Friday, December 27, 2019
Note: I have dropped in on Tana's little scout ship and her crew a few times before. If you would like to read the sequence here are the previous flash fiction pieces:
Flash Friday # 106 -- The Replacement
Flash Fiction # 141 -- The Outpost
Flash Fiction # 161 -- Illusion
Flash Fiction # 211 -- Teamwork
Flash Fiction # 2999 -- Catchin Can -- 7 Part story starts here:
Tana didn't like being back on a 'civilized' world. She had taken assignment out on the Belgium, a ship patrolling the edges of Were space, for a reason. Walking down the streets of Ember made her twitch, especially when she knew they were all three bait.
Actually, Lisil was the bait. The Catchin stood a head taller than the two humans, his fur gray and black, his head catlike, and his ears back with a sure sign that he was no happier than Tana.
This was day three of walking along the market streets. They'd done the tour methodically and had lists of needed supplies for the ship they'd gathered in each of the four quarters. This was sector three -- herbs and even some yeast -- that all sent back to the shuttle. They also tried another small tavern nestled into the market -- and got kicked out because they had a Catchin with them.
Lisil had better manners and a lot more control than Tana or Krisin. They'd both ended up in fights while Lisil watched with a shake of his head.
"All for the show, right?" Krisin said as he stepped over a man who didn't look likely to get back up soon. "And I think the others are starting to get the idea."
"That we are more trouble than they want," Lisil said and sighed. "I don't think that's really what we want, is it? We need them to take me. If you two keep knocking them down --"
"Those aren't the people after Catchins," Tana replied with a wave of her hand. "That group is subtle. These people are bigoted thugs."
Lisil grunted agreement.
Then he stopped walking. His head came up, and he sniffed twice before turning abruptly to the left. Lisil pushed his way through a narrow path between tents set in a haphazard pattern, twisting and turning to the right and left along the maze.
"Lisil!" Krisin shouted in frustration -- they couldn't see him above the tall poles that held up the flapping cloth. "Lisil, damn it --"
A roar from the right. It was not a sound either had heard from Lisil before, but neither doubted it was him. Krisin had drawn his laser pistol -- illegal to carry in the market and liable to get you locked up. Tana drew hers as well.
They could hear a fight not far away, but the sounds were muffled and echoing oddly. The sounds grew softer. Tana grew more frantic and pushed ahead of Krisin. A few merchants yelled and hit at her as she pushed her way past their tables of wares. They were coming closer to the main street through the sector. She rushed out into a group of shoppers who cursed her -- and then moved off quickly when Krisin joined her. His red-faced glare, and the pistol he waved, probably scared them more than her snarl. She'd hidden the weapon again.
"We missed him somehow," Krisin said.
She nodded and pulled out her pocketcomp, keying up an exclusive app -- and nothing. Not a single blip on the screen, even though they'd tested out the tracker only an hour before.
"Damn," she said and shoved the device back away.
Krisin looked around frantically. "They could have taken him left or right --"
"You go right. I'll go left," Tana said. He looked panicked. "Go!"
She found nothing, of course. No sign of Lisil at all, and by the time she had twice circled the area, Tana knew she had lost Krisin as well.
When Captain Dundas had given them his assignment, there had been nothing about others disappearing. Catchin only, but as she started back toward the port and Belgium's shuttle, she felt as though someone could grab her at any point.
Tana should have felt better at the gate to the port itself. Guards were in place, but they seemed lax to her. She was within the fence, though, and that counted for something. The shuttle still sat two miles away, but now that she was close, she pulled out her communit and keyed into their system.
"Tana --" a familiar voice said.
"I lost them both. Lisil went first. We thought we heard him roar. Krisin and I split up a couple minutes later, and now I can't find him either. I headed back to port before I called in. See, I can follow orders. I want my fighter!"
"So you can go blow the hell out of the market," Captain Dundas said. "I don't think your missing crew would appreciate it. The tracker on Lisil didn't work?"
"It had right until he disappeared."
"No sign of it at all -- like it had been cut out and dropped somewhere."
She shuddered a little. "No. It just went dead."
"Our people have been monitoring crates going into port -- quietly, but we're certain no Catchin have been shipped that way."
"Not whole ones anyway," she said despite herself.
"We ran DNA -- stay where you are. I'm on my way."
"Oh, hell, no!" Tana said despite herself. "I've already lost two people! You think I should take the Captain of the Belgium out with me to look around? Are you crazy?"
The connection had gone dead as soon as the Captain announced she was on her way. Tana wasn't sure she wouldn't have said that anyway. She had stopped, though, out there in the open without many people around. Felt safer there, too, though.
While Tana waited, she wrote up everything she could remember from the moment when Lisil -- smelled something in the air. Nothing that she had noticed -- but then she wasn't a Catchin. Tana pulled up all the memories of those crucial moments when he took off -- the way he had been going before they lost all sight of him, the sound of the roar -- was that even Lisil?
Tana looked back at the port town. She had no idea what was going on, but she wanted her people back.
Thursday, December 26, 2019
Thursday, December 19, 2019
I was nine when the world changed. I remember my mother looking at my father, shaking her head in quiet dismay while pictures of disaster and destruction flashed on the television screen. I didn't understand.
"Are we safe, Ted? Are we safe here?" she asked.
"Safer than most places."
"What's happened?" I asked, watching my parents' pale faces.
"Changes, Tyler," Mom finally said. "Everything changes."
The world crumbled around us. Little pieces went first -- things I didn't notice so much. Communications outside our own area became difficult and then impossible unless someone went outside the valley. The roads grew less traveled, and cars stopped moving. During that first winter -- only weeks later -- no one came to clear the roads of snow. That winter was worse than usual. Drifts rose as high as my neck. Mom, Dad, and I went no farther than from the house to the barn and back. Power failed, and no one came to fill the tank for heat. We spent the daylight hours near the fireplace, reading and sometimes playing games. We kept busy. We kept quiet.
That first winter was hard. Mom became obsessive about sewing, while Dad cared for the animals. He worried about planting crops the next spring. I read and wrote and sometimes drew, but finding paper, I realized, was going to be more difficult soon.
We had no real news about anything after that first few days, not about the world at large, not about Carlyle, the town ten miles away. Our nearest neighbor had gone off to Arizona in late autumn, a month or more before the trouble. Dad didn't figure they'd be coming back, so he raided their place for a few things -- mostly farm equipment and every book he could find. And paper -- glorious paper, just for me.
See, it wasn't like in the cities. I learned about them later, about where the riots started, the buildings burned down, and people went crazy. We lived quieter here. Annoying for a child who no longer went to school and didn't see another kid for months. We became insular and self-sufficient. Dad rode a horse to town once a week when the weather got better. Mom worried each time, but he came back with the only news we got, plus things he'd traded for while there. I knew there were things he told mom that he didn't tell me, though. Not until I was older.
The honest truth? No one ever really knew what had happened on the coasts, thousands of miles away from us. There was talk about war and armies marching our way, but the most we ever saw was a handful of National Guard who helped around the farm for a few days and moved on. They'd had no answers, either.
Lonely years, those first few. Traders passed through the area, but everyone kept a watch on them, and there were a few that the locals ran out. School started up again in town, but it only ran for a few weeks at a time, and we had to stay there, boarding with local people and working for our stay. Only a few of us were still around, and no one spoke about the old days. Dad turned out to be really good at fixing, adapting, and making things. I helped him and became his apprentice -- a future for me, Dad said.
In the summer of the fourth year -- I was 12 -- we heard about the hordes coming our way.
"We have plans," dad said. He'd grown steady over the years. Mom still seemed dazed and lived in her own world of cooking and sewing. She never asked about life outside the house anymore, but she paid attention now. "Don't worry."
"How far away?" I asked. I'd never feared strangers before. "How many?"
"They're still at least ten days out, at least for the main group. A couple thousand," Dad said, and I felt a shiver go through me. "They're dangerous because of their numbers. As far as we can tell, there aren't many weapons left, though. They've been moving for years, heading from the big cities of the east. Like most of the other places, we're going to try to buy them off with supplies as long as they move on."
"What do they want?" I asked. "Where are they going?"
"They don't know anymore," Mom said. "They're just moving to keep moving and not look back."
We both looked at her, startled.
"She's right," Dad agreed.
"They'll need clothes," Mom added with a nod. "We can spare some."
Mom had, in fact, piles of clothing she'd mended and made, and I had the odd feeling she'd been preparing for this from the start.
I watched from the highest hill the day the mass passed through town and settled in a field beyond for the night. I tried to remember the last time I had seen so many people back in the past before the change. That time was lost to me now.
Amid that crowd, Dad found two men with almost a dozen kids they were caring for, including two babies born on the long walk. Dad talked to them for a couple days, and they stayed when the others moved on. They took over the neighbor's old house -- and Mom sewed more, visited often, and smiled again.
Dad and others picked out more people from other groups that followed, all of them families of one sort or another. Most did well in their new homes, and the valley started to prosper.
By the time I was fifteen, we had a certain normalcy in Haven Valley. We had guards that helped keep strangers away, and we lived in our own little world. Everything had changed since that first day ... but we had our place, and we survived. What does anything else matter?
Friday, December 13, 2019
The wind changed; what had been a pleasant autumn breeze through the pines shifted without warning to a cold northerly blast of Arctic cold. Lee stared into the wind for a moment, his eyes narrowed against the cold. He'd hoped to go farther, but he wasn't stupid enough to risk a winter storm in the Sierras.
So, no third night out in the woods. With a shrug of his shoulders, Lee resettled his backpack and turned to return the way he had come. Despite always feeling a draw to the wild places, he was no fool. He would not risk staying with the weather making so drastic a change.
He remembered a side trail about four miles away that he'd take going back, a new path into trees and rocks he'd never seen before. The trail would add about five miles in length to his trip, but ran mostly downhill from what he'd seen on the topography maps.
The wind continued at a steady blow, a soft moan through the trees, a bitter edge of cold that made him stop and pull out warmer coverings. He hadn't gone into the woods for a few days without preparing for cold weather. Snow could hit even in summer.
Just as he was pulling on his hoodie -- he heard music.
Not just music, but someone singing.
Lee had only rarely met others out on the trails. He chose the primitive wilderness areas for a reason, and it wasn't to share the peace and solitude with day-trippers into the edges of the forests. He had certainly never heard anyone singing -- a woman's voice, he thought, though she had an odd range.
He didn't recognize the language.
Lee listened -- he wasn't certain for how long with the wind blowing colder and him without gloves on. When the music stopped, Lee felt a chill that had nothing to do with the cold. What he had heard had been ... he wanted to say unnatural, but perhaps it had been too much of nature. Lee had the odd feeling that humans had not been meant to hear those sounds.
Time to go.
His fingers felt stiff, and bits of ice clung to his clothing. He shoved his hands into his gloves, having trouble even with that little action. His legs didn't want to move, and he almost walked away without his backpack.
"Get control, Lee," he told himself. "Get --"
The song started again.
A wolf moved past Lee on the path, glanced his way, and kept going. Two more followed. Lee stood still in shock rather than fear. Other creatures began to move around him -- birds from the trees, rabbits and squirrels, a half dozen deer. They all headed in one direction.
Toward the music.
Lee started to walk away, moving at a near jog, avoiding more creatures that only looked askance at him as he headed in the opposite direction. Kept going --
But at some point, Lee had stopped and turned and didn't even realize he'd started heading toward the music like every other living thing around him. Lee tried to fight the draw, but the music called ... it called even to him.
Lee forced himself to turn away ... once ... twice ...
The third time Lee gave in to the lure and went with the rest of the creatures along the path that led to a natural stone pavilion up against a mountainside. Animals had gathered along the edge, settled in twos and threes of their own kind: deer, fox, rabbit, elk, wolves, and dozens of types of birds.
Standing before them, with a large cave at her back, stood a huge brown bear, swaying hypnotically on her back legs -- and the bear sang. Lee should not have known what she said because it wasn't a human language, no. The beautiful tale she told, though, was one with nature, and for that moment, he stood there with the others and understood.
She bade farewell to the fruitful summer and welcomed the long rest of winter. She named each of the creatures by their true names, and she blessed them all, each one in turn --
And found him standing at the edge of her grounds. Her massive brown paw raised, the claws catching the glint of the light as clouds moved in overhead, and the first snow fell.
Lee did not fear her.
"You should not be here," Bear said, but there was no hint of anger or menace in the words. "I should have felt a human in the woods, and yet you are so akin to nature."
The dark brown eyes stared at him, blinking. Lee still didn't feel afraid. None of the other creatures had done more than turn to glance at him, as though he belonged as much as any of them.
"What do you want, human?" the bear asked.
"I want to hear you sing."
Lee sat, and he listened, long into the dark, cold night until he drifted to sleep.
Two days later, Forest Rangers found him asleep in the arm of a fallen tree, covered in his blanket and warm. Lee awoke, startled first by the humans, and then because he was not still on the mountainside with the others.
"We knew you'd make it back out," Dan said. They'd met more than once went he headed up into the wilderness. "But take a look at those prints! That bear must have come damned close, Lee!"
"And that was after you bedded down," Mark added. "Not a single print from you, so the storm blew in afterward. There are even a couple wolf prints not far away."
Lee looked back at the prints after they helped him over the broken tree.
"I think you were damned lucky, Lee," Dan said.
"Very lucky," Lee agreed, but they were not speaking of the same things, and this was his secret to hold. He'd be back though to listen for the song on the wind when the seasons changed again.
Thursday, December 05, 2019
The city cut a scar into the hill across from her home and created a new bypass. Ms. Glinda Ozland watched as cars roared where once she'd watched a lovely bit of nature.
She brought yard gnomes -- at least that was what the neighbors thought -- and settled them strategically across her yard. These gnomes were a sure counter to technology. The accidents started immediately. Nothing serious, but cars hit cars with alarming frequency over the next week.
The city tore up the street, rebuilt the hill, and planted dozens of trees.
Being a good witch, Glinda sent the gnomes home.
Friday, November 29, 2019
Fledglings held to the quaking branch, a place suddenly bereft of leaves, with nowhere the huddle against the cold wind. They weren't alone in the old maple tree that had been such a pleasant home not so long ago. The elders had gathered as well.
"What has happened? Why is it so cold?"
The eldest looked down from a higher branch. "Don't worry, youngling. We'll soon fly to pursue the lost warmth. Once we find it, we'll rest for a while. Then, when the time is right, we'll return and bring the warmth back with us. It is our duty."
Friday, November 22, 2019
One way led to power, wealth, and fame. People would adore him, but only from afar. A person in that position could never trust people since most would actually be attracted to his position rather than him.
The other way led to peace, contentment, and love -- but also to hardship, moments of despair, and much harder work just to make ends meet.
"I can't have the best of both?" he asked.
"No," Fate answered. "That future is not for you."
"Then screw it," he said and went back home.
Thursday, November 14, 2019
"They only have two more weeks," Thalia said with a bright laugh. "So many hopefuls this year! I love hearing the scratch of so many pens and taps of keys as they write stories."
"Followed by wails of loss and despair on the first of December --"
"Must everything be a tragedy with you, Melpomene?" Thalia demanded and ignored the answer. "The ones who don't complete their work get over it, but every year more people become enthralled with the art of the written word. They keep us alive, you know. Think kindly of them, sister. The Muses need the NaNoWriMo. "
Thursday, November 07, 2019
They heard the voices, exuberant, filled with sounds they didn't understand except to know that they were not alone after all.
They built their ships and sailed the sea of stars, but as they grew closer, the voices grew silent. For all the span of time they had traveled, those voices had seemed to call them closer, but now...
They found the world. Insignificant in some ways, and oh so quiet now. Ruins lay along the waterline, and small lesser creatures clung tenaciously to the land. What they had come to greet was gone.
They wept and went home ... alone.
Thursday, October 31, 2019
When Clara was seven, her parents moved her to the family castle far from the city. Alone and afraid, she sometimes pretended to be one of the maids. Surely that was the best of all lives! Esquia dusted her rooms and then moved on to dust somewhere else, free to move through the building. Clara remained in her suite and sat with her tutor or learned to embroider from her elder great-aunt Maylyn who was mostly deaf and maybe a bit blind.
On rare occasions, servants and guards would take Clara out to the grounds, sometimes just to walk the gardens, which was nice enough. They never went to the village, for which she was grateful. There had been large groups of people in the city, yelling and throwing things. She had a small scar on her cheek and still remembered the pain and blood.
That was when she got sent to Dunmoreland. Cut off from her parents, who had only visited once in the last few years, Princess Clara had long suspected that she must have done something terribly wrong.
Being a maid would be better.
By thirteen, though, Clara had given up pretending. She became so studious that her tutor even gave her a key to the archives after a solemn oath not to damage any of the books. Letters sometimes came from her mother, but they were rare and before long felt like notes from someplace -- and someone -- she did not remember well.
Then matters changed again. Clara had heard the news that there was unrest in the country, but it didn't touch her until late in the autumn when soldiers marched into the keep and took over the castle. She'd been at her desk, about to ring for the maid set the fire for the night. The evening felt chill -- but then Clara heard the sound from the grounds below. Shouting. Anger. She had not heard those sorts of sounds since she left the city.
Esquia rushed into the room without even a knock. A few others followed, all of them frantic.
"Come with me, Clara. Come quickly. You," she pointed to a maid. "Strip the bed. Take all her papers and burn them in the downstairs oven. Get the books out of here. Quickly! Clara, come with me!"
Clara rushed toward the woman whom she trusted. "What?" she dared ask as they hurried out into the hall.
"There are people who have come to take the castle from your parents. Not good people. They don't know that you're here. We've all done our best -- here and in the city -- to make people believe you died in the riots. We had to so you would stay safe, my sweet. Do you remember how you used to follow me and pretend to dust? I want you to pretend again. You will be my daughter. Can you do that?"
Esquia sounded frantic. They were taking the servant's stairs. She'd never gone this way before, down and down the narrow stone-lined stairs.
"Yes. I can pretend," Clara said.
So she became someone else. Elsie, a young girl learning her mother's trade. Lord Tornwood was an old man with squinting eyes and a loud voice, and he hardly noticed the servants except to yell at them. His soldiers stayed in tents outside the building, at least after their original search of the building. Only a handful of guards kept with him, all of them bad-mannered. Tornwood was almost always angry, and he yelled at Great Aunt Maylyn, who ignored him, and sent the archivist -- her tutor -- out of the castle. That was, she admitted, better than killing him. He never visited the archives after the first day, and since she had a key, that was where Esquia told her to go and stay when she could not be with one of the others.
Autumn turned fast into winter. The shock of the invasion of her home had worn off after the first few days. The work of a maid was also not as much fun as she had hoped, either.
Tornwood's guards were apt to turn up at any time. She dared not ever be out of character as the maid's daughter, and that meant she rarely talked at all. She did not dare ask about what would happen, either.
The first snow fell. There was no sign that Lord Tornwood would leave.
And then her father arrived. He came with hundreds of soldiers -- so many riding in from the snow that Tornwood's soldiers threw down their swords. Tornwood was at dinner, and Clara's father raced into the room and grabbed the man by his collar, dragging him from the chair and throwing him to the floor. She had never seen her father angry.
"What have you done with my daughter!" he demanded. He pulled his sword and put it to the man's neck. "If you've killed her or harmed her --"
"But -- but --" Tornwood was wide-eyed and pale. "But everyone said she was dead! Before -- long before I came here. In the city! I never saw her!"
"But you did," Clara said and dared to step forward.
Her father turned her way, shocked for a moment, and then smiling -- yes, smiling the way she remembered from before she'd been sent away. He sheathed his sword and rushed to gather her up in his arms.
They celebrated that night, a grand dinner while Tornwood went in chains to the city, despite the weather. Clara realized she had never been exiled, only sent away to be kept safe. Now, though, she had her choice. She could go back to the city --
"Maybe in the spring," she said with a bright smile. "I do like winter here. The quiet. I think maybe you should stay here, too."
He did stay for a while. Clara's mother came to stay in the spring. She became Princess Clara again ... but sometimes she still helped Esquia dust.
Tuesday, October 29, 2019
Thursday, October 24, 2019
Tom had never seen a reason to be polite. People said he was lazy and useless, just because he lived with his old aunt and let her cook and clean. She had money to support them. Why should he work? He'd grown up on a farm before he came to live with Aunt Sally. He'd worked enough.
He snarled at all of them, including the old witch who lived next door.
He didn't know she was a real witch. Then one day, he purposely knocked into her as she was carrying bags to her house. Just for fun.
"Enough of that," she said, lifted her hand and pointed at him. "Cats have better manners."
He started to laugh.
A huge gray cat appeared at his feet, and then something odd happened: the world grew suddenly very, very big.
He meowed. Then howled and leapt at Agnes, but she waved her hand, and he froze in mid-air, flailing. Gasping, too, until he hadn't the energy to do either.
"That's better. I think you need to learn a lesson or two in life. Good luck."
She waved her hand: Tom lifted high over the town and flew -- flew a long, long way. He landed, rather abruptly, in a field of grain several miles away.
The mice were as startled as he was.
"Fucking hell! Myrtle! A huge cat just fell from the sky!" one squealed and ducked behind a tall stalk.
"Watch your language, Frank. You know it's just someone Agnes sent out from the city --"
"What has she got against us? I've never seen such a big damn cat --"
"Frank, watch your language --"
"Turn around and look!"
Tom watched as the second mouse turned, froze, and began to back away. "Holy shit!"
Tom let them go. He was barely able to stand on four legs and tripped over three of them when he took his first step. The cat inside the same body held back and chortled in a cat fashion. Tom tried to take a step and landed on his chin and whimpered, glad the mice were not around.
It took him all night to figure out his legs. By then, he was starved. He'd never gone so long without food. At home, he would have told Aunt Sally to make him something. Now, even if he was back at the house, he couldn't order anything.
He was going to die. Maybe he could get back to town and somehow force that old woman -- but how? He could do nothing. So he just walked and didn't even care what direction.
The little cottage took him by surprise, especially when the young woman stepped out, followed by a sleepy little girl.
He walked up to them. "I want --" But it was only a meow. He couldn't demand anything. He let out a wail of real despair --
"Poor kitty. Are you hungry, friend? I think I might have something for you," the woman said.
And that was how he became Friend. He had food every day, and he sometimes helped, like chasing off the fox from the five startled chickens. He played with Crystal when she came home from school and guarded the house while Mom was out in the fields with the cranky old tractor.
One stormy night, Mom called him in and let him sleep by the fireplace while she sat at a table and sorted through all kinds of papers. When she gave a sudden, unexpected sob, both he and the cat he had almost forgotten in the same body, leapt up and rushed to her.
"I'm sorry, Friend. I just -- I can't make it work. Uncle Ethan told me to sell the place when he died. He said it would break my heart to try to keep it going. He's right. I can't afford the help I need. I have to sell."
No! She belonged here, and so did Crystal! No! He had to do something to help, but there was nothing he could do as a cat. He needed to be human again.
The next day when he went out to look over the hens, he found Agnes the Witch waiting. He started to back away, but no -- she was just whom he needed.
"Yes, you have more than learned your lesson. I am surprised, in fact, that there is so much goodness in you. Maybe if the rest of us had been kinder..." She stopped and shook her head. "Come out."
He stood up. Unsteady for a moment, but he smiled at Agnes. "Thank you. I can help Mom now -- what is her name? Do you know?"
"Cathy Hyde. She's not going to trust you, a stranger showing up." Agnes paused and nodded. "Say you worked for her uncle sometimes. You know the place well enough to make her believe it. Good luck, Tom. Oh, and write to your aunt. She's worried."
And with a snap of her fingers, she disappeared.
Cathy did mistrust him, but he only asked to stay a couple days in the barn, and he'd work for it. First, he got the tractor working and then took it out for a rest -- managing to bring in a quarter of the grain. He fixed part of the roof and then helped with the garden vegetables. The days passed quickly.
"You can't keep working for nothing, Tom. I'm sorry --"
"I have good food and a place to stay. We can keep it at that for now, right?"
Tom turned out to be good at farming now that he wasn't being ordered to do things. Crystal adored him, and Friend the Cat seemed to like him, as well. They spent the rest of the late summer and early autumn fixing up everything and preparing for the next growing season.
Before the winter set in, they went to town and had the judge marry them with his stunned Aunt Sally and an amused Agnes as witnesses.
And yes, they lived happily ever after.
Thursday, October 17, 2019
(Pellin is a major force in the Inner Worlds Council books. This is just a peak at a busy day.)
Reports defined President Pellin's world; reading them, writing them, and hearing them. Occasionally, he read his own statements to the Assembly, just to make certain they remembered who was in charge of things.
Today's reports didn't cover the critical problem that he'd placed in the hands of Inner World Council Security. The fear of a new weapon and falling into the hands of the wrong people --
No, he didn't cover that trouble in the briefing. Instead, he gave good news about plights averted, reported dangerous flooding in the Tempest backlands -- nothing new there -- and welcomed the new delegation from Paradise. They all wore pale blue and green and might as well have been cloned. He would never be able to tell them apart and hoped that Fabroni came up with an answer so he could tag each one. Sometimes he thought the people from Paradise did this sort of thing on purpose.
The report went well. Pellin answered a few questions afterward. The Ambassador from Astrakhan was hostile, but he didn't get as rude as he had been in their private meeting.
The usual crowd tried to talk to him between the Great Hall and his office. Pellin stayed polite despite a growing headache. A pod of teens from Terra Nova waited in the office; Pellin spent an hour with them, listening to the award-winning report that had brought them here -- actually quite good -- and talking with them afterward. There were a few who would become politicians, without a doubt.
Then they were gone, and he could sit down at the desk, glance over a few more reports --
The door opened. Fabroni looked in, worry on his face. "Epona is on her way to see you. I'll keep the office cleared."
He left without saying more -- so either he didn't know, or this was so bad he didn't want to be the one who to tell him. Considering the problem with the Alrand Institute, their prototype weapon, and the mercenaries who took over their supposedly hidden labs -- yeah, this could be all kinds of trouble.
It wasn't what he had expected.
Epona, the head of Inner Worlds Council Security, came in and stopped a few steps from the desk. "We lost Devlin."
His heart pounded. "Oh dear God --"
"Oh -- oh, no. Not dead. I don't think so. Lost. We can't find her."
Pellin took a couple deep breaths and leaned back in his chair. "Damn. You know, I'm not certain that's any better."
Epona nodded and finally threw herself into one of the chairs by the desk. Fabroni came in with tea and closed the door behind him. He heard the news and frowned as he sat down, but said nothing.
"I was going to put her and her team on the Alrand problem," Epona admitted. "Aldebaran could wait. That's when I found out that she hadn't sent a message of any sort in months. Granted, Devlin isn't always good at reporting in, but someone should have mentioned how long it had been. I'm trying to figure out if it was intentional or just a case where one handler didn't think to mention the time span to the next one who took over."
Pellin nodded. "It could be that she's just working. And her team?"
"Dancer and Cha," Epona said. "No word from either of them. I made discreet contact with the Science Board. They haven't heard from Cha, either though he'd been filing interesting reports on the local drug that's such a problem on Astrakhan."
"Both of them dropping out of sight does seem like a problem. And what will we do about Alrand?"
"I'm going to send Kim's Team in," she said. "They're a good Gold Card team that's been together for a while. I'd already been looking at them. And I'm sending Delphian with them."
"Have you decided that he's not actually crazy, or is that just no longer relevant?" Fabroni dared to ask.
"No longer relevant," she admitted and then shrugged. "But I'm not so sure Delphian is crazy anyway. Too many accidents aimed at him. I'm going to get him introduced to Kim -- and probably Allie since she'll be the problem. If the woman could just control that attitude of hers, she'd probably have a gold card of her own by now."
"And what are you going to do about Devlin?"
"I'm looking at who is available, but I'm leaning toward Mossi. He's close, he's good, and he's worked with Devlin. No matter who I decide on, I want a military craft to transport them within a world of Astrakhan -- the fastest trip we can get."
Pellin nodded, and Fabroni was already checking his pocketcomp. "Where is Mossi now?" he asked.
"Terra Nova, so close to us, but far from where I want him to be. I keep hoping for another agent closer, but there's no one so far that I'd put on a case that maybe Devlin couldn't handle."
"Alrand," Pellin said with a shake of his head. "Devlin missing is bad enough -- but Alrand in the hands of people who could use that weapon anywhere. I understand that a cannon version could destroy an entire ship?"
"That's what I heard. One shot. And it could do massive damage to landmasses, too," Epona added. Of all the people at the Mars HQ, she was the only one who knew the depth of most of the problems. "I'll go see who I can round up for the Devlin problem. I'm probably going with Mossi, though. And I'll get Kim and his people moving. Damn mess."
She stood and walked out again, clearly too much on her mind. Fabroni followed her.
Pellin placed a call to earth and tried to contact Keri Ibn Karim -- a psi and a friend to Devlin and her companions. He was not around, and Pellin hoped he was already working on the Devlin problem.
And Pellin? He went back to reading reports...
Thursday, October 10, 2019
The ship landed without incident, the only time the ponderous craft had touched a world, having been built in orbit of the moon. It would never lift again.
Computers ran tests while robos disassembled the ship. Every piece would be used to build the first settlement.
Humans lined up at the bay doors, a line stretching back far into the ship. Captain Tanton keyed the door open to Terra Nova and the sunrise.
Pink sky and a landscape of shadowed plants that would not be like those from Earth. The air tasted sweeter.
Tanton smiled. "Welcome to humanity's new home."
Thursday, October 03, 2019
(A side story related to Vita's Vengeance)
First, Terson had never meant to be part of Jarak's High Command. The turnover rate at that exalted position was rather high, and the Verdi Elite who made it that far rarely retired. Jarak's temper had grown short the last few years as people who dared to stand up to his decision to take over all the worlds in the Aquila Fringe.
Second, there was Idela, of course. Jarak's homicidal daughter had too much freedom to pursue her own interests, and those were often bloody and dangerous for any Elite who served anywhere near her. Jarak kept her somewhat close and a bit in hand, but Terson had seen the look of despair in her guard's face, and he didn't envy Avrial that place beside Idela and Jarak.
Third, Terson did not like Jade. The world was nothing but dust and heat, and even a nice collection of Jadian jewels did little to improve the long days here.
The sullen locals were starting to work themselves into riots -- and that helped no one. If they'd just calm, Jarak would move off to some other trouble spot. He always had to be in charge of anywhere that glory might be won. In fact, the rest of his Generals, including Terson, had to work hard not to do too well.
Stupid way to fight a war.
Terson swallowed back that thought and all the others before it, forcing his face to calm again. Jarak would expect a report about how the King and Crown Prince had managed to kill themselves. He had to put the best face on it that he could -- and with that in mind, he straightened his shoulders and went to another High Command Meeting from hell.
And left the room not too much later with the feeling that he -- and probably the rest of the High Command -- would not survive their stint on Jade. Commern had bought them a little more time, but that meant they now owed Jarak's favorite for keeping them alive a bit longer. Terson didn't trust Commern, of course. Even Jarak wasn't fool enough to trust him -- but if anyone could come up with an answer to their current problems, it would be Commern.
Not an answer Terson would like, except that it would save his life.
Did they have a chance to get Jade in order in the next few days? Terson stopped at the end of the hall and stared out where he could see the low lying city stretched out below. He could see just the hint of a sandstorm in the distance and hoped it did not head into this area again.
"You don't seem happy, Terson," Idela said from behind him.
Damn. Terson had to keep from frowning or glaring at her. He did not want to be on her list of enemies, though probably anything he did wouldn't help.
"Idela," he said as he turned and gave a little bow of his head to the princess. People were starting to say Emperor when they spoke of Jarak, too. How could they have come to this? They were Verdi Elite!
"You don't look happy," she accused.
And what in this mess could possibly instill happiness -- but no, he kept that thought to himself as well.
"I fear we are in for another damn sandstorm," he said with a wave at the window. Avrial shifted slightly at that movement, always ready for trouble -- though Terson couldn't guess what kept him loyal. "This is a miserable excuse for a world. I don't know why those fools are fighting so hard out there. Why are we wasting good Verdi blood --"
But he stopped there. Letting his emotions run wild now would not help him.
"Ah, but there are the jewels," Idela said with a lift of her hand. A fortune in Jadian jewels sparkled as she moved her fingers.
Oh yes, of course, the jewels were essential to Idela. Human lives were not. Power and prestige -- that was all that mattered to Idela. Pretty things on her fingers.
Terson worried that she could read too much in his face. Damn this woman who was more of an enemy to the Verdi than the Jadians down on the streets. And damn him for bowing to her and playing this game. He thought he could beat Avrial to the draw and kill them both. He still wouldn't survive, of course, but --
"Don't you like the jewels, Terson?" she said with a little tilt of her head and the touch of a smile that hinted at nothing good for him.
"I am a soldier, Idela. I am a Verdi Elite," he said and stood straighter for those words. They still meant something, at least to him. "The jewels are fine, but I have other interests."
She stared a moment longer as though trying to find some hook she could use against him. She no doubt knew he had some jewels -- they all did in the High Command. Many were gifts from Jarak himself. Some of the others had rings made. He did not.
"Well," she said and finding nothing more to say, turned and headed away.
In that half moment, when Adela looked elsewhere, Avrial bowed his head and dared a salute, which Terson had noted he did not give to anyone else but Jarak.
Then he spun and went after his ward.
Leaving Terson standing there, confused now rather than angry. He felt as though he had just been given a gift with that salute.
What would he do with the touch of dignity that settled in his heart? Nurture it. Wait it out. The IWC was sending people to look over the situation. Terson could wait to see what came of that visit.
He might find a way to redeem his soul, along with his dignity.
Thursday, September 26, 2019
They were starting to pull out, the fae and all their allies.
Arturin had watched the long line of fae passing through the veil, two or three at a time, each taking a whisper of magic away from the world. Most were more than happy to go, but a few ... a few of his friends lingered at the bottom of the hill. Like Arturin, they had all been born to this world, and they would be the last to leave it behind.
"Nothing more we can do," Talitian said with a shake of his head. Arturin had never seen such a look in his uncle's face as the elder fae lifted a hand to touch the world one last time. Magic played at his fingers. "So much potential wasted."
Arturin kept silent. His views were too well known and had never been popular. However, he was now vindicated in those views -- too late to help the fae or the humans. The magic would be gone soon, and there would be no hope to help the humans find a better way -- to find salvation and even survival.
Talitian looked at him with one eyebrow raised but said nothing at all.
"It seems a bit rude to say 'I told you so' at this point," Arturin finally admitted when his uncle didn't turn away. "I'm sure we all have regrets at this point."
"You've ever right to be rude," Talitian said and turned to watch the fae heading through the veil and back to the lands that many had not seen in centuries. Most appeared happy enough to go home, as though all the time they'd spent here meant nothing, and the humans were already ghosts in their eyes -- left behind and forgotten. "I always thought the humans were wiser, Arturin. I honestly did."
"So did I," he admitted. He knelt and picked a flower -- a dandelion, a simple memory to take with him. Arturin could not imagine why Talitian wanted this discussion now.
He stood again, cupping the flower in his hand. He brushed a touch of magic over the petals, and now the flower would be yellow forever. Almost all the fae were through the veil, just a few of the younger ones lingering. Those were mostly friends of Corden's who had taken up the battle with him when they still thought there would be a chance to bring magic to the humans and help them past their own destructive tendencies.
Too late now. Too late as fae after fae passed back into their own world --
"Arturin," Talitian said, a hand suddenly on his shoulder. "What would you do if the veil closed right now?"
"Do? I'd go home to my house and join my human friends --"
He stopped. The look on Talitian's face told him that this was not a 'what if' question at all. He felt a shiver pass through him and didn't know if he came from fear or hope.
"Uncle?" he whispered.
"You were right. A little magic spread to the others, and not hoarded for ourselves, would have changed everything here. Do you think it is too late?"
A serious question and not much time to contemplate. Arturin's friends still lingered at the edge of the veil, looking back at the two where they stood on the hill. They knew the question he'd been asked.
"I don't know," Arturin replied. It was the only real answer he could give. "Could a handful of us make a difference when the humans are already so firmly on this path? There will be war -- we know it. And more wars after that, ever more destructive. That path is set. Can we still nudge them another way? Maybe a few. Maybe enough --"
"Your choice, Arturin," Talitian said. "I can't say how long it will be before another veil might come this way. I can't say you'll survive -- the humans are volatile. Even your friends might turn on you if you start to show them what you can do."
He nodded, but his heart had settled suddenly. "It's a chance I'll take."
Talitian smiled. Honestly smiled for the first time in years. "Then I'd say we have some work to do, don't we?"
"You will stay?" Arturin asked, surprised again.
"If you will have me," he said. "This is your work, Arturin. I'm not going to step in now and pretend that I hadn't opposed even the best ideas that you've had down through the years."
"I would be honored to have your help."
Arturin turned toward his friends -- about twenty of them, he thought, we acted as though they only waited for him to join them. The last of the line of fae started through the veil, including Scoland, the eldest. He had also been the one most opposed to any link with the humans, despite living in the same world with them.
Scoland stopped and looked back, a frown on his face and his shoulder's straightening. Oh, he'd picked up the plan without a doubt, and he'd never agree. Arturin's friends were starting to back away from the elder fae, a whisper of worry coming from that area. Scoland lifted a hand --
But it was no attack that came. Instead, he took a chain from around his neck and sent it flying through the air -- and not to Talitian. Arturin caught the chain -- and the key that it held. The way to open a gateway back to home.
Scoland stepped through. The veil shimmered and disappeared, leaving the last of the fae standing in the light of a summer sun. Birds began to sing in the tree nearby, and a rabbit's head appeared in the grass.
He saw hope in those animals.
Saturday, September 21, 2019
The sun had almost set on another day, the landscape the same -- dead brown and broken only by occasional spots of green weeds. Taller plants clustered around rare waterholes. Corden scanned the scenery for another such place, hoping to find one still within walking distance tonight. He only saw desert and ruins, old and some far more ancient.
His canteen was already dry, and he didn't like to think about another night without water, waking miserable and weaker in the morning. The hydronet might get him enough liquid from condensation to go through tomorrow, too, but it would be a dry and miserable day.
Then something odd caught his attention. Something glittered in the distance, somewhat north of the way he walked. Flashed again, red and orange -- he realized it was something catching the last light of day.
His map had shown no city in this area, new or ancient. He pulled out his pocketcomp, just to be sure. Nothing in the files, not even a lost listing for this area. He had already turned that way and started walking a little faster despite being worried about what exactly he might have spotted. It had been more than a century since anyone had found a true unknown settlement and all of those in ruins.
When Corden's aircar had dived toward the ground in a sudden catastrophic failure, he'd thought he would just die in the crash. Thanks to the long side across the sand, he'd come out of it with hardly more than a few bruises. He'd thought someone would come out to find him. Three days later, and with water and food nearly gone, Corden decided it was time to help himself instead. He was a government surveyor by trade, specializing in finding old supply caches in the Wildlands of the American Southwest. He'd always liked flying over the barren land, marking out old towns, finding the occasional working well.
Walking through it was not nearly as much fun.
The longer he walked into the dark, the more he doubted his sanity when it came to that glittering jewel in the distance. It could not be a town -- not of that size and clearly out in the open rather than buried beneath the sand. Such a place would have been seen in a flyover. Hadn't there been a report of things that looked like tilled land in this area? The directors had waved it off pointing out that there were no settlements large enough to support those kinds of fields -- it was just chance the plants seemed to grow in ordered plots of land.
Corden hadn't questioned it. But now -- now he could see lights glittering in buildings, and he walked down a path between tall rows of maize. He drank a little water from an artesian well and thought he'd never had better. And kept walking all the way to a brick wall and gate where a guard stood.
"Stranger!" the man said startled. Not much of a guard, but he guessed maybe a single person wasn't why he'd been watching.
"Crashed -- days ago," Corden said with a wave back at the dark desert behind him. "Saw -- lights?"
Corden stared past the gate made of tree limbs tied together into a crisscrossed box. The lights were still there, but shadows as well ... a settlement built under a substantial cavernous overhang.
"Come on in," the man said, pushing the gate open. "Welcome to Shangri-la." Then he laughed at Corden's sudden glance. "Yeah, local joke. Not much of a paradise -- but we do have water."
It took Corden two days to figure out that he'd wandered into something ... unusual. It wasn't just the hidden buildings, but all the rather modern equipment they used -- and the fact they spoke perfect Basic rather than any local Earther dialect. At the morning meal of the third day, he finally asked the questions that had kept him awake for most of the last two nights.
"Where are you from?" he said, looking straight at Sani.
Sani put his cup aside and offered a bit of a worried smile. "Mostly from Terra Nova. Some from other colonies. We petitioned to make a small settlement in some backwater location to test out theories. The Earth Gov said no. We had expected it."
"And you came anyway," Corden said with a nod. "I wonder how they expected to stop you."
"Nothing personal, but too many Earthers have delusions of godhood," Sani replied. "If they say it, it is so."
"I won't argue," Corden said with a grin. "And I've spent a lot of years off-world."
"Obviously. Earthers don't learn Basic. Why did you come back?"
"Family, mostly. But my parents died, and I just took another job and another -- I liked the surveying at first, but I've come to realize that it's just work for no good reason. Pays well enough, I suppose."
Sani nodded. "You can go back. We won't stop you. You can let the Earthers know we're here --"
"I won't," he said. He looked at the gate and the crops beyond. "What are you trying to do here?"
"Survive," one of the others said. "Re adapt to Earth after several generations elsewhere. Earthers claim that we're not the same anymore. This is our proof -- for them and for colonists who tend to think the same way."
"You know the tale of Shangri-la?" Corden asked. "If you leave, you can't find your way back, can you?"
"Somehow I don't think that would be a problem for you," Sina said with a laugh. "You have the coordinates, don't you?"
"We're not magic, you know."
"I don't think I want to take the chance just yet."
Corden stayed a long time, one generation passing into another -- and if some nights he and others looked at the stars and counted the places where they'd been ... well, they were just old tales, and there were wonders enough at their feet.
Thursday, September 12, 2019
Professor Fluffytail dropped the papers on his desk with an ear-back glare. "You cannot be serious."
Little Prettykins ears stayed up despite Fluffytail's angry stare. "I am serious."
"You believe that cats, the smartest creatures on earth, reached sentience because of humans?" he demanded.
"No, sir. I said we learned to speak because we wanted to talk to humans. When we found they wouldn't listen to our language, we learned theirs. By then we knew they had nothing to say. I propose the time has come to make them listen to us."
And that is how the change began.
Thursday, September 05, 2019
The King himself created the passage back to Northgate and took them there; a rare honor to have the King of the Faelands to visit any Gatekeep, let alone one that had been so much trouble.
None of Connor's party could be certain they wouldn't suddenly be attacked by trolls again. No one was sure what had set the trolls off on this war. Connor thought it had been Galen manipulating them, but it might only have been them taking advantage of a situation already in the making. They had allied with Galen, though.
The trolls had been quiet, at least, since the battle at the Royal Court. Connor feared that his return to home might set things in motion again. Having the King with them did not make him feel any better about the possibility of trouble.
Though at least the King brought his own soldiers, and they were more than happy with the idea of taking on some more trolls or maybe finding another mirror Galen.
Word had gone ahead that they were returning to Northgate, and his people made a good show of welcoming both Connor and the King. They even had a feast ready. Connor would have liked to skip that part since it would be his first official meal as head of Northgate. Besides, he was still worn and sore, even ten days after the battle.
Connor said all the right things, welcoming his guests, thanking his people, and hoping that all would go well for everyone. The King thanked him for his part in quelling the trouble at the Royal Court. He had already confirmed Connor in his role of Gate Lord. The Lords of the East and West Gates had been called in to swear they were not part of the plot with Galen. They could not lie, of course.
The King hit another problem. Somewhere, a mirror Galen held firmly to the Southgate stone and the magical power from it. The King could not name a new lord until they broke that power. It would be trouble in the future. But not tonight. Not yet.
The meal went well, the King pleased and his people honored -- but Connor was glad to have the feast done and the King ready to head back to the Royal Court without even a stay for the night. He dared not spend that much time away from the royal court.
"I'm staying," Antisha said with a nod to her father. "I think I'll do more good here than prancing around in pretty dresses at court."
"Now there's a vision I won't soon get out of my head," Druce said. "You might have waited until morning to say it, you know. The nightmares --"
Antisha laughed, though the King had looked startled at first. Now he smiled as well.
"Yes, you're right," the King agreed with a quick nod. "Connor seems to be a magnet for this trouble."
"A weak link," Connor said with a bow of his head.
"Only fools would believe so," the King replied. His portal was already formed, half of the soldiers passing through. "Take care, all of you."
He stepped away and was gone. Connor looked at Antisha with a slight frown.
"You don't want me here?" she said, a little worry on her face.
"Oh, I'm glad to have you with us. I just wondered if you really think there is going to be more trouble here."
"Yes," she said plainly and then sighed. "Let's just hope it isn't too soon."
Connor nodded agreement. The others didn't seem surprised or bothered by the idea, though they all looked as weary as he felt. Connor bade them all goodnight.
Connor didn't go to his rooms, and he didn't go to Lord Northgate's suite, either. Connor left the building and followed the path to the little mausoleum. He sat on the bench before it. The locals had set everything back to right, so Connor did not look in at the bones of his parents. He'd have to thank the people who took care of the grounds.
Liam found him there.
"It's where my parents are buried," he explained. "I didn't come here often. But I used to wonder how they could do what they had done, and save Lord Northgate whom they didn't know."
"And now you understand," Liam said, sitting down beside him.
"Yes, I think I do. It's about seeing the wider picture and knowing you can do something good, whether it helps you or not. Maybe especially when it doesn't help you, because that means you are helping a wider world. My parents didn't even know about the fae, Liam. They could not imagine this world."
"Can you imagine theirs?" Liam asked.
"Not really. A world without magic? A world of technology and dark places. No trolls and ogres, but I've been taught that there are dangers enough in such a place."
Liam nodded. He said nothing more as they stared at the building.
"We are going to have more trouble, aren't we?" Connor finally said.
"Yes. But you already knew that, Connor."
"I'm ready for this. We'll finish this right."
"I never doubted."
"Liam, did you really see what I would do inside the Stone Room?"
Liam gave an unexpected laugh. "No, I didn't. I just knew you well enough to realize you would do what you saw as best. I merely pointed you in a direction I thought would help. And I did so in a way that the others didn't ask."
"Oh, very wise," Connor said with a laugh. He stood, and Liam did as well. He looked back at the building again but gave a nod this time. "So much to do. I'm ready for my own future."
Thursday, August 29, 2019
Connor could think of only one thing to do to stop Galen from killing them all. Connor would have killed Mirror Galen without a moment's thought at this point. However, the moment he drew the knife, the weapon went flying across the room and clattered on the floor by the Southgate Stone.
Maybe one chance.
Connor shoved Mirror Galen into the path of an oncoming troll, hoping the creature kept him busy for just a moment. Connor then threw himself at the knife he had lost, scrambling across the floor on his hands and knees as he moved through the forest of trolls.
At the last moment, Connor stood and shoved the stone of Southgate off the pedestal.
The rock hit the floor with a bright spray of magic, and Connor feared he had just killed everyone --
Mirror Galen screamed in rage. He heard the sounds of angry and frightened trolls as the magic spread outward in waves of almost blinding light and color. The waves hit the shell around the King and Queen and flashed even brighter. Dangerous -- dangerous with the shield, and hazardous if they dropped it.
Connor had to stop the magic.
So he threw himself over the stone and dared just a little more magic to try and hold everything in place.
Mirror Galen caught him, screaming words Connor really couldn't hear or understand. He only saw that the man had a sword in hand and that meant --
The King had a sword as well. So did his friends. Mirror Galen looked up at the King with a shake of his head and started to step back.
Antisha and Liam were the ones who killed him. Mirror Galen still had a little magic left, but not enough to hold all the others back. Connor saw a look of disbelief on his face more than fear. Liam kept him busy, his weapon swinging relentlessly forward against the weapon Mirror Galen suddenly called to him. Liam took one cut, but by then Antisha had moved in and had no trouble striking the fatal blow that went straight through his heart.
And then he was falling dead.
Not a lot of help for Connor. He dared not let go of the Southgate Stone, but the power kept building within it. His eyes blurred, and he couldn't clearly hear what the others said. He needed help!
"Hold on," Liam said at his ear. "A moment. Taking out stones."
Praise the gods for that. However, this one burnt him with power and anger. He was Northgate, not Southgate, and the stone didn't know what had happened. It didn't understand the evil that had drawn power from it, but the stone did know that the person who touched it now should not have dared.
The stone was magical enough to know rage -- or perhaps it had learned such an emotion from Galen.
Connor didn't believe he could survive. He should have named an heir. He should have told the others -- no, they would do fine without him. He was a latecomer and an outsider. He thought he had done well, though --
"Easy now," the King said somewhere nearby. "I have a feel for the stone. Get him away from it."
"Let go, Connor," Nylia said. "We can't move you until you let go."
"Safe?" he whispered. He wasn't sure if he had really said the word.
"Let go," Nylia repeated.
Connor knew that he had to trust them. So he made his hands work, even though none of his body wanted to obey him now. Connor knew what was going to happen once he relinquished what little power he had over the Southgate stone. He hoped the others were wise enough to stay back.
His fingers moved, though slowly. He had his eyes closed. No use looking destruction in the face --
The stone was free.
Connor felt a wave of fire hit, and he could make no sound, unable to breathe, and the darkness came --
And then the darkness retreated, and the sounds of voices returned. Connor blinked.
"Damn crazy thing to do," Druce said, his voice unexpectedly trembling. "Didn't anyone tell our fine Lord Connor never to touch the stone of another keep? Why do you think the Mirror Galen wanted Ordin to take that Lordship at Northgate? He dared not do it himself."
"You knew what he was going to do, didn't you, Liam?" Nylia asked.
Someone brushed a hand over Connor's face, trailing cool magic that spread through his body. He knew it wasn't the first time from the tingles he could feel. The magic helped, but so did the voices of his friends.
"I knew what he should do. I trusted him to do it without saying so," Liam replied. "If I had, the rest of you would have protested. And we would have lost."
"We?" Connor asked. He wasn't sure how to ask the question. His mind refused to do more than listen and hold to the words.
"We survived," Nylia said. He was still on the floor of the stone room, he realized. Others were sitting by him. "But it was damned close for all of us, especially you."
Connor nodded. No use in speaking right now. No use in --
"Galen?" he finally asked.
"He tried to kill the King. After that, there wasn't enough of him left to clean up. Probably the best way he could die, given the evil he'd done. Fool," Nylia said. "A shame he won't have to face the anger and ridicule of others."
"But --" Rion said. He stopped and shook his head.
"Hell," Connor said, something coming clearly to his mind. "The spell fractured."
"Bright boy -- you always were," Rion said. He looked around at the others. "I don't think that was the only Mirror Galen created."
"Others," Antisha said and shook her head in dismay. Then she sat down on the floor with them. "I guess we still have work to do."
Friday, August 23, 2019
Antisha looked back at the man with a glare that almost felt like magic in the air, and none of it good. "You have no right to make judgments of any kind. Shut up."
Galen glared. Connor began to think the man wasn't nearly as smart as people thought. Connor also felt as though he could move and think again. They had fought off all the creatures that had come for them and barely survived. Connor didn't understand why the others here thought he was the one who had led the trolls -- or maybe he did.
"Ah. These people think I'm behind the trouble, not just because I'm human, but also because we leapt to the Troll Lands," he said aloud.
Liam, looking pale and as annoyed as Connor had ever seen him, nodded. "Yes. And they weren't going to listen to us. Praise the Gods we had Antisha with us. They know her since she's worked with these people all her life."
"They knew Galen too, right?"
"Not so well. I had the feeling no one liked him," Liam said. "No matter what else, Connor, you at least are polite."
"And you killed my son because you didn't like him --" Galen began.
A soldier to the side caught the man's arm and glared. "You killed him -- or your mirror did the work. I was there and saw it happen. And you are a damned fool."
Galen looked shocked, but still not worried and not upset. Maybe there was a reason the mirror being had no trouble with the idea of killing Ordin. Perhaps he got that straight from Galen.
There would be a lot of things Connor would want others to explain to him later. So much he didn't understand -- and he hoped he survived long enough to learn the answers, even if he didn't remain Lord of Northgate. He wanted what was best for that place and those people.
That thought brought Connor a new feeling of peace and calm. Worries began to settle in Connor's mind, and he knew that he had to make sure he helped make things right.
Antisha led the way as the group headed for the stairs, gathering more people at every level until they were packed in tight. He wasn't certain what they intended to do, though.
Connor also wasn't surprised to find a shell of magic around the stone room.
"If we try to break through this, it's going to be a disaster," Antisha warned, almost touching the shell. Bits of power danced out toward her fingers, and she drew back "The shell is going to keep any magic out, and if we try to break it, the magic will implode and -- that would be horrible. Those inside would not survive. Neither, I think, would we."
"Then we have to find a way to deal with this creature," Druce said, snarling at Galen who didn't seem at all upset. The man was crazy.
"There's another way," Connor said. He even smiled, which didn't appear to set his companions at ease. "Antisha and I realized something --"
"Oh hell," she said. She took hold of Connor's arm. "If you can get in --"
"Go to the right," Liam said. He stared ahead, not seeing here or now, but just a little into the future, Connor hoped. Enough to give him an edge. "Go right and down. Get to the Southgate stone."
"Southgate," Connor said. "But --"
"You would never get to the Northgate one," Antisha agreed. "It's clear across the room. "However, if you can stop the Mirror from using the Southgate power --"
"Ah. Yes. But not with magic."
"Not unless you have to," Antisha said and met his look. "If you can get the shield down, though, we can help you."
Connor narrowed his eyes, recalling the layout of the room. They were right about not going for the Northgate stone. Besides, even if he could reach the stone, he wouldn't be able to use any magic that might cause a problem.
Connor took a deep breath before he stepped forward -- and then threw himself at the shield. The magic tested him, but Connor didn't fit the criteria for which it had been created. Even with the core of stone magic in him, it sensed him as a non-magical being and as something that was no danger.
Connor stepped through the shield, threw himself to the right, and dropped to the ground. He saw several trolls in the room, along with the King and Queen in a shell of exceptional magic that flickered dangerously as lights played over it. He didn't see Galen at first --
There he stood with his hands on the Southgate Stone. Mirror Galen concentrated on reaching the King and Queen. He had to work subtly. The creature did not pay much attention, even when a couple trolls growled.
Mirror Galen had no idea Connor had arrived.
Connor scrambled past the trolls who still had trouble with surprises and hadn't started to move against him. Their inability to react saved Connor from more than a vicious kick that half numbed his leg. No matter. He was already close to Galen.
Connor reached out and caught the man by the leg, yanking him off balance.
Mirror Galen lost control of the subtle magic -- it grew suddenly into a firestorm of multi-color lightning that spread all across the room. Everything went crazy.
Connor hadn't gotten the shield down, though, so no one could help him. Mirror Galen yelled for the trolls who recovered enough to stomp towards him. As long as Connor held tight to Mirror Galen, though, he figured he would be safe enough. Trolls were big, clumsy and they would be as likely to hit -- or stomp on -- Galen as him if he could stay close enough to his enemy.
Mirror Galen proved to be strong, and he had magic. He reached out towards the stone and grabbed at it, shouting in anger --
Change in plans.
Thursday, August 15, 2019
Connor staggered as they entered the crowded royal courtyard. The world spun around him so that for a moment he wasn't sure they had actually made to their destination. Nothing settled and he almost went to his knees with the sudden pain. Liam caught his arm and then shoved him aside and into the protection of his friends.
People began to shout all around them.
"There he is! There's the traitor!"
Connor realized they were yelling about him. He looked around in shock and dismay, the headache redoubled. Colors still blurred and flared, but he could stand on his own feet now -- something important, so his companions didn't have to protect him.
He thought Galen yelled something and it couldn't be good. Druce grabbed hold of the frail lord and shook him so hard that Connor would have worried about the older man's life if he could have found the empathy to care at all. Galen had gone too far.
Liam moved to stand before Connor and lifted one hand to signal the people to silence. Then he suddenly went to his knees as well. People had weapons in hand --
Antisha, herself pale and shaky, suddenly shoved forward and yelled loud enough to get everyone's attention.
"What the hell is going on! Back off, you fools, or I'll see your heads on the walls before the sun is down!"
Silence. Now there was power. And worry, Connor thought. He doubted Antisha had ever made such a threat before, but even he didn't question her intentions, at least at this moment.
"Princess --" one of the men said, but he lifted a hand and held the others back. "We heard what Connor did --"
"I don't know what you heard, but maybe you better learn the truth before you do anything that cannot be undone," she said. People shifted nervously, but they remained quiet. "This is the real heart of our trouble: Galen, our good lord of Southgate, made a mirror creature of himself. That creature is in the building, isn't he?"
"That can't be --" the man began. "No Gate Lord would do such a thing --"
Antisha and Druce dragged the real Galen forward and held him up. He tried to bow his head, to make sure they didn't see him -- but it was no use.
"At least stand up like a man and face what you've done," Erlis ordered, his voice so full of disdain that even Connor flinched at the sound.
"This is Galen," the soldier said. He seemed to be someone of rank. The others were listening to his tale.
Connor left them to tell the tale as he and knelt beside Liam. His friend had a bad cut across his shoulder, and Connor feared he couldn't do the magic to heal the wound. He tugged at Nylia's pant leg, too far gone to even speak --
"Oh hell," she said and dropped to her knees. Her magic spread over Liam, but a moment later, she looked at Connor and gave a cry of worry that drew the attention of the others.
Connor wasn't certain what had happened. He thought everything had gotten very quiet, but maybe he had started losing his connection with here and with himself. He wanted to close his eyes and rest. He trusted the others would handle --
Druce quickly put a hand on his shoulder and pushed magic through Connor so fast it felt like fire bursting through his head. He cried out. What had been fuzzy before became sharp and loud. He found himself gasping as though he had not breathed for some time, and if they'd had any meal of note in the last few days, he would have been violently ill.
Erlis caught hold of Connor and pulled him to his feet -- the last place he really wanted to be, but apparently, they were moving. Maybe they would go somewhere he could rest. Possibly somewhere safe --
No, not safe.
The battle had raged up around them again, with both weapons and some magic. Connor looked around as much as he dared because he feared he was still going to pass out. Royal soldiers encircling his small group and protected them, so apparently whatever Antisha had said finally got through to them. They shouted to others, and the Connor feared cacophony of sound would kill him.
Other things might kill him faster, though. Trolls had appeared, and very many of them. He saw ogres as well and other things that climbed walls and leapt into the fray, attacking anything that came within range of their blows and weapons.
The trolls were fighting viciously to get to Connor's group, which finally must have convinced the others that they were not part of the enemy attack. They still held Lord Galen captive, dragging him toward the castle. He didn't want to go, and Connor wouldn't have trusted the man to work with them. Wise of the others to keep him in hand.
They reached the door at least. Fae were fighting against the trolls and their army, but the trolls only fought them if they were attacked. They were still interested only in Connor's group, and he had to wonder if it was Galen they wanted now.
"Tell -- tell the fae to pull back," he said to Antisha and guard beside her. "They only want us. Don't get killed now!"
The guard gave him an odd, quick glance. It touched on honor, he supposed. Then the guard gave a quick bow of his head, an acknowledgment of Connor's status that he had not expected. The fae sent a few soldiers out and around the mass, and almost immediately, the fae began to fall back.
"Antisha -- your parents?" he finally managed to ask.
"With the stones," she said. "We didn't dare leap straight there with magic. You don't look well, Connor."
"Human," Galen snarled, as though he spat the word out. "He's not one of us. He shouldn't be allowed to touch magic."
Thursday, August 08, 2019
"Creature?" Galen snarled with a shake of his head. The shadows moved as if half alive, and even the others looked around with new worry. "It is no such thing. The mirror is a copy of me, set to do what I am now too weak to do --"
The sound of his voice had grown stronger, and the fire in his eyes made it evident that the real Galen was no better than the copy he must have created.
"You should have stepped down," Druce replied with hardly concealed anger. "If you are too ill for the work, you should have moved aside."
"Ordin isn't ready," Galen said. "Ordin has much to learn still."
Galen must have seen something in their faces. He took a step away before Antisha even spoke.
"Your mirror killed your son for his magic. Your creature has been moving against the fae and killed many. He's working with the trolls. And now -- now we know the true answer to the myth, Connor. It isn't you. The thing we have been fighting isn't even truly fae. It is magically made and given purpose. You told it to rule, didn't you? And didn't limit how or where it might rule."
"And that's why you are hiding here," Connor added. "You already knew you couldn't trust it."
"It is me! I have nothing to fear --"
"Don't lie to us!" Antisha sounded very much like her father at that moment. Galen frowned and made a little waving motion with his hand, but he didn't snap at her. She leaned closer to him, her eyes blazing. "You are hiding here because you thought this would be the only place where you would be safe. Where is it?"
"I don't know."
"Don't lie to us."
Galen's face went white with fear. He knew he couldn't get away, and he plainly didn't want to anger Antisha more. Connor realized that Galen knew she was a member of the royal family.
"He's somewhere in the fae lands. Not here. He has reason still to fear me."
"Yes, he does," Druce agreed. He reached forward and caught the man by the arm, drawing a glare from Galen. "And that's why you are coming with us to undo him."
"No, I will not!"
Galen reached his free hand toward the stone, but Connor moved faster and stood between the Lord of Southgate and the source of his power. Had the stone seemed slow to respond? The others began wrapping Galen in a blanket of power that held the weaker Lord without any trouble.
"How do we find this mirror?" Nylia asked.
"A few drops of Galen's blood will do the trick," Rion replied. He'd gone stone-faced with his anger. "With the blood, I can do a simple trace."
"You wouldn't dare wound a Gate Lord --"
Antisha pulled her knife and swiftly cut across the back of Lord Galen's hand, drawing a startled yelp from the man. Connor could not figure out why Galen thought he was immune, given what he'd admitted. Maybe the illness had unsettled his mind. And what of Ordin? Perhaps instead of illness, it was the family line that had a problem. Maybe it was time to remove them from power.
Not his decision, though. He only needed to deal with the problem Lord Galen had created.
The man did not mourn the loss of his son. As far as Connor knew, Ordin had been his only child, but with the long age of fae, there may have been another. They were not a prolific breed, though.
Rion had spoken the spell, creating a field of light in his hands. At his nod, Antisha let a drop of blood from her knife land within the light. It sparkled and spread in a line, and from that came a view of a room.
"The Court," Antisha said with a hiss of anger and worry. "That's the room above the royal hall."
"Then that's where we go," Connor said, already preparing to head out again.
"Let's go," Antisha urged.
Connor had used magic for two big leaps already. He had to concentrate past a growing headache to focus on the way to the Royal Court. They could not drop in close enough to grab the Mirror Galen and chances were that he was going to feel the magic when they arrived.
Those thoughts stilled him while the others were starting to make the portal. He looked at Antisha.
"I assume you have some way of getting into the castle quickly," he said.
"Oh, Gods. I hadn't thought of that problem. We can't simply leap there. We'll have to go to the courtyard, and then I can go on in."
Connor nodded. "You need to be ready to move straight to your parents, and to open the way for the rest of us."
"Yes," she said. She took a deeper breath and nodded, forcing some of the panic away. "Let's go."
They had no time for any more planning. Connor didn't know what was going to happen, but he looked back at Galen and thought what a fool the man had been and what a mess he had created.
"You've not only lost your position but also any good name you may have had," Connor said as he looked at the man. Galen shook his head in mute disbelief; a fae's name in history was as important as his place in life.
"I have done nothing -- my mirror --" he began.
Connor didn't wait for any more excuses. He looked at Druce, Nylia, and Rion who had the man in their control. Even weakened, he was still a Gate Lord, and they would not take chances. Connor would keep aware of him, too.
Connor closed his eyes against the growing pounding in his head and turned his attention to the spell. He had to concentrate and not let his mind wander.
One step forward and another and another.
And they stepped out into chaos.