Archive for the ‘ Chapter 04 – Closer ’ Category

(64) A Conceit of -Cracies

“So, this Queen, she rules each of these citadels of ice cream?  Is it her Knights who declare these treats? Where is her consort?  Could it be this King I have seen tell with the meat sandwiches?”

“It’s a conceit.  There are no true Kings in this land,” I made a mental note that ice cream left Doloise slightly hyperactive.

“That is a foul lie!  I have seen reference to many courts.”

I sighed and rolled through the DQ onto the street.  What do you call rulership by Dragon? “Doloise, are you a democracy?”

There was silence.  “We do not believe we know the term.”

“It’s complicated, but in a way it’s governing via a certain level of consensus made by the greatest number of otherwise equal votes.”  I listened back to what I had said and amended it.  “Look, it’s like if two of us liked chocolate ice cream and one of us liked vanilla, we’d do chocolate but we’d recognize there was a vanilla vote.  Kind of.”

“We like chocolate.”

“I know.  The sun rises in the East, it sets in the West, and Doloise likes chocolate.  It’s a law of the universe.”  I sighed.  I mean, I like chocolate.  I like everything about chocolate, but I won’t pull the arm off a drive-through attendant to get it.  Not saying that that was what Doloise did and that we were now involved in a high speed chase down the streets of Denver.  Not saying that at all.

Actually, we were just a few blocks from my place when the car coming through the intersection against the light hit us with a rushing sound, like the passage of a train.  There was the smell of sulfur, and flames all around us for a moment.  I remember spinning around a few times, the chugging sound of the engine, and then the whizz-pow-bang of the airbags.   There was a snaking sound, maybe a seatbelt failing, and then Doloise was no longer in her seat, no longer in the car at all.

I came to as a very pretty paramedic was shaking my arm.  “Sir?  Sir?”

I think I made some kind of noise that served as acknowledgement, but I could not recollect what it because I immediately set off coughing from the powder of the airbags.  A few minutes of wheezing and I was able to remember my name and some essential facts about me.

Like, where was Doloise?

“Were there any witnesses to the event?” someone was asking in general.

“Have you seen a tall blonde with sunglasses wandering around looking distant and slightly disgruntled with life?”

“You were hit on the head pretty hard, sir.”  They looked concerned.  “There was no one else in the vehicle.”

I turned and looked at the car.  The top of the car looked like a cliff racer had pulled off the top at high speed.  Huge rake-like claws in the metal.

Actually, I felt fine.

I told the paramedics that.  I was even feeling a little frisky, so I offered my phone number a second time to the one who had brought me to consciousness.

“We’d really like to take you to be looked at,” she said.  “Sometimes these injuries cause stress that you don’t acknowledge immediately but can still be quite dangerous, even deadly to you the next day.”

“Oh, I was going to go look up how to negotiate with a Dragon,” I said, brightly. “Any suggestions on good books?  Maybe something on power diplomacy or hard bargaining?”

“Can you do any of that without tilting at windmills?” she asked.  “Come on, into the ambulance with you.  Be a good boy.”

I bit back a variety of smart-aleck remarks, which may have proved her correct about a bump on my head.  “What about my ice cream?” I asked, laying down on the stretcher-thing.  “I worked very hard for that sundae.  I paid extra for the nuts and whipped cream.”

I started getting right back up and looked at the wreckage of my car.

Huge claw marks.  I remember the rush of the other car, but it was really a roar, and the smell of the Dragon’s fiery breath, as if flames had erupted around us.   I guess a Dragon had decided to make a move.

But which one?  And where was Doloise?

(65) Hospital Itty

After grousing about the state of health insurance in this country, I was still convinced to go to the hospital and run some tests.  I watched the flashing of the lights for a minute or two before the ambulance speeded off.  The police were still looking for signs of the other car that hit me.  I managed to collect myself well enough to not recommend sending in fewmets to forensics.

Just what I needed, a night in Crazytown.

Saturday night emergency rooms are a microcosm of madness.  While I got high priority for the way I was rushed in, there’s still a lot of waiting and listening to the people behind the thin curtains they use as dividers here.  Just by being quiet and listening you learn far more of the stories behind people’s intense moments of living than ever TV could bring.

I was locked to one of those headboards.  Which is OK at first, because they’re worried you’ll strain something.  About minute thirteen you’re ready to walk out with a rib displaced and pushing through your chest because you can’t handle not being able to move your neck.  About minute twenty-four you’re crying and calling for your mommy or anyone who would give you the option to roll onto your side.  Let’s not talk about minute thirty-six.

I was ready to call and prescribe painkillers for the lady across from me.  She wasn’t in any pain, but she had six family members who were ready to punch out a nurse for making her wait for her test results.  Wait, did I say painkillers?  I meant tranquilizers.  Look, let the professionals handle things.  It takes time sometimes to find the answers, longer than a commercial break.  The fellow beside me needed a lecture, not someone who spent time pursuing a medical degree.

An interim wherein I was convinced I had died in the car crash and been taken by special route straight to purgatory later, I was let go.  “Your X-rays are convincing,” the young doctor told me.  He had a beautiful smile.  He warned me that my muscles might seize up or something the next day and to take analgesics of a sort he recommended, “and, oh, fill out this paperwork that says what I just told you, and if you start bleeding from the eyes, that’s never a good thing.”

Oh, and I got his number, in case this dating girls thing doesn’t work out for me.  I thought for a moment that it was just that my insides looked impressive.

I have to admit, I sang aloud for a few minutes while waiting for the taxi stand.  I was giddy after being released.  I did a few dance steps.  I pointed.  Somehow, in my heart, all taxi cab drivers are Beauregard, and I told him I only expected him to take me as far as the lobby.  Apparently, he hadn’t seen “The Great Muppet Caper,” but he did think in his heart of hearts like Fozzie Bear did, in “The Muppet Movie,” that he “picked up a weirdo.”

In a sense, Doloise was in the apartment.  She was in all the neatly stacked books, in the new blooms of my plant, in the way I had set the couch at an angle so more than one person could watch TV, and in the way I had twice as many dishes drying in the dishwasher.  Her physical presence, however, was not there, and now that my scattered wits were gathering, I was concerned.

I remember thinking she had disappeared from the car before it had stopped spinning.  I closed my eyes and concentrated on putting the memories in order.  The impact.  The sound of it was almost worse than the actual thump.   There was the light as the top of the car was drawn, the light from the Dragon’s claws, and the smell of its breath.

It took Doloise in its claws.  That was how my poor, addled brain saw it.  She bespelled me, a protection of sorts as she was flown off…south.  It had to be south.  My ice cream would have ended up in the passenger’s seat.  I missed the ice cream, I was worried about Doloise, but more, I begrudged having to call my insurance agency.

I didn’t know if my policy covered acts of Dragon.

(66) Cease a Fearless Roar

South.  “As the Dragon Flies” sounds more like the name of a soap opera than a measure, and honestly, I thought physics had arguments about dragons on the wing as it was.  Some of the anatomy was in dispute; did they have gas bladders, magical assistance, exoskeletons, or did they simply break the rules?  My notes suggest pixie dust and happy thoughts, but I think I sided with the explanations that said they were tied strongly to the pure elements, whichever half a dozen you wanted to name.  (I like metal and wood but we could refer to the paraelemental items and see if anyone got the joke.)

South.  What was south and how far?  So many possibilities, including that it simply gated out somewhere.  I was certainly in no capacity, spun about and tossed like pizza dough as I was, to have closed a portal at the time.  So Doloise could be anywhere, and finding her was doomed to ruin.

I wasn’t going to think like that.  Honestly, I could put my finger on some places she wouldn’t be.  She wasn’t back home because the Gillikins weren’t going to break the laws to bring her, and she may have fulfilled Guardian in keeping me in one relatively uninjured piece, but she would still need to affect Guide.  She hadn’t given me direction.

That meant I needed to do research.

I stopped pacing and went online.  Hmmm.  I had mail.

I would like to be able to brag that I’m able to close down spam portals, too, but those devious deliveries put my daemons in despair.  I don’t get very much, but then, I’m nowhere so concerned about it since I can hit delete with the ease of, um, pressing a button.  I took care of correcting my filter for yet another bizarre attempt to alter my anatomy, and sorted through some very mundane transactions.  I checked the forwards my mother sent against some sites that nip ridiculous rumours in the bud.  I saved some silly LOLmeerkats in a folder to print out for Doloise.

Wait.  Guardian and Guide.  I had a message from the Questor, inviting me to dinner.  With his wife and kids.

It would be a drive, if I had a working vehicle.  I could see if one of the witches was able to work something up for the bike, but it would be a very long drive on that.  Taking a plane wasn’t actually unreasonable, if it weren’t just dinner.   Maybe some particularly powerful being from another dimension would show up and want to gate me there and back?  Hey, it’d happened once.

I got a knock at the door.  Given that it was some ridiculous hour in the morning, maybe I wasn’t thinking straight in going to answer it.  Of course, it’s awfully awkward to pretend you’re not home when they can see the light through the window, and they’ve gone to such great lengths to visit.

Maybe it was Doloise, I told myself.

I looked through the peephole, but I hate that whole fisheye thing.  I’m no mer, man.   (Heh.)  I didn’t recognize the gentleman who stood behind the door, so maybe it was a neighbor.

I opened the door with a sigh.  “Yes?”

It was the presence that hit me, first.  While the fellow in front of me was probably three inches shorter than myself, if you’d asked me immediately I would have pegged him at eight, maybe nine feet tall.   It was the same feeling I had woken up with, the same feeling of dread that wrapped itself like a thick veil around my spinal cord.  His eyes were red and black, like fire and smoke together.  His hair was the exact same colour as Doloise’s on the first, outward layer, and a glossy black on an inner layer.

“What have you done with my Realm, wizard?” he asked.  It was a soft voice, with gentle chords, and a faint rasp.

I smelled a faint hint of smoke, and while it was chilly outside, I know it emanated from the gentleman (in a velvet jacket cut just a bit above his knee, long black boots, and a set of pants that were the colour of blood in moonlight) because I knew who and what he was.

I congratulate myself in that I did not use that moment to slam the door shut.

(67) Along Came a Bat

There are the occasional opportunities to consider alternative paths my life could have taken, because in retrospect you see the forks quite clearly.   And it’s not like after having something that gives you heartburn and lamenting, “I should have taken the dessert fork,” it’s like, “Maybe if I’d taken that left at Albuquerque, my whole life would have been different, and not passing before my eyes like it is now.”

I did not have to respond to the Gillikin’s Dragon (alas, he was not purple, and I didn’t dare nickname him, “Puff”) because he was interrupted by the flapping of something vaguely batlike that landed as a person in a light crouch behind him.

“Ah, little vesper.  I had wondered if you would show your face,” the man said.  He did not turn around.

Matana moved around him, completely unconcerned with her nudity.  For that matter, with the pressure of the situation, so was I, except for essentially being me and still noticing it.

“This one is under protection, Peredur,” she said in an English unlike she had used earlier in the evening, full of lilting accents.  I do think it was her native language, but the being inside her may know others.  Of course, that’s retrospect for you, concentrating on the little details.  At that time I was very focused on the “Oh good, someone’s keeping me safe.”  I was still concerned that he’d called me wizard – as if he believed I was capable of making a stand for myself.

I just couldn’t find it in me to argue with a Dragon.  Not yet, at any rate.

The being she had called Peredur looked at me again, the black from his eyes fading and turning all shades of red for a moment.  “Yes, he was to be championed by the flower from Angharad’s hand.  He seems to have misplaced it, and I would not have it wilt for lack of care.”  He was talking to her and pinning me to the door with his eyes.  I felt like the oppression had lifted some, though.  He wore it like a cloak of invisible smoke, except a living cloak he could control.  Which doesn’t make any sense now, but you weren’t there, and it made perfect sense at the time.

“I’m also good friends with Ed the exterminator,” I said, my mouth filling in for my lack of conscious thought.

“He has a great number of friends,” Matana agreed.

Somehow my mouth moving released some paralysis from my arms.  I had always guessed that was how it worked for the superheroes, too.  Except that my mouth kept moving.  “And the best of them would tell me I’m up too late because I had a very bad day, so if you two just want to keep talking about me, I’m off to bed.”  I managed to use my arms to start swinging the door closed.

“Hold,” Matana said.  Peredur said it too, only he did it with a whip of his cloak of presence.

My arms went back into that frozen state, my mouth shut, and the door slammed back open into its original state.  I think I did that last, but I’m not entirely sure.

Peredur’s eyes were larger than a normal human’s, I decided.  They clouded with smoke again, like I wasn’t looking at them but at a place far away that focused on a fire, the only light in a strange darkness.

Nellie’s eyes were blue.  Did she look upon a watery location?  Do they get together like fire and water?  Did I have more evidence for my elemental premise, or was I just blowing smoke, so to speak?

“He will find her if you ask him to,” Matana said.

“He will find her because I demand it.”

Oh no, here comes the mouth.  “I was looking for her anyway,” I pointed out.

They ignored me.

“You cannot charge him wizard,” Matana said.  I agreed because I didn’t have that kind of metaphysical credit rating.

“All times are the same to me, darkling.  I see through many eyes.  I do not name without consequence.  I speak his tongue so he understands.   It is one of the three ways I will assist.”  He began gathering himself up, that invisible cloak wrapping around himself and making him flicker between worlds.

I have to admit, he was opening a portal I could interfere with, but maybe this was the real fork in the road.

Actually, I didn’t understand.  He was saying I would become a wizard some day?  Or did he not differentiate the way I did?  Or that he was speaking English as a help?  Oh, so tricksy!

My mouth spoke up again.  “Actually, if you want to be of real help, you can get me to the Questor and back after dinner,” I shouted after him.

Matana laughed.  “Aye, we could.”  She looked at me, her eyes glittering and black.  “You will find her.”  She moved her hands and a cloak of fog covered her, hovering over her nudity.

“I’ll try,” I said.  It was the best I could do.  Besides, how else was I going to collect on the Red Poets?   They owed me more than a bowl of ice cream.

She went all batty, and I shut the door.

(68) Turbulence

I think everything hit at once, because I know I staggered back after locking the door and I woke up with my clothes on and a case of those funny red pressure lines from the sheets being crumpled underneath me.  I took the opportunity to take a long, hot shower, and spent some time organizing stuff in the bathroom.  Really, while I might keep my little paperweight with the classic clever “clean desk equals dull mind” quotes, there  is something nice about having everything where you can find it again.  It’s like a little bit of chaos off your back, and sometimes I don’t think we really count the weight of chaos correctly, maybe figuring that mayhem and mischief are unrelated burdens.

When I finally looked up from what I had done, I had moved from the bedroom, done everything I could do in the kitchen, and I had even made my bed.  If it were a regular day, I could sit back and read with a clear conscience, maybe  a certain righteousness.  I had even watered my plants and checked my calendar for any upcoming events for which I was scheduled.  (Did I really agree to go on a mine tour?)

Sometimes, though, cleaning is a form of procrastination.  I know I had kept the place nearly spotless when Maggie and I had been dating, and at least part of that was in “aggravation prevention” techniques.  When I started noodling about cleaning my keyboard, I knew I had to regain my focus and decide my next step.

I took out my little notebook and started making lists.  What were my issues, magical, romantic…al, and mundane?  I made some columns.  While I could do this easily on the computer, I think it integrates with my brain a little better when I did this with pencil instead.

Mundane, first.  I checked bank accounts and did some estimating on my next check.  If something came up and I disappeared for a few days, I would be fine, if I could line up something for next week.  I always try to pay a little in advance when I can.  Not enough to make anyone hate me because they have to keep track of it, but enough that I didn’t have to panic if there wasn’t anything available for a couple of weeks.  I had a very slim rainy-day fund, but it could buy groceries, and I can make ramen and rice taste nice.   I was a college student once.

Romantic, then.  I made sure to get all of Sylvia’s contact information in to my phone.  I didn’t know what to do about Magda.  Did she set Matana up to protect me, or was that someone or something else?  I didn’t like owing favours I didn’t ask for, so I was definitely going to have to look into that.   I also wanted to understand Nellie and Ivan before I had to put one of them down.

It all connected with the “Magical” category.  I made another note to have a mundane romance someday.  It would be a refreshing change.  This was an easier list.  Get to Questor.  Find Doloise.  Get Doloise to guide me somewhere so that’s handled.  Close Ivan’s connection with the Dragon.

Wait, that was it.  I had a direct route to the Dragon.  Ivan’s heart.

That’s why my subconscious had said, “Romantic.”  Not because I was, but because of the heart.

I loaded up the computer.  Peredur and Angharad.  If I hadn’t been a gamer, I’d have had no idea how to spell those names, but I had played in an awesome Pendragon campaign that went way past the normal source material.  Wikipedia gave me a whole bunch of Welsh poetry in return.

Poetry.  Daffodils from the Welsh mean what for the Russians?   “The young grey-eyed king…” No, wait, Akhmatova’s “Requiem.”  The lines, “And I can not tell / Now, who is a beast, who is a man,” never seem to make it into the translations I had read, but I always wanted to take them literally.  Of course, narcissus would have to make an appearance, eh?

Doloise smelled “like a meadow,” I recalled.  I tried to think if I could pull any kind of scent in particular out of it.  No, it was kind of earthy and like faint vegetation, but not so much that you think, “swamp.”  Really, while I could remember a few nice smells (like chocolate chip cookies while they were baking) I couldn’t really name any flowers I could smell right off the bat besides the heavy produced “rose” scent.  “Off the bat,” heh.  Does that mean I wondered what kind of perfume Matana used?

So it’s not the symbols.  The Ljubljana dragon is on the coat of arms, too, but it’s a protector, whereas the red Welsh dragon always seemed to be a pain in the rear.  Peredur as related to Percival, seeker of the grail (or the severed head) in Arthurian legends.  There’s a lot of Angharads, although the Golden-Handed was the love of Peredur.  Immortals use a lot of aliases, sometimes even as a kind of shorthand for their roles.

(You know, Percival had been lured to succor a vampiress, right?  Maybe Matana’s nudity had gotten to me.  It was entirely casual and not particularly full of sex appeal, but I can’t help but remember.  I hadn’t seen a naked girl in a while, except on the internet.)

Too bad Dragons weren’t like cats.  I could find a giant can opener and see if it came to the noise.  Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea.  Dragon bait.  Well, it already had its maiden, so now I had to armour up.  Unless I was more Bilbo than St. George.  Or St. Martha, for that matter.  Maybe the can opener was for the armour, that’d make a twisted kind of sense.

And the terrible Dragon’s cave, in Ivan’s underworld, land of his dead.  It would have to be a place of power against Doloise’s talents.  A place of iron and the unliving.  I could hear it like a mournful song.  I would close shut the gates, and mute the cries towards the outside world.  Ivan would know their tongue, but he could no longer hear their speaking.

I put on a fresh pair of jeans, choosing my clothes as if they were a kind of defense in themselves.  A jacket, light, but with that thermal weave and with good pockets.  I picked things to fill it based on intuition.  A candle, some matches, some packets of salt (don’t leave home without them!), a water bottle, some other odds and ends.

I hadn’t even noticed that the sun had been on its way down, but that was fine.  I was ready.  I only hoped Ivan was just as ready.

And that the restaurant was open on Sunday nights.

(69) Dude.

I looked around for any sign of Matana.  Peredur Gillikin had called her a “vesper.”  I liked that a lot, actually.  It meant “evening,” as well as a handful of other tricksy things, including a drink.  (As I said, I was a college student once.)  It was a lot subtler than the other things I might call a vampire.  (And a lot more printable.)  I looked up, under the eaves, over the bannister, around the tower, and around the tower…that’s an old joke from my gaming days when the Dungeon Master would like to break our party by exhausting them with stairs just to get our adventuring permits.  (What, your DM allows your party to freely poach on the King’s land?  We had to fill out forms just to claim found treasures and lost artifacts!  Why, when I was your age…)

I didn’t see any sign of any bats, unusual fogs, or hot naked chicks hanging around on the roof.  (But you know I looked.)   It was one of those days that was best described as “partly sunny,” rather than “partly cloudy.”  At least, the way I measured it, somewhere near the “half-full” line, of course.

I didn’t have to go far to connect with a bus stop.  Really, I should have thought ahead and called on the bike.  I only needed a little misdirection spell to keep it legal, even though I’m sure it was recorded as stolen property by now – not being in the same state, I’d have to do something pretty blatant to be caught even without the witchery.  Of course, it’s a slippery slope.  If I’m willing to break the rules on this, where does it end?  Next I’ll be asking my twitchy-witchy friends to help me hide the bodies.

So, the bus it was.  I know it lacks a certain panache, especially as I was looking dashing and ready for action, but even if Sunday service was limited, I could still get where I was going with a little patience.  Besides, I brought my notebook and a pencil and could get some brainstorming in, even if I had to keep some attention to watch for my stop.  I presumed that’s why superheroes learned to fly – they got tired of taking public transportation.

I didn’t have long to wait, and I flashed my little permit to the driver.  This wasn’t one of the fellows I recognized, and we exchanged terse greetings so that I could find a seat in back.  I pushed past an older gentleman either talking to himself or with a subtle bluetooth device, and found a spot just before the lady who was resorting her groceries.

The bus shuddered and jerked along its route, partly caused by the damage to the street, partly because the bus wasn’t in great shape.  I had overheard an argument one morning that pointed out that all the fares collected in a single day by the city wouldn’t pay for that day’s bus fuel consumption.  This was why I didn’t mind paying my sales tax.

The Earth continued on its merry way, giving a cold shoulder to the sun as it turned around and focused on the outward darkness.   I felt a chill, but it could have just been the air conditioning, quite unnecessary in the coolness starting to settle over the city.  The Almanac said it would be a cold winter with heavy snows.  I wasn’t looking forward to that.  Love the city, hate the driving in slush, SUVs splattering my windshield with their castoff slurge.  “Slurge,” of course, being one of those words for the heavy snow dirty from the street that slops back off of the tires of vehicles taller than yours.  I just made it up, I think.

We picked up some people in uniforms who had had to work today.  We dropped off the grocery sorter, and her four boxes of fiber cereal.  We were making decent time, even given the evening traffic.  The traffic surprised me, given that it had been so light the day before, and now it was a Sunday night.   It’s a living city, even if there are days I despair that we roll up the sidewalks far before the real metropoli.

I spent the time I had intended to use in making plans playing on my phone, instead.  It’s always a careful balance, whether to undershoot or overshoot your stop when you know basically where you’re going.  I took a roll of the dice and managed to stop just across the street from the restaurant.  Lights declared that it was open, although there were a lot of open spaces in the parking lot.

I didn’t have any concerns crossing the street, or even ringing the chimes attached to the door when I opened it.  The restaurant was nearly empty, but there was a delicious smell coming from the kitchen.  I didn’t see a server, so I let myself wander towards the back.

Maybe it was the silence that gave it away.  Usually there’s a certain level of noise even when people are not talking, in the chewing of their food, in the clink of forks against dishes, in the placing of glasses against the table.

I was the only movement in the front of the restaurant.  The unfortunate diners who were here would not be returning to those few cars in the lot. I suppose our host could have told me what they wanted.  I don’t see dead people, and I certainly don’t talk to them.

I should have been scared.

I felt the portal bring me into the kitchen.  It sounded the way I expected it would.  Ivan sat, slowly cooking on the burner.  I think he was still alive, but what was normally within him that could feel or care was in the realm of a Dragon.  The portal beat slowly, functioning as his heart.

I turned off the burner.  Is this what being shocky felt like?  It took the twisting of several knobs.  He lay there, exposed, his eyes rolled up, his arms open as if he had seen something that had left him awestruck.

I approached the portal.  Do or die time, E.

I called it to me, with a whistle I didn’t know I knew.  I felt it absorb me, and the loss of place, of anchor for a moment, and then again, I was through, without Guide or Guardian.

But I would find her.  I promised.

(70) Know Evil

Though I walk through a valley shadowed in death, I will fear no evil.

No, wait, that’s not how it goes.  I checked my smartphone, but for some reason, I wasn’t getting any signal.  I guess I really was in a “Dead Zone.”

The world around me was shadowed, and loose grey earth, not quite as fine as sand shifted underneath my sneakers.  A single oval moon barely lit the sky.  I could see markers of some sort at angles planted within the darkness.  I used the flashlight mode on my phone to examine them.  Unlike the monochrome grey of the sky and earth beneath me, the markers were marvels of colour, each intricately painted in golds and reds and other vivid shades with hyperrealistic splendour.  They had meaning, I could feel it, but they rushed in to each other, like a collection of tattoos that were done at different times and only really had significance to their bearer.

The closest one had a black cat snarling at a golden dog, a feminine sun in a pair of wrinkled blue jeans leaning down to speak to a group of crows, a field of migrating dandelion blooms in sixteen gorgeous colours, a silver spider turning with a few stocky legs in the air as it crawled against a brilliant red flower.  The symbolism was likely either very subtle or blatant to a practitioner of the particular flavour that designed this reality.  I didn’t know if this was a memento mori or some other kind of installation.  I made some notes, being careful not to touch anything.  I could hear any number of small potential portals, and didn’t want to accidentally activate one and end up elsewhere.

The smell of cooking flesh was slowly fading, to be replaced by a heady earthy smell, like of dirt just at the first touch of rain.  There was a definite chill in the air.  I took a moment to breathe it in, glad I wore a good jacket.  If it got just a touch colder I might be wanting gloves, but right now my hands were fine out in the open.  Mists were drawn to me, and then they faded away as if finding me uninteresting.  Perhaps they were sentient, noting that I was of the particular variety “not dead,” and thus without need of their shelter or guidance.

The soft earth beneath me made way to broken rock that reminded me of drywall, crumbly and flat and chalky.  The walls of the valley were made of a moist reddish rock.  I’m no geologist, but they didn’t look natural.  One wall stalked me, pushing my path over the crumbly rock and into something more solid, more like iron, in circular, smooth steps, almost as if poured in dribbly little bits.  Somewhere I could hear a susurru, made more of wind than waves.

There was a faint, constant thumping, as if a giant heartbeat rippled through the land.  It matched the frequency of the gate.  The only other sound was my clumsy finding my way through the strange landscape.

A cold wind came through, chilling my hands and face.  I hunched a little against it, and noticed flakes of what might be snow.  They stung against me, and smelled something sharp, more like salt.  They left little trails of what in the pale moonlight seemed to be soot.   I muttered, “Acid rain?” and continued along the path I and my geography had chosen.

I saw light in the far distance, flames of red and yellow and orange like the twinkling of a large star.  Hints of purple at the edges gave blue colour to the darkened sky.  Bare rock led down into what I think were birch trees, or maybe aspen.  I’m not a botanist, either.  The flames seemed to be held in a bowl of reddish rock, or so I saw from below, in the woods.

I am an urban fellow.  I do not like the woods.  Wolves wait in the woods.

Yep, wolves.  Wait for it.  There’s the howling now.

Ed had told me that a wolf was a dog whose pack was his brother dog, and a dog was a wolf who had humans as its pack.   I wanted to argue it, but, look, not a zoologist, either.  Or animal psychologist, for that matter; I certainly couldn’t alpha my way out of this.  Are you supposed to climb for wolves?  Or was it big cats and bears?  Or the other way around?  Bears don’t howl, I’m pretty sure.

I spend enough time in Boulder to know these rules, you’d think.  I could tell you scary, scary stories about raccoons near the campus.  Unafraid of human, and they turn their reddish eyes to you and all you see is the inherent, greedy evil.  I don’t like calling natural behaviour “evil,” but every rule has its exception, and these raccoons are evil.

I walked carefully through the trees, keeping the fire in line of sight as much as possible.  My carpet was the usual debris of leaves, soft, bendy sticks and twigs, and who knows what kind of carcasses and carapaces as populated this place of endings.  Did Russian bugs have enough self-consciousness to go someplace when they give up their mortality?  Is that the rule, or am I not Buddhist enough?

Wolves, though, wolves are a metaphor, and this was a place where metaphor had strength.  I’d like to say I never metaphor I never liked, but that’s a lie, because it would need be a simile to properly assimilate.

I didn’t run.  Never run from anything immortal.  That’s a hard and solid rule.  Plus, if they are coming, they are coming for me, and I thought I could make it to fire, man’s metaphorical weapon against the metaphorical darkness and the metaphorical wolves.

The problem is, it’s also the metaphorical weapon of Dragons.

(71) Haut Gout

I caught a glimpse of the not-so-metaphorical wolves as one tried to grab hold of my ankle.  I’m not particularly tall or athletic, but adrenaline is the body’s method of giving even the most average of us superpowers.  In this case, the surge of the natural magic juice helped me climb up onto a shelf of the red rock, just outside the snarling teeth of an inky blackness with the growling and snapping of an unsuccessful predator.

Instead of jumping up and down and singing (once I could catch my breath) something about, “Nanny-nanny-boo-boo, grow some opposable thumbs and evolve to catch me,” I continued my upward climb, still a little hurried as I was not convinced that they weren’t just drawing straws as to who got to make the jump.  It was a little slippery and the angle wasn’t good for anything without hands, but I remember a trip to the Cheyenne Mountain zoo and a little discussion that you could expect a dog to jump twice its height without much trouble.

Then I saw it lean down and look at me, with a smile in its teeth and a friendly wag of its tail.  It was met by another, and then a third, curious, and I was entirely happy to see them.

They’re called Borzoi.  You might know the breed as the Russian Wolfhound.  You see them in a lot of fantasy films. I could have been a bit happier to see a Rhodesian Ridgeback (you know, the ones that take on lions) but this wasn’t the right… I don’t know the word – genre?  Dimension?  History? It felt kind of like the cavalry coming in, although that doesn’t usually happen until the last part of the film.

“Good doggies!” I said, making sure my voice sounded chipper.  They probably didn’t speak English, but since we’ve already gone over the deficiencies in my foreign language training, I figured tone and expression were what I’d be working with anyway.

I got a licked nose for it, and one of the others seemed quite curious at the ruckus down below.  (I’m sure there was another term for it that was more appropriate to the milieu… aha!  That’s the word I was looking for! …but ruckus is what my mom would have called it.  I think that was even her venery: a “ruckus” of canids.)

I moved up a little further.  My climbing method was more a grabbing at something solid and wriggling (what’s the difference between that and wiggling?) over with lots of grunting and dirt getting ground into my jacket.  It was working, but it probably wasn’t the kind of method used by anyone who wasn’t desperate.   If I was going to be an action adventurer, I probably needed to learn something more dignified.

I finally was able to stand up and brush myself off.  The dogs were very curious, and I let them sniff me.  They made a lot less noise than I was expecting, but I think that’s part of the breed.    I didn’t actually know anything about wolf hunting with hounds, but I’d heard of it, and I think humans were involved in it.  They did not have collars, but they could have more subtle forms of ownership I couldn’t see in the dark.

I looked up towards the bowl of flame.  It was still far up the mountain, but I could see behind it now – there was some sort of facade constructed there, a building presumably behind it, but it was the same colour as the mountain, perhaps Al Khazneh style.  (Except with more of those onion-dome cupolas.)  I kept heading towards it, if for no other reason than to have some more light to see by.

I saw multiple pawprints in the reddish dust.  From here, the occasional heartbeat of the land was easier to hear with the ears rather than the feel of it, like bass heard from far away.

“I see you have been found.  My hounds clutch many victories from the wolves.”

I looked up at the shadow that appeared on a ridge above me.  “I did not know I was missing.”

“Ha!  You should not be here at all, which is how we knew you were coming.  Come closer to the fire, so we can see your face.  And if we like it not, we will show you how well my hounds are fed.”

I managed not to shiver.  “A man’s face is not his to choose.”

“No, no!  We disagree.  A man’s face shows his journey, his choices.  Are you the kind of man who would be born from a sapling, like young Ivanko?  Or are you a man of steel?”

“I am no Superman,” I protested.

“Steel, I said,” he barked.  “Not fairytales.  Skazka.”  He made it sound like what a dog might deposit after it ate my face.

I headed further up the mountain, hoping I would at least give the friendly wolfhounds some indigestion.

(72) S’more Tales

I had only seen my companion as a dark shadow, but slowly climbing into the light, I saw that he looked very familiar.   I hadn’t seen Viktor in these clothes, but they fit him.  Kind of, I don’t know, lumberjack.  (And no, I wasn’t going to hum the Monty Python tune.)  He looked more relaxed, if possible, as if he was in his native element.

I wondered briefly what other things Doloise hadn’t told me about what I had experienced with her.  Of course, I can’t rightly blame her, because (frankly) I never asked.  If she had been human, maybe, I would have been annoyed that she hadn’t thought to tell me, but she wasn’t human, and you know what?  I’m good with not holding that against her.  I’m big that way.

With a click of the tongue and a point of a finger, the dogs ran over to him.  He had his own fire on this level, one that burned less red than the signal I had been using as a guide.  There was wood stacked and a door crafted into the mountain.  I remembered reading something about “river sweatlodges” in Siberia, but besides thinking the name was “vanya” (which actually kept leading me like a red herring into thinking about Middle Earth) I couldn’t remember much about them.  This seemed to be a more permanent campsite, though, than a waystation somewhere.

The dogs curled up around the fire, eyes open and watching both of us.  Viktor went into a wooden chest and poked around.  He handed me a long thin poker, more like a hot dog roaster than a rapier or some sort of actual weapon.  I suppose I could have had a lucky shot and got it through his eye, but how do you kill someone in the lands of the dead?

I was feeling pretty dead myself, dead tired that was.  I pulled up a wooden bench and sat on it near the fire, waiting for Viktor to return.  He grunted a few times, then straightened up, holding some ingredients I was a little surprised to see, but not unhappy about his acquiring.  We made sandwiches of shortbread-like crackers, chocolate, and sponge-like cheese.  I would still group them in as “s’more-like objects.”

I could have been concerned about eating something from the lands of the dead, but I didn’t feel anything sinister or otherwise significant in it.  Of course, from my younger days I knew if a Long Island Iced Tea is made well you don’t notice the alcohol in it either.  In my defense, I was currently a quivering bundle of paranoid sensitivity, so I think anything that went “twang” when it should have been well-nigh organic to the environment or hostile to me would have set me off.

I did not want the taste of chocolate to make me think of Doloise, but I was here because of her, and focusing on that was important.  I ignored any tendency for tears to well up, because I knew it was just the smoke from the fire.

We sat and enjoyed our treats in almost silence.  I could still occasionally hear a howl or a yip or a bark, and, of course, the stacking and chewing of the food, and the crackle of the fire, oh, and yes, the occasional heartbeat of the land.  It seemed quiet because neither of us were talking.

He threw a couple of the crackers to the dogs, who were awfully polite in catching them without pushing each other.  He leaned back.  “You have questions,” he said, looking into the fire.  “I cannot answer them.  We do not share the language.  We come from different worlds, you and I.”

I glanced at him.  He had quirked a smile, so it was on purpose.

“I think wizards just like to feel mysterious,” I said.  “You can tell me things.  You can tell me one simple explanation of what this place is.  I don’t know enough to ask smart questions that need in-depth, technical details.”  I stood up and returned the bags of treat-making to him, so I could get close.  I kept the wire fire-equipment in my free hand.  “And why you lied to me.  Make it simple.  Lie to me again if you have to, but don’t think I don’t know.”

He regarded me impassively, taking the bags and leaving them by his own wooden chair.  After a moment, he relented and smiled.  “You are a strange one, E.”  He used my whole last name, of course, with the strange little quirk in it upon which my grandfather always insisted.

I don’t come from a family of wizards.  My talent is a freak one, which is why I’ve had to learn so much about other kinds of practitioners to try to develop rules for myself, capabilities.  I still don’t know how I managed to face Ivan and use the portal.  I still don’t know that I did, in fact.  Maybe I fainted, and this was all a dream.  Maybe the magic used me.  But sometimes I think there are hints in my family that they hid something, and having an barely-pronounceable name might have been a misdirection for identity magic.  Or just ethnic heritage.  Who can tell?

“Yeah, well, that could be why I don’t get many dates.  Talk to me.”  I like to think I sounded strong, and not cajoling in the least.  Convincing was what I wanted to express, but I hadn’t checked out those books on negotiating yet.  I did give him room, stepping back to sit on my bench, and burning off the food remnants from my roaster.

“We knew your face,” he said, finally, “and it was an honest one.  Not one that had seen hard work, but one that looked for answers.  When Father Ivan left, he tore us apart, and when he returned with his Nellya, we were not sewn together.  That is maybe woman’s work?  But Nellie was no woman.  Trouble never comes alone.  Artur joined us, then.  I think he looks to slay dragons.”  It was an ironic smile.

“One does not want friend to always agree, but to argue smartly.  Andrei wished to weave her to us, use her power.  Artur has the heart of a bear who thinks it is a wolf.  They argued.  I listened to Father Ivan.  What he went looking for, he found.”  Viktor shrugged.  “But it was not good.”

He sighed.  “Nellie wanted to go home, but she could not, not without Ivan’s heart.”

“So she saw Doloise’s power as a way to change things?” I asked.  It made sense.

“We were looking for a way to close things.”   He made a motion with his hands.  “Return Nellie to her place, Ivan’s heart to his.  You brought the,” he used the word they’d used to describe Doloise again.  Boyar-something? “Perhaps that one has knowledge that can assist, now that his Nellya saw they were not rivals, and that the Doloise was not sent to capture her.”  He shrugged.  “We wished Father Ivan back.  He has spent too much time here, in the three-ninth, the far away, his heart may not know the right home.  So I came to bring some home to him.”  He shrugged.  “And then there are the wolves.”

I looked at the hounds.  “These are spells?” I breathed out.  It wasn’t really a question.

He nodded.  “I built the signal fire to draw in Ivan.  I have not been able to find him.”  He looked past me to the valley.  “I do not know if the wolves protect him as a wolf, or if they keep help away.”

I had a very bad thought.  “When did you last see Ivan?  In the real world, that is?”

He smiled.   Then he frowned, thinking.   “Four… days ago?  Time is different here.   He served me dinner, and we talked spells.  I said I had one to help his heartache.  He said he needed that or the butcher.”

The heartbeat had been off.  It was getting slower.  “The executioner?”  I asked.

“He joked the headsman, yes.”

So I had seen him just after that, and it was two days ago in real world.  Time was a tricky subject.  And Viktor didn’t know what happened.  If I was right, and even if Ivan could be saved, albeit in a burnward or something, we were running out of time.

I just love being the bearer of bad tidings.

(73) Blisters and All That Rot

I looked around, but there wasn’t any kind of “replay button,” I could press to give him the quick low-down (does anyone get a “high down” on something?  Is this a poker term?) on what was happening.

“Um.”  Yeah, that was erudite and witty.  “Look, we’re in Ivan’s heart, right?  Well, Ivan, he didn’t look too well when I last saw him.”  So it was an understatement.  I wasn’t going to go into detail about blisters and all that rot.  Erm.  [shudder]  “If I’ve called this one right, Ivan’s heart is giving out, and this never ends up well in books.”

“He can manipulate the forces,” Viktor frowned, but I think he believed me because he stood up.

“Here’s my rule of thumb.  You wizard types generally don’t wind down easy.  You don’t go in your sleep.  You go because something is opposing you.  Who’s our second shooter?” I asked, standing as well.

“I do not understand,” Viktor admitted.

“That’s fine.  It’s only a theory anyway.”  I took a breath.  “So, while you were out, or, well, in, as the case may be, Nellie took Doloise.  Doloise’s daddykins or however you want to describe the lord of her house came and told me to get her back, and I’ve got a naked vampire chick who thinks I can do it.  Which is kind of irrelevant, but it was a long night and I have to wait for the bill.”  I realized I was babbling a bit.  “Anyway, I thought Ivan’s heart would be the obvious link, so I was going to have him use it to take me to wherever Nellie’s stashed my Guardian and Guide.  When I got there, his guests looked drained, like the life had been taken right out of them, and he was being, um, well, his goose was cooked.  Let’s just do that.”  I decided anything more in the way of description probably would make me lose my lunch and s’mores, which were kind of churning anyway.

“His goose?”  I was losing him.

“Pate.  All the way.  I’d rather not go into the details.  Anyway, he’s in trouble, and unless someone else with medical training is going to see him, I think we’re actually losing time.  The thumping, do you feel it?”

“Yes, I have noticed it.”

“It’s getting slower.  That can’t be a good sign.”

Viktor was alert.  He packed up, and his dogs followed.  “There are lots of Russian proverbs about wolves, and few about Dragons,” he said.  “But you are correct.  Something else has interfered.  I do not know what would come in and drain his guests, let alone cook his goose.”  He frowned.

I had another thought.  “Were those wolves particularly, I don’t know, wolflike to you?”

“They are spells, just as my hounds protect me and you from them.”

“You said Artur came in after Nellie.  A bear’s heart who thinks he’s a wolf.  Could he have done something?”

“The boy?”  Viktor’s eyes narrowed.

“Yeah, just what I thought.  It’s easy to make yourself look young with the right magic, you know, like the kind that drains the life right out of people.”  Well, not easy.  I mean, there are cosmetic companies who have been trying to get the formula right for years.  But there are ways, and it’s usually those from beyond who do it, or those who make deals with those from beyond.  Vampires, still.

Was that the real reason Matana was there?  I knew vampires clashed, and not just because some of the types saw the others as scrumptious little fish in their ponds.  (I knew there were familial ties between them, and some could create others more easily which led to little predator wars on the edges of the periphery, but you don’t get the real information unless you’re blood bound to someone, and even then you only get your group’s secrets.  Since my real sympathy is for the slayers’ side, a lot of this is listening, and the kind of conjecture you get from reading between the lines.)

I knew there was a reason I kept being suspicious about Sullen Boy.  If he had been trying to dampen down some of his powers or something to keep me from sussing him out… but Nellie would have known, and why would she have tolerated his presence?  What about Peredur’s “little vesper” comment?  Or was it just that Matana had been hidden and he wanted her to know it wasn’t past his notice?

The relationship map just kept getting more twisted.  I had a lot of possibilities, and few answers.

“So, we go hunting wolves?” Viktor asked when I had been silent for more than a minute.  I had followed him down the mountain area.

“Um, I’m not…” I began to digress.

“If you are not a hunter, I will make you bait.”

“I’m a hunter.”  That was easy.

“Good.  Take this.”  He pushed something in my hand that looked more like a crossbow than a gun.

“How does it work?”

“I thought you said you were a hunter,” but he was grinning at me.  “It is a spell, too.  It is point and shoot.”

I was more a point-and-click type of guy, but I could handle that, I supposed.

“It has one shot,” he added, not looking at me.  “Use carefully.”

“Oh.”  Was that a, “Use it on me so I don’t become one of them?” or a “Use it on yourself if you think we’ll be captured?” or a “This is all I trust you with so don’t miss?” or… I decided not to guess.

There was another beat, and the landscape melted slightly around us.  Really, like the crags and sharp angles made a curve, the geometry getting fuzzy.

The dogs began barking.  Viktor smiled.  “They have one.”  I hurried to catch up with him.  I was totally going to start a new exercise program, one not entitled, “Running to catch the bus,” and more something like, “Running for my life to not be a wolf’s dinner,” but maybe a little less stressful.

Another beat.  This one was also irregular.  So was the strange inky blackness coming at me from behind, with sharp teeth and very human eyes.