Archive for the ‘ Chapter 04 – Closer ’ Category

No one has ever told me to get lost.  The funny thing about that is, I might be able to… certainly, I wander off pretty far when talking on the cellphone.  I need to pace while chatting, and while I used to be tethered to the wall, depending on who I am talking with I might wander a mile, two miles.

I’m great with maps.  I can fold them faster than Princess Glovebox if necessary.

It isn’t about me, because the magic isn’t about me.  It’s about what you need to find.

The first day I sat at my desk I didn’t know what to expect.  I didn’t know exactly what I had been hired for, although I know I was desperate for a job.  I had a desk calendar and a heavy black phone with actual push-buttons, some odds and ends pens and paperclips.  I figured I’d answer the phone if it rang and do my best to delay folks until they gave me the hint as to what I was doing.

Out of the hallway I thought led to the restrooms came a striking fellow in blue.  He was just under 7 feet tall, and he leaned on a black spear.  His long white hair was bound in the back with black ribbons.

“I seek the Goblin Castle,” he said, standing in front of my desk.

I’d been to a few science fiction conventions, so I figured this was just a great costume.  And the question?  I’d seen “Labyrinth” no less than 20 times, courtesy of my wife and children.

I was about to tell him, “Don’t go THAT way, no one ever goes THAT way,” when something entirely different came out of my mouth.  “You must pass the field of flowers like yellow bones bounded by three roads.  Upon the crest is a bridge of silvered stone.  Three times must you walk across it before they will open the door to the warrior lost, and then three times tested before the King will honor what he owes you.”

My employer stood in the shadows behind me, petting one of the cats who wandered about the place.

The gaunt blue man, (who I noticed had long pointed blue ears) bowed before me, and then stalked back into the hallway.

I got up from the desk and went down the hall.  It kind of had a 1970’s feel with the linoleum on the floor, an aged yellow light, and doors marked “Women” and “Men” on the side.  An exit sign hung askew, fastened by a single screw over a door that claimed to be attached to a fire alarm.  I had not heard any of the doors open.

I peeked into the bathrooms.  They smelled like industrial soap, same scent as at the hospital.  No tall blue men, no one, in fact, inside.

The fire door kept me back the first day.

The second day the calendar and the pens and paperclips were gone.  The phone remained, a silent sentinel.

Three women of varying ages, long red hair on all of them, stood before me.  White ribbons were twined around their wrists.  The middle aged one was in a business suit, the youngest in a summer dress, and the eldest wore something kind of like a kimono and something you’d see at a Renaissance Faire.

“We are looking for the King of Earth and Light,” the youngest said.

“Or his brother of Evergreen,” the eldest said.

“Or their brother Snow,” the one in the middle explained.

I felt the words take form through me.   It was not like an entity answering them, but more like knowledge being poured into my head like some kind of light.

“The Kings share this place.  One has left, seeking in sorrow his Queen.  One wrestles for summer, the other feels his heart grow frost.  They stare at the moon wondering why so few still seek the stars.  Follow the sun for a season and you may find a footprint.  They cannot hide from their mother, and the one with the quick laugh sometimes wears feathers in his hair.”

I didn’t know what it meant, but it sure got the girls excited.  They thanked me and went back through the hallway.

That day I tried the door, and no alarm sounded.  Outside was an alley.  No girls, no blue elves, no signs of anything but a trashcan with some broken down boxes and plastic flowing in the sunlight.  A regular alleyway.

The third day, the phone was gone, and I was called the Questor.

That’s who I’ve been for some time, now.  I don’t know how my employer handles the requests, how they’re brought in and how they pay.  I have faced down the Stormcrow.  I have understood that my employer has motives that may not align with mine.  I suspect she simply isn’t human.  But I get paid via a company, and I go home to my wife and kids and cats and we are happy.

When the Portal Doctor came in, he had been one of the first humans I’d met, and, at that, a fellow with a sense of humour about all this weirdness.  I hated sending him into darkness.

My wife told me I should find him again and invite him to dinner.

(55) Long-Distance Calls

Doloise stood in the doorway behind us.

“I am your Guardian and Guide,” is all she said to me.

I took a look at her.  It had been a slow transition, but while she was still wearing outrageous heels and amber glasses, something about her outfits had changed.  Instead of sharp (and dangerous!) curves, there were more balanced looks to them, cuts that suggested more conservative considerations.  Was she growing up or changing or (more disturbing) fitting my particular needs?

“Even into the mouth of a Dragon?” I asked.  I meant it to be funny, but she just nodded sharply.

I watched her as she turned around, pushing open the door.  I smiled at Ivan.  “I’ll be in touch.  Don’t sniff the fewmets or get into any arguments with the undead, alright?”  I made it sound like I gave that kind of advice every day and then hurried to catch up with Doloise.

Funny, usually I led.

She walked back to the car.  Nellie was no where to be seen, which, of course, made me temporarily concerned that Doloise had, I don’t know, eaten her.   I looked around the parking lot which seemed somewhat empty for a Saturday afternoon.  Well, maybe they’d have a large dinner crowd.  Actually, for being such a main thoroughfare, Colfax itself seemed kind of devoid of traffic.  Was there a game on or something that I’d missed?

That feeling of oppression, maybe – a lot of people could be sensitive to such, and decide to stay home.  I guessed that was it.  But a lot more people were completely blank to it, so why not have a steady stream of cars out on the road?

I frowned and got in behind the wheel.

“The sorceress would see your bones ground into bread,” Doloise said.

“I bet she tells that to all the fellows,” I replied, mostly on automatic.  Where were people?

A few birds fluttered on the phone lines.  “You are not concerned to become a pastry, I take it.”

“You are what you eat.  It’s only my fabulous metabolism that’s kept me from being slow enough to be dipped in sprinkles.”  Well, I could still go to the gym.

“She is sorceress enough to do it.  I do not understand her…animosity.”

“I am like her husband, waking up things that ought to have died long ago.”  I started the car up.  I wasn’t actually in a hurry to go home, but I wasn’t sure exactly where to go.  I was wound up in a strange way.  I figured I’d just head east and see what interested me on the way.

There are a lot of places for bands to play along Colfax.  The Tattered Cover cast her siren’s song but I was too wired to actually look for books.  Lots of opportunities to buy used goods or get liquored up, but it seemed kind of early and unkind for that.   Maybe not in that order.  I could buy cheap cellphone service at almost every other corner, kind of like the proliferation of sweet coffee places.

“How will I get in touch with a Dragon?” I asked Doloise.

“You call them.”

“I don’t think they’re in the phone book,” I sighed.  I pulled into a drive-through and bought us both some vanilla shakes.   “The Questor?”

“He would know,” she agreed.

“I have a feeling that it isn’t so much of a Quest, yet, though.  Maybe I just find a name and speak it three times.”

“That is a law of Will,” she seemed to be amiable to it.  She slurped a little with her straw.  I chuckled.

“You are not helping.  Are you not supposed to be Guardian and Guide?”

“You merely had to ask.  I would prefer not to do it in your transportation as it may make for discomfort.”  She didn’t set down the shake but I could hear faint harmonics.

“No, no, you’re right.  Need to find the right place and time.  Position of strength, find out what it is a Dragon wants except to grind my bones and make them bread.  Wait.”  I literally hit my brakes – good thing there was no one behind me for a couple of blocks.

“Nellya.  Why hadn’t I seen it?”  I hit the steering wheel with my hand.  “She’s the Dragon.”

(56) Bearding the Dragon

“Well, it makes a kind of sense,” I reflected.  I looked back in my memory as to what Nellie had said or done.  “There was the weirdness in the parking lot back there, where she was probably cursing me or something.  She raised the amulet to you, as if to tell you not to tell when we walked in – you pushed me down on the floor, in fact.”  I didn’t look at Doloise.  Because I was busy driving.  That’s it. “She was the one who took control and `told the story,’ if I recall correctly, but then she would have lied to me about the heart thing.”

Doloise continued to drink her milkshake. 

“Maybe it wasn’t a lie.  What did she say?  Her husband spent 3 days in the place of the dead, and something of that place will not leave him.”  I frowned.  “Then she looked me in the eyes, and said that they thought I could close that door.”

I hit the steering wheel again.  “Forget it.  I can’t understand women, let alone women who might be Dragons.  Did she want me to succeed or fail?  Was it a set-up?  Are all of the Red Poets part of the Dragon?  Did they want to prevent me from closing the door in Ivan?  Are Ivan and the being we call Nellie even related?”

I caught Doloise shaking in the corner of my eye, and I glanced at her.  It’s not like there was any traffic.

She was laughing.  Silently, but unmistakenably.  Um.  That’s not a word, but it doesn’t matter because she was definitely laughing.

At me.

“Alright, what’s so funny?”

“It cannot,” she broke off for another wave of silent shaking, “be explained.”

“I said I’d never understand women.  Or fairies.  Or Dragons.  Heck, just throw in the whole world because I can barely even understand myself, or why I’m not making you just walk,” I grumbled, waiting for the light.

It turned green and I continued down the street.  Off to my right was a tattoo and piercing place I had had recommended to me.  On the left, an Ethiopian restaurant I wanted to try sometime.   I tried to concentrate on the sheer niftyness that was Colfax and ignore my concerns for at least another minute or two.

My phone rang, and I nearly hit my head on the roof of the car from sheer surprise. 

I fished it out from where I put it in the console and put it on speakerphone.  “E.”

“What are you doing tonight?” it was Maggie.

“Um.”  Is there a Dummy’s Guide to “How To Tell Your Ex-Girlfriend That You Are Busy Fighting The Forces of Darkness Without Her?”  If not, maybe someone should write one so I can buy it.

“Nothing?  Great.  Come out to eat with me and a couple of friends.”

“Is this a blind date?” I asked.

“Could be,” she decided.  “Why, you’re not involved with anyone, are you?”

“Um.”  And the follow-up guide, “How To Tell Your Ex-Girlfriend You’re Being Chaperoned By An Otherworldly Being.”  “Not exactly, but I have someone I’d have to take with me.”  Or was I the chaperone?

“Does this someone have a name?”

I sighed.  “Yes.”

“Good.  You’ll have to tell me it sometime.  Does this someone have…a beard?”

“Doloise, and no, is that a problem?  Or are you trying to find out if my companion is a guy?  You know I prefer women.” 

“Remember to shave.    And a preference isn’t a rule, dear.  Is Doloise…” she thought about the name, I could tell. Good, I could ask her about it since I wasn’t able to look it up.  “Of drinking age?”

“Um.”  How about a guide on telling your ex-girlfriend anything?  I mean, just because Doloise probably had a personal existence of two weeks material, and thousands of years through her creators… oh well, fey and alcohol was a bad mix anyway.  “Yes.”

“It sounds complicated.  That’s definitely not your type.  Anyway, meet us downtown at the mall & Market Street just after sundown, unless you’re off fighting Dragons or something.”


“That wasn’t funny.”

“You have no idea.  See you then.” 

“You, my dear, are going to owe me some answers.  Bye.”  She hung up. 

“So, no fighting Dragons tonight,” I told Doloise. 

“Was that your squire?” Doloise asked.

This time, I was the one who shook with laughter.

Hearing Maggie’s voice actually cheered me up a little in a way I hadn’t expected it would.  I wasn’t lonely, exactly, although Doloise wasn’t the usual kind of company I had over.  I couldn’t explain it, quite.  Doloise didn’t tease me, but she also didn’t laugh at my jokes.  Doloise would be my guide and guardian.  Maggie I could trust only if she gave me her word, and she certainly wouldn’t volunteer to walk into the lion’s den with me.  Or the Dragon’s.  Or whatever those Chinese lion-Dragon things were, for that matter, even if all I really remembered about them is that they liked lettuce.

I really shouldn’t compare the two.  At the same time, how do you avoid it?  They’re the most recent experience with the fairer sex I really have to focus on, and I feel the usual amount of compulsion to have someone of that gender as a companion.   No, really I blamed it on Maggie.  I had the feeling that Doloise wouldn’t complain if I made a move, but it wasn’t right.  To me, Doloise was something that probably had a foreign phrase attached to it – a dangerous infant or something.  Too new to the world, too dangerous to be left alone in it…for the world’s sake, if nothing else.   Not like a daughter or a sister, but still something precious.

She wanted me to save her.  That put her in that funny pedestal place, I guess.  She was sexy if I tried to not think about it.  Maggie was sexy all the time – she moved across a room like it was some personal samba she was performing.  Her dark eyes and wide lips were advertisements that drilled straight into my animal brain.  At the same time, you knew it was deliberate, which could also be kind of off-putting.  On the other hand, if I asked Maggie, she’d say no.

Wait, did she say it “could be” a blind date?  What was she doing?

It wouldn’t be the first time Maggie had tried to set me up with someone.  She had interesting tastes in that regard.

I set Doloise up with some Animal Planet and went into the bedroom.  I had to wear something that balanced impressing Maggie with the cool casual nature of not wanting to put effort into it because of her.  Yeah, right.  I spent some time shaving carefully and reminded myself that I’d have to do laundry tomorrow.  I had a pair of decent black jeans still folded in the drawer.  I found one of my black button-up shirts and a vest that went with it pretty well.  I slicked back my hair and put on a couple of rings.

Doloise looked at me, distracted by my movement from the TV show she was watching.  She made a strange noise.


She shook her head and went back to watching a meerkat soap opera.

I got myself a tall glass of soda and checked my e-mail and a few torrents that had finished.   I examined the rings – one of them had been enchanted by a friend a while back to grow somewhat warm in the presence of, for lack of a better term, vulgar magic.  Nothing quite on the level of a Chernobyl leakage of a spell, but when something is sloppy it would pick up the ambient background level and use it to transmit a mild heat.  I liked it because it was witchmoss agate with natural hints that kind of looked like a skull.

I started picking up.  After the order Doloise imposed on my shelves, I spent some time getting my other books to match.   Doloise asked me a few questions about fleas.  I looked them up on the internet.  I did the dishes.  I didn’t kill time, but I fired an opening salvo in its direction.

I parked in all-night pay lot.  I pointed out some gargoyles to Doloise.  Most weren’t sentient, but there’s always a few in every city.  We made it to the bus station just as the last rays of sunlight painted their golden-red lances through the windows.  The mall was cloaked with the blue-ash shadows of the buildings.  The nocturnal forces were waking up although they had yet to have their coffee.

I waved Maggie and the two girls with her over to where Doloise and I sat on a bench, people-watching.

(58) A Conspiracy of Women

I recognized one of the girls after a moment.  The last time I’d seen her had been in Boulder, where she had invited in a -cubus.  Sylvia was dressed up for the occasion, hair bundled up in some kind of esoteric knot that only women know the name of, short black dress, and some black straps that could laughingly be called heels that criss-crossed all the way up to the knee.  Why, yes, I was looking at her legs.  It was kind of hard to look at her face and remember that she was the last girl who had kissed me.

So I was ready to round on Maggie instead, expecting something in the way of explanations when Doloise went all bristly.  I saw it out of the corner of my eye and trusted my instincts, moving quickly off the bench.

I looked at the third girl.  Straightened black hair, darker skin than Mags, oh, and VAMPIRE.  Doloise towered over her and looked disapproving.  I noticed that when Doloise was angry, she made little fists with her hands.  Never in a kind of “punch” way, unless it was a short, sharp jab.  I wonder if that was something that was hers, or something that was just one of the people inside its head.

Vampires.  Oh, Maggie.

See, the fey and vampires don’t, as a rule, get along.  If you’d asked me, I would say it’s because the niche couldn’t support two predators.  (And leannansidhe are a whole different basket of flowers.  Kettle of fish.  Bucket of blood.  Whatever.)  Part of me just writes them all off as parasites, but the evil of vampires rates a little higher on the chart because they’re more subtle.  Fey come in and have the universe bend over for them.  The universe eventually shakes them off, and they head back to Fairyland or wherever.  Vampires come in, take some servant on, and become a hybrid of their universe and their servant’s.  It comes with a price, of course, as the more otherworldly they are the less this world tolerates them (until things like water and sunlight become classic problems) but they’re still holes in the fabric of my reality, and I am King of the Mothballs.

Or something.

“Whoa, hold on, these are friends,” Magda said.  “E, Sylvia, you’ve met, this is Matana.  And you are… Doloise?”

The Realm stared at her.  “I do not give my name to beasts.”  Wait, there was a capital “B” on that one, according to the tone.  “Beasts.”

Matana smiled.  You couldn’t see its fangs, of course, because they’re only necessary at certain points.  She had a nice smile.  I took a moment to look at her as a person, and not as a creature.  Her hair had been straightened and then curled at the ends.  She wore long painted fingernails with little hints of a curve in them.  Her dress was black with a scarf of reddish orange, the colour of the moon as it drips blood onto the horizon.  Not that I obsess about that whole blood thing (not as opposed to skim blood… no, wait.)  I am a gallon donor locally.   She had long shiny black boots with heels too thin to be used as effective stakes.

Repeating, “Do not obsess,” under your breath does not improve the point.

The Magster was looking like the end of her patience was coming on quickly, so I stepped in for a second.  “Doloise, Magda is not a beast.  Sylvia is not a beast.  Hi, Sylvia.  Matana is what Matana is, and I would reference that she was a lovely woman.”

“Not human, but not a beast,” Matana said.  She offered her hand and I took it gently, kissing above her fingernails.  She showed her teeth again.  “I see.  Magdalena, you were not entirely wrong in speaking about your former gentleman.”

“She is one of the cold ones,” Doloise said, hissing.

“Look on the bright side,” I said to her.  “At least she’s not a Dragon.”

“Well,” Matana’s smile widened, “it is one of the aspects.”  She winked.

Doloise didn’t frown, but that unhappy moue once again adorned her face.  I felt like I had disappointed her somehow, especially as Matana had just gotten me to grin again.  I sighed.

“This isn’t a black thing, is it?” Sylvia asked.

I raised an eyebrow at Magda.  Still corrupting the innocent, were we, old friend?

She shook her head.  “I told you, Sylvie, not everything is as it seems.”

“Ah,” I said.  “Know what they call a group of witches?” I asked Sylvia.

“A…coven?” she asked.  Her eyes were a very pretty blue.

“A conspiracy.  But that may be any group of women,” I allowed.

Maggie hit me in the arm.  “Come on.  Since you’re not going to stake a fellow guest, and Doloise is going to be on her best behaviour, let’s go to dinner.”

“Best behaviour?” I asked Doloise.

“It is a matter of Hospitality,” Mags said, giving me a Look.

The capital letters were out and in full force, I could tell.

“I don’t understand everything you’re saying,” Sylvia acknowledged, “but if I listen I’ll learn.”

I think it was a warning.

(59) For Dinner: Foot In Mouth

Maggie had to do a little dance in getting the table arrangements the way she wanted them.  I’d actually heard of it before at a friend’s wedding, where instead of just above and below the salt there’s some kind of superiourity awarded for being the ones closest to the bride and groom.  I presumed that in Maggie’s mind there was some kind of flowchart involved in who she sat where, so I just hung back and waited for an empty seat.

Seating five is always awkward, anyway.  I think the rule is pretend you’re seating six, and then take a chair away, but I’ve not yet worked at a restaurant.   When I finally grabbed a seat, I figured Maggie had balanced it right.  I sat at the head (or foot – knowing Maggie) of the table.  Maggie was on my left, and Doloise on my right.  Sylvia was on Maggie’s left and Matana on Doloise’s right.  I figured that about balanced cruelty and naïveté.  Who knows, maybe women keep some kind of scoreboard in their heads.  Or maybe she just wanted me farthest in the aisle so I’d be most likely to have someone trip over me.

“I do not drink wine,” Matana said, passing the list over to Mags.  I almost chuckled.  Actually, unless they were badly integrated, vampires could (and should) drink or eat anything their host could.   That was a little social signpost to see if a vampire had gone pulling too much from Outside; could they eat a hamburger meal from a fastfood joint without any real problems?  I quirked an eyebrow at Matana anyway, placing the passed wine list back on to the table.

“I am well in control of my hungers,” Matana said.  She seemed a little put out.

I didn’t have to imagine the Vampires Anonymous meetings as Wizard Pratchett already had.  (I wished again I could find out who had cursed him.)  Of course, in real life, people only really wear support ribbons when they were going on camera or other special functions.  I smiled.  “Just don’t bite Doloise.  She bites back.”

Doloise made a growl of assent.

“What’s the occasion?” I asked Mags after we ordered our food.  It was one of those waiters, you know, the kind that only listen to one person at the table, and that usually the one of the same gender.  I know it’s a hard job, but I didn’t understand that phenomenon.  I had been at meals where the chosen person had been a woman and no man could get in a word edgewise, even when the chosen woman had repeated the exact same thing I just did about my own order.   Oh well – I had to order for Doloise anyway.

Matana had chosen a salad.

“Matana is an exchange student from a coven back East,” Magda explained, “and we’re inducting Sylvia.  I figure anyone with the kind of control she had deserves a chance to develop the power.”  Sylvia smiled shyly.

“Exchange student?” I asked Matana.

“There are many ways to deal with the infection, my dear gentleman E.   I decided on a course of temperance, and so I learn techniques which flow with the laws of this place rather than the coldness Outside.”  She had beautiful, liquid eyes.  I believed her utterly.

Of course, then I glanced at Doloise, who had one hand playing idly with a fork and the other in a fist just under the table.  “Use the spoon,” I said.

She looked up at me.

“It hurts more.”

She dropped the fork and picked a spoon up instead.

“Sylvia, really, it’s nice to see you.”  I didn’t want to bring up any possible painful memories, so I was suddenly at a loss of what to say.  My back-up mouth kept working, though.  “Sure you’re going to learn the right things from the Mags?”

Maggie kicked me under the table.

“I do want to learn,” she said.  “I am a bit cautious as we are expected to take certain oaths before we are even told what the oaths will mean, but I am anxious to gain control.”  She pointed gently over to Matana.  “For example, I had guessed there was something special about ‘Tana, but I have figured out she’s a vampire from your uncoded language.  I am not sure about your…friend.”

“Doloise isn’t my friend,” the back-up brain said in a hurry.  Doloise leaned back.

“Indeed.  I am his guide and guardian.”

I knew that hurt studied-neutrality face.  I’d seen it on other women.  “That is, she is a friend, but that’s all it is.  Sorry, Doloise.  I didn’t want her to think you were anything…but what you are.”

“And of course, you are correct,” Doloise’s eyes were glowing softly inside her shades. “I am only what I am.”

“Doloise, let’s go take a powder break.  You do, do that, right?”  Maggie stood up and grabbed Doloise’s hand.  “Girls, don’t eat E alive.   We’ll be back in a minute.”

I looked at Sylvia and Matana while they stared at me.  “I know, I know.  It’s not even how I say it.”

Sylvia chuckled, and Matana sighed, shaking her head and smiling.  “You poor, poor man.”

(60) Smells Like Cold Pork

I sighed.  Apparently, I had annoyed some sort of power and they had cursed me with the characterization “girls laugh at me.”  Could be worse.  Could be “smells like pork.”  Bacon’s good, but I already have a problem with attracting strays.

(As a sidepoint, the old adage that dogs are wary of power and cats preen against it is basically a good rule of thumb.  I know lots of canine familiars, but they’re naturally suspicious.  When I was a kid I just thought that they didn’t like me.  It made walking home alone from school kind of an unnerving experience.)

I pushed my fists against my forehead, rubbing that place where the edge of my hair meets the barer skin.  I can’t remember the name of that slice of anatomy right now… oh… scalp… but it’s a soothing gesture.  “I give up.  I can’t expect something that isn’t human to act that way, and I just don’t understand women.”

Sylvia laughed.

I was saved from having to say something else that would no doubt have continued to humiliate me in the eyes of the whole gender by the waiter coming back with some tapas I could distribute.   I asked for a refill of my soda and excused myself to use the men’s room.

I stared in the mirror for a few minutes before washing my hands.  Doloise wasn’t an albatross, exactly.  “Neither fish nor fowl,” I said.  Certainly not kosher, I decided, looking at the sink.  I kept telling myself I couldn’t get involved with her, but wasn’t I already living with her until she worked off her debt?  Neither of us were the type to sit and “talk about our relationship,” for sure.

I rubbed my chin.  Had Mags given me a clue to Matana’s nature when she suggested I shave, or was she just being difficult about the state of my dress? Or something else?  She was a woman – it could have been anything.

I decided I’d avoided my dinner companions as long as was polite and returned to my seat.  I had my refill.  Doloise and Magda had both made it back, and neither were obviously bleeding or burnt.  Maggie was breaking the bread, and Doloise was sipping at her iced tea.  She’d found a crayon somewhere and was idly decorating the paper table-covering with a pretty design of leaves and vines in periwinkle blue.

I insinuated myself into the conversation by asking what they’d been talking about while I was gone.  I’m smooth that way.  Very suave and humble, too, if you’ve forgotten.

“Matana is taking the semester off for these visits,” Sylvia explained, “but I have a full schedule.  I was going for pre-law, but I’m officially undeclared right now.”

“And Matana?” I asked, politely.

“No law for me.  I am not that much of a bloodsucker,” she suggested, wrapping her lips around the word by way of not laughing.  “I was in integrative physiology before they changed the name.”

I tried figuring it but she gave it to me.  “Exercise science.”  She waited for me to make the obvious joke.

“I thought adrenaline ruined the flavour,” I said, because it was expected.

She ignored me.  “I was studying the effects of exercise with the intent to see how it interacted with shapeshifting.  You don’t see a lot of  werewolves… with extra weight, but do they still need to take aerobics classes for their hearts?  What is the actual source of their enhanced strength, and can it improve through weight lifting or other programs?”  She smiled.  “It has been hard work sneaking that focus through, but I have a pretty liberal advisor who just thinks I have a strange sense of humour.  I was also on the track team.”

“Until?” Sylvia asked.

Matana just waved her hand towards her mouth.  “Until another opportunity interfered.  I do not regret it. ” She laughed. “I am a little short for it, anyway.”

“But you tried harder,” I suggested.

“Indeed,” she said, giving me a hard look.

Our plates had the courtesy of arriving at that point.  We passed the things we needed to pass around like we were adults who never made things go widdershins when the proper direction was clockwise.  Or something like that. We were doing a fine job at that when Doloise’s tea spilt across the table and into Matana’s lap.

Doloise did not get up and apologize, but both Maggie and I did.  Matana’s eyes were wide, and I could see there was a problem.  She scooted her chair back.

“I cannot get up.”

I hurried with the napkins while Sylvia called over a waitperson. “What’s wrong?”

“I seem to be stuck to the chair.”

Doloise started laughing.  Her design shone blue for just a second and I felt the -pop!- as it released, Matana making it up off her chair with a half-stumble and a frown.

“That is a petty charm,” she said to Doloise as she finished wiping off her lap.

“A moment’s freeze for the cold one,” she said.  Doloise stood up and asked the confused waiter, “May I have some more?”

(61) Looking At Things

After order was restored and the bill was paid (which took some alpha posturing, if you must know) we were loosed upon downtown in its glory.

There is a particular smell to the air when it’s turning cold.  It’s a different smell than the rain of the past few days, different than people starting their heaters or fireplaces, different even of the smell of my day-jacket and all of the memories it brings with it.  It’s sharp and it sets quickly into your bones.  Maybe that’s old age speaking – I don’t know for sure.

Sylvia and Maggie were looking up what movies were playing on my phone, while Matana watched the crowds go by.

She was smiling, her eyes feasting on their diversity, the very living parts of them.  I suspected there was some predatory analysis going on, but I would always suspect a vampire in my midst.  I wasn’t any kind of Slayer – it was an ache knowing there was something from the Outside melded as it was to something within, but it wasn’t something I really could Close, so it wasn’t any of my business.  If she was trying to open a gateway and invite more of her fellow creatures through to prey on humanity I might have a shot.  I was considering dropping an anonymous e-mail on a forum with some reputed Slayers, but even that seemed a little passive-aggressive.

She caught my eye for a moment, smiling.  No fangs, of course.  Then she looked past me at Doloise.

There are moments I wish I was an artist.  If there was a way to capture how she looked towards the lights, both attracted and repelled by humanity.  Neon reflected off her amber sunshades, somehow natural even in the dark.  She stood apart from us, but not entirely alien.  Her body language was almost impossible to read; perhaps she was evaluating the same groups of people as Matana.

Was there always someone inside it, controlling the Realm?  A group of people looking out from its eyes, making the decisions?  How much of it was automaton, responding to the need of the magic that developed her?  She could learn, could she grow?  What of memories, dreams, desires?  She had no need to sleep, but she dreamed.  She wanted to be free.

And I wanted to save her.

Matana’s gaze had wandered back to me, and I could catch the telltale of laughter in her expression as Sylvia and Mags argued over times.  Or maybe I had a guilty conscience.  I hadn’t said or done anything funny.

I had spent an afternoon in a fairyland, marked by a Shadow King.  I was going up against a Dragon for the heart of a sorceror.  What was one more Dragon?

Maggie handed the phone back to me.  “I need to get myself one of these,” she said.  “I have been considering the writing of many helpful applications to the magical artist.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a pocket reference of spell components that also tagged in the phase of the moon and aspects of the stars?”

I shrugged. “Not my kind of thing.”

“Funny, you used to think big.”  She looked at Doloise.  “Well, maybe having a feminine influence in the household has changed you.”  She frowned.  “Do you want to go straight in or wait for the next showing?  If we hurry, we won’t miss any previews.”

I protested.  “I do think big.  I just think it leads to checking twitter during rituals.  Unless you’re getting responses from Big Moon Lady saying that the West has been closed against negative influences, that just sounds frustrating because your energies are distracted.”

“Any more than hauling around a great big grimoire?  I’ll have to consider it.  Some of us have adopted more modern methods.  I heard of one of the Priestesses getting together a Kindle Book of Shadows.”  She looked at me. “And when will you tell me the truth about Doloise?”

“What do you mean?”  You mean the truth that she’s not only a fantastic being in the “not of our reality” sense, but that she’s an amalgam of them?  And that she was sent to have me get marked in a war between a Dragon and the Shadow Kings?  And that her favourite animal is the meerkat and she raids my boxer drawer for clothing inspiration?  What truth could you possibly mean, Mags?

“I saw the way you look at her.”

I closed my eyes.  Just for a moment.  “And?”

“You never looked at me that way.”

I opened my eyes and looked at her.  “I’m not in love with her.”

(62) Protests and Contests

“And before you get on me about protesting too much, I am not going to get into the argument we had at the restaurant,” I continued.

“So, you put her up on a pedestal like the rest of your collection, forgetting that women are living, breathing creatures, with desires of their own that don’t wait for your interest to come alive?” Magda asked.

Sylvia and Matana took this opportunity to say very loudly that they were going off in search of ice cream.   They would have taken Doloise, but the Realm would not move or respond.

“If you knew what she was, that would almost be funny,” I retorted.

“What, she’s some kind of sexbot?” Magda was angry now.  “That’s sick, E.”

“She’s less human than Matana.  And what’s with that, anyway?  You know how I feel.”

“About women?  Black girls?  Vampires?  Yeah, I do know.  I know you better than you think.  You’re right, you can’t be in love with her because she doesn’t represent an ideal.  You’re only capable of being in love with your own delusions.”  She spun around and grabbed Doloise’s arm.

There was a burst of thunder above us, and a flash of light that took my breath away.  It wasn’t a lightning strike, but there was still a wave of ozone.  Silence, for a precious second, and then there was a clatter as Doloise’s amber sunglasses fell upon the ground.

Magda looked up from where she had fallen, sprawled, on the sidewalk.  A couple of passing gentlemen were waved away.  “I’m fine,” she said.  She picked up the shades, and extended them to the Realm.

She looked into Doloise’s eyes.

I watched her.  I had never seen real fear on the Magster’s face.  Sure, we’d taken on some tough moments together, but she was the epitome of cool and collected.  She believed that proper preparation could protect her from anything.

Whatever she saw in Doloise’s eyes proved it a lie.

Her hand hung in midair, but I saw the volition shrivel up before her arm got the message.  I strode over and made the connection, pushing the sunglasses into Doloise’s hands.  “Put these on,” I said, still not looking at her.  I helped Magda to her feet, blocking the way.  “Breathe,” I said.

Magda’s lips moved.  She made a circle of warding with her right hand, and then she stumbled back a little.  I helped guide her to one of the handy bunches in the median.  “Sit,” I recommended.  I didn’t want her to fall over or faint or something.

She slapped me, then.  A flat-handed slap that made a sting that drowned out whatever accusation caused her to hit me.  I knew it wasn’t a real assault because she hadn’t gotten her nails involved.  It hurt nevertheless, and I rubbed my cheek.

I bent over her and looked into her eyes.  “Is it out of your system?”

“You’re insane,” she whispered.

“No, I’m just in over my head and losing the energy to keep treading water.”  I turned my back on her, however vulnerable it made me feel, and went to check on Doloise.

I approached her carefully.  “Doloise?”

She had slipped the glasses back in and was still standing, cool as you please.  Her hands were caught in little fists.

“Are you hurt?” it asked.

“Oh, the slap?  It was nothing.  I’ve had worse.”

“She should not have struck you.”

I sighed.  “No, she shouldn’t have, but I have forgiven her.”

“My kind does not forgive.  We do not waste our time on petty lies.”  Her eyes were glowing behind the shades.

I wasn’t going to argue with her.  I turned away from her and went back to Maggie, feeling like how I figured a ping-pong ball might, all spun between two high-strung paddles.  Or something like that.

“I’m getting out of here,” she said.  “You’re crazy, flat-out crazy, being involved with that…thing.”

“You know stronger language.  I’m surprised you haven’t used it,” I said, sighing again.  I sat next to her on the bench, watching as she stared at the metallic pink cellphone.  “She’s what she is.”  I took a breath.  “Who are you calling?”

“Sylvia.  We took her car.”

“She’s just over there with Matana.”  They were coming back with cones.  “Come on.  Everything will be better after ice cream.”

She looked at me.  “You really are insane.”

“No, my life’s just gotten a little weird lately.”

She looked at me and laughed.  Well, made an explosive laugh-like noise.  “Anyway,” she said, standing up, “that’s only true if it’s frozen custard and it’s chocolate.”

“I think that’s Doloise’s favourite, too.  You two can fight it out.  Dibs on strawberry if they’ve got it.”

She looked at me, and then touched my face.  “I’m sorry.  It’s not going to work out between us.”

“I know.”  I smiled.  “Especially since I’m going to beat you to the cones.”

I ran to make my boast true.

(63) No Ice Cream For You

There are phrases that are sweet on the ears.  The purring of a contented kitten.  Things you don’t get tired of hearing, like, “I love you.” Things like, “I put an extra dollop in your hot cocoa,” which isn’t necessarily a euphemism, or, “I saved the last piece of baklava for you,” which is just another way of expressing your adoration for someone.

Then there are words you are never prepared to hear, like, “Well, we could only hold one extra cone each, so we decided you were a man, and could just cowboy-up.”

I blinked. “What does being a man have to do with not getting some ice cream?” I demanded.  “Let alone being a cowboy?  Which, I am most certainly not.”

The girls, with the exception of Doloise, (who, as noted, might not count in that particular subgroup anyway) giggled.

“It’s okay, pardner,” Maggie drawled.  “I can buy you a double scoop,” she put a hand on my shoulder.  “Ya like vanilla-r?  Or maybe some rocky road?”

I shrugged her hand off.  I was not pouting.  Sylvia gave Doloise her portion.  The Realm looked at it with curiosity.

“It’s for eating,” I informed her.  If I sounded sarcastic, I had every right.  “Like the shake from earlier, only not with a straw.”

She tried her tongue on it, and found it good.  Of course.

I sighed.  I could go get some ice cream.  I could even send Maggie to go get some ice cream for me.  Or I could just sit here and watch the girls enjoy their ice cream.

I smiled.  Oh, woe is me.

“I think we should skip the movie,” Maggie said.

Sylvia and Matana shared a glance that you didn’t have to be a woman to read.

“How about you three go to the movie, and Doloise and I will head back?” I said, getting back up from the bench where I had found myself again.  Honestly, I hadn’t been thrilled about the idea in the first place.  Given how upset Doloise got about the goings-on of a bunch of meerkats, the intensity of a two-hour horror flick might give her the wrong idea.  I kept getting little daydreams of an attack being launched by a character and her responding from the stadium seating.  Whatever you called a daydream crossed with a nightmare, besides, “a spell.”

“If you don’t think we’re trying to ditch you,” Maggie said in a hurry.  That earned her a look from Matana.

I bit my tongue anyway, in a figurative sense.  Because, you know, ice cream would have gone far to soothe it had I done it literally, and there I was, pining away for a frozen confection.


“No, I have some work to do,” I hedged.  “Go on, and have fun.  Thanks for inviting us to dinner; it’s been real.  Doloise, you have a hot date with National Geographic.”  I ushered her close.

“Let us purchase the tickets,” Matana said to Maggie.  “I do not believe these vampires sparkle.”  I waved in their general direction.

“Hey, E?” Sylvia asked.

I turned back around, my eyebrows asking the question.

She pulled a card from out of her purse.  “Here’s my number.  Give me a call sometime?”

I took the card, and realized I was probably looking at her strangely.  “Um,” I finally managed.

“You’re cute.  Besides, I’ve already kissed you once.”  She smiled.  “I won’t tell Doloise I had dibs.”  She giggled and then ran to catch up with the other two.

I held the card in my hand for a moment, feeling very strange, before sliding it back into my jeans.

“I like this ice cream,” Doloise said to me.

“I sure hope you do,” I muttered.  “Come on, let us go back to the car.”

“I think you should consider removing the witch from your sphere of influence.  I would be glad to do so as I was insufficient guardian to prevent her from striking you.  We had consulted her likely behaviour and did not see it as a potential in time to protect you.”

I stopped.  “I used to date that witch,” I said.  “It makes me feel illogically benevolent towards her, still.  Just eat your ice cream, Doloise.  We need to figure out how to give you what you want.”

“As well as how to approach the Dragon.”

“You know, I’ve changed my mind.  I think I need some ice cream.  Everything’s better after ice cream, right?  Even dragons.”