Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Goat's Transformation


Sometimes a person comes across a moment in time that makes her stop and contemplate the life choices that got her where she is. I’m in the midst of such a moment myself walking across a field as I try to figure out how the heck one gets a goat out of an abandoned vehicle.

The only real choice I made, though, was in not complaining when my mom got custody of me after she divorced my dad ten years ago. I was only seven and Dad had spent at least half my life on business trips, so it seemed like the right call at the time. But then Mom met Hailey at a Bi-Pride event.

I was happy. Mom had been alone for years, and her finding love again seemed like something she really deserved. And they’ve always been super-cute together. I just wish that maybe Hailey was a little less… Hailey. Less the type of woman who thinks quitting her legal firm and moving to a farm in the middle of nowhere to raise goats is ever a good idea.

My first instinct when they told me about The Farm Plan was to call Dad and ask if I could live with him. I never actually asked though, because his wife answered the phone. I like her and could imagine happily living in her house, except for the fact that the house is filled with half-siblings. Or… Okay, “filled” is an overstatement. But there are three or them and they’re all under the age of five. As they all yelled in the background of the phone call, I realized I’d be better off spending my senior year of high school with the goats.

So I guess that was a second choice, but it was really just a repeat of the first one.

And, technically, I did chose to do as I was told when Mom told me to go fetch Lyle. Lyle’s the goat. He’s the big troublemaker in the herd, to the point that whenever something goes wrong we all claim it was Lyle’s fault, even when that something is it raining on a day we wanted to grill on or a traffic jam holding us up on the way home from a farmer’s market. But I kinda like Lyle, and he certainly seems to like me more than Mom and Hailey. The first time I spent the afternoon cleaning the barn, I saw him trying to dance to the Ramones. It was pretty much the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, so how could I not be charmed? Since then, I’ve given him a little more than his fair share of treats, so it’s no wonder the feeling is now mutual.

The goats all have trackers in their collars, so it wasn’t hard to find Lyle. And once I realized which field he was in, it really didn’t come as a surprise that he’d climbed into the rusty engine-less truck. I’ve never liked the truck, but the estimates for removing it were unexpectedly high and Hailey says it adds a certain je-ne-sais-que to our land. Sometimes I worry Hailey’s a little bit insane, but at least she’s insane in a mostly harmless way.

Lyle watches me as I approach the truck. He sits in the front seat peering out of the driver’s side window like he’s contemplating abandoning the farm and becoming a cab driver.

“Really, Lyle?” I ask. “Where do you think you’re goin?”

“Ideally?” he answers in an upper-class English accent. “London.”

My lips separate as I stare, desperately trying to come to terms with the fact that not only did a goat just speak to me, but told me he wants to go to the United Kingdom.

“The city in England,” he adds. “Not the town in Connecticut.”

“I figured,” I say dimly. Hailey’s sanity is clearly not the sanity I should have been worrying about. It would appear mine’s gone on vacation. “Besides, I think the one in Connecticut is called New London.”

“Ah, yes. You’re right.” He nods. “But either way, it wouldn’t be the London I need to get to.”

“Clearly,” I agree. Because if you’re going to lose your mind, you might as well do so agreeably. That’s what kept Alice going in Wonderland, wasn’t it? “But why do you need to go to London?”

“Because I live in London.”

“Oh. Right.”

“I’m not really a goat.”

I move my eyes slowly over him, noting the hooves and the horns and the fur. “You look like a goat.”

“Obviously,” he snaps. “But that doesn’t mean I am one.”

Okay… “So what are you, then? A were-goat?”

“Were-goat?” He shakes his goat-shaped head. “You yanks and your obsession with shapeshifters. No, I am not a were-goat. I am a wizard who was cursed into the form of a goat while on holiday.”

“Why?”

He narrows his beady goat eyes at me. “Not that it’s any of your business, but there was a misunderstanding wherein my girlfriend became erroneously convinced that I was cheating on her, at which point she cast a transformation spell.”

“Oh. When?”

His sigh is deep, moving his whole body. “I don’t know. I actually think I’m a goat most of the time, and goats are not very good at keeping track of time. It was before you arrived, though.”

My eyes widen. “Yikes. So at least three months.”

He nods. “Yes. And it had been some time before that, so most likely I’ve lost at least half a year.” He leans against the window ledge, looking as miserable as a goat could possibly look. “And the worst part is that when I leave this truck, I may go back to believing I’m a goat again.”

“Why?” I look down the length of the truck. It’s old and rusty and barely holding itself together. “Is there something special about the truck?”

“Not really. Or not about this specific one. Anything with sufficient amounts of metal would work. It disrupts the magic, you see. Modern cars have too much plastic, though.”

“I see,” I claim, even though I don’t really. “So we need to figure out how to get you to England without you leaving the truck? But you can’t teleport because the truck disrupts magic.”

“That and because teleportation of living creatures is impossible.” He pauses. “Or it is if you want them to remain living, at any rate.”

“Well, I assume you want to arrive alive…” I frown. “And you can’t break the spell yourself, or you would have already.”

“Indeed.” He shifts, his nose sniffing at the air. “Did you know that goats are always hungry?”

“I suspected. I mean, they’re always eating…” I remember stuffing a granola bar into my jacket pocket. Taking it out, I unwrap it and offer it to Lyle.

“Thank you,” he says before inhaling it.

“Is your name really Lyle?”

“No. It’s Neville.”

“Like Neville Longbottom?” I blurt.

The glare I receive makes me realize why some people think the Devil is a goat. “You do not want to get me started on the subject of Harry Potter and the completely disrespectful approach to magic that horrid series takes.” He snorts. “And quidditch. Absolutely ridiculous. She took airball, put people on brooms rather than having them levitate like reasonable human beings, and then added something that when caught gives you fifty points. Fifty! In a game where three-four would be considered a high scoring match!”

“I did always wonder about the snitch,” I admit. “It seems unbalanced.”

“Exactly!”

We pause for a breath before moving on.

Neville tilts his head at me. “Have you ever tried to cast a spell?”

“Of course.” I smile. “What little kid doesn’t. I used to grab a stick and run around the playground yelling all sorts of spells at things.”

“That was play,” he says with an eye roll. “Have you given it a serious effort? And have you done it recently? Having magical abilities before puberty is nearly unheard of.”

“Oh. Then, no.” On the edge of the field is a section of trees. “Should I grab something to use as a wand?”

Neville’s eyes close as he takes a breath. “No. That’s not really something people do.”

“Sorry. I didn’t know.”

“No reason you should,” he tells me as opens his eyes again. “You have the aurora of a wizard about you, so I think it’s worth trying. Untrained, you probably can’t manage more than one casting a day, so we’re not going to experiment. I’m going to climb out of this vehicle. Then I need you to grab hold of me and think really hard about turning me back to my real form. Imagine it in as much detail as you can.”

“But I don’t know what you look like.”

“You’re not casting a transformation; you’re uncasting one. So don’t think about what I look like. Just think about me shedding my goat body and revealing the truth.”

That sounds a little less daunting, and I nod to show my understanding. “Alright. I’ll try. Do you want me to put you back in the truck if that doesn’t work?”

“If you can, then yes, please.” He takes a deep breath. Then another. And then he leaps through the window.

He takes a few steps, looking a little confused, then stops to regard me with a hopeful expression before bleating in the tone goats use to ask for treats. Guess that means he’s back to being goat-brained.

Slowly, so as not to startle him into running off, I get on my knees and wrap my arms around his neck. “Neville,” I whisper. “Be Neville.”

Lyle bleats uncomfortably and wiggles in an attempt to free himself. I hold tight though, turning my imagination into reaching inside the goat and trying to touch the heart of his essence. Against expectation, I feel a tingle along my skin.

“Be Neville,” I repeat, envisioning Lyle breaking open to release the human trapped in his form. The image is gorier than I anticipated, but I hold onto it as the tingly intensifies, growing first warm and then hot. I imagine the heat leaving me to wrap itself around Lyle and melt away his shape.

“Be Neville,” I say a third time.

The universe cracks.

Lyle expands and contracts, then finally settles into the form of a man standing on all fours.

“Neville?” I whisper.

He turns his head to give me a remarkably Lyle-esque look of exasperation. “Of course it’s Neville. Who else would I be?”

Laughing, I let go of him and fall back onto my rear in the grass. “And I really just did magic?”

His gaze softens a little. “You really did. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” I smile at him for a moment. And then I realize he’s completely naked. “Clothes,” I squeak. “You need clothes.”

“Oh.” He looks down at himself as though he can’t feel the air on his skin. “So I do.”

He stands up and I put all my energy into staring at his feet. Between one breath and the next, a pair of jeans appears and some canvas sneakers appear, at which point I allow myself to look up.

Neville is younger than I expected, probably on the same side of twenty as I am. He has soft brown hair that flops over hazel eyes, a pair of copper rimmed glasses, and a t-shirt featuring the cover of the Clash album London Calling. I wonder at the shirt…

Maybe I should leave it be, but I have to ask. “Are you wearing that because you like the Clash or because Lyle’s heard me playing classic punk tunes often enough for you to know that I like the Clash?”

He laughs and holds down a hand to help me up. “I own all of their albums on vinyl.”

“Really?”

His head cocks roguishly to the side. “The albums are in my room if you wish to verify their existence.”

Laughing, I shake my head. “I’m starting to see how you wound up as a goat.”

Without comment, Neville starts to stroll across the field with all the confidence of someone in a familiar park. I trot to catch up. “So… Am I a wizard?”

“Gods no!” He catches my look of disappointment at the outburst. “I mean, it takes more than talent. It also takes training.”

“Does it?” I ask. “Because no one trained me to break that curse.”

“Breaking a spell is easier than creating one, same way breaking a vase is easier than blowing the glass.”

“Oh…”

We walk on for a few paces. “I could recommend you to my school,” he says. “As a first year, I shouldn’t have much say, but my grandfather is in charge to the place, so…”

I blink. “Schools of magic are real things?”

“Oh, yes. There are several in the United Kingdom, actually. My school, Hyde College, was opened by the first Queen Elizabeth and a fellow named John Dee.”

“That’s cool. I don’t think I could afford to go to college in England though.” I don’t have any idea how much a school of magic in another country costs, but my guess is that it’s considerably more than the public university I was expecting to end up at.

“I shouldn’t worry about that,” Neville tells me. “My family is quite wealthy and I fully expect my parents would be more than happy to cover your tuition in exchange for rescuing their baby boy.”

I blink. “Seriously?”

He nods. “Oh, yes.”

“Well, damn, Neville…”

“One thing though.” He turns to look down at me, the greens and browns seeming to dance in his eyes like flames. “I despise being called Neville. My mum’s the only one who uses that name. Everyone else calls me Nix.”

“Okay… Nix it is.”

I smile up at Nix, who grins down at me. My stomach gives a little twist as my heart assures me that, no, it wouldn’t be crazy to follow a boy across an ocean and study magic. Not crazy at all.

Above photo is by Irit Elazar Cohen and prints can be found in her Etsy shop.
It was offered as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

Monday, February 11, 2019

She Came from Space


I guess the developer assumed I’d stay where I was and wait for the alien to come to me from where she has inexplicably parked in the surf, because as soon as I step onto the bridge of rock leading the the mid-twentieth century idea of a spaceship, I sink straight into it. So far, the preview of this erotic fantasy sim isn’t impresing me. I’m not really here to be impressed though. I’m not really much into sex sims in general and alien fantasies even less. Call me a prude, but I like my partners to be from my species.

My silky robe slides off my shoulder, causing me to sigh and pull it back up again. Oddly enough, it’s pooling on the rock like the program thinks I’m sitting on the thing. I shake my head at the obvious cheapness of the coding; was it done by high schoolers or just people too incompetent to be paid decently?

The program didn’t offer any attire options beyond male or female. I chose female to reflect my real-world body, but here I’m a tall and slender blond with unusually large breasts and an apparent tendency to wander the outdoors in lingerie rather than a short and plump hispanic girl with the sense to dress herself properly.

While I wait for the alien to appear like Janet insisted I needed to do when she sent me the download link for this silly thing, I look at the ocean. It’s not flowing quite right and the waves in the soundtrack aren’t anywhere close to synced with the video. I can’t smell a thing and there’s not even a hint of a sea breeze on my skin. The developers couldn’t even find a decent stock beach setting?

Words appear in the air between me and the spaceship. “She Came from Space, Then Came on Earth.” Good lord. My eyes roll so hard it almost hurts.

Cheesy elevator music begins to play and a door appears on the closest side of the spacecraft. With luck, a ridiculous alien will appear soon and I’ll be able to tell Janet I stayed long enough to see the silly thing. The demo will undoubtedly cut off before she does anything terribly interesting anyway, so I may as well leave as soon as she shows up.

A walkway glides from the still closed door down to the rocky outcropping with all the rush of an exhausted snail. I walk toward it, hoping to somehow move things along faster by doing so. My body continues to be bisected by the ground, but at least the place is badly programmed enough for there not to be any sensation from that.

The door finally begins to open, sliding up from the bottom with glacial slowness. A pair of shiny silver boots appear. Their three inch stiletto heels are all the rage off planet, I’m sure.

I stop trying to approach the craft and just wait as the door goes up. The boots reach nearly to the alien’s knees, ending with a swath of light green skin. A moment later, I see the hem of a silver miniskirt. This could take a while.

As the door continues to creep up, I open a window to check my messages. There aren’t any new ones, so I move on to the weather. Looks like there’s snow in the near future. When a glance up shows that the door has made it up to the alien’s overly abundant boobs, which are clad a tight silver spandex, I pull up the news headlines. Apparently the President is still an idiot, Congress is still inept, and people are starting to think about the start of baseball season already.

My eyes flick back to the alien to see if she’s been fully revealed yet. Not only has the door opened, but the alien has taken several steps down the walkway toward me. Holy shit.

“Stop program!” I yell. “Exit!”

The artificial world falls away, leaving me on my bed. I yank my immersion helmet off as command my house management program to call Janet.

Sitting up, I wait for Janet to answer. When she appears on my monitor, she takes one look at me and skips saying hi in favor of blurting, “You saw it?”

“I saw it,” I growl back. “What the hell is my doppleganger doing in a low budget porno?”

Technically, the alien hadn’t been an exact copy of me. Her chest was at least twice the size of mine and her waist was smaller. And, of course, her skin was green rather than my light brown. But the face was identical.

“I’m not sure,” Janet says. “But my money’s on Craig. He’s still really pissed about your break up and Joe says this thing is all over their dorm.”

“Oh, god.” I lean forward, my stomach quaking with nausea. “I’m going to be sick.”

“The host said they would take down, but you had to be the one to complain.”

“Ok…” I nod to myself. I can do that. “Then what? They’ll arrest him?”

She gives me a pitying look. “That’s beyond the scope of Your Fantasies Online, babe. That’s more police or FBI territory. But I asked my brother, AKA Super Cop, and he doesn’t think you’d get an arrest because the level of proof you need that he was being malicious is so high.”

“You asked Thomas?” I squeak. “About me being in porn sim?”

“Well… Yeah.” Her breath catches. “Don’t tell me you’re still crushing on him. I thought you got over that already.”

I moan. “This just keeps getting worse.”

“It’s clearly against student guidelines, though,” Janet changes subject to state. “I bet we can get Craig expelled.”

“Assuming we can prove it’s him,” I grumble. “But first, I need to contact the hosting site. I’ll call you back.”

~*~

Hours later, Janet and I peer at my video screen as we try to figure out the data tags embedded in the sim program. All of it’s above my comprehension level and I quickly realize I’m going to have to call someone else in. Unfortunately, the only someone I can think of is Nina, the girl I dated my senior year of high school. But she virtually breathes computer code, already knows lots of embarrassing stuff about me, and has seen me naked before, so she’s a better choice than anyone else I know. And we parted on good terms, only breaking up three years ago because I chose to go to college close to home and she elected to attend Caltech.

Nina whistles when I call her up on video and tell her the story. “Wow. You’ve got great taste in women, but crappy taste in men.”

“Yeah, you may be right. I certainly can’t think of anyone to hold up as a contrary example.” To either half. The men I’ve dated have all turned out to be jerks. And the women… Nina’s the only one, but she’s the smartest person I’ve ever known and claiming she’s hot as hell would be underselling her. I never figured out how I managed to win her after crushing on her since middle school, so it wasn’t too bad a shock when I lost her, but she did spoil me. Now every woman I meet gets compared to her, and while she wasn’t perfect, she was close enough that no one ever does well in the comparison. Somehow it’s easier with men to ignore the obvious fact that they aren’t Nina. Of course, I’m not going to get into any of that out loud. “But you’ll help me?” I ask.

She smiles, renewing my belief that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. “Always. Send me the file.”

~*~

The next morning, I wake to a notification of an incoming video call from Nina. A glance at the clock shows that it’s ten thirty, which is earlier than I usually wake up on a weekend but later than she ever sleeps. Quickly, I rake my fingers through my hair in a weak attempt at becoming presentable while I drag myself from bed and move to in front of the screen. With a deep breath, I press the screen to accept the call.

Nina’s smile widens to a grin when she sees me. “Sorry,” she says. “I forgot you like to sleep all day.”

I grunt. “And I forgot you were a morning person.”

“It’s nearly lunch.”

“Only if you’re a freak, Neens.”

She laughs, the sound sending a completely inappropriate tingle through me. I always did love her laugh. “I sent you an email with information you need to show your dean highlighted. So hopefully that will work.” She pauses. “And there’s something else, but I can call back later.”

“Something else?”

Her face looks uncertain all of a sudden. “It can wait.”

I shake my head. “No. I’m up already. What is it?” My mind rushes to guess what it could be. “Does he have a channel full of pornographic versions of me?”

“No. Um…” Her tongue is visible for just an instant as it touches her lips, bringing up memories of what she tasted like. Dammit. This is why I stopped talking to her after we broke up; keeping my thoughts chaste is just too much of a struggle. “I’m graduating early. At the end of the semester.”

“Seriously?” I stare at her. “You went to a harder school than I did and you’re graduating before me?”

She shrugs. “I was in a hurry.”

“Why?”

Her eyes stay on me as she answers. “I never belonged in California. There’s not enough rain here.”

Our gazes remain locked together as I consider the words. They’re innocent enough, but either there’s a subtext to them or I’m just a hopeless optimist. “Maybe you should come back north then. Washington still has plenty.”

“I think I may.”

~*~

Two months later, I sit in a pub near the edge of campus and nurse a cider while I try to stay calm. Nina should be here soon. She’s in town for an interview, a fact I’m still having trouble believing. If she was trying to get a job in Seattle, I would have put that down to it being the obvious choice for a recent tech grad wanting a job in the Pacific Northwest. But my town’s a lot smaller than Seattle, small enough that you don’t find a job listing for here unless you were specifically looking for one.

The door opens and I look over to see her coming in from the drizzle outside. I stand as she enters, my hands moving to smooth down my deep burgundy tunic as I give her a cautious smile.

“Mariana,” she says, my name sounding like that of a goddess when she says it.

“Nina,” I respond.

We look at each other for a few heartbeats before we start to laugh. Tension broken, we embrace and Nina claims the stool next to mine. She orders an IPA from the bartender, then has to drag her ID out of her wallet before he’ll go get it.

While we wait for her drink, I look down at mine. My nerves are returning and I’d like to take a sip, but that seems like it would be rude. “So… How did the interview go?”

“Really well. They offered me the job right then and there.”

“Wow.” I watch as the bartender returns with Nina’s ale. She picks it up as soon as he’s left and takes a sip. “Are you going to take it?’

She lowers the drink slowly. “That depends.”

“On what?”

Turning her head, she studies my response as she says, “On you.”

“Me?” I move my hand away from my glass, afraid my suddenly trembling will make me spill the liquid in it. “What do you mean?”

She takes another drink before she answers, looking like she’s thinking. “I don’t exactly regret going to Caltech. But if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t leave you.”

Deep inside me, a wound I’d forgotten I had begins to bleed anew. “But you did leave.”

“Yeah…” She turns her head to look at me, her deep brown eyes full of emotion. “And now I want to come back. If there’s even the slightest chance of you letting me in your life again, then I want to be here.”

“I…” My breath leaves me and turn on the stool to just sort of gape at her. “You want to get back together?”

She nods. “Yeah, I do. I never stopped loving you. I don’t think I ever will.”

Part of me wants to tell her that’s her tough luck, that I left her in the past and don’t want her in my present. But I’d be lying. “I love you, too,” I admit.

“But..?” Her whole body moves to face mine.

I shake my head. “No but.”

“Really?” she asks, her eyes begging me not to dash her hopes.

“Yeah.” I take a second to grin at her, then lean in for a kiss. It’s sweet, but with the promise of things not remotely innocent. And it brings with it a sense of quiet rightness that I’ve never found with anyone else, like this is the one person in the world I’m supposed to be kissing.

When we pull apart, we’re both smiling. Then a thought strikes me and makes me laugh. At Nina’s curious expression, I ask, “Would you have called me up if I hadn’t contacted you first?”

“Eventually… Maybe. It might have taken a while to think up a good excuse.”

I laugh again. “Then we should send Craig a thank you note for hurrying things along.”

The most beautiful woman in the world shakes her head at me even as she beams with happiness. “As long as you’re not planning to invite him to our wedding.”

“Wedding?” I snort. “I agreed to date you woman, don’t go thinking it will be so easy to get me to marry you. You’ll have to work for that.”

But I think we both know that, eventually, I will.


The above image is a creative commons offering from Pixabay.
It was provided as a prompt to my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

A Tale of Two Enchanters


It’s like the silly twit doesn’t even see the dragon! I suppose she’s too busy staring up at Dearian’s golden eyes like she’s forgotten she’s in the middle of a festival and is trying to decide whether to rip his or her own clothes off first.

Dearian brings the Choosing Chalice up to his face, holding it before his lips but not drinking as he pillages its giver’s soul with his gaze. If he drinks, he accepts her offer of marriage. There’s no way he’s going to, even if the white feather in his burgundy cap does indicate that he’s open to proposals.

At the couple’s feet, Dearian’s miniature dragon looks up at his master, probably hoping the chalice is full of cheese that’s about to be dropped. I’ve never seen a dragon more found of cheese than Triscuit. He whines softly, but the silly woman trying to romance the Brytheman College School of Enchantment’s biggest cad still doesn’t notice him. Dearian must be using Tris’s magic to keep this lady’s mind muddled, because even he is not attractive enough to warrant this level of concentrated absorption. If she looked down for half a second, she might realize Tris’s scales are the exact same color as Dearian’s eyes, and if she had half a brain that would tell her Dearian’s an enchanter. Or maybe she knows that already and just doesn’t realize he’s enchanting her.

“Are you sure?” Dearian asks as I draw near. If he has any idea I’m around, he doesn’t show it.

“Yes,” the woman responds, voice all breathy and full of worship.

“Do you love me?”

“Of course.”

There’s really only so much of this nonsense I can stomach. “No you don’t,” I tell her. I gather my own familiar’s power and use it to disrupt the spell the woman’s trapped in. “Go away.”

She blinks I confusion, looking around like she’s not sure how she came to be at the festival. “Who are you?” she asks Dearian. Pulling the chalice in, she stares at it. “Why do I…” She gasps. “Saren! I have to find Saren!”

Dearian doesn’t try to stop the woman as she gathers her expensive-looking robes together and rushes off into the crowd. He pouts at me instead. My traitorous hormones can’t help but point out the forest-inspired greens he’s wearing really set off his coloring, but I try to counter them by telling myself he looks like a tree, except with the brown bits where the green should be and vice versa.

“Why are you always ruining my fun?” he asks.

“Fun?” I snort. “I don’t think she was having fun.”

On the ground, my azure dragon, Rhea, gives Triscuit a nose bump. Dearian and I may not mesh, but our familiars are the best of friends. Go figure.

“I wasn’t going to hurt her,” Dearian scoffs. “I was just going to ask for a token of her affection, preferably one that would get me a good deal with a pawnbroker. Some of us have to worry about where our tuition’s coming from, you know.”

I shake my head. “And if she’d offered something less concrete, that would be alright too?”

“Like what?” he asks flippantly. “Her virtue? I don’t think she has any, but if she does, I wouldn’t take it. I’m not completely without morals, Lys.”

And, honestly, he flirts with anyone capable of flirtation and leaves broken hearts scattered in his wake wherever he goes, but I’ve never known him to do worse than part his admirers from small amounts of cash. He doesn’t even lead them on for terribly long before cutting them loose. “All I know is that if you pulled something like that with me, you wouldn’t live long enough to do it to anyone else.”

“Ah.” He gives his head a cocky jerk that makes the feather in his cap bob. “But I wouldn’t do to that you.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” I agree with ready confidence. “Because if I ever come at you with a Choosing Chalice, it will be because I’m about to clobber you over the head with it.”

His shoulders slump a little as he shakes his head, but his voice stays as arrogant as always as he tells me, “One day, you’ll have to come to terms with the fact that you’re in love with me.”

“I’ll put it down in my agenda. How does noon on Thursday the sixteenth of Never sound?”

“That soon?” He winks. “I’ll be anxiously awaiting your call.”

Before I can come up with a rejoinder, Dearian gives Triscuit’s leash a tug and disappears into the crowd. Damnit. He always gets the last word, and it drives me nuts. All the more so because he was right when he accused me of being in love with him.

Sensing my mood, Rhea jumps into the air, beats her gorgeous blue wings twice, and lands on my shoulder. She snuggles her snout against my cheek while I reach up to rub the spot on the top of her head that makes her purr. I was surprised when first paired with her to learn that dragons can purr and hearing it always gives me a little jolt of happiness.

“I’m just as stupid as the rest of them,” I tell my dragon.

It doesn’t matter how often I remind myself that Dearian Edrik is an egotistical child who plays with hearts like toys and would never be able to love anyone half as much as he loves himself, I don’t believe it. He may be overly aware of how pretty he is and may have an over-inflated view of his own charms, but he is capable of deep feeling. And that’s not just something I want to believe; it’s something I’ve saw first hand early last year when I watched Triscuit get struck by a misaimed immobilization spell while flying over a river. The sound Dearian made as his dragon tumbled into the water is something I’ll never forget. Then he jumped in, barely able to swim himself, rescued the motionless Triscuit, and brought the critter to the dock our class had been watching from. Our fellow students rushed to pull him out, but he wouldn’t let them until someone took Tris first. And as if that wasn’t enough to make me love him, someone said, “Dude, it was just a dragon. They’re replaceable,” and Dearian wound up suspended for busting up the guy’s face.

Trying to put Dearian out of my mind, I resume my journey to find my friends and a good food vendor. I skipped breakfast and it’s well past lunch, so I may be more on the lookout for food than friends… Although I’m picky enough not to stop at the first place I see because it promises spice, which, in this town, is typically code for “Our meat has spoiled.”

After about a block, I pass the woman as she holds her chalice out again, this time to a plump young woman who breaks out sobbing yet grins as she eagerly gulps from the cup. Good for them. I yell out congratulations that probably confuse the pair and keep moving.

Even though I’ve been living in Moirewash City for three years now, the festival has me in a neighborhood that’s pretty far from the school and I get lost quickly. I guess that’s what I get for taking so long to find my walking shoes that my dorm mates all left without me.

I try for a good half hour to find a street I recognize. Not only do I fail, but eventually I can’t even find the festival. How do you lose an entire festival? And why are all the shops closed just because there’s a festival in another part of the city? I am getting seriously hungry. With no clue where we are, I let Rhea take the lead in the hopes she’s less lost than I am, but that only buys me another twenty minutes of navigating unfamiliar streets until she decides she’s tired of walking and hops back on my shoulder.

“Now what?” I ask Rhea, reaching up to give her a scratch. “Know any good location spells? Because I sure don’t.”

“I might,” Dearian says, nearly causing me to jump out of my skin. My motion leads Rhea to dig in her claws and I let out a wail.

Dearian rushes forward from the alley he’d apparently been hanging out in. “You okay?”

“Just got a few new piercings is all.” I reach up to pet Rhea, but she hops down to the ground and looks around for Triscuit, who is oddly absent. “What are you doing here?”

“Me? I live here. Down that way.” He points at the alley for a second. “The better question is why are you stalking me?”

“Hah.”

“Hah?” He crosses his arms and regards me with an enigmatic expression. He’s lost both his silly hat and his cloak, now wearing only a sage tunic over emerald leggings. It’s cold not to be wearing a cloak, so maybe he’s telling the truth about living around here. “So you didn’t follow me?”

“No.” I add a sneer in with the denial. “I’m lost.”

“Oh.” He grins. “Alright then. Carry on.”

My eyes narrow. Do I really want to give him the satisfaction of asking for directions? Deciding I don’t, I give a tug on Rhea’s leash and try to get her to start walking. She looks up at me, and very blatantly takes a seat on the cobblestones. “Damn dragon,” I mutter. “Guess who won’t be sharing my sausage if I ever find a vendor.”

Dearian laughs. “If you’re hungry, my mom stopped over this morning and left enough food to feed half the city. It’s better than you’ll find on the street.”

“I’m fine,” I snap.

“You don’t have to come in,” Dearian says. “I can bring you something here.”

I’m about to tell him I wouldn’t take food from him if I were dying when I realize I’m being silly. With a sigh, I nod. “Alright. I will allow you to serve me lunch.”

“Thank you.” After a quick little bow, Dearian rushes into the alley.

I could stay here and wait for him, but my curiosity combines with my desire to find somewhere to sit to prompt me to follow. The alley is pretty dank. It’s tight and there are puddles that I don’t think are full of water. But just past a refuse cart, Dearian goes through an archway into a little courtyard.

“Whoa,” I say, gazing around after following him out of the alley. The space we enter has a stone floor, but is filled with greenery blooming from a collection of pots and boxes. It’s also oddly warm. Glancing up shows a faint shimmer of magic that I assume is there to hold in the heat. “It’s like a park in here.”

Dearian stops and turns. “They’re my landlady’s, but I like plants. They’re… Calm. Quiet. And they offer great advice.”

Despite myself, I smile. “Advice, huh? And what do the plants advise you to do?”

“Most recently, they said I should go to the main road and check for stray college girls.”

My eyes roll.

“I’m serious,” he says. “You can ask the roses over there. They’ll back me up.”

He turns as I’m looking at the flowers and sprints up a set of stairs into a second-story apartment. It’s creepy how much I want to see his living space, creepy enough that I refuse to do it. Instead, I remove my cloak before settling myself at a cute little bistro table under what I think is a potted plum tree. My feet throb, unhappy with how much walking I did. For a moment, I worry about Dearian walking so far to class every day, but then I realize he probably takes a more direct route than I did. For all I know, we’re within five minutes of school.

I unhook Rhea’s leash from her collar, roll it up, and put it on the table. She rushes off to roll around on the ground, then sits and begins to lick herself clean. Crazy animal.

When Dearian returns in a few minutes, Triscuit now in tow, he carries a tray piled with food and drink bottles. The dragons take the time to nose-bump, then break into what looks like a game of tag.

“I didn’t know what you wanted,” Dearian says by way of explanation for bringing so much. “I know you like ginger drinks, but would you want plain ginger or lemon ginger? Or maybe you don’t feel like ginger and you want the sparkling orange…”

I laugh, cutting off his rambling. “Thank you. Do you have any orange and ginger?”

His eyes widen in alarm.

“Joking!” I exclaim quickly, holding a hand up. “I’m joking. The plain ginger sounds fantastic.”

“Okay.” Carefully, he sets the tray on the table. He takes one of the bottles and twists it open, then holds it to me. His hand shakes, but I pretend not to notice.

“Thanks,” I take the bottle, careful to keep our fingers from touching.

After a jerky nod of acknowledgement, he grabs a second bottle, opens it, and takes a long swig. Lowering the drink, he gives me a long look. “Can I ask you something?”

“I guess…” As much to avoid his eyes as anything, I examine the food on the tray. There’s a variety of things. Little sandwiches, some cookies, an assortment of fruit… I grab a sandwich and take a nibble. Chicken salad. Really good chicken salad.

“Were you really lost?”

I lower the sandwich and meet his eyes. Calling them gold is perhaps a bit simplistic. They’re gold, yes. But also brown. And a little bit orange. And bronze… I could spend a really long time picking out colors in his eyes. “Yeah,” I say quietly. “I don’t get over this way very often.”

After holding my gaze for a few heartbeats, Dearian nods. “Alright.” Does he sound disappointed or am I imagining that?

My eyes drop and I take another bite of my sandwich. He’s silent as I chew, a fact I’m highly aware of. “This is really good,” I say when I’ve swallowed.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “My mom’s a fantastic cook.”

We’re quiet for another little while, eating while the dragons play nearby. It’s… Really nice.

“Lys?” Dearian says three miniature sandwiches and several grapes later.

I swallow my grape. “Yes?”

He shakes his head and drops his gaze like he’s changed his mind about saying whatever he wanted to say. “Never mind.”

“What?” I frown. “You’re acting strange.”

His responding laugh is soft and slightly melancholy. “That’s all I ever do around you. Act strange. And moronic.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

Looking up at me, he takes time to decide on what to reply. “I knew you watching earlier. When I enchanted that girl. I knew you were there. It’s why I did it. I saw you enter the square, saw you coming my way, and snagged her as she passed by.”

My eyebrows draw together while I try to figure out what he’s really trying to say.

“I wasn’t really trying to get something to pawn off of her. I…” He shakes his head. “I always know you’re there. When…” He stops, closes his eyes, and starts over. “I keep thinking that if you see other people want me, then maybe you’ll think I’m worth wanting.”

“You…” I stare at him, my body trembling. His eyes open but don’t meet mine.

“Sorry,” he says, getting up. “I’ll just go… Do something else. Not bother you.”

He makes it a step away before I’m out of my chair and grabbing his arm. “Hold up. You don’t get to say something like that and then run away.”

His bent head keeps his eyes locked onto where my hand holds him. Likewise, I stare at our joining while millions of little tingles course through my body from the connection. “Lys…” his voice breaks. “Do you remember freshman year, when we paired with our familiars?”

“Of course.” Pairing with your first familiar is one of the major milestones of any enchanter’s life.

“You cut everyone else off and grabbed Rhea before anyone else could. Even though no one else was looking at her, because she was so little and frail.”

I nod, still not daring to look up. She had been tiny and a paler shade of green than the other unbonded dragons. “And she had a cold.”

“Yeah. She was so pitiful. Everyone else said it was really stupid to pick a sickly, scrawny, little runt. But you… You were ahead of everyone; you could have had any dragon you wanted. But you chose her.” His hand moves under my chin, tipping my head up until I’m forced to look at him. “That’s when I started loving you.”

My heads swirls as I look up at him. Is this what enchantment feels like? If it wasn’t impossible to enchant an enchanter, I’d be certain that’s what’s happening.

“But…” I start. Then I realize that I don’t know what to follow it up with. He could be playing me, but… He’s always been a flirt, but I’ve never heard of him professing his love to anyone. I let go of his arm as I try to process what’s happening.

His hand drops, as does his gaze. “You don’t believe me. I suppose I deserve that.”

“I…”

“It’s okay,” he tells me. “You don’t have to say anything. Just leave the stuff on the table when you’re done.”

He starts to go. My pulse throbs and blood rushes in my ears. I should let him go. I watch his feet as he walks away. He gets to the stairs, starts up them.

“Wait!”

His feet stop, but he says nothing.

“I love you, too,” I rush. The words just sort of explode out, leaving a great feeling of relief them, like I’ve suddenly been released from a pressure that was crushing me. I smile as I look up at his back. He’s gone completely still. “I love you, Dearian. I have since sophomore year.”

Slowly, he turns around. He grins and takes a step back my way. “So it’s the sixteenth of Never already?”

Eyes locked on his, I nod as he approaches. “And if this is all a setup, you may not live to regret messing with me.”

He laughs, but he doesn’t tell me I’m a fool and crush my heart beneath his heel. “It is not a setup. I am not messing with you. And if you’re messing with me, I might die from it.”

We stand inches apart, just looking at each other. The dragons yip as they play and roll very close to our feet, but neither of us spare them a glance.

“I’m not,” I whisper just before he lowers his lips to mine. And as I kiss him back, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he means it.


The above image is by Vladislav Yerko.
It was provided as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Nana Athene's Casting



"Nana Athene?" I ask, sticking my head into the elderly Strigine's room. She's not really my nan, of course. If she were, then I'd have an owl-like beak, snowy white feathers, and wickedly sharp talons rather than my dull human features. But she raised me and feels more like family than my parents or actual grandparents did when they were alive.

She looks up from the string in her talons. Its wrapped in a simple net like when humans play Cat's Cradle, but it's not a game. Her patterns weave spells. She doesn't say anything, of course, not being capable of human speech. Neither does she sign as that would involve dropping her spell partway through.

"Why are you casting?" I ask, feeling that's probably a more important question than my original desire to ask why she wasn't downstairs celebrating the naming of my infant daughter.

Her eyes slant up and she clicks her tongue.

I wave my hand. "Yes, I know, you can't tell me now. Sorry."

Silently, I wait as she wiggles her talons. When I was little, I would sit for hours watching as she created simple spells for simple things. A spell to summon a breeze, a spell to evoke the scent of fresh rain, or a spell to make the leaves whisper my name. So many little things. Or occasionally a not-so-simple spell for a not-so-simple thing, like when she sat up all night weaving the night my brother was born, helping my mother through the pain of labor just as she helped me mere days ago when Atessa was born.

As her talons dance, the string begins to glow. She hums, adding a vocal element to her spell. That makes me nervous. She only hums for the not-so-simple spells. Naming Days, like all ceremonies, can attract unwanted attention from being we'd rather not be seen by. Did something latch onto Atessa?

Downstairs, my daughter howls.

Instinct takes over and I sprint down the stairs. "Atessa!" I shove past the concerned faces of my fellow parishioners to find my husband holding the child as she does her best to scream him deaf. Lark presses her against his chest, hand patting her back as he jostles her and makes soothing sounds. He's new to this fatherhood business, but not so new that he has no experience calming her.

I halt in the doorway of the room, which is more crowded that I find comfortable. "What's wrong?"

"It's that feathered witch," a neighbor asserts. He folds his arms and glares at me. "Everyone knows her type is no good."

"Now, Hielm," his wife Vora says as she places her hand on his bicep. I've always liked Vora enough to put up with her asinine spouse, but I'm starting to second guess that. "I'm sure the Ashertons wouldn't keep anyone who would hurt their little girl."

I narrow my eyes at the man. "Athene has been with my family since my mother was a child. I have no fears that she's a threat to my daughter." And I know I should leave things at that, but I go on anyway. "Something I cannot say about you."

"Me?" he sputters. "What do you think I'm going to do?"

"You brought hate into my house. Demons feed on hate."

Hielm rolls his eyes. "Are you accusing me of summoning demons? Priestess Jeslyn! You should come hear this. The woman is harboring a hooter, yet she accuses me of inviting demons!"

Just as I'm about to start screaming about the use of racial slurs in front of my daughter, my husband swoops in to hand Atessa over to me. As I take the shrieking bundle, grateful that I can bury my face against her and avoid looking at my neighbors, he tries to defuse things. "I think everyone here has had a long day and tempers may be running a bit short."

"Yes," Vora agrees quickly. "And it's very nearly supper time. I think Hielm and I should be getting home. The staff will have our meal ready soon."

Lark says something along the lines of being thankful they came and hoping to see them again soon. My beloved is much better than I am at socially polite untruths.

As Lark ushers our neighbors away, the priestess approaches. "Sweetie," she says to me, "let's go to a more quiet room."

Although it's my house, I allow the priestess to lead me down the hallway and into our little library. As soon as we went the room, Atessa stops crying and snuggles against me like she's exhausted. Which she probably is. It must take a lot of energy to yell loud enough to crash the heavens.

There are only two seats in the library. Normally, I'd invite my company to sit first, but I'm too tired for niceties. Besides, I've known Jeslyn since we were in school together. She watches me sit and takes the other chair.. "That man..." She shakes her head. "I guess he wasn't listening last sabbath when I went on for a full hour about respecting all intelligent creatures because the gods love us all. Somehow, the people who need sermons tend to be the least likely to hear them."

I smile wanly. "I think he may have heard but not understood."

"Perhaps next time I should use more sports metaphors." She leans back in her seat and closes her eyes. "What is Nana up to tonight?"

Shifting to make my hold on my daughter more comfortable, I refrain from shrugging. "I don't know. She'd already started, so she couldn't tell me."

"Maybe Hielm really did summon a demon."

I chuckle. "I doubt he's smart enough to figure out how."

"As your priestess, I should tell you that the gods don't like for us to be mean to each other." Jeslyn smiles. "But I think you may be right."

A comfortable quiet settles over us. Atessa drifts into sleep, and I'm about to follow her when Jeslyn suddenly gasps.

My eyes snap open and my gaze goes to my friend and priestess. "Jez?"

She's pale as she holds a hand up and signs for my not be be worried. "A vision," she says with her fingers.

I lean forward but don't say anything. There's probably a reason she's signing rather than speaking, and I don't think it's concern about waking the baby.

Her fingers continue to wave and my blood chills. "Something is outside," she signs. "Take the baby upstairs."

Careful to be quiet, I do as I'm told and hustle my daughter up to the nursery. Nana Athene still sits by the window, her talons flying with speed as she weaves her spell. Behind me, Jeslyn enters the room. She puts a hand on my shoulder and gestures to the corner before going to stand by Nana.

The old Strigine nods without breaking her concentration and Jeslyn begins to pray to the Guardian in the ancient language of the gods. I don't speak enough to know what she's saying, so I follow the cadence as I pour my energy into boosting the prayer's power. Nana's talons change their pace until they are moving in time with Jeslyn's rhythm.

A clap of thunder sounds from just outside and the entire house trembles in response. Atessa begins to scream again. Should I take her somewhere else?

Lark rushes into the room. He pauses long enough to take in the scene, then comes to put his arm around me. He brushes his fingers against Atessa's little head and she calms a little.

The prayer picks up speed, Nana's talons doing likewise. My heart races as I struggle to stay calm for my daughter.

A mighty wind batters against the house. A shutter rips off, smacking against the siding as it goes.

And then quiet. The prayer halts. The wind ceases. There's nothing but a gentle wisp of sound from the string gliding along Nana's talons.

I clench my daughter tight against my chest as a shadowy form takes shape in front of me. It's large and shaped a bit like a bear, but when it moves, I realize it has eight legs. It rears back like it's going to strike at me.

Lark jumps in front of me, his arms spread protectively as he yells for me to run.

"No!" Jeslyn counters. "It will chase you! Stand still."

Whimpering, I huddle around my child and try to think what to do.

Nana's chair creaks and we all turn to look at her, even the the shadow creature. She rises to her feet, her talons still working furiously. Her beak opens wide and she shrieks.

The creature roars back, its voice deep and awful.

Atessa wails, but Nana and the creature are so loud that even while holding her, I can scarcely hear my child scream.

Nana stops shrieking and throws her string. It wraps around the creature, growing tighter as he thrashes. He begins to shrink, still screaming.

The air in the room pops from released pressure and the shadow creature vanishes completely. Atessa falls silent and I look down to check that she's alright. She blinks at me and falls asleep. Weak and silly with relief, I smile down at my little girl.

Nana's chair creaks again as she sits down. By the time I get my gaze to her, she's closed her eyes and slumps to the side. It takes me a moment to realize she didn't fall asleep too. "She's not breathing," I whisper. But from their expressions, my companions already knew.

Lark wraps me in his arms, letting me sob as Jeslyn prays for the Strigine's soul to peace with the gods.

"Lark?" I ask with a sniffle after I've calmed some.

"Yes, my love?" He looks down at me with so much adoration I nearly start crying again.

"I know we just named her, but..."

Understanding shines on his face as he nods. "Jeslyn. We'd like the gods to meet Atessa-Athene."

The priestess gives me a watery smile. "I can arrange that."

And so we have a second naming ceremony, right there in the nursery where my lifelong caretaker gave her life for my daughter. I'm not certain, but I think Nana's spirit stays around long enough to see it. And.... I don't know, but maybe Nana's not going anywhere. Maybe she'll always be here to watch over Atessa-Athene. That's what I'm going to tell the girl anyway, when she's old enough to hear the story behind her name.



The above image is The Old Owl Woman by Hillary Luetkemeyer, who is on Deviant Art as hibbary. It was offered as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Exorcism of Ophelia



The human's pain is delicious.

She sits on the edge of a meadow, perched on a wood fence and playing a melancholy air on a long-necked lute as a bonfire of paper burns before her. The cows that usually graze here keep their distance, repelled by the same things that attract me. She's been coming here for months, feeding me with her affection for a companion who is missing today. The affection was sweet, nearly cloy, but her hurt is savory. And although I find that I, unfathomably, dislike the idea of her suffering, I'd be hard pressed to say which emotion I prefer the taste of.

The new scene offers something the old ones never did: curiosity. What she and the other woman did here was obvious and easy to follow. Sometimes they chatted. Sometimes they played music. Sometimes they made love. All of these things makes sense; they're things humans do with great frequency. But now, I'm confused. The papers that drift from the fire show the marks of music. It takes great effort to compose music, so why would she burn her work? I try to tell myself that it doesn't matter, but I can't seem to walk away from the questions.

Thinking to better understand, I take a form I think she will find pleasant. It's the appearance of a dark-skinned woman I knew centuries ago, but I don't think she would mind me using it. My new body is impossibly soft, weaker than my true form. How do they stand being so vulnerable all the time?

On legs that feel as though they may crumble beneath me, I leave my concealment. I have walked many paces toward the woman before she looks up to notice me, and when she does, she looks away again as though my presence in no way affects her. I thought my form was attractive, but perhaps her pain is too extreme for her to notice.

"Hello," I say as I reach her side. I lean against the fence beside her, folding my dark brown arms and attempting to appear nonthreatening. I remember now that the woman who looked as I do now was a warrior, which means I'm more muscular than this woman may like. I'm certainly more muscular than her lover. I'm not certain why the comparison makes me anxious.

Her eyes glance at me, but she remains silent as she continues to play her mournful tune, a strange, unfeeling expression on her face. If her agony weren't filling me with so much energy, I could almost believe she felt nothing.

"It's a pleasant evening," I try, having observed that it's the sort of thing humans talk about.

This time, her eyes don't bother shifting my way. They're locked now on the fire, staring at it with no small amount of intensity.

"It's a nice fire," I say.

That gets a response. "Is it? Maybe. But will it work?"

"Work?" I too look at the flames. "What is it meant to achieve? To keep you warm? Is the summer air not sufficient for that?"

"It's not meant to warm my body."

"Oh." I frown a little. "Is it meant to warm food? I see none."

Her eyes narrow ever so slightly. "No." With a sigh, she removes her fingers from the lute strings and drags her gaze to mine. Her green eyes radiate pain, but also hold an odd calm. "It is meant to cauterize my soul."

"That's very poetic," I respond, not stopping to think about the words.

She glowers as though convinced I'd said the last to mock her. I hadn't, but rather than allowing me to explain, she confides further. "Today Ophelia della Faunte became Ophelia Diego when she married a man who doesn't even know he stole her from me. So today I have cut her from my heart. The fire is to staunch the wound."

"Figuratively speaking?" I clarify.

The faintest hint of what's either amusement or exasperation breaks through the mask on her face. "Figuratively speaking." She looks back to the fire.

"And why these papers?" I ask. "Were they simply at hand?"

"No..." She shakes her head. The parting of her lip makes me expect more, but she merely closes them again and makes an odd gesture of dismissal toward the flames.

"Then why? Why throw away so much work?"

"They were hers." The woman clamps her jaws shut, her lips trembling and unshed tears crowding her eyes, and it is some moments before she is able to continue. "I wrote them all for her. So they need to perish."

"I see," I say. And I think I do. "Would you forget her if you could?"

A breeze travels through the meadow, one that smells like my brother. He will be here soon, drawn by the human's emotions just as I was. I should go, defer to him to the eldest, and allow him to devour the woman. But a possessive feeling such as I've never had before envelops me at the thought.

"No," the woman says, complete unaware that she is now in danger. "I need to remember the lesson she taught me. That you can't trust pretty words and hidden kisses, at least not when they go against what society expects. Because people are stupid little sheep who will always do as society expects."

I'd love to discuss this with her, but my brother is moving quickly. "Tell me your name," I whisper. "Please?"

"My name?" She blinks at me. "It's Ilissa."

Silly humans, always so free with their names. "Your full name," I prompt.

Ilissa pauses. "Why?"

I'm not sure if she'd believe the truth. Or that she'd trust me if she did. But I can't think of anything else to offer. "If you give me your full name, it will make you mine. And then others of my kind won't be able to hurt you."

"Your kind?" She shifts, tensing like she's about to jump off the fence and flee from the crazy person.

Not far away, my brother's presence fills the meadow. If the cows hadn't left before, they'd stampede now in the their urgency to get away. Heat blasts from behind us as the smell of sulfur rolls across the grass.

"You don't have much time to decide," I tell her, my words rushing out quickly. My heart races with what I take to be excitement, or maybe fear. Being unable to taste my own emotions makes it hard to know for sure which ones I feel. "I can cauterize your wounded heart, but the being that's coming now? He'll burn your heart to ash, and you along with it. And I don't mean that figuratively."

She hesitates, as well she should. She doesn't understand what's happening.

"Look behind you," I say. "Just for a moment. Longer might drive you mad."

I think for a second that she's going to laugh at me, but she can feel the heat on her back and that might be what prompts her to do as I urge.

Slowly, her head turns.

The scream when she sees my brother pierces the evening. I reach out, grab her head, and keep move it until she can't see him anymore. The poor thing is sharking so hard I'm worried she'll break her fragile little body. Her fear tastes rancid and sour.

"I can save you. All I need is your name." I wipe at her tears with my thumbs. Why do I care so much about this one dumb creature? Why does the thought of her demise make my insides squirm into painful little balls of agony? Is it the same reason I come to this meadow so often? Was I drawn not just to her emotion but to her? "I know I'm asking a lot, but I swear I will keep you safe. I'll never harm you. He most certainly will."

"You said your kind." Although her tears keep coming, her voice is calm. "Does that mean you're... Are you like that thing?" She speaks the last word with all the revulsion a human voice can muster.

"I'm similar," I admit. "I'm less... We take on the aspects of the emotions we consume? My bother feeds on battlefields. I prefer to feed on lovers."

"Feed?"

With a grunt of annoyance, I move my arms to grasp her arms and give her a shake that makes her drop the lute. "Listen to me Ilissa, we can talk about all of this in as great a depth as you want. But he's less than a minute from ripping you away from me." I stare into her eyes, wishing there were someone I could pray to for help, but my kind were shunned by the gods ages before I was conceived. I draw a breath, then do something very, very rash. I lean close and whisper into her ear. A jolt of electric magic passes between us, but I'm not sure if she felt it.

"What?" she asks.

"That was my name. I am bound to you now. But that's not enough to protect you."

Her eyes grow wide. "I am Ilissa," she whispers back. "Ilissa Cammeara Ornegan."

The magic zings again and Ilissa takes on a faint glow. Behind us, my brother roars with annoyance. He's less coherent than I am, more a ball of anger than a thinking being, so he doesn't yell at me or lecture before he vanishes. My hands fall to my side in relief.

Ilissa lets out a breath as my brother's heat suddenly dissipates. In so doing, her eyes notice her body. Holding a hand out, she stares at it. Or, more likely, at the rose and amber aura around it. "What is that?" Her gaze flicks to me, then stays there. "You're glowing too. You weren't before."

I swallow. "You're not fully human anymore."

"What am I then?"

My heart hammers in my chest. "My wife."

She jerks, startled. I guess that wasn't the answer she was expecting. "Wife? Not slave?"

My head shakes vehemently. "No. I gave you my name as well. We are equals."

"Oh."

I nod. "Oh."

"That's..." Suddenly, she laughs. The sound cuts through the evening and brings a smile to my face. I'd worry she's going mad, but her emotions taste of relief and joy. "When I told my parents I was gay, they nearly disowned me. I can't wait to tell them I married a demon."

"Well..." I smile ruefully. "Demon's not quite the right word."

She shakes her head with a grin. "I don't care. That's what I'm telling them."

"You're taking this all really well," I observe.

"Would you rather I didn't?"

I shake my head. "No. Your happiness tastes better than you fear. And... I've decided I like it more than your pain, too."

"Good. Then you have incentive to keep me happy."

"I do," I agree, smiling widely.

Ilissa jumps off the fence, picks up her lute, and turns to me. "So, do we honeymoon on earth or in hell?"

"It's not really hell."

She shrugs. "Question still stands."

"On earth," I decide, wondering what, exactly, I've gotten myself into. "I've always wanted to see Salsis."

"So have I!" She loops an arm through one of mine and looks at me expectantly.

And not having any idea what else to do, I magic myself and my bride to the City of Lanterns.



Above image is Half Her Heart's Duet by Cynthia Sheppard.
It was offered as a weekly prompt in my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

Friday, January 11, 2019

My Love Returned


I was amongst the first to see the ship sail over the horizon. Atop the hill behind town, I put down my pen and stared, not quite daring to believe my hopes. From the sail, there was no mistaking that the ship was one of ours, but just because one of the queen’s vessels was approaching didn’t mean my beloved was. A more excitable man would have leapt up and ran to the pier to demand of the lookout whether this was The Golden Voyager, but I was always cautious and also well aware of how long it would take for men from the ship to reach shore. They had to sail into the harbor, which would involve waiting for the chains to lower. Then they would have to wait their turn to board one of the barges, because the ship was too large to dock at the pier itself. My beloved was not of high enough rank to get an early boat, so there were hours yet before he could possibly make it to me. Whether it was his ship or not wouldn’t matter until near dark.

There was no finishing my poem. The elk I was trying to capture with words didn’t care about the ship, but I was too distracted to work. I flipped the page of my notebook and scrawled something new.

Anticipation:
Part hope, part fear.
My longing is physical,
As is my uncertainty.

He’s been gone so long.
Is he still him?
Am I still me?
Is there still an us together?

The words weren’t particularly good, an incredibly rough draft indeed, but they were accurate. “Yishharu,” I breathed, making a prayer of my beloved’s name. I begged the Fates to let this ship be his if he still wanted me, but not his if he did not. For if he’d decided our relationship was a fleeting relic of childhood, that it was time for him to find a woman and father children, then I didn’t want to know yet. Better to continue to live with the fantasy of his love for me than to face a cold reception and lack of desire.

And thus did I sit for hours, watching the approach. Was that Yishharu I saw on deck, rushing from place to place? Or could that be him standing by the helmsman? Or maybe it was he in the crowsnest, looking at the shore and wondering if the figure on the hill was his darling Kikeru?

The tide rolled in, bringing the ship closer. She made anchor as the first of the barges headed out to meet her. The pier grew crowded with lovers, with parents, with children, all waiting for their sailors. The ship had to be The Golden Voyager. So many wouldn’t be waiting if it were a different ship. Yet I held back, too timid to join them rather than holding back, embracing only my nausea. I told myself there was no point in rushing anyway, that Yishharu was so junior he would be one of the last off, if he was even allowed to leave at all. For all I knew, he had drawn the watch for that night and wouldn’t be ashore until at least the next afternoon. And thus did I try to deny the obvious truth that I didn’t rush forward because I was too frightened.

Hope is a strange thing though. Strong as fear is, hope can be stronger. Fear comes into the fighting ring with more power, but most of its intimidation lays in pure bluster. Hope burns slower, seems meeker. But hope has a stamina fear lacks and is left standing when fear faints from fatigue.

Fear fought to keep me on the hill, but hope took me gently by the hand and led me down to the water.

I found Yishharu quickly, drawn to him as though I were a fish he had hooked. He met my eyes across the fading crowd and my heart raced as I tried to decipher what I saw in his gaze. Not breaking his focus from me, he said something to the sailor he’d been talking to. That man smiled at me, then smiled even wider at the woman clinging to his arm. I knew her; she worked at the bakery and spoke often of her husband. She’d found out she was pregnant with their first child just after the ship left and had feared she would give birth before he returned. He’d made it just in time.

My body trembled as I kept moving forward. Worrying about other people’s lives could only distract me so far. Yishharu moved too, advancing no faster than I was.

We stopped several feet apart.

“Kikeru,” he said softly, his voice catching partway through. “I didn’t think you were coming. I… I thought maybe you’d…”

In a heartbeat, I flew forward, letting my lips against his stop the words. “I’m sorry,” I whispered between kisses. “I didn’t know if you wanted me to come.”

He pressed against me, his body hardened from months at sea but still fitting against mine perfectly. Somewhere someone muttered about the appropriateness of our display of affection, but I felt no embarrassment or concern. My Yishharu was back, and he was still mine. Miracle of miracles, he was still mine! And I was still his.

My beloved pulled back, taking my face in his hands and staring into my soul with the piercing blue eyes I had missed so much. “I will never stop wanting you.”

Heart dissolving into happiness, I smiled for him. “And I will never stop wanting you.”



Yishharu sailed with The Golden Voyager several more times, until we had saved enough money to buy some land and a few goats. We live in the hills now, with a large window overlooking the bay. Sometimes as we sit hand-in-hand at our window and watch a ship come in, I think about his first homecoming, about how strong my fear was. It seems like a ludicrous worry now, when after decades he still looks at me as though I hung the sun. He is my heart, and I am his. I should have known it would take more than mere absence to come between us.

Above image is taken from a fresco on a wall in the ruins of Akrotiri on the island of Thera (aka Santorini).
It was provided as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

This tale of a sailor's homecoming hit me a little close to home. I dedicate it to everyone who has ever waited for their beloved to return from sea.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

By Snow and By Flame



Although I’m behind Yvette, I don’t deceive myself that she is unaware of my presence in the clearing her tracker has led me to. Even if the tracker hadn’t told me she’d been here for at least an hour, I could tell that from the amount of snow gathered around her. A red bird sits calmly on her hand, so besoothed by Yvette’s aura that it doesn’t do more than glance at me before turning its rapt attention to her.

“Yvette?” I say quietly. The name cuts through the chilly air like a spring breeze. Which is ironic since Yvette is a Winterbringer. She lives her life in snow and ice, never seeing summer. Considering the thickness of her silver fur, that’s probably for the best, except when she doesn’t stay where she’s supposed to be.

“That tree had bloomed,” I chide. “You know that means you’re to stay away.”

Ignoring me, Yvette chirps to the bird.

I sigh and draw closer. “Don’t make me use the snowglobe, Yvette. I don’t want to do that to you.”

Her body jerks with what I suspect is a snort and she looks over her shoulder to me. Her eyes are the clear blue of a winter’s sky, a shocking jolt of color on her otherwise grey face. She doesn’t speak to me aloud, not having the facial structure needed for human languages, but projects her words straight into my mind. *Trapped is trapped, my friend.*

“Really?” I fold my arms and give her a solid you’ve-got-to-be-kidding look. “Trapped in something so small you can’t wiggle isn’t any worse than having an entire glacier worth of palace to wander?”

*I don’t expect you to understand.* She turns back to the bird and a whiff of magic comes off of her as she cups her free hand and moves it to under the creature’s beak. The bird chirps thanks and bends to take whatever food Yvette has summoned to her palm.

“What?” I ask. “Because I’m perfectly free? Because I can go absolutely anywhere? Oh, wait! I can’t. Because if I get too far from your furry and melodramatic ass, you’ll freeze half of Sansaw and no one will be able to eat because all the crops will have died.”

*I didn’t make you my keeper.*

“No. But clearly someone has to do it, and since I’m this county’s Guardian, that’s me. I blame my mother for giving into her more primal urges and consequently birthing me. If she’d had the sense to be attracted to women rather than men, it might never have happened.” My hand is on the snowglobe in case I have to throw it, but I walk up to Yvette without drawing it from my pocket. “Seriously, Yvette, how would you feel if the summer spirits kept creeping in at midwinter to melt everything?”

The hand with the bird stays still, but the rest of Yvette jiggles with laughter. *Are you claiming I disrespect them? They are the same spirits that light hearths to keep my cold at bay.*

“I know full well you don’t actually want everyone to freeze to death.”

The Winterbringer sighs. “No. I just… It gets lonely on the glacier.”

A pang of guilt hits me. I’m suppose to visit every morning, but today’s trip was delayed until afternoon. “I’m sorry. I should have called.” I put a hand against the fur on her shoulder. “I was with Maisey. She had the baby this morning. It’s a girl.”

*Oh!* Yvette sits up straighter. The bird startles and flies away, Yvette’s heading turning as she watches it go. *So you have a niece?*

“Yes.”

*And you’re an aunt?*

“That’s generally how that works.”

Stillness covers the clearing. *And you will bring the child to see me?* Yvette asks, not bothering to hide the yearning she feels.

Assuming the girl lives, she will inherit my mantle of Guardianship over the county and its spirits. Unless, maybe, I go insane and have a child of my own. “I will. My sister wants the Blessing to take place as soon as she’s able to walk up the hill.”

*It’s been too long since there were children on the glacier.*

“Hey,” I protest lightly. “Maisey and I aren’t that old.”

*Nor are you that young.* Slowly, Yvette climbs to her feet. Looking down at me, she pulls her lips into what passes as a smile in her kind.

“Well, not compared to you.”

*No. Few beings are.* Snow crunches underfoot as Yvette pads to the edge of the clearing. New flakes fall around her, littering the ground as she moves onto uncovered turf.

“You’re going the wrong way,” I tell her, grasping the snowglobe tighter.

*Am I?* She keeps going, heading very obviously away from our mountain and its glacier.

“Uh, yeah. I parked by the road.”

*You did not listen to the the bird.* Sometimes Yvette pretends to forget little details like humans not being able to talk to animals.

I frown. “What did the bird say?”

*That there’s a fire in Alisville.* She glances at me as she continues into a pasture and covers its grass in frost. *Not a natural one, but one caused by a Firemote.*

“Well, crap.” A fire started by a Firemote can’t be stopped by normal means of water and dirt; it requires a counter magic to tame.

*Indeed.*

Sighing, I put my arm in front of her. “It’ll take all day if we walk. We need the truck.”

If eye-rolling was something Winterbringers did, Yvette would roll her eyes. It isn’t though, so she limits herself to a zenful nod before changing direction and heading to my truck.

As soon as she’s settled in the bed of the pickup, I climb into the cabin and slide open the rear window so she can hear me if I say something. I don’t see any smoke or other signs of fire, but birds aren’t usually smart enough to make things up, so I put the truck in first gear and start driving. “Okay,” I say over my shoulder. “As far as anyone knows, that bird is the reason you left the glacier, got it?”

*I think we have established that I am not young. I hope it is also understood that I am not stupid.*

“That you are not,” I agree as I come to a stop at a T intersection. If we turned left, we’d head up the mountain toward the glacier and my hometown of Iceburg, but we turn right instead. This way leads further downhill to a strip of agricultural land and eventually a desert.

I expect to make it to town before facing off with the Firemote, who I assume is still rampaging through Alisville. He surprises me, though, and I find him walking out of town, a stretch of fire behind him. He’s powerful enough to make stone burn, but my trust in Yvette keeps me from fearing him as I hop from my vehicle and help the Winterbringer down onto the road.

The Firemote looks a lot like Yvette in structure, but his fur is a spectacle of oranges and reds. His chest puffs out as he comes to a stop ahead of us. Leaning his head back, he lets out a roar. A blast of super-hot air slams into me as though I’d just opened a furnace door.

Yvette meets this display with a puff of amusement. She doesn’t do anything other than look at the Firtemote, but he gradually lets go of his tension and aggression, falling into the ethereal calm Yvette emmits. His head sags forward as though he is somewhat ashamed that he was being such a jerk a moment ago.

*You should apologize, my fiery cousin.* I hear Yvette think toward him. I don’t hear his response because she’s the only one projecting toward me, but I hear her counter. *It is good that you didn’t burn the crops. Or the school. Or the children inside the school. I thank you for that. But we must undo the damage you did cause.*

“Psst…” I tug on her arm. “Ask him what set him off.”

A new voice appears in my head. ::He can hear you, mortal.:: The new voice is like thunder, not the gentle zephyr of Yvette’s communications. I’d ask him to turn it down, but he strikes me as the sort of person who couldn’t be quiet if his life depended on it.

“Sorry,” I mutter. “Um… So, what upset you so much?” Even the hottest of hotheaded Firemotes don’t just start rampaging on their own.

::They are drowning my glorious domain! Where once were burning sands are now egregious puddles of water!::

It takes me a second, but I figure out what he’s talking about. “That sounds like a new irrigation project. They’re trying to make more farmland.”

::IT’S MY HOME!:: The words bash into my head, sure to leave a headache in their wake, and flames lick the Firemote’s feet anew.

“Okay!” I hold my hands up. “Okay. I’ll talk to them.”

::It was the hold of my uncle,:: the Firemote informs me, pain showing through his broadcast. ::But his flame receded and it became mine.::

Ah. That explains why I’ve never met this particular being before. “You’re Hessle’s nephew? The one from Ulanda?”

The Firemote nods. ::I am called Kendrick.::

“Alright, Kendrick.” I resume the trek to town. “I’m Seliah. And I’m going to need you to look incredibly sad about what you’ve done. And to stay calm, because the farmers aren’t going to like it when I tell them they have to undo all their work. But they will do it. The Covenants say they have to.”

He nods, doing a good enough job of looking like he’s filled with regret that I skip the lecture about how he should have brought his concerns to me before lashing out at folks. Of course, he’s not the only one in the wrong there. The people in question should have applied for a permit to build their new irrigation system, then waited for me to do a study of whether that would impact local spirits. If I’d been making my normal rounds, I would have noticed them building it, but I’d been keeping close to my sister for the last month. They probably knew I was distracted, and that’s why they built it so quickly.

I’m prepared for a big argument when we make it to town, but I’m again surprised. Melissian, the mayor of Alisville and my on-again-off-again girlfriend, waits in the square with a row of people standing with bowed heads. In the center of the group stands Ingram Filler, which I should have expected. His hands are cuffed together and he glares at me as I open my door.

Mel is talking before I get my feet on the ground. “I told the jackass to cease two weeks ago. Told him that he didn’t have a permit and probably wouldn’t get one. And he swore to me he was stopping until he got a permit. Layed off the people he had working with him and everything. But then he finished it himself with just his kids.”

Beside the still-glowered Ingram, his two teenaged children shuffle like much younger kids called to explain why they didn’t make it to the bathroom in time to prevent wetting themselves. While I hold their father in contempt, I feel bad for them. Ingram’s known for his temper, so standing up to him would be a lot to ask of folks not yet old enough to move out.

I ignore the Fillers for now, though, and instead ask, “Is there a priority for stopping the burning?”

Shifting mode, Mel nods. “Yeah, I’ll direct these two if that’s alright.”

After a glance at Yvette assures me it is, I say, “Fine,” and let them get to it. The damage is much less extensive than I had feared. I guess even while angry, Kendrick realized burning innocent people out of their homes and businesses wasn’t something he needed to do and so he limited his damage to government buildings. He’s not a bad spirit, and as I watch him work with Yvette I start to think he’s going to be a good addition to our little county. His uncle had kept to himself and never caused trouble, but Kendrick burns not only with fire but with a youthful vigor that can only help Yvette.

That night, after the fires have been put out, we agree to eat with Mel and her council. “Well, would you look at that?” Mel whispers partway through the meal.

“Hmm?” I look up from my roast chicken, then follow the direction of her nod.

Across the dining room, Yvette sits listening to something Kendrick is saying in the language of the spirits. The tilt of her head and the expression in her eyes… If she were human, I’d say she was in danger of falling in love. And the animated way Kendrick waves his hands in accompaniment to his words combined with the intensity of his gaze as he looks at her makes me suspect she might not be alone.

“Well…” I draw out. “That would be an interesting match.”

Under the table, Mel grabs my hand and squeezes. “Wouldn’t it just?”

Above image is by Cindy Grotz
(Cindy doesn't have a dedicated art page - YET! - but does regularly post public images on Facebook.)
It was provided as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Dragon's Assistance


Skelana looks up at me with pride, a twig of shrubbery clutched in her scaly white jaws. Poor silly dragon. She thinks she’s helping me, but the twigs she keeps bringing are from the wrong kind of shrub. Matron sent us into the forest for speargreen specifically and isn’t going to be pleased if I present her with an assortment of other things. Still, I’d rather face my superior’s annoyance than disappoint my dragon, so I smile in thanks, take the twig, and place in my basket with the speargreen I’ve collected. I make sure to keep Skelana’s offering confined to one side so they’ll be easier to remove when I make it back to the Sanctuary, which may help limit Matron’s displeasure.

“Come on, Ske-ske,” I tell my companion. “I think we have enough.”

Skelana thumps her tail on the snow, gives her head a shake, and bounds back to the bush she’s been harvesting. I narrow my eyes at it. Now that I’m paying attention, it’s odd that it’s there. Furhorn usually browns for the year before the first snow hits, so what is this bush doing being green at midwinter? I walk over, eyes alert for any clues.

Look as I might, I can’t find any sign that this plant isn’t a normal shrub. You know, other than the obvious fact that’s it’s awake when it shouldn’t be. Skelana breaks off three more twigs before she’s content that I have enough, and I’m starting to wonder if she knows something I don’t. That’s silly though, isn’t it? I mean dragons are smart, more so than dogs or cats, but they hardly have a human level of understanding.

Shaking off the feeling that something is off, I start back toward the shrine, finding the road quickly. It’s oddly quiet consider that it’s a market day, but it is nearly noon. Maybe there’s no traffic because everyone who is going to market is there already and no one is leaving yet. There are marks from traffic earlier in the day, so that must be it.

My route passes three houses, and normally there’s activity at them all. Not so much as a puppy barks at my passing, though, and my unease grows.

I turn at the path to the Sanctuary, Skelana close at my side. Usually she flies ahead when we reach this spot, but today she sticks to my side like a calf following its mother. I look down at the dragon, growing more certain that she has knowledge I lack. What is she sensing that I’m not?

An eerie silence covers the compound when we reach the Sanctuary. A dozen people live here and all of them should be active. But there are no sounds at all. I stop outside the workshop. It sounds as though no one is working, even though Latvi told me last night he expected to dedicate the day to finishing the table he’d been commissioned to make as a wedding gift for a merchant’s child in town. I go up the stairs, but hesitate on the landing. My breath pauses and my heart races as I place my hand on the door. Dare I go in? What am I scared of finding?

Pushing past my anxiety, I open the door and enter.

The room is cold from the fire on the hearth dying, but not so cold as it would be if a fire hadn’t burned earlier in the day. I take that in as I look around the room. Carving tools are out, laid on the work in progress in a way that tells me Latvi was working today, for he never leaves his tools out at night. But where is he now?”

“Latvi?” I call, even though if he were in the room I would sure see him. Unless, maybe, he were hiding under the table… Feeling silly, I kneel to check.

A sob escapes as I see my friend sprawled on the ground. “Latvi!” I rush to his, my fingers flying to his throat. A faint pulse answers and I let out a sigh of relief. “Latvi?” Putting a hand on his shoulder, I shake him gently. He lets out a small snore, but stirs not.

Skelana calls to me from the door, a sound that would be called a roar if she were one of the massive dragons of pre-history but is more of a mew in a creature her size. I look to her and she jerks her head as though saying there’s somewhere else I need to be.

“You’re right,” I tell her. “I need to get help.”

But when I make it to the main building, I start to think that I might be the help. In the front room, Shevus and Mily are passed out over a gaming table. In the library, Servus, Madsie, and Carene slumber around a reading table. By the time I get to Matron’s study, I feel numb, so numb that finding her passed out over a tome on her desk can’t upset me.

My dragon slides quickly into the room, jumps up onto Matron’s desk, and looks at me as though trying to show me something.

WIth a curious detachment, I round Matron’s desk and look over her shoulder at the book she has open. My eyes widen on the writing there. “A Blessing to Combat a Sleeping Curse,” I read out loud.

Gently, I move the book out from under Matron and read the ritual. It’s easily done with one priestess and most of the components are things we keep a solid store of. I run my finger down them, and I think that if my blood could get any colder it would freeze when I hit the last ingredient. “Furhorn,” I whisper, staring at my dragon.

With one of her would-be roars, Skelana tosses her head back the way she does when she’s waiting for a treat. When none is forthcoming, she butts her head against mine, turns, and exits. I follow her, disbelievingly, to the storeroom, where I gather the other ingredients. I turn to go, but then stop and check the drawer that should hold our furhorn. It’s empty.

I stare at my dragon. This is beyond a coincidence and well into the realm of uncanny.

Skelana meets my eyes and a thought appears in my mind. “Goddess works in mysterious ways,” a female voice says with a sense of humor coating the words.

And I don’t know… Was that the voice of Goddess Herself, or was it Skelana? Was I chosen to work a miracle or have dragonkind just been hiding their true intelligence from us? Laughter flows into my mind in response to the thoughts.

The dragon breaks eye contact and leaves me to catch up to her on the way to the Chapel.

Image is "Yule Dragon" by Anne Stokes.
It was provided as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday prompt-a-week MeWe Group.