Archive for the ‘ Chapter 09 – Opener ’ Category

(199) Again, Again

“Again,” he said.

“Of course,” I said, and I tried again.  I had sweat on my brow and a headache, and the weird weather was heck on the joints and I was still a young’un.  I heard the tingling sounds of the gate, like windchimes in a breeze made of fresh bread and peppermint.  It wasn’t an unpleasant gate, but it was an opening, a draft, a reminder to get better insulation in the metaphor of reality.  I kept trying to find it and shut it, like sliding a double-hung window.  Which isn’t a euphemism, by the way.  A well hung window is very important in construction.  A well hung widow is just a weird thought, even in these days of gender fluidity.

Zach sprawled across the futon with the boneless ease of a cat, and he looked just as satisfied.  Nen was also amused, although he pretended to be reading the latest Wendig.  I knew he was pretending because he’d finished it last night with the smirk of someone looking forward to a friend reading the same book.  I was still far behind him just in keeping up to date with my comics pull.  Rayya was seemingly in rapt fascination from her perch on the bookshelf.  I suspected it was her turn to babysit, because Zach didn’t notice her.

I was surprised that I did, but I’d asked Nen about it a few days earlier.  He’d described it as “contagion.”

“I don’t like have fairy measles, right?” I asked.  I made a show of looking for green spots or something on my arms.

“Nor have I replaced your head with that of a donkey. Too overdone and likely redundant.  No, more law of contagion.  Once two things have been in contact, they synchronize to a certain extent.  You reverberate in a certain symphonic manner with our type of fey right now.  Do not worry; it’s not permanent.”  He paused.  “Of course, neither is mortal life.”

“So it will go away somewhere between now and my death?”  I might have sounded somewhat sardonic.

As usual, he ignored it. “Probably,” he said, sounding cheerful.  “But I would consider it a feature; there are times when it is useful to be able to see that you are observed.”

“That sounds like some kind of quantum physics koan.”

“Zen and the art of hadron collision?” he offered.

“We only collide the large hadrons.  The smaller ones we throw back.  It’s a requirement of the license.”

“How poetic,” he countered.

“Again,” Zach repeated.

I was really beginning to hate that word.  I was racking my brain to figure out if there was any positive use of it as a command.  I was putting it on the list of words the literary versions of the fey should consider taboo, in the company of “thank you” and “sorry.”  After all, “again,” even phrased as a polite request after a rousing act of sexual delight was still a challenge.  Every time he said it I had the mental image of that musical sign that means “repeat this measure.”  You know, the colon with the solid line on the right.  I approached it too much like a programmer; “rinse and repeat,” a loop without end.

“We’ve been at it all afternoon,” I realized I was whining, but I was worn out.  If my talent was a muscle, I’d strained it.  What if someone inadvertently used a Ouija board in the neighborhood tonight?  I’d be unable to do more than give them a stern lecture.

“A fine, red-blooded male such as yourself arguing about such a thing?  I’m so disappointed.”  Actually, Zach had become a lot more serious, and had teased me a lot less frequently as we worked together.  I don’t know if it was the audience or the familiarity.  I was still uncomfortably drawn to him at times, but it had become a lot less a magical fascination and a lot more controlled as I understood its source.

“Very funny,” I said.

“I can tell you’re tired,” he said, “when you can’t come up with a wittier rejoinder.”  He slung the farther leg onto the floor.  “But we can finish up.  I still don’t understand why you insist this isn’t wizardry.”

I bit my tongue in a metaphorical sense, counting to ten and then backwards in all the languages whose numbers I knew.  It’s actually a good exercise in that you don’t always approach the numbers that way when working another tongue.  Something in that phrasing was wrong, so I abandoned the thought quickly.

“I know wizards.  I’m friends with wizards.  I’m not a wizard.”

“The reason I ask,” he said, ignoring both what I said and the fact that he didn’t ask me a thing, “is that I think it’s your mental block that is keeping you from opening as much as closing.”

“I don’t think wanting to keep the integrity of reality a sure thing is a mental block.  It’s just good, common sense.”

He leaned forward.  “Look at your adventures.  Look at your friends.  I know about Matana.  It’s like you’re saying that all power can be used for is evil.  It’s not absolute, trust me.”

“I don’t think all power is evil,” I said.  I examined the statement and found it wanting.  “I think there’s definitely powers for good.  But my definition of good says that opening wanton doors is needlessly reckless, and doing needlessly reckless things is kind of evil.  Even if I just wanted to be selfish and say it’s dangerous to me, but it isn’t.  It puts other people at risk.  The whole reason I got into this was to make things better, and things from beyond are not the method to do so.”

“But are they all evil?”

Nen and Rayya stayed quiet, I noticed, which was all to the good, if you asked me.

“Vampires? Definitely.  The cost to their humanity is obvious.  Matana could be one of those noble types who only fed on murderers and it would still not make it right.”

“Is this a Kantian philosophy?  Because it can’t be applied categorically without exceptions, it’s unethical?”

Sometimes I really wanted to know what Zach’s background was.  “The slippery slope argument stands,” I said.  “Once I say yes to something little, we’re merely haggling over price.”  I sighed and took the chair from the computer desk.  “Anyway,” I continued, sitting down, “there’s a power scale involved.  Wizard isn’t just the hacker parlance anymore for me.  It’s not just someone who can do something very well.  They’re…” I gestured vaguely, “bigger than that.  They alter reality, yes, on a large scale, or at least have the ability to do so.”

“And you don’t?  Don’t we all have some mastery of our reality?”

“When I conquer Arcanus and Myrror together, I’ll let you know.”  He didn’t get the reference.  “Nevermind.  It’s from an old game.  Anyway, philosophy and magic don’t work together. I don’t care what Bach says; I am totally comfortable with my limitations.”

“So they’re not Illusions?”  He got that reference, at least.  I had hope for the kid.

I grinned back at him, and then yawned.

“The woman who taught me was…brutal,” he offered.

“You mean worse than you?” I teased.

“Ed doesn’t mind that I drive him hard,” he suggested the entendre.  I refused the bait and he went on.  “She was like a drill sergeant.  Tiny little ballerina body,” he said, thinking back.  “I mean, I didn’t relate on a physical level to her, but I would be surprised sometimes when I glanced over and she was half my size and doing what I understood to be the magical equivalent of juggling mammoths.”  He shrugged.

“Interesting phrase.”

“Well, I might have a thing for large hairy beasts,” he winked.

I rolled my eyes.

“She had a very different philosophy.  She thought that it was those that controlled the boundaries, the Portal Masters if you would, who had the real power.  That the magically talented were meant to colonize the otherlands.”

“Perish the thought,” Nen muttered.

“Well, it was kind of very Magneto,” he agreed.  “All the ironic master race stuff that got his parents killed.  And hers, I guess.  They were some kind of, well, you’d laugh.”

I shrugged.  “Go ahead,” I offered.

“Demon hunters.  That’s what she called them.”

“Don’t suppose they were Numancian?”  I tried the word out, but it felt funny in my mouth, like it wasn’t quite right.

“Um… it sounded like that.  How did you know?”

“Everything comes full circle,” I sighed.  “Anyway, did she believe in demons?”

“No.  Just aliens.  You know, creatures from other worlds.”  He chuckled.  “It’s amazing how many things start to sound reasonable when you put them into the right context.”

“Story of my life,” I muttered back to Nen.



“Okay.  Anyway, I should head out.  Keep practicing.  If you want to be any good at this, you need to make it a deliberate thing, a ritual, not a vague feeling.”

“I’ve been getting along alright so far.”

“You’ve been muddling,” he said.  He stood up and stretched.  “Oh, almost forgot. Ed’s Mum wants you and Adam over early for supper on Sunday.”

Nen nodded.  “I’ll make sure he gets there,” he said, turning to wink at me.

“You just can’t resist her pie,” I sighed.

“Why bother? It’s good pie.”  He gave a nod to Zach as Ed’s boyfriend let himself out.

“What do you think?” I asked after the door closed.

“I think he’s too new age, and apt to stumble into serious trouble some day.  On the other hand, he does know a lot about what he’s doing.  Whoever taught him, was a real master.”

“Or mistress,” I grinned.

“Or mistress,” he said, not blinking an eye.  “They were trained old school.  You’re getting more sensitive to the boundaries.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good thing.  When I take a walk, I feel like every house in Capitol Hill is haunted.”

Rayya swung down from where she’d been sitting on the bookshelf.  “I think your premise is flawed, ghost-walker.  You seem to think it’s possible they’re not.”

“Is this a ‘trust my instincts’ speech?” I asked, annoyed.

“Our very presence indicates a thinning of the barriers between our kingdoms,” she said, looking serious, like pretty much always.

“Don’t think that saying things like that makes me at all comfortable,” I said, sighing.  I flipped at a book on the table.  “I mean, has anything tried to kill me recently for no reason?  Or are you just here to feed Nen’s book habit?”

They glanced at each other.  “If we say no,” Nen pointed out, “you’d think we weren’t needed.  If we say yes, you’ll ask too many questions.”

I considered it.  “True.  I’ll retract the question this once.  Mostly because I’ll probably replace it with six others as soon as my brain feels like working again.”

“Our time here is not infinite,” Rayya said.

“Huh,” I startled.  “Good, because Nen’s no wingman.  He cramps my style.”

“Your opportunity for amorous adventure has not been dissuaded by my presence, if in fact it existed at all,” Nen said.  “I don’t mind watching.”

“Oh, don’t do Zach’s weird leer thing,” I said.  “I’m just not into that.  Anyway, how would you know?  I used to meet lots of women.”

“Witches,” he pointed out.  “You met lots of witches.”

“Yeah, well,” I sighed.  “Fine, you win.  Happy now?”  I got up to lock the door, then crossed to the kitchen.  “Hey, Rayya, I’m going to heat something with tomato sauce and some kind of meltable white cheese food product.  You interested?”

“You have a visitor,” she said.  Both she and Nen were staring at the door, almost vibrating with intensity.

“They haven’t knocked,” I pointed out.

Rayya rolled her eyes at Nen.  “He never does.”

“He?  Do I know him?” I came back to the door, watching their cues.  “Should I open it?”

“Might as well,” Nen said.

I smelled the faint whiff of smoke as I did.  Ah, Peredur.


(200) The Jar is Stuck

I almost asked the two of them if I was in some way required to open the door, but that was only because I was exhausted.  Let me parse that a different way: I wanted an excuse not to open the door, so I almost begged the two fey who hung out with me to find me a way to say, “No,” to a Dragon.

That might be a measure of just how crazy my life had gotten that I was treating them like they were reasonable folk.  Fair, you might even say.  Yes, I’m snickering.

Did Peredur even look up at Zach when they crossed in the parking lot? Would Zach recognize a brush with Dragonkind? Or did the Dragon fly over to the roof and climb down, doing some kind of parkour-style flip onto the threshold? I didn’t hear a gate open, so he probably didn’t rip a hole in reality and crawl out the other side, but I was stalling.

At least he had knocked. He almost always knocked.

I opened the door.

He was again in the shape of the man I knew him as, his eyes still that strange reflection of fire in the distance, a combination of red and brown and the iron grey of smoke. The saffron of his hair on top, the deepness of a glossy coal beneath, and the same jacket, red and velvety thick, the color of spilled blood. I had a sudden urge to ask him if he ever changed clothes, or if that was just part of the metamorphosis.  Did he have black scales, splattered with the red of a crime scene, or red ones and a black belly?  I didn’t remember anything but his teeth and his eyes and the smell of smoke from that night.  You know the one I’m referencing.

He breathed out smoke, a faint, thin exhalation of burning wood. It wasn’t like having bad breath, actually, because it had that nostalgic, “Roasting marshmallows,” kind of feel to it. Not that I was likely to kiss him, and I blamed Zach for the thought even popping up in my head. I still felt weird about it. Not really uncomfortable-weird, just generally off my game.

I totally needed a date. Heck, I just needed to get out more.

“Good evening?” I made it a question. I was very aware that both Nen and Rayya had tensed up, and I didn’t want a repeat (an “again”) from Nen putting the squeeze on the Dragon’s neck.

“Good evening,” he repeated to me, and there was a hint of a smile, but whenever he opened his mouth it opened way too wide, as if a portal in itself.

“Eh. Back to Freni-Fawr wit’ ye, monster,” Nen pointed at Peredur. His eyes were narrowed and his accent thick. “Ye haven’t an appointment. Just tryin’ to mess with the boy’s head again?”

“I have business with the Closer,” Peredur said, primly. “Are you to protect him against me?” he asked and again I was surprised that he was a few inches shorter than myself. I’m not that tall, really, average height for a man, and I was about to amend the coined phrase to, “Scary things come in small packages.” He gestured towards his chest with one hand and the challenge in his expression was easy to see. “I would be happy to try the son of Ashya.”

“The son and daughter of Ashya,” Rayya said, quietly.

It was very tense for a moment, and Peredur looked down at Rayya, jutting his chin out as if just barely deigning to acknowledge her.

It struck me as funny for a moment that I realized Dragons showed more recognizable human emotion than the Spriggan sibs. I suppose Dragons are known for their passions. Darwin said that facial expressions were residual actions of more complex behavioural responses, but I know that it was only a small set that are convincingly recognizable, probably seven or so, happiness, disgust, fear, that kind of thing. I don’t know if subtle signals like sarcasm are even cross-cultural.

Of course, I also don’t know if sarcasm is a subtle signal. Contempt sure isn’t.

“I’m sorry,” I interrupted, although I wasn’t really apologetic. “You’ve come at a bad time. If someone had an open door, the best I could do is ask someone else to kindly get it before they let out all the cold air. After all, we can’t cool off the neighborhood.” For November, we were still having some pretty hot days. Oh well, with global climate change, the idea of “seasonal weather” was kind of being thrown away anyway.

“I do not have the time to coddle your delusions,” Peredur said, looking away from Rayya and at me with the directness that reminded me just who and what he was. Well, what he was, anyway. I had looked up the Wikipedia on the name and didn’t understand the reference. I’m sure it was something awfully clever, I just didn’t have the background in Welsh mythology to really appreciate it. I wondered briefly how he related to Y Ddraig Goch. That wasn’t any kind of scrawny wyvern, Of course, that put him in some kind of contest with the White Dragon. Who wasn’t Naul. Who was probably some other Dragon I didn’t want to contemplate for fear it would interfere more with my life.

“You know, I was just about to have dinner,” I said. Hadn’t Peredur already said I was pretty defiant? I could only be roasted to death once, and as exhausted as I felt, with the beginnings of a sore throat and extended psychic pain in all my limbs, I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t be an improvement.

“I will not beg for you, Closer.” I saw something, then, something in his face. I probably could have pushed it. He would beg for me. He would, because whatever it was, it was causing him some kind of pain.

I didn’t like that look. I particularly didn’t like that look on women, to be honest, but I didn’t like that look on a Dragon’s human face, either. So it wasn’t all that misplaced chivalry that’s really misogyny under a prettier guise. Not all of it, at least.

I sighed. “You just missed someone who is far more focused than me, and probably better at the whole game. Why not choose him?” I asked. I needed to know. I know, “Why me?” is so whiny, but, really, now that I knew there was another, maybe a couple of others, I wasn’t the only game in town.

Of course, maybe I was the only game open to being played, however you wanted to parse it.

“He is not… what you are,” smoke drifted from Peredur’s mouth, faintly, and it sounded just as strange and movie-oracular as ever.

“What am I? Gullible?” I snapped. I sighed, and wiped my face with my hand. “Nevermind.” I already knew the answer to that question. “Fine, let’s go. Do you throw me across time and space again, or do we take an Audi RSQ-1 or something fancy?”

“Y’ canna be seriously thinking to go with that beast?” Nen stepped closer, as if getting between us.

“Do I void your bodyguard warranty or something that way?” I asked. “I’m sorry, I didn’t read the shrinkwrap.”

“Eh,” he made a noise and ushered my nonsense away with a wave of his hand. “We do not go with you if you go with him,” he said, and he sounded very solemn, his strange arrangement of features drawn and pale.

I considered. I even considered saying, “Well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” but discarded it because it always seemed to be used in reference to one’s toilet. I couldn’t explain to Nen that I kind of owed Peredur. I mean, I didn’t. And yet, my guilt said I did. Because I had hurt a Dragon.

Because I’d lost Doloise.

“I have to do this,” I said. “Go ahead and hang out here if you’d like. Only touch the Rocky Road if it looks like it’s getting freezer burn, otherwise, it’s mine.” How long would I be gone? A year? Seven? Peredur wasn’t giving any clues.

“We will fly,” Peredur said, answering my question a bit belatedly. Or maybe he was just waiting to interject during the byplay.

“Nuh-uh,” I said, backing away and putting my hands in front of me. “No way. Not lifting off the earth. Just call me Antaeus, if you must,” I remembered the name belatedly. “This magic man does all his stuff on sweet terra firma.”

Rayya coughed delicately, hiding a laugh.

I glared at her. “No comments from the peanut gallery,” I said. “Look, my fear of heights kicks in at two inches above the surface. I’m a white boy and I can’t jump.”

“We will fly,” Peredur repeated.

“Look, I understand you Dragon types have infinite cosmic powers, but apparently listening isn’t one of them,” I said, ignoring the fact that ‘infinite cosmic power’ meant ‘able to chomp me in two with a single bite.’ No, that was wasting energy.  He could just swallow me whole.  “No flying. Look, you tell me where we’re going, and I’ll drive. You can take shotgun. Heck, I’ll even let you control the stereo.”

“Third time spoken, my Closing friend. There is a limit to what I will allow of your peccadilloes,” he said.

“Fancy word from a lizard,” I muttered. If he heard me (heck, we’d already discovered his auditory skills were suspect) he didn’t say anything. “So, I climb up on your neck or something? You know, I don’t think I could get my leg up on your shoulder without a boost.”

He laughed, and I realized he wasn’t going to just eat me… well, at least for the moment. “Let us be free from your walls, and you will see.”

“Yeah, let’s do whatever kind of transmogrification you’re going to do outside. I mean, you might shoot out slime, or your wings might mark the walls, or maybe there will be fire, and I don’t think homeowner’s insurance will handle it.”  I looked at Rayya, then I looked at Nen. Then I made sure I had everything I wanted in my pockets.

“I ken where th’ key be,” Nen said.

“And the password to the network, I presume.  Don’t give away the homeworld,” I said. “And if I’m not back for Thanksgiving, make sure Ed doesn’t eat all of the rolls.  Steal two before the basket gets to him.  Trust me.”  I sighed, then turned to the door. “Lay on, MacDragon.”

“So dour, Closer.  Much more becomes your life than the leaving of it.  Follow, and feel it like a man.”

I knew that was a quote, and I resolved to look it up.  I didn’t know Macbeth as well as I might like.  It wasn’t used on Iron Chef America that much.  That wasn’t as much of a non sequitur as it sounds – I learn a lot of vocabulary from Food Network.  Who knew mascarpone was a soft cheese rather than a new dance craze?  I no longer suffer as seriously from kitchen lethologica, although it’s mostly in deciphering the secret codes of restaurant menus that I shine.  (“Oh that?  They mean a bean and cheese burrito.  It’s just fancy-talk.”)

I closed the door behind me, while Nen and Rayya communicated in glances and sibling telepathy.  They were discouraged that I somehow found the company of a Dragon sufficient to guard my back, nevermind that I only saw one weird anemone-alien creature come after me ever, and had to take their word that they were beset night and day or at least once every blue moon on my behalf.  Honestly, I want to say I couldn’t think who carried that kind of magical grudge against me, but, you know, then I use my brain and I come up with a heck of a list.

“Well?” I asked, moving into the parking lot area.

Peredur grinned at me, a thousand teeth and a fire in his eyes.

(201) Second Star to the Right

“What I’m trying to remember right this moment,” I said, looking into the darkness behind his teeth rather than their ivory masses, “is whether or not you actually knocked on my door.  I had the argument with the Spriggan Sibs and I remembered thinking you almost always knocked.”

“Your flight into philosophy is more allegorical than you might have guessed,” he said, and I was able to focus on his eyes again rather than the reptilian nature of his mouth.  “A knock is a notification.  If you are otherwise notified, have I not knocked?  Is your opening the door an acknowledgement?  You are indeed a wizard to ask these questions,” he said.

I began to reflexively disagree, but he shook his head violently.  “Let us fly,” he said.

“I’m trying to think of happy thoughts,” I lied.  “Things like, ‘This is all a dream,’ and ‘I don’t know any Dragons, just buxom dark-skinned completely human non-witchy women with–‘” my litany of fantasy was broken by a sharp pain in my back.

“Hey, who stabbed me?” I whirled around, catching a faint ember, as if the fall of a firework.  I smelled steak for a moment, then the pain doubled and I bent over involuntarily, bumping and scraping my arm into the brick of the wall.  It was a good thing I hadn’t eaten because the next thing I felt was a wave of nausea and dizziness.  I heard discord, the smashing of hands on piano keys, the smell of hot foil around fish, the clanging of a siren, the cold of a gate.  My tail lashed out and helped my balance before I hit my head against the frame of the door.


Like Smaug, Puff, and Pete before me, I let out a mighty roar.  Well, it was more a moan of anguish coupled with a squeak of aggravation and a choir of disbelief wrapped up in a symphony of violation, but that together made a pretty loud roar.  Of course, it also kind of sounded like a motorcycle revving its engine, so it was doubtful the neighbors would even blink.

Peredur leaned casually against the rail and rolled his eyes at me.  I recognized him saying, “Get over yourself,” pretty clear in body language, but my reflexes were not my own.  I snapped at him, and his hand rose up and grabbed my chin.  I thrashed in his iron grip, but something about his expression took over, as instincts I never had reacted to his presence.  I felt myself kneel of sorts, knees bending, head pulled down, eyes closed.

I took in a deep breath.  The faint sound of the gate remained, but it surrounded me, as if every move I made had some kind of related to some kind of instrument.  There were horns in my ears, and a static kind of drum as I walked.  My eyes were watering, and my ears hurt, and the wings I had grown were knives slicing at my back, a different stretch of pain each time I inhaled or exhaled.    The parallels to a certain little mermaid were not lost to me.

“We will fly,” Peredur chuckled.  I heard it as if spoken from a variety of voices, in chorus.  When I was able to open my eyes again, I was blinded by color and texture.  I closed my eyes just as quickly, preferring darkness to the almost obscene pain of sight.  I didn’t even know transformation of this type was possible.  I felt wrong inside.  I felt like he had done this to me without my permission.  I had no consent in this, and it made me angry.

I think most men my age have a little bit of constant anger bubbling inside of them.  Yes, the connection to fear is always there, but there’s just this low level of resentment we work with and try not to feed.  This fear of not being good enough, this anger of not making it big, of not being everything you might have wanted to be.  The fear of not being wanted, and yet the anger of wanting.  I don’t really even think of it most of the time, but if someone asked if I was angry, I’d have to say yes, yes I am.

The problem is, there’s nothing to do with it.  Oh, sure, if I was some kind of self-help guru, maybe I’d gone on about how you use that passion to drive yourself towards your dreams.  Not everyone’s got that kind of drive.  A lot of us just kind of mosey through life – meandering in a maudlin fashion and never really going anywhere.  There’s too much stuff to do, and never enough time or money or other resources to get it all done.  Sometimes winning and quitting look kind of the same.

So anger when given an outlet isn’t mistaken by being compared to the eruption of a volcano.  Since reasonable folk stay far away from those that simmer constantly, we don’t know how to handle the sudden spewing of magma… or lava, I guess, once it hits air.  Neither the angry person or those around them really has a how-to guide of how to go from there.  We’re not taught how to be angry in a rational sense because anger has so little to do with rationality, even if there is a, well, rational reason.  We get our fight or flight or fornicate instinct in response, and then things go past the point that we can behave in a civilized fashion.  If civilization has all that much to do with it; we still like our blood shows, after all.

This anger made me uncomfortable because I didn’t know what to do with it.   Worse, I wasn’t me.  I was disoriented, I was clumsy, I was a baby in the body of a beast, and worse than that, a dangerous beast.  A toddler with TNT.  An infant with insufficient intel.  How did Peredur come to this conclusion?  I couldn’t open my eyes without a headache and an inability to process all of the things I could suddenly see.  If my mind had come along into this body, or if it was my body transformed, and I wasn’t getting enough reasonable signals to determine which.  I was past phenomenon and into noumenon.

It was real magic.

Okay, you’ve been with me for a while.  I’m dealing with more magic on a daily basis, with creatures who are not of our world as mundane roommates (and apparently, occasionally as bodyguards) so that I don’t notice the antinomy.   I like to figure how things work – if there was an ability to get a degree in magical theory, that’s where I’d shine.  (I’m sure it’s just as valid as comparative religion.)   Most people who are into magic just accept it as magic.  Take Maggie, for example.  We had a discussion once about fair housing.  (No, really, we were talking about Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.  It makes excellent campaign fodder for Shadowrun, if you know what I mean.)  One of the interesting things about fair housing is that if you’re disabled, and you request what they call a “reasonable accommodation” in order to enjoy the way of life most people do on a regular level, what a reasonable accommodation allows you to do is break the rules.  This includes mental disabilities.  Say you’ve got a brain injury that makes you forgetful, and if you did not get a reminder you’d forget to pay your rent.  Well, obviously, the front office doesn’t generally give people polite calls to remind them.  A reasonable accommodation allows you to get that call so that there isn’t any problem.  Small thing, doesn’t really break a rule exactly, but it does mean they go out of their way in a fashion they normally wouldn’t.

Maggie suggested that magic was kind of like a reasonable accommodation.  All it is is a way of breaking the rules you normally use. Which I then said made wizards scofflaws, and went on my usual tangent of maybe there are laws for a reason.  The conversation ended up in an argument, which ended up in make-up sex, and well, you can guess the rest of the story.  Anyway, that kind of stayed with me because it showed the kind of utter privilege that practitioners couldn’t see past.  “I don’t have to live by those silly laws of physics, or physiology, or reality, because I’m better.”

I’m not really one of those guys with a hard-on for social justice.  I mean I honestly self-describe as white and nerdy and I never had real poverty or debt, and I could walk into a store with a backpack and no one would think to follow me, if you know what I mean.  It was assumed I’d go to college, and assumed I would buy a house, and fall in love with a girl and really, my life was made of a thousand assumptions that put me into the ruling class of “don’t have to worry about it.”  And of course, I don’t think of myself as a bigot, although I might be learning differently.

So how does this lead me to being a dragon?  Even a little one, with my eyes closed, and a burning desire to sneeze, and another dragon chuckling at me in a way that just makes me want to bite his head off?  I mean, not that dragons are constantly angry or anything.

Peredur sighed.  “Your mind is more flexible than that,” he chided in sixteen-bit harmony.  Wait, that’s not the right term; it was just that I heard him on several different levels.  “I have only painted you with a temporary spell, one for which I have limited lease.”

I recognized that tone of voice.  That was, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“You will fly for I will lead you.  Open your outside eyes, but keep your inner ones closed if it is too much.  I forget sometimes what it is like for you.  It is not safe for me to dull my senses to such a degree.  Do not fear for I have you.”

He pet my snout, such as it were, and something in his voice overrode my conscious mind again.  That, if nothing else, made me extremely angry.  I didn’t like this automatically acquiescing piece, even more than I disliked being a dragon.   From “It seemed like a good idea,” to “trust me,” in a few sentences just turned on all the warning signals I’d ever had in my brain, and there were flashing lights and a calm voice saying, “There’s an emergency going on.  It’s still going on.”

“And no, I will not change you back immediately, so do not bother to ask.”  He sounded a bit tired, which worried me.  I remembered his look, how he had been willing to beg me to help him.  I still didn’t like it, and I calmed myself a bit just holding on to that feeling.

I opened my eyes carefully.  I didn’t understand the inner and outer eye business, but figured maybe dragons had some kind of third magic eyelid.  It was still exceedingly sharp, like seeing the world in high definition.  “Remember that darkness is in some part an illusion,” I remembered it as paraphrased from some book.  But it made sense – just as the rotation into dawn had Meaning on a magical level, darkness could have its own veil of sorts, its own magic.  The night was alive, very alive, and I had to think in order to drown out its noises.

I hadn’t figured out how to talk as yet.  Peredur had removed his hand, and he had moved out further between the cars, seeking room for something.  A moment later, I figured it out – he had to transform.   I was to him like a Chihuahua was to a Rhodesian Ridgeback.  The creature I was wanted to keen in recognition of his glory, but I was able to at least resist that much.  He was gold and black and red in all the right places, with horns and wings, and smoke and darkness.  The balrog of the eastern city, the king of the ancient embers, the Dragon in my parking lot.

When he tensed to fly, his wings, more like tatters of black lightning flickered dark against the black of the night sky.  I was bending my knees, ready to jump, my wings thin and strong, like metal scything through the night.  He lit up in the air silently and easily, like most cats jumping onto a table.

I followed.

(202) Up, Up, and AWOL

One of the suggested reasons behind birds flying in the classic “V” formation is that it provides significant uplift for the bird behind them, as well as their own line of sight.  Dragons don’t pump their wings like birds, I learned.  The blades of my back cut through air and occasionally I felt the build up of a kind of static electricity.  Movement forward was not related to any of the forces I’d learned as relevant to flight, like propulsive thrust.  I believed that maybe the shock was some kind of buoyancy factor, but I didn’t know.  I now had anecdotal experience pushing my theory that the Lung likely used qi energy for flight, following leys for speed, and they probably had crazy power-ups like a video game.

In fact, my tail didn’t have anything like a vertical stabilizer on it, and I didn’t even tilt for some directional purposes.  Not that any of it was really under my control.  I understand that the theory of “alpha” domination is flawed, but I don’t think they used Dragons for their observations.  I suppose Peredur could have done some kind of compelling on me as well as the transformation.  All I knew is that if he pulled some kind of line like, “Wow, that’s the least talking you’ve done around me since we’ve met,” I was going to punch him the first chance I got.  If it was magical compulsion, it certainly wasn’t affecting my brain.

You know, he still hadn’t answered the question.  It wasn’t that I was hung up on a knock or anything, just that I was trying to define my reality.  Did I hear him announce his presence with a clap or a gentle rapping on my outside door, or does there really exist an aura of Beyond around powerful creatures that starts to make reality hazy?  Honestly, it’s the tiny little things that begin to go wacky first, and I was going to hold on to a tiny little thing in hopes it had some kind of mission statement that would impress the really weird stuff and keep that weird stuff from happening.  You know, like being a dragon, and currently speeding above the earth at night due to electrical impulses not unlike the signals that drive muscles.  Yeah, I was going to try some kind of analogy.  I don’t think that one worked.

I have noted before how easy it is to think of the eyes as the porthole one’s brain looks out from the body, and to forget the system that is the body is actually as connected.  It’s why I remember to eat breakfast; I need to feed my brain.  Exercise, even, although I hadn’t been doing too much of that.  If the dragon I was had a potbelly, I was to blame.  Of course, it wasn’t even that I was a dragon. I mean, I was more than a passive observer in a dragon body, but it wasn’t really my body. I didn’t have the signals that taught me how to use my tail, or wings, or whatever bizarre organ processes this kind of flight.  I did, but I was not what I did, if that made any sense.

The world looks different from above.  I happen to look up more than people usually do because, one, I’m a gamer and there might be lurkers above, and two, because I read once that people don’t.  I have never caught a ninja hanging out in the corner near two door frames.  I only find questionable things, like bugs, or why the doctor’s office had funny posters taped to the ceilings.  I’m not saying womens’ health is icky. I’m saying that speculums look very uncomfortable.

That’s different than looking down.  I’ve done it on airplanes, of course, watched it go from normal to abstract and back again for landing.  Too much time is spent above clouds or deserts, or that just might be why I was flying instead of driving.  I don’t count it as part of my acrophobia, which I only have in the curious way of not being bothered by heights, but being almost paranoid about the final splat of falling.  Things start to make less sense from a different perspective.  You could go the whole, “They are ants,” idea, but you could also go with the interconnectedness of seeing Earth from space, its fragility and its strength.

If we were above Earth, anyway.  I was beginning to doubt it, even with the hypersensitivity of dragon eyes.  I could see a moth fluttering one second, and then understand the roots of a mountain, and the way it strained and shifted to grow in the areas between the great plates of the world.  I saw life and light, and I didn’t recognize any landmarks, and I didn’t know how to gauge how fast we were going.  I didn’t think this magic had much to do with calculus.

The sounds of the night sky were too loud, the wind only one of the songs in the cacophony.

And then there were the things up in the heavens, Horatio.  Oh, the things you don’t know, and writers like Lovecraft apparently did. I was never, ever, going to be able to look up at the stars again and say, “How beautiful.”  It would make me want to wear a hat.  (Not a badger, though.  Badgers on peoples’ heads is bad business.  Badger on the brain, man.  They burrow in and are too stubborn to dislodge easily.)  Mists and tendrils of things, thoughts and dreams ephemeral but physical, some with proto-sentience, some  malevolent, most apathetic of the little things scurrying below.  As we phased in and out of reality skimming the surface of the Beyond I mostly avoided any touch of them, but our skies are as full as our seas and stone.

We were beginning to come to a landing, I guessed, or at least I felt we were slowing, and I saw beneath us a great deal of dark water, the waves a hundred-thousand phosphorescent fillips, more beautiful than the stars, full of life and movement.  For a moment, I felt a rush of inhumanity, a sinking understanding that I understood Rayya and Nen, with the sea a cradle, a womb of possibilities, and one from which monsters could be born.  It wasn’t a human thought. It was too big to be human.  Too much poetry and horror, and maybe that was what was human about it.  I suspected we came from the shallows, not the depths.

We touched down into the tide, and my scales went to skin, and my wings to a shirt, and my claws into shoes, which immediately got wet.  It became dark, and the transformation twisted me, and ripped the seeming away like wax to hair.  I fell into the water, a cold shock, effervescent and yet cloying.  The water smelled like rose oil for a moment, and then like salt, as if it had been caught between wardrobe changes and decided to wear something more comfortable.  I sneezed involuntarily a few times, and then sat back, soaking wet and cold and with an arthritic ache in the water.

Smoke and lightning and fire swirled into a pillar and then Peredur was there, on the sand, in front of me.

I coughed trying to spit on his shoes.  I don’t believe in so-called ‘instant karma,’ but it probably did suit, given the situation.  I sneezed again, and my eyesight finally took into account the pale moonlight and lack of other, distracting signs of civilization.

The lion roared.

I jumped out of the water, and up towards Peredur.  It roared again, and I heard the Gate, a battering of water against the wall, the lion’s call, the sulphur of the angel’s fall, the mushroom squish of rotten pall… I was not moved to rhyme, the Gate was lashing out at me, aware of my presence.  I stood next to Peredur, figuring anything coming from that Gate would have to go through him, first.

“That is the beast that threatens to wake thirteen gods,” Peredur said.

“Very specific number there,” I pointed out, brushing sand from my pants.  “I meant, when getting your seventy-two virgins, or your thousand islands, you ought to count your change.”

“There are thirteen gods sleeping here, who should not awaken.  There are little signs of discontent, pressures of economics, the concerns of analysts and broadcasters, all suggesting battle. Do you have a Shadow, little wizard, who might seek such chaos?”

“You’re asking me pointedly, like both of us don’t know that he’s a pain in the tuchas.  Might I remind you, oh great Dragon?” I tried for the exact same tone he used when calling me, “little wizard.” “I think it was your need that drove me to close him out of your gate, and thus get him on my scent instead.  If that’s not some kind of mixed metaphor.”  In the metaphor department, I was really batting badly tonight.  They were going to have to get a designated poet and put me on the beat bench or something.

“Muak-Lal,” Peredur said.  “Your protector named him right,” he said, and he looked out at the waves.  “He is an amalgam of older powers, given life by whispers and fears.  He has made alliances too quickly, and already feeds on the conflict of your witches.”

“Hey, they aren’t my witches,” I said, quickly.  “I’m trying to break the habit, you see.  I admit I had more of a problem than I’d expected, but this man is now a witch-free zone.”  I reflected on what he’d actually said. “So Mister Shadowking, stealer of my good looks, is riling up a beast that will wake up gods and cause some kind of war?  Is this kind of Revelations-style stuff?”

“You refer unironically to the words of prophets and those with grudges and allegorical rhetoric, I presume?”

“Where do Dragons stand on the topic of religion?”

“We have been deified and demonized,” he made a little shrug.

“Not the D&D I’m used to,” I quipped.

He ignored me, of course.  “I have known gods.  I have walked in their palaces, and pleasured their sons and daughters.  I have visited their realms and flown across, watching as they drifted away.  Some fade, some merely no longer intersect with your world.  Some have wandered in as monsters, created by creatures that dream in dark depths.  Some collide with others, yet originate far, far beyond.”  He shook his head.  “That speaks of identity.  The power, the relics of faith, that is different.   In the place the children of Ashya come from there are legends of archers who have made mortals of the suns, piercing them with arrows to prevent the stars from destroying the seas.  The religions there are like those here, made of rules, you shalts and you shalt nots, to differentiate behavior and to provide access to blessings and ward away curses.  It is so intertwined with what you name magic that it is easy to paint it with the same brush, but where its color is subtly different is where it is most dangerous.”

I listened, fascinated.  He went quiet for a moment afterwards, as if thinking.

“But these beings were chained to this island for good reasons, the doors locked and the seas grown from seeds to drown their dreams with the lullaby of tides.  It was Naul who watched as they turned the keys the first time; kin of her roots knew the dangers of the native folk.  Perhaps it is her absence which drew the Beast.”

I had frowned at the mention of her name, but he turned on me, then, his strange, physics-repelling Dragon eyes luminescent and fixed on me.  The fire within them was brighter, as if it had been fed.  “You wished to make things right, to scrub the blood off your hands?  Then push out this roaring  Beast, and make sure the door is closed.  We spoke of faith?  Let us speak now of penance.”

(203) The Beast That Ate Kolache


The verb form is archaic, but so are Dragons, if you ask, well, anyone.  Penance and repentance are siblings, arguing with their parental source on the premise of absolution.  I’m still hazy on religion, but I’m also human and the idea of absolution is a tempting one.  I don’t believe any one person (or omnipotent being, or glowing-eyed Dragon, or whatnot) has the key to the moral and ethical commitments an intelligent, self-aware individual requires as part of his, her, or zher, (or whatnot) contribution(s) to society.  It’s something you have to decide for yourself. A religion might be a great starter tool-kit, but most people don’t go through the whole workbook and even those who do don’t end up with similar results.  I kind of doodled on some pages in my own and figured that if even the great ethicists (or even the dime-a-dozen ones on the internet) can’t come up with a consistent, uniform formula, it doesn’t exist.  I guess it depends if, well, the words, “It depends,” means you win or lose.  For me (and Kant) that’s a bit of a loss condition, and I think that’s why a lot of people turn to religion; the answer is, “No, it’s immoral,” and you don’t have to poke at it.  Me, I’m a born poker.  If every good rule is supposed to produce a result or solve a problem (paraphrasing something Rob Donoghue said once)  the desirability of those results can’t be relative to those following the rules, or basically you’re hacking the holy book.  At which point, you’re either a priest or a sinner.  Okay, forget the “or,” — it might be, “and.”

Absolution tempts because it plays on the assumption one is guilty and releases or directs the need to change to correct the problems.  It’s not being given a hall pass, but instead it’s like the points on your license expiring, or that one time you had a credit mistake eight years ago.  Or more like your sins (however minor or major) being wiped off the blackboard of this lifetime.  (Fine, some people may have stone tablets and it gets chisel’d off, but I figure penance is possibly writing “I will not mess with Dragons,” a hundred times on the metaphorical blackboard.  Plus, then I can do that metaphorical nail screetch thing that is probably going to go the way of my vinyl, with kids having no idea what we mean.  Not that they’d necessarily know what a metaphorical nail-to-the-chalkboard would be, anyway, since I’m kind of grasping at an example of it, and it was my metaphor.)

I stood staring at the black waves, the palpable chill from the wind over it, and the roaring of some kind of seven-headed beast in the distance.  I didn’t know if it had exactly seven heads, but I was making a religious reference (if you insist).  Of course, there were thirteen gods I was supposed to rock to sleep and/or sing a lullaby to, which means that maybe there’s something to numerology.  My number is six, so you know, characteristics being responsibility, balance, and protection.  My lifepath number is 7, meaning I am supposed to have a gift for analysis and keen observation.  My inner dream number, however, is 9, which means I dream of being creative, and would love to be a person people count on for support and advice.  Of course, I could be making all of this up, which seems just as likely as it is real.  I think that was Bibi’s rule for astrology, during our brief courtship phase: if you could do a set of descriptors blind of their labels, and still find that only one truly identifies you, then maybe there is truth to it.  I may be a Gemini, but I think my spam folder is a better oracle than the daily app on my phone.

I turned back to look at Peredur.  He was watching me, and his expression was unrevealing.  “Do I rush in and charge?”

“You do not tell me how to be a Dragon, and I do not tell you how to be what you are,” he said, displeased.

“True, I’m no Saint George type,” I said, hoping to needle him slightly.

“That you are most assuredly not,” he said, and maybe there was a bit of humour hidden in the words. Oh well, if I can’t defeat them, perhaps making them laugh was a fair result.

Zach had been teaching me theory about, and practice of my  gifts.   This should have been the equivalent of a pop quiz, I decided.

I was used to drawing upon my power by going quiet, almost meditative, but Zach had pointed out that some Portals had such a discord to them that I couldn’t wait for perfect conditions.  He’d have the sibs poke at me or turn the television up too loud on a commercial to try to create a distraction.  I had to focus what I felt was my imagination on the subject, and then open to listen to find similarities instead. I tried telling Zach that every opening was unique, but he pshaw’d my opinion. He said I was being a bit of a diva, and that there were only so many ways to open a door, so if I could find a linkage I would know how to close them more quickly.

I came up with a plan.  Actually, I came up with several.  The first involved jumping on Peredur in some kind of heroic move and convincing him to send me home so I could get a good meal and a night’s rest, but that ended up in me looking like Daffy Duck after Marvin the Martian pulled out a disintegration gun.  Not having a handy Porky Pig (and no, I’d never call Ed that) with a re-integration gun, I stopped that train of thought.  Throwing a temper tantrum was out. Calling the King a fink wasn’t going to help. Pretending I was in a video game might help, but I felt Peredur would doubt my sanity if I started making noises when I reviewed my inventory.  Not that I really cared what he thought, but it’s easy to say that. The truth is, when it came down to it, he was the only other person (if you could call him that) around, and so his opinion probably held more weight than usual. So looking foolish wasn’t going to improve his opinion of me, nor was it going to improve my situation.  I did make a beep-boop noise just to amuse myself as I checked to make sure my phone was okay despite the cold and the wet clothing I was wearing.  I wasn’t going to pull a Bear and go bare just because I was briefly soaked. Hopefully this wasn’t going to be an adventure.

I almost laughed aloud at the thought.  I brought the distractions to a close and tried to focus on what I needed to do.  I needed to keep the universe sealed so an old one didn’t break through.  And, of course, afterwards the Dragon could drive me through a taco place for a midnight snack.

I’m like a superhero in my id.  Flowing and outrageously ludicrous cape, big “E” on my chest, plumber’s wrench in my left hand…

The first part was to translate the feel of the gate, get its dimensions. I could do that from here, without having to find the Beast first.  I knew time is one of those things we all feel differently, and space is really flexible and relative. All of that place where we aren’t is space, and so is the place we are, which means that I regularly deal with things that are bigger on the inside, and I don’t fear paradox. I mean, if paradox came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder, I might jump, but that’s not really limited to paradox. And I am vaguely familiar with the truth so it rarely ambushes me like a grotesque.  I try to keep it in my peripheral vision, especially when dealing with things Beyond.  Alas, they’re no good for beds or baths.  Nevermind.

The Beast roared and I listened.  I listened for the patience in it, the years spent behind the door, not the active but the negative space of immortality.  I listened for the pain, its weakness, its anger, and its fears.

“Everyone wants to love how they want to love, and everyone wants to be closer to free,” I said aloud.

“You can’t always get what you want,” Peredur challenged me with the right cadence.

“Yeah, yeah.  Everybody wants to rule the world,” I sighed.

“People are people,” he sighed with me.

“I guess it makes sense that you’re a first wave kind of guy.  Primordial and all that, crawling out of the sea all evolved from magical protoplasm or whatnot.”

Peredur looked kind of uncomfortable for a moment.  “Doloise listened to much of your music.”

“Yeah, I don’t know if I’m even all that familiar with anything recorded this century,” I decided.  I had caught her trying to dissect some Flogging Molly once, but I tried to repress that memory.

“I’ve a better ear than for the tongs and bones,” he said. “Surely, you know our kind weaves ‘the olden dances, mingling hands and mingling glances.'”

“Is the world that full of sorrow?” I said, suddenly caught by a thought.

“Do we not dwindle?  Does the mystery and the magic not slowly be shut out for the love of apathy and criticism?”

“Hey, I’ve argued that viewpoint before, and I’ve come to the conclusion that that path isn’t living.”

“And so, they wander the path of death. Are you surprised, mortal? We’ve made it so clear that you’re not lasting, and yet my companions are fewer in name and nature as time so slowly passes.  Perform your talent. I have no wish to see the Beast by dawn’s light.”

“What, fifteen minutes from now?” I muttered.  I turned away again.

Concentration wavered.  I kept considering the problem, trying to turn it into an equation.  A word problem.  Something I could solve.    I was shivering, and cold. And wet. And miserable. Maybe Peredur had some kind of internal combustion, but I was running out of energy and brain.  My stomach growled, and I shush’d it, absentmindedly. It sounded nothing like the roars of the Beast.

Okay, first part. The roars.  Separate them from the doorway.  The doorway was huge, and stood on the threshhold, not too far from where we waited.  It held elements of sand, water, and sky.  (I don’t believe in these four-element separations.  There’s at least one-hundred and eighteen, and all of those that haven’t been discove-ah’d.)  Still, when you’re closing a door, it’s good to know what it’s made of.  If it’s too fragile, you could break something.  At least I think so.  I don’t know if that would be leaving it open or destroying the framework or what, but it follows with what I know to be true so let’s figure that works.

The door was being worn away by the howling. I could feel where it shuddered and shook, and weakened.  I could feel the creature behind it, and I…

Peredur caught me before I fell back into the water.

It was big.  I had a vision of it, a glimpse of what it projected.  It wasn’t as large as the Water Prince, but then again, it wasn’t much smaller.  It had teeth and foulness, like a breath of bad cheese and cess, and a row of large, unblinking eyes around its circular jaws.  It roared from a throat raw with anger, and for a moment, I feared it sensed me.

The Dragon grinned a smile of impossible teeth.  I struggled away from his arms.

“Much of it is instinctual. Interesting,” he said.

“Yeah, I picked up all sorts of instincts from re-runs of The Flintstones,” I suggested.  “This Beast isn’t going to make for good take-out.”  I had scuttled over to the rise, and attempted to brush sand off of myself again, no matter how useless the endeavour.

“I meant your talent.  You slammed shut a ward without ritual or sign.  A weak one, but nevertheless, one to recognize.”

“That’s far more praise than Zach offers it.  He says things like ‘proto-embryonic shielding,’ and makes references to the Teletubbies,” I said, frowning.  I hadn’t realized I’d done anything at all.

“A trained wizard still requires rundles,” he said, choosing a word, “pegs, tacks…”

“Shortcuts?” I offered.  I determined to look up ‘rundles.’

“Of a sort.  A weave of spell patterns that can be quickly drawn tight, with a word, thought, or gesture.”  He scratched his chin, thinking.  “Sometimes in response to another stimuli, but not exactly what I would call instinct.”

The roar this time was softer, or maybe I was just getting used to it.  It still raised the hair on my arms and that area just above the nape of my neck.  I shuddered.  “Fascinating,” I said, trying to sound partly like Spock, and partly sarcastic.  Musing on vocabulary in between action was my schtick, and the Dragon wasn’t allowed to steal it.  Hadn’t he ever heard of niche protection?  (Which is kind of like role copyright.  Which was a complicated thought I wasn’t allowing myself to develop any further.) “Apparently I’m instinctively a coward ready to bunker down at the first sight of something with sharp, pointy teeth.”

“That is not what makes you a coward,” Peredur said.

I couldn’t parse his expression, or tone of voice, so I blathered through it. “Thanks. You know, I’m okay with being a coward. Cowards get to run from history and write it down so other cowards don’t have to repeat it.  Or something pithy I’m too cold, too hungry, and too scared to put together right now.”

“Mark Twain waved a similar banner, but your Shakespeare put the words in the mouth of one of his characters that a coward dies many times before his actual demise.  The words are ephemeral, and the rule only partially true,” he shrugged.

“I’m sure there’s no such phrase in Klingon,” I shot back.

“Today would be a terrible day to die,” Peredur said, eyes glinting for a moment. “I will not hold you back if you insist.”

“Have I thanked you recently?  I mean, really expressed how happy I am that you got all wrapped up in my life and made it so…interesting?”

“You are welcome,” he said.  What else had I expected?

I hit my fists against the sand, which abraded the skin and added that pain to the list of my complaints.  Fine. I got out of here when I sent this thing away.  I stood up, facing the invisible gate, hands still clenched in fists.

“Go away,” I shouted.  “This is not your time.”

I don’t think it heard me, but I felt a little better.  “Go away!” and this time, I brought a crash of sound across the patterns of the gate with a gesture that opened my hand as if throwing something towards it.  “Get off my reality’s lawn!”  It was the sound of someone slamming their fist randomly on the keys of a piano.  I pulled it tighter, my eyes shutting as I used the vision of my mind instead of my easily-manipulated eyes.  The discord changed from a piano to a violin, or some other kind of stringed instrument.  Not a gittern.  I made a low humming noise, something more stable than the roaring, and wove it into the gate.

I heard a sound from Peredur.

Dragons.  This was one of Naul’s things, a leftover from the Dragon’s works.  My hand fluttered back and forth, weaving the smell of her smoke, and the heat of her flame into the door, strengthening it.  The roaring faded further.  The look of her eyes, the blue as I caught them in a flash on a cloudy day, the passion of Ivan’s love in his words about her… this I used to strengthen the door.  I felt her for a moment, a whisper, the sound of scales sliding against the ground. She was in pain, her mouth filled with thorns.  A breath of fire and the thorns burned, and I thrust that pain at the gate, the thorns poking inward, towards the Beast, the smoke smelling more like Peredur’s exhalations.

The growl I hear is from the Dragon next to me.  I ignore it.

What had been fraying was now mended, and the portal was stronger for it.  I was being pushed out of the threshhold, but I had more to do.  I thought of Peredur’s eyes, and of the way my body responded as a lesser dragon, one where he merely needed to tilt his head and I was controlled.  I closed the door with that anger, to match the roars of a now silent Beast.  I closed the door with the feeling of a Dragon’s scales, with the feeling of flight, with the feeling of helplessness in his wake.

Peredur knocked into me, and the spell was broken.

“You dare?” he asked.  Only if it had been in chat, it would have had capital letters and a whole trail of exclamation points and a few question marks at the end.  “You dare pin anything of me within the door?”

Um.  Oops?  No.

“You dare whisk me away into the darkness and think you come away unscathed?”

I was cold.

I was wet.

I was hungry.

I was angry, and none of those other things mattered as I held my ground.

There was a tension between us, a heat that rose in the atmosphere, a thin line of anger that strengthened me enough to stare him in his strange glowing eyes, to watch as the smoke and embers of his expression popped into flame.

And then died down, banked as he laughed.  Laughed loud, almost as loud as the roar of the Beast.

I guess I could have felt belittled by the laugh, been angry that he was chortling at me, but I was tired.

“I owe you a feast, young heart.”  He had never called me that before.  “Come now, what has happened is not all ill.”

“Is this the part where you turn me into an electric lizard again?” I asked.  I was tired.

“What, you would make me a creature of burden, harnessed and branded by your desires?  No.  It is safe again to flit you back into the world you know through shortcuts, veils, and thinly webbed entrances.  We leave a trail so that what the Beast called is scattered, and perhaps seeks easier prey.”

“You do know you’re talking about fermenting my reality like Emmental cheese, and I really don’t like that.”  I felt drained, listless. Feeling like a dragon might even have been better.

“I can go through only the established gates, but it takes longer and appears weak.  However, for your sake, I will consider your ridiculous imperative to maintain the artificial sanctity you hold so dear.”  He put his arm around me.  “How do you feel about … seafood?”

Actually, despite living in a quasi-desert state some thousand miles from the nearest ocean, I do like seafood. There’s a great all-you-can-eat sushi place not far from where I live, and while most of the menu is cooked meat of some sort, I occasionally have something local sashimi-style. I just had a million trepidations, if you could have a plural of them, about eating with the Dragon.  It’s like multiple sinking feelings – that feeling of your heart sinking, and your stomach, too.  Or maybe your pancreas.  Sweetbreads.  Something like that.  You know, the parts of the animal you eat because you have no better options, but if you think about it you shouldn’t because why would you eat the parts that do all the poison processing?  Or in the case of the thymus, major immune system classrooms?  (Well, you know, it’s a place of education.  T-cell college.  You can’t tuna piano, but you can school a fish.  No, wait, that’s not how it goes.)

“This isn’t some kind of test, is it?” I asked. “Some kind of, `I’m going to turn you into a whale and make you eat giant squid,” thing?’ Because, and you can add it to my list of sheer ridiculous things you’re going to reluctantly cater to, I don’t want any more transformations.”

“I was thinking hibachi, actually,” Peredur said, mildly, his arm still around me. “There’s this great little place not too far from yours.”

“Oh. Okay,” I said.  I thought I knew the place, but rarely had the funds to indulge.  Honestly, the ambiance was what was so expensive at such a place. I could buy my own steak and scallops for much less. Of course, I’d have only a vague idea how to cook them…but that was what the internet was for, right?  I’m sure there’s YouTube videos out there, even if searching for the term “flank steak” might need some kind of safe search mode.

Oh internet, you so crazy.

I relaxed momentarily, which was when Peredur used the arm around me to push me into the water. I started to thrash and sputter, and the colors of darkness and sand swirled, a faint sulphurous light, and the sound of rushing air threatened to drown me. After a nauseating moment of cold and lost, I was spitting up salt water in a parking lot between two evergreens.

“What the heck was that?” I asked once I got the taste of salt off my tongue, arms still flailing.

Peredur breathed at me.

Aslan’s breath was a symbol, some scholars say, of the powers of divine resurrection.    His breath could heal those who have been petrified, boost the morale of the faithless, and cause sleep, not to mention transport others to his Eden.  Peredur’s breath was not so sweet.  It was woodsmoke and searing flesh, maybe a hint of sour apple cider, a flash of vinegar, a leftover tang of spoiled milk,a brush of burnt caramel.  It wrapped me up in a cocoon of darkness, taking sight and breath away from me.

After a moment I was warm, warm and dry.  I could almost breathe again.  “If you could have done that the whole time,” I began, after I finished coughing…

Peredur said nothing.  In the time it had taken for him to work his spells (and it frightened me, I admit, how fast and easy it was for him to move from place-to-place), he had changed his clothes, and his look.  Instead of something suggesting Sergeant Pepper’s red coat, he wore a long black jacket,  had his hair black and pulled back, with but a strange golden streak, and his eyes seemed muted somehow, more a glossy brown than the flames of before.  This walking fashion show was in stark contrast with the Spriggan Sibs, Rayya always wearing diaphanous and unusual white, and Nen and his eclectic “what kinds of stuff can I find on the street?” combinations.

“Fine, fine, Dragons work in mysterious ways.” I waved my hand in his general direction.  “You get a pass because I’m sure if the reasoning behind it wasn’t sensible there’s absolutely nothing I could do about it anyway.  You’re buying, and I’m getting the fried green ice cream.”

I strode forward, managed to not twist my ankle on the rocks or the step onto the asphalt, and then found the door.  I headed towards it and the light inside.

The hostess sat us fairly quickly, but she had an odd look on her face. I realized after a moment that she had asked if we were on a date, and I’d nodded distractedly.  I realized that correcting her would have been far more embarrassing and complicated so just decided to suck it up.  Erm, so to speak.

Peredur scooted his chair closer to me. “Ah, Closer, I had not known you were ready to take our relationship to a physical level.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m not,” I said.

“What, am I not attractive enough?” he almost pouted.

“If I’m not going to tap Tinkerbell, you can be sure I’m not looking at your scaly tail.”  I was proud of that phrasing.

Our table was pretty empty, not surprising given the late night, and our chef grinned at us as he put his hat on, covering up his blue and purple ‘hawk.  He wasn’t very tall, but he definitely had charisma. I found myself looking at the curve of his chin in a way that made me a little uncomfortable.

“What’s the occasion?” he asked, chopping vegetables almost casually.  He sliced carrots and onions as if he had a targeting system in his brain, but at the same time, the laser precision was just a suave, hardly worth mentioning side effect of all that skill.  Each individually julienn’d carrot was perfectly like the next, a mass production piece that would have been terrifying if it’d been fast food, but was somehow artful at this price range. Well, that and it was made of real carrots that had been functioning as real root vegetable carrots, not like potatoes turned into particle board turned into those vacuum-pressed pieces of sameness you sometimes find in tubes in the grocery store.  And the onions! The onions failed to drive us all into tears of madness, unless they were tears of amazement at the, um, lack of tears.

I admit it, I was tired enough that even my metaphors were rolling over and mumbling something about pressing the snooze button.

“Um,” I said.  “Well, if you must know,” I tried to make, “We just sealed a horrific creature back into its otherworldly tomb,” sound cool or reasonable in my head, but it wasn’t working.

“Our anniversary,” Peredur said, putting his hand on mine.

I glared at him, trying to give my best, “take it off or I’ll remove it,” look, but he gave me a glance with some heat in it. Kind of literally, the flash of his eyes brought a hint of fire to them, as if he was daring me.

Great, a Dragon with sex on the brain.  Teach me not to listen.  “Yes, our work anniversary,” I said, trying to put emphasis on the word ‘work,’ although I got a little reference to assassination that way.  Well, if I were to try to put a hit on Peredur, I’d…

I’d ask Nen.


Maybe I was making a false connection, like deciding a bunch of blood splatters made some kind of random occult pattern.  Like you do.

“You’re adorable,” the chef said, laughing. “Hey, it’s none of my business, if you want to go all ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’  I can see that you’re uncomfortable and your friend’s having you on.  You’ll enjoy the food more if you’re in a good mood.  I don’t see any mamihlapinatapai between you.  Let’s make small talk. What kind of work do you do?”

“I sell couch insurance,” I said.

“I loved that movie,” the chef said, catching the reference. “But you don’t look like a hired killer. I mean, I’ve met the type.  Him,” he pointed at Peredur, “I could believe anything of, but you, no, you’re a,” he paused, “dentist.”

“If I’m around him I’m too much of a masochist for that,” I played the game. “Even if I am bad at raising plants.”

“Bloody menaces, aren’t they?”  The vegetables went flipping into the air.

“He’s a wizard,” Peredur said, sighing. I didn’t miss the little bits of smoke that came out of his nostrils as he did.

“My father used that term for really good hackers,” the chef said.  “Your hands aren’t right for a musician, and definitely not a gynecologist.”

I think I blushed, maybe a little, and Peredur allowed me to pull my hand back.  “Definitely,” I muttered.

“Maybe a sales associate,” the chef decided.  “You look like you might go postal if someone pulled a single balloon out of a fifteen balloon package.”

“Oh, man.  Just as long as I don’t sell soap.”  I nodded.  I’ve worked sales.  I’d almost rather do anything in the first two seasons of Dirty Jobs than do it again, but it was something you could mention in public.  Unlike, you know, exorcisms.

Well, depending on the audience, maybe.

Peredur made a noise, something between a growl and a snicker.  A grolicker?  That was a terrible portmanteau, and I wasn’t going to use it in his hearing, especially in the mischievous mood he seemed to be indulging.

“You like the onion volcano?” the young man asked.  He laughed, then.  “Of course you do.  Everyone loves the onion volcano.”  He accomplished the onion volcano trick, and then started actually making our meals.

Meals I hadn’t remembered ordering.  I glared at Peredur, but the Dragon was looking away.  We were the only people left that I could see in the restaurant, except for our chef, some bussing types, the evil hostess whose maniacal manipulations got me into this trap (okay, even my tortured and tired metaphor maker was thinking that was a stretch) and a young lady who was teasing the fish near the entrance.  Honestly, I suspected the fish were in some kind of pisces-purgatory, watching their kind being devoured through the glass and never knowing if they were next.  I could almost hear their little fishy screams, except that fish more make glub noises when they’re in cartoons.  Which doesn’t make any sense, really.  Why would fish glub?  They’re used to the water.

I swore at Peredur.  He looked up, surprised.

“Why are you doing it?” I asked.

“Doing what?” he looked as if I were accusing him of something he had no intention of my finding out he was doing.  I’m sure there was a word for that, because “guilty” just didn’t cover it.

“Collapsing time on me. Beguilement.  Glamour,” I spat the word out.

It was a dirty word, and he scowled.  I saw hints of teeth and flashes of red in his eyes.  Those flashes did not improve the wording – such things could only be illusion, and I got the feeling illusion was kind of a cheap trick in the Beyonder world.  Something done for survival, but not associated with panache.

He didn’t answer me, and I went to eating my dinner.  Steak.  And scallops.  The chef leaned back for a moment, and then nodded at me.  “You kind of had that vibe,” he said.

“Huh?” I grunted intelligibly, or as intelligibly as I could while forcing protein into my mouth less like eating was going out of style, but more like my food was going to be taken away as soon as the hovering waitress suspected I was going to put my fork somewhere near the plate.  Which was an entirely different kind of wrapping your arm around your horde and snarling at the sneaking, thieving hobbitses.


“I guess you are one of us,” he said, gesturing a little towards Peredur and emphasizing the “are.”

“What, um, gay?” I asked.

He gave me a dirty look.  “Dude, you’re a piece of work.  What you want to do with your sex life is your own business.  I was saying that he,” another gesture towards Peredur, “was serious.  I meant a wizard.”


(206) Mistaken Identity

I rolled my eyes and tried not to huff.

Peredur just grinned his grin-of-many-teeth.  “Indeed,” he said.  He looked down at my plate.  “Are you ready for your vaunted dessert?”

I sighed. “I want it, but frankly, I’m too tired to eat it,” I admitted.

“Then I shall show compensation, and we shall take you home to your sweet, sweet sleep.  Your caretakers shall be pleased.”  He sat up.

Our chef (his nametag said “Tumnus,” and I’m not actually sure if “chef” is the right term) leaned back and took off his hat. “Shift’s over, place is closing, and I wanted to talk to you without Mr. Mojo for a minute.”

“Mr. Mojo?” I asked.

“Oh, he comes around occasionally. Lit up like he thinks he’s the center of the world, when obviously,” he put a hand through his purple-blue hair, “he’s wrong. I know where the center is, because I’m it.”

He winked at me and I laughed.  He had exceptionally nice eyebrows, I noticed.  It wasn’t something I thought of regularly, but my eyebrows were kind of plain.  I mean, no one would ever really notice my eyebrows unless they were right in their face or something.

I realized after a moment that I was staring, but he didn’t seem to mind. I rocketed back to reality, wasting a glance at Peredur, who was exchanging blood rubies for our meal or something, if not flirting with the hostess.  I shivered, involuntarily.  “We only have a minute.”  Saying those words made me feel like we had some kind of furtive secret, a moment for humans against the Dragons.

Tumnus nodded. “Did you drive?”

Huh.  I shrugged.  “No.”  It was close enough to walk on a nice night.  I expected Peredur was going to violate reality again no matter how I felt about it.

“Do you live close?”

“Are you some kind of weird axe murderer?” I asked.  I’d seen what he could do with a knife.

He grinned. “Maybe.  I’ve never murdered any weird axes.”

“Not even axes of evil?”

“Not even. But you never can tell. Hey, tell Mojo I’ll drive you home if you don’t mind me making a stop first.”

I was tired, so tired, but curious. “Sure. What’s the stop?”

“Have to drop off dinner to one of my boyfriends, Disco Daveed.  I’ll be right back.”  He disappeared into the kitchen, while Peredur returned.

“I’ve got a ride home, tall, dark, and scaly.”

I could see his eyes smoulder for a moment, and then he made a decision. He nodded. “I shall inform your jailors,” he said.

“They were ‘caretakers’ a moment ago.”

“Were they?” he asked.  He blew a ring of smoke that only I could see, and it disappeared into a fizzle of light. “Your choice, Wizard-friend.”

“Now you’re reminding me of that for a reason.”

“Are all my endearments so pointed?” he asked.  He just smiled and turned away, leaving the restaurant.  He lingered for a moment, then disappeared.

Tumnus came out of the back with a big brown sack tucked under his arm.  “You ditched your chaperone? Good job. I’ve got a good big plastic bag for your head.”

I probably looked more nervous than I actually felt. Something about Tumnus just didn’t feel scary, I guess. I outweighed him and was taller, but while he could probably julienne my liver in seconds, he just wasn’t sending unfriendly signals.  Besides, he made me curious about something. I couldn’t explain it more than that.

“Oh good. I’m not using it, you see.  And we don’t have that red cloak or tridents to do the whole giant scorpion thing.”

“That’s pushing it, Medusa.  No, seriously, your head will do me well in my studies.”

“You’re a brain surgeon?” I asked.

“Forensic biologist. Or I will be. This gig,” he referred to the building we exited, as I followed him, “pays well against the old student loans.”

“That’s not…” I thought about it. “Not the strangest combination I’ve ever heard, I guess.”

“Really?” he asked, skeptically. “What’s stranger?”

“I’ll get back to you. How about Russian poet and sorcerer?”

He shook his head. He drove a banged up green Ford Taurus. That same green one you see everywhere.  “Here,” he said, passing me the bag. I set it on my lap as I pulled the belt around me.  “Russian, poet, and sorcerer.  I think that’s too redundant.  Try again.”

“I’m thinking,” I complained. “What did you want to talk about?”

He pulled out of the parking lot, quiet for a moment. That actually chilled me a little, until he gave me that amazing smile again. “Well, first off, what is Mr. Mojo anyway?”

“His secret to tell,” I said, playing it a little cagey.

“Wizards,” he scoffed. “Only way you ever get a straight answer out of them is when you least need it.”

“You’ve noticed that too?” I asked, amused.

“Don’t give away any secrets now,” he grinned a very wry grin.

“I don’t have any,” I said, yawning.

He laughed. “Everyone has secrets. It’s just that they rarely have any good ones.”

It really was a quick trip. He bounded up the stairs to an apartment building, and I saw a quick glimpse of probably one of the skinniest men I’ve ever seen in my life not in a late night foreign aid commercial.  He was dressed sharply, black and pinstripes, with a fedora.  He gave Tumnus a quick kiss of greeting, grabbing the bag of food like he was starving.  I tried to not be uncomfortable, and so I turned away.

A moment later, I fell asleep.

I dreamt.

“You see,” said the Seven King, “you think of the world as a bubble.”  She was at her most lovely – nude, dark, and squirming around.  On her hand she held a bubble. “Touch it, and it pops.”  She used a well-manicured nail to pop it.  “The world is stronger than that,” she said.  The bubble reappeared, and floated out from her hands.

“It’s like water,” the Questor’s wife said, capturing the bubble as the Seven King melted away.  She was reading something on a laptop in the dark, with the Questor asleep besides her.  “It’s too much like the sea, in fact.  You can bleed in it,” and blood red swirled around the bubble, “but it only becomes more water.  There are darknesses within and without,” and the bubble turned black, “and magic, it makes ripples.”

She tossed the bubble into the darkness. Matana reached down and grabbed it.  The blood drained onto her hands, and the darkness swirled around the sphere, mixed in with bits of light, as if having taken some from the laptop’s screen.  “Make too many ripples, little fish, and you attract attention.”  The swirls moved faster, spinning and spinning, as she raised a bloody finger to her lips, touching it with her tongue.  She closed her eyes, and the globe rolled from her fingers, down and down until Peredur stopped it with his foot.

“The sea contains many secrets,” Peredur said.  “But there is not only water in our universe.  There is also fire.”  He picked up the bubble, and then fire came from his mouth in a loud roar, surrounding, almost as if polishing the sphere, and I woke with a start.

“I didn’t want to disturb you,” Tumnus said. “But I didn’t know where we were going.”

“Tumnus? That was the faun? Narnia, right?” I asked, groggily, but it had been on my mind.

“It’s actually Autumnus,” he said, “and that’s a bit of a nickname, too.”  He grinned.

“Huh,” I grunted.  “Your disco dude get his dinner?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.  I could swear I had seen something on the inside of the car when I looked away.  One of those perception things, like an afterimage.  I looked around for a moment, and saw that there were marks, some kind of runic sigils in the car.  I didn’t recognize them immediately, but they were deliberate and I didn’t remember seeing them in any Ford manuals.

“Yep.”  He turned on the car.  “Where are we headed?”

I gave directions, and then fell back into silence.  Tumnus backed out carefully, and then took the left.  After a moment, his hand strayed near the radio, then hesitated.  “What are you thinking about?” he asked.

“Did I look pensive?” I asked.

“Well, that, or you’re falling back asleep.”

“I was thinking about magic, I guess.” I shrugged.

“So, question number two. You aren’t exactly a wizard. What’s your talent?” he asked.

“You first,” I suggested.

“Long line of witches and wizards, actually. Family tradition kind of stuff, and enough new age amalgam to be interesting. I’m a real wild card. Oldest sister is a wizard-protector type, another’s a healer, that sort of thing. Dad was a wizard. I can spot it, do a few tricks, gets kind of metaphysical from there.” He shrugged.

“I close doors,” I said.  “I guess I do my best to keep things out, but some of them seem to feel there’s an open invitation.”

“Ghosts, demons, that sort of thing?  You’re like magic salt and pentagrams?” He chuckled.

“I’ve used salt,” I said, “but the traditional value in salt is specious. It’s like copper – both are present in the coin of blood. Salt isn’t the sacrifice it used to be, but I don’t think stuffing paper money into the cracks of a window is going to ward off anything.  Really, blood is compulsory.  It’s all blood.”

“Good thing I’m not squeamish,” he grinned again.  He had a nice smile.

“Well, truthfully, I’ve never used blood.  Tonight, if it still is tonight? Okay, last night, then, I used echoes to hold a door closed. Tied it into someone else’s magic.  I use sound, a lot.”

“Magical song?  Musical theatre?” he asked, teasingly.

“Well, I can carry a tune if it’s got handles, I suppose.  Can’t stand autotune, though.  I’ll change the station if I hear something with it.”

He grunted, as if considering.  “What won’t get the hint and stay in its place?”

“Well, I think that some ghosts belong here. They’re tied to the place, or are attracted to the energy.  Like theatres, for example.  Almost every theatre is haunted.”

“I don’t think most high school auditoriums have dead folk involved,” he said, skeptically.

“It isn’t about death. It’s about, well, like lwa,” I said. “Thespians who call on the repetition of a role, becoming someone else, bringing that spirit, such as it is, in, and transforming.  I’m not saying they’re all god-touched, or that archetypes are roaming free in their bodies, but there’s definitely a magic to it, a rider of sorts.  It attracts the weird.  Improvisation is much safer.”

“And often funnier,” he added.  “I can see what you’re saying.  But why would theatre ghosts like to knock things down and misplace props and such?”

“Entropy,” I said, firmly.  “There’s only so much influence on the world, and those are the easiest things to interrupt or interact with, I guess.  The lost items, the sudden gust of wind, that sort of thing.”

He nodded. “Pretty smart.  Not to mention the mental state of all the teenage drama types.  Half-extroverted, half-emo.” He laughed.

“Hey, poetry and spells are the same in a lot of places.  Every word written is a spell in some way, I suppose.”

“Wow, there’s some crazy magic in YouTube commenters,” he countered.  He had a delicate chin, and he was really smooth-shaven.

“It’s a scary thought, but what if the repetition is like prayer? What if people really suck because of thousands of written words underlining the fact, magically influencing them to suck?”

“In that case, I should be able to lose belly fat with this one amazing trick,” Tumnus teased.

“That cookie recipe’s okay, but not like grandma’s,” I deflected. “And I doubt the anti-virus that checked this message is really that self-aware.  But there’s still a point,” I entreated, “in that how angry, how much will there is even in those utterly vapid messages might be akin to spellcasting.  Anyway, it’s a theory,” I ended.

He pulled into the parking space next to my house.  “Okay,” he said.  “Third question.”  He turned towards me, and looked into my eyes.

I kissed him.  I hadn’t meant to. I didn’t even know what I was doing.  I placed a hand on his chest, as he kissed me back.

“Wait,” I said, feeling something.  “You’re a girl.”

He pulled back and slapped me across the face.

(207) Rushing and Bold

I was dazed for a moment. I realized I hadn’t just been physically slapped, but there’d been a slight magical element to it, too. Kind of on the level of a psychic pinch; just enough to clear the cobwebs from my brain and to start to make me aware of what an idiot I was.  I mean, the levels of idiocy I had just attained were being saved as trophies to my personal user account in the universe.  I had achieved some kind of award for utter thoughtlessness, probably with a cute little dunce cap icon next to it.  There weren’t words for how stupid and how sorry I was, and I couldn’t even imagine how distasteful and unpleasant I was now to Tumnus.  Even the little self-congratulatory, “See, kissing a guy wasn’t that bad,” kind of party that had started in my head had burned to ashes.

“I,” I started to say, and Tumnus’ look shushed me.

“Any sentence that starts with that letter you’d better think about, and not just once or twice,” he said, backing up as much as he could in his seat.  “It’s really presumptuous,” he added.

“Yeah,” I said.  I was hanging my head in shame, but it wasn’t enough.  “That was really insensitive of me.”

“Good start,” he said, curtly.  “Now how about we fast forward to the end where you’re leaving the car?”

That stung even more than the slap. I fumbled for the handle, and opened the door.  I turned back to him.  “Wait,” I said.

“I don’t want to hear it,” he said, shutting me down.

“No,” I said, “Look, I’m a jerk. I’m worse than a jerk.  I’m an utter and complete ass,” I admitted.  “I don’t want forgiveness or absolution or anything. I just — I kissed you.  I meant that part.”

Did I deceive myself, or did the frown turn a little bit? I was willing to hope.

“Get out,” he said, and he turned back to the steering wheel.

As I turned away, I heard him say something.  “What?” I asked.

“I said that my sister was right about you.”  He sighed, but the smile came back to his face.

“Your sister? You knew me?” I asked, and then right on it, “What did she say?”  Which should have come after, “How did she know me?” but I figured I might get the answer to that with the first bit.

“She’s a wizard.” He shrugged. “She said you weren’t hopeless.”

“Rousing endorsement. Any wizard in particular?”

“Oh, you know her.  She’s married to a fellow they call the `Questor.'”


He started the engine, and I got out, closing the door behind me.  I shook my head.

He sped off into the early morning and I fumbled for my keys to the apartment. Rayya was sitting on the futon while I dropped the keys in the octopus-cup.

“You survived,” she said.

“Never a doubt,” Nen said, coming from around the kitchen half-wall with a mug in his hand.  It left off a bit of steam, and smelled like cocoa and something sharp.  Ah, Irish Cocoa.  My liquor cabinet had gotten a bit strange with the Sibs.

Rayya rolled her eyes at her brother, then turned them back to me in a quick, suspicious movement.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.  I took my jacket off and slid it onto one of the chairs at the table.  I couldn’t keep myself from yawning.

She glanced at Nen, and I don’t know what kind of signal he gave off, but she shook her head. “Nothing.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” I said.  I pulled my phone out of its pocket and went into the bedroom.  I shut the door and stretched out on the bed, fully clothed.

I felt drained, and I felt chastised.  I looked at the time. I wanted to call Ed, I realized, but it was super-late, and while he was definitely one of the friends I could call anytime, that might have changed with Zach.  That probably wasn’t fair, and it sounded super jealous. Zach had headed over there after our session, and really, I didn’t want to interrupt the time they had together.

I sighed, kicking off my shoes.  “Naming is the first magic,” I said aloud.

Self-identification, then.  I was still heterosexual.  I felt a little ashamed and a little proud of that, a loop that kind of ouroboros’d off itself.  I rationalized it with knowing that it was good to know what you were, and what you liked, presuming what you liked was a consensual relationship.  I liked girls.  I amended that quickly — I liked women.  A cynical part of my head noted that I liked witches. I still was trying to believe that it wasn’t some kind of law of nature or curse, just a fluke of the universe.  So, I hadn’t changed my passions, exactly.

But I had liked Tumnus.  Had I liked him somehow subconsciously knowing that the body beneath was a she? The pronouns sucked. Had I been drawn to him magically? That was an excuse.  It was an excuse that worked with Zach because it was true with Zach; I had no reason to believe there was anything about Tumnus other than his charisma, and his delicate features, and his inviting nature, and that he laughed at my jokes.  You know, the things that would attract you to anybody.

Maybe that was it. Maybe heterosexual wasn’t the word.  Maybe there was some kind of word that says you’re attracted to people who you’re attracted to for the reasons you’re attracted to them.  I sighed aloud.  If that word existed I didn’t know what it was.  Maybe that was just one of the facets of “love” and I was an idiot.

No surprise there.

I sat up, and scooted over to turn on the light next to the bed.  I threw the phone onto the pillow, and  got up to brush my teeth and hip-shrug out of my pants, which yes, mom, I left on the floor in the bathroom.  When I came out, I popped a quick e-mail on my phone (I prefer a real keyboard, but yes, my phone has e-mail capability.)  I laid on the bed again, but this time I actually did it under the covers.

I couldn’t sleep.

I stared at the ceiling.

I don’t know when I actually fell asleep. I know my dreams were tangled, erotic things. full of whispers, self-recrimination, and lots of moist warm things.  Things.  You know.  The brain’s vaguely adequate attempt to imply sex divorced from any kind of specifics. I hope that my cingulate cortex has been sufficiently trained that none of the “things” are attached to the sweet lips of the Seven King’s lust aspect, or some other temptress, like the Messenger.  Or maybe it’s a trick of the brain, keeping it nebulous so that it can sneak in a little sugar from the creatures that inspired (okay, “aroused”) but of which I wouldn’t consciously take advantage.  Maybe that’s the guilt and self-recrimination acting generously to cover all of the bases.

I just know that when I woke up, I was tangled in my sheets, needed a wash, and had the wrong things in my mind and out of reach of my flesh. No one likes cold showers, hence the meaning behind the phrase, so I didn’t take one. If any of my guardians (I was still somewhat glad they’d stuck around, even if I still didn’t know the terms of the arrangement) was watching, well, they could stuff it. I was a grown man and I was capable of taking care of my own needs.

Thoroughly washed and calmed, I took a look at my phone and was pretty pleased that I was only a few minutes off from what time I had thought it was.  It’s the little things.  I stretched and dressed and left the sanctum of my room.  It smelled like waffles. Nen saw me and grunted, gesturing to a plate left in the kitchen.

He was watching Dirty Jobs with the sound turned off, and the captions yellow across the screen, and drinking chocolate milk. Rayya had slipped into the bathroom past me.  Nen’s choice of shirt was a cut off black Iron Maiden t-shirt over a long sleeved button-up red and black plaid with the cuffs cleanly cut-off, and something more like a kilt than a skirt of matching plaid, and really tight black jeans, probably in a kid size. It was vaguely what I’d consider gothic fashion, but still always just that slightly-off piece.  Rayya had been wearing her white kaftan that was always impeccably white.  Suspiciously white, actually.

I poured myself a glass of milk and squirted a bit of chocolate into it, myself. There was already a fork and butter on my waffles.  Nen disdained syrup, which given the fey proclivity towards sweets seemed strange until I found out he was just a stickler for what kinds of syrup he liked, and I wasn’t willing to spend that much money on it.  I’d been doing pretty well without a sinecure since the deposit from the Russians, but I was still cautious. I’d still prefer to find something, but my resume was at least a year out of date. I’d been keeping up with the administrative world, sharpening my office software against the whetstone of formatting old gaming documents. Or something like that.

I finished up breakfast in silence. Nen’s eyes were for the television, and Rayya had been finishing up the latest McGuire. Listening to the arguments about portrayals of fey in literature were a highlight and entirely educational experience, but ultimately there were too many things Beyond and both the Sibs were crafty enough not to reveal a lot of information about themselves. Still, there were authors they liked better than others, and I caught that they were sick of the name Oberon.

“What about Puck?” I’d asked once.

“That’s a title, like a Thomas,” Rayya said.

“Depends on the Court,” Nen explained. “Remember that the classic vision of fey is not entirely off.  We interact with your Reality in such a way that what you know as real filters in slowly and is interpreted by the strongest of our kinds. Then when we make our forays across the borders, some of those interpretations in part mix in with yours.”

“So, you’re a shifting, churning sort of ripple of fantasy in with my Reality?  Keeping it surreal and sweet like a line of caramel in ice cream?”

He laughed, but most of our fiction was like candy to them, inspiration and interpretation.

I was thinking about it as I ate my waffles.  Was my library of entertaining nonsense actually empowering the Sibs?  Were they getting ready to break off and create their own domain?  Not as easy as registering one and hosting it somewhere, but who knows? Maybe it was.  Maybe I was inspiring them in some fashion, but most public libraries had more than my meagre offerings.  Or maybe being in contact with me gave them some kind of latitude they wouldn’t normally have.  I liked to think I was an easy person to protect.  I didn’t do risky things…

…like associate with Dragons. And reinforce the bars on cages for nasty mean beasts in other dimensions. Flirt with faerie queens, or Kings, or the brother of a powerful wizard, or…

I put my head in my hands.

“Long night?” Nen broke the silence.

I nodded, sighing.

“What did the,” it sounded like ‘teahneen,’ but then he went on, “the Dragon need of you?”  He asked if being gently curious, but there was something sharp in it.

“What I do,” I grinned wryly.

He looked at me. “Are you … are you right?”

“No.” I smiled. “I am quite definitely not right.   Nor alright.  Oh, I haven’t been those for years, though.  Last night was, I don’t know, something completely different in the not right zone, but not all of it was Peredur.  Although I’ll just add a bunch to the list of grudges I hold against him. He never leaves me without one or two, really.”  I decided that was fair enough.

Nen just looked concerned, I guess.  I shrugged and went to check my e-mail.  Yep, there was a response from the e-mail last night, the one to the Questor.

(208) Chaste and Chastened

It’s kind of hard to have a conversation where you can’t ask any questions. It’s a little easier if you just can’t ask any “where” questions, but it’s still very difficult. Luckily, the Questor understood long pauses and he’d had experience in how to manipulate the magic for a long time. After a few minutes of catching-up, he put his wife on the phone.

“Yes. We’re all a bit odd,” she said, not even waiting for me. “One of our sisters is a healer, and another a hero. I should say the words so you can hear the capital letters on them, but we also have sisters who are remarkably normal. Not squibs, but who blend in with the crowd better than we do. It’s a relief, really. To them, most of all.” There was almost a chuckle there, but I could tell there was also some concern.

“None of that fear that your enemies would take them as hostage, and put them in a refrigerator, you know, the way they do?” I asked, somewhat sardonically.

“Contrary to popular media, wizards aren’t always in their lairs preparing for duels,” she responded. “We’ve usually got other things to do, you know, like fix dinner. I tell the kids that `Wizards fix things.’ That’s what they do,” she said, as if it were a law of the universe. Vampires bite, the sun sets in the west, wizards fix things. It’s just that simple.

“Huh,” I grunted. I decided it would be particularly tactless to point out that in my view of things wizards spent more time meddling in contrast to their subtlety, but she might be quick to anger. “And your kids?” I asked. I felt weird, like I was overstepping my boundaries, but in my brief experience with them, most mothers liked to talk about their children. I watched Nen as he picked up a book, one I didn’t remember getting, at least in recent memory. He often read while watching TV, but not to pass time during the commercials. He liked commercials. Rayya made it out and started up some more waffles in the toaster.

“Hah!” she barked out a bit of laughter. “I have hopes for them, but I can’t be too objective, so I’ll see what they want to learn and use that as a test for what I can teach them. They’re growing up as normal as possible, given everything. Video games, too many books about cats, and the occasional reminder that despite their father’s cynicism, and, well, atheism, there’s plenty of magic in the world.” She paused, “But no real zombies. Vampires, sure, but no zombies. That’s important,” she said, like she was reminding me.

“The Questor is an atheist?” I blurted out the question.

She laughed. “There is nothing requiring deity in what he does, although I suspect his keeper is some kind of lowercase-god. There’s a temptation to describe him as an avatar, so I get that, but a mouthpiece for the magic of alternative cartography is different than a piece of misplaced divinity.” She was quiet for a second. “I don’t find that his skepticism runs to me. As long as I’m his exception, I’m good,” and I could hear the smile in her voice.

“I guess that makes sense,” I said, considering everything. “Did you put your brother onto me?”

“What, you want to be part of his harem? I doubt you’d make the cut,” she said, and that smile was still there. “I did recommend that if he got the chance he might like to meet you, but I didn’t post some kind of all points bulletin indicating, ‘Closer here! Hide your ouija! Close your closet doors!’ or anything.”

“What did you do?” I asked. I meant what she had said to Tumnus, but she took in a breath that suggested she hadn’t wanted that question, or it was complicated.

After a slow sigh, she continued. “What exactly are you asking?”

“See, this is the problem with wizards. You think you’re fixing things, but then you always play cagey and vague so that you can later come in with a rationalization of what you were doing.” I probably sounded somewhat snipish. I think Nen smiled. Rayya had sat on the couch, presumably watching the show while chewing her waffles carefully. She liked syrup.

“Granted, but the question is important. Remember that the word ‘quest’ is in it, as I often remind friends.” She didn’t even have the audacity to deny it, which took some of the wind out of my sails.

“Um, I meant mostly what did you say, exactly?” I have to admit, the question is driven by ego. I want to know if it was flattering or questionable, which is probably the same as asking what her opinion of me was.

She chuckled. “Our life was shaped more by powerful men than women,” she said. I didn’t know if it was an answer. “One of the ways we learned love from them was by giving gifts. I give out truth as one of those gifts. I say that as a warning.”

I sighed. “Got it. Was it that bad?”

She laughed. “No, it wasn’t bad at all, and I don’t remember the exact particulars. There’s not a lot of people he can chat with about the hidden arts.”

“Hidden arts? Is this what we’re calling them these days?”

“The craft? The quickening? The way of the wise?” she suggested.

“Too close to ‘the Dark Arts,’ I think.”

“I always thought that was a sex ed class,” she mused. I don’t think I blushed.

“Um,” I answered. “So, with magic, why hasn’t he used it to change himself?” I asked. “Sorry,” I said, immediately. “I don’t want to blurt things out without thinking about them, but,” I sighed, as I could tell Nen was listening in enough to smother a chuckle. “I guess the question stands. I thought magic is for fixing things.”

“No,” she said, sharply. “Wizards fix things. Magic doesn’t fix anything.”


“Hey, wizards blurt things out too,” she chuckled, interrupting. “Magic is a tool. So are most wizards,” she chuckled, but it sounded uncomfortable. “Here. I could tell you that I use magic to clean the kitchen, or I could tell you that my husband does it, and that there’s a fable with a thousand mops that’s pretty telling.”

I sighed, expecting the answer. That’s kind of what I’d figured – magic complicated things.

“On the other hand, I think that’s a total cop out. I could clean my kitchen with magic. I could color my hair, and use magic for all the petty things in my life. It’s not a resource I’m worried about running out of, after all. But I asked my brother that question, and I think you of all people might really understand the answer.”

“I’m all ears. Well, except for the part where I’m only, something like 1/55th ears. I mean, my ears are normal,” I trailed off. Not something I should have said in front of the Spriggan sibs, given their kind’s proclivity to trickery.

“I asked him if he would want to be transformed via magic, and he said, ‘Yes,’ in a hot moment, and then he stopped and considered it. `Yes,’ he said, `it would be so much easier than the cost and the pain of recovery and the risks,’ and he took a deep breath, `but no. No, because I lose too much of the experience. Too much of the connection with others. I lose sight of what I’m working for with the community.’ See, magic isolates a person. I could see an argument that perhaps he could just say it was a flawless transition of sorts, but we’re not in that future. He couldn’t compare stories with his friends about top surgery, and his activism loses all verisimilitude. The transformation wouldn’t just be of his body, but of his relationships with others. Sure, he could build a new life free of all of his previous entanglements, but those entanglements include those willing chains of love and respect and connection to society. I hate to say it because it is pretty cliche, but it is strangely enough the difficulties of life that make it more real and more precious.”

“Huh,” I grunted. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“I thought about it when you talked about not wanting to be a wizard for just the same reason. It isolates people. Why am I not in a luxurious mansion, resting on my laurels, and instead work long hours in an administrative position? For some wizards, it makes sense to win a lottery or invest in long term funds, or prolong their life, but they pay in relationships. While I feel a bit too Galadriel when I say it, I will diminish, and I will remain me.” She sighed. “Besides, the paperwork is pretty similar. Instead of poring over old scrolls and ancient manuscripts and pondering the right font to use to pen my electronic Book of Shadows, I pore over accounting ledgers which seem just as arcane. And, um, yeah, I do spend time considering the right font and whether or not I should leave comments on, which seems less Gemara than graffiti.” She chuckled a moment.

“I don’t get the reference?”

“Sorry, it’s my cultural Jewish background speaking for a moment. It’s really quite clever unless you have to explain it,” she laughed. “Gemara is kind of the notes in the margins for how to translate the holy laws. Not exactly the dissenting opinions of rabbinical scholars, but kind of a lesson plan and commentary.”

“I’m sure.” I wrote down the word to study later. “What was the thing you didn’t want to tell me?” I asked.

“Wow, talk about quick transitions, and awkward questions. That’s like the knife-to-the-kidney of conversational gambits. I don’t even know if I can respond to that in a rational fashion. And yes, I’m stalling. I can do that.” She sighed again. “That’s not how you’ll get the answer you want. I was fishing a little. I wanted to know if your insatiable curiosity had yet managed to flounder in certain waters, but I don’t feel you’ve done more than look at the map. Heh. Imagine, the Questor’s wife talking surveying.”

“Did you just accuse me of dancing around the subject?” I laughed.

“Hey, remember I just pointed out the ‘quest’ in ‘question.’ Do I have to point out the double talk of ‘legend’ when looking at a map?”

“At least we’re not charting things orobathymetric,” I had gotten the word from a vocabulary site when playing my alternate character. I wasn’t actually sure if that was how to use the word, though.

“Words mean things, and the plays of language are verbal incantations. Why do you think they use different languages for sorcery in the movies?”

“Because Americans are generally monolingual?” I supposed.

“More true today than it was, yes, but you’ll see a lot of casters using dead languages in hopes to keep the adaptation of more livelier tongues at bay. There is intent in magic, although intent by itself may not make things magical. I think the act of translation also helps focus the mage, but that may just be me. I did learn sign language as a somatic component, after all.”

I laughed.

“It’s been fun talking, but I do have things to get done. Things to fix,” I could hear the grin in her voice. “Did that answer your questions?”

“It’s given me things to think about, for sure,” I admitted. “I’m still curious as to the things you’re keeping secret, but I’m sure they’ll reveal themselves right when I least expect them and will get the most disoriented.”

“That’s the spirit!” she said. I hoped it was sarcastic. “Never discount the value of a good learning experience.”

“Why do learning experiences always end in pain and misery?”

“You remember the negative ones so that you don’t do something that dumb again… the positive ones tend to fade away so you might try them as if new. Like learning to kiss someone, or the pleasure of a massage.”

“Good point.”

We made some conversational ending bits, and hung up. I stretched, and stood up.

“So, did she let out her secret?” Nen asked, without preamble.

“I don’t think so. I’m going to have to process some of what she said.”

He seemed pleased somehow, which perversely annoyed me. I went back to my room.

(209) Pumpkin or Pecan

“It appears,” I told the curtain, “that there’s something I’m not asking, and I’m not known for… not asking questions,” the awkward double-negative made me stumble, “therefore it is something that is hidden from me and yet in enough plain sight that I’ve been asked this a few times.” The run-on sentence somehow didn’t bother me at all.

The curtain did not feel like answering me, but while it knew which way the wind was blowing; it didn’t throw caution into it.

I sat on the bed, and grabbed the first graphic novel on top of the stack. I opened it but I wasn’t actually reading it. I realized that after a few minutes of turning pages and having no idea what was going on, and it wasn’t even penned by Moore or Morrison. I sighed and put it back on the pile, closing my eyes and flopping backwards.

I had to get right back up as the phone rang, or at least get into that weird contortion one uses to access their pocket.

“Hey, Ed.”

“Pumpkin or pecan?” he asked, without preamble.

“Pecan,” I said, immediately. “Pumpkin is a vegetable. Well, it’s a berry, but squash is always included in the mixed vegetable of the day with your entrée, so it’s practically healthy. Pecan, on the other hand, is almost never served in any kind of healthy way. Therefore, if you’re going to make a choice, and it’s a dessert, you ought to make the choice that’s not cheating yourself.”

“Wow. You sound like you’ve thought this through,” he said.

“I also think that the texture of pumpkin pie is gross. The flavour is basically alright, given that I like the spices that go into it, so I’ll take it in ice cream, but pie? Ick. Please don’t tell me this is a condom taste test thing.”

“Uh, no,” he said. “Why would I even?”

“I’ve had a weird night.”

“You? A weird night?” he chuckled. “What, the guy I know who is co-habitating with multiple creatures from dimensions with no name, who lives off the money from Russian sorcerers because he went all mitochondrial in one, who helped stake a vamp in the early morning only to have her join you eating apple crisps, that guy, has had a weird night? What do you do, get a job at a bank?”

“Got exhausted, got hibachi, turned into a dragon, kissed a boy who turned out to be a girl who turned out to be a boy, and yeah, I liked it, um, texted the Questor, got into a philosophical conversation with a wizard, and had some really strange dreams. Not in that order. But yeah, getting a job at a bank might be weird. I’d have to wear a tie and I think all the ones I have are genre.”

“I followed you until you said something about Dragons. Then things got weird.”

“See? What did I tell you?” I almost chuckled.

“Only you could take weird and turn it into weird. It’s like a topological experiment with the idea of strange. Are you sure you don’t have odd as some kind of power?”

I thought about it for a moment. “No. Although I thought Gambit was a cheap rip-off of Longshot in the X-men,” I said.

He chortled. “Tell me about this Dragon bit. I think anything that gets a capital letter like that might be a priority.”

“Well, I turned into a lower-case dragon,” I said. “Was turned into. Oh, it’s…” I sighed. “I’m still processing. Do you have a few, or do I need to order pecan in a hurry?”

“Mom works in mysterious ways – I just got a post-it note airplane that said, ‘Nevermind, he wants pecan.'” I could hear him settling down in the background. “Shoot.”

“Bang,” I replied, automatically. I sighed again. “I don’t know, bro. You know how things are in books? It wasn’t like that. There was no wing flappy-flappy, like that bird game on the phone. I didn’t… I didn’t like not having a choice.”

“What, you wanted the ‘flappy-flappy’?” he asked.

“No, I didn’t like not having a choice. In any of it. I mean, I would have been lost and probably plummeted into something if I’d had to actually fly, but, see,” I trailed off for a moment, “lower-case ‘d’ meant that I was somehow attuned to Peredur. Like he was the master and I was just riding in the back of this dragon’s brain. I mean, forget the pain – that’s somewhere beyond words – I… hey, I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe I didn’t transform, maybe he drove the dragon into me. Kind of ‘Dragon and the George’-esque.”

“‘Of course evil is a-foot! Evil doesn’t have wings!’ I may be mis-remembering the quote, but I get you. Sounds particularly unpleasant either way. So, maybe this is something we can use? You were some kind of lesser dragon, lower-case. Or did Peredur include the submission it as part of the spell? Or did you eat some bad ravioli? I told you it was past the expiration date,” he said, kind of jokingly.

“You don’t believe me?” I asked, appalled. I probably sounded a tad bit whiny, too.

“It’s a lot to comprehend. I know Zach came home exhausted. Some days it’s easier to believe than others, to be honest. I just think about bugs, but you guys get into cosmology and all of this deep Reality stuff. It’s worse than when Zach is just thinking about columns of numbers.” He chuckled a little. “You can’t hear me shrug, but I guess I neither believe nor disbelieve this stuff anymore. I just take it for what I’ve lived, you know?” He took a breath. “Let me put it this way: I believe you. I believe in you, and I believe that what you’re saying is what you’ve experienced, and just because I’ve never been turned into anything, and I expect I never will, doesn’t mean I don’t believe that you were. It just means I’m missing the frame of reference.”

I guess I felt a little better with his explanation, but I wasn’t going to say it aloud. “Thanks, man. I kind of wish I didn’t have a frame of reference for all this. I’d rather just punch in, work at the bank, punch out, go home, vegetate in front of the computer, and play games now and then. Oh, and maybe work a girl in once in a while.”

“That’s the spirit. Throw out your bodyguards and tell them you’re going muggle. Oh, and buy a, `No Dragons allowed,’ mat for your door.”

“I’d have to custom order, and if I’m doing that I might have to list a few more things besides Dragons. Then it starts getting too small to read, and besides, a door mat is meant to be stepped on, not acknowledged. Maybe one of those demon traps Zach goes on about with that show he loves?”

“Demons, now? I thought they were too religious to exist.”

“It’s complicated,” I said. I sighed yet again. “I don’t like ‘it depends,’ when it comes to consent, I guess. It’s not that I’m owed something no one else is, or that `consent’ is some kind of magic word, but since when did I become a chew-toy for magical creatures? Or maybe not a chew-toy. Maybe a door mat. I’m in control here. I decide whether they’re in or they’re out.”

“Heidi Klum just got to announce it. Maybe you need to stop looking pretty and find the right judges,” he teased.

“I just looked up that show because I wanted to know who Tim Gunn was and why he was meme-worthy,” I explained. “And, of course, cute models.”

“Cute Tim Gunn,” he countered. “But I think you’ve got something there. Can’t you lock Peredur out?”

“Oh, I’ve thought about it. Trust me, I have.” I wasn’t going to say that Peredur scared me. It didn’t sound right. “It was different than all those times when he thought he was doing me a favor. He said it was penance.”

“Penance? What, he’s taking confession now? You really aren’t all that naughty, you know.” He was teasing.

“Stop thinking about school boys,” I teased right back, then went back to serious. “No, for… her. Naul.”

“What do you owe her? Didn’t she hurt you enough?” Ed was more indignant than I think I’d ever heard him.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Nothing. Everything. I don’t owe her anything. She was beyond description. Being in the presence of Dragons is awesome, in the way the word means. Full of awe. Terrific, full of terror. It’s kind of like,” I grasped for an analogy or something, “It’s kind of like a piece of unexpected art that moves you in a way you didn’t expect, that you didn’t anticipate needing and yet at the same time knocks you off balance and makes you uncomfortable.”

“You were in the hospital. You could have died.” Ed’s voice was flat.

“This is too much like talking about our feelings,” I said. “I feel like I should be sipping a mocha at some fancy coffee shop with my pinky out,” I groused. “I’m just off-balance. It’s like, I dance on the edge of this secret world, right? Well, I don’t dance. I mosey, maybe. Anyway, we all have our niches. I can hold my own in a conversation about sports, barely. It’s like statistics have their own occult significance, and they’re full of superstitions, and even in speaking this sentence I magically transform it into something I comprehend in my own little sphere of existence. It’s like you making analogies based on bugs all the time. Which you don’t, thankfully, because we all wince and start feeling itchy, but seeing a Dragon is probably the closest I’ll ever get to acknowledging the presence of a God. I don’t worship it, but Peredur and the thing last night made me feel like I was supposed to, and I can’t abide slavery.”

Ed was quiet. “You need to talk to someone for real, bro. Someone with faith. I don’t…” he drifted off. “Look, I believe what I believe, and I don’t think I’d equate religion with slavery. I can see why you would, but for some people it’s the opposite. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion are historically quite significant.”

“That makes sense, but no one wants to be forced into believing something they don’t,” I grumbled.

Ed chuckled. “I don’t think they can, E. You can do it to yourself. You can try to wish yourself something you aren’t all you want, but you are you. You are the youest you can be, if I can paraphrase that other Doctor.”

“I don’t think Doctor Seuss had a TARDIS.” I mulled on that. “On second thought… but that’s a digression. I am not sure that magic can’t do that. What’s a magical compulsion? Sure, ‘Command’ spells aren’t supposed to make you do something you wouldn’t do in the core of your soul in games, but that’s games. That’s not real.”

“Magic isn’t real,” he said, and I could imagine him saying it with that straight face you get before you crack up laughing.

I started laughing. “Okay, good point.”

“Seriously, I can’t say I’ve experienced what you have. I merely glanced into the Abyss and that was enough for me – I didn’t want to hang around and study it. Memory has a lot to say about what we forget, and how we repair our brains is important. You need some brain work.” He took a deep breath. “I can’t say I’d prescribe it on a regular basis, but for you, I recommend a night of debauchery. Make sure you lock out all of your ex-s phone numbers, first. That said, I happen to have a whole day of total food porn planned for Thursday.”

“Yeah, your mom’s cooking does tend to make me feel guilty and want to close my door and take a shower afterwards,” I grinned. “So, what you’re saying is that I need to talk to a psychologist who is cued into the magic scene?”

“Or a rabbi, or something. Are there wizard shrinks?”

“No, no, no wizards. They can be good to talk with, but they just bend your mind into pretzels. In a figurative sense, I hope. I don’t feel like I want to be dipped in cheese.”

“Bro, I think I can safely say that that’s not a common sensation,” he laughed. “You good?”

“I’m good.” We got off the phone and I stared at the ceiling.

Magical psychologist… like a court astronomer. I had an idea…