I walked along the beach as the sun did its slow descent. The waves lapped at my ankles, sometimes at my calves, sprinkling me with salt and foam as I sauntered barefoot across the sand. I had left the shoes in my apartment, along with the socks, but I had my wallet, a Dragon’s tooth, some clothes I’d been wearing for far too many hours, and my cellphone. Oh, and a butterscotch candy I’d picked up from a jar somewhere I stopped while driving home.

I pulled my pants higher up on my legs, holding them at my knees with a twist. The water was refreshing, too cold to want to go into, but enough to keep me from getting tired as I wandered. A few hours ago, I’d been asleep in my bed. About an hour ago, I’d been in landlocked Colorado. I walked through a door in the trees, and here I was, somewhere else.

I sighed, and moved up to walk higher, where the sand was dry. This was not a natural place. The foam was like a crust of tiny diamonds, if tiny diamonds were made of sparkling water. When I stood against the tide, the water did not pull the sand around me. I could see the moon, faint in the sky, a pale crescent the size of my hand four inches away from my face. A stolen satellite, the ghostly face of a woman with a winking eye, rather than the dark basalt seas with which I was familiar. At least, that was my own pareidolia on it.  The sun had a pale violet tint to it, and the sky had that faint fogginess that suggested clouds but did not outline them in any specific.

I wasn’t wandering entirely blindly.  Like all fairylands in my experience, my will would eventually lead me to what I needed to find.  Except it wasn’t my will that had opened the gate; I’d been thrust through time and space by a Dragon for his own purposes.  Well, I presumed Dragons had gender.  I had met outwardly male and female versions of them.  I knew they had teeth.

The gate had opened in-between some cliffs, in what I would have called a crevice.  It was still there, and for a few minutes I considered walking back through it towards the traffic and maybe trying to persuade a bus driver to take me home.  The portal was an old one, and I suspected it had many destinations.  Any arch or doorway will do if you’re crazy enough, and the walls of the world thin enough there.  As a Closer, someone who hates that kind of chaos, my work would never be done.

Mine weren’t the only footprints on the beach.  While I couldn’t see any other signs of obviously sentient life (the occasional stalks of grass might chatter, but I didn’t know enough to talk with them) there were prints of larger things, higher up where the line of the water rarely reached.  Some went into the waves, some were being washed away by them as they dripped out of the sea.   I was following the majority of them toward what if the sun was in the west would be south.   It was a dramatic view along the golden cliffs streaked with red and violet by the setting sun, toward where I could see a darker haze of trees and green.

Of course, if I was just following the path to the local fifty-foot trap spider, or the tracks of a T-Rex, well, wouldn’t I feel foolish.   Ah, the egg on my face would just make me a more appetizing breakfast, I guess.

The first thing I saw was a ring along the beach.  It was silver and glinted for a moment in the sun.  I picked it up, checked it for obvious sentences in the speech of Mordor, and then pocketed it.  It was meant for me, and it was specifically being left in such a fashion as I would know it wasn’t a gift.  It probably was a key into something, like wearing the armor of the House of Soulful Singers or somesuch nonsense would lead me into their fabled realms of symphony.

That was how these things worked, you see.  Games and patterns woven into will.  I knew a little of what to expect; this realm was far more formed than that to which Doloise drew me.  The seashore was a place of meditation, a place of relaxation and focus.  I suspected I could have gone through far more chaotic gates, the whirlwind of the gyre, the puff of a thousand dandelions.  I couldn’t help but think of Doloise a little as I walked.

And of Dragons.

I shied from the thought.  Apparently I still had a bit of a trigger about them, and I needed the beach.  Peredur was a creature of the darkness of wood smoke, eyes the red of embers, nothing like the pale blue and violet of the sea, or the gold and pale sand of the cliffs.

I ran my hand over the tooth in my pocket.  I had exchanged a pebble for it, with a wizard.  It seemed like a wiser decision than Jack and his beans, but then again, maybe my golden goose was the one being cooked.  Or best for the gander. Either way.  The herald of the messengers, riddles I didn’t understand, but that haunted me nonetheless.  I had a few for them, too, like, “Who leaves the Questor without a Quest?” or  how many droid arms could a wookie chuck if a wookie chucked… no, wait.  That’s not how it goes.

There was the letter on my roof, from Matana.  It wasn’t much, just an e-mail address and a single sentence.  “Witches also burn with the stake.”

A reminder?  A recommendation?  I had had no dreams before being woken up to the smell of smoke and Dragon.

As I approached the green, a small figure stood there, patiently.  She wore white robes that blew in the breeze from over the waves.  I saw the robes first, along with the glint of silver on the ring she wore on her hand.  “Be welcome,” she said.  “Be welcome as a guest of the Seven King.  Within this realm will you leave your feuds unsettled, meet strangers as friends, and draw no blood before its time.”

“Is there a blood o’clock?” I asked.

She looked up at me.  “Is it that time already?” she asked sweetly and savagely.  I always like the word, “sanguine,” except when it’s pointed towards me.

“Do I have to sign something?” I asked.  “I mean, I’m good with the restrictions.  All my feuds are unsettled, kind of queasy, really, and my friends are the strangest people you might meet.  Well, except, for, you know, in a place like this… maybe.”  I wasn’t willing to give up that easily.

“Follow,” she said.  She was built in the same manner as Wrecks, perfectly proportioned and yet somehow inhuman.  Her hair was a plain brown, tied in one of those knots that always got called “severe” in books, like someone had a grudge against it. Her face had that same shape to it, one that still brought to mind something canine, if in this case it was more wolf than dog.  Something about the color of her eyes, which weren’t quite brown or hazel.

“What is the ring?” I asked.

“A promise to replace the one you traded, because we are still in debt.”

“I haven’t done anything for you, yet.”  I was getting the same kind of bad feeling I’d had when I got all those student loan offers, like I could quite easily stack up a bill I couldn’t pay.  I had too many girlfriends who had liked to trade in favors, and while sometimes the repayment was delightful, too often it meant I had to help them move.

“A promise is a promise, nonetheless,” she said, as if that were the end of the subject.  She led me onto the stiff grass that grew in the sand.  The cliffs had worn away into two great wings of emerald and mist around us.  I could see that there was, indeed, a path, but only because I could hear it.  We were slipping between places a little, and I could taste the discord like sharp notes in wine or cheese.

“Who are you?” I asked, a wave of sudden panic tightening my jaw as I realized I took the ring as a sign, and didn’t ask for her identification.  The path grew darker around us.

“Would my name mean anything to you?” she asked.

“Likewise your occupation, and from where and whence you came,” I said, stumbling over a rock that turned under my foot.  We were looking down into a valley, and there were white flowers along the hills, with an occasional red one like a pimple.  I know, it was probably more gothic than that, a “drop of blood amongst the purity,” but I wasn’t feeling romantic, just cold.  The mist was beginning to get at my clothes, and I was still barefoot.

“I come from under the hill, and over the waters, when the waves turned to chill as they danced with winter’s daughters.  I’m a snowflake, an icicle, an eave dropped in a game, I’m the silver ring’s caller, and Rayya’s my name.”

It had a beat you could almost dance to, I guessed.  “Do I have to introduce myself in the same fashion?” I asked.

“You need not be the singer if you already have a song.”  The mist almost swallowed her, except that she wore the white robes.

“Do I have a song?”  I hurried up behind her.

“Door-closer, dragons-bane, wizard-friend, found but lost he be, secret-caller, ghost-walker, he answers thus to  ‘E.'”

“Huh.  Kind of catchy.”

“It was sung by Lord Thomas so that I would know you when you came from Sundown Waters. It suits you well enough, though the tailoring is cheap.”  She made a little shrugging motion. “Hold fast for the footing here is treacherous.”

“I’ll take your word for it.  I can’t see a thing.”  The mist threatened, the white of the Nothing, the erasure of all that was vivid into the remnants of gray.  For a moment, I saw the flickering of her robe.  My foot slipped on wet stones, and just as I fell, I saw a road, and sunshine.

“It is not the best way, but it is a safe one.”  The sun began to burn away the fog.  “Some roads are easier to walk, but I chose to bade Lord Thomas’ wish.”

I considered.  “Is that a good wish or a bad wish?” I asked.

“It depends on which side of the scale he stands.  If he be a madman, then it is treacherous, if he be true, then it was the best path possible.”

“How can you tell?” I asked.

The road was a collection of unmatched stones, no two the same size in a row, no pattern immediately evident except for the worn round nature of them, and the dark blue color against the dust of the road.  It wrapped around a hill with a boundary of some kind of flower with similar dark blue petals, and thorns the size of my finger.  I guessed the stones were actually seeds from these flowers, and at any moment they’d bloom and entrap us in the nettle.  The hill was awash in purple petals, and smelled a little bit like my grandmother’s bedroom, kind of powdery and nice.

She led us up the hill, and I took a moment to look behind me.  It’s never a good idea, but here all I saw was the road twisting and turning into the horizon, amongst more hills of purple flower.  The sky was the blue of ads for Caribbean cruises, but the strange moon of the shore had followed us, still a pale violet slice too close in the sky.

The flowers were rough against my feet, and I found myself slipping a bit behind, taking some time to choose a path.  Rayya slowed a little, and then whistled a birdsong.  It was matched by something I couldn’t see, and a door opened into the hill.

“We can’t tell, Door-closer,” she said, dropping into the doorway.  “That’s one of the tasks for which you have been chosen.”

I followed her, but I found no door behind me.