Archive for the ‘ Chapter 05 – Closer ’ Category

(100) Boom.

If this had been a movie, there would have been a camera focus on the girl, a moment when out of courtesy for the death scene the Dragon would fail to lunge at me again, staying still so we could share our words of dialogue, our final farewells.

Life comes at you fast.  I heard the crunch as Doloise and Nellie both hurt each other, and I think I went crazy for a moment.  I don’t remember if I was punching or slapping Nellie’s draconian face, I just know I went in and started yelling and hitting.

“You stupid stupid Dragon!  I didn’t want a fight!  I just wanted my fairy back!  You stupid selfish mythological creature!  You fairytale monstrosity!”  I was just ranting.  I don’t remember exactly what I said, only that there were a lot of exclamation points, a lot of shouting, and no crying.  I was too bleepin’ mad to cry, and it was a roar inside me that was getting out through words.  I remember saying, “Stupid,” a lot, though.  I know I was swearing.

Something about Doloise was paining Nellie, and the Dragon thrashed, and roared, and when she lifted up her head to try to spit the Realm out, I just went in deeper, and now I was punching at the Dragon’s neck and belly and my knuckles were bleeding, and I didn’t feel them, I didn’t feel anything but the rushing in my head and ears and the absolute fury that I didn’t even know I had inside me.

Lots of philosophers have said that it’s how you act in moments like these that show you your true self.  A lot of smart philosophers have had moments like these.  Well, actually, I really don’t think a lot of them have faced off bare-handed against a Dragon after their friends had been bitten by said Dragon, but maybe in a metaphorical sense.  We all have our crosses to bear, our Twinkies of psychokinetic energy, our Dragons to face, and while maybe not all of them are 35 feet long and 9 feet high (just an estimate) they’re still our personal obstacles and while some of us prefer to slink around them, some of us take out our swords (or fists, or unlicensed nuclear accelerators) to slay them.  

That’s actually one of the reasons I’m a gamer; I want to put myself (or the characters I make) into that wringer to better know what and who I am (or they are) under more simulated pressure, yes, but before real life takes a swing at me.

Doloise wasn’t screaming.  She hadn’t made a noise.

The bleepin’ Dragon hurt her so much that my fairy, my friend didn’t get to make a noise.  Not even a last defiant squeak!

I think I was screaming at this point, and kicking at the Dragon’s talons.  I ducked as the Dragon brought her head swinging back down, trying to dislodge Doloise from her mouth.

Actually, if I’d seen it in a movie it would have almost been comedic.  It would have been the biting of something too hot to handle, and there would be steam coming out of the Dragon’s ears, and tears welling in her blue eyes.  She was scrabbling with her claws and I backed away, tripping over Artur and then I think I squeaked and levitated for a moment as Artur winked at me, and I scrabbled backwards until I knocked my own breath out of me as I hit a wall.  Or a stalagmite.  Either one.

That gave me a moment to focus my thoughts, and Nellie managed to get Doloise pulled out of her jaws.  Doloise was bleeding flowers, daffodils and dandelions, yellow ashes like sulfur, a golden glow of light against the bronze darkness.  They both bled gold.  Neither of them were human – was I surprised?  Doloise slapped against the ground with the sound of a wet slab of meat, but she wasn’t meat.  She was from Beyond my reality, Beyond what I knew.  She wasn’t my fairy, she was a shape for some magic and surveillance.  A camera and a wand.

I remembered who I was, and where I was.  I remembered Artur opening the door. 

I stood up.  I could do this.

 “Stop this,” I shouted at Nellie, who was still making whimpering noises.  She spat in my direction, a mixture of slime and thorns and blood of a Realm.  I dodged it, and moved in front of her.

She said nothing, only leaned towards me with her slavering mouth and her mad blue eyes.

I did not flinch, but I did close my eyes.  I needed to find that place, that one spot inside where things got quiet.   I reached out and inwards at the same time.

I felt her breath, and it smelled like Doloise.

“What did you just do?” the Dragon asked, quietly.  I thought I had seen her angry, but that quiet question did scare me more than anything I had yet experienced.

I did it again, and I could feel it closer.  My one trick, magnified.

“What did you just do?” the Dragon screamed, repeating herself, and I felt the blow first as pressure against my ribs, and then pressure inside.  I kept my focus, trying to breathe.  Something had broken, and I felt myself curling up in pain against the wishes of my brain.

I did it again.  The noise got quieter.  And again.  There were so many open doors, and I could close them all.

“Stop it!  Stop it!” 

I didn’t care how many places a Dragon existed in, because they were just doors to me.  Doors I could pull, push, slam or kick shut.

I felt her move towards me, and I opened my eyes.  Artur lifted his sword, the forest not piercing Nellie, but getting in her way, vines pulling at her feet, trees crashing down as she moved towards me.  Artur bled green blood, swamp, and sap, but he was only barely mortal.  Nellie was not, Doloise was not.  They had rules, and one of them was that they did not function well without connections to their place of origin, without open portals.

And I was the Portal Doctor.

(101) The Heat of the Night

My lips taste of salt, like the breath of a breeze that caresses the surface of the ocean.  The kiss of the coast, the mistress of sand and surf.  My lips taste of blood.

“-crzzzt- we have a fire”

“-nack-nack- just laying here”


“no identification”

“Maggie said-”

Do leaves feel like this, swept up by the wind, buffeted by nothing so common and yet so precious as air?

“-snrack!  FZZZZT!-”

I cannot breathe.

“-seriously, the same guy.  Dairy Queen, remember?”

“I was birthed in thorns, and buried in ashes.”

No, that voice was just in my head.

I felt myself being pulled up onto the gurney.  I felt movement, and I felt pain, but I also felt disassociated.  This wasn’t me – the real me was kicking closed doors until it was just me and a Dragon.

“-fire under control-”

“Started in the kitchens–”

“It is one of the three ways I will assist.”

That left one more, and I thought it would sound better if he said, “It is the second of the three ways I will assist,” but I didn’t argue it.  I couldn’t move.  I was strapped down again.  I guess since the words were all in my head I could argue quietly.  Were the words speaking to me or just memories of sound?

I couldn’t hear anything.  My head was made of fuzzy muffins.

“No, small potatoes.”

In a hashbrown world.   I remembered grinning at that.  My head was made of small potatoes.   Was I good for baking, maybe a russet, or better for boiling, like a red nordland?

“If soaking your head was boiling.  Maybe a fingerling?”

That was a response to my thought.  Or maybe I said it aloud.  Or maybe I answered myself.

I am like a potato because to a Dragon I am crunchy and good with ketchup.  And that’s pretty much the only time to eat ketchup.  I am a french fry.  A lost potato.  Peter, Peter, potato eater, had a French maid but couldn’t keep her… put her in a ketchup bowl, and made up for all the time he stole.

I might have been delirious.

Someone up front was shouting numbers for a moment.  I hoped they were good numbers.  Maybe they were Jenny’s phone number.  I hated that song.

There were too many lights and too much sound and all I wanted was my friend back. 

She hadn’t been a very good friend, but that was alright, because she hadn’t had a lot of experience being a person.   I can be forgiving in that case.

“But did you love her?”

Love her?  What kind of question was that?  That’s the kind of thing your id sneaks in when you’re not paying attention.  It always wants the spotlight.  It’s like little fantasies of being recognized by fame and/or people you admire.   We all have them, and unless we’re some weird groupie type, we know they’re pretty dumb.  It’s the kind of rational rationale that keeps us reasonable folk from showing too much enthusiasm.  Goodness knows, we can’t like anything.  That’d be bad for our too cool for school image.

“But did you love her?”

Love her?

How do you answer that?  I can’t.  I can’t answer, “Yes,” because I wouldn’t have described it as love.  The language doesn’t have the right word.  I cared for her in all the meanings of the phrase, “cared for,” which might be a kind of love.  I liked it when she laughed at the meerkats.  I knew her favourite flavour (not that “anything chocolate” was hard to grasp) of ice cream.  I knew she always scanned the crowd for dangers only she could detect.  I knew she was an entity that did not belong fully in my world, and that she was a temporary thing, mine until her promise was fulfilled, and the whims of her makers could just as easily unmake what consciousness she had.    Can a group be said to have a consciousness (or a conscience?) different than the make-up of its individuals?

I think I had a headache.

But did I love her?  If I was going to go to bed with anyone soon, it was probably going to be Sylvia, provided she liked me without the influence of the incubus.  Doloise was too different.  You don’t go to bed with an entity without ending up owing it a favour.   Someone told me that once.  Or maybe I read it in a book. 


I recognized that voice.  It was Maggie.  She sounded like she’d been crying.  Or arguing.  Or both.  I don’t get women.  I wonder why they made Doloise a woman.  I would have listened if it had been a man.  Or a tree, apparently.  I saw what Artur had done, trying to help me.  I guess it takes two bites by a Dragon to get to the center of a lesyie pop.

“Let me have a minute with him, alone, please?”

She was talking to someone else.  It was quieter here, but the lights were still too bright.  My eyes weren’t working.  Maybe I left them in the dark of the cavern.  Maybe they were just resting.  Yeah, I was just resting them.

“What have you done?”

The screams of the Dragon still roared in my ears. 

It’s odd, not knowing where you are, what position you’re in, if you’re still alone in the dark of a cavern while a Dragon spits out thorns and curses you for closing off access to its power, or if you’re in a hospital bed far from home.  Is that moss, or a tiny stream, or a cold IV dripping into your arm? 

Then the presence was gone, gone, and I was alone.  Alone inside my head, where I was away from the pain.  Alone away from my friends, the short fellow with the tree-like legs, and the tall one who smelled like dandelions, and the velvet bat, and the witches, and the smell of Ivan burning, and the wolves.

Don’t leave me.  There are wolves out there.

“I’m not leaving.  I’m here, E.”  A cool hand against my forehead and I started to feel my body again.  I curled up rather than scream. 

The wolves were inside me, weren’t they?

“I’ll protect you from the wolves.”

Who protects me from the Dragons?


Do we use a changed child?  He would not like a child, I think.  He would not be ruled by the urge to mate, sensuously.  I like curls. Yellow. Here, this art will do to clothe it.  Her. A  woman.  Tall.  Tall means to take attention.  She should have a pretty voice.  Do not give her the voice of a siren as it distracts from the message.  I want green eyes.  Take them, then, but she will wear all of ours, depending on which of us holds her hand.  Skin of gold? Skin of fair, or Angharad will be jealous, but weave gold into her hair.  I like curls.  But does he?

Amber.  Saffron.  The shield of yew.

Are you sure he’s the one? The Shadow would fight a mage, and taste a mortal. This one walks between worlds. A man on the threshold, but not a trickster? He sees, but does not have to touch, he wants, but not too much.  A trickster thirsts for change.

Goldenrod.  The ochre pelt of lions.

I wonder if he likes the taste of daisies. Should she unfold, she can taste of cobwebs and the reddest stolen cherries.  I would have her spin the moon into quiet dreams.  She will smell of meadows and orchards, of wind, and rain, and coloured birds.  But our lord’s tastes are for brimstone and leather, my love.

Daffodil for the arts.

Draw salt into her bones, and silver into her blood, silk to the touch, and gold unto her hood.  Paint her pretty parts the pink of petals, and have her dance upon a pin, give her seldom laughter for it ill benefits a man.

Lemons and mustard, maize and cream.

Silly rhymer.  Would you name her?

No, to name her would be dolose.

A heart of ice, a tongue of dirt?  She is a force for this world, give her gifts in three times three.

She shall be Guide once, to a land unafraid of steel.

She will be Guardian twice, once to protect, once to guard the gate.

She will be able to learn fear, but not have it attract or repel her.

She will know the tongues of those she meets, and when told secrets, those she keeps.


She should be able to dance and move like serpent and sparrow, ox and eagle, otter and silly-nilly porcupine.

She will draw a lake from a drop of rain, and with swift glamour, back again.

She should be able to ride the steeds of this world, though they be iron or black smoke, and swiftly, as if she had wings.

She should learn quickly that which is taught in good faith.

She should sit where and as a cat sits, and always spot our kind.

I want her to have curls.  Behave, fractious child!

We have our three times three, our nine to the world and so it be.

But in undoing her, how shall we weave?  Perilous fate and dungeons for the overbold?  Silence and the holly king’s yearly sacrifice, should she melt to flowers, or freeze to ice?  A maiden shall she fall?  Or to borrow our friend’s verses, not at all.  She can go in battle, or by neglect.  A breach in Hospitality?


She’s a pretty poppet, and see her curls?  A bit fairer than asked for, but that’s true of all girls.

Speak for us, poppet, and give us your name.

“I do not know my name.”

Your troth in this?  For we did not give her the gift of true speech.  We could speak as her in need, but I fair like the idea of the challenge of her finding her own words.  Find the healer, pretty thing.  The one who sutures the worlds with silver string.

Straw.  Icterine.

The doctor.  They call him a doctor.

“And when I find this man?”

He is mortal, he will do.  We have a Shadow at our gate, and he seeks souls for battle.  I would tell you more but it is not mine to tattle.

“What is he like?”

What does it matter?  He is mortal and he fits our diviners survey.  He speaks no poetry, sings no songs, but has an edge of the light anyway.  No stolen child, he.   Our fair Thomas once spoke of him.  Do not get weepy over tragic Thomas. We remember one mortal’s name why not another?


“Am I to be with him?”

Do not eat him.  But mortal flesh has its own rewards, however you try it.   Have you tried mince pies from youngling’s thighs?  Mad mad Thomas, he would only ally with our Shadow thing, our Shadow King.


“Why will the doctor do what we ask?”

Because we will kill him if he does not?  The idea of incentive has reached the wild lands, so why do you insist that it is only on point of the knife that one should choose?  Old pleasures die hard.  We will gift him.  No, we will give him a boon.

Beware Peredur.  The red of the gold goblet, the shadow at sun’s height.  He wakens.

“Is that my lord?”


His breath brought life to you, but it is made of thorn and ashes.  Do not ask to be pricked upon the blackthorn’s tip, or for you who reminds him of his fair, you may lose more than your maidenhead. [much shared laughter]

Shush.  Hush like the blanket of clover.  Our Realm here should be turned to the mortal’s world, tuned like an instrument to play its game like a tale.  Isabelline, draw the Court’s eyes and see as our poppet sees.  Gelsey, draw open the bridge.    Oren, music to soothe our lord so he does not see the beauty in what we have wrought and desire it before it comes into its own.

“But what is my name?”

Ill luck to name you.  You are no child born, no woman of real flesh.  You are our tool, magnificent in gift until we have need of our component pieces.

“Then ill luck I shall be named.  Doloise Mallory.”


(79) Seeds of Gold

The rules of Hospitality are such that as much as I wanted to replay the loop of, “No, no, after you, I insist,” with Artur all would still know it as procrastination.  So I took a step forward.  Nikolai whined and pushed at my right leg with his nose.  Another step, and I could feel the sound buzzing slightly.  My synesthesia is not entirely metaphorical; after all, sound waves are physical, measurable items.  A third step and I and Nikolai were through into the cold, thin air, falling perhaps half a meter in surprise between there and here.

I said something unintelligible at the time, moving forward so Artur could come through and not crash into us.  Nikolai found a place to heel beside me.  I couldn’t speak for the dog, but I was getting pretty tired of all the travelling.  I close these darn things, and at that, I thought portals short-lived and relatively rare.   Now I find that they’re kind of the whoopie-cushion of wizards or some other practical joke.  “Here, pull my finger, and I’ll open a gate to Stenchlandia!”   “Pick a card, any card, and I’ll portkey you to Spadesville, Ace!”

We were let out at a mountainside of amethyst and gold.  The purple mountains’ majesty, if you must.  I don’t know plants, but the colour was made of little flowers in yellows and violet, living symbiotically, or at least as good friends, on unnaturally shiny ground.  Thick golden seeds went unharvested at the base of the petals, and their stalks seemed to sprout symmetrically from the same base.  The flowers were kind of star shaped.  Very desert twee.

Nikolai moved to water the flowers as Artur came through.  The gate’s exodus on this side was anchored by a bronze and indigo treefall that had been impeded by a large rock that looked made of pyrite or an exceptionally golden mica or something else.  I was trotting out all the geological terms I knew, except for the cleavage jokes because there weren’t any girls here.

Looking down (the direction we were pointed in) showed a yellow brick road in the distance.  I couldn’t actually tell if it was brick, and it looked more like a pale mud than yellow, but I was feeling snarky.  Of course, we’d already sung the, “We’re Off to Meet the Wizard” in the last pocket universe we visited.  There were some other hills in the distance, some quite butte-iful.  (I like big buttes, Sir Mixes-his-metaphors-a-lot?)

“Which way lies the beast?” Artur asked.  He hadn’t spent the last minute hopping and cursing his ankle.  Of course, I had been far too suave to do that either, but I was kind of hoping.

I sighed and started climbing up.  “The Dragon can fly.  Start remembering to look up.”

“If you believe magical beings to be evolutionarily savvy,” he said, with no trace of an accent, “you’d know that’s highly unlikely for a creature born of the treetops.”

“Born of the treetops?” I asked, without looking at him.  I patted my stomach.  “This here, was born of the muffin-tops.”

“You’re awfully irreverent for a wizard.”

“Must be why I haven’t gotten the union card.”

“What would you call yourself then?  A doctor?”  He scoffed.

“I call myself `me,’ just like in the song.  What’s a lesiye anyway?  Sounds like part of a zombie, but only if you add the ‘f’ in front of it.” 

“A…fleshy.  That one’s good.  Oh look, there.”  We had reached a bit of summit, and he pointed across a large puddle of shimmery water.  Well, I called it a puddle because from this height all I could do was guess how deep it was, so other than it being water I could splash in, it was a mystery.  Plus, not being a cartographer, I didn’t know what the rules were to naming it a pond, lake, mere, loch, sea, or whatnot.  (But I took a moment to make a note in my phone to look it up later.  No, I didn’t have signal.  It’s a market ready to happen, though, although I decided that looking up my service representative and suggesting it was not on my to-do list.)

The lake (I took a wild guess) itself reflected gold and green, depending on the winds.  On an island in the middle was a cave that, were this a videogame, practically screamed, “click on me to enter!”  I made the appropriate motion with my index finger, and then smiled to myself.

“When she was Naul, she was brown with the talons of an eagle, and wings of garnet and copper feathers,” Artur said, and it sounded like he was reciting a piece of scripture.

“Eagles build their nests high, I thought,” I said.  “Not on islands.  But I thought she might actually be elementally connected to water, which would indicate the cave, maybe?”

“Water eagles?” Artur asked, skeptically.

“Sea eagles.  Ospreys?”  I shrugged.  “The coat of arms for Russia has a double-headed eagle.  And doesn’t it also have a dragon slayer?” 

“Point, although that’s within the last millenia.”

“Full of relevant timely trivia, that’s me.  I’m fun to have at parties.”  I watched the skies, but except for occasional wisps of clouds, there was nothing about, and no noises to indicate invisible things flying about our heads.  Unless they were inaudible, and, well, had no wind resistance either, in which case it could still be sylphs, but I think of having them as being just a little less likely than having a social disease.  Which meant that I would have to have, you know, a social life.

We picked our way down the mountain carefully, and quietly, which gave me time to ask myself the question I had been avoiding.  Would I have gone this far for Maggie?  I told myself I would have for any damsel in distress, and maybe even a couple good male friends.  But I might have been lying to myself, I mean, how would I have ever known?

(80) Earthly Delights

Of course, it wasn’t my relationships that were the pressing issues right now, but exactly what bound Ivan and Nellie together, and what made up this little pocket universe we were in, presuming, of course, we weren’t somewhere in the so-called “real world.”  I halfheartedly wished I had a way of telling, because not knowing the rules of a place meant you didn’t know what kind of Hospitality you could expect.  On the other hand, after this little jaunt to face down a creature of real Power and ask nicely for my fairy back, I very much hoped to stay in the world that included my bed, my books, and my small attempts at keeping the barriers of the world intact from small intrusions.  I would have kept the alliteration going, but “band-aided” didn’t sound quite right.

Artur continued a fairly fast pace down the mountainside that left me always on the edge of having to catch up.  Nikolai took it as a jaunt in the sunshine.   It wasn’t too bad except for that constant nagging paranoia that said, “Any minute now, the earth is going to open up into a sarlacc pit, or we’re going to be dive-bombed by a previous invisible dragon that will eat our face.  Either one, it’s going to happen.”  (My little internal voices are quite specific about the risks I am likely to incur, which doesn’t make them accurate, just determined.)

I think the difference between a phobia and a regular fear is the ability to think your way through it.  A phobia doesn’t let you relax and say, “Hey, what are the odds that both Ivan and Nellie love Star Wars the way they love each other?”  I am from the generation that has an irrational fear of the sarlacc, and, of course, lurkers above.   Of course, the part of my brain that tries to look at the bright side suggests, “If they have that stuff, maybe they’ll have lightsabres, too!”

We don’t listen to that part of our brain very much, because we suspect in our deep-down darkest selves, that we run faster on panic than with glee.  So it’s much more likely that that shadow in the doorway is something that wants our pain with a side of flesh and blood than it is something waiting to ambush us and give us presents.  Alas, poor Santa Claus, we believed in you well.

So what was this place? The suffering romantic in me wanted to think it was a little love getaway for the Dragon and her death talker.   It’s a lot less atmospheric (so to speak) than a graveyard and mounds of treasure, but why stereotype?  After all, from my copious research on the topic, Dragons like knowledge, royal maidens, acquiring treasure, breathing fire, crunchy people with or without ketchup, strawberry ice cream, and long walks on the beach under the moonlight.

Um, maybe not the last two, but I wouldn’t put it past them.

“I’ve been thinking,” I said, breaking the silence.

“A dishonest vocation,” retorted Artur.

“But occasionally rewarding, and it holds great potential for amusement,” I suggested.  “I had thoughts that might be relevant to our situation.”

“Do you want to share them or brag about them?”

If we survived this, I determined that I would introduce him to my ex-.  It was only fair – neither of them credited me with the rudiments of intelligence, and if mocking me was at least one thing in common it’d be a better relationship than some I’d seen.

“They’re ill-formed and only half-fitted without your input, of course.”  I left off the, “Oh mighty fleshy lesiye one,” in hopes this conversation would get somewhere.  “Let me start with a conjecture.  Where are we?”

Artur stopped.  “The air is thinner, and less full of things I can breathe,” he said.  “I presume it is a shard of a place significant to the both of them, and that we will need to find another portal, perhaps on that island, it being the only protected outlet, that will lead to where the beast makes its primary lair.”

That made some sense.  “How do you propose getting to the island?”

He glanced at me.  “I should make you swim.”

I parsed it so that he wasn’t going to, which was good of him.  Honestly, I can wade and paddle a bit, but I’m no real swimmer.  I spent my summers at the pool with a less-than-subtle eye towards girls in bikinis and trying not to think about the huge gaping drains and the fear that fed them.

For what it’s worth, ladies, I can hold my breath for a very long time.  I learned that in the summers, too.

“You know, every time you refer to `the beast, ‘ I keep thinking we need to stab it with our steely knives.”

“That didn’t work in the song, either.”  Artur grinned.

I wondered what the “passage back to the place we were before,” was going to look like, and then quashed the thought quickly so as not to dwell on it.

We reached the shore, and another artificial aspect of this place hit me – no matter how much people say water is tasteless and odorless, it isn’t.   Water from all sorts of places has its own bouquet.    This wasn’t so cold as to lack vegetation, which has its own smell in water, too.   Except here.   Not a gnat or other nasty no-see-‘um in sight – that’s another good sign you aren’t in the real world.  I started to make a list while my battery held.

Artur leaned down and touched the place where the water lapped at the earth, and said some words.  I could feel the power radiate from his fingers a little.  The waves became somehow thicker, more like a non-Newtonian fluid than, well, any liquid outside a milkshake I was likely to drink.  He seemed to put some effort into it, although, for me, it was like something magical.  I love watching wizards at work, really, because magic really is there to break the rules.

“You’ll have to move quickly,” he said.  “We’ll make it to the island, provided there aren’t any spell-eating vermin within the lake.  There ought to be, because no portal should be left unguarded.”

I hadn’t thought of that as a truism, but maybe I’ve just been lucky.

(81) Over My Head

When you’re worried about a comment someone has made, you ought to consider the one who is saying it.  I considered the source, and, well, wizards think differently than other people.  They’re not normal.

I tried not to chortle at the understatement.  Instead, I prepared myself for a run.  I did a little stretching, although I was never sure if I was doing the right kind or how much to do to warm up.  I did learn it in high school gym, and I’d never pulled a muscle (although I get enough stitches in my side to need a tailor.)  He nodded.


“Now” is like a magic word by itself – it signifies so much in the way of building pressure suddenly being relieved.  It features in a lot of porn, but even beyond that, it takes the idea of being ready, being prepared, and suddenly overcoming an obstacle.  In this case, it meant my running across with noises that weren’t quite splashes, and weren’t quite thuds.  More flappy-slappy noises.  I barred my mind from thinking of where I’d last heard similar sounds.

I recommend ignorance.  Ignorance is bleepin’ bliss.

Artur did not so much stride across the surface of the water as act as if he were wearing some kind of snow shoes.  I was moving too quickly to really see if he had accomplished this by fact of transformation of himself, or of another spell.  I had assumed he would run with me, but maybe he was ready to feed me to the sharks.

Sharks, of course, would be quite rare in freshwater ponds.  The only sharks I tended to run across were warm and buttery, which doesn’t lend itself well to fear.  It’s kind of hard to respect  something of whom you can use the same words to describe a cinnamon roll.

Nikolai just dove in after us, and paddled the way dogs are known to do.  Kind of iconic, really.

So, as I sailed blithely along with a kind of thuddy pace, it wasn’t until we were about a quarter of the way across that the first obstacle made itself known.

It wasn’t a shark, I’m glad to tell you.

I almost wish it had been.  The thing rose up with tendrils across our path, invisible except for the sheer mass of water it moved with it.  I couldn’t tell if it was a gelatin cousin of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or if it was just some sort of water weird.  It lashed out and I managed to duck underneath, getting soaked.  Nikolai barked, but was set on the whole swimming business.  I paused and started to sink.

At least it would be a slow, suffocating death, unless the elemental managed to pull me out of Artur’s spell to do whatever such a beast is raised to do.

The arc of electric light that left ozone behind it came from Artur.  Ah, wizards at play.  I wished for a seat on shore and some popcorn, because this magic was better than any industrial light show.  The creature, detecting something that was really a threat split in a kind of osmotic fashion, most of its bulk headed back towards Artur.

I remembered what I had in my pockets.

I was running faster as the creature dissolved in some agony, not unlike a slug when gifted with a shower of salt.  I had never stopped moving, which is what kept me from the quicksand effect.  It’s a lesson you can learn from video games, too, especially the dance kind.

I was rapidly running…out of energy.

Trust me, nothing inspires you to get to the gym like the release of a nifty gadget for tracking purposes or the wet sodden mass of a monster after you.  They’re both kind of high up on the list.

So I ran right into the second obstacle, and this one was brilliant.  It was a ring of fire, and I wasn’t a Johnny Cash fan, however you describe it.  It was like elemental lava, ignorant of the arguments water has had with fire.  It flowed from the water, and flames danced across its surface.

However, the designer of this obstacle had not anticipated Artur’s spell design.  I leaped over it with a prayer for my continued lucky streak of uncharred manhood and kept going.  This obstacle left Nikolai behind.

So, two of my party down.  I thought the rule was you only had to run faster than the halfling?  If there was a third obstacle, I was in trouble.

Of course there was a third obstacle.

She was beautiful, about my height, and her skin was faintly transparent.  She surfaced just like Venus from the clamshell.  She looked at me and smiled a mouth full of beautiful shark-like teeth.

I was ready for that, though.  I kept moving toward her, like I was some sex-obsessed sailor.

She wasn’t ready for the Doctor E punch.  Hey, I’d used it on Sylvia, so apparently I have a track record for knocking the breath out of pretty girls.  I don’t think I’d get away with it twice, but she was just solid enough, and I was just quick enough that I made it onto the island while she recovered.

Which at least left firm ground beneath me, so the danger of drowning was at least delayed.

The elemental was outmatched by Artur, but it was a close thing.  I took a moment to watch Artur’s legs as they moved through the water.  He had added bulk and height again, and his legs were more like two tree trunks, kind of ent-ish, really, as he moved through the lake.  He picked up Nikolai (who had swam back and had gotten a few tentacles with his doggish teeth) and gently tossed the dog over the obstacle of fire.

And then the naiad made landfall, on a gentle swell of water and I had to pay attention to my own problems.

“There is no welcome for you here.”

“So if I had a glossy, engraved invitation, you wouldn’t drown me?”

Again, that toothy smile.

I moved back a few steps.  The rules of portals, the ones I had made at least, said that I would enter in a place not unlike the one I had just left.  There’s a continuity.  What was the continuity between the throne set up Ivan had made and the mountains?

I felt the rumble as the so-called solid land beneath me began to awaken.

(82) Economies of Scales

If I put just enough swagger and move my eyebrows like a muppet I might be able to deliver the line, “I could tell you about big,” ignoring the kind of gravitas that the moment deserved.  My eyebrows are distinctly unmuppet, at least in this stage of my evolution, and I’m not the swaggering type.

Let me put it this way: I had been thinking small.   Not so small that I could describe the naiad as some kind of lymphocyte small, but small in that the creature that represented Ivan in the gate transfer (Ivan wasn’t a small man, if you recall) could quite easily eat a me and my lost simulacrum for a snack and still want a couple dozen pizzas before its belly stopped complaining.

And it worked for the gate requirement.  I was happy about that – only Doloise has broken my personal rules, and she had a reason.  I mean, I had wanted to mention that the mountains were far larger than molehills, but since I’m from Colorado I try not to brag.  There’s only a few groups of people who understand why we stay in the state (and not just because we’re addled from the altitude) for the mountains.  Going just about anywhere else, and you get, you know, hills.  Soft rounded things that don’t have the presence our part of the range does.  So I hadn’t been impressed with the shiny mountains and their purple flowers, but again, it’s all about how you describe the environs.  Artur in the trollish form he showed in the kitchen of the restaurant was big, bigger than Ivan, but this thing (and I really wanted a name for it and an entry in some kind of Monster Manual to know its capabilities) put Artur and the lesiye’s ent-like ways to shame.

I was feeling kind of small for a moment.  And wet from splashback as the island creature (too human to dub it Krakoa) shook itself loose, catching me in a giant hand (oh, call it three quarters my size) before I fell back into the water.

“Hmmmm?” it asked.  I think it was hmmmming, at any rate.   Its head still kind of looked like a cave, and the scales looked very much like living water.   It had caught the naiad in its other hand, and seemed to ignore Artur and Nikolai completely.  Apparently, the second obstacle was a necklace.  You know, the usual kind of fire charm you’d give your sentient lake boyfriend.

I really did not want to speculate on what that made the first obstacle.  Alas, my brain does not always obey my every whim, but this time it kind of went crazy and suggested it was um, a familiar.  Like a parrot on a pirate’s shoulder.

I would like to state for the record that I did not pee my pants, but honestly, it would have been completely reasonable to do so.  I did not mostly because my body had seized up in a fashion that decided any additional moisture would have to be Enemy.

Air whooshed around me, and the roaring of a giant waterfall all but made the “Hmmmm?” sound like a cavern taking a deep breath.  I was soaked now just from the ambient water in the air.

I hate it when my socks get wet.  But it’s not like you can go all over the universe in adequate footgear without  life sometimes just handing you giant island men.  Or women – but “humanoid” only goes so far, you know? And I’d like to say it saved me from having to take another shower as soon as I got home, but “ambient” only goes so far, too.  I couldn’t find a way to ask for soap in “giant island thing language.”

“It wants to know who and what you are,” the naiad shouted.  Besides the necessary volume, she was looking completely relaxed in the thing’s hand.

“It first!” I wanted to shout back, but my better sense actually blocked it.  Of course, I wasn’t getting anything better prepared than, “I am me!” but that’s fine, because Artur showed up again, doing something to the hand of the creature like a special pressure point and having it release both of us.

Falling wasn’t “fine,” by any means.  I’m not afraid of heights (but I don’t test it, either) but falling, falling wasn’t getting me to my happy place.  I had complete and total empathy for Bilbo Baggins and his wanting a good hot breakfast after a night’s rest in his own bed.  Well, except for the part of me that was screaming, “We’re going to die!”

Artur didn’t look worried.  Oh, he was pulling a Kyra.  It’s a “Dark Crystal” reference, and shouldn’t count as a spoiler anymore.  Well, the flying squirrel version of showing he had wings.  I didn’t know the limits of his transformations, but I was pretty impressed.

And pretty worried.  Why hadn’t he taken out Nellie?  I know this wasn’t a matter of “needing mortal blood” or any such silly ruling.  If she was more powerful than this son-of-a-lesiye, I better have something hidden like Zaphod in my brain and be able to pull out some kind of Heart of Gold improbability.

Of course, I’d been sitting on my living room couch with something that could all but obliterate Artur without much effort, and she, too, had been snatched by a Dragon.

See?  I would like to take this moment to refute the common refrain.  Size does matter.  Scale is important.

I wasn’t quite at the point that I cancelled my “I’m not dying from falling,” happy, but I was beginning to wonder if I could eat what we were biting off.  This wasn’t even at more than I could chew stage, this was, bigger than my giant island thing’s head.  When did I order the “mess with metaphysical things beyond my ken,” buffet?

I will not eat green eggs and dragon, no matter the size of the wash-it-down flagon.

(83) Breathe

We landed.

You know how I go on, so you’re probably surprised in that I really don’t want to talk about it.  Maybe that says a lot about the way we landed.  The words, “In the event of a water landing,” may now be triggering for me.

On the other hand, I can now say with confidence that the lake being was pretty darn male, because there was at least five seconds (more than adequate time while gliding) of total crotch scenery.

See?  Now we can share some scars.  Don’t go and get yourself tattoo’d with anything, but I’ve heard that shared pain is lessened.  I feel so much better now knowing I can use the correct pronoun.

Artur reverted to tree-thing as we ran down the hill.  Nikolai made a yelp-like sound and joined us at a run.  This pleased me, as I had worried about what had happened to the hound.

I mentally added a monthly gym cost to my slim bank account.  You know what would be cool?  A gym set up kind of like the library.  Um, I’m busy running so I can’t explain what I mean by that, but if they’re concerned about obesity in this country, they should make health a heck of a lot cheaper.  [Without being political, of course. Practitioners have the regular run of political variety, but there was a symposium a few years ago I attended that considered why there were so few in public office (all jokes about pacts with the infernal aside.)  I was unsurprised to find out that few cared about “mortal law,” and disappointed to see how few were registered to vote.  Honestly, I don’t think we’re a big enough franchise to move numbers across the board, but politicians don’t really cater to our demographic.  Besides, what kind of issues do we have that are specific to our needs?  More troops to guard our metaphysical borders?  A citizen can dream, can’t he?]

“That was the throne.  The entrance is directly across, just not in the same scale,” I managed.  If that indicates I wasn’t running as fast as I could because I could spit words out, that had more to do with the fact that in text it looks a lot more like a coherent sentence.  It was more of an exaggerated William-Shatner-reading-breathy-porn delivery.

Although, really, that whole seven-league-step thing kind of made our adrenaline-hyped dash quite silly in retrospect.  I think mostly it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Artur grunted – he could make more distance in each stride, but I was pleased to point out that while it moved him quickly, my feet rose and fell more so we were fairly well matched.  Nikolai was dashing, but he had four feet to ours, so as long as he had the stamina, we wouldn’t have to sacrifice him to whatever was following.

Which was…nothing.  Apparently the splashing we had heard was a matter of the lake king deciding to go back to sleep.  Frankly, I didn’t know whether or not to be chuffed about it.  I mean, he could have crushed us with tons and tons of water at any point, but I would have preferred all that running to have been for a reason.

We slowed down after a few minutes and turned around.  I decided to flop back on my back for a moment and just breathe loudly.  Nikolai kept sniffing around.  He actually moved away in order to shake off some of the water, so I was only hit by a fine mist.

“In answer to your question,” Artur wheezed, “I thought the area between the cliffs was a good choice.”

“Oh.  So that’s why we,” hack, cough, wheeze, sit up, lay back down, “headed that way.”

“And it was the only way out…”

“Practical.  What was that thing?”

“I think it was a son of the Morskoi Tsar.”  He translated for me.  “The Water King.”

“Oh.”  I was ready to put the name into my phone, and then sat up with a curse.  “I hope Prince Lake Monster didn’t just void the warranty with his shower,” I grumbled.  I was soaked, but I had worn my jacket, and the phone seemed to be fine, and my pockets waterproof.  Not bad for a thrift store find.  I was getting kind of low on battery, but I expected that.

“So.  Not the way to the dragon.”  I sighed.  “Did Ivan lie?”

“Pravda?” Artur laughed.  I remembered the word from elementary social studies classes, so I followed his meaning.  “He’s a sorceror.  Therefore, he lies.”

“Bigot,” I called him on it.

“How many sorcerors have you known?” Artur asked.

“Irrelevant, but I will agree that this hasn’t been a good example for the group.”  I frowned.  “I liked him.”

“Of course you do.  He is like Jack.”

I caught myself before I said I didn’t know Jack.  “Which Jack?”

“All the Jacks.  He is an Ivan, and Ivans are clever and likable.  They are also butchers of friends.  There should be a saying.  `It is easier to be butcher of friends, for goats are more suspicious.'”

I laughed until I coughed some more.  “I will try to remember that and use it someday.”   I finished coughing and stood back up.  Artur had somehow rooted into the ground, and was looking fairly refreshed.  “What are you, anyway?  Some kind of ent?”

He seemed put out.  “I’ve lived in the U.S. most of my life.   I watch at least four hours of television a day.  But what do we talk about?  The things that make me different.  My father was not an elderberry bush.”

“So your mother wasn’t a hamster.  What, do you want to talk about sports?”

“I’m a Broncos fan.”

“Uh, football, right?”  I grinned.  “Now that I can breathe again, how about how we are going to find this dragon?  I don’t suppose you know the Questor, do you?”

“Oh, sure, but I have a better suggestion.”  He sighed.  “We’re going to have to talk with Vasilisa the Wise.”

“Where can we find him?”

Artur just chuckled.  “That reminds me of a story…”

(84) Invite the Right One

“I am no gusli player,” Artur explained, “but let’s catch our breath here in the raskovnik, and I’ll see if I can tell you the story.”

I sat up, ready to protest.  “Do we have time for this?”

Artur raised a bushy eyebrow.  “Either she’s dragonchow, or she’s fine and Nellie is waiting for something else.  A negotiation, because just biting down on someone else’s magic is likely to give you several different kinds of indigestion.  I think she’s waiting for us.  Ivan had to have told her somehow.”

I didn’t like the idea but he had a point.  Either we were too late, and we were just going to get et ourselves, or we were a pivot of sorts.  Peredur had just about said it, so now that we had played with the Watcher on the Threshold, we had a few minutes.  Of course, if I’d known that, I’d go catch a shower, maybe a last meal… listening to the lesiye boy in a field that if it had been in our world would have given me allergic reactions, while a spell that was turned into a dog came over to have its ears scritched…well, this wasn’t likely to be the most surreal thing that had or would happen to me.

He seemed to take my consideration as assent.  “So, once upon a time in a land, far, far away… or, to be more precise, about three years ago in New York City…”  He had gone from the sing-song beat of tradition to something I knew to be a translation, but while there was still a trace of attitude, Artur was no longer “Sullen Boy” to me.  I only hoped I had grown up a little in his eyes, too.

I paid attention to the story.

“Vasilisa the Wise was recently married to a young computer programmer we’ll name Kievan for the sake of the story, and, really, to kind of give him the benefit of the doubt.  Kievan and his father are born to this country, but his mother was an immigrant and told him tales of Grandmother Yaga scary enough to make him kind to old women and suspicious of cabins where he can’t find the front door.  Two important things to teach a young boy.

“Vasilisa was going by the name Lisa this decade, and I forget what she does for money, but I think she supplements with writing advice columns on the internet.  Still, she is a wizard, if not zduhaći,” he paused.

“Hence `the wise,'” I nodded.

“And it means her social group is similarly somewhat curbed.”  He gave me a Look.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I grumbled.  I could meet normal people.  I do, every day I go out and work, but maybe I need to rethink my bigotry when it comes to my attitude about the fey; even for me, non-practitioners do seem to fall into the background.  I mean, some friends stand out, like Ed, who knows what I am, but for some of the echelons above me, telling people your little secrets about how you view the world poses its own risks.

He nodded.  “I really do have a girlfriend,” he said, defensively.

I didn’t know what to say, but “I believe you,” sounded patronizing, and “I did,” sounded pathetic, so I didn’t say anything, and just nodded, instead.

“When he wanted to hold a small reception for their friends, she had to tell Kievan something.  She had learned from her time as a frog, another story about her, to be careful in advertising her relationships.  Kievan, of course, expected her to have a great number of friends.”

“I sense a geek social fallacy coming on,” I sighed. Artur didn’t seem to catch it, so I continued.  “Sounds like a number four, `All my friends will be friends, too.'”

“That’s…” he thought it over, “dangerous.  Wisdom suggests otherwise,” he said, carefully.

“It’s an easy thought, after all, they all have you in common, and you like them, so why wouldn’t they like each other?  Of course, then you find out that your best friend slept with your other friend’s wife’s sister, and it’s been Word War Three ever since that patio party last summer… but anyway.”

Artur grinned.  “Except with wizards there are the occasional assassination attempts, and don’t forget the sacred quests.”

“I can’t forget the sacred quests.  Every time I go to the grocery store I feel geased to make sure I have bread, milk, butter, AND eggs.”

He chortled, and continued his story.  “So Kievan, not being given the nom de plume `the Wise,’ continues to push in the classic way fairytale spouses are known to do, until Vasilisa relents and agrees that she will invite some of her friends.  She does, of course, have to avoid known eaters of mortals, and those who are not yet comfortable with this century.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“I thought I told you I watched a lot of television.  It makes the transition easier.  Anyway, so Vasilisa goes over the guest list a couple of times.  It does not occur to her that she needs to cross the ones she doesn’t want sent out, or that her husband’s plan was to make it a bit of a surprise party.”

“That’s some contact list,” I interjected.

Artur looked confused.

“I mean, don’t most wizards have, `Arachne, address: any silver spider web under the full moonlight,’ and `Troll, bridge over troubled waters,’ kind of in their personal Rolodex?”

“How would you expect them to get their mail?  They take the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes very seriously in some places.”

I looked for signs to see if Artur was joking, but he kept a straight face as he went on with the story.  “She was wise, and many of the names were in code, but Kievan was not discouraged by the lack of contact and the many envelopes that came back returned.  It had, however, gotten notice in a certain segment of those who share our knowings that there was a party to be held.  You may have noticed in this day and age…”

“That there’s a certain lack of balls… um, dancing and big parties with lots of unusual creatures… so to speak?”

“That the festivities have gotten much tamer, yes.”  Artur pinched his nose, trying not to laugh.  I’d say his face went a bit wooden, but I’ve been trying to avoid the pun.

“What about the thirteenth fairy?” I asked.

“The…?” he shook his head.

“Comes in and curses the maiden because her invite was lost?  Briar Rose, Sleeping Beauty and all that?”

“I always thought Malificent had it won if it weren’t for the stupid analogue of the Lancelot situation.”

“Yeah, one asbestos shield didn’t a dragon-repellent make.  I’m with you there, but good has to defeat evil, and all that.”

“Well, she had some pretty incompetent hirelings, too.  I did wonder what she was wearing under the robes, though.”

“Nothing,” I said, quickly.  “That makes her wicked, and she was certainly that.”

He chuckled. “Agreed.  And in this case, there were a few people who figured on stopping by, invite or not.  After all, the wording was done by her husband, and he wanted it to be as open-ended as possible, wanted to meet her friends, and don’t tell her because it’s a surprise, well, you see the kind of disaster it started to be.

“So, Vasilisa is wise, and not at all outside the loop entirely, but as wise as she is, she is still somewhat hampered by the fact that you have to deal with imperfect interpersonal relationships, and she really doesn’t feel she can confront her husband.”

“I can imagine the conversations.  `Um, honey, you remember that surprise party?  Do you think it was a good surprise to invite both my blood sucking cousin Harry and your virgin sister?'”

“It’s just not done, really.  Some immortals are really the worst feminists.”  Artur shrugged, and it sounded like wood creaking.  “So she makes some plans to counteract all of it, and, day of the party, it’s working.”

“Logistically speaking, that must have been one huge cups-and-ball trick.”

“She’s a wizard, and that one is famous all over the world.”  He pauses.  “But then there’s a problem.    There is an uninvited guest.”

“A party crasher.  Heard about it from a chatty sylph and thought he’d score some chicks, right?  Brought some kegs of pilfered Vanir mead and a smile?”

“Who’s telling the story?” it was a guffaw, this time.  “Close enough.   And he kept calling out for Vasilisa.  The problem is, he kept refering to Vasilisa as the man of the house.  Which, of course, gave her an idea…”

The laws of Hospitality are such that generally speaking, not having an invite to the party meant that the dwarf (for that is the word to best describe him in your mind) was no longer covered by the implied protection of the party’s hosts.  While Vasilisa had split most of the outright carnivores to strut and clash in the upstairs loft, Kievan’s struggling if valiant friends were left mostly to admire the art in the living area downstairs.  There was still some uncomfortable mingling around the dining room table.

“Hi, I’m Claire, I’m a friend of Kievan’s.”  Claire started talking to the tall woman with wet-looking, deep golden hair.  Claire would have described herself first as a vegetarian, then as a young woman complete with cat, and maybe mention that she hoped to make it big as a graphic artist despite feeling that she didn’t have much in the way of natural talent.

“I am Roo,” the woman said.  She smiled and flashed what might have been rows of sharp, pointy teeth.  She would have described herself as hungry.  She fiddled with a gold comb in her hair, after selecting a small hors d’oeuvres.

“Uh, hi.  So you must know Lisa.  I’m in the publications department where Kievan works.  What is it that you do?”  Claire was fascinated by something about the rusalka’s mouth; watching Roo nibble at a turkey roll was very disturbing.

“I am a dancer,” Roo suggested.

“Really?  Are you with the ballet?” Claire tried.

Roo put a lovely pale hand on Claire’s arm.  “Would you like to see a performance?” she asked.

Claire stared at the slightly damp hand on her arm.  She noticed how it had an almost greenish tint, and at the same time, a translucency that reminded one no less of the water in a fish tank gone mostly to algae.  She looked up at Roo’s fiery green eyes and backed away.

In the back of her mind, Claire knew she would never go swimming again.

Not all of the encounters were those between predator and prey, however.  There were a group of sylph musicians who took on all requests.  There’s nothing like listening to Tool being played on a sylphic viola, but you will have to trust that my tale of byliny is true.  Such music can drive men mad.

So there was drinking, and dancing, and general socializing continued until Vasilisa got tired of her little ploy to avoid the dwarf, and instead suggested they play a game.

“We will split into two groups.  I recommend you play with someone you haven’t met before, as this is the type of game where everyone wins, but especially those who meet someone new.”  Her wisdom knew that couching it in the terms of a game, no matter how frivolous could mean it was a sacred rite, and thus those in the competition were protected from inadvertent hungers.  Kievan’s friends moved quietly into the room and slowly two groups sorted themselves out.

The dwarf unknowingly found himself on the other side from Vasilisa.  This was a piece of her wisdom working.  Some powers are driven by will, and some wrapped up in fate, or destiny if you would have it be so.  She is what she is, but then, so are most wizards.  I don’t claim to understand them, for to do so takes a wizard.  I am the son of a lesiye, and that is enough for any one man to manage.

The dwarf did find himself on the same side as Kievan.  This was also on design, because while Vasilisa may be wise, that does not mean she is never a little petty.  She considered it a good lesson against Kievan trying to surprise her again.

“The rules of the game are simple.  One of you has lost something, perhaps a purse, or a host,” she smiled directly at the dwarf, “or even a small piece of jewelry.  It has not been stolen, but you must ask questions of the person you pair up with of its identity, and then each team needs negotiate its release with the other team, for someone on the other team may unknowingly have it on his or her person.”

This had been easy enough to arrange, and may even have come up in conversation throughout the night.  Now, those without the birthrights or sight are not concerned.  Things lost are never lost forever, and things stolen would be an insult worth injury, so they did not complain.  Those of the modern world are more attached to the things they think they must own, and there was some muttering as women went back down to the gallery to check their purses, and touch their ears where they wore jewelry, and men checked their back pockets for wallets and eyed their hosts a bit suspiciously.

Of course there was no theft, and they quieted quickly, some being quite eager to play the game.

Claire had chosen to be partnered with one of the sylph musicians.  In her mind she tried not to finish the sentence with, “Anybody but Roo,” but it was still true.  This was the sylph who played what looked to be a bass made of light, but which Claire thought must have been a very expensive and experimental new plastic.

“I have brought only this,” her new friend Sadko said, referring to his instrument.

“I have my purse,” Claire suggested, but a quick dive into the organized insides showed no loss.  “I have my keys, my wallet, my earrings,” she touched her earlobes in a way that the sylph found amusing.   She looked around.    “But I have misplaced my drink,” she decided.