Month: July 2014

Damned

The spell to start my car didn’t work that evening, so I contacted the repair service and walked home from the office through darkening drizzle, rather than being ripped off by the Instant Transportation System. Rain insinuated itself inside my upturned collar. Typical: they spend a fortune on improving the fireballs and blasting spells, but nothing on controlling the weather.

“Can I see your papers, sir?” said a voice behind me.

I turned with the practiced air of having nothing to hide, but my mind was racing. Had he heard my thoughts, and would he consider them disloyal? I’d always doubted the rumours of the police using mind-reading devices, but I wasn’t so sure at that moment.

It was reassuring that his fireball-thrower was still in its holster, although his hand rested on it, but his face was blank and unreadable as they always were. I fumbled the papers from my inside pocket and tried to stand calmly while he scanned them. Everyone feels paranoid in this situation. Or maybe just me. It’s not as if anyone discusses it.

He looked up at last. “Seen any of the damned, sir?”

The question threw me, as was no doubt the intention, but I was able to answer truthfully, “Of course not. I’d have reported it if I had.”

The policeman nodded, pushing his face into a smile that didn’t suit it. “I’m sure you would, sir. Sooner there’s not a damned left, the better. Evening.”

I nodded vigorously as he hand my papers back, though his words disturbed me. The damned were abominations, to be sure, but there were rumours of them being fed alive into furnaces when caught. Probably just propaganda by the damned-lovers, I reminded myself. The government knew best.

I glanced about as I trudged through the dreary streets, searching out subtle signs of the damned. There are ways they can pass for normal, but it’s said you can always feel the difference. That man there, wearing dark glasses in the evening? No, I didn’t get a sense of wrongness from him. Perhaps I should have followed him, but it was cold, and I was probably mistaken.

It’s not just the physical differences that make the damned revolting. All of us use magic, and some are talented enough to manipulate it, making and repairing the devices we rely on and the spells that drive them. The damned, though, live within magic and use it to interfere with our minds and souls, bewildering decent people into their foul clutches. There’s nothing natural about them.

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Drained

Phil surveyed the hazard area left by the previous tenants.

They’d made the place a rat’s nest of freshly used women’s hygiene products, kitty litter, and dirty dishes. The house was no more than a spider hole: one room for living and cooking, one for showering and sleeping. Phil tried renting to single occupants, but the kind of trash that answered his ads weren’t the kind to follow rules. They’d move their families in, or their friends’ visits would turn into extended stays. The last tenant let a woman and her two kids live with him. How they fit without sleeping on top of each other, Phil couldn’t imagine. The guy hadn’t paid rent for the last two months. Phil used everything but a crowbar to get them out of there.

“They suck you dry,” he said to his friend, Gus. “Drain you until you’ve got no option but kick’em out.”

“Yep,” Gus said, studying a section of the wall where someone’s fist had broken through. Frayed fibers fringed the dark hole. A piece of sheetrock dangled from a strip of wallpaper. He tried folding it back in place, but it didn’t fit. “Told you this landlord business was no fun.”

“It ain’t so bad,” Phil said. “Every year or two I got to do some renovations, but it’s a monthly supplement to my Social check.” Phil amended, “When the trash pays.”

Gus let the chunk of sheetrock drop, and it crumbled at his feet. “You ever have one leave without having to kick’em out for not paying?”

“Not in awhile,” Phil said. Carolyn, his late wife, used to handle the interviewing. She read people. Tenants weren’t as much trouble when she was making the calls.

He turned in the doorway, scanned the yard, all mud holes and tire trenches, and beyond that acres of woods. That’s why he’d bought the place as a young man. Cheap land, and he just needed enough room to rest when he got off work. The square-footage provided plenty of space until he met Carolyn.

“I’ll just raise the rent this time. Get somebody that’ll take care of the place,” Phil said.

“Yeah, we’ll see,” Gus said and began tearing down the battered wall. “You’re going to have to replace at least two panels.”

Wild Blue Roses

Tiernan discovered the dead dogs outside the trapper’s camp at the base of Mount Storm. The animal’s frozen carcasses hung impaled upon the trunks of black oaks, branches bursting out of their flanks and eyes and mouths. The moment he saw the grim spectacle, the druid knew that Bril’s mind was too far gone. There could be no bringing him back, now.

But I must try, Tiernan thought. At the very least, I must try.

He moved forward stiffly in his furs and heavy boots, unaccustomed to such clothing after spending so many years in the Druid Circle’s warmer southern climes. Even with all the coverings layered upon him, he still shivered–though whether it was because of the cold or because of his mission, he could not be certain. Confronting a fellow member of the Circle was always a sad affair, but this particular trip was doubly so. The druid to be uprooted had been Tiernan’s student. More than that, they had been friends.

The trappers suffered worse fates than their dogs. Tiernan found their corpses scattered over the plain outside a log cabin, twisted heaps mutilated on the ground with grim coats of raven pecking the flesh from their bones. Chaotic designs of blood in the snow told the story of a harried and futile retreat, one of men injured and terrified in flight before falling. The druid imagined those desperate figures wheeling about in clouds of murderous birds, and took a deep breath to steady himself.

He shooed the birds away. They rose with angry caws and lighted upon the cabin roof to watch him through their black eyes, as though warning that he might be their next victim.

One by one he dragged the trappers inside the building. Druidic tradition was to leave the bodies in the wilderness to decompose naturally, but city people lived and died in different ways, and their beliefs had to be respected. He scattered fireseed over the cabin wall and struck his flint, setting alight the makeshift pyre.

The ravens scattered into the air and headed north, into the gathering dusk with a flurry of beating wings and shrill cries. Back to their master, Tiernan thought. Back to Bril.

He climbed to the far side of a rise and set up camp out of sight of the billowing flames. The sight of druidic power used so savagely unsettled him. The Art was meant for gentler things. Rapid-seed spells were meant to replenish forests, not skewer sled dogs. Bonding spells were meant to commune with animals, not to employ them as assassins.

Bril knew all these things. Or, at least, he had once known all these things. He had been among the gentler souls of the Circle, and it was difficult to associate him at all with the brutality that had occurred on that mountain. Tiernan huddled deeper into his furs.

He cleared snow from the frozen earth and built a fire as the sun set low in the sky and the shadow of Mount Storm stretched long over the plain. He laid out an elk skin and sat upon it, watching orange shapes rise and sink from the fire’s black embers. It was said that long ago druids could read the future in that fiery language, but if such a thing was ever true, it had long since ceased to be so.

Tiernan blamed himself for Bril’s violence. All along he had known that his friend’s acute sensitivity put him in danger. A druid taking Stewardship over a piece of land entered into a Communion with that place, and the connection could become so deep that it risked consuming his mind completely. Bril’s temperament made him exceptionally vulnerable to that kind of psychic disintegration.

A hard wind whistled through the dark and bent the fire sidelong. Tiernan pulled the elk hide tighter around his shoulders and thought about the desolation of that place where his friend had spent the last five years of life, removed from connection with other people.

To the north extended the Bladed Mountains, hundreds of miles of peaks so sheer and unforgiving that not even druids went there. To the south and east, the fast waters of the Thalthemin River cut the area off from the rest of the world. To the west was the city of Industry, growing rapidly along the shores of Lake Phalheen. Its inhabitants numbered in the tens of thousands, but for a druid like Bril, a legion of merchants was the loneliest prospect of all.

Mount Storm is a perfect place for a man to go mad, Tiernan thought. And I left him alone here, for all these years.

An animal padded through the snow just outside the light of the fire. Tiernan looked until he saw the faint outline of a snow ferret. As the animal watched him, Tiernan knew that Bril was seeing though its eyes.

“No one wanted things to come to this,” he said.

The animal stiffened momentarily, but remained.

“You know why I am here, just as you know that I cannot leave until my task is done.”

The ferret turned and bolted off into the darkness.

“Please do not make this any harder than it already is,” Tiernan said, to the darkness, or to himself.

Autumn nights were long in those northern reaches, but that night, he knew, would be even longer than most. He had gone there hoping to rescue his friend before it was too late, but found the mountain already stained with blood.

And I fear that before my task is done, much more will be shed.

The Virgin and The Dragon

Vivian slammed the rooftop door open; the metal and brick clashed with all the defiance a wrongfully scolded four-year-old could produce. Tears made the marker ink on her face mix together like Neopolitan ice cream, but what dripped into her mouth tasted like paint. Her feet thudded on the cement before her tears cleared and she saw a mass of gold and brown scales: a dragon took up most of the rooftop.

She stepped back so she could see the face, and gulped and wheezed until the sobbing stopped. She asked, “Are you Puff?”

The dragon opened one eye and said, “Hardly.”

His lid began to close but stopped midway when she said, “I just drew a cave for him on the hallway wall, but since you’re here and he’s not, you can have it.”

The lid opened all the way again. “You painted a dragon cave?”

Vivian nodded her head like the bobble knight on her dad’s dashboard and said, “It’s beautiful except my mom hates it and says I can’t watch TV for a month, especially if it’s any of dad’s movies.” Traffic honked and screeched far below as if to add an exclamation point to her exasperation.

The dragon closed his eye before saying, “I don’t have much use for a two dimensional cave.”

Vivian sniffed the snot up her nose and said, “Are you hungry? My mom just went to CostCo and bought a big box of Goldfish.”

The eye opened and he said, “Goldfish? I can never catch enough of those to make it worth while. But if you have a big box…”

“I’ll be right back.” Vivian could hardly believe a real dragon was on her roof. Her mom was always telling her dad to grow up and quit telling Vivian such fanciful stories. But now she had proof. Down in the kitchen, she slid her step stool across the ceramic tiled floor and into the pantry. She stretch on the stool just enough to pull the bottom of the Goldfish box with her fingertips. It thumped to the ground. She listened for her mom’s footsteps, but she must’ve been asleep in her room. Vivian grabbed her treasure and ran up to the rooftop again, worried the dragon would be gone. He was there.

“I have the goldfish!”

He opened both eyes and said, “Well?”

She tore the box and bag open and scattered the crackers in front of his mouth like they were magic dust.

“What are those?”

“Goldfish.”

“Are they dead?”

Vivian stared at the treasure and realized her mistake. A lump swelled in her throat, and she choked out, “They’re crackers. I didn’t mean real fish.”

The dragon sniffed. A long tongue darted out and licked up several crackers at once. “Cheesy,” he said and continued to lick the roof clean. “When can you bring me more? I’m Darius by the way.”

“I’m Vivian. We’ll have another box in a month. Can you come in and play?”

“I couldn’t possibly squeeze through the door.”

Vivian slumped, but then recalled the story about princesses kissing frogs. Maybe if she kissed him, he’d turn into a boy and fit through the door. She ran to his snout and gave him a peck. When he didn’t change, she dashed through the door and down the stairs, hoping he’d never guess her foolish notion.