Archive for the ‘ Chapter 02 – Closer ’ Category

(22) An Instrument of Power

I don’t know what other people see when they look at portals.

This is one of the pieces of having my talent that is hard to explain. I hear the singing. I hear the frequencies of their opening, the way they’re tuned.  I can see them, but it’s more  an audible thing, a place where my visual senses are secondary.  I almost feel like I could reach out and play the portals like an instrument of power.  If I were a musician.  I can barely keep a tune (although I’m a great shower singer.  And yeah, I know that joke.)  I can play a mean keyboard.  As long as it has a shift key.  I think they gave me the triangle in the school play.

Seriously, though, they sing.  I have heard ones that are like choirs of wet fibres running across dull knives, and others that were like thin rains of sweet nectars against teflon.  I have heard ones that are the humming of healthy bee hives, and others that are like glass with a fatal flaw just as it cracks.  They’re not just sound but tactile.

They are not visual. They feel like things. They taste and smell.  But I do not see where they lead.   That’s why I don’t use them, because I go in blind.  I, of all people, am vulnerable to them, in a way no one would have predicted.  I’d like to keep it a secret, which is why I didn’t say anything when she offered me a chance to go first.

I dove in.  What would be on the other end?  Fire? Rain? Sunny days one might think would never end?

It was like pushing through gelatin for a moment, a viscous moment of breathlessness.  I stumbled into darkness, nearly knocking into a shelf in a poorly lit store.  A ceramic cat wobbled back and forth on the shelf.  I reached up to steady it, and nearly jumped back into Doloise.  It moved under my hand, a warm bundle of soft fur.   And it was a statue.

“His keeper saves souls.”

“Is it trapped in there?” I knew better than to take the bait.  “Soul” is a loaded word for a lot of folks, but it’s pretty much an idiosyncratic concept between practitioners, sometimes meaning personality, sometimes personal energy, sometimes it was merely the essence of will.  Still, the idea that it was saved like some kind of collection made me uncomfortable.  Too much baggage from my culture, I’m sure.

“It is collected.”

“That wasn’t an answer.”  I know it came out surly.

“I disagree,” she said.  She directed me to a small office in the back.  “We come for the Questor, not his keeper.  She would not be inclined to assist.”

I took it as a warning, although my curiosity was startled into awakening.

She pushed through the door, and I saw a slight young man behind a desk.  He didn’t look like some kind of burly adventurer, or anything I had thought of with the title.  He had perhaps a bit of an elfin cast to him, but mostly he looked tired.   A white kitten with grey socks lay in his lap, and he stroked it idly, all the world like an evil mastermind.

An evil mastermind that wore glasses, and slacks.

I waited for a riddle.  Or some kind of oracular proclamation.  He watched me and Doloise.

We watched him.

“Can I help you?” he finally asked.  I began to feel like I had won a point, and then felt silly for it.

Doloise began to open her mouth to speak when the young man raised a hand.  “The passageway you look for is through a darkened realm. Bring no light to it, and do not linger.  You will pass the outstretched hands, and duck beneath their fingers.  You will see the portal from the distance, but any closer and you will bring his attention to you.  Is this the place you seek?”

Doloise simply nodded.  The last words had the finality of ritual to them.

“How did you know?” I had to ask.

He cracked a grin.  “I don’t.  I’ve never been there.”

“Dealt with a lot of fey, have you?”

“They’re most of my customers.  You’d think they wouldn’t get so lost, but how many compasses have iron needles?  But I’m just an instrument of this power.”

“They call you the Questor.”

“And you?”

“I’m the Portal Doctor.”

We chuckled.  Maybe it wasn’t funny to anyone else, but it was nice to speak to someone who wasn’t crazy for a minute.

Of course, it’s all a matter of perspective.

(23) A Darkened Realm

I held the Questor as proof positive that not all practitioners are creepy old men or women whose “witch” title seems just a typo away from the truth.  Um, not that I’m a creepy old guy, although someday I’m sure I will merit the title.  If I live that long.

“A darkened realm.  I memorized that part,” I said to Doloise as she led me out of the shop.  “Which one would that be?”

“There are many realms which lie within the darkness,” she said.

“Yeah, I read A Wrinkle In Time, too.  Unless you were thinking something more of a cross between Nietzsche and Jung in the darkness every man brings with him in his soul.  At which point, wow, that wasn’t far.”  Oh, yeah, my snark had rejuvenated some.  Mankind versus his environment was apparently a fertile field of potential or somesuch.

“There are many darknesses,” Doloise offered.  It was a hint of humour, so I viewed it with suspicion.

“Is this like a card trick?  Choose a darkness, any darkness.  Can I have mine extra dark with bits of terrible black, and maybe marshmallows?”

“If that is the path you have chosen,” she seemed to be agreeable to it.  I liked my dark realm like I liked my hot chocolate.

She had led us out of the shop, which seemed to be in a strip mall someplace underneath an indigo sky.  A hint of wind was forming, and sunset was at its…peak.  If you could describe it like that.  There was a convenience store at the corner, which reminded me.  Well, it reminded my stomach, which obliged and made a rude noise.

“I require sustenance,” I said, breaking off from where she was leading and heading towards that corner.

“Marshmallows do not await,” she said.  I took it for another gesture of acquiescence.

Actually, the realms of darkness and convenience store hotdogs have a lot in common.   You really don’t want to know.

I offered to buy her a soda.  When she turned me down I offered her orange juice, that being the closest thing to nectar I could easily manage.  She turned that down, so I went for the low blow.  I offered her pixie sticks.

And I called them that, too.

She settled for a half-stale doughnut.  I took the opportunity to read the name of the city off the newspaper, surprised that we were within two states of where we started.  I realized that it wasn’t that surprising to put something that powerful out in where people had to work a little to find him.  I bought myself a soda, a bag of cheese things that were likely to leave orange dust everywhere, and a bag of beef jerky.

I settled down to eat, leaning against a pole at the parking lot.  Doloise was dainty about her food.  She glared at the men coming in and out of the store who stared at her.  I just smiled and washed down the cheese things and the jerky with the cool refreshing taste of perfectly chilled battery acid.  Doloise managed to keep her hands from being sticky.  I just figured all my clothing could be washed, so what was some florescent orange?

“So, now, refortified and preparing for a trip into the depths of metaphor, are you going to put me through the indignity of a gate again, or do we grow wings and fly or…?” This was her trip.  She could manage the transportation.

She smiled.  She pointed with a finger that suddenly reminded me of a claw (the way her smile had reminded me that she had sharp, pointy teeth) to a motorcycle that had just driven up.  “We will take that.”

“Um, the fellow who owns it,” a young fellow with no regard for his safety (no helmet, short sleeves, and flipflops) slipped the keys into his pocket and winked at Doloise as he passed.  He ran his hand through his short-spiked black hair, and gave a little roll of the shoulders before walking in to the minimart. “He might disagree.”

“It is of no consequence.  Had he wished to protect it, there were methods he could have employed.”

“Like locking it and taking the keys with him?”

“A force of habit does not a barrier make,” she determined.  A snap, and the lights went on.  I suppose she had a point.

(24) Kind of Hot

I had to imagine the look on the guys’ face as we made off on his bike.  I likened it unto being a pirate.  In fact, I began singing, “A Pirate’s Life For Meeeeee,” into the wind as I held onto Doloise’s waist.  I was actually slightly surprised to find that she knew how to ride a bike.  I almost argued my position, but then realized, she didn’t HAVE to do this for me.  One of those things about getting what you ask for and finding out it was exactly what you didn’t want.  She could have transported me a number of different ways, all much more uncomfortable.  If I didn’t mind being bumped, bruised, soaked, and humiliated, I could have…you know… complained.

We moved into the wind, and in some ways, into the light.  While I’m not one of those “ride into the sunset” types, I could appreciate the poetic image.  This was more one of those “points of light” kinds of trips.  I made my peace with motion sickness realizing that, “miles per hour” was not a faerie concept.

I gulped.  Neither, exactly, was inertia.

I made a guess that this was what the sunglasses were for, but instead I kept myself amused with Blues Brothers quotes once the pirate theme grew stale.  As we sailed on the Dauntless…ahem.  There wasn’t much opportunity for shouting a conversation against the wind.

My hands were wrapped exactly in the position around her waist that she had determined prior to allowing me to, ahem, mount up behind her.  I am sure there was a better way to put that, but my seven seconds was up.  I moved around occasionally to try to see in front of us.  The screech of the air around us sometimes sounded more like gibbering than banshee, I told myself.  Usually just as we slowed into a turn…and before that “sped up out of it” part.

Next time, I was going to be on top.  I meant, a man.  I meant I was going to drive, and nevermind that I didn’t know where we were going, I would just ask the Questor if we turned left at Albuquerque or not.  He’d get the joke, I bet.  He’d probably even know about how the towels were so warm and fluffy.

Civilization embraced us and then rejected us.  I knew intellectually that at some point the machine failed and magic picked up because we didn’t stop and refuel.  We passed cars like they were fleeting ghosts, barely visible or even tangible at this speed.  After some time I made the effort to calm down enough to reach out with my senses to confirm that yes, what was under my hands was certainly feminine, and, by the way, she was in some level gating us.  I wondered how much longer she could put out this kind of magical effort; there had to be some kind of limit to her facilities.  Or was she…

That was it.  That’s why she had to check with her family. They were invested in this.  She wasn’t just acting as an individual, she was an ambassador.  And no, I wasn’t going to get to see her eyes.  “She” as an individual might not even exist.  If I said my flesh crawled, it was just that I’d never been this close to… a realm personified.  It wasn’t personal, but the idea that I’d been looking at the legs of a small community made me feel kind of weird.  Sex with such a being…

OK, that was ridiculously hot in a really, really weird way.

I really needed to check my wiring.  Invite a nice, normal girl to look under my hood.  Look, I had a lot of things I was trying to avoid thinking of, so of course my mind fixated on what I couldn’t have but wasn’t necessarily going to kill me, right?   Good thing she didn’t let me sit too close.  I could still smell her, and it made sense, now.  She smelled like a meadow, a combination of different flowers and flora of a field.

I was impressed. It wasn’t like it was hard.  I mean, to impress me.  They had pulled out the stops.  Which meant that it was definitely political, and I was in a world of trouble.  But it was good looking trouble, which was, if you had to be in trouble, at least the kind of trouble I liked.

Boy, did that explain my dating life.

(25) The Eyes Have It

There is no window into your soul that you don’t open, if you ask me.  I would know, at least on a less-metaphorical level.  Still, looking into someone’s eyes is special.  It can be aggressive, it can be sexy as heck, it can be a shock when unexpected, it can mean different things to the two people who are sharing that look.  That’s why hiding your eyes also means things.

We focus on vision very hard, even though it’s only some twenty percent of our available senses.   That isn’t to say it’s only 20% important.  Vision itself as a word can be cut many different ways.  Sometimes we aren’t looking at what’s in front of us because we’re seeing something else.  Most people don’t smell possibilities.

[A sidenote here: I only get a chance now and again to watch genre TV, and you’ll almost always hear me call it TV, too.  I met a girl with television once; it’s not the most useless and annoying psychic power out there, but it’s pretty close.  Imagine knowing what’s happening somewhere else as it happens and being absolutely unable to do anything about it.  Prophets are an unhappy lot as it is; this is a specific form of misery.]

I can conjecture what I would see if Doloise had taken off her sunglasses.  Maybe it would be a flash of each different pair of eyes belonging to her family.  Maybe it would be an amalgam.  Maybe there’d be too much, all of the eyes trying to look out at once, a monstrous chaos (if that’s not redundant) that would lead me into madness.  Maybe there’d be nothing, something empty I would fall into, caught in the void.  Maybe they included an illusion to complete her image, make it more attractive to me (despite the thin arms and pallor.)

Maybe I didn’t want to know, even if satisfaction brings things back the very next day.

Cats and practitioners have a lot in common, and not just in that, “Brain the size of a walnut,” piece.

I hadn’t pulled my arms away from her when I guessed.  There are complicated names for the skills and rituals involved to do what they did.  I called her a realm; most of the time when this is done, it’s an embodiment of a place.   Sometimes it’s done as a guardian measure.  Sometimes it’s the way to hide something.   This time I smelled politics.

I don’t think anything that lived a mere century at its best could fully understand the politics of  nigh-immortals.  Time is of the essence, and we can make a mess of ourselves and what we represent in less than thirty seconds upon meeting a pretty girl.  I’m a practitioner, though, and if I have anything besides a talent for shutting things up, it’s a little extra in the way of vision.  Sometimes it’s just that we tend to blunder into things those without the practice don’t, but once your eyes are open, it’s up to you to use them.

In this case, it was obvious. She had handed part of it to me.  Someone was going to benefit by this godling being told to shape up or ship out, and it wasn’t necessarily the Gillikins.  They had a tone of desperation to them.  The only question was, would I live to regret it?  Or would events take so long to go to fruition that they’d pass me by?

At least in this lifetime.  I won’t quite say that I am convinced the way my Magster is that there’s a special spark that makes us practitioners, and that that special spark is attracted to certain connections (like bloodlines, or souls) but I was raised in a way that doesn’t rule it out.  I have found that there is a certain fast-acting reaction of fortune on practitioners (I don’t call it Karma; that’s a chameleon of a different colour…wait…) so yes, whether or not it was the right thing to do, I said I would do it.

My thoughts grew heavier as we continued on in the night.  It grew darker, and I lost track of the road.   Certainly, I was going to close a portal, and that’s what I do, so that had to be the right thing.  I took that thought to me as I fell into the rhythm of the ride and tried not to move or fall…asleep.

(26) Bursting at the Seams

There are places with so much presence of their own that you wonder how they can contain what’s there, let alone you and all of your own potential.  Places you’ve made your marks on count, whether they’re places you’ve lived, or the place you proposed and where she rejected you, or the place in the Alaskan outback where you lost your virginity to that bear, or even the time you had that discussion with your Dad, and you can’t help but think of the rum raisin ice cream he shared with you afterwards.  Haunted houses are just one of these places, full of the leavings of previous lives, some of the more deleterious elements like fear and pain absorbed directly into their walls… of course, a house just isn’t haunted without some kind of portal, which is why I actually know of this place.

She hadn’t bothered to park the bike; just laid it down on its side.  I flinched.  That meant either she just simply didn’t know better, or she planned on leaving a less traditional way than, “The way we came.”

“The path into the dark realms?” I asked.

“It is a path you are familiar with, I have sensed.” Her eyes were even more carefully hidden from me in this darkness.

I wanted to make an excuse.  I certainly hadn’t been asked to close this portal.  I’ve known about it for years, but I’ve never been inside.  The people within had been hounded by the media, and I couldn’t come up with an excuse, and it would have been rude just to gawk.  I am not a trained exorcist, but I made a mental note to start coming up with money for the lessons.  (I know, harsh, isn’t it?  You’d think we’d trade something more esoteric, like the ectoplasmic skin of a ghost ferret or something, but no, even great dispellers of undead need to eat.)

“Familiar with in a very vague sort of way.  What kind of, um, dark realm are we dealing with, here?”  I asked.  I’d like to say I didn’t gulp in a very cartoon-y sort of fashion, but a witness might not have backed me up on that one.

Truth was, I was hoping that the kind of dark realm we’d be visiting would be one where a flashlight would make all the difference.  Maybe kind of a, “We just forgot to pay the electric bill,” dark realm.  I could think of all sorts of darknesses I liked.  Dark skin, dark hair, chocolate, tight we–, let’s just say I can think of yummy darknesses that would be all right with me, and I had a feeling that this was “dark” in that, “gloom and despair” sort of way.   You know, pits of bones, never enough light to read by (although my mother would have said that was a constant) and probably something out there with an aura of, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to eat your face.  Might you have some fancy mustard on you?”

“There is enough darkness in any mortal simply in its being such, but I believe this one will have ways to the outstretched hand our guide encouraged us to find.”

I considered it.  “The outstretched hand being one that wishes to make a bridge,” I nodded.  “You’re thinking,” and I didn’t voice how many “you” might have been being referenced, “to start with a haunting that wants to tell its story, as a bridge between life and death, and then to use that as a portal.  Where were we supposed to go from there?”

“We are to duck beneath its fingers.”

“We cannot make the story happen, but we have to offer our own power to do it,” I said.  “I like the Questor.  How did he know what you were going to ask, anyway?”

“He is one part of an old magic that almost lost itself when the Storm Crow came.  There are also the Guides, but besides the cats, none of those have been called to him yet.  He may yet bring it back.  But that is one of our stories.”  I nodded as if I understood.  What do the fey call fairy tales they tell their children?

I followed her around the house.  I expected her to just use the same trick she used on the bike to get through the back door, so I was surprised when she stopped there.

“The threshhold,” she said, making a gesture.

This one I got.  I nodded and tried the door.

This was one of the places where having no real power was actually a plus.  The guys in the big leagues could be hampered simply by not being welcome somewhere, depending on how well the place was warded, and by what.  Some creatures could simply never walk in unless the door was opened metaphysically.  (I was tempted as a youth to write a book about, “How to keep a vampire waiting,” but then supernatural romance kind of killed the genre.)   Me, I could only be brought down by an advanced security system.  Or, heck, a simple twist lock.

“It will not be locked,” she said. I wondered how she knew, and then realized that she could have a million pixie spies for all I would be aware, and any one of them could beguile someone to leave the house and forget that they hadn’t locked the back door.

I tried the door handle just to…prove her right.

Of course, it proved me wrong.  I could be brought down by an advanced security system, or a house so full of…feeling… it was bursting at the seams.

(27) The Spirit Unwilling

It took me a few minutes to orient myself, a few minutes that, had I been in some kind of crisis situation would have had me shouting, “Game over, man!  Game Over!”  However you want to measure the luck I had, I wasn’t in a crisis situation.  In fact, I could sit down on the step leading up to the door and take a bit of a breather while an amalgam of a whole bunch of crazy fey stood and watched me patiently.

I guessed it was “patiently,” given that she hadn’t picked me up by the virtual (or literal) scruff of my neck and tossed me inside.  She just watched, eyes shaded by those amber sunglasses, as a hint of moon passed over the yard.  I taught myself again how to breathe, think, and otherwise handle myself vaguely like a functioning human being, and then stood back up, ready to take on whereever the house led us.

This was going to be tricky.  See, now it was my turn to do something kind of like Doloise was doing on the road, following it and yet not following it.  In this case, I was needing to enter the shell of the house, and then follow it through to the realm it touched, without actually worrying about hallways and doors and all that good stuff. 

Let me correct myself a little to try to explain.  I had to enter the home without being distracted by the things of the house.  A home looks different to all those who live there, whether they’re corporeal or not.  The view of your house from the mouse in the pantry is a much different view than that of the salesman who comes in by the front door.  Ever gone back to a house you lived in as a kid and thought, “This was a lot bigger then?”  It’s much the same principle.  You were trying to enter the place you used to live…not the house that exists in the now.  Great, now I complicate it with time travel, right?  No, it’s all about perception. 

Any practitioner should be able to tell you that next to sympathetic principles, perception is the biggest key to power.  It’s why vision is important, even to things that don’t see the way we do.  (Blind practitioners are actually not all that uncommon, even if they always make me want to ask if they’re trying to compensate for something.  Yeah, I feel dirty.)

So having opened the physical door, my being a physical being, I reached over with my concentration and that access to the thing I call my talent, and opened the door again, this time to the place the whispers and desires and darkness called home.

Um, when I say, “Don’t try this at home, kids,” I mean it.  Closing cupboards is one thing; opening gateways is something else entirely.

This time it was easier, almost as if the house breathed out a sigh of relief.  Doloise moved behind me as I took a step into the darkness.

She conjured up a wisp of purple from the hand she had kept in the fire, luminescence slowly being drawn back into a small fiery ball of light.  It was…enough to see shapes by, at least.   A lot of the fey had cat like ears and eyes: maybe it was more than bright enough for her, but I predicted sore shins and foreheads.

From the inside, things expanded.  This back door led directly into a small space where doors would have been found to the basement and the garage, before opening up into the kitchen.  In this skin of the house (like an onion… or an ogre) there was a bit of kitchen, and a huge gaping pit towards the basement.  It was the last place I wanted to go, which meant I looked for Doloise’s nod before I headed that way.

The pit portion was rounded and the stairs were stained with more darkness, this kind almost wet.  I saw that my hands were stained as I felt my way down towards the deep.  I saw the cheese crumb stains on my pants in this almost ultraviolet way, but while they would wash out, blood would take more work.  I tried keeping my hands away from my body once I got my balance so that I wouldn’t make more trouble.

There were noises, howls mostly, as we moved that directions.  Once or twice, there was the ghost of a photographer’s flash, and faces on the wall would appear and disappear like a set of family photos in three dimensions.  I ignored it the best I could.

See, I had only opened the way.  I was darned if I was going to attune myself to the truth of the way.  I was a passerby, not a visitor.  An innocent bystander, not trying to get myself trapped into the story being played out.  Trying not to add my redundant fear to the mess, really.

I turned at the bottom of the stairs into further darkness, waiting for Doloise and her purple flame to illuminate things.  She took this as a chance to take the lead, and I was just fine with that.   I couldn’t do this blindfolded; the magic wouldn’t work that way…but it wasn’t a dream.  I didn’t have to watch the murder being performed a thousand times until the spirit was no longer willing.

There are a lot of ghosts.  I’m no ectomancer, but we have a couple of tricks in common.   I know there are a lot of different kinds of ghosts, and only the ones with real will have a choice – the rest are but echoes trapped in, well, darkness.

We walked through the scene of the crime, chilled to the bone and maybe even deeper, and came out into a halfworld of shadows.  Doloise stopped me.

“Make the bargain, and we will be able to see the gate.”

The bargain, yes.  See, in order to fulfill the promise of the portal there, I had to help make the bridge.  Which meant using power, but only enough to touch, not enough to solidify the circumstances.  I couldn’t bring this side through to the reality I knew, or we couldn’t “slip through the fingers,” such as it were.  I could not have a safety net of us-versus-them. 

You know, half the time, I think I don’t really believe in magic anyway.

I could close my eyes for this.  I opened the path we were standing in, and it hurt.  It hurt like cold hurts, not a bracing blast of frost, but the cold of joints that don’t really want to move, deep into the bone.  An ache, a memory of pain.

I made a silent promise.  Now that I had been here, I would work to exorcise this.  No child should feel this, dead or alive.

“Let us through, pass us through, hide us from sight, and deliver us into light,” I muttered, holding my focus.  I could feel the ghosts gathering around us as I focused on Doloise.  She was my key, and I was going to the door.

I drew the echoes in, and drank a sip of them to taste the power and flavor the magic.  I knew how to do this on an instinctive level; I could use rituals, but this was me and the worlds interacting.  I could feel so many places wanting to reach out, wanting to touch us.  I trailed my fingers across the worlds for a moment, feeling so much possibility, but all of them discordant, all of them not matching the key the fey realm sang.

Until… yes, that one.  “Bring me through,” I told it.

A rush of white I could hear rather than see, and then, we stood blinking in the sunlight.

(28) A Kind of Low Key Event

Some practitioners make prayer a part of their practice.  Perhaps they have more sympathetic ears listening.  I, myself, try to keep somewhat agnostic.  I’ve met some small gods at parties.  You’d be surprised who you can see at a science fiction convention.  (You just thought it was a costume, didn’t you?)  Remember, acts of will include belief and disbelief alike – and the faith of powerful practitioners is something scary to see.

I reflected on this as I looked upon the unwelcome guest.

He was a wraith on a green hillside beneath a fairytale castle made of bones and mother-of-pearl.  He sat at a stone table, upon a stone bench.  A jug of what I proposed was wine, and a broken loaf of bread sat on the table.

For the want of an invitation, the kingdom’s fairest was bound with the prick of a finger into a timeless sleep.  For the want of sovereignty one embraces the hag.  Fire, food, and friendly conversation is the coin of the realm of Hospitality.  It is a strange study.

I looked past the young man who sat on the hillside and at the portal behind him, covered with shadow.  It sounded like thunder.  It sounded like the beating of hooves upon one’s heart, half freedom, half being trampled to death.  It pulsed with the faintest tinge of ozone like a passing bolt of lightning.

I felt the edges of the portal constantly pushing against the shadow of the castle.  The pulsing was power, a power I was overwhelmed by at each pulse.  I hesitated to try even matching its harmonics for fear the creature touching it would feel my hand on it.

I retreated into the darkness of the cavern, feeling disconnected, like a stranger to myself.

“Who is he?” I asked.  “Who broke bread with him and gave him a seat?” I asked, recognizing the ritual.

“One of our own,” Doloise shook her head.

I recognized the pattern. “Brother? Father? Sister’s son?”

“The dead cannot come to a kinsman’s aid.”  I recognized it as a proverb, but probably not from where she thought it came from, amusingly enough.

“I understand that this scene is how my brain is interpreting the signals of this place.   The castle, for example, is made of the images of castles in my head.”

“It is made of the dead.”

“And lace, pretty lace and rainbows.  Don’t forget the rainbows.  Nevermind.”  I started to pace, thinking.  “If I spill blood in order to make the anchor of mortality, I will have broken any hospitality that protects me.  No, don’t say anything.  You are suspect merely because of what you are, so you cannot give me advice that does not benefit your faction.”  I didn’t look to see if she was hurt by my astute observations.  I couldn’t afford it – making pretty girls cry affects one’s manly self-confidence.  “You cannot affect the portal because the Gillikins are related to the lords who made the invitation, and you would lose your trusted place to the lords.  At the same time, he is visited courteously by the lords who hear his poisoned words and the Gillikins are losing their place anyway.  Or, at least, that’s how you see it.”  I sighed.  “By the way, you and your people are the Gillikins.  It’s an Oz reference.”

I stopped.  “I could walk away.  I haven’t been noticed, because it was your deal with the Questor to keep your people off the radar entirely.  If I do this I will be in deep with the Gillikins, but their masters will be publically upset and so you will be able to use that to wiggle out of anything of real value in repayment.  I will also potentially be burnt out in the transfer or come to the attention of the nazgul you’ve got camped like a vulture losing  its patience.  Someone will make a deal eventually – you don’t have the Witch King of Angmar over for tea and crumpets.  You talk business.”

I finally looked at her.  She, of course, wore no expression I could read.  “But I’m in.  I’m in because I know too much now to walk out.  You want that festering sore on faerie lanced and I’m the dumb mortal who is going to do it.  You’re going to watch my back and not complain about my methods.”

I didn’t even look back at her as I strolled into the sunshine and down the hill.

(29) Hail, King of Doughnuts

I skipped a little down the hill, luckily not breaking my ankle, although I can’t affirm or deny my looking foolish.  I did put on my best business smile, you know, the one you offer before a handshake even if you don’t like the client.  I didn’t actually put out my hand, though.

“A hearty hail and well-met, Shadow King,” I said in my most booming voice.  I did not quite hope that the Gillikins died of humiliation right then and there, but I would have bet a sizable portion of any kingdom I was heir to that, if they were prone to human emotion, that that they would have wanted to at that.

“Greetings, mortal.”

He had to say it.  It’s practically a law, or at least (I suspect) written in some sort of handbook somewhere.  Besides, this scene was coloured by my interpretation of the surroundings, and so since I expected it, he might have said something else, but it came out that way to me, anyway.

I sat down at the table across from him.  Now that I was closer, the sheer immensity of the gate behind him, its constant strumming of power at intervals that could only be called random was almost as distracting as the little voice in my head saying, “You’ve got the stones to sit down as if you were an equal to a god.  Dude.  If the universe was fair, this totally ought to get you laid.”

There are reasons I don’t listen to the voices in my head very much.  Even when they’re sensible, they’re all guy voices.

The Shadow King leaned over the table, his elbows very much in a way that would have gotten his etiquette teacher into a tizzy.  Actually, I guess the rule that you follow the behaviour of the host trumps the no-elbows rule, but I know I would have gotten my knuckles slapped with a ruler.  I don’t know if the gods have the equivalent of schoolmarms, but the Shadow King also could have used some corrections to his posture.

The shadowy depths of what could have been his eyes stared into me.

I have been stared down before.  It happens.  Sometimes it’s the fathers of the girls I’m dating.  Once it was a cop, but I *was* drunk, and I *was* underage, and at least I wasn’t driving or breaking the law, but he laid into me quite righteously anyway.  Maggie’s been known to do it, but she doesn’t fight (or stare) fair.

This wasn’t one of those times.

The Shadow King considered, and something changed.  He became less shadowy, like the wraith-y bits kind of curled up and solidified into the shape  of a man more my size.  He fashioned a face from the mists, one not too handsome, but definitely memorable.  Dark, dark blue eyes, almost black, and a beak of a nose with a crag-like break to it.  Thin lips, a bit of a five o’clock…um… shadow… as the darkness continued to play around his aura.  I guess his dress was historical, but I didn’t recognize it.  Ask a costume geek.  At least he wasn’t wearing tights.

“Bread?” he asked.

“Don’t mind if I do,” I nodded.  Yes, yes, to eat or drink in faerie is bad juju.  On the other hand, there were depths and depths to this situation, and all I’d had was cheesy-poofs and a Coke.

He pulled apart a piece of the broken loaf, and offered me a slice.  He chewed on a bit of his own.  To my senses it tasted like sourdough, a little dry, not as sour as I like, but not bad.  Plus, it was kind of crusty and chewy at the same time.

I waited for him to continue, but instead, he just watched me.

“I suppose you’re wondering why I’m here,” I finally said, resisting about a thousand punchlines.  “It’s not for the bread.  They could at least have offered you some olive oil and herbs.”

For a moment, I wondered how what I said was translated to him, in the mind of a minor god.  Maybe I spoke in tadpoles.

That was actually kind of a disturbing thought.

He didn’t respond.  The tadpoles might have scared him off, but I don’t think that was what it was.  Oh, yes, I was about to make the offer.

“How are you liking it here in the shadow of the castle?”

“I have had more gracious hosts, but these surroundings are not to my disappointment.”  He leaned back, scratching under his chin.  I found his body language a lot more readable than Doloise’s.

“Wine, women, and song?”

“Lacking, yes, lacking in that.  But I am not a merry god by nature, prone to lascivious droughts of subtlety.”   Interesting phrasing, that, but I thought I got the gist of it.   He thought I was going to try to fool him.  Well, there went that idea.  Good thing that was only Plan B.

“You’re a sharp one, you say.  But there’s more to a bargain than bread at the table and a place in the sun.”  Ah, I love it when my mind turned literal.  It helped me gain a better perspective.

The Shadow King looked more and more familiar to me.   It was odd, but I couldn’t decide where I’d seen him before.

“Or blood in the bowls, the sound of sword against sword, and death in the darkness,” he said.  I decided it meant he agreed.  He continued.  “And a mortal negotiator is no match for the tide.”  He smiled a wan smile.  “And you are too tough a morsel to be a gift.”

“I’m not a negotiator.  I’d come bearing a deal, or presents, or even an idea of who you are and what you wanted.  Or what someone else wanted.”  The sound of his gate was muffled while he spoke, which helped me focus.  “I’m here for me.  Sounds selfish, but sometimes it’s still true.”

He put his fingers together in front of him, tapping them every once in a while as if pleased at a joke only he knew.  Darn, but he looked familiar.

“You are not my usual supplicant,” he pointed out.

“See? You are a sharp one.”  I leaned towards him, thinking my next words carefully.

“You do not want your enemies suffocated by the fogs of war, or their minds confused by the mazes of conceits.”  He hmmm’d loudly.  “Your desires are not so obvious.”

Well, she had to have long legs… oh, wait.  He was trying to compliment me.

“No, I was just going to invite you to leave.   See, those who summoned you aren’t playing by the rules.  You’re bored, you’re hungry, and you’re uncomfortable enough that you’re having to spend the energy to keep the portal home open just to stay entertained.  These aren’t your people.  They’re dilletants, and they’ve eternity to waste your time.”

“They are fey,” he said, chuckling.  “Eternity is incomprehensible to such as you.”

“Yeah, yeah, so I’ve heard.  You’re missing the point.”  I had a bright idea.  “What are they stalling for?  What’s going on at home that they want you dancing at the end of their rope so bad?”

Hah!  I had almost placed him.  It was something in the way he looked when he considered this.  I’d thrown him a fine knot of possibility.  I had no idea if it was real, so he couldn’t do the god thing and poke at my intentions and thoughts.  It was better than likely, it was entirely plausible.

My brain had painted this idyllic picture.  A god who craved anything of battle was being bored out of his immortal skull.  And don’t forget the rainbows.


“And what of what I was promised?”

“Eat, drink, and be merry,” I said, “for tomorrow they deceive.  Look, you can do what you want, but I know what I want, and that’s to go home.  It’s been a heck of a long day for me, especially as someone who can’t perceive eternity.”

“And that’s all you want?” his smile… wait.

“Oh, I could use a…” I bit my tongue.  Nothing good would come out of finishing that sentence.

“It is,” he pointed out, standing up, “an interesting proposition.  I think you should get what you want.  I shall take that as my example.”

He raised his hand, and the harmonics of the gates grew just off enough that I grit my teeth and closed my eyes.

A moment later, the air felt different around me.  A gate?  A breeze?

I opened my eyes.

(30) Home Sweet Home

If this had been easy, I would have opened my eyes and I would have been in bed.  It would have all been like a dream, except for muddy shoes and the smell of doughnuts.

Or crumbs of cheese-puffs.  No one, except for me, is allowed to eat crackers in my bed.  I told Maggie it was a deal-breaker.  In retort, she offered to make s’mores.

I opened my eyes in time to see the portal draw into itself, like the reverse of unwrapping a package, I guess.  That would be wrapping it, of course, but I’m terrible at that.  I’m more likely to pay the nice lady in the festive scrubs the “donation” to get mine all pretty, or hand it to the kid still in a plastic sack from the store while their mom’s not looking.  (Of course I’ve been moving to cloth bags instead, but some of those crazy boutiques still hand out the plastic unless you cuss up a storm.  Which, I mentioned, I’m no weather worker, so I can’t even swear up more than a little bit of bubbles and spit.  Ahem.)

This was a nice, neat folding of the universe from the edges of where the gate was anchored into a localized center that imploded.  I’m sure it all has to do with some sort of interaction between magic and physics,  but I think the quantum theorists have to be even stronger practitioners than the heavy hitters, or quacks.  I still haven’t made up my mind.

It left me sitting next to a stone table, under the weak sun of a sithen hill where fortune was never my friend.  I looked for meaning in the table, or in the bread, but instead brought my eyes to the castle which loomed over us.  Why did my subconscious give it such pretty, sharp spires?  I would have sworn my opinions far more clear, my willpower to suggest it more an iron fortress, an asylum filled with despair.  But no, this was more Lisa Frank than Edgar Allen.  Poe.  You know.  Rainbows and kittens with halos and nary a  sharp word, ill thought, or bad habit.   Except for the cobwebs.

There was a guard at the gate.  The armor was white, and sharp.  I ignored it to climb back up to the cave.

Doloise stood there, a visible haze of anger around her.

“Shut it,” I said, before she could even begin to say whatever it was she was going to say.  A crackle of lightning crossed her amber sunglasses.  “I want back into my world.  More than anything else you can pay me, I just want to go home.”  I leaned over.  “I feel used.”

So, to make a long story short, she brought me back.  Not by the same route we used, although I remembered the promise of my heart.  It was dark and it was dark when I went into my house and she dismissed my simulacrum.  It was dark when I pulled off my pants and sat on my bed.

Her voice surprised me there in the darkness.

“You did not use your magics.”

“No, but I sure used my talents,” I said.  “Go away.  I uninvite you, if ever I invited you in the first place, which I’m pretty sure I didn’t.  Just go away.”

“We are…confused.”

I laughed.  I couldn’t help it.  Actually, it took me a few minutes to stop laughing, even there, without my pants on, which, really, is one of the best times to laugh.  Unless you’re on the toilet, at which point you’re a bit too vulnerable to enjoy it.

“Go away.  Two words.  Get out of here.  Four words.  Don’t come back.  Three words, if you don’t count the conjunction.  What part don’t you understand?”

“Why did he leave?”

I paused.  “That answer will cost you.”

“We are prepared to pay.”

“You don’t have enough.  Look.  I know what I’ll see if I look in a mirror.  I’ll see him.  Or rather, I’ll see myself, and I’ll see that you never come unscathed from dealing with a shadow lord.  He left because he marked me.  His will was done, so mote it be.  Jerk.”  Bleepin’ demons.  “I can’t make it any clearer for you.  Go ask the Questor.  He might be able to tell you how to find the answer.”  I wonder if he ever sends anyone to bark up the wrong tree.  Or to jump in a lake.

Why did he leave, E?  You felt something just as he left.  Like a shadow on the brow, a whisper on the soul, a sliver of what makes a whisker quiver.

I wanted Maggie.  I wanted somebody to hold.

But instead, I had a family of faerie arguing with itself about what a mortal could possibly mean, a cold bed, and no dinner.

I think I’ll get a cat.