Archive for the ‘ Chapter 08 – Opener ’ Category

(180) Along the Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of Dragons.

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there a blood o’clock?” I asked.

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

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

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

“What is the ring?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh.  Kind of catchy.”

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

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

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

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

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

“How can you tell?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

(181) Hickory Shrinkery Doc

“Wait,” I said, “nowhere in my song does it say, ‘Shrinker of heads.’ I feel like it should rhyme with ‘beds,’ somehow as a salve to my sexual machismo, but you don’t see me in rap battles for a reason.”

“Lord Thomas warned us that you had a way of speech most confusing,” Rayya said. “Can you declare what you mean more plainly?”

I finished squeezing myself into the hole, humming a cover of, “White Rabbit” that was remarkably on-key, if I only had my own ears to prove it. I stopped in mid-note, staring at the Wonderland beneath us.

You know that Escher scene in Labyrinth where Bowie croons that emo lullaby to incarceration in the destructive tendencies of youth? That might not have been what it was about, but I haven’t seen it in a while. That’s what the staircase reminded me of immediately, its blue steps wandering upwards and downwards in a spiral deep beneath the hill. The blue deepened into violet, and then into red the deeper it went. I heard singing, screaming, laughing, the sounds of metal clanging, the ruffle of books as they were browsed, a smile, a frown, a chuckle forced from someone who didn’t want to let it out. The sounds of life. I heard the portal like a faint gong, like a wave of heat passing, the taste of the dregs of your jasmine tea at the cheap Chinese place.

I didn’t fall, but it was a close thing. I stumbled down a couple of steps and caught myself before I trampled Rayya. I made an animal noise, something drawn out of me by shock, and then caught my breathing.

Rayya smiled at me, the strange contours of her cheeks and lips curving in ways human mouths don’t. They practice this, you know, mimicking our expressions to better control us. On their own, they don’t smile, or laugh, or cry. Maybe they send their emotions out in scent glands or some kind of pitch we can’t hear, or they do it telepathically through eye contact. I don’t know. I remember Doloise once asking me to make faces at her, and watching her make her own in the mirror to get it just right. I hadn’t really remembered that until Rayya tried her smile on, like, what did she say? “Cheap tailoring.” Worse than Wednesday Addams, if you know what I mean. It looked dangerously amused, nevertheless.

I kind of got the feeling she didn’t like me.

I don’t like that feeling. I don’t think anyone does, but I just wish there was some way to correct it. I’m a nice person. If I don’t dislike you, let me at least be neutral in your worldview. Give me a chance, or tell me how to fix it, right? If I’m doing something wrong, I might be able to change. Except I don’t know, maybe I remind them of their ex-, or maybe they hate my haircut, or maybe they just don’t like me and there’s nothing I can do about it.

I took a moment to look at my feet and make sure I didn’t have any thorns or, I don’t know… weird things attached to them. I decided to try again with conversation, anyway. “Isn’t there some kind of magic you can use to tell the difference? If he’s crazy or not?” Magic ought to be useful like that. “I mean, it’s not the kind of stuff I do.”

“Your opinion is required by the Seven King,” is all she said.

Huh. Well, if you think about it, crazy and truthful are kind of like a Klein bottle. They wrap around – if you have too much truth, you go crazy, and if you’re crazy enough, you tell the truth. Is there a doorway to madness? Is there a doorway to truth? Those were both good questions, and I didn’t have answers. My gut feeling was that there was, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near them, even if metaphorical.

“Follow,” Rayya said again, and she started leading me down the stairs. They were not…regular. Okay, even I had to chuckle at the use of the word, but this went for more definitions than usual. The space between the first step and the second was probably about four inches, and the second and the third was about nine inches, and then the third and the fourth… you get the picture. And they weren’t wobbly, but they weren’t straight. The first tilted left. So did the second. The third didn’t.

As we went down into the swirling staircase, the atmosphere got warmer, and some reddish light seemed to crawl up the sides of the walls, reminding me disturbingly of blood. Rayya was not so disturbed (well, I guess I was about to become the local expert on that) so I just gathered that it was a natural phenomenon as we ventured into the throat of the hill.

There were lights, so apparently the gnomes or kobolds or whatever Rayya and Wrecks’ people were didn’t rely on infravision. I made a mental note to argue that the next gaming session I made. There were all sorts of lights, though, varied and unusual from each other, like the steps. This one was a small brazier with a reddish flame. This next one was a tall one as bright as an LED, and made of silver coils. The third one was a low gold lamp out of one of Aladdin’s adventures. The fourth, a cage in which something small like a lit puffball floated. They illuminated the staircase in a way that was not consistent with the colors I’d seen from the spire above. It was a lesson, I think, that I could not rely on the presumptions of my senses.

Well, heck, yeah, I knew that going in… I mean, could there be a more obvious, “duh” moment? The problem is that knowing it intellectually, and knowing it in your gut isn’t the same thing. Sometimes you need to be literally hit in the gut, sometimes it just takes a little time to process. We rely on so much visual information to determine the world we live in that we are often unprepared for the worlds we don’t. Of course, this is another reason why that which is Beyond is not a good thing. Exciting, fun, dangerous, awesome, yes, all those things, but while it’s been said the crazy ones kiss better, is the rollercoaster worth your life? Your sanity? Your soul?

There were levels at the corners (as opposed to the rounds) and yes, they were all different. The first one had a set of double doors that wouldn’t have been outrageous in a Lord of the Rings film. The second was the jaws of something like a megalodon. The third was a bunch of silks waving in the wind with a faint music behind them. Some of them were more than doorways, or what I like to think of as “doorways plus.” You know, they had the potential to go to more than the next room.

Rayya moved me away from what I think was the fourteenth doorway with a bit of a push. “This is forbidden,” she said. The arch looked fine, outlined in writing that was squiggly and, well, I was presuming it was writing. It could be a whole bunch of Lovecraftian slime-guys hanging out with their weenuses showing. The tunnel went on through it, but curved pretty quickly so that I couldn’t see anything past it. She tip-toed or soft-shoe’d past it. (Wait, soft-shoe is a dance. But she wasn’t on the tips of her feet. Why are words so weird sometimes? She wore very soft slippers of white.) I didn’t feel anything weird past it, but maybe it was some kind of weird cultural taboo, like only people with purple tongues were allowed.

I did not trip down the next flight of stairs, but I did have to catch myself as we took the next exit. This one had two sets of stone doors. The first was huge, easily three times my height, and open to the sides. They were about two feet thick, at my glanced estimate. The second set was half that height, and closed. Sigils I didn’t recognize or understand marked the doors.

“If it continues to shrink in one of those Xeno’s paradox sort of ways, I won’t be able to get through,” I noted aloud.

Rayya ignored me. She went through the first set of doors, and I could feel tension, like the moment just before the bug zapper does its thing. I wanted to pause and maybe put a hand through first, wondering if the doorway was some kind of scanner. I stepped after her with a little jump, and felt nothing. The second set of doors remained closed.

Rayya stopped in front of them. I couldn’t really tell what she was thinking, but all the cues I could get from her manner suggested disappointment, or surprise, or some concern. She put her hands on the doors and some of the glyphs lit up. She brought her hands together and stepped back.

Nothing happened. She didn’t say anything, but I continued to have the feeling that something was not going as planned.

I reached out with my trick to kind of “feel” at the door.

It was Closed, alright. Closed with a capital “C.” I knew the feeling of it. When I Close things, if I’ve done it right, it fades into the fabric of what I think of as reality. Sometimes I can only Close doors so much that they can be Opened again under the right circumstances. You know, conjunctions, sacrifices, whatnot – some places simply can’t be closed permanently, just as some places may never be Opened. This was Closed, and shut down hard.

I said nothing for a few minutes as Rayya studied the door. I looked for handles, locks, hinges, torch sconces that you turn sideways… you know, all the usual stuff. “Edro!,” I said. “Mellon.” My elvish accent is atrocious, I know.

Rayya glanced at me, and I could read curiosity on her face. That was a definite fey emotion. Usually it was followed by the killing of a cat, and someone’s entrails being read, but it was at least something for which we had notes in common.

“It’s just something you say in front of closed doors. Like, ‘Open Sesame,'” I explained.

“Do doors listen to you?” she asked. The curiosity had faded, though, so while I had touched her, it hadn’t lasted. Oh well. Story of my love life.

“Sometimes,” I said, truthfully. I’ve caught myself apologizing to walls, too.

She made a kind of noise, a tick but not a tsk, if you understand the difference, and turned her attention back to the doors.

“Maybe the King decided on a long lunch?” I suggested. “Or one of these symbols means, ‘Gone Fishin’.'”

She ignored me, and placed her hands on different parts of the door. These items did not light up, which seemed to frustrate her because she pulled her hands back quickly and took a step away.

“They’re closed,” I said. “I mean really closed.”

“They should not be. We are expected. We are invited.” She was annoyed.

“I’m Door-closer,” I shrugged. “I don’t open them.”

“I am aware of your limitations,” she said. Yeah, she was definitely annoyed. “You are, however, ignorant of mine.”

She stood back, and I felt the gesture of her will. It was a kinetic force, a quick exhalation of breath, and then the stone doors shuddered. She gestured again, and her eyes were brighter, and the stone of the very earth shook once, twice, like a creature waking from a nap.

I guessed her knocking worked, because the Closure snapped. The doors slowly opened into a dark hall, lit by pale runes against columns that went up into the darkness of the ceiling.

“The Seven King awaits,” Rayya said, bowing.

“I go first?” I asked, giving an eye to the darkness. There was a faint white glow somewhere in the distance. “I mean, you know the way, so maybe you should go first, do the introductions, you know.”

“The Seven King did not request my presence,” Rayya said.

I didn’t fire off an, “I wonder why,” because I’m not that kind of guy. Plus, she had at least a sixty percent immunity to sarcasm. I sighed, and took my phone out of my jacket pocket, so I could use its flashlight mode. “Fairyland is going to be the death of my battery power,” I muttered.

Even with the light offered by my phone it was dim and murky. Truly, the shadow was like a sea I was swimming in, a floating black ink that gently shied away from the light, as if with some sort of respect. A, “Pardon me, I didn’t realize you needed to see. I’ll just be dark around the edges then, alright?” The glowing designs on the columns were green and gold or blue and white, to no pattern I was able to immediately discern. I took a picture of one, because hey, I already had my phone out.

The flash startled something, as did the click of the picture being taken. I forgot to turn that off in the options. I switched it back to flashlight and turned to the side. I wasn’t going to turn around all the way. No, that’s how they get you, and I didn’t want to be a pillar of anything, except maybe righteousness and strength. If I could order off the menu and not choose power’s prix fixe selection.

I didn’t hear anything, as quiet as I could try to be, what with the sound of my heart beating in my ears. I took a deep breath and switched modes once more. I took another picture. This time I saw it out of the corner of my eye.

The glowing designs wrapped around a stone creature perching like a gargoyle higher up on the column. I stepped back into the darkness as the realization hit me. These weren’t just pieces of art. I looked at all the columns between the door and the glow I was headed towards. This was an army. An army between myself and the Seven King.

I put my phone away and kept walking, careful not to brush against any of the pillars. The glow I was walking towards grew as the distance shrank. It was a huge tree, glowing white from bark, branches, and leaves. In front of it was a dark structure that I took to be a throne. It began filling the area up with light, so much that I was fighting blindness, especially in regards to the previous darkness. I slowed when it was a more comfortable distance, when I could almost focus on the dark structure and the stranger who sat there.

The structure itself was kind of like chair, but more something I would call a lounge. It was a cushioned bench partially made of the tree itself. The padding was made of black leaves and silver moss, I guess. It was a very modern look, and the individual lounging upon it (hence the reason for the term) was very modern in her own way. Sophisticated. Complicated.

She had beautiful skin the color of soil when it was freshly turned and rained upon, and if that seems very specific, it’s because it’s what I immediately thought. She had, let’s call it, ample cleavage, which was notable because not a stitch or thread or even a candy floss of clothing was worn. She had amazing legs. I mean, the turn of the toe, the length, the delicate curve of the calves. Yeah, well, they were nice looking. It’s a thing for me. I felt the flush and like just about every adult male since the beginning of clothing just put my hands kind of in front of my waist and tried to look nonchalant. Her eyes were dark, like pools of warm chocolate, and the lashes were feathery. She had long black hair, left adrift over her shoulders in fits and curls.

“Do I have the honor of addressing the Seven King?” I asked, finally.

The laughter was like chimes in the wind. “Dear Thomas was true,” the King said. “You will be an amusing diversion.”

I tried not to visibly swallow as she moved her legs in a scissors-like motion and slid forward. “A diversion? I thought you wanted me for my…” I took a deep breath, concentrating on the blinding white tree, “…professional talents.” Rohana would have laughed, I think.

Something changed about her as she chortled in glee again, and this time it sounded more like a symphony of triangles. It started as a shimmer at her toes, and spread like a wave up her form, and then she was diamond and water, two dark eyes in an almost sexless body, with a head shaped like an upside-down tear drop. She stood to her lovely crystalline feet. “Which ones? Dragon taming?” she smiled, and the insides of her mouth sparkled as her black tongue flickered.

“I know when I’m being mocked,” I said. I didn’t know if I was irritated. “You requested my presence?”

The triangles again, and she walked past me, smelling like cucumber and something spicy and wonderful like pumpkin pie in her passing. “I require your expertise.”

“If you want a door closed, I’m your man.”

“I do not know if I want a man,” she laughed.

“Why was the door Closed here?” I asked. The darkness settled on her skin like a grey mist, and then she was different once more, tall and ebony, with long curved spikes from her head, and wicked black claws at her fingernails. She turned back to me, and her eyes were grey and a film was over them.

“You are a piece of a puzzle, a con in the conundrummer’s beat,” she said. Her voice was breathy, like it whispered past cold caves in the night. “You are a liar for all you speak sooth, soothing words that belie your confusion, fused with the conundrum of a hero’s feat.” Long black robes wrapped around her body with a shrug of her shoulders, a cloak woven of the night. The patterns of the columns shifted and hands came out of the stone, panicking my personal zombie reactors (I have a line of them that stretch all up and down my left side) reaching at nothing, then melting back as she passed. “Come, world walker, follow the path of my thinking. I am thinking you fear the path before us, but fear’s behind us, and opportunity summons. Summon your courage, man. If man you will be for me, my desires may be given, and you given to yours.” She laughed, and it was a cackle.

The columns began giving out additional light, painting the huge room in colors, as when Gandalf lifted Wormtongue’s hold on Rohan. The sun had come to this place of stone in the form of a dark beauty, dancing before me.

What could I do? I followed.

I spent a moment considering that it was an incredibly good thing that I had spent my life as a geek. I mean, I was still agog seeing the special effects of the changes the Seven King (if, that indeed, was the King and not some imposter – I’d seen three forms, were there four more?) but I wasn’t paralyzed with awe. Was I getting jaded about magic? Or was I just mentally shying away from the thought that she had made a come-on to me, and I was wondering if she shifted shapes in bed?

And would that be a good thing or a bad thing? I mean, sure, we’d sipped at our beers and considered if cat girls were considered beastiality, but that was a thing we did because it alleviated the discomfort of finding them hot. Or if being in bed with werefolk was treading too far across the line. Shapeshifter sex was just a faint curiosity, tentacles or no tentacles.

I thought about Rohana and cringed. I mean, I had about six justifications ready along the lines of, “But fairy sex doesn’t count,” that was as applicable as explaining that sex with a -cubi or a nymph wasn’t too far from masturbation. I was also clearly aware that it was, indeed, rationalization. Were we enough of a thing? She had a girlfriend, or had had a girlfriend, and well, I knew people who lived the polyamorous lifestyle and some were happy and some, well, were not. You know, like everyone else. It just seemed a whole heck of a lot more complicated and required specialized time management software.

But you don’t refuse a King, right?

I didn’t hate the part of myself that thought that, but I did feel guilty about it. And wondered if I was carrying any kind of protection. I knew it was a bad idea to keep a condom in your wallet. Not only did it spill out at the wrong time when you were paying for your milk, but the temperature changes could damage the spermicide and the latex, and friction could tear it on a micro level. And once you have sex with a fairy, you have sex with all the other fairies they’ve had sex with…wait, that’s not how it goes.

I had been known to call vampirism a “magic STD,” but never to Matana’s face. I think.

The hall filled with light and the ceiling was still a fair mist, but a bright one instead of that of shadow. The colors of the columns flared, and the clicking of the stone feet of the one I followed was the only noise except my labored breath and bare feet against the floor as I tried to keep up with her.

We neared the door and Rayya bowed. “My King,” she answered my question, “You have answered in the form of war?” she asked from her kneeling position.

“Thomas spoke true, and in truth he bespoke the gift that gives us our answers. Answer enough.” The words were said in an off-hand manner. “Grant chambers to our guest, as I go to our captains, and Captain’s Chambers.”

Rayya nodded.

The glossy black statue turned to me. “The Cold Water that Shapes the Stones will guide you,” she said, and her hand reached out to gesture towards Rayya, then turned to me. Her long claws reached for my face, and I kept myself from flinching. Barely. I definitely blinked. One touched my forehead, and those grey eyes searched mine for something. I couldn’t tell if it was something she found, but she pulled those huge curved weapons (that reminded me of prehistoric ground sloths; those things were crazy dangerous) from my face and then disappeared in a haze of little black specks, like volcanic ash.

“The Water that Shapes the Stones?” I asked.

Rayya’s expression didn’t change from what I considered “annoyance.” “My brother is Cold Waves that Crash on Rocks,” she said. “His given name is Nen.”

Wrecks. Yeah. I can see it. “Does he have a song?”

“Yes,” she said.

I thought about asking further, but she turned and began walking out of the doorways. The doors closed slowly behind us, but didn’t feel quite as Closed. I still didn’t know why they had been sealed the way they had, unless it was to make Rayya exercise a power.  Was it a demonstration for me, or was it a chiding for her? That was my first mystery.

I followed my guide as she went down the stairs and chose a set of doors that were almost frilly. They had billowing blue drapes with white lace on the bottom, and they were outlined in ornamental silver shapes.  The wood was black, or at least painted that way.  The door led to a hallway that looked like a posh hotel, with room names like “The Engraver,” and “The Artiste.”  My room’s name was, “Eternal.”

“Welcome to Shangri-La,” I muttered, as Rayya opened the door to my suite.




(183) Hospitality Suite

Rayya moved to the side, letting me past her.  She stood behind me for a moment, gauging my reactions, watching my butt, making faces at me… I didn’t have eyes in the back of my head, so I don’t know.  I smelled a faint flowery scent from the open windows, probably some kind of linen perfume.  I was not on the first floor; I’d guess maybe…eight levels up? The windows looked down into a green park, and some streets with bad parking options, and I could see a hotdog vendor on the sidewalk.  I checked my phone out of amusement.  It was looking for a network, so I didn’t have any reference for the time zone. I looked in the drawers for hotel paraphernalia, like a menu, or a writing pad or a pen with their logos. (I had an old Lakewood Sheraton ballpoint that was one of the best pens I’ve ever had; smooth lines, consistent ink, and comfortable to use.)  Nothing.  There was a telephone with no numbers on it, no area code or something I could use to track down exactly where I was.  The door closed after a moment, and I looked up at the noise.  Rayya was gone, and so was the door.

Of course.

“But what if I want room service to bring me up an extra pillow?” I asked of the air.

Nothing responded, for which I was both relieved and annoyed at the same time.  Relieved because it would have made me jump, annoyed because I was not sure where I was.  I presumed I was back somewhere near my own Reality, but that was a guess at best.  It could be unicorn meat in the hotdogs, after all.

The bath looked more luxurious than anything I’d been exposed to outside of a paranormal romance.  It had steps up to it, and a faucet that looked a bit like a bronze dragon.  I froze for a moment, then relaxed.  More teasing, I presumed.  Looked nothing like Her, at any rate.  Wings were all wrong.

Talons were wrong.

Teeth were wrong.

I wrenched my gaze away from it.  The sink was one of those extra long rectangular ones with two faucets and drains, and one long and elegant brass mirror.  The towels were oh-so-fluffy.  A bathrobe was included. The floor was cork or bamboo or something under my feet.  I washed my hands, and, thinking about it, pulled out the silver ring from my pocket.  (I have to take off my rings when I’m doing the dishes.)

I saw the engraving in the shadow, a single endless branch with faint leaves.

I made it into the bedroom, where there were six large pillows, and a plush carpet that made me wiggle my toes just to enjoy it.  I sat down on the bed, and sank into it.  Alarmed, I poked it a couple of times. Oh, it was just one of those “space age” materials that always made me think of the word, “squamous,” or at least the way the word sounds.  I know it means “scaly,” but it ought to be something that just burbled into spontaneous generation from a swamp.  Or a gumbo.

It was comfortable enough. I stretched out.  I knew I was too wound up to actually sleep, which is why when Rayya woke me it was so startling.

“Door-closer,” she said.

“You can call me ‘E,'” I mumbled.

“You are summoned to the Seven King.”

“Again?” I wasn’t serious.  I was just suddenly hungry.  I used my fists to clean out my eyes.  Bad habit, and my eyes made that dry squeaking noise.

“You are required once you have broken your fast,” Rayya amended.

Food!  “I could kiss you,” I said.

“Please do not!” she backed away from me.

“Uh-huh,” I grunted.  Literalists.   “Where is this… food?”

She waved to a sideboard out of the bedroom where, once I stood, I could see that there were bloom-down-cheeked peaches, melons, and raspberries. Apples, russet and dun.  The fruits of the Goblin Market. A pitcher of milk that didn’t smell like I was used to, but I took a glass anyway.  Probably gryphon milk or something. (I’d hate to have nursing gryphlets.  Those beaks look pretty sharp.)  No pineapple. Amazing grapes that actually tasted like grape.  I took a handful of some of the stuff I didn’t recognize, just in case they were snozzberries.  I wanted to taste snozzberries.  After all, weren’t all of us dreamers of the dream?

“There are also garments available to you.”

“Shoes?” I asked.  I live in Colorado.  This means that three-fourths of the year I can wear flip-flops, and the other fourth I’m in snow boots.  Barefoot is always a possibility, but it was more suited for beaches or grassy green fields while you run after kites and watch out for what geese leave behind.

Rayya stared at me blankly.

I sighed.  “Why the garments?”  That was a disturbing word.  Loincloths?  Hose?  Fishnet?

“Hospitality,” she said.  “You are our guest, and have insufficient fur to call your own.”

I munched on an apple, thinking.  Rayya stood at attention and continued to stare.

“The obligations of a host,” I thought aloud.  I guess I do make housecalls.

Rayya looked at me as if I were going to say something interesting, but then her curiosity faded.  She waited while I chewed and swallowed.

I laughed aloud.  “I’ve read of pocket dimensions, but you have enveloped a piece of Reality in a pocket. I bet this room doesn’t exist to the hotel it’s in, maybe always rented by an organization controlled by the Seven King, maybe forgotten, cleaned by brownies instead of maid service.  That’s why there was no chocolate on the pillow.”

Rayya didn’t respond.  I shrugged.  The food was delicious, actually.  Not what I would have ordered, given a choice, but sweet and satisfying.  The milk was good as well, rich and very different.  “I wouldn’t order this, mind you.  Do I tip the waiter, or is that like giving thanks?”

Rayya’s hands clenched, and there was a dark look to her expression.  She walked over and opened the closet with a bit more force than it probably warranted.  But maybe it was stuck.  I don’t know.  The closet door crashed against the wall, and vibrated for a moment.  The closet was packed full of clothing, little of which I could recognize if I hadn’t been to a Renaissance Faire a few times.  (Okay, every year since I was little.)

I gestured at the closet.  “Is it safe, or will it suck me up into Narnia if I push too hard?”

Rayya continued to glare.

“I’m not changing with you in the room,” I pointed out.

“You. Try. My. Patience, Door-closer,” she said, spitting the words out one at a time.  “I do not know why the Seven King has chosen to punish me with your presence, but I will abide.”

“You’re no slice of sweet cake yourself, Water-Daughter,” I responded.  “You’re bitter icing and dry pastry.  I’m here because a Dragon didn’t give me much choice in the matter.”

Her manner changed almost immediately.  “A Dragon?” she asked.

“Yeah, you know, big, scaly, lots of places at once, breathe fire, occasionally do crazy powerful magic.  Dragons.”  I made wing motions with my hands.  “I would have come because I was invited, but apparently it was important for me to get out of town, or something.”

“This is information the Seven King must have,” she said.  “You must hurry and don what you would so we may sooner be in Our Majesty’s keeping.”

I pulled out a couple of pieces.  There were, indeed, boots in there.

“Where do the clothes come from?” I asked.  “Or is this where all the socks go?”  I would have expected a number of mismatching, single boots in that case.  “It’s okay, I really don’t expect an answer for my rhetorical questions.”

“You may maintain your expectations,” Rayya suggested.  There might have been the slightest hint of amusement in her voice.

The clothing fit remarkably well, although if I didn’t have aspirations to being a LARPer, I would probably have felt ridiculous.  I didn’t know what to call the boots, other than high leather boots, soft heeled.  It was in a green that I’m sure accented my eyes.

“Acceptable.”  Rayya led me through the door that wasn’t there, and down deeper into the hill.

I followed, feeling much better wearing shoes.  It’s funny how little things like that change your entire mood.  It was like when I lost my watch and tried getting acclimated to checking my cellphone for the time.  I felt lost, and at a disadvantage.  I now felt I could handle the Seven King.  Or, well, maybe not handle, just endure.

I put my jacket back on, because it had pockets and this faire-wear did not.

The stairs continued the way the stairs had begun, irascible and patternless except in their continuing annoyance.  The wash of red along the walls continued to remind me of blood, as if the heart of the mountain was less and less a metaphor and more a literal situation.  If I started hearing drums, I was fleeing Khazad-dûm.

We entered a set of dark blue doors with bars made of metallic bone.  They opened before us with a silent but abrupt slamming, as if caught just before they hit the walls.  Black caryatids lined an overpass leading to a large round space, open like the floor of a coliseum.

Across from the overpass were bones, bleached white as if from the sun.  Not nasty bones, like you’d see as dungeon dressing, but smooth, semi-metallic ones.  They made up a nest, and within it was an egg.  The egg was lit up, perhaps with something inside it, and it looked humanoid, only very thin, like being able to see to the bones in your hands without x-rays.  Hard to describe, sure.  Perched next to it was the Seven King, in the guise Rayya called her form of war.

“He promised to serve me seven years, through well or woe, as chance may be,” she said to me.

“So it’s the standard Rich and Famous contract?” I said in response.  It was the shoes talking.

“Mortal years, and mortality, but the form of it chances to be my choice.  Remade into the egg, and what he becomes you must voice.”

“Your doorman does the work of Dragons,” Rayya interrupted.  Her voice was heavy with meaning.

“River daughter, queen of ice, what lies drip from your lips? They do not entice!” The Seven King glared at my handler, blind grey eyes glowing, and shadows beginning to seep from her form, like as if she sweated darkness.

I cleared my throat.  “I am guessing that it matters that I came here through the Peredur Express?  I mean, he punched my ticket.”  I pretended to look at something in my hand.  “Is this Disappointment City?”  That’s the destination I have frequent flyer miles to, at least.

“Did he have eyes of banked embers, and did he breathe the black smoke of wood? Would he eye you if he remembers, does he meddle or do good?” The Seven King jumped from the nest of bones and came almost within reach.

“Describes him pretty well, actually.  I can tell you, though, he’s a meddler.  I have this,” I pulled the tooth out of my pocket.  “Traded for it,” I explained with a shrug.

The Seven King laughed.  It was more on the level of a cackle, this one, like paint splattering against a wall, and the crack of an egg as it hit the floor.  “Oh, we know what to do with Dragons, we fear them not, my dear.  The rattle of bones, the tattle of tomes, they’re nothing to us here.”  She gestured with her long talon-like claws towards the nest.  “Do you work through Dragons?  Must I add another to my list of slain?  The bones you see are their bones indeed.  We need them for our play.”

I took a deep breath.  “Rayya, is the King telling me that that’s a bunch of Dragon bones?”

Rayya nodded, a sharp, almost human movement.


(184) Maddening Truths

Dead Dragons aren’t much fun.  Not even if they’re not really dead, just torn away from their roots and now everyone thinks they’ve got some kind of Hero on their hands.  I’m no hero.  I’m no wizard.  This was no disco, nor any country club.  Who was this beautiful King?  I shifted my weight, eyeing the shifting black claws of the Seven Monarch of the Small Kingdom.

“What Peredur wants and what he can have might be different things,” I said with all the confidence I didn’t have.  After all, he disrespected any mortal boundaries, walking through walls and flinging me several miles away with the mere effort of lifting me up by the jacket with his teeth.  That’s not reality as we know it.  I had a piece of him, though, and I knew a couple of wizards.  I wasn’t afraid to use them.

“So speaks the Guardian of the Threshold, the mortal who stands between.  But is he a Dragon-Slayer or just an advisor at the scene?” The King once more climbed up towards the egg, leaning against it and stroking it with those claws to make a thin scratching noise.

I considered the question rhetorical, and took the opportunity to look at the egg.  Was Thomas in there, then, being remade and reborn somehow?  What did they want me to do, crack him open and see if he was cracked?  Great.  It was catching.

“How do we get started?” I asked.  When in doubt, let them lead, right?  Even if it led to swamps and getting your feet wet.  Trouble, and possibly heavy petting.

“Speak, Tom, and be judged, let your silence savor the answer,” the King said, ringing the egg with a thump.  The light inside the egg brightened.

“From the hag and hungry goblin, that into rags would rend ye, to the King of ghosts and Shadows, summoned unto journey.  Do dance you in the Dragon’s blaze, all witches spin and turning, your lady with golden tresses fair, the maiden’s not for burning.”  The words came from a voice that was at once familiar and strange.

“Does he always talk like this?” I asked.

The Seven King answered.  “He couplets prophesy in verse, and so the gift we gave.  But whether his sight is true or cloudy, the truth is grave.”

“He said something that worried you,” I guessed.  “And you want to know if it’s going to become true, or just nonsense.”

The King stiffened, like literally, like a statue of obsidian for just a moment.  Rayya was similarly frozen, but hers faded faster.  She tilted her head, and that spine-tingling sense of curiosity returned.

“It was an easy jump, guys,” I complained. “I didn’t even need the backboard to get it into the hoop.”

Rayya looked confused.

“Nevermind. I’m no good at sports metaphors, and talking about THAC0 makes peoples’ eyes glaze over.  Let’s just say that that was easy, which is why I now suspect it.  But, because I’m playing the straight man, I’ll go with it at least until I get some kind of brilliant epiphany, if ever I am struck metaphorically,” I emphasized the word, “by lightning.”

“By lightning crisped, and fire crossed, the smoke you smell is clearer, though rings be granted, and silver tossed, your reflection is the mirror,” Thomas intoned.

“Does he know we’re out here?” I asked.

“It is not a prison,” Rayya said.  I think she was trying to comfort me a little, however too human a motive to pin to her.  “It is a chamber of sorts. His needs are few in this form, and he is not unduly affected by the Small things that waver and flow.”

“Flicker and flame,” the Seven King corrected, finding animation again. “Nor us to blame.”

No, not them to blame.  He was talking to me.  “They follow the call, or fall the fall,” I said aloud, remembering the phrase from his letter.  I knew then what he meant, or I thought I had.  Now I wasn’t so sure.

“The waves push back, the kraken unleashed, the war has unfolded, and the fallout released,” Thomas responded.  Not pleasant tidings at all.

The King froze momentarily, then flit to the other side of the egg.  “You called the Closer, and he came, my love. Speak of the words that sent us to look above.”

His voice changed, and it rang in my bones.  “Quested, Lost, and Dragon Bested. Small the Cost, Passion Guested. Love we speak, and love we waste, the shadows grow where she’s displaced. The one that fell… she will rise, the one who bites will be chastised.  The reign of kings of spectre’d throne, the rain of kings, all overthrown.”

I turned towards the King.  “What…did you ask him?”

The King transformed back into the dark-skinned lovely, bare and sonsy, the darkness filling out and changing like a wave from toes to top.  She wiggled and gyrated her way off the nest in a way that gave me ample opportunity to ogle her backside, each curve a perfect and pleasant way to rest my eyes.  Not a comfortable one, certainly, but pleasant, yes.

Rayya sighed.  “The Seven King seeks the satisfaction a Tom cannot grant her, as he is never truly belonging to this world.  The Seven King sought the name of a partner.  A Year King.”  Rayya shrugged, humanity flitting across her features.  “A Small thing.”

I backed away, putting my hands up between us.  “Not a small thing.  I mean, male pride aside.”  Great.  It really was contagious.  “I’m um, I’ve got a girlfriend,” I managed to say in my defense.

“One turn of your seasons is not a promise broken,” the King said.  “Tell us true,” she said, moving close, her lips luscious and ripe, “did you have a promise?”

“I had a premise,” I said, stepping back.

She moved towards me again, smiling as if this was just a form of dance. “We would have smelled the ties upon you.”

“I’m allergic to ties, except at formal functions,” I said, turning to the right slightly.  “I don’t have any commitment issues.  We’re just at the early stage, embryonic.  I’m all for the right to choose, and I’m choosing to see how it works out.”

She spun around, and touched my jacket lightly.  I could feel the warmth of her fingers through the fabric, and I think my pulse went up a notch or two.  I was feeling light-headed.  “We did not suspect fear. We saw further than you knew.”

“I know what happens to Year Kings.  Human sacrifice makes the sun come back, and the grass grow.” I felt less confident as I said it aloud, but I stopped the dance.

She laughed, the tinkling of icicles crackling at the first breath of spring.  She smelled like mint and a bit like Christmas.  You know, like a really fresh salad, and the frost on the wind, and a bit like fir trees, and maybe a bit like hot chocolate.  “This is the Small Court,” she said.  “Could we reassure you that no death is required?”  She breathed the last up against my ear.  She was taller than I expected, up this close next to me.  And her breasts were amazing.

“I’m sure you could,” I said.  “That’s not the same thing as saying it outright.”

“You are our guest, and no harm shall befall you from our people or our hand,” she said, very serious, but there was something whimsical in the way she ruffled my hair.

“And are there people besides yours I’m in danger from, or, you know, do you kill people with your feet?” I asked.  She touched my face, and I shivered, and my neck, and I shuddered.

“So suspicious.  Why did our Dear Thomas recommend you?” she asked, laughing again.  This was a laugh like the mewling of a newborn kitten.

“He was trying to set me up?” I asked.  “I don’t know.  What happens to Thomas if I,” I gulped, “agree?”  Her hand trailed down lower, somewhere near my zatch.

“Our arrangement is set.  What he wished, we will grant, and the cost will be borne by both. There are echoes of other Courts in what we do, but our needs are different.”

“One more question,” I said.  Her other hand rested at my throat, at that sensitive place between the collarbones, where you are almost ticklish.  An intimate place, and I felt half sick and half excited by it, the heat definitely adding to my dizzy.  “What is the Small Court?”

Rayya laughed.  “One more question, the wizard-friend says.  Did you forget, my King, that he is also the secret-caller?”

“We do not forget, Snowflake,” the King said, but it sounded almost fond. “We remember the warnings, all.  Are we displaced, or do we rise?”

The egg that held Thomas glowed once more.  “Quested, Lost, and Dragon Bested,” it repeated again, in the voice that echoed.  “Kings will fall, and Kings be tested.  Dance with fire, or dance with death, the fiddler cares not you’re out of breath.”

“My question remains,” I said as the King pulled away, looking at the slowly fading light from the egg. “I am being proposed to, and this engagement is awkward.  I am not much of a Queen.” I tried not to make the obvious joke. “What dowry am I bringing? Who am I kissing?” I tried not to blush, too, but I may have lost that battle.  I was better able to breathe now that the King had turned away from me.  Even the curve of her shoulders was gorgeous.  Glamorous.

Of course.

I had a theory, and I was going to try it.

I closed my eyes and tried to Close myself to this.  I tried to find where I was, in a sensory fashion, using my knack, my little talent, and Closed it to anything, drawing up some kind of rudimentary shield.  I don’t know how successful I was, but the massive um… the desire seemed to recede, so either I was successful at thinking about first player shooters and goldfish (the two least sexy things I could immediately name) or this was at least a somewhat useful thing to try again in the future.

Now that I could think of things besides how the fit of my clothing was less flattering with the inevitable physical reaction, I opened my eyes again.

“What truths could we give you that you would accept, what dreams would you dream bereft of the world you know?” the King whispered.

“Once I’ve gone down the rabbit hole?” I asked.   “This is not my world, and I don’t know the rules. I’ll be at a disadvantage and concerned with what’s going on in my absence.  I’m sure the sex would be awesome,” I said, because even without the constant push of arousal, the King was hot.  Really hit my buttons.  “Strained my buttons,” sounded a bit too cheesy.  “But I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request.”

“Are you the fiddler, then?” the King asked, still looking at the egg.

“I can’t play a tune,” I admitted.  “But I can’t dance either.”

“We disagree.” She turned around and twined her hands around me.  She kissed me.

That was a simple way of saying it.  I can’t say at any time I wanted to complain.  She was earth and fire, and magma, and tasted like Santa Claus if his red meant cinnamon-hot candies.  Um, my brain was a little fritzed. She pulled my hair and ground her body against me.

It was nice.  It was distracting.  It wasn’t everything it could have been if I hadn’t managed to give myself at least the mental space, and I would not be honest if I didn’t admit I was a bit disappointed.

Only a tiny bit.

Part of me was noticing it was nice to kiss girls… and it was even nicer to kiss naked girls.  And it was even nicer to be kissed by naked girls who really fit my aesthetic.

That was, of course, the moment the egg decided to start to crack.



The kiss suddenly felt like poison, not that I’ve ever gone tasting poison, but it both burned and repulsed in a way that made me feel like something was off.  I felt uncomfortable, somewhat violated… even if it was just a kiss.  Even if I kind of wanted it, which didn’t really make it better.  I felt too warm, too much like even my clothing was loud (by which I didn’t mean it was garish, but like it was shouting at me) and abrasive.  I pushed myself away by taking a step back.

The room around us had changed; there were people in seats around us, and by people, I meant strange creatures I could maybe pull names of from mythology and too many nights reading monster manuals from various role-playing systems.   We were in the base of a coliseum of dark stone and wood, and that same bridge now showed caryatids of more monstrous design.  The coliseum had a dome, more like a baseball stadium, and I could see faint phosphorescence from the roof, like stars made of mushrooms.  The creatures were mostly less than I’d say five feet high, with a few notable exceptions like Darius staring at me.  I couldn’t read his expression.

The eerie thing was just how quiet the audience was.  There was none of the shifting, shuffling, sneezing, wheezy noises of the crowds I was used to, with murmurs to the person next to you, and occasional creaks of the seat as you leaned back and sipped your soda.

What was it that Sir Darius had wanted me to remember?  Something about boundaries.  Eight corners of Colfax.  “Bound an eight time and small things will begin to leak out.”  Or what he said about it at first.  “Small kingdoms do not wage small wars.”

The King was seducing me in front of everyone for a reason.  “The form of war,” Rayya had said.

I didn’t understand ecstatic practice. The King kept dancing around the assurances that I wasn’t being used as a fertility symbol of sacrifice, but this still seemed very fertile. And sacrificial.  The whole egg motif was something from a spring festival or an adult toy catalog, either one.

The egg cracked again, I could see where light came out of it.  The King was still standing next to where I’d been a moment ago, her eyes still dark, and the feathery lashes still unblinking.  “Would you rather be a King than a wizard?” the Viktor in my head asked me.  I voted for “None of the Above,” and thought hard.  The Seven King. Did the Shadow King make eight?  Did I?

In my dream, Matana suggested I had unresolved anxieties regarding violence.  I had not really considered what a war meant.  I figured amongst witches it was a lot of minor inconvenient hexes and being sarcastic at each other.  I began to think that I was wrong.

The aftertaste was war.  It was swords and blood and battle, and the dust from the hooves of horses, and the burning scent of magics of destruction.  War had kissed me.  Better than Pestilence, I guess.

“We can work with, against, or just surrender to the flow of things,” the Questor’s wife said.  Had I been about to surrender?  I had a rule.  A rule about not sticking anything starting with a ‘p’ into inhuman things.  A rule I had almost forgotten, almost been seduced against, after the Messenger, after everything I’d seen.  What was it?

“What is the Seven King?” I asked.

The flicker of change came across the King once more, a roll of change, this time back into the statuesque ebony, and this made a few sounds from the crowd. She turned away to look at the egg.  “We do not love, that we are loved.”

It sounded like a quote, almost biblical, but I didn’t recognize it.  Not that I was likely to unless it was really obvious.  My grandma was a bit of a, well, you wouldn’t call her a skeptic because she was a believer in a lot of odd things.  She believed in gifts of fortune or fate, and that there were shepherds of both wolves and sheep.  In fact, one of her euphemisms for the underworld translated that way.  She was always looking for pysanky patterns in odd bits, like a scryer of sorts.  That said, she didn’t spend a lot of Sundays listening to a preacher-man howling from the scripture and scowling, if you know the song.  I knew the cultural Bible, the bits repeated and part of the otherwise secular discourse as familiar stories and references.  I knew a whole heck a lot more about Star Wars.  Not that there wasn’t a schism against the Lucas testament there, but I think I’ve made my position on that pretty plain.

I didn’t ask the question again; I just waited for an answer.  About all I could think of that had Seven Kings was the quote from Saruman, “…[W]hen you also have the Keys of Barad-dûr itself, I suppose; and the crowns of seven kings, and the rods of the Five Wizards, and have purchased yourself a pair of boots many sizes larger than those that you wear now.”  But that was Kings, plural.

“Seven Kings, though Kings be men, seven Queens seemed meet to bind them. Seven Kings, and Seven Gates from which powers confined did stem.    A Kingdom Small, in need of Kings, that no other would align, the drifting grace, the levels of place, no other could design.  We are one and seven, and the gifts of sons, and daughter’s tears as endings won.”

Rayya pulled her white robe closer.  “The seven gifts.  Knowledge, kindness, might, beauty, victory, foundation, and kingdom.  Or the seven deadly sins?” she asked.  There was something mocking in her tone.  Her pale skin seemed even brighter in the light of the egg, as if there was a connection between them.

“There are seven colours in the rainbow,” I said, scoffing slightly.  “And I can name seven shapes in my Lucky Charms cereal.  Oh, and seven samurai, seven seas, seven continents, seven wonders of the ancient world, seven chakras, and all seven Disney dwarfs.  You’re not answering the question.”

“What does it matter, Door-closer?” Rayya asked.

“Seven gates,” I repeated.  “Seven seals.  What are you wanting from me, really?  And why is Thomas hatching?”

“Because of you,” she said, simply.

Oh.  I took a moment to think this through. I had already exercised my particular little trick in an unusual way, and this seemed an opportunity to try something different.  To Close the egg.  At least until I knew more of what was going on, because unless he was hatching a plan, I was still grasping at straws, trying to make sense of things.

I continued ignoring the crowd, trying to find that place inside me that I could use to push things Closed.  I felt the edges of the egg like a wound, a piercing shriek of burning marshmallows, a razor-sharp sweet candle, and I slid my mental hands to push the edges together, trapping the chestburster within using its own slime as an agglutinant plaster of sorts.  I felt the pressure building both within the egg, and within the crowd, as if the first was fighting me, and the second aiding, but I almost lost track of both, enveloped in the syrupy shrillness of what was opening.  It didn’t taste of madness, for what it was worth.  Thomas was true.

I had my answer, and the egg was closed.  It was dark again except for ambient light from a number of crystals on the floor, and somehow I felt we were alone.  The three of us.  Rayya, my keeper, a pale guide, the dark statue of the King, brooding, formidable, and myself, a mere mortal man with a trick way out of his depth.

“Speak Secret-Caller.  Speak, Door-Closer.  Tell us what you’ve seen.  Found and lost, dragon’s vassal, speak of what it means.”  The King’s words were quiet, breathless in the sense of I could not hear anyone breathing but myself.

“I am no one’s vassal,” I grumbled.  “Thomas is true, for what it’s worth.  If that’s it, I want to go home.”

The change in the King was sudden, like a PowerPoint slide with a wipe-style transition.  The almost sexless crystal translucent being stood there for a moment, silent.  The light caught the occasional facet and was in turn captured in some fashion, adding to the King’s faint glow.  Rayya was pale and shadowy within her white robes.  Her silver ring reflected the light.

“I am reminded of my duties,” the King said, and her voice was thin and distant.  “I would not have harmed you,” she continued.  Her hairless head turned. “You stand on the threshold, but are no trickster.  The worlds in-between are not for you,” she shook her head, and her dark eyes seemed almost sad.  “Do you tire of my hospitality?”

“The room was great, and the food tasty, but the worlds in-between are not for me,” I said, gently.  This was a different King, one who spoke with the word, “I” instead of the royal, ahem, “we.”

“I had hoped to spare you the pain,” she said, one liquid hand lifting up to my cheek.  “To keep you here while the place you knew raged in fire.”

“Fire?” I asked, concerned.

She dropped her hand to her side, and turned away.  “The breath of Dragons is but the beginning,” she said.

Rayya muttered, “They will give it words like drought, but the hills burn in your land.  There is light and ember upon the mountains.”

I took a step to the side.  “We’re in a drought.  Fire would just…whoosh.”  Colorado had not been getting its necessary rain.  Used to be you could half-predict the farming season based on how late in summer there was still snow on Pike’s Peak.  It wasn’t as good a rule of thumb anymore.  I felt weird.  Not like I could do anything; I knew nothing about fighting fire.  I had an extinguisher in my house, but I hadn’t tested it in half a dozen years, and I never did any frying on the stove because it just seemed like trouble.  Besides, it wasn’t very healthy anyway, although it was the only thing that made leftover fries worth it.

“The war has started, hasn’t it?” I asked.  I knew the answer, but I had to make sure I knew it with my heart as well as my brain.

Rayya said nothing, but the King turned back to me.  “I need not remind you of the mark you bear.  It weighs heavy upon the balance.”  She took a step forward.  “Come, little wizard, let us bring you home.”

“I am not a wizard,” I said, for the umpteenth time.

“Wizard of Portals, mage of doorways.  Which is better, a power that is honed or a potential?” the King asked.  She began to walk along a path of broken black stone.

I found my footing as a grey mist began to rise around us.  “Is that rhetorical?” I asked.  It was probably pretty snotty, but I had already made my choice.

Rayya smiled.  “You did not ask about Ghost-Walker,” she pointed out.  She followed us at a decent pace.

“I figured it was a metaphor.” I shrugged.  It was getting brighter if still foggy.  Things occasionally peered out of the dark grey.  A lamp post.  A fire hydrant.  A gargoyle.

“Nothing our True Thomas said was wasted,” she said.  She sounded a lot farther away.  When I looked back, I couldn’t see her.  I was no longer standing on broken stones, but asphalt.

“Yeah, but he needed an interpreter.  Is there a rhyming prophet to English dictionary app?” I asked, hoping to find her when she replied.

There was only silence.  Then a puff of wind cleared most of the fog.  The grey air smelled slightly of smoke, and the sky above was filled with smog.  The street sign indicated I was about three blocks away from home.  There was no sign of Rayya or the King.

My phone rang.

(186) A Year King Kong

I looked at my phone. It was almost out of battery, of course. I didn’t recognize the number, so I rejected the call, only to glance at the time and date.

You know that phrase, “He reeled?” I always took it in context to mean  he felt dizzy, and out of touch with his surroundings. In seeing the date, I reeled. When I had left, it had been a crisp, clean autumn bearing into winter. Now it was the tail end of summer. I found myself leaning against the post for the street sign, trying to get my bearings. Almost a year in what, to me, was merely a day.

I took stock in a few positives: One, all my bills were paid electronically. Unless I had had some wild parties while I was gone, I should see a hefty credit to my utilities. Two, I hadn’t missed the presidential election. Three, I wasn’t really attached to any television series.

The phone was busy updating. I knew I had already had the last year’s model, but it meant I’d have to upgrade before I’d expected. I tried breaking my chain of thought because that just led to the downward path. I told myself to continue to think on the bright side; less mileage on my car, more chances to listen to others, and I had saved all the food budget.

On the other hand, where could I say I was? The dark side of the moon? Self-imposed hermitage? Sanatorium. Sanatoriums were always fun. No one in my family would be surprised.

Ed. I should call Ed.

No, I should find out what’s going on with my stuff, first.

I made my decision based on the fact that my boots were already headed down the block, my feet in them. I was glad that my clothes hadn’t turned out to be woven of spidersilk and shadow, or cleverly pasted flower petals, because I wouldn’t want to be caught by my neighbors in such a costume. The motley I had was bad enough, but I could at least explain it with enough references to Shakespeare. Besides, I was man enough to wear green.

My car’s registration was overdue, but I hadn’t been towed. I’d have to leave a thank you to the guy who owned the lot. My unit was still standing, not burnt down or looking too much different. The door still needed painting.

I didn’t have my keys.

Oh, I know where I left them, in a little octopus cup about three feet to my right, diagonally-speaking. If you speak diagonal.

I thought about calling Maggie, because I bet she still had a copy of the key. Instead, I leaned over and knocked on the door. Couldn’t hurt.

“‘Bout time,” Wrecks said, opening it. “I was getting tired of watching television.”

“You’ve been here the whole time?” I asked.

“Come on in,” he replied, moving aside. “It’s your place, after all. And you’re still asking stupid questions. You think they’re letting you off the hook that easy? If you don’t maintain a hearth, you could just flit off, maybe head to California, or Cuba. I hear Cuba’s nice this time of year.”

I glanced inside. Everything seemed pretty much the way I left it, if you didn’t count the books off the shelves and all over every horizontal surface. Which wasn’t all that unusual. Truth be told, that’s only how it was five days of the week; I’d pick up on weekends.

“Wait. Who sent you?”

“Dragon. Duh,” Wrecks gave me a look.

“I met your sister Snowflake. And the pile of Dragon bones.”

“Yeah, the King’s got no sense of humour when it comes to nicknames or beasties wot interfere with the Kingdom. Did you do the dirty deed?” he leered. “There’s no Small Kingdom channel, and what with them being wrapped up tight no word was getting through.”

“I’ve got a rule,” I said. “It’s not just a guideline, but a hard and fast rule.”

“Women have a way of making you forget your rules,” he said. He hopped up onto the chair and helped himself to something that smelled like and probably was root beer, if the 2-liter bottle next to him had any connection. “Besides, the King’s awfully persuasive.”

I sighed, and took off my jacket. I plugged my phone into the wall and, after pushing the Lord of the Rings trilogy up against the Coldfire trilogy, sat on the futon in front of the television.

“Children’s programming?” I asked.

“We have danced around in the hearts and minds of those who can wonder without limits for years,” he said, looking as if he were embellishing a poem. “And they tell our stories, although some of them get quite odd.”

“So does the Small Kingdom,” I agreed. I watched as a puppet of some sort danced around with wildly flailing arms and a couple of back-up singers. “You know, I’ve had the dreams of that staircase before, but at least this time each step didn’t complain to me outright.” I leaned back and took a deep breath. “What the heck has been happening here?”

In response, he changed the channel. I resolved to take the remote back from him at the first opportunity. That was power I was not willing to share with the little fey.

The fires were on the screen, blazing orange with black smoke. For a moment I felt the terror again, and I was paralyzed. I realized I had been holding my breath, and I let it out slowly. “Where?”

“North, South, and West,” he said. I tried reading the screen but the words weren’t making any sense to me. I’d never heard of Waldo Canyon. It was like a bad, “Where’s Waldo?” joke ready to happen, and yet it died on my lips.


I got up and turned the television off. I walked over to the kitchen, grabbed a clean mug out of the dishwasher where I’d left it, and filled it with ice from the freezer. Apparently Wrecks had a weakness for Ben & Jerry’s. No surprise. I grabbed the 2-liter and poured myself a cup of fizzing soda. I drank it while staring at the wall, a spot that, more than a year ago now, had a picture of Bard the Bowman in the bottom left corner, shooting a black arrow at the underside of Smaug. A blank spot on the wall that could not harm me.

“There’s a lot of questions there,” I said after a moment. “Shall I expect the usual fey mischief in your answers? Or shall you suddenly disappear when I’m close to knowing what’s going on?”

“I am what I am,” Wrecks said, simply.

“Said the Scorpion to the Fox, if I recall. Or Tia Dalma to Davy Jones. But I don’t believe it. You’re the Small Kingdom. You’re abutted right up against us, and you catch a number of my more subtle entertainment cues. Did you read all of these?” I made a gesture encompassing the piles of books cluttering the room.

“Only the ones I had not read before,” he admitted.

I nodded slowly. “What’s the story you’ve given my friends? I know Ed came over.”

“Your friend has found love, or at least lust in the company of a younger man. He’s itching for the chance to bring him over. Your game group has not yet retired your character. Your healer pines for you, and is trying to escape the clutches of her coven. Your Dragon has avowed vengeance on the scaly beast that started this.”

“My Dragon? Which one?” I asked.

“What, you claim more than one? What a puissant wizard you must be. Do you doubt the province of the bones the Seven King offered?”

“I didn’t until you asked,” I said.

“Doubt everything,” Wrecks said. “Save perhaps love. Which is the foulest deceit of them all.”

“I’d fistbump you, but I don’t know if you’d explode or get me sticky or something. I guess what I’m asking is what did you tell them? How did it work?”

“You would unravel the nature of the universe by turning it into an equation, and then forgetting to carry the two.”

“I know that Bloom County cartoon. It’s kind of a favourite.”

“It persists because of its truth. You do not wish to be a wizard, and yet you insist on knowing how it works. The trick is, it works because of will, and because of passion, and it is only when you break the rules that magic happens.”

I leaned back. “I recall saying much of the sort myself. Simulacrum? I’m a trifle jumpy about those these days, but I know Doloise did one. Glamour? Truth?”

“I appreciate that you did not laugh at the suggestion of the last. No, we are perpetually the Hidden Folk. In this, your sister conspired that you had temporary employment in another place.”

I shot right back up. I mean, I literally rose to my feet in alarm. “My sister?”

Wrecks looked amused. “Indeed. She has quite the creative touch and penned the lightning missive.”

“Wait, wait, this is too much.” I was beginning to feel quite dull and tired, not to mention hungry. “What do you have to do with my sister?”

“She keeps secrets, I see.” He looked even more amused, if possible.

“You’ve gone native,” I muttered. I put a hand up to my forehead, because even if it wasn’t a physical headache, I was getting some kind of mental migraine from all the possibilities. He was a lot easier to read than his sister, or he played a different game. My sister? I mean, yes, she was flighty, but that’s an unfair stereotype with which to paint the Small folk.

I changed the subject, sitting back down again. “Know anything of how the witch wars have progressed?”

“Did you kiss the King at least?”

I thought about it. “Is it related?”

“There are connections between anything, and the puppeteers do not know the spiders wait for the pull of the strings,” he said, offhandedly.

I thought that one through. “That is a disturbing image, and I’m not even too much of an arachnophobe. I’m not the kind who kisses and tells.” I paused and let the thought percolate. I swore. “Wait, you’re telling me that the war the King wants is the same war the witches are fighting? What is the relationship between the Gillikins and the Smalls?”

“There are connections between anything,” he repeated. This time he winked.

“Yeah, it’s all fairyland from this point,” I retorted.

Wrecks winced. “You know, we don’t all mince about with pixie wings spreading craft herpes. I don’t care what you call it, just don’t think Tinkerbell so loud, would you? Besides, not all of what’s out there is ours. We’re just the friendliest.” He seemed to consider that. “Well, the leeches are the friendliest, but we’re definitely a close second. Well, unless you consider possession…”

“You’re giving me the heebie-jeebies, man.” I shook my head. “So,  let me see if I get you right. You and my sister told everyone I was on some sort of top-secret mission out of town. Ed, Rohana, and everyone but my Dragon, whoever he, she, or it is. I probably have about sixteen-zillion e-mails, but that’s what Google does. My bills are paid, and you watch too much Sesame Street.”

“Sounds apt,” Wrecks said. “And on your end?”

I figured he’d deserved a little after everything else. “Thomas didn’t hatch, the King is dressed for War, and there’s been no fairy nookie. I am a part of the silver ring club, if that was the King’s bedroom, I didn’t know Martha Stewart did the coliseum look, and I’ve got a song, although I don’t think it’ll be the hit of the year. That about sum it up?”

“Your translations leave something in the murmelthump.”

“Something indeed. Hey, did you sleep in my bed? Do I need to change the sheets or will I get fairy cooties?”

“You turned down the fairy cuties, if I recall.” As I began sighing in response, he continued. “You may sleep without concern of sluagh, piskie, or cootie.”

“I’d like it if that list was a lot longer.”

“Don’t press your luck.”

With that I took myself to bed. I wanted a shower first, but I would have been at risk of a slippery spot. I ignored whatever Wrecks did; as long as he didn’t crawl into the bed with me it was all good.

Or set the place on fire…

Or crease the spines of the Malazan series.

Bed. Bed sounded good. My own bed. To dream, far away from any of the madness.

I hoped.

(187) The Spark Turns Into a Flame

Potentially with the grace of the unknown, or more likely simply the workings of my own mind and sanity, if I dreamt, I did not remember it.  I was done with allegory and I had metaphor I didn’t like.  I stood up, I stumbled into the bathroom, I brushed my teeth while in the shower, and I thought about what transitions and transformations had in common.  I towel’d off, shaved carefully, and stood for a moment looking at my reflection.  Mirrors.  Alice wondered which side of the looking glass was the real one.  Esme Weatherwax had the answer.

I stretched one of those long stretches that pop your shoulders and make you do that involuntary zombie moan sound.  A stack of books falling off the table caught my attention, and I remembered my house-sitter.  The elf who sat on the shelf yawned for himself.  “Did you save any of the hot water?”

“I wasn’t thinking of conservation,” I admitted.  Of course, taking more than eleven minutes kind of made me uncomfortable and had a tendency to wrinkle my fingers anyway.  I wondered if fey evolution followed such forces.  I had never taken a hot bath with one, and the lyrics to “How About A Kobold Stew” ran through my head for a moment.

“Aye, you have a head for theory rather than practice.  I’m assumin’ you also didn’t consider the ecological impact of Dragons the last time you crossed one,” he sighed, hopping down to the floor with grace.

“That word again.  Why do you people keep bringing that up?” I moved into the kitchen and started setting up some hot water to brew. Enough for a couple of packets of instant oatmeal and a glass of tea. And one for Wrecks while I was at it, because it was only hospitable.

“Theory?” he asked, amused.

“You know.  The ‘D’ word.”

“Whether you like, you are caught up in their forces.  They are the uroboros, the tail eaters.  The symbol of infinity, to talk to the English, the mark of the cycle that continues metaphysical, spatial, and temporal.  Or so they would hae you think.”  The burr was in that last sentence.  “You have another thought, or you would not be standin’ there letting the pot whistle.”

“They’re not infinite,” I said.  “I don’t really want to talk about them.”  I fixed my oatmeal, and left my tea to steep.

“It is that you are finding yourself bound with their roots, the mountains, and you cannot help but delve the darkness.  Tell me, was the room of hands in shadow or light?” he asked.  He helped himself back up to the seat near the table.

“It was dark.  It was very dark, except for the white tree.  It lit when she changed, went dark herself.”  I paused.  “Your sister had to open the doors.”

He looked worried about that.  “Shake the very stone,” he said, pronouncing it in its singular. “Haunt the windswept crags, the lonely castles.” He shook his head.  “Each drop of water weakens the rock. We take our work seriously.”

“What are you?” I asked, finally.

“Did you fear the question rude?  I had seen it dance in your thoughts, just teasing its way to be let loose, and yet you wanted to figure it out on your own.  You’ve not seen our like, man.  I could give you a name and tell you we were its close cousin but you’d still have presumptions.  Are we better an enigma or do you want a start to your research?”

I considered it.  Naming is the first power.  “I am curious,” I admitted.

“We are like unto spriggans, but that is only part of it,” he said. “I caution you, do not jump to conclusions because of the name itself.”

“I’ll try.”  Huh.  When I thought of spriggans, I had a woodland guardian in my head, but that was just the last console game impression I’d had.  I shrugged.  So it didn’t really answer the question, but at least gave me a start.  I pointed him to the couch. “Pick up the books, and let me at the computer.  I’ve got e-mail.”

I grabbed my phone on the way to the computer while Wrecks moved to the couch.  He looked at the piles of books with a sneer.  I think I caught something like “bookawork,” but I wasn’t sure what he said.  He turned on the television and ignored me.

I sighed and turned to log myself in.  The top three messages were all flagged high-importance.  If there was a way for them to be colored red and blinking madly, I’m sure they would.  They were all from my sister and said to call her.

They were all from this morning.

I sighed and dialed her number from memory rather than the contact list in my phone.

She answered on the first ring.  “What forms did the King wear?” she asked.  That was something about cell phones, I guessed.  There was none of that polite social noise of determining that you’d reached the party you were attempting, you already knew if you connected because the timer started…

“Hello, sis.  How are you?  That’s nice.  I’ve been away for a while, in a mysterious underground warren with a crazy woman who wanted to have sex with me in front of people I knew and a little spriggan lamprey.”

“That’s my sister you’re talking about,” Wrecks noted from the couch.

“It’s my sister I’m talking to,” I retorted.

“That’s nice,” my sister repeated.  “You wouldn’t boff her if she were coated in chocolate and whipped cream.  What forms?”

“I never thought you’d be the person supporting my claim.  Um. Someone said War, and then there was, I guess lust, and then this kind of crystalline science fiction Grey, if you know what I mean.”

“How do you know I’m not insulting your lack of imagination?” she paused just long enough for me to take a breath and complain, and then started, “I like to match them up to the sins, too.  Intellectual avarice is the best way I’ve been able to describe that one.  It’s the one that drops the royal ‘we’ and acts like she’s hip to the jive, right?”

“You’re not allowed to use that phrase.  Never use that phrase again.”

“Ooh, you’re harshing my buzz, bro.”

I sighed.  “Yeah.  It seemed realler than the rest.”

“Bad grammar isn’t excused.  That’s because it’s more acedia than avarice.  It’s hard to explain.”

“You’re going to refer me to Wikipedia aren’t you?” I asked.

“Well, only if you’ve donated.  That’s important.  That’s what I needed.  Kiss, kiss.”  She hung up.

I looked at the phone. I could just hit redial, but she’d just reject the call.  I sighed.

I dialed another number.  “When is a king worse than a king?” I asked Ed when he picked up.  Maybe it was a family thing.

“Hey!  How are you?” he asked.

“Long story.  Answer the question.”

“Um, if you asked me when a queen was worse than a queen, I’d say when she could fly.  That’s true in my business and would really have messed up the Aliens franchise.”

“Probably fits.  Huh.  So, uh… hi.”  I didn’t even know what to say to him.  I felt disconnected; if it had been yesterday it would have been one thing, but I don’t even know what my sister said.

“How was lock-up?” he asked, cheerfully.  He asked me to hold on a second – he was talking to a customer, then he came back.


“The big house.  The slammer.”

“Um,” I paused.  She said I had been incarcerated?  I was going to kill her.  I didn’t know how, but it would be slow and humiliating.

“Rather, how were the prisoners.  Scary?  Your sister said you’d gone to work a job at SuperMax?”

“Ahhhhhhhh… yes.”  Alright, she could live.  “Scary could cover it.” I considered carefully.  “Some of them were worse than others, of course, and my boss was very demanding.  I should sue for sexual harassment.”

“Really?  Dish!” Ed laughed.

“I guess having someone from outside the facility was probably her kink,” I suggested.  “She had her own boy toy locked away, but that just made him one of the inmates.  Couldn’t tell if he was crazy or a snitch, really.”  It wasn’t prevarication, just a different way of explaining the story, right?  “Anyway, I wasn’t going to give in, and she wasn’t going to give up, so I’m back.”

“Well, it’s not as salacious as I’d hoped, but it’s interesting.  Was she just not a looker?”

I sighed.  “No, she was a looker.  She had amazing eyes you couldn’t swim in for fear of being pulled underneath,” I paused.  “Ed, you don’t like girls.  I could rhapsodize about her legs and wax poetic about the heft of her breasts and the sweet red of her nipples and I don’t think it’d do much for you.”

“You saw her nipples?  How far did this go?”

“Actually, she was naked when we met.”

“I didn’t believe it could happen to me.  Nah, it’s just the first glow of romance on my account.  Zach.  Zacharias, actually.  His parents couldn’t stop at Zachary, no, they had to go all in.  I want everyone to be as mushy and sparkly as myself.  Share the love, right?”

I laughed.  “If you say so.  Mushy, eh?”

“Oh, I’m so far in over my head, and he’s actually about my age.  I was willing to do that math, the half and add seven, but no one that young really got me.  Hey.  Speaking of that.  I get postcards from Matana.  I think she’s forgiven us that whole stake her out in the sun bit.”

“It wouldn’t have harmed her unless she’d gone over to the parasite.  Hawk’s probably never going to talk to me again, but he was a little weird anyway.”

I could hear the pfft-pfft of his equipment in the background.  “Yeah.  Kind of cute, though.”

“Oh dear.  What does Zach look like?”

“Um.  Well, he’s shaved.  I mean, everywhere.  Not his eyebrows, but…”

“I’m not going there.  You can’t drag me.  So, more a Kingpin than a Picard.”

He made an amused grunt.  “Yeah.  Not built like Kingpin, though.  He says he got buff because Olympic gymnastics made him hot, but that was fifteen years ago or so.  He’s an accountant.  Loves numbers, super good at it.  Has money, but I don’t really think about that.  He did get me some return on my taxes, refiled them and, well, anyway, that’s all boring.”

I smiled.  “Sounds like you want steady and reliable, and that’s what you’re saying.”

“I guess so.  I mean, the gay dating scene has the same hazards as you’ve talked about, and while there’s more getting laid, I guess, that’s never been what I was wanting.”

I chuckled. “You’re the one who saw the unicorn.  Should I ask if you’re still eligible.”

“No,” he said, quickly.

“No, I shouldn’t ask?” I teased.

“Shut up,” he said, but he sounded amused.

“Anyway, you don’t seem to have the same problem with witches.”

“Was the warden one?”

“The ward– yeah.  How’d you guess?”

He laughed.  “Rohana’s a sweet girl, you know.  She called me a couple of times.  Guess your sister gave her the number.  We talked a lot.”

“Really?” I asked.  “About what?”

“You, of course.” He laughed again.  “She thinks you’re in too deep with the weird.  I tried not to agree with her, you know, for you, but…” The laughter was gone from his voice.  “You’re in deep, aren’t you?”

“Dragons, vampires, wizards, fairy kings, not to mention witches, lions, tigers, bears… the works, I’m sure.  I’m staring at a spriggan laughing at 80s cartoons as we speak.”

“I’m sure that’s a euphemism for something.  Hold on, I have to get under this.”  I heard some sounds for a moment, then he returned.  “I didn’t want to tell you this, but she’s not your type.  She’s a nurturer Gemini with an adrenaline-junkie twin.”

“Um,” I managed to say.

“Yeah, Zach’s a little bit into astrology.  Not as in the stars show us our destinies, but that their presence has some kind of effect on the personality.  I’m skeptical, but he’s been spot on about people’s birthdays every time.”

“Just classical Greek?” I managed to ask.

“I don’t believe you said that with a straight face,” he guffawed.  “But no, he messes with other zodiacs, too.  I guess that’s what you’d call them.”

“How did you meet him?”

“Oh.  I thought you knew.  Your sister introduced us.”

(188) Abduction and Abdication

I was going to have to talk to that girl.  I just didn’t know how.  I mean, yes, she was my sister, but in just the past (I checked the computer clock) 10 hours or so I had learned things about her that changed my understanding.  When it’s an understanding of your sister, it’s even more odd; she was always just background, that annoying girl who spied on your dates, went through your stuff and always seemed about to catch you masturbating or something else that would temporarily paralyze you with humiliation.

Um.  I realized that I had run out of the bathroom when the books fell wearing just a towel.  I mean, I always knew where my towel was, but I was far too comfortable with Wrecks.  How long was he staying?  Why was I letting an obvious Dragon spy hang out?  And was it that I was comfortable with Wrecks or was it just that I didn’t perceive him as enough of a person to really care about whether or not he saw me in the altogether, or not quite together.  (I think I would have been concerned if he’d seen me falling apart.  Which, I guess, is the opposite of together.  Maybe.  We put a lot of emphasis on control in our society, which I think has a magical aspect to it as well.  We maintain the reality we want through will, right?  Magic and will were so entwined and inter-related that control has to have a similar effect.)

I had had a perfectly good conversation with my gay friend about his new boyfriend while I was basically naked.  I decided that that was some kind of feather in my cap for acceptance and supporting the cause.  I needed a gold star for being a gay ally.  I looked around in my desk drawer for where I kept the cheap dollar-store star stickers to be sarcastic during game nights and stuck one onto the back of my hand.

Wrecks got up, leaving the mess on the couch and the television on to some kind of Spanish soap opera.  After a few minutes, I heard my shower start.  I didn’t know if he could reach the soap, but I also wasn’t going to try and help.  I guess he had managed.  In fact, I didn’t know what those Beyond did for plumbing.  I guess I supposed they had chamberpots or urinated rainbows and passed perfumed gases.  Any or all of these things were possible.  As long as he didn’t pee in corners or on books, and if his hygiene was otherwise socially acceptable, I wasn’t likely to remark upon it.

My gold star started peeling as I got up and returned the oatmeal bowl to the sink.  I went in and got dressed in jeans and the ubiquitous black t-shirt style of my geekhood and general generation.  (This one said, “Can’t Eat, Clowns Will Neep at Me.”)  I put the peeling star on the wall, and went back to my e-mail.

It was getting dark outside. Once I had actually checked my accounts and decided I was painfully behind on my various social media, I realized that I’d have to see what the new hotness was. No one seemed to be on MySpace or LiveJournal.  I mean, I’d known they were dying, but it seemed so sudden.  I even remembered my Friendster password.  Facebook had always been unruly.  I decided to check on some of the news sites and read up on the fires.

In my e-mail induced haze, I hadn’t caught Wrecks’ return.  He had made a microwave meal for himself and was busy reading a well-thumbed copy of Foucault’s Pendulum.  I wasn’t sure if I approved, but at least he’d replaced the soaps with the Discovery channel.  I realized with an amused grin that this meant I had plenty of new Mythbusters to watch.

I was stalling.  I knew it.  I picked up the phone again.  I decided I wasn’t going to have this conversation in the living room, so I went into the bedroom.  I turned on the light.  I stared at the wall, and then hit the right buttons.

“Um, hi.”

“Hi yourself.”  She’d answered between the first and second rings, which was encouraging, but her tone was guarded.

“So.  If I told you I’d been kidnapped by a Dragon and offered a contract marriage that I denied but still kept me out of the real world for almost a year, would you believe me?”

Silence.  Breathing.  “I think you need something better than that.”

“What if I threw in dinner, any place you like?”

Her tone was slightly more positive.  “I’d say you were getting warmer.”

“It’s all true, you know.”

“Yeah.”  Rohana sighed.  “It’s always the weird stuff with you, E.  I don’t think you live in reality.”

“I have for the past,” I glanced outside, “seventeen hours, at least.”

“I’ve moved on, E.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, reflexively.  “I didn’t mean to drop off the face of the planet.”

“I heard.  Kidnapped.  By a Dragon.”  It was colder.

“How much ‘moved on’ is it?  Married?  Kids?” I asked.  I tried hard not to sound desperate.

“I’m not the marrying type,” she said, and while it had the ring of truth, it also had the ring of something sad and repeated in her head.

“So, kids?  Polyamorous girlfriends?  No, wait, you got some cats?”

“Wishful thinking much?” she teased a little.  “No, I’ve just been…” a pause, “dating.  You know.”

I knew.  I’d done it myself once or twice.  Or three, four hundred times.  I’d lost track.  “Serious?”

“Kind of,” she admitted.  “Kind of getting there.  Feeling it out, trying to see where we are.”

“I know the feeling,” I said.  “Before I was, you know, beamed off the planet by alien succubi or whatever, I thought I had that with this girl I knew.”

“I see you’ve learned a little passive-aggressiveness,” she said, and this was warmer in the death-ray thermometer kind of measure.

“Hey, I’m the one who didn’t answer calls.  I’m the one who was kidnapped and is left adrift with almost a year’s worth of amnesia to the real world.  You’re just being sensible.  There was no need to wait for me.  No need to trust that it had to be a really big deal if I disappeared.”

“Am I supposed to feel sorry for you now?” The death-ray in her voice continued its countdown to explosion.

“No.  Hey, can I invite you to my pity party?  It’s bring your own tears.”

She chuckled, out of politeness, probably.  “That was good, but I’m washing my cat’s hair.  Or something.”

“There’s an innuendo in that that would probably not be good for me to hint at, I bet.”


There was silence for a long time.

“I need to go,” she said.

“Yeah,” I repeated what she’d said.  “Hey, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“Yeah,” she echoed.

“Is that, ‘Yeah you are,’ or ‘Yeah, I believe you?'” I asked.

She chuckled again.  “Can it be a little of both?”

“Yeah,” I said.  We both kind of chuckled.  “Alright.  Look, if you ever want to talk.” I started again. “I mean, just talk… well, I guess I can’t promise not to disappear again, but I’d, I guess, I’d like that.”

She was quiet.  “I’ll think about it.”

“No pressure. I promise.”

“I said I’d think about it.  That’s not a hard ‘No.'”

I took a breath.  “Then this is a goodbye, but it’s with a hope to talk to you again.”

“Goodbye, E.”

I dropped the phone onto the bed next to where I’d sat.  Well, what could I expect?  Heartache, pain, that feeling of disconnection that comes from not being able to access my emotions for fear of being overwhelmed that is endemic to my half of the species… yeah, all that.

“Hey, Wrecks,” I called out to the living room.

“Eh?” he grunted.

“I’m ordering pizza.  I don’t feel like going out.  Want some?”


“Good.”  I had that number in my phone, too, and it was a heck of a lot easier a conversation, even if I had to find out if garlic would repel Spriggans.  (“More likely jalapenos,” he suggested.  I didn’t like them on my pizza anyway.)   I even got the bread sticks.

I picked up some comics and turned pages.  I wasn’t pretending to read them, or even do much besides look at the pictures.  Apparently I picked up a collection of X-men with Lockheed in it.  I closed it after a moment and picked up the next graphic novel.  Something about a supercriminal organization run by a Mr. Lao.   I tossed it aside.  Ah, the Kakaranatharans.  Fine.

I got up and sat on the coffee table facing the futon.  The TV was off.  “Which Dragon?” I asked.

“Which witch?” Wrecks retorted, putting the book down.  He kept a finger in it as a bookmark, as if he didn’t expect this conversation to last too long.

“Non-sequitur,” I said.  “Which Dragon are you working for?”

“Do I work for anyone?”

“Do you not serve your King?”

“Is my King a Dragon?”

“Is your King a witch?” I asked, testing.

“Would you have slept with her if she was?”

“Would I sleep with anything not human?”

“Was your relationship with Angharad’s shell that innocent?”

“Do you mean Doloise?”

He paused.

“Hesitation,” I murmured.

He frowned.  There was a knock and I went to pay for the pizza.  I parceled us out some pieces, and sat back on the table.

“What do you really want to know?” he asked, gently enough.  He put the book down to eat.

“I asked.”  I shook my head.  “Why are you here?”

“You need a bodyguard, and my kind have been that.”

“Do I?” I was alarmed.

“I would rather not have to fight,” he admitted with a wry tone.  He chewed the crust for a moment.   “Especially the things you tend to get mad at you.”

“I don’t think one run in with a Dragon is a tendency.”

He enumerated with his fingers.  “Naul. The Magdalen.  Muak-lal, a Shadow King.  Asheralat.”

“How come you know the names of things I don’t even know?  Who is the last?”

“A … you would probably know her as a succubus.”  He shrugged.  “On the other hand, your companions are pretty puissant.  The Questor has sided with you, where he is normally neutral.”  He named the Questor’s wife.  “Peredur.  Artur.  Sir Darius.  Even your Rohana is a power.”

“She’s not my Rohana anymore.”

“A shame.  You need a healer.”

“What, is this a band of heroes?  I need a fighter, a cleric, a bassist, that kind of thing?”

He laughed a short bark.  “Well asked.”

“Who’s side is the Seven King on?”

“Ah, well, the Small Kingdom and the Large both arm against Muak-lal, yet your mark does not make them your friends.  Perhaps you could have persuaded the Seven if you had given in to that Majesty’s charms.”

“Not your Majesty?” I asked.

“I am Nen Wave-crasher.  No King can command the tide, though they may dam against it.”

“Is that just the structure, or is there a hidden ‘n’ at the end of that word?”

“Like a monster at the end of a book?” He grinned.

“She stole almost a year from me already,” I said, suddenly loud.  I hadn’t meant to be.  I didn’t really even realize I’d been that angry about it.  I didn’t know which part hurt most…that I could be gone a year and not notice, or that other people didn’t really notice.

“Aye.  The King owes you much,” he said.  He looked very serious, and something about him was different.  The strange deviation of his facial structure, the weird shaping of his mouth, it looked different for a moment.  Less feral, more noble, I guess.  Like I’d seen something powerful in him.

“I’ll collect with interest,” I said.

“Ah, I thought your interest wasn’t for sale,” he teased.

“What did the Small Kingdom gain from me?” I asked.

“The King cannot abdicate her decisions, for which you reminded the Court. You released their seer, their war-guide.  You had Rayya open the gates and awakened the hall of hands from darkness.  You did not offer yourself as sacrifice.  You had the King lead you through time back to a beginning.  It was quite a statement, Door-closer.”

“Huh.”  I thought about it.  “I did all that?”

“And more.”

“I’m keeping you around,” I announced, generously.  “Not only do you have my back, but you make my muddling around sound good.”

“Muddling?” he asked.  He seemed pleased, though.

“Yeah. I was just trying to figure everything out, you know, get one step ahead of the competition.  You made me sound like a fast food meal described by a gourmet restaurant.  You know, instead of, ‘Meatballs with red sauce and cheap overcooked noodles,’ I’m ‘prime Kobe sirloin ground rounds nestled in a savory sauce made of fire roasted tomatoes, sauteed garlic, with a hint of organic basil on a platter of angelhair pasta served al dente.’  Or something like that.”

“I guess it’s better than `acerbic beefcake with dreads.'”

“Totally not my type,” I said, amused.  It was an immediate retort but I was reminded of my gold star. I sighed, getting up from the table and putting the rest of the pizza in the refrigerator.

“You continue to overthink it,” Wrecks said. “And that much garlic will give you bad dreams.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Nah.” He made a noise.  “Would you categorize this as part of the Lovecraftian mythos?” he waved Foucault’s Pendulum towards me.

I shook my head. “Not without a spoiler alert. I always think of Templars as anti-magic warriors.”

“You’re ruined by popular culture,” he sniffed.

“Or made by it into a god,” I said, majestically raising my arms as if filled with inner power. I laughed, after a moment.  “Alright.  I have things to do.  Answers to seek.”

“Quests to conquer?” he asked.  “Fair maidens to rescue?”

“The next line is likely ‘Dragons to slay,’ and I’m out of that business,” I said.

“Really?” he repeated my question back at me.

I did not slam the bedroom door, but only because it would mean he won.

I slept fine, although I spent extra time with the toothbrush getting the garlic out. Even without girls to impress, maiden or not.  I did not dream.

I woke up once in the night, as I heard a loud warbling noise, like a nearby siren.  I listened to see if it would continue, but the doppler faded, and so did my consciousness.

In the morning, I did most of my ablutions, decided to skip shaving, and got dressed.  I made some calls, re-activating myself at the temporary agency, some odds and ends.  The things of life.  The bits of the adventures that aren’t played through in the games unless that one guy is there insisting on telling everyone how he makes a toothbrush out of an aromatic root, and how he’s making sure to eat the rations that give him regular bowel movements.  It’s always a guy.  I did play once with a lady who discussed breastfeeding at the table, but she was playing a character who made it work, especially with the demigod baby strapped to her back.  Good times.

Wrecks was passed out on top of the books.  I growled when I noted he was bending the cover of my signed copy of Imajica.  I guessed he wasn’t the useful kind of fey who cleaned up after himself.  I gently moved his leg and pulled the novel out from under his knee.   I took some time to pick things up.  “Some bodyguard you are,” I muttered under my breath.

I suddenly felt like a thousand little eyes were staring at me.  This is an uncomfortable feeling.  It’s like paranoia that makes itself known with electricity.  I looked around slowly.  Nothing seemed to be there, but the feeling continued long enough for me to decide it wasn’t born of guilt.  I heard the sounds of things moving, bits of paper, the crinkling of a plastic bag, all like you’re just about to fall asleep and something in your room moves… despite there being no wind.  The feeling receded.

Wrecks opened one eye at me, lazily.  “I have to rest sometime, man,” he said.

“What was that?” I asked.  “It was really disturbing.”

“Friend of mine.  Poltergeist… kind of.  They don’t like anything mortal …and sane.”

“Guess we’re all good friends, here.”

Wrecks snickered.  “You said it, not me.”

“You can tell by the company I keep,” I added.  I sat at the computer chair and wrote a message to my sister.  It was a variant on the requests she’d made for me to call, but a lot less demanding, if you asked me.  I had manners and she was never a genteel lady. I probably could have left out the, “Still with…what was the disposable’s name? Roberto?” comment.

I kept bringing up pictures of the fires. Waldo Canyon. High Park. Flagstaff. More than five hundred homes.  Families.  I looked around my apartment.  All my stuff was here.  My comfort.  My activities.  My small reminders of things that had happened in my life.  Trinkets and bits.  The promise ring I never gave Maggie.  Ten years of anchoring the topsoil before mudslides would stop being a problem.  Those were just the big ones in my state; there were plenty of lightning strikes and large fires all over the country.

“What’s a derecho?” I asked aloud.

“It sounds like a reminder that you haven’t had breakfast,” Wrecks said.

“Thanks, mom.  I wasn’t hungry yet, but now that you mention it,” I went and heated up the last of the pizza.  I spent the morning looking at scientific explanations for the fires, while Wrecks ate his share and started in on the Wild Cards series.

The phone went off in my bedroom on one of my generic ringtones.  I didn’t recognize the number, and I didn’t catch it in time.  It was a local number, not one of those Caribbean Cruise folks who would fill up my voicemail if I let them.  I kept meaning to take down the “remove me from your call list” number, and eventually I’d be mad enough to do it.  After a moment, the phone rang again.

I answered it.

“E, we have to talk.”

“Maggie.”  I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.  “No, we don’t,” I said.

“I disagree.”

“No surprise there,” I retorted quickly.

“Do you even want to know what it’s about?” she asked.

“Not really.  I know if you’re involved, it’s not good.”

“It’s about your sister.”

I banged my knee against the desk and spent the next 15 seconds in an agony that really deserved all the words that came spilling out.  I took another deep breath.  “Fine.  You have thirty seconds.  Don’t think I’m not staring at a clock.”

“Gossip has it that there’s something big and bad looking for her.  I can’t help you.  I’m trying to keep my people out of the line of fire, as it were, but I thought you ought to know.”

“I thought you were wrapped up tight with the Shadow King,” I said.  I hadn’t meant to say anything, but it kind of came out.

“You never trusted me enough, E.  Do you think we wanted this?”

“Your name comes up on a list of significant beings with power that are arrayed against me,” I said.

“And you trust the… the keeper of these names?”

I thought about it, and then laughed.  “I guess I believed you when you said you were all that.  So hearing someone else say you were all that and a bunch of evil dips, I was willing to believe.”

“Your confidence in me is astounding. You are an idiot.”  She hung up.

I glanced wryly at Wrecks.  “Well?  Ready to slap some arcane wisdom on me that doesn’t actually help?”

“I can’t help you with your women problems, Door-closer.”

I looked him up and down.  “I can’t imagine that you could,” I said, with a grin.  “But is the use of my title a hint?”

“Why haven’t you shut the door on your relationship with her?” he asked, seriously.

“Because I’m an idiot,” I said.  “Can I do that?”

“She’s a witch.  Look up on yon magic internetty box and find a thousand spells to cut a relationship clean.  You’ve got to know how to use your power, wizard-friend.  Secret-caller.” He looked amused.

I considered it.  “What do you know about my power?”

He sat back, and his expression changed.  “Now you’re talking.  I’m your bodyguard, not your tutor.  You need to utilize your resources, and get a better teacher.”

“What am I looking for?  A wizard?”

“You could,” he said.  “A wizard, however, would teach you to be a wizard.  And you, no need to repeat yourself, do not want that.”

I nodded.  “So I need to find another door-closer?”

“Take baby steps.  Is your magic an inherent power or is it a result of ritual, opening yourself to other forces?”

“Huh,” I grunted. “I expect a Closer doesn’t open himself.  So it’s inherent.”

“Where does it come from?” he asked.

“Do you mean, is it like genetic?  Am I a mutant and I’m looking for a Professor X?”

“Where does your power come from?” he asked again, sounding each word out as if he was looking for something.

“My soul? My experiences? My good looks?  My folks?  My having my fingers slammed by a radioactive door when I was but a wee lad?”  I growled.  “I don’t know what you’re looking for.  Give me a hint.”

He sighed.  “I am what I am.  You are not.”  He went back to his book.

“This isn’t helping.  I’d rather find out what Dragon is responsible and what it means to the war effort, and what is going on with my sister.  Why my sister?” I asked aloud.  “I mean, better than my mom,” I pointed out.

“Flame-bright, power-spark, she lights the path of what is dark. Secret-keeper, Closer’s blood, she sprouts the seeds of the flood,” he said, turning a page somewhat…flippingly.

“Is that her song?”

“Mayhap.”  He sounded grumbly.

“I didn’t know that maybe was an option.  Could I add a chorus and maybe a snappy bridge to mine?”

“No.”  He brought his knees up to hold the book there.  “And it doesn’t need a guitar solo.”

“Bummer.”  I sighed.  “Seeds of the flood?  Do floods come from storm seeds?  Is this the Biblical kind of flood, or like a woman’s thing?”

He ignored me, so I went back to my research.  Now that I understood the science more, it was time to look up the magical side.

After about an hour, I gave up.  “I can’t do this without real fuel.  You want anything from the store?” I asked.

“I must attend you,” he said, sliding a Tattered Cover bookmark between the pages.

“Do you need a booster seat?  Should I put you up front in the cart, or maybe get one of those ones with the plastic cars attached?” I asked.

He rolled his eyes.  “I am not of this world. I do not need to be coddled as if I were the visage I have taken.”  He frowned.  “Get your shoes on.”

I did as he asked only because it was my next stop, anyway.  I tied the laces, wondering about the frown.  When I came out of my room, I didn’t see him.  The room was also, somewhat, more picked up.  The dishes were put away in the sink.  There was a pillow on the couch I didn’t recognize.  The TV screen had been dusted.

“Wrecks?” I asked.  I felt silly using that name, and it sounded weird in the silence.  “I mean, Nen?”

I kept bracing myself for the creepy sensation, the thousand eyes making the hairs on my arms and neck rise with a lightning prickle.  It wasn’t there.  “Nen?” I asked again.

The door made a noise, opening slightly.  I crept up behind it, and then grabbed a ruler from the various gaming supplies I kept on the shelf beneath my octopus cup.  I propped the door open, backing up with it as it swept towards me.  I heard the yowling of a neighborhood cat, but other than that it was silent.  Too silent.

Wrecks had his hand around Peredur’s neck, and they weren’t moving.  Smoke drifted from Peredur’s nostrils.  Wreck seemed to strain, while the Dragon didn’t seem too uncomfortable.

I let the door close with a sigh.