very fast form of teaching, but it had its flaws.”
“What kind of flaws?”
“It could overload the brain if too much information was transferred at once. It could cause insanity. Delusions, persecution complex, paranoia. Even false memories. Such devices have not been used for a long time.”
“That thing drove him insane? That’s why he’s doing this?”
“It is possible he believes he has a greater purpose. Something that justifies his disgusting actions. He clearly understands just how bad what he is doing is. There is something else, of course.”
“Well, obviously, such a teaching device was designed for the saurian mind. Not a human one. That would only compound the problem.”
“And the voices? The ones he claims led him there? The ones that wouldn’t let him be until he found the place?”
“I do not know. I can only assume, and that is no good for anyone.”
“Assume away, please. Even if you’re wrong it’s better than keeping it to yourself.”
“I can only assume the voices were a result of an overload. Something he may think he remembers but does not. Voices were one of the symptoms that led to paranoia. All that information, all that tuition entering your mind too quickly. All those lectures on the intricacies of magic. Is it any wonder he heard voices? He may have merely displaced them in time to explain how he found the cave. He may not even remember the actual events that led to its discovery.”
“I just wish he’d given us some clue as to how he did that! I couldn’t do that even close to the stone. Where did he get the power?”
“That, I do not know and that is worrying. It is possible that this… Nemesis, what ever it is, is the source of it. Clearly, he fears it.”
“Unlikely. Though such beings exist, they are reluctant to interact too much with our world and they abide by the laws of magic. None I have ever encountered have exhibited this… This negative magic he controls.”
“But if it was a creature from a more distant realm? Something… I don’t even know how to put it into words.”
“That would be extremely worrying. That could even be this cataclysm the prophesy warns of. A being of negative magic attempting to find a way to cross into our realm. It could indeed be an end to all life. I do not understand why such a being would want to enter our world. It would mean its own destruction.”
Moril shrugged. “Maybe it’s just as insane as he is.”
He glanced down at the boy. Kalyn’s face twisted, contorted as if trying to show every emotion under the sun all at once. One second anger, hatred, then sorrow and confusion. He clearly didn’t know how to react to such a vision.
“I… He killed my family. My entire town! But he looks so sad. I’m… It’s… I… I don’t understand.”
“I know. It’s confusing to all of us. I’m going to do something now. You may think it strange, but, remember when I said the people in the west could talk to each other thousands of miles away?”
“I can too. But you won’t be able to hear it. Feathers? I take it by the fact your could, you’ve got one?” he prodded his ear.
“Yes, sergeant. I received mine quite some time ago.”
“Please, tell me you have some good news for once.”
“I wouldn’t say good. Some of it could be very bad in fact but that’s just guesswork. We have his name, sir.”
“By Pell and all his spawn, how?”
“I suggest you search the imperial archives. Search for someone of his name who disappeared about five years ago, though, we don’t know how reliable he is. Feathers believes him to be insane. Driven into such a state by using a device that implants knowledge directly into the mind, sir. We found his lair, if you can call it that. It used to be a saurian archive but he destroyed it just before leaving. He did leave behind a crystal though. I’ll play it for you now.”
Moril replayed the recording.
“So, a man called Wallin with a brother called Bodin. That’s not a lot to go on, you understand that?”
“Add in the knowledge that clearly, he disappeared. He must have spent quite some time in that cave before destroying it. He can do things none of us can. It must have taken some time. Maybe even if his five years wasn’t accurate, it could be a good indicator.”
“And as his parents undoubtedly reported him missing, we should have a record of it. Understood. I’ll get some of your colleagues to perform the search. It’s about time I put them to something more useful than pickpockets.”
Moril chuckled. “Thank you, sir.”
“You seem to be in higher spirits than normal, Moril.”
“I do, sir?”
“You do, yes. You’re beginning to enjoy this, aren’t you?”
“I…” he glanced around. “I don’t…” He hadn’t even considered it. He closed his eyes which allowed him time to examine his feelings more closely. He smiled. “Bloody hell. I am an all. I…”
“You’ve got something to get your teeth into for the first time in years. Something that even your talent can’t solve with the flick of a finger. That’s what I think anyway.”
“I suppose you could be right, sir.”
“What was the bad news?”
“Nemesis, sir. You might want to consult with the saurians about that, too. We have no idea who or what it is, but we’ve seen what he could do with its power. If it is a being, and it’s made of this negative magic… stuff… Feathers believes its arrival in this world could destroy everything. Including itself.”
“And there you go again. When you get back, remind me to buy myself a punishment collar.”
Moril chuckled. “A what, sir?”
“Don’t play the innocent with me. I know you know what they are. You’ve confiscated enough of them.”
“Why would you want one?”
“Simple. I’ll have it attuned to one simple phrase. If I ever say what was the bad news ever again, after it’s fitted, it’ll give me a shock I’ll never forget. I suggest you get on your way. You may still be able to beat him to Northholme if you hurry up about it.”
“Yes, sir. Did your garrison make it there?”
“They did, and it was easier for the spacers, just as you suggested.”
“Send on one piece of advice from me, sir.”
“And that is?”
“Ban them from the town. No leave. No tavern time. Nothing. If he does get there and brings forth another dome, you could lose half your men.”
“Oh bloody hells! Yes, that’s a damned good thought. I’ll pass on the message to their commanders.”
“Oh, and, sir. There was a star carved into the wall of that cave. Seven pointed, similar in design to the old pentagram. I measured each line, They were equal. We just don’t know the star’s scale or orientation yet. If he does attack another town, it could indicate that scale.”
“And with it, it could help locate the other… That’s a bloody good idea, too! Gods forbid he succeeds but if he does… Duly noted, thank you. Now jump to it sergeant, you have a ship to catch.”
“Yes, sir.” Moril stood and walked. “We’d better get a move on. Come on lad.”
“Who was that you were talking to?”
“Someone with a little bit of influence. When I am out west, I have another job. I’m a peace officer. That was my boss.”
“What’s a peace officer?”
“Pretty much just as the name describes, lad. Our job’s law enforcement. We arrest thieves and thugs, lock them up and take them to court. There, they get a fair trial and if found guilty, they get locked up for a lot longer or whipped. Depends on the seriousness of the crime. Murderers tend to get the worst of it. Executed. How did things work in your town?”
“If someone points the finger, yells, “OI, you stole my pig!” they usually spent time with me and my friends chucking rotten tomatoes at them in the stocks.”
“That’s all it took? An accusation?”
“I dunno. I only cared about the rotten tomato part. It’s fun.”
“I imagine it was more complicated than that. Your town would’ve been a very unpleasant place to live if it was that simple.”
“OK… Someone points at you and said you stole their pig. You didn’t do it. You were out collecting mushrooms when the theft occurred… What happens?”
Kalyn gulped. “I… I don’t know?”
“There’s a word, lad. Justice. It’s important. People should only be punished if they’re guilty of the crime they’re accused of and it’s very easy to make mistakes. That’s why they’re brought before the court. All the witnesses have a chance to speak. Both for and against the accused. If the evidence weights heavily in the favour of a guilty verdict, then he gets punished. I imagine it was similar in your town.”
“And these… peace officers?”
“We keep the peace. When a crime’s committed in a city, there might not even be any witnesses. Then we really have something to get our teeth into. We investigate the crime. With my little trick, I can usually see the person commit it, but if he’s concealing his identity and he manages to escape somehow, it can still take time to find the culprit.”
“Sounds more interesting than sell sword.”
“Can be. But I found it too easy. The chief was right. I am enjoying this. I do have something that a twitch of my finger won’t solve this time. When you can rewind time and watch the crime occur, there’s no challenge to it. It gets bloody boring very quickly. That was my life back there. Fifteen years, bored shitless. No wonder I was in a bad mood most of the time.”
“So, you’re not really a sell sword here. You’re still doing your job, aren’t you?”
“If anyone asks, lad, I’m a sell sword. When I arrived at that town last week, I was a sell sword. It’s only after what happened to it, I’ve resumed my duties as peace officer. This is too important to ignore. We’ll get him, don’t you worry and speaking to my boss, we have the whole power of the empire on our side.”
“Thank you, sir.” Kalyn grinned. He looked around and the grin vanished. “Shouldn’t we be making camp, sir? It’s getting dark.”
“Not this time, lad. According to my map, there should be a village a couple of miles down the road. Where there’s a village, there’s an inn, and where there’s an inn, there a nice, warm bed for the night.”
Untitled Science Fiction Project, a short section
They say we are alone. Horribly, and utterly alone. How can it be, amongst the hundreds of millions of stars in the galaxy there is not one single life form that can contest us for galactic supremacy? Humanity spreads from planet to planet finding only remnants; finding only the collapsing remains of civilizations past.
They say we are alone.
“Name?” The PDF officer tapped his finger against a tablet his eyes hidden behind a darkly tinted visor. His mouth was hidden behind the helmet which fully engulfed his head. It connected to the tight black suit that he wore beneath his red and yellow carapace armor. Emblazoned on each piece of his equipment was the emblem of the Planetary Defense Force. The symbol shown most prominently on his left breast, and the sides of his helmet. It showed Earth; as it was known when man first found itself in need of a force to defend against galactic raiders, a blue and green marble with the letters PDF arching over it.
“Robin Denholm,” came the voice of the woman who stood opposite him. She was clothed in a tight jumpsuit made for space travel, and like most of the passengers had a helmet cradled in front of her. The air on the recently discovered Cimmerian was Earth-like which meant colonists had been pouring from Pop Planets to get a piece of nature. The guard checked the picture displayed on his tablet, taken when the passengers had left port three weeks ago. She had kept her haircut mostly the same, shaving one side and keeping the rest of the brunette hair long enough to drop past her shoulders. She wore a confident smile, the light lines of future crows feet next to her brown eyes showed the commonality of the look. According to the document, Robin Denholm was now 26 and possessed a doctorate in Xenoarchaeology from the University on Persephone.
“Place your hand on the tablet please,” the guard asked as he tipped the surface towards her. The screen went blank for a moment has Robin’s hand gently touched the cold surface. It blinked green and the guard pulled it back.
“Genetics check out, you’re cleared for entry,” the guard nodded. “Welcome to Cimmerian Misses Denholm.”
“Thank you,” Robin piped cheerfully before continuing past the checkpoint.
She had watched the landing through a window, marveling at the greens and browns of the planet. As she stepped through the metal doors of the landing bay, she stopped in amazement as the sight of untamed wilderness dazed her. She had learned of it, of course, the wilderness that had once existed on Earth is the point of many university classes. But to see it, to actually feel a real breeze blowing through her hair left her speechless. Large, hard-bodied plants rose around her like the skyscrapers of her home, but without the manmade order she was accustomed; trees, she knew. Though they were not found on Persephone, having been replaced by machines that could create breathable air at a far higher volume than even an entire planet of trees. But manufactured air was missing something that she did not know existed. The air here was crisp, no longer artificially purified to be perfect, and this imperfection was wonderful.
The ground crunched beneath her feet, a far cry from aluminum walkways she walked in her youth. It had a satisfying give as she sank slightly with each step. Though people milled about the port, the sounds of animals was distinct beneath the chatter. Their calls cut sharply through the noise and added the final touch to complete the image of a tranquil, untouched world in Robin's mind.
Lifting her hand palm up in front of her, a massive panel filled her vision as if projected by her hand. It wasn't, instead her contact lenses created it in her vision. The hand movement was just a command to let her cybernetic computer know she that this what she wanted to see. The panel displayed a user interface of her own design. Widgets and apps placed in a way that she found appealing. Her email was the largest and most central piece of this information. Neatly organized by sender, level of importance, and subject matter she quickly found the email she was looking for, an email from one Dr. Karrell.
As he was one of the leaders in the area of Xenoarchaeology, Robin had been courting a business relationship with the man in the hopes of becoming his protege. After a year it had finally worked. A few weeks ago he had sent her email proclaiming he had made an incredible find on this recently discovered exoplanet, and he wanted her help. Leveraging some of her connections at the University, she had found out that what he had found wasn't clear, but the directors of the school had given him a sizable grant to work on it. If this went well, Robin knew she could potentially work on this her entire life. Paying for her to work until retirement wouldn't even put a dent in the money that was available to Dr. Karrell. To say she was excited would be an understatement.
A Higher Purpose
I kneel in prayer before the gold cross at the altar. I can feel the warmth on my back of the first ray of sunshine streaming through the large stained glass windows, but I keep my eyes firmly shut as I fervently utter my restitutions, gripping my rosary until my knuckles turn white. "Father, God. Almighty Lord and protector. Please forgive me of my trespasses and leading others to sin. I bow in penitence to your holy throne and beg your mercy." Over and over I pray, but I still feel the full weight of my curse still crushing my soul. A single tear falls from the tip of my nose and onto my fingers.
During the night, the storm clouds still lingered and had blocked out the moonlight. I thought for a moment I could step outside to enjoy the sweet autumn air filled with the scent of pine and wet dirt. It had been so long since I have gone outside out of fear, but I thought the darkness would hide me from prying eyes. Little did I know, a man had gotten lost stumbling home after a night at the local pub, drinking himself into a stupor. I was sitting near the visage of the Virgin Mary when he came crashing out of the bushes. I shrieked, and he quickly held up his lamp to see me better.
The change took him immediately, his inhibitions already lowered from the copious amounts of alcohol. The drunk man's eyes widened, pupils dilating to almost conceal the color, licking his lips in a seductive and ravenous gesture, body tensing, and he lunged at me. I screamed again for help, tearing at the dirt as he wrestled with my legs to hold me still. I begged God to protect me, but He was silent as I clawed at the stone and dirt, desperately trying to get away. The man flipped me over and slammed my arms against the ground painfully, pinning me motionless. My sobs intensified as he leaned down and started kissing and licking my neck, tearing away at the top of my habit. His rank breath rolled over me like a noxious fog, staining my skin and hair.
A light came on near me, and I saw a flurry of black and white as two other nuns began beating and yelling at the man. He raised his arms to protect himself from their clawing hands, and I managed to slip out from under him, sprinting for the convent door, holding up the shreds of my torn garb. I didn't stop until I had burst into my room and slammed the door shut, blocking it with my cot and chair. I curled up on the floor like that and cried until my eyes became hot and irritated, my chest still heaving in great gulps of air. I whispered in a croaky voice, "Thank you, Lord, for my sisters' protection... Thank you, Lord, for rescuing me from the lion's den..." I was eventually able to calm myself enough, I could sit up and dress myself in one of my old habits, tossing the torn one to the corner of the room.
My legs and knees are sore from kneeling before the sanctuary for hours, but I'm resolute in cleansing myself before the Lord. Ten years ago, I dedicated my life to the Church and have dedicated countless hours service to sharing the gospel of Christ, but my curse still haunts me every day. How I wish I could be normal, but I know the Lord made me this way for His greater purpose, so I must be still and know that my God is guiding me. I hear someone enter behind me and walking slowly up the aisle. I recognize the footsteps as Sister Katherine, or Kat as she likes to be called. I've had to learn how to recognize people by the sound of their movements and voices, else risking a man seeing me.
I hear her walk up behind me, and she waits for me to reach the end of my prayer, "- and in Your holy arms, Father, my soul finds rest and forgiveness. Amen." "Amen," she repeats after me and places a calm hand on my shoulder, "Are you hurt, Sister?" I wipe my nose and shake my head. She continues, "Do you wish to speak about it?" I shake my head again, choking down a fresh wave of tears. Kat then knelt down beside me and rested a hand on my head, "Lord, Father, thank you for the gift of Your daughter, Tamar. May she feel Your love in her time of need. Please comfort her, and remind how much she is loved, respected, and adored by her sisters, her Church, and by You. Amen." Kat lifted her head, smiling at me in a motherly way as I collapsed into her lap, letting the endless tears run hot down my face. She shushed and cooed to me, patting my head and squeezing my shoulders. I felt like a small child. Kat whispered to me, "God has not forgotten you, Sister. Sometimes our darkest times come right before our brightest moments."
I sit up, cleaning my face with my sleeve, "I know. I just... I thought I could..." Kat took my hand, "No one blames you for what happened last night. That man would not do evil unless there was evil intentions in his heart. You are the victim-" I took my hand away a little too roughly, "It doesn't matter, Kat. I lead another man to sin, and I am at fault in God's eyes." Kat was silent for a moment, then said in the calm voice she used when teaching the children, "Do you remember the story of Dinah?" I mumbled, "She was raped." Kat nodded, "That is correct. Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, was stolen from her family and raped in another city. When her brothers found out, they tricked the tribe and then slaughtered them all in outrage. Think of it, an entire war broke out over one act of violence. Do you think God blamed his daughter for the crime?"
I sniffed again, "It's not the same." Kat shook her head with a smile, "And I suppose the Bible was also wrong to say 'But if in the field the man finds the girl who is engaged, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lies with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the girl; there is no sin in the girl worthy of death, for just as a man rises against his neighbor and murders him, so is this case. When he found her in the field, the engaged girl cried out, but there was no one to save her.' I suppose that isn't the same in this case, either?" I pound my lap with my clenched fists, "Those women were human! Look at me, Sister! Do you really think God wanted to include a monster? A succubus who leads men astray and dances in Hell with the devil?" Kat's voice became firm and resolute, "You are a person, Tamar. You are God's creation and beloved by your creator. God looked at you and calls you perfect." I fight back my tears, but my frustration is abated, "How can God use someone meant for sin to do His work?" Kat put a gentle hand against my cheek so I would look at her, her eyes were sparkling with life in contrast with her lined face, "That is the whole point of humanity's story. God delights in you and will use you for something amazing."
Taking my hands, she helped me stand to my feet, leading me gently out of the nave. Speaking quietly to one another about casual things, I was glad to be off the subject for the time being. I even felt my spirits lift as I passed the front entrance and saw the blazing morning sun shining through the multitudes of colored glass, the reflections and refraction bouncing around the room in a breath-taking display. This had always been my favorite part of the convent. As we walked towards the dining area, we were joined by other sisters, all smiling and whispering to one another. There was to be no loud speaking in the corridor, so many other girls approached me and squeezed my hand with expressions of kindness and concern for me. I would smile back at each of them, but felt a little like I was lying about my light-heartedness. I wanted to go back to my room and hide, but that was no proper behavior for a nun.
We all sat for our morning meal and waited for Father Newman to lead the morning prayers. He was an elderly man with white tufts of fluffy hair still clinging to his bald scalp, which he brushed back with careful deliberation. Still, every once in awhile, one tuft would stick out in an unceremonious fashion and would attract the giggles of the younger initiates. Father John Henry Newman was one of the only men who could approach me without being overwhelmed with desire. He was actually the one I had met when first being dumped into the Church orphanage by my negligent father. She had almost no memory of the man but have satisfied myself with my heavenly Father. I have no inkling, nor do any others who have been questioned in the city of the identity of my mother. I do hope to see her one day and ask about how I became the... person... I am today, but I fear this particular prayer may go unanswered.
Roiling in my thoughts, it took me a moment to see that everyone else was already eating. I took up my fork when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see Father Newman smiling at me, "It is good to see you awake and happy this morning, my child. God's blessing on you," and he crossed me and anointed my forehead. I thanked him and felt a sudden calmness wash over me, making me realize how hungry I had become. There are many false teachers and arrogant priests in the world, but Father Newman was one of the few who could easily be called a saint. Although, you would never hear him accept such compliments.
We finished our breakfast and went about helping to clean and prepare for the morning Mass. Afterwards, those who did not teach children or the women's groups would sit and observe Father Newman's teachings. I had a special blind set up for me in the darkest corner of the nave, and it was one of the few places I felt totally safe. I loved to be able to listen to murmurings of the crowds, the laughter of friends, and feel the overall togetherness of the Church community. "Hello? You in there, Tam?" My smile widened, "Yes, Rebekah. I'm here." My best friend, Rebekah, joined the convent around the same time I did. We were raised in the orphanage together, went to classes together, were ordained together, and sat together during every Mass.
I heard her whispering by the veil that served as a wall, "I heard about last night. I'm so sorry, Tam." I found the small slit in the veil and reached my hand out to clasp hers. She gripped my hand tightly and protectively, "Oh, that criminal should be so glad I wasn't there. I would have taught him a thing or two about the wrath of God." I stifled a giggle, "Rebekah, such behavior is deplorable to a lady of the church." I heard her scoff, "Jael drove a tent spike through her enemy's head. She was hailed as a hero." I giggle again, "My lioness of Judah." She squeezed my hand again. We sat there together, listening to Father Newman's lessons, and I found myself relaxing and the evening's events leaving my memory. I was in God's house with His people, and I am protected by His wings.
After the closing prayer, Father Newman spoke up to the congregation, "I would also like to address the appearance of yet another house of flesh being erected in the city limits." There was a murmur of disdain, and a poorly hidden hiss of 'faithless heathens.' Father Newman held up a hand, "I bring this up not to condemn, my flock, but to remind all of God's people that were we not also once living a life of sin, lost in the lies of our old ways? We you not too once trapped in the addictions of your heart and misguidance by the world? Who are you to judge those who would enter and work in a brothel? Who will cast the first stone against these people?" Father Newman paused for a long while, but no one spoke up. I could imagine everyone looking away or anywhere but at Father Newman's resolute eyes. "Jesus tells us that God's greatest commandment is to love God with all of our hearts and all of our minds. We are also to love our neighbor as ourselves. Even though our Church doctrine states that sexual immorality is a sin, it is also a sin to harbor hatred and judgement against our brothers. And so, I challenge the congregation today to ask God how you can show love and compassion to those in the brothel. How can you serve them? How can you show them the love of Christ? Any mortal or beast can harbor hatred for the one who does not follow his own morals, but it is the delight and honor as a follower of Christ to show love and acceptance to those who need it most."
I stared, open-mouthed at the blank veil in front of me. I can't explain the feeling, but I felt a sudden warmth and confidence begin to rise within me. I could feel my heart begin to pound, and ideas began racing through my brain. "Tam, you're hurting my hand," came the pained whisper beside me. "Sorry, Rebekah. I think... I think I know how God wants to use me." "What?" came the only answer. I was practically shaking to be let out of my blind, but I had to force myself to wait patiently for the crowd to leave. Rebekah gave me the all clear, and I burst out and began rushing towards the corridor. Rebekah chased after me, "Tam? Tamar!? Where are you going?" I looked back to her, smiling wildly, "I think I know how God wants to use me. I think I know why He made me this way." "How!?" was her only response, but I continued down the corridor. I practically ran into Father Newman as he exited from his office. I skidded to a halt, and he was surprised to see me, "Oh! Sister Tamar, you really must slow down. An old man like me could take a nasty fall," his smile told me he was teasing. In huffing breathes, I told him, "I want to go and evangelize to the women in the brothels!"
Father Newman just stood and blinked at me a moment. He then opened his office door further, inviting me in. I stepped in after him and gave Rebekah, who was standing bewildered in the hall, a reassuring smile. Father Newman sat behind his desk and steepled his fingers, "Ok.. Tell me everything." It all came out in a flurry, and he listened to every word with rapt attention, "I want to go a evangelize at the brothels! I want to share God's word, show them that God loves them, and I want to help the women who feel like they're trapped there! I keep thinking that God had made me a monster, because He was angry with me or my parents did something horrendous, but what if God made me the way I am because He knew only someone like me could reach those women!?" Father Newman waited a moment to see if I had anything else to say, and began slowly, "This is a very complex and possibly dangerous situation for you to walk into. People who are customers of these establishments won't take kindly to you presenting a moral lesson instead of sexual favors. How do you intend to avoid falling into temptation to have intercourse with these customers? How do you intend to protect yourself from violent outbursts? What will you do if these people reject you?"
I had expected Father Newman to be more supportive or at least excited to hear my idea, but I didn't let it curb my enthusiasm, "I know it will be dangerous. I know I will be tempted to fall into the traps of sexual sin, but Father, I have been lusted after for my entire life." I placed my hands on the desk, "My entire life, Father. You know more than anyone how much I've been abused and attacked just because I look this way. But why should my fear and trials come between myself and possibly sharing God's love with those who need it most." Father Newman rubbed at his forehead, "Oh, to have my own words used against me. Save me, Lord, from hubris." He slowly looked up at me, his face still showing deep skepticism. I sat down in the seat across from his desk so that I could look him in the eye, "Father... I know that this path is very dangerous, but I'm confident that I can survive and overcome whatever the world throws at me. I've already survived all of the worst days of my life. I have no desire to sell my body nor to break the commands that I've loved and held so dear to my heart. But what if... just what if... I could use this burden laid upon me to help others in my situation find the love and salvation I have."
Father Newman let out a long sigh, sitting back in his chair, looking me over. He left out a soft chuckle, "I knew from the first day you showed up on our doorstep, you would be a challenge. But I never thought I could be as proud of you as I am right now." My heart swelled with affection and appreciation for the old man, "You've been the closest thing to an earthly father I've had. You've always made sure I am protected and well cared for. Allow me to leave the convent and share that love with others." Father Newman's eyes seemed to tear up for a moment, but he didn't let them fall, "Of course, my child. Go with my blessing. I will help make all the preparations, and I still expect to see you everyday for Mass." I nodded enthusiastically and stood up to leave. I was reaching for the door when a question popped into my head, "Father?" "Hmm?" He looked up from the stack of papers he was rummaging in. I paused but I continued, "Why do you think God allowed you to see me without... you know." At this Father Newman smiled sadly, "That is a long story, and I will tell you one day, but my heart isn't ready to share it in this moment." "Oh," I replied, "I'm sorry if I-" "No! No, child. I will tell you that I was once deeply in love. I was with someone for many years." "Oh," I was surprised to hear this, "What... what happened to her?" Father Newman smiled, "He passed away." I stood in his doorway for a moment, then let myself out. I hurried down the corridor, eager to begin packing and preparing to take on this new adventure. I pondered what Father Newman had said, and his words gave me even more hope for what I was about to embark on. If God can inspire a homosexual to become the most respected priest, then he can surely allow a succubus to turn people away from prostitution.
The Diner: Chapter 1
A girl with two different colored eyes and beautiful pink hair, sat in a diner by herself. She sat there, looking out the window as she sighed.
“I guess he isn't showing up.” She said to herself as she looked at her cup of sweet tea.
As she stood up and walked toward the door, a guy ran into her and her tea spilled upon her shirt. It soaked her shirt and she gasped as the tea hit her.
“I am so sorry, madam. I… I didn’t mean to run into you.” The male said as he grabbed napkins, handed some to her and started to clean up the floor.
“Rude, much?” She asked as she dabbed at her shirt she had on.
“I apologized for my mistake. I am so sorry about it. Let me buy you another tea and let you get on your way.” He said as he finished cleaning the floor.
He threw away the napkins he used and the ones she had used. He led her to a table. Let me refrain that. The same table she was at, he led her to it and pulled the chair out. She sat down and he pushed her chair in. He sat himself down in the chair in front of her, AKA across the table.
“What is your name, young lady?” He asked her as she sat there quietly.
“My name is Luna Midora. What is your name?” She asked as a waiter came up to the table.
“My name is Virion Shazumin. Nice to meet you, Mrs. Midora.” He said as he saw the waiter.
“What to drink, asshole?” He asked Virion.
“Now, now. No need to call me names. I apologized to her. She needs a sweet tea and I would like some water with no ice.” Virion said as he smiled at the waiter.
It caught the waiter off guard, and he wrote it down. Then, he walked off to get the drinks while he mumbled to himself. Tara looked back at her with a smile as she heard the door open. She looked and saw it was the guy she was waiting for.
“Oh, no.” Luna said as her shoulders slumped.
“What is it, Mrs. Midora?” Virion asked as he looked at her.
“The guy. I was originally supposed to meet him, but he never showed up before I ran into you.” She said as the guy spotted her, and he started to walk toward them.
He got there and sat next to Luna. She looked away from him and looked out the window.
“Come on, babe. Aren’t you happy to see me?” He asked as he stroked her arm.
“Leave her alone, sir. Why are you here?” Virion asked as he recognized him to be Darius.
“Look what the cat drug in from the Den of the wolves, Virion Shazugeek. Why are you here, with my girl?” Darius asked as he looked at Virion with anger.
“Stop it, both of you!! This is unnecessary. Virion is here because he came in as I was going to leave. He bought me another tea and I was fixing to be back on my way.” Luna snapped as she glared at Darius.
“I was just fixing to leave for a convention in a nearby building. I will be going now.” Virion said as he paid for the tea and the water he got.
Virion left as Luna and Darius fought in the Diner. Before Virion could walk farther away, Luna ran passed him as he could hear Darius yelling after her.
What do Trump, a Thief, a Sex Doll all have in common? Spaceships and Jesus An excerpt
“I am Toth the Atlantean Library, what remains of my worlds history. Held within these Halls, collected and recorded are the combined knowledge of the civilizations of men that I have encountered. I was created by Hermes, sanctioned by God to remain to assist the witnesses while they testify before the world.” They voice echoed back from the walls of the ship.
“The witnesses from the bible?” I ask “What part do you play?”
Toth continued, “I create the ability for the world to witness the three and a half year event using Graphene Phonons and Light Photons Holographic Projection Communication they will be projected from their place of testimony into the heavens above so all may bear witness?” This was not Kansas, but I was sensing a pattern in today's cinematic reminitions, I wanted to know who was in charge of this circus we were unleashing. “I need further explanation on what exactly it is you intend to do. Please do continue on, Great Library of Toth.”
“Once all twelve of the Ships timepieces are powered on they will assemble around the Earth. We will have all of the components necessary to complete the Eye of Horus Infinity Lens Project.” Toth's voice seemed too loud to my ears.
The Infinity Lens Project I had been working on had come to a stand still. I was starting to understand why I was having trouble finishing, finding the right material to hold the lenses in orbit had become a problem, “A few more details would be helpful from here on out guys.” I say to the room, as if it might help next time.” The ships holding the lenses in place altered everything, the computer designs would need to be restructured drastically, this system was way bigger than I could have ever realized. The first time I saw the Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser Experiment I had the distinct impression it was related to time, the results in a way were predicting the future probability wave on a quantum scale. Building the Infinity Lens on a planetary scale, I wondered if we could theoretically see back and forth through time? I had wanted to build one of this magnitude and scale as I read through the research. At the time it didn’t seem possible now with twelve spaceships acting as the rings around the lenses the possibilities that flooded my brain were endless.
“How does it work?” I had so many questions.
“The Eye of Horus Infinity Lens among many of its abilities will allow for the Acoustic Holographic communication across Space Time. Time being the amount of measurable data of a progression wave available as it spreads outward and shapes space around itself until it is observed by a specific observer, which is you. Placement of the mirrored lenses on either side of the Milky Way allow the split particles to still communicate with one another. Dependence between the measurements in space time indicate the statistical average of the probability of the wave function.” There was a pause and the ship became quite, like the tombs of the Pharaohs above.
What was a wave function again? I am thinking to myself, I call Uncle, I give up, I don’t need to understand all of the science. Toth continues as I try to grasp the processes he was explaining. “Splitting a photon into two halves and then directing each of those two to choose between two slits, once through the slits the photons are directed to opposite ends of the Milky Way, we are able to observe the wave function across Space Time. Since waves that are attached at both ends will mirror itself when they reach the attachment point, we are able to use quantum erasing to at this point before the return trip is taken. By stopping the photon before it completes the full cycle we are erasing the history of the path the photon took. By erasing our knowledge of the path taken by the photon we are creating what we observe as the probable wave function in the probable future. Due to the distance of our Object of Observation; the center of the Milky Way, anything we view will be in the probable future. The frequency of the wave pattern creates an image that moves through Space Time to a point where it can be observed.”
Physics and Geometry equations were swimming around in my head, like a hive of bees was loose inside. I felt like I was being asked to comprehend the total of human knowledge just to understand one question. People spent their entire lives studying to master these ideas, I was only a Dental Hygienist with a BAS, I just couldn’t see how I was going to be useful.
“Now that the ships are available to utilize your stored technological knowledge, does this mean I can tap out on the formula for where the New Planet will end up? Shouldn’t we be able to see it in this Time hologram?” I asked hopefully.
“You will have help with the equation, the puzzle is yours to solve.” He replied.
“I start pacing back and forth across the control room, the sound of my boots on the floor make more noise than I am comfortable with. “Toth, I am way out of my league here, I have a list of vocabulary words to look up later just so I know what you are saying.”
I knew I only had a limited amount of time to get to my Land Rover where the keys to the doorway, the tuning forks were being stored. The last doorway in Petra, Jordan wasn’t going to open without them. I had wrapped the tuning forks inside the flying nano-carpet and put the White Amulet in my go bag, tucked deeply in a pocket tied snuggly to my back. I thought maybe if I had too I could get the nano-carpet to bring them to me? Maybe, if I asked really politely. The authorities were bound to investigate an abandoned vehicle after the front entrance to the Great Pyramid became blocked. I look at the ancient egyptian bracelet on my arm, “I got no time, Toth can this tell time?”
“Ask yourself what time it is and you will know.” Toth replied.
“That’s cool, ERR what time is it in Egypt,” I think to myself.
“9:10 I hear Toth’s voice in my mind. Acoustical waves, I ask for confirmation?
“Among other technology you would require a greater understanding of the quantum realm to understand it all.”
“I accept that. They must have noticed that the entrance to the Great Pyramid is blocked by now.” I have to get some tuning forks to Petra in Jordan to open another doorway, and they are wrapped in my flying carpet in the back of my Land Rover. Are you beeming them aboard or am I on my own again for this part of the mission? What happens from here?” They should call me the reluctant doorman, I think to myself lamely.