“You’re always so honest. I feel like I could come to you about anything.”

Spike wonders whom to ask to spend Hearts and Hooves Day with him. Applejack may know.

“Prop that there log up under here, would you, Spike?”

Proof of the little dragon’s trust in Applejack was the readiness with which he seized the piece of firewood in question and hopped down into the awkward hole beside her in order to squeeze it under part of the enormous tree stump she was holding partially up with her forehooves. If she were to lose her grip, the thing would swivel down on top of them, retaking its place in the gap in which they stood and crushing them without a trace.

As it was, once Spike had wedged the log in place and vacated the hole, Applejack eased the stump down to test it; and when it held, standing perpendicular to its usual position propped on the other piece of wood, she made a satisfied sound and also jumped out.

“Hey, Applejack!” was Spike’s belated greeting.

“Hiya, Spike,” replied the amused pony as she positioned herself just at the edge of the hole.

“Can I talk to you about something?”

“Sure thing, if you don’t mind me workin’ on this gol-durned stump at the same time.” She turned her back to the object in question, looking over her shoulder to adjust her angle.

“OK,” said Spike, then took a deep breath. His next phase came out all in a rush: “I need some advice about Hearts and Hooves Day.”

With great precision and all the force she could muster, Applejack bucked at the stump, hoping with the motion to disengage the two stubborn and inconveniently deep roots that yet held it in place. Unfortunately, all it actually did was dislodge the log from the stump’s jagged underside and bring the latter creaking inevitably back down into its former home. “Darn it,” Applejack muttered. Then she turned to Spike, who had watched with interest. “You need advice on how to ask Rarity to spend Hearts and Hooves Day with you?”

“Well…” Spike traced a pattern in the dirt with one clawed foot. “Not exactly. See, I like Rarity… I really, really, really like Rarity… but…” He gave a hopeless sigh. “She still thinks of me as a kid.”

“Rarity is real sophisticated,” Applejack admitted. “I think she’d prefer somepony older.” She didn’t mention, as unhelpful, how little it improved matters that Twilight always referred to Spike, however affectionately, as a ‘baby dragon’ — which, though it might technically be true in terms of years, proportionally speaking, gave an inaccurate impression of Spike’s level of development and maturity.

“Yeah,” said Spike, wistful and admiring. “So sophisticated.”

“Won’t do any good to dwell on it,” Applejack said with matter-of-fact sympathy. “Who’re you gonna ask instead?” She was studying the stump from all sides again, trying to determine, since bucking hadn’t worked, what would be the most efficient method of getting it out of there.

“That’s…” She could hear him pawing the ground again, but presently this was overridden by a brief belching sound and the rustle of paper. “…actually what I want your advice about.”

She glanced over to find him holding a scroll that, as it unrolled, proved longer than he was tall. Stifling a laugh she commented, “You’ve been workin’ for Twilight for too long.”

“Do you think so?” Spike asked somewhat anxiously. “Just, she’s the first pony on my list…”

Applejack had gone back to examining the troublesome roots. “Just a joke, Spike,” she assured him with a grin. “Twilight’s a genius when it comes to organization, and that’s been useful to everypony in this town.” Moving to the wagon in whose bed her tools waited (not to mention a huge heap of firewood from the tree she’d felled), she hopped up. As she tossed her shovel shoes down over the side, their brief presence in her mouth muffled her subsequent words somewhat: “But for Hearts and Hooves Day, dontcha think you might like somepony a little more spontaneous? She’d probably put you on a tighter schedule than you’d really enjoy.”

Spike made a note on his list (she had no idea where he’d been keeping the quill) as Applejack jumped back down from the wagon. “Well, there’s Rainbow Dash,” he suggested, hovering the tip of his pen over another spot on the paper.

Applejack chuckled. “Can’t get better than Rainbow Dash for spontaneity!” Adjusting her shovel shoes and slipping her forehooves into them, she added, “Rainbow’s a lot of fun, too. You’d have an excitin’ Hearts and Hooves Day with her! She might wear you out, though; she doesn’t always notice when ponies around her don’t have as much energy as she does.”

“True,” Spike agreed with a nod, and jotted something down. “But I bet I wouldn’t have to worry about that with Fluttershy!”

Applejack had begun driving the blades now attached to her feet into the earth beside one of the problem roots. She would never be able to get at the stupid thing with a saw, but if she cleared the dirt down to a point where the root wasn’t so stubbornly thick, she could try an axe. And as she dug she replied to Spike’s latest proposal. “No, you’re right about that: Fluttershy’s always sensitive to ponies around her. You might have a sweet old time with her.” She paused in her vigorous attack on the ground and looked over at him with a rueful expression. “She really is shy, though, obvious as that sounds to say. She might be too bashful to enjoy anythin’ y’all decided to do together that day, if she even agreed in the first place.”

Spike nodded decisively, evidently accepting this assessment, and made another mark on his list. “You know who’s not shy, though?”

“Pinkie Pie?” Applejack speculated as she returned to her digging.

Spike sounded startled. “Yeah; how’d you know?”

“Lucky guess?” Digging down the sides of the root was proving somewhat tricky, and she was coming at it in bits and pieces from various angles.

“Well, yeah, then, what about Pinkie Pie?”

“She knows how to have fun if anypony does!” Applejack replied, the thought of the broadness of Pinkie’s definition of ‘fun’ making her grin. “And she can always come up with things to do, so y’all’d never be bored…”

As Applejack trailed off in the relative silence of the shovel shoes’ continued scraping thunks into the ground, Spike wondered, “But…?”

Somewhat reluctantly Applejack answered, “But dontcha think an entire day with just Pinkie might get a little… crazy? I’d never want to insinuate an earth pony wasn’t down-to-earth enough, but sometimes Pinkie Pie…”

“‘Possible sensory overload,'” Spike muttered as he scribbled.

Applejack gave a laugh of agreement, but found her smile turning to a faint frown as she looked at the dragon and his lengthy paper. “Now, just how many more names do you have on that there list?” she wondered warily.

“Oh, tons,” Spike replied. “There’s Cheerilee, and Rainbow’s friend Gilda, and Time Turner, and Vinyl Scratch, and Lyra, and Big McIntosh–”

Applejack was afraid she would have some disqualifying news about more than a few of the ponies Spike was considering, but on this topic as well as the conspicuous lack of one particular name she had no comment as yet. What she wanted to know next, gently interrupting the recital, was, “And why’d you come to me about this, Spike?”

“Because,” the dragon replied earnestly, lowering his paper and looking at her with big green eyes, “you’re always so honest. I feel like I could come to you about anything, I guess.”

“Well, you keep right on feelin’ that way,” Applejack told him with a smile that probably concealed very well the bittersweetness of this turn in the conversation. “But why this in particular?”

“You can tell me exactly what would be great about every one of our friends… and what wouldn’t be so great… as a special somepony for Hearts and Hooves day.” His looks and tone became despondent as he added, “And it seems like everypony has something about them that wouldn’t be so great…”

“Aw, Spike, you can’t think about it that way,” she chided kindly. “If I made it sound like any of our friends wouldn’t be a great choice for you to ask, I didn’t mean it. Nopony’s perfect; you’ll never find somepony who won’t have some problem. That’s the thing about havin’ a special somepony, even if it’s just for one day: you gotta work together to have fun in spite of everythin’ that ‘wouldn’t be so great.’ It takes a lot of hard work sometimes, but that just makes it better.”

“I guess,” he said a little doubtfully, looking down at his list again.

Applejack too returned her eyes downward. She’d made good progress on the root, but it was going to take as long again to render it accessible to an axe, and even once it was severed she would probably need to dig further along its length to free it from the constricting earth in order to lift the stump out. And then there was the other root.

“I think we could both use a break,” she said at length. “Wanna ride to the house for some cider before we tackle this again?”

“Sure!” With an air of some relief, Spike rerolled his paper and fire-breathed it back to whatever hiding place, hopefully safe from Twilight’s sharp eyes, it had originally come from (and perhaps his pen with it?).

Applejack, meanwhile, shed her shovel shoes and stretched out her forelegs. When she found the little dragon standing next to her, she reached out to grip between her teeth the spines just south of his neck and toss him up over her head and onto her back. His innocent laughter at the stunt energized her, and she crouched slightly, tensed to run. “Time me!” she commanded.

“All right!” His little clawed hands gripped her mane just beneath her hat. “Ready? Set? Go!”

There was a certain type of withholding of information that was not a lie by omission, but rather a recognition that the truth had not yet matured into an appreciable form. Though he might not be a kid, precisely, Spike was still young, and had a lot to learn, both of universal constants and specific possibilities, not to mention of himself. It would never do to try to rush him. And Applejack, for all Spike might value her honest advice, probably had a thing or two to pick up as well. They could figure it out together, given time.

For now, they just galloped off through the trees.

This was for MangoFox’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “MLP fic where Spike has multiple romantic interests. So he goes to Applejack to get advice on whom to choose. But it turns out that Applejack is actually the best choice for him.” I did not watch a single episode to prepare myself for writing this, none of Spike’s sarcasm ever happened, much to my sorrow, and the implied Applejack & Spike ended up kinda vague. Ah, well.

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?

Prison of Their Own Making

“Does that bloke out there know who we are?” Daniel wondered.

Tom Felton organizes a silly little reunion, and it gets sillier.

When Tom stepped from his car into the parking lot to meet his friends, he was a little dismayed if not particularly surprised to find a grand total of two people waiting for him — only Daniel and Emma, the ones he saw most routinely anyway — at the specified time.

After hugs and handclasps of greeting, Emma looked around curiously and commented, “I thought you invited everyone.”

Tom shrugged. “I guess everyone’s busy.”

I’m very busy,” Emma replied in a mock huffy tone, “and I’m here.”

With a laugh Tom put a comradely arm around her shoulders and hugged her again. “It’s really good to see you guys.”

Daniel too was scanning the area. “It is,” he agreed, shrugging slightly as he turned back without having found a trace of any of their other friends. “So what are we doing, exactly?”

Tom frowned across the lot at their destination, then threw one last, futile glance at the empty parking spaces nearby. “Well, I’d like to wait and see if anyone else shows up, but we’re scheduled for 4:00, so we’d better go inside.”

“That doesn’t actually answer the question, though,” Emma pointed out as they crossed toward the tinted glass doors awaiting them.

Tom grinned. “You’ll see inside.” The others rolled their eyes at this pointed but pointless mystery, but didn’t hesitate to accompany him.

They did see inside, and the continued rolling of eyes and a certain amount of gaping once they were there prevented any further comments from Daniel or Emma as Tom got them checked in. “Felton?” the attendant was saying, flipping through pages on a clipboard. “Yeah, we’ve got you down for four, but I thought you were going to have a lot more people with you?”

“Seems like all our other friends are gits who can’t show up on time to a reunion get-together,” Tom explained. “I thought we’d get started, and if anyone else arrives you can let them in, all right?”

Although this arrangement didn’t entirely seem to suit the attendant, he nevertheless agreed; Tom had paid him a decent amount of money. After some picky business with waivers the man didn’t even look at once they were all filled out, he ushered them down a narrow hallway to where a set of lockers stood across from a dark door. Once he’d allowed Emma to stow her purse in the former, he drew their attention to the latter and began giving instructions. These dragged on for what seemed an unnecessary length of time, perhaps because the only one of the three to respond and confirm he was actually paying attention was Tom; the others maintained a dubious silence. But finally the man finished his dissertation, handed each of them a large round button with a pin on the back for attaching to one’s clothing, and stepped past them to open the door and allow them to enter.

Inside what proved to be a cramped but high-ceiling’d entry or antechamber, the moment the way behind them was closed, Daniel and Emma rounded immediately on Tom with expressions of skeptical amusement and demanded almost in unison, “A Harry-Potter-themed escape room?”

Tom’s grin was part sheepishness and part cheek. “When I saw they had one, I couldn’t resist.”

“Of all the silly things to drag me away from everything I was busy with…” Emma was rolling her eyes again, but she laughed as she said it.

“Does that bloke out there know who we are?” Daniel wondered at about the same moment.

Tom shrugged. “I don’t know. You’d think he would, but it’s been so long…”

“Well…” Emma turned away from them to examine the tiny room. “We only have an hour, right? Since we’re here, we might as well get going on it.”

The nature of the first puzzle was immediately apparent. A big wooden door with an old-fashioned wrought-iron handle and lock blocked their path, the keyhole gaping at them like a taunting mouth. And above them, too far up to be reached even with a skillful vertical spring, myriad winged keys dangled on strings from the distant ceiling. A fan seemed to be running up there, for the keys spun and jostled and clinked together in not too bad an imitation of the scene from the film.

Finished peering into the jingling dimness, Daniel dropped his eyes to the more accessible parts of the room again. “There’s no broom…”

And this is reality,” Emma reminded him. “How were you expecting to fly up there?”

Now it was Daniel’s turn to look a little sheepish. “I thought if I could find a broom and sit on it, the right key might fall down.”

“It’s sure to fall down if we do something,” Tom mused.

At that moment the door behind them opened once again, and they were joined by Rupert, who came bounding into the small space and immediately clapped Tom on the back. “All right, guys? Tom, you’re a genius! I would have never guessed this was your idea! How did you find this place?”

“Online, of course,” Tom told him, returning the slap on the back.

Daniel winced even as he moved to take his turn greeting Rupert. “You look at Harry Potter stuff online?”

“So what are we doing here?” Rupert wondered before Tom could answer the somewhat loaded question.

“Trying to get the right key to come down to open this door,” Emma explained as she hugged him in her turn. “And before you ask, there’s no broom.”

“Well, and this is reality anyway,” Rupert allowed.

“It was the natural first thing to look for!” protested Daniel.

“But there is a wand over there.” Everyone followed Rupert’s pointing finger, wondering how he’d noticed when he’d been in the room a fraction of the time they had.

Emma moved to snatch the prop from the little wall-mounted shelf where it lay beside a vase of fake flowers. Examining it, she said, “This is one of those official replicas. I think it’s Draco’s.”

“Let me see,” said the admitted Draco expert. And when he too had studied it for a moment he confirmed, “Yeah, this one’s mine. But I don’t remember the fetching-things spell.”

“Accio,” Daniel supplied with a grin. “I should really know.”

Tom thanked him and pointed the wand upward. “Accio key!”

Emma’s amused reminiscent murmur of “Swish and flick!” was drowned out by the sound of the shelf from which they’d retrieved the wand crashing from its supports down against the wall and the vase that had previously rested upon it — apparently made of nothing more delicate than plastic — falling to the floor.

“Oh, crap, we broke the escape room,” Tom muttered as he lowered his wand. He looked guiltily toward the door, expecting the attendant to enter at any moment and demand what they were playing at not five minutes into this challenge.

“No, I think that was supposed to happen.” Daniel bent thoughtfully to pick up the fallen vase and gather its silk flowers. “That was sort of like what happened when I — when Harry tried to use a wand that wasn’t right for him. Remember?”

“That’s right!” Rupert pointed at Daniel enthusiastically as he agreed with the theory. “We have to find a different wand!” And he began poking into the room’s darker corners.

As they all searched, the main door opened again and admitted Evanna into what was by now a very crowded space indeed. Hugs were getting difficult, but they managed them, and then the newcomer wondered what they were all looking for. Once Tom explained, she shook her head with a smile.

“But it won’t be a different wand. It’ll be the same wand, only somebody else has to use it.”

Their foolish looks at each other indicated their concurrence with this idea they wished they’d thought of sooner.

“We could all try it,” Daniel suggested reluctantly, glancing around. “There’s not much else to destroy in here if we get it wrong.”

But Emma said suddenly, “No, I get it! It’s Draco’s wand, so it can only be used by whichever of us got assigned Slytherin — that’s you, Dan.”

They all looked down at the buttons they wore. Tom had fastened his on without really paying attention — the attendant had still been talking at that point, and all he’d said about these accoutrements was that they would provide valuable clues — but now as he handed the wand over to Daniel he remarked, “I always did rather fancy Hufflepuff.”

This time when Daniel pointed the wand upward and confidently said, “Accio key!” nothing in the room around them fell apart… but if there was a more positive effect, they all missed it, for just as he spoke, the entrance opened again and Bonnie came in.

There was now barely room to move in here, and as everyone shuffled awkwardly around trying to greet their friend, it wasn’t even clear who muttered, “We really need to get this door open.”

“And what are we doing to get the door open?” Bonnie asked. With a glance at the dangling keys that evidently apprised her of the situation, she added, “I guess we can’t fly up there with a broom in real life.”

It was clear who snorted at this.

“We were trying to summon it,” Rupert explained.

“That… usually doesn’t work in real life either,” Bonnie pointed out with laughter in her tone.

Daniel just raised the wand again, nearly taking Evanna’s eye out as he did so. “Accio key!”

Nothing happened.

“Try pronouncing it ‘ax-ee-oh,'” Tom suggested. It was getting pretty hot in here, and he hoped uneasily that everyone was wearing antiperspirant.

And when the altered pronunciation too produced no results, Emma wondered, “Are we sure this is right?”

Evanna said, “I think you need to be more specific with the spell.”

Bonnie agreed. “Yeah, you have to say which key you want.”

“I can’t see any of them clearly, though,” Daniel complained, gently head-bashing Rupert as he craned his neck to look upward. “What should I say?”

“Which key was it in the film?” someone asked.

“I wasn’t even in the studio when you guys filmed that scene.” Tom started to shrug, then, finding his two arms pressed up against Emma’s back and Rupert’s side, respectively, thought better of it.

“I wasn’t even in the franchise when you guys filmed that scene,” Evanna put in.

“But there was a line about it,” Emma insisted. She added at a mutter, trying to remember, “What was it?”

“I’ve done a lot of other films since then,” Daniel said helplessly.

I’ve been driving an ice cream truck.” This was apparently all Rupert had to offer.

Tom advised, “Just try everything you can think of.”

“Accio correct key!” Daniel jabbed the wand toward the ceiling again. “Accio the key we need!”

“Try colors,” someone suggested.

“Accio black key! Accio brown key! Accio silver key! Accio rainbow key!”

“That’s a lot of keys!” came another voice from the newly opened door — the statement and a slight, very refreshing breeze from the orifice were the first indications of James’s presence.

“Yeah, do we really need all of those keys?” Oliver wedged himself in beside his brother, cheerfully eliminating the very last of the available space. “Or would just the rainbow one do?” And as the entry closed behind the twins, verbal pandemonium broke out.

Far above the reunited group now packed like sardines into the little escape room antechamber, unseen but not unseeing, seated on the fluffiest of clouds overlooking the bustling Earth, two winged men shared a bowl of celestial peanuts. These came up honey-roasted for one, lightly salted for the other, as each preferred, and now the elder of the two — though it was difficult to distinguish ages in this context — plucked one nut from the container and flicked it down toward the subject of their entertainment. It faded away into nothingness as it fell, unlike his chuckling lament, “They’ve wasted twenty minutes on just the first puzzle!”

“‘We’re looking for a big old-fashioned one,'” the younger man quoted. “‘Probably rusty like the handle.’ ‘The one with the broken wing.'” And he shook his head with a wry smile.

“Now, Alan, you have to remember that they don’t have nearly as much freedom as we do to marathon all eight films whenever they please.”

“You still think they can make it?”

“They always worked together well in the studio.”

“I think you’re going to end up owing me twenty wingfeathers, Richard.” Alan rattled his own angelic appendages in satisfaction.

“Bets aren’t binding in Heaven,” Richard replied piously.

“Which is why we came down here to watch,” said Alan with a grin. “Look, he’s trying the spell again.”

And with another handful of peanuts apiece, the two divine messengers returned their attention to the scene below and their friends’ sporting attempt at finding a way out of a dark, crowded, sweaty, and ridiculously appropriate prison of their own making.

This was for my very own mother’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “The child actors that play the HPworld characters do a HP escape room. Although maybe as adults.” I was not expecting any RPF prompts for this, least of all from my mom XD Hopefully nobody that reads this piece knows how any of these people actually act or talk, since I purely made it all up. Also, this may be Too Soon re: Alan Rickman, but there it is.

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?

12/12, recent productivity, WoW thoughts, plans for today

Happy 12/12. It’s so awesome that my longtime favorite number took on even more significance to me when I discovered the joy of Heero and Duo ^__^

I have been goodly productive lately. I have written some on my Christmas story every single day since I started it, and things are looking promising for having at least one if not both of my music videos done for Christmas as well. If things keep progressing this nicely, maybe I can has fanart too. That would be pleasant.

Plastic progress has also been good. The other day was Zombie Girl’s last final of the semester (and now she has an insanely long break), so to celebrate I worked on the Quatre/Trowa sex scene that she’s been waiting so patiently for all this time (she being more of a fan of that pairing than of Heero and Duo, shame on her). After her final, she arrived at my house at a particularly bad place to cut off in the middle of a sex scene, and then we went to Denver to go to the Cheesecake Factory and read all that I’d written on the way. It was awesome ^__^

Also I finished that Silent Hill fic that I’ve had kicking around forever, because scacao inspired me with her awesome awesome awesome H/D horror story. So that’s pretty great too.

Here are some thoughts I wrote down the other day while playing WoW. I don’t actually have Cataclysm yet (and, to be honest, really shouldn’t be subscribed to the game at all) because of being unemployed, but there are still plenty of changes we unfortunates can enjoy, and I comment at random upon thems.

OH GOD KOLTIRA AND THASSARIAN. They were already wonderful in Wrath, but now it’s like Sylvanas says, “KOL STOP BEING SO GAY WITH THAT HUMAN I WILL FIX YOU.” It won’t take, Lady, I promise. Those two are SO DESTINY.

Terenar Sunstrike is my fabulous new best friend. We were killing zombiestyle items together and he kept laughing like a maniac, and it made me giggle my ass off. Plus he’s totally gay, though that is probably the most redundant thing you can say about a blood elf. But seriously, his thing with Gidwin?? ZOMG. Also, I am tickled to death that these two are following me around for quests at the moment. I don’t know how long it will last, but I LOVE IT. I play this game almost exclusively solo, and I wish there were a lot more opportunities to team up with NPC’s for stuff. Admittedly these guys are the WEAKEST PALADINS EVAR, but I still love them.

Amylya has this super badass helmet thing that I do not remember getting even in the slightest bit. Seriously, check her out.

Is it just me, or are Elites tougher now? I mean, the rule of thumb used to be “three or four levels above their declared level,” but now they all just seem to kick my ass XD

I’ve already made decent progress on my Christmas story, and I worked on a music video all day yesterday, so my plan for the rest of today is to work on Plastic. Actually that will probably turn into MV workings again later, because I can’t stay away from that, but at least I will try to get some good stuff done on Plastic first. Oh, but isn’t there a Christmas party or something tonight… hmmm… Well, whatever. Plastic.

Another Source of Light

He wasn’t defeated; he didn’t deserve this bizarre punishment, this world, and he would escape it yet.

James may think he no longer needs Pyramid Head, but what if he hasn’t really learned his lesson?

The TV was painfully bright in the dim room, the radio’s moaning static agonizingly loud. As he staggered up from the chair, he saw almost nothing but ghost-images of the snowy rectangle wherever he looked, and heard only echoes of her pain from the noisy device and words of a conversation he almost didn’t remember having, which seemed impossibly distant though it had only just occurred.

“Mary’s gone… she’s… dead…”

He stumbled from the room, leaving both television and radio behind, unaware even of what route he took through the maddening hotel, unconcerned about what he might meet on the way out, wishing only to escape from that place, the returning knowledge, that bright scene…

“I killed her…”

He clutched at his head, squeezed it, clawed at it, ripped out bits of hair, but all to no avail: the memories, now that they had returned, were stark and unrelenting…

…her equivocal requests, the inconstant desires of a woman suffering endlessly, physically and emotionally, that had driven him to the edge…

“She was always waiting for you… why…? why…?”

…his hatred for her, for what his life had become thanks to her, that grew steadily beneath the cover of a love that rotted slowly, love that he yet professed until the bitter end…

“I’m… sorry… The Mary you know… isn’t here.”

…the feeling of the pillow in his hands, of her weak, ineffectual struggles…

“No!” he roared, sinking to the ground. “No…” He came to rest on hands and knees on filthy asphalt as the world around him seemed to darken. Blackness spread in throbbing patches until he could see nothing, nothing but the bright, stabbing memory of what… what he had…

Another cry burst from him, inarticulate and strangled as he ground his face against the street as if somehow he could scrub out the images in his head. There was nothing but darkness and pain and memory, but the former could not overcome the latter that shone so brightly.

“I killed her…” It was like staring into the sun; it beat at him, stabbed into him, unrelenting and unjust brilliance.

And that was when he saw it.

His eyes snapped to it at once: another source of light. Thin and pale and dim by comparison, yet visible in the darkness even in the face of the first light. And any reprieve was welcome. He bent over it hungrily, desperate to bring it into better focus. It kept fading in and out, and after a moment he realized that this was merely because of his own blood dripping onto it and obscuring its glow.

It was a faint, meandering silver line on the ground that ran off into the blackness before him like a quiet and yet compelling guide. Guide to where? It made no difference to him; if he had a choice between the glare of his memories and this pale distraction, there was no question which he would take. Willing his reluctant limbs to move, he crawled after it.

He seemed to hear her voice — the voice that had haunted the crackling radio and that had haunted his dreams and that had haunted his waking life for three years — but in no physical sense; it merely resounded in his head, an inescapable conversation.

“Didn’t you want to see me?” Each word sent a shock of bright light through his consciousness like a strobe. And it was a conversation, simply because it wasn’t a memory of anything she’d ever actually said.

“Of course I wanted to see you…” It was an immediate reply, one that seemed very much like all those empty professions of love in the last days.

And her reply was also immediate, colder and harder than the plaintive question had been. “That’s not true, is it? You killed me.”

He crawled on, clinging desperately to the sight of the silver trail just as he clung to his answer, the answer he’d been giving silently all along: “I couldn’t stand to see you suffering…”

“Don’t make excuses, James.” Her voice was twisting, becoming something he didn’t recognize, an audio representation of the painful brilliance that was the memory of what he’d done. All the greater then became his focus on the other light, his only distraction, his only salvation. But her words throbbed on in his head. “I know I was a burden on you. You must have hated me. That’s why you got rid of me.”

He told himself not to answer, not to admit the truth, but when the discussion was only in his mind there was no hiding it. “Yes, I hated you! Don’t you realize what your illness did to you? What you became? It wasn’t my fault — how could I help hating you?” And maybe things would be better now that he’d said it, now that he’d acknowledged his real motives and how he’d languished during those years. He didn’t deserve any of this; it hadn’t been his fault.

“That’s not enough.” By her cold, bright, hard tone, Mary didn’t seem to agree. “You killed me, James. You killed me. And now her voice, surreal though it was, rose to a tight shriek in his mind: “James… do you really think I could ever forgive you for what you did?”

He reeled, crashing momentarily to his side on the ground, as echoes of her castigation flashed through his head, his entire body. But the next moment he was crawling again, moving faster, as if he could leave behind the pain and sorrow and bright light if he just found what lay at the end of the little glowing path beneath his eyes. I don’t deserve this, he found himself thinking over and over; he didn’t deserve to suffer like this; it had been more than he could handle; it hadn’t been his fault.

And suddenly the trail ended.

For a long moment he remained entirely motionless, frozen as if time and space no longer progressed, his mind refusing to comprehend the abrupt cessation of all his hopes. Then…

“Didn’t you want to see me?”

Rising up to his knees, he clenched his fists and howled. The memory was stabbing at the back of his eyes, white-hot and merciless. The pain on her face, in her voice… the snowy television… the pillow… For a second time, he clutched at his face, at his head, wanting nothing but to be rid of this bright light, and screamed until his voice gave out. Then he fell forward again onto his hands and then his chest, groveling on the asphalt, helpless, abject.

It was then, when his thoughts seemed to give way and shut down and only the vague sense of his surroundings and that light remained, that he noticed the difference in the air. Before him, within arm’s reach as he stretched out to test what he thought at first might be some sort of delusion, the air was in motion: thin, rising currents, now hot, now chilling, always bearing a filthy, sharp, metallic scent that wrapped around him and pulled at him.

In something resembling a panic he dropped his hand, searching for the ground… and discovered that not a foot in front of him, it ended entirely. Reaching back, he found its jagged edge, and noted that his trail, his light, his guide — it didn’t end, it merely plunged into this unknown abyss. Salvation was yet possible, escape from the brutal memory that even now tore at his mind like a gleaming, serrated blade. He rose again to all fours and threw himself forward.

He seemed to fall for a very long time, but it was the fall of a dream: no gravity pulled at him, and he feared no harmful collision at the bottom — he fell because he meant to fall. Already, knowing that he had another chance at following the silver light to its end, his mind was clearing a little. He wasn’t defeated; he didn’t deserve this bizarre punishment, this world, and he would escape it yet. By the time he hit the ground, this thought had heartened him to the point where he was ready to move on almost immediately, despite the fact that there actually was a considerable amount of pain associated with the conclusion of his descent.

Dragging himself slowly up, his entire body aching from the impact, he looked around — for he found he could see again, and not merely the blessed silver line that continued on before him into the shadows. It was clear he was lucky not to have been eviscerated during the fall, for he’d entered a confusing tangle of twisted chain-link and barbed wire. It was as if all the fences in the world had been rusted, mangled, deliberately set into an impossible maze, and laid at his feet.

After taking this in with a brief, impassive glance, he dropped again to his knees and continued to follow the light. It was difficult and bloody progress, for the silver trail did not always take the path of least resistance; sometimes the decaying steel around him encroached so close that, no matter how carefully he tried to wriggle past it, it still caught and tore. Soon his clothing was in shreds, and his flesh seemed likely to fare no better. It occurred to him that, rather than a maze, this was more like a vast cobweb of sharp points and hard lines… but whatever spider he might find at its center was irrelevant if the light led to it.

His next pause was not in response to any change in his guide, but in the scene he came upon in following it. It seemed typical of what lay around every corner in this bizarre and horrible world… but somehow more meaningful. More ominous, he might have said if he’d felt even the slightest apprehension. He stood still for some time, having lost track entirely of the silver line, staring, his eyes stinging with the unblinking intensity of his gaze, hardly breathing in his fascination and horror.

The pavement within the little clearing he’d entered was stained with blood in varying shades, from the glaring crimson of freshly-spilt to the decaying near-black of long-dried, and in the midst of this mess lay a half-clothed, headless corpse. Its limbs, the pallid blue-veined flesh like that of a drowned man, bore patches of the same colors that marked the ground, and it was curled up tightly in a fetal position, unrelaxed even after decapitation. He could make out tense ropes of muscle seemingly ready to burst free across the bare back, as if it had died in the throes of some monumental effort and never unclenched. But somehow, despite what he speculated must have been the fate of this unhappy victim of this terrible place, he couldn’t bring himself to feel any pity.

Abruptly the figure shuddered and slowly uncoiled, climbing to its feet, and with a shiver James suddenly recognized the spattered butcher’s apron it wore. Unencumbered by its usual hinderments, it moved with greater speed and agility than he had expected… but he found himself rapt, fixedly studying the blackened edges of the severed neck. It hadn’t been a clean cut, and it seemed to have been scorched besides.

Finally tearing his gaze from that inordinately fascinating sight, James looked around somewhat wildly, and noticed that there, indeed, half-obscured by a tangle of the ubiquitous wire off to his left, lay the triangular helmet or head the creature normally bore; and nearby the impossibly huge knife, its edge glinting dully even in the shadows. And in the moment it took him to take note of these things, the creature was on him.

Though he had good reason already to know the hideous strength of the muscular body, still he was surprised at the force with which he was flung to the ground. At the thought of what that strength might be capable of doing to him, knife or no knife, he began to struggle… but it was too late. The bone-crushing grip of one gloved hand was enough to keep him down while the other tore at his ruined clothing, pulling it off in shreds.

In James’s mind the consideration formed that there was really only one reason the creature would strip him… only one reason… but, like electricity along a broken circuit, the thought couldn’t seem to get any farther than that. Only one reason, only one reason, it told him, but never what that reason was. This state of incomprehension lasted as long as it took for his skin to be bared, and no longer. For at that moment the creature pulled aside the lower half of its apron to reveal a huge, erect, blood-stained penis.

This galvanizing sight made James struggle even harder — and even less effectually, for the creature’s strength seemed to grow the nearer it came to its gruesome goal. With a few iron-hard blows it neutralized his struggles, immobilized him; in fact, the stunning pain might have caused him to collapse onto his face if the creature hadn’t been holding him. He might even have given up and gone limp if he hadn’t known now what his fate was to be.

There was no preparation, physical or mental, that could ready him for this, and none was offered. In one agonizing moment he was penetrated fully, ripped open and violated in a single movement. The swiftness of the motion was no relief, however; the real torment had just begun. The creature’s strength and speed were evident here as well as in wielding its more conventional weapon; as it began its impossibly painful thrusts into him, it held him inexorably where it wanted him with a single steely arm around his chest.

Besides excruciating to the point where James thought he might faint (and wished he could), the irregularity of the driving cock was jarring, and prevented even the remotest possibility of acclimatization. Every time the creature shifted even slightly, the next thrust was at some new unbearable angle, finding some new sensitive spot inside him to torture and tear.

I don’t deserve this… oh, god, I don’t deserve this… Somehow this was for a while his single and overwhelming thought until he was screaming it aloud, and with each repetition of the sentiment the creature pounded into him harder.

And… yet… the pressure was…

It was a completely different type of pressure, but still it reminded him, took him back… in his head, somehow, the weight of the creature bearing him down was the weight of his shoulders as he held a stark pillow down over his wife’s face.

No, he told himself in a sort of mental groan, it’s not the same… that was nothing like this… maybe I deserve something, but not this

At this the creature’s arm and hand seemed to tighten as if hoping to crush him, to crack his ribs and drive them right into his lungs until he drowned in his own blood and slowly expired. Maybe it would prefer to be fucking a corpse, being something of a corpse itself… or maybe this was simply the embrace of one murderer for another.

Though the pain had not lessened, even his screams died as he choked and struggled to breathe. He felt compressed, smothered, and as all the air was squeezed from him he began to see tiny shifting points of light not unlike the condemning sun behind his eyes… and perhaps this was not so inappropriate a punishment after all…

Then the crushing arms slackened, and he gasped in the acrid, sex-scented air and coughed twice as the stars began to recede. The creature still held him, however, keeping him stationary for its continued hammering into his ass. But though James found himself able to scream again, he found himself simultaneously less inclined to protest this treatment, and the only sound that escaped his lips was a low moan of continued pain.

It seemed to go on forever, the tireless headless body violating him with endless, patternless brutality, slowly and methodically beating out of him any desire to deny that he deserved this. As the last of this desire faded, he was overwhelmed by an impression of sudden change. The air seemed abruptly fresher — or, rather, the stench of blood and sweat and filth and desperation seemed somehow less unpleasant than it had — and as he took a deep, shuddering taste of it, he began to feel… aroused.

Yes… yes this was as it should be… this was what was due him after what he’d done… for what he was… Yesssss… He felt his own cock growing hard, painfully hard, as the creature continued its relentless pounding. It drove into him just as he’d driven down on his helpless wife, robbing him of choice just as he’d robbed her. And though this brought him more pain than pleasure, yet the pain, because it was so right, because he deserved it so entirely, brought pleasure. His next moan was distinctly one of enjoyment, even ecstacy; and he squirmed against the iron grip now not in any attempt to escape but in carnal revelry — and also perhaps in some emulation of her futile struggles as he’d killed her.

And then the creature gripped him tightly again, crushing him once more, this time even harder, and its muscular body stiffened as it gave one last, savagely deep thrust and seemed to explode into and around him with the force of its orgasm. Feeling his ribs creak and as if he were being incinerated from the inside out, James roared with an agony that was more heavenly right than anything he’d ever felt, and found blackness blossoming in his eyes. Soon he could see no light but the stabbing brilliance of his guilt, and even that presently began to fade as he toppled hard onto the rough, blood-stained ground.

The throbbing of both his erection and the sharp pain in his bleeding ass and elsewhere eventually awakened him. He dragged his eyes open sluggishly and tried to fight off the sort of haze, glowing with that same horrible light, that filled his vision. Rusty, twisted shapes were all he could make out before him, which was only to be expected, but where was the creature? Slowly he stirred, delighting in the pain every movement occasioned throughout his body, and looked around for his punisher.

It really did seem to have actually exploded, for nothing remained of it but copious amounts of blood, random spatters and gobs of blackened gore, and shattered bits of bone… and the apron, which was draped across James’s back where it must have fallen when the creature dissolved. It slid stiffly off him as he sat up, and he reached out for it. Holding it, he smiled vaguely.

He got slowly to his feet and stretched leisurely. He had gone, and remained, unsatisfied, and his need for release was even greater than before, but he knew that could easily be remedied; he could sense sources of satisfaction everywhere around him.

Within, everything was gone, he noticed. Everything, gone. Everything except the brilliance that was Mary. She was still in his head, but that didn’t matter; he knew what to do. As he pulled the apron strap over and fastened the ties at his back across what remained of his tattered clothing, his smile grew.

The helmet was heavy — very heavy — but, somehow, despite having anticipated no such weight, he lifted it without trouble. It fit easily and well, bringing with it that perfect, perfect darkness. There was only one source of light he needed; he had no need for that bright memory in his head, so it could just —

A wrenching snap like a bear trap’s closing echoed in the space around him, and the memory was — gone. The light, gone. The guilt and the pain and the awareness of any events past… gone. His body twitched, staggered half a step, then straightened. Blood gushed from beneath the metal edges only for a moment before flames roared briefly within the confines of his new world.

He rolled his shoulders, settling the pyramid more comfortably, then cast a slow look around at the flawless darkness. Crouching, his hand went unerringly to the hilt of his knife, and he dragged it up as he straightened. It, too, was heavier than he had expected, and his gait was jerky and slow. Nevertheless, it was with perfect satisfaction that he walked away. The barbed wire snapped, whipped, flailed before him, and the knife, screeching behind him, scraped a meandering line of glowing silver on the pavement in his wake.

This story is dedicated to fe, who originally introduced me to the world of Silent Hill, and to scacao, whose amazing Gundam Wing fic just dripping with Silent Hill inspired me finally to finish writing this.

I’ve rated this story . What do you think of it?

On Your Mark

They hovered above the city and both looked out for the same absent person.

Duo and Relena aren’t going to let a little thing like romantic rivalry get in the way of their friendship.

Relena didn’t have nearly as much attendant staff these days, but still it was damn hard to catch her alone; he’d followed her for hours, in fact, before he managed it. It probably wasn’t even necessary to talk to her privately — most of her aides surely knew who he was anyway — but old habits died hard.

“Delivery for you, ma’am,” he said in his casual-professional tone as he held out the envelope in her direction.

She was emerging from a bathroom (such the expedient to which he’d been driven), but if she was startled either by his sudden greeting, his playing a delivery boy again, or his presence in general, she didn’t show it. Accepting what he offered with barely a glance at him, she stepped out of the way of the door she’d just let swing shut behind her and opened the envelope.

He thought she probably was surprised to see him, as her reaction was just a little too politic. If she hadn’t been at all surprised, she would have greeted him; her first remark would have been more like, “Oh, hello, Duo; how long have you been in town?” and less like, “Who is this from?” as she looked at the all-day-pass to the local fair that the envelope had contained.

“Oh, did I…?” Duo patted himself down in an exaggerated fashion and pulled out his own ticket. Flipping it over, he nodded in understanding. “I put the wrong one in there. Pretend you never saw that; this one’s actually for you.”

With a somewhat skeptical smile, she accepted the trade and examined the new ticket. It was identical to the first, of course, except that on the back it read, How about a day at the fair with some old friends tomorrow? –D.M.

“I fail to see the point of writing a note on the back when you knew you’d be delivering it yourself,” she smiled. “And do I even want to know how you knew I had a clear schedule tomorrow?”

“Probably not,” he replied with a grin. “And I wasn’t planning on delivering it myself, but my other plans fell through. Good thing I did!”

She glanced at the pass again, and when she looked back up at him she had a slight, hopeful spark in her eyes that had not been there before. But her tone was merely curious as she asked, “‘Old friends?'”

“Yeah, Heero’s here too,” replied Duo, perfectly casual. “Unfortunately…” He held up the third day-pass that was still in his possession. “Convincing him that having fun is OK sometimes is something I just can’t do.”

The barest tilt of head and narrowing of eyes was all the indication Relena gave that she didn’t miss the unspoken addendum ‘yet.’

“You two are here together?” she asked. Duo might be good at making casual statements simply because casual was one of his basic modes of conversation; Relena was good at making casual statements because she’d become so practiced at all modes of conversation. Of course, when they both knew that the casualness of the statements they were making was deliberate, the entire meaning was altered.

“Naw,” he answered, not letting the light informality slip a jot. “We both have assignments here, so we’ll be in your hair for a while, but we’re not ‘here together.’ I had to track him down just to try — and fail — convincing him to come to the fair with us.”

“You might fail convincing me too,” she warned.

“How could I possibly fail twice in a row?”

“Tomorrow is my only free day before the conference, and I really can’t think of anything less relaxing to do than spend the day at a fair with you.” Her smile and friendly tone took any possible sting out of the words.

“Less relaxing??” He threw his arms out in astonishment. “How could anything be more relaxing than pretending to be a normal person for a day?! We can wait for rides and complain about how hot it is and how our sunscreen smells and how long the lines are like it’s the worst problem we’ve ever faced! Or moan about the concession stand prices or how much it costs just to buy a stupid baseball hat — ’cause the day-pass only gets you unlimited rides, not food and stuff, you know! And wonder how anyone can get drunk in the middle of the day on cheap fair beer and puke on the roller coaster and then decide not to go on that particular roller coaster and go on some kiddie ride next to it instead and get strange looks because we barely fit in the seats! Come on, seriously, how could you not think that’s the greatest way to spend your day off you’ve ever heard of?”

By the end of this little oration she was laughing, and raised her hands to ward off further persuasion. “Well, I’m not sure how, with that description,” she grinned, “but you’ve convinced me. I should hire you to write speeches for me.”

“It’s more the delivery, I think.” He returned the wide smile, his somewhat triumphant.

“With enthusiasm like that, it’s no wonder you scared Heero off.”

His eyes narrowed slightly. “Who says I tried that approach with Heero?”

Hers did much the same. “I wouldn’t trouble you to tell me what you try with Heero.” And there followed a sudden silence that, though brief, was palpably tense.

Finally Duo said, “So, meet me at opening time?” continuing the conversation naturally as if there had never been a break of any sort. “That’s eleven. And don’t come in a limo, OK?”

With a mildly skeptical look she answered, “Only if you promise not to come in a mobile suit.”

“No, that’s reserved for very special occasions,” he said aloofly.

“Like the limo.”

He grinned. “See you tomorrow, then!” And, pulling down over his eyes the cap he’d lifted to talk to her, he turned and sauntered victoriously away.

Duo was a little early the next day, or so he guessed by the fact that Relena was not there when he arrived at the sidewalk just outside the fair gates. He’d lost his watch, and therefore couldn’t be entirely sure that he wasn’t actually incredibly late, but the last clock he’d seen had only said 10:30 so he figured he was OK. He leaned against the wall beside the gate in the shade of a tree growing out of a square patch of mossy earth in the asphalt and waited.

While thus engaged, he couldn’t help noticing a somewhat gawky girl, perhaps twelve or thirteen, pass by at least three times — mostly because each time she did, she threw such a look of longing onto the fairgrounds as to be downright heartbreaking. She was wearing the kind of sensible, unfashionable clothing that spoke of guardians that, while not necessarily badly-off, were definitely on the frugal side; probably the type that would never even consider going to a fair unless somebody else paid, or perhaps for a once-every-five-years family treat.

The fourth or fifth time she stopped and peered around the ticket booths at the colorful hints of towering rides beyond, Duo fished through his pockets and stepped up to her. “Here you go,” he said in something like a conspiratorial whisper, and put the third pass into one of her open hands before she had time to register his presence. “Have fun,” he said, ruffling the girl’s hair and moving on almost before she could understand what she now held.

He found Relena watching him as she approached up the sidewalk from the bus stop on the corner, and ran toward her, waving. The expression on her face indicated that she’d marked the exchange. “How nice of you!” was her greeting. “That girl looked like you made her whole week.” Her tone was somewhat forlorn, for some reason, as her eyes followed the progress of aforementioned girl through the turnstile.

“You say that like it’s something you wouldn’t have done,” he protested, scratching his ear.

“But you do it so freely… It’s more like camaraderie than charity.” She smiled ruefully, shaking her head. “From me it would seem condescending. I think your kindness is easier for… some people to accept than mine sometimes is.”

For the sake of fairness he replied, “Well, if mine’s freer, that means yours is worth more, right?”

Her smile turned slightly amused. “Let’s go in. Something came up for this afternoon, so we only have a few hours.”

With a shake of his head, “Why am I not surprised…” he murmured.

As he’d told her yesterday, it really was pleasant, every once in a while, to pretend to be an innocent tourist with no more interest in people’s destiny than who was cutting in line at the slushee stand and no more pressing concerns than accidentally stepping on chewing gum and feeling slightly grossed-out. So, through an almost dizzying succession of rides and the obligatory hot dogs and giant pretzels, he teased her about having taken the bus to get here — what did her staff think of that?? — and having worn slacks — had she ever worn jeans in her life? — and she gave him what news of the area she thought would be good (or at least somewhat entertaining) for him to know.

At last they came before the appropriately- if inelegantly-named Snake-Knot, the largest ride in the park, an impressive roller coaster boasting some supposedly phenomenal number of loops at some unheard-of speed. As if by one accord they paused before its monumental gates and stared.

“Scared?” Duo asked after a long moment.

Relena gave him the same mildly skeptical look she’d used for his limo comment yesterday.

“Well, let’s go, then!” And he dragged her to where the line began.

It definitely resembled a knotted snake; it had twists and g-forces and white knuckles and all the traditional roller coaster creaking and rumbling… it just wasn’t all that much fun. Beside him, though, he could hear Relena laughing breathlessly throughout most of the ride. She never shrieked like the girls in the other cars did; she was obviously affected, but it would take more than a little shakeup like this to get such a childish reaction out of her. Her laughter was infectious, though, and her genuine pleasure a treat to watch; it enhanced and enlivened what would otherwise have been a rather dull experience.

“That was fun,” she remarked with honest enthusiasm as they were disembarking.

Duo shrugged.

“You didn’t enjoy it?” she wondered. “I would have thought that was just your type of ride.”

He made a well-what-can-you-do? gesture with his hands and then put them both behind his head as they moved away from the machine. “I guess after piloting a Gundam, rides like this just aren’t the thing. Sure, nobody’s shooting at you on the ride, but that whole element of mortal peril really makes a difference, you know?”

Laughing softly, she said nothing for a moment, but then remarked quietly, “Heero would probably agree with you.”

Duo nodded slowly. “Yeah, he probably would.” Unwilling to let it go at that, though, he gave her a sidelong glance and added, “But he’d probably enjoying watching you enjoy it.” He shrugged again and grinned. “I mean, I did.”

Without answering, Relena was looking toward the next ride on their theoretical list; Duo followed her gaze and saw to his dismay that the line was twice as long as the one for the Snake-Knot had been.

“I don’t think I can handle that right now,” she almost groaned.

“I knew you were scared,” he grinned in triumph.

“No more than you are,” replied she in mock haughtiness.

As they were already ambling somewhat unconsciously toward a shaded bench rather than toward the next ride, Duo decided to let fate run its course and agreed with her. “Standing in line shouldn’t be nearly so tiring,” he complained as he sprawled onto the seat, threw his head down over the back, and stared wearily into the sky.

“Standing anywhere for a long time is tiring,” Relena said; her tone was just as worn-out, but also very knowing. And he reflected that she should know; she probably did more standing still on any given day than he’d done his entire life.

He sighed and closed his eyes, relaxing the same way he did everything else: as if it were the most important thing he could possibly be doing at the moment, making rest into an almost active pursuit. As such, it was doubly effective, and after not too long he straightened and looked around again.

Relena was watching him with a neutral expression but an eye that didn’t appear to be missing any detail of his figure. She seemed to be studying every part of his body as she might study some do-it-yourself equipment she had to put together… or maybe take apart. He grinned at her and, leaning into a new, different lazy pose, returned her scrutiny with interest.

She was so poised, even sitting here on a dirty bench at a fair wearing the most casual clothing he’d ever seen on her; the way she held herself was just so quietly elegant and yet somehow tense, ready for anything. There was something about her expression that said simultaneously strength, experience, innocence, and purity. He had no idea how she pulled it off.

Then her body was so nice too, for a woman’s. Nice limbs, good proportions, trim but not unhealthily thin. And her face was beautiful, what with expressive eyes, kissable lips, cute little ears, and all that. There was just no way an intelligent person could fail to have their eye caught. It was disturbingly possible that few intelligent people could fail to be attracted. If they were into women.

“I really like your hair,” she said suddenly, “you know that? I always have.” And she smiled at him.

He flipped his braid casually over the edge of the bench and returned the smile. “Thanks. But yours is nice too; that cut you’ve got now looks really good on you.”

Her smile widened slightly. She knew he didn’t lie, so she was able to accept the compliment exactly as it was meant — that is, on both levels. “Thank you,” she nodded.

“Hey, son, why not buy your sweetheart a souvenir?” called a barker from a nearby stall. “Don’t just sit there talking her to death!”

After glancing over at the man, Duo looked back at Relena; as their eyes met, they both smirked slightly. It was no surprise: anyone observing the previous exchange, even from a distance, would have instantly misinterpreted the tension between them.

“Well, fine.” Duo jumped up. And he sauntered to the stand to look over the logo-chocked keychains, pencils, stuffed animals, and whatnot arranged there. “A souvenir for my sweetheart,” he announced, picking out the ugliest item he could find (the fair’s anthropomorphic frog-mascot really didn’t add any appeal whatsoever). After paying for the overpriced whatever-it-was, he shoved it into his pocket and turned away. Then he stopped with deliberate abruptness and turned again. “I guess I’d better get her one too,” he said to the barker, tilting his head in Relena’s direction.

“Oh…” the man said, chuckling in some abashment, and accepted Duo’s second payment for another incredibly unattractive bit of nonsense.

“That was unnecessary,” Relena chided upon Duo’s return.

He presented the keychain with a flourish. “And I don’t really have a sweetheart.”

Taking it and looking it over with open skepticism she murmured, “Then you lied to the gentleman.”

“Oh, no,” Duo protested, “as long as I just hang onto it until I do have a sweetheart to give it to.”

“If it’s as ugly as this one–” she twirled his magnanimous gift around her raised pointer finger– “someone should do your intended sweetheart a favor and keep you away.”

His eyes narrowed somewhat as he reached out a hand to help her up. “They can try.” Oops, that was too blunt, wasn’t it?

She took his hand and stood, facial expression acknowledging his slip but words moving on: “Let’s ride the ferris wheel.”

“Good idea.” He hadn’t planned on the ferris wheel, given that he knew it from painful experience to be the most brain-crushingly boring ride ever invented, but now he realized suddenly that it was about the same as sitting around on a bench — so they might as well.

“I want a blue one,” he mused as they stood in line watching the ponderous circle move through its slow paces.

“I don’t think we get to choose,” Relena replied. He thought she was watching a blue one too, though. It was almost the right shade, even.

They were out of luck, ending up in a car the color of vomit, but once inside it didn’t really matter as the color was no longer visible. Ascending in silence, they gazed out opposite windows and felt the increased wind as they approached the highest point (except for some Doom Tower thing not far off) of the entire fair. Beyond the latter’s walls and fences the city was visible: alive, indifferent, gratifyingly peaceful.

As the wheel rotated slowly, giving each car its minute at the top, Relena finally broke the silence, though in such a soft, light tone that she almost hadn’t. “So he’s out there somewhere, is he?”

“Yeah.” Duo glanced at her, but she was still staring out the window on her side of the car not looking at him. Shaking his head, he returned to his own view.

“Do you ever wonder what he does?” she asked. “When you’re not around, I mean.”

“Not really; I pretty much know the gist of it.”

“Not what he’s physically doing… what he’s…” She laughed faintly. “It’s hard to describe what I mean. When he’s around, do you ever get the feeling… that he’s alive there… for you… but that when you leave he… shuts off somehow?”

So all of a sudden the subtlety had been completely abandoned; was that it? There was, somehow, an oddly pensive and almost mournful atmosphere in the small car as they hovered above the city and both looked out for the same absent person.

“You mean like his human side comes out when you’re around,” Duo continued for her, figuring he might as well, “and you get the feeling not many other people ever see it? And you kinda hope that maybe it’s actually for you that it happens?”

“And it hurts thinking of him thinking he has to live that way?”

“And you hope that maybe you can become what he needs to realize he doesn’t?”

“Why did you tell me he was here?”

They were descending now, and Duo watched in pensive silence as the ground, and the multitude waiting for their chance at mind-crushing boredom, approached gradually. This hadn’t been that boring after all, though — little as the actual ride had to to with that.

“Duo,” Relena persisted, reaching out and taking his hand so he was forced to pay attention, “you didn’t have to tell me that Heero was here too. We could have done this without him today and I would never have known.”

“You know, I thought about it,” he admitted. “But…” He shook his head and gave her a relutctant grin. “Somehow him and me both here, right under your nose, without you knowing… it felt like a lie.”

Almost mimicking his movement and expression, Relena also shook her head and smiled. “What a good sport,” she murmured.

At that moment the ride attendant opened the door to their car, and gave them a knowing (or, rather, mistaken) look at the sight of Duo’s hand in Relena’s. The latter two exchanged another amused glance and disembarked.

“I wanna try that Doom thing,” he pointed.

“More simulation that can’t compare to reality?” she wondered with a raised brow.

“Two friends at a fair,” he pontificated, “are going to have fun no matter how lame the ride is.”

“Though it’s probably more fun if you both have that reality in your experience to compare it to.”

“Not necessarily! Sometimes it’s more fun to be with someone who hasn’t ever…” He scratched his head and ended somewhat lamely by half-quoting her, “…’had that reality in their experience.'” And he laughed at himself. As if the few minutes spent in the ferris wheel had been sublimely lifted above the entendres and unspoken ripostes, the subtlety seemed to have returned the moment their feet touched down on the ground again. Not that Duo minded — it seemed kinder this way, and it was rather entertaining… he just wasn’t very good at it.

The Doom Tower actually turned out to be somewhat fun on its own merits, and Relena’s reaction to being lifted 150 feet and dropped again made the experience better than it would otherwise have been. But looking at her watch after it was over and once she had her balance back, she frowned slightly. “We don’t have much time left; I don’t think we’ll make it through any more lines before I have to leave.”

“Aw, but I was looking forward to standing in more lines!” he complained facetiously.

“I know you were,” replied she in mock sympathy. “But let’s play some of the games instead.”

“I guess that’s kinda like standing in line…” he allowed with a show of reluctance.

So they took turns paying to throw rings at bottles and fake shuriken at wooden targets. Partly as a handicap and partly just because it was fun, Duo did them all with his eyes closed or after spinning around several times. Relena laughed, but eventually ordered him to do the next one properly.

“Yes, ma’am,” he acknowledged, snapping off a salute, before taking his place at some sort of rifle-contraption that shot a stream of water at a hole that filled up a balloon somehow. It obviously wasn’t designed with people like Duo in mind; the attendant glanced at him rather skeptically when he practically aced it almost without trying, and her tone was very grudging as she said, “That’s the highest score we’ve had all day.”

“Yeah, I figured,” Duo replied with a lopsided smile.

“You can pick any prize from the second row down.” The attendant gestured at the almost painfully colorful set of stuffed… things… available for his perusal.

“What?” demanded the young man, “Not the top row??”

“You’d have to get that same score three times in a row to get something from the top.”

Duo waved away the suggestion that he spend even more money on this kind of thing. “Well, that’s not worth it. Give me…” He scanned the hanging animals thoughtfully and finally pointed. “That one.”

“Do you always choose the ugliest thing on purpose?” Relena wondered as they walked away from the booth.

“What??” Duo pulled an exaggerated expression of wounded surprise. “You think it’s ugly?? I got it for you!”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Why?”

Examining briefly the large, shiny, blue and green bear that looked like it could burst its cheap seams at any moment, Duo handed it to Relena with a full-fledged bow this time. “You’re supposed to give your prizes to the girl,” he informed her in a tone that suggested she really should have known that.

With a defeated gesture and an amused half-roll of eyes, Relena accepted the second hideous gift. An expression something like nostalgia passed swiftly over her face before the latter reverted to the same casually friendly smile she’d been wearing most of the day.

“I may not always be so generous,” he added, wondering what she was remembering.

Her eyes narrowed slightly, though her smile didn’t change. “You may not have occasion to.”

She was steering them toward the exit now, so obviously playtime was over. Duo pondered whether that should extend as far as their conversation as well, and couldn’t quite decide. It turned out he didn’t need to, for as they left the fair gates behind them (he with a stamp on his hand in case he wanted to come back later) and approached the bus stop, Relena turned toward him suddenly with a serious expression.



“We’re friends.” The inflection said ‘statement,’ but her eyes said ‘question.’


“We’re not the closest friends, but still I think we’re strong enough to stay friends through just about anything.” Now those gentle, purposeful eyes were almost challenging, but there was still something ineffably insecure about her expression. How many friends had she lost in the struggles and twists of life of war? And was she to lose Duo, whom by her own admission she hardly even had, over this unspoken rivalry? Funny thing was, he would be very surprised if the exact same look wasn’t in his own eyes.

His grin in reply was a little softer than usual. “That sounds about right,” he said.

Immediately the smile of the day was back on her face, though the friendliness of the expression had perhaps deepened somewhat. She extended her hand. “Let’s shake on it,” she suggested mildly.

He complied without hesitation. “It’s a deal,” he said.

The bus pulled up in front of them, and Relena released his hand and jogged toward it. “Thanks for the day, Duo!” was her goodbye.

“Thanks for coming!” he called back. “Have fun at your conference!” And he waved as she climbed aboard; she waved back, and then was out of his sight.

Shoving his hands into his pockets, he turned and ambled away from the bus stop. The fair really had been fun; he could even go back now if he wanted. But it just wasn’t the same alone. He knew how it could be even better, though, than it had been with Relena, and was pondering a second attempt at setting up that particular situation.

He might as well, he reflected with a grin. The starting gun had sounded, after all; it wouldn’t do to stand around and let someone else win the race.

This was my first Gundam Wing fic. I’ve rated it . What do you think of it?

This story is included in the Gundam Wing Collection ebook.

Destruction James, Destruction James, evribodi loves Destruction James

On Sunday night I had some good old insomnia even after a sleeping pill… then last night I had it worse after two sleeping pills. I may have developed an immunity to this type of sleeping pill and it’s time to switch. But tonight will be the third night of insomnia, and then I should be able to sleep OK tomorrow night.

Congratulations to Pyramid Head Silent Hill 2 for being the first thing to get me to work on something other than Heretic’s Reward. My Pyramid Head SH2 fic about Pyramid Head James is, like, half Pyramid Head finished, and I have a real title for it finally, which means I can resist the urge to call it Pyramid Head Destruction James, which has been its working title.

I have other stuff to tell about, but I’m so tired I don’t feel like it.

No, More Pretending

Pirika was the one who’d gotten him to this point; it seemed like betrayal to question his relationship with her.

Horohoro realizes and comes to grips with the true nature of his feelings toward his sister.

From a recumbent position that wasn’t likely to change any time soon, no matter what happened or who insisted that breaktime was over and they should all get back to their training, Horohoro watched languidly the interaction of a trio of figures not far off. The largest — standing solid and unperturbed by the heat as usual — was not particularly interesting; the other two — the slender, elegant woman and her scowling brother — held the teenager’s attention now as they often did.

Ren was so clearly excessively devoted to Jun… It had surprised Horohoro when he’d first noticed it, and had not ceased to fascinate him since. Ren, who didn’t seem to care about anyone other than himself, think about anything other than his own pursuits, or (understandably) feel even the smallest connection to his odd family, yet appeared to put everything second to his regard for his sister. It made Horohoro grin, among other reasons because it proved that Ren had decent emotions and the capacity to be concerned with something that relatively normal human beings thought about; additionally, it reminded Horohoro very much of himself and Pirika.

He’d been gloating up until now that Ren wasn’t as different from him as the pointy team leader would like to think… but gradually, as he lay watching them over there, his grin faded. For the more he observed the way Ren and Jun interacted, the more he saw that they really weren’t much like him and Pirika. Despite the curtness that Ren showed even to her, it was obvious that his esteem for Jun bordered on worshipful, that he wanted to protect her above all things… Horohoro couldn’t think that Ren’s mental images of Jun were consistently naked, or that they’d ever shared a bed.

This, of course, forced the Ainu very seriously to examine his attitude about his own sister. He sat up, crossed his legs, and frowned.

It was not entirely strange that he’d never thought about it before, as he’d apparently been pretending all along that he’d forgotten they were related — and therefore his potentially questionable feelings for her hadn’t raised any objections in his mind. Whether he objected now, he wasn’t sure. The shaman fight was designed, among other things, to hone the participants who lasted by making them face themselves as well as others, question the way they lived… but Pirika was the one who’d gotten him to this point; it seemed like betrayal to question his relationship with her. On the other hand, she must have understood that, and had sent him nonetheless; and if she accepted that he must question, was willing to risk it, it almost seemed cowardly not to question.

He growled and tugged on his hair. He was twisting himself into knots here! What use was it questioning whether or not he should question?? He was already questioning! Should he face the fact that his feelings for Pirika might not be entirely appropriate, or keep on pretending that their relationship was perfectly normal?

Kororo landed on his shoulder, wondering if he was all right, and Horohoro realized he hadn’t stopped pulling his hair. “Sorry,” he mumbled, patting her. “I don’t mean to make you worry… just thinking about some stuff.”

She hugged his face and flitted off, and he had to smile. It faded quickly, though, as he considered that to make one of his dreams come true, he might well have to give up another. And was he man enough to handle that? Oh, but why should he?! Why couldn’t he have both? …because it wasn’t normal to pretend your desire for your sister was innocuous, all the while wishing out loud for a girlfriend but knowing subconsciously, complacently, that you’d never get one because you didn’t really need one. It wasn’t right.

But couldn’t the Shaman King determine for himself what was normal and right?

This was still a stupid and frustrating debate, especially since he wasn’t really considering the real issues. He turned and looked again at Ren and Jun as a sort of distraction. An inneffectual one, though, as they were what had brought this to mind in the first place. A little bitterly, he projected his dilemma onto them: what if Ren had……. that same kind of feeling for Jun? (No, Horohoro could not define it clearly just yet; that was part of his problem.) What if she returned it? Well, Ren never let anyone else dictate the way he should live, so the two of them would surely act on those feelings. Horohoro wasn’t assigning a concrete definition to that either, that action, but there was no denying that the idea made him feel… good… warm… happy. It was a sweet concept, and didn’t seem at all wrong. Was that because his thinking was warped by his own situation, his selfishness? Was it time to admit his weakness and stop pretending?

But his earlier reflection, that Ren didn’t and wouldn’t let others tell him how to live, now hung before him like a challenge. Was he to be repressed by a world that he already wanted to change? Was he to let even a hypothetical Ren live more freely, live better, than he did? Was the future king of all spiritualists to let his destiny be guided by a blind and arbitrary code?

No, more pretending was fine. Because he shouldn’t have to define it at this point, but he shouldn’t have to give it up either. So until things took their natural course — until he faced and admitted what he wanted, or until it faded, or whatever the case turned out to be — he would pretend, and he wouldn’t regret, because the world was big enough for things like that.

No, there is no mention of the potential Yoh/Horo implied in the first story simply because Horohoro is utterly oblivious to that possibility XD

I’ve rated this story . What do you think of it?

La dee da snow snow

Had to call off work. I hope I don’t get in trouble for it… there’s half a million snows outside, and while snows are not too unpleasant to walk through, there’s also a wild howling wind that is less fun. P was going to drive me, but she got stuck not far from her home so badly that some people had to push her car about to get it free. She said there’s no way she could have gotten here. Actually, she hasn’t made it back home yet. I cause so much trouble. Gregory called off too, it turns out. He thinks the place may actually be closed. I don’t think it ever actually closes, and I have no doubt that if I’d gone in they’d gladly have let me work my shift… but mayhap I shall not get in trouble. That would be good. I wish I’d known I wouldn’t make it to work before I’d done my hair, though… I would have slept in some. But once my hair is done, no way am I going back to bed and smashing it.

I started a Silent Hill fic yesterday. I always have so many randomfandom ideas in the shower. Today methinks… well, I don’t know what I will do. I am a little burned out on my Top Secret Project, but an unexpected free day to work on it is difficult to pass up. I need to work on my wrapping paper too, though, and Letlet’s picture present. So I dunno. We shall see. I may just end up playing video games all day XD

No More Pretending

It wasn’t that he wouldn’t come back at all. It was just that he wouldn’t come back her Horohoro.

Pirika knows that her close relationship with her brother can’t last or become what she wants it to be.

The brush snagged, and she yanked it down with a barely-restrained growl that might have been anger at the occurrence, might have been pain occasioned by her violence, and might have been… something else. She glared at the tool and the tangled strands of blue that had come away with it, then tossed it onto the counter and left the bathroom in a huff.

He often brushed her hair. Granted, he wasn’t very good at it — there was a reason he kept his own so short — but it was a gesture that was never lost on her. He would put one hand on her shoulder and brush away with vigor, chattering all the while about what he was going to do that day or the dreams he’d had while they’d slept; her eyes would be locked on his in the mirror, and she would smile.

And that was all she wanted! To keep him beside her, against her, to stay close to him, to know she was first in his thoughts. Was that too much to ask?

But how long would a boy brush his sister’s hair, really? How many years? They were getting so old — he was almost seventeen already! — and eventually, no matter how much she did for him, he was going to realize that she was just his sister. Could never be anything else to him. That he could be brushing anyone’s hair, holding anyone in his arms at night, and that someone who wasn’t blood would probably be more appropriate for that purpose anyway.

The awareness of this inevitable realization was something she tried to ignore, and often managed to, but then it would creep up on her in the dark — those evenings when he could sleep and she could not — and she would fight it off by pressing herself against him, laying a hand on his bare chest to feel his heartbeat, putting her face to his shoulder, and pretending… pretending this was how they would always be.

There was no possible way she could do that now. No more pretending. For one thing, they’d slept in separate beds for the first time she could remember. As she sat on the one and stared at the other through a filter of tears, she wondered how anyone could ever sleep alone. Cold hotel beds and brushing her hair alone in a tiny hotel bathroom, she thought, must always be a symbol of growing apart, of loss, of hatred.

Because, for another thing, he was gone to America, and he would never come back.

No, it wasn’t that she thought he was likely to be killed or defeated. It was just that he had left behind his primary protector against those who might… distract him. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t come back at all. It was just that he wouldn’t come back her Horohoro.

She’d never thought that they would be separated during the course of the fights. Why should they be? Not like this, at any rate. But, having chosen to remain a shaman trainer rather than become a shaman herself — having opted to support him with her entire being rather than pursue her own course — she had unconsciously driven in the wedge that would eventually tear them apart. And she could not protect him now, could not keep his eyes from straying.

There had always been people who looked at him the same way she did. People he looked at the same way. He never realized it, of course, and it had never caused any trouble before — because she’d always been there to keep him on track, keep him where he belonged. But now… now there was a wide ocean, two hotel beds, and a pair of headphones between them. And nothing she could do about it. Not even pretend that what she’d already seen hadn’t happened, or that what she foresaw wasn’t going to happen.

Pirika was not blind.

There was more than one reason she hated Asakura Yoh.

Though I don’t get a similar vibe in the manga, I was just enchanted by a couple of scenes with Pirika and Horohoro in the anime — when they were cuddling in bed, and when he pictured her naked to motivate himself during a particular battle — and immediately determined there must be incest going on or at least contemplated.

I’m a little unclear on how old everyone is at different points in canon. My guess in this piece with the statement that Horohoro is almost seventeen when he leaves for America is based on the fact that at one point in the manga during the Shaman Fight, Amidamaru remarks that it’s been something like three years since he first met Yoh.

Anyway. This is a nearly pointless fic, though there is a follow-up from Horohoro.

I’ve rated this story . What do you think of it?

The Changes in Things

Made Jayne wonder what Simon looked like naked, what else he might have hidden under all that frilly stuff.

Jayne notices Simon; River notices Jayne noticing.

Kaylee had warned them beforehand, but it had been a far sight from adequate. The explanation of why she couldn’t wait until they were planetside to remove the thing and turn off the other thing and fix the one thing was the part of the warning had gone right over Jayne’s head, and when she’d said there might be some tossing about, she’d been underexaggerating, so in essentials there hadn’t been a warning.

Jayne obviously wasn’t the only one whose appreciation of the ship’s random pitching was less than perfect; from another part of the boat came Mal’s grumpy-sounding complaint, “Kaylee, aren’t you finished with that yet?” It really was enough to set a man’s nerves all jangling, not knowing when the ground was going to be steady and when it wasn’t. Still, a man also couldn’t help but chuckle at watching an uptight doctor at the other end of the table get splashed all over the face with his own lunch when another violent tremor rocked the kitchen and everything else.

Simon shot him a mild dirty look and mopped the mess first from his skin, then from the table, with a handkerchief. “This is a lost cause,” he murmured, and rose to clear his spot.

“Good thing I chose non-watery stuff,” Jayne grinned, pleased with himself, around a mouth of protein-protein sandwich.

“Yes, what foresight,” Simon replied, heading for the kitchen door.

Scratching at a recently-healed bullet graze on his leg, Jayne inquired, “That like foreplay at all?”

The troublesome itch on his thigh, Simon walking past him at that very moment, and another, especially violent toss of the under-maintenance ship coincided just then; the doctor was thrown right into Jayne’s lap and Jayne nearly out of his chair, the result being that the gunman’s hand was suddenly pinned, palm-up, between his nether regions and Simon’s.

Huh. Maybe he was just going bibbledy, but it sure did seem like Simon had about the damn nicest ass he’d felt for a long while. Which was funny, because Simon was a man and Jayne didn’t much give men a second thought when it came to their asses or other parts not visible in typical moments. Sure, he’d had a thing or two with the odd fellow — who hadn’t? — on those outposts where ready women were scarce or, worse, dirty, but that was necessity, not predisposition.

Still, a nice ass was a nice ass. Jayne’d have thought, if he’d ever given the matter a hair’s worth of consideration, that Simon was too scrawny and didn’t do enough in the way of physical exertions to have much worth considering; maybe it was some kind of doctor specialty. Made Jayne wonder what Simon looked like naked, what else he might have hidden under all that frilly stuff.

He was about to make a comment to that very purpose, but Simon, who’d risen with half an apology and was now eyeing him like he’d suddenly gone green in the jowls, backed out of the kitchen before Jayne could get breath for a single syllable.

Jayne shrugged and went back to his meal. There’d be another time.

“Time is an abstraction, at which we arrive by means of the changes of things,” said River.

Starting halfway out of his seat and then settling again, Jayne growled, “You know, you could warn people when you’re in the room; crazy’s better when I’m prepped for it.”

She stepped into his line of sight, her bare feet just as silent as they’d obviously been when they brought her in here. The ship saw fit to heave again, and River, swaying with it, kept eerie impeccable balance without even needing to grab the table for support. Her next spot of creepiness was to lean over, resting one elbow on the table and her chin in her hand, and stare at him fixedly, thoughtfully.

“What?” wondered Jayne, eyeing her right back. Gorram off-kilter psychic.

She stood straight and turned her head very slowly toward the door Simon had used.

“What?!” Jayne demanded a second time.

“Where will you arrive by means of the changes in things?” she mused. “Where will he?”

“We’re headin’ for Craterside, if that’s what you’re askin’.”

She gave him that narrow-eyed expression that said she didn’t have the patience for… whatever her patched-up brain had conjured this conversation concerned… and, turning, walked silently toward the door. As she passed him, she very pointedly ran a hand over her petite left buttock and cast Jayne an inscrutable look down her nose.

“Simon!” she called as she passed through the doorway out of sight, and Jayne suddenly figured he maybe fathomed her meaning. Looked like it came down to a toss between letting River say it as twist-brained sisterly advice, or saying it himself. And when you put it like that, maybe lunch could wait a spell.

“Hey doc!” he called, getting up. “Deng yi miao!” And a little unsteadily in the midst of the next tremor, he left the kitchen, following the Tams.

Aletsan beat me at the Quote Guessy Game, and requested a Jayne/anyone/Jayne ficlet. So I ventured for the first time into the realm of writing Firefly. I think I hit all the obligatory points: fangirl Chinese, personal and probably inadequate interpretation of River, glossing over even what basic physics I understand, and a half-assed attempt at getting into the space-western voice without losing the finer points of my own narration.

River’s line about time is a quote from some famous physicist or philosopher or philosopher-physicist or something. It fit my needs. And then I had to throw in some (debatable) implication with her that this isn’t just Jayne/Simon, but River/Jayne/Simon.

Anyway, it’s a cute little fic, and definitely not bad for my only Firefly attempt. I’ve rated it . What do you think of it?

Treasure of the Ancient People

“If I were to reveal to you the hiding place of a great treasure, would you abandon your evil, thieving ways?”

Two thieving sisters stumble upon an ancient secret that will change their lives.

[two girls breathing, crunching footsteps approach; branches swishing aside]

TESCHIA: I swear, this jungle’s thicker every time we come!

URAWHA: And Honor always wonders why we’re in such a bad mood when we get there.

TESCHIA: When she bothers to get there on time.

URAWHA: Ah, ooh, branch in my face! [snap] Ow!

TESCHIA: Serves you right for laughing at me the other day. You almost got me caught!


TESCHIA: When I was grabbing that little kid’s scarf.

URAWHA: [giggle] Oh, yeah. How much do you think we’ll get for that, anyway?

TESCHIA: I dunno. Fifty, maybe more. I wouldn’t give it to my little kid.

URAWHA: Yeah, people around here aren’t so bright. You wouldn’t believe what I [snap] Oops, sorry. You wouldn’t believe what I got from this lady in the middle of the street just before we left.


URAWHA: [grunts] Let’s see if I can… get it out… dumb pack… yeah, here it is.

[footsteps stop]

TESCHIA: It’s pretty. What is it?

URAWHA: I have no idea. She was wearing it around her neck on this cheap leather band; didn’t even notice me. It looks like gold, doesn’t it?

TESCHIA: Yeah, but it’s no bigger than a coin.

URAWHA: It’ll still bring a price; it’s pretty heavy.

TESCHIA: You know, I’ve seen that twisty design somewhere before.

URAWHA: That’s what I kept thinking, but I don’t know where. C’mon.

[footsteps resume]

TESCHIA: Maybe you should just give it to me instead of selling it.

URAWHA: [laughs] You may be my sister, but I don’t like you that much!

TESCHIA: Hmph. Look, there’s the rock — we’re almost there.

URAWHA: Twenty sols says Honor’s not there yet.

TESCHIA: Honestly, I think she’s afraid of the place unless we’re there.

URAWHA: Well, who wouldn’t be afraid of a ruined city in the middle of the jungle? That’s why it’s the perfect meeting place.

TESCHIA: Yeah, I guess it is kinda weird.

[footsteps stop]

URAWHA: And awing. Every time I look down at this view, I’m amazed. Who the heck built this place anyway?

TESCHIA: Well, if you listen to the dumb legends —

[footsteps restart, on stone this time]

URAWHA: — which I don’t —

TESCHIA: They say some mystic clan of healers used this as a hospital or something.

URAWHA: Well, let’s go sit on the hospital and wait for Honor.

TESCHIA: Like always.


URAWHA: [grunts] These carvings are getting weathered to the point where we can’t even climb them anymore.

TESCHIA: Here, give me your hand. [grunts] There we go. Eventually we’ll be able to get up just using all these vines, I bet.

URAWHA: What a view!

TESCHIA: Yeah, it’s… oh, my!


TESCHIA: Urawha, look! Look!

URAWHA: What? Where?

TESCHIA: Over there, on that other building?

URAWHA: What, that tall, crumbly one?

TESCHIA: No, the one that’s mostly intact. Look at the door!

URAWHA: Oh, my goodness! Is that the same…? [rustling] It is! It’s the same design as this necklace!

TESCHIA: Quick, let’s go look at it! [feet thud on the ground]

URAWHA: Wait for me! [feet thud, run]

TESCHIA: It really is the same.

URAWHA: What a coincidence! That something I stole would be from the same place we meet our contact to sell all our stolen stuff!

TESCHIA: What do you think is behind this door?

URAWHA: Is it a door?

TESCHIA: Yeah, look at the seams. They’re kinda hidden in this twisty pattern.

URAWHA: Oh, I see. I wonder… What’s this little indentation here?

TESCHIA: It’s about the size of that pendant.

URAWHA: Lessee… [click] It fits! [rumble] Oh, my goodness! [rumbling continues; silence]



TESCHIA: We’re probably the first people to have opened this door for hundreds of years!

URAWHA: Well, what are we standing around for? Let’s see what’s inside!

TESCHIA: Honor’s not here yet… maybe we should leave something so she’ll know where we went.

URAWHA: You sound like you’re worried we’ll never come out of there.

TESCHIA: Well, it is really dark inside. There’s probably a million spiders.

URAWHA: Don’t worry, we’ll light the torches. [rustling] Here’s one for you.

[fire; footsteps resume; all noises get reverb]

TESCHIA: This is steep.

URAWHA: At least it’s dry.

TESCHIA: Honor’s going to freak when she gets here and we’re not there.

URAWHA: And then she’ll be even later next time.


[foosteps stop]

URAWHA: Which way?

TESCHIA: Let’s go back.


TESCHIA: No matter which of these three we choose, it’s sure to get us lost. They’re all the same width as this passage.

URAWHA: Look, I’ll leave something here. [rustling] See, when we find that cloak across the tunnel we’ll know this is the way we came.

TESCHIA: [sighs] So which way do we go?

URAWHA: Who cares? [footsteps resume]

TESCHIA: Ah, a level passage — much better.

URAWHA: See, this isn’t so bad. No spiders, even.

TESCHIA: I think they like moisture.

URAWHA: That would explain why the jungle’s so full of them.


[footsteps stop]

URAWHA: Oh, and here’s another one.

TESCHIA: Now which way should we go?

URAWHA: Feel the wind from this third passage? Let’s go that way.

TESCHIA: All right; this time I’ll leave my cloak. [rustling; footsteps resume; wind]

URAWHA: Pleasant breeze here.

TESCHIA: Yeah, right. I’m freezing.

URAWHA: Hey, is that light ahead?

TESCHIA: You’re scaring me.

URAWHA: But look! Here, I’ll hold my torch down behind me. See, it’s light!

TESCHIA: It’s probably a door outside, which would explain the wind.

URAWHA: The light looks kinda red.

TESCHIA: You’ve been in the dark too long.

[foosteps, reverb increases]


TESCHIA: Well, I guess it’s not a door outside.

URAWHA: What is this room?

TESCHIA: And how can all these torches still be lit after however many years?

URAWHA: It’s so huge…

TESCHIA: It feels so empty…

URAWHA: You’d think it would be dirty or broken down or something.

TESCHIA: What’s that, on the opposite wall? [footsteps run]

URAWHA: It’s… weird.

TESCHIA: Yeah. Who carves a giant face into the wall of a big empty room?

FACE: I might ask who creates this ridiculous humanity to run around being absurd.

[footsteps; gasps]

URAWHA: [softly] All right, there’s a giant stone face talking to us…

TESCHIA: [softly] Yeah, I noticed that…

FACE: In response to your rude question, nobody “carved” me. I grew, just like you did. When the people of this city found me in the jungle, they presumed I was some sort of mystic spirit and brought me here to their temple.

URAWHA: Then what are you really?

FACE: I’m merely myself. I do possess a perception greater than that of humanity, but I am no god.

TESCHIA: You seem to be immortal, though.

FACE: That I do not know.

URAWHA: So, who were the people that lived here?

FACE: They were a hard-working race; they hunted and gathered fruit and built up their great walls. They were very honest.

TESCHIA: [softly] I think that was aimed at us.

URAWHA: So, what?

FACE: If I were to reveal to you the hiding place of a great treasure, would you abandon your evil, thieving ways?


URAWHA: Not so fast… money always runs out eventually.

FACE: If it is used to begin a respectable trade, it can, in a sense, last forever.

TESCHIA: Sounds good to me.

URAWHA: Well, what do we have to do?

FACE: First you must swear.

URAWHA: All right.

FACE: Swear that, once you have gained the treasure of the ancient people, you will never steal again.

TESCHIA: I swear.

URAWHA: I swear.

FACE: Very well. The destruction of the city came about through war, but the leaders were determined that their enemies should never have the city’s treasure that they sought. They hid it in the jungle so that someday it could be found and used for good.

TESCHIA: How did they know someone would ever find it?

URAWHA: Or that their enemies wouldn’t?

FACE: That someone would eventually find it they had no doubt, since they had entrusted to me the duty of revealing its secret. That their enemies would find it they did not fear, as they had placed a severe curse on any who did not seek it in the correct manner.

URAWHA: And why are you willing to give it to us?

FACE: The purpose of the treasure is to do some good. In giving it to you, I am setting you on the path to honesty; that will help both you and the people around you.

URAWHA: Ha! How do you know we won’t just take the treasure and live like we have? [silence] What, why are you looking at me like that?

FACE: I told you that I possess a higher level of perception than humanity. I can see the goodness in your hearts, and the willingness to abandon your path of evil. Otherwise I would not have greeted you at all, despite your sister’s rude remark.


URAWHA: All right, I get it. So where’s this great treasure?

FACE: It lies beneath a stone hill two miles to the east; it is the hill from which I was born.

TESCHIA: Beneath the hill?

FACE: To retrieve it, you must speak the correct verse. It is inscribed in the wall to my right.

URAWHA: It’s in the old language… read it, Teschia.

TESCHIA: Bala hiero to ute / Meno u niwakawe / Raditama ikori / Ken daima sortei. But I don’t know what it means.

FACE: It is nothing more than a children’s rhyme used in ancient times. The leaders thought that would be cleverest to keep their enemies out.

TESCHIA: I’ll write it down. [rustling pack / paper]

URAWHA: So what else do we need to know?

FACE: Just this: that if you speak the treasure’s location to anyone else — forever more — you will turn instantly to stone.

URAWHA: Harsh! Well, that shouldn’t be too hard. You done, Tesch?


URAWHA: Well, sir giant face, thanks a lot. You want us to come back and report to you or something when we’re done?

FACE: I will know. Only see that you keep your promise. That I will also know.

TESCHIA: We will. Thank you!

FACE: Goodbye.

[footsteps recede; silence]

HONOR: There you are! When I saw that that door was open, I was seriously worried; I shoulda known you guys would do something stupid like going down in there!

URAWHA: How’s it going, Honor?

TESCHIA: How’s life in the big city?

HONOR: Dull, as always. How’s the tiny town?

URAWHA: Interesting, as always. But, we got bad news.

HONOR: What?

URAWHA: We’re going straight.

HONOR: What!?

TESCHIA: We just decided that this whole thief thing isn’t right for us.

HONOR: Whaddya mean? You guys are the best thieves I’ve ever marketed for!

URAWHA: Well… we just decided.

HONOR: That’s going to cut into my business something big. [sigh] Well, what do you have for me today?

URAWHA: Umm…. there’s more bad news. We’re returning all the stuff we’ve stolen since last time.

HONOR: What?!? How can you do this to me?!?

TESCHIA: But we’re going to pay you a cancellation fee!

HONOR: Oh. How much?

URAWHA: We’re not sure yet. Can you wait here for a couple of hours?

HONOR: You’ve got to be kidding me. You guys are just going to run off home and leave me here, right?

TESCHIA: C’mon, Honor, you know us better than that. We’re serious.

HONOR: Oh, whatever! Why should I trust a couple of thieves?

URAWHA: We’re not thieves anymore; I just told you that!

TESCHIA: Besides, why would we fire the flare and come all the way out here to meet you if we were just going to run off?

HONOR: You must think I’m crazy.

URAWHA: Look, either you wait here for us and we bring you the cancellation fee, or you go home unhappy. What will you do?

HONOR: [sigh] I’ll wait for you. Where are you going?

URAWHA: To get your cancellation fee.

HONOR: Whatever. All right. I’ll wait.


TESCHIA: See ya in a few hours.

[rustling, cracking]

URAWHA: Just what I wanted — another walk through the jungle.

TESCHIA: And you sound so unhappy.

URAWHA: [laughs]

[rustling, cracking]

TESCHIA: Ah, we’ve been walking for an hour! Shouldn’t we be there yet?

URAWHA: Yeah, I think so. We’ve been going straight east.

TESCHIA: Who would ever have thought that we’d be this lucky? I mean, a treasure buried under a giant rock hill just two miles east of a place we go all the time, and all we — [grunts, gasps; crackling]

URAWHA: Oh, my! Teschia! What’s…


TESCHIA: Help me… [chokes]


URAWHA: But… how can this be happening? The face said we’d turn to stone if we told someone where the treasure was hidden! Oh! [cries]

HONOR: I guess that’s my fault, then.

URAWHA: Honor!?

HONOR: I’m sorry. I was so curious about what you guys were up to, I followed you and heard what Teschia said.

URAWHA: It is your fault! What am I going to do?

HONOR: Who is the face?

URAWHA: A strange creature we met inside the building in the city. It told us about the treasure…

HONOR: Then let’s go ask it how to save Teschia!

URAWHA: We can’t just leave her here!

HONOR: Do you want to carry her? She looks like a piece of art… she must weigh a ton!

URAWHA: [sighs] Tesch, I’ll come back, all right? Don’t worry; I’ll save you somehow. Let’s go, Honor.

[footsteps crackling]

HONOR: It’s getting dark.

URAWHA: That happens when you’ve been walking around in the jungle all day. Look, there’s the city ahead. [footsteps on stone] Hurry up. [footsteps run, get reverb, continue; girls pant] Face! Hey, face! Wake up!

FACE: I do not sleep.

URAWHA: How do I get Teschia back from being stone?

FACE: Are you willing to make a sacrifice?

URAWHA: Of course!

HONOR: Urawha, are you crazy?

FACE: City child, you would do as much for someone you love. Urawha, you must smear the statue with your blood, and she will return to life.

URAWHA: H-how much blood?

FACE: That is all I can say.

URAWHA: All right… let’s go back.

[footsteps recede]

FACE: Humans are so intemperate.

[crunching footsteps, swishing branches]

HONOR: Urawha, are you sure about this? [metal ringing] Urawha!

URAWHA: I don’t know if I can do this…

HONOR: But you just said…

URAWHA: I mean, actually cut myself with this dagger. I guess I’ll just think about Tesch… [gasps]

HONOR: Oh, my…

URAWHA: Come on, Tesch… [gasps] Wake up! Ooh…

HONOR: Teschira! You have to wake up!

URAWHA: [gasps] I can’t lose this much blood… Tesch! Tesch! Tesch!

HONOR: Urawha, you’ve got to put something on that… it’s going to kill you!

URAWHA: Teschia! Please! [grunts, falls]


TESCHIA: [gasps, grunts] Oh, I’m covered with… [gasps]

URAWHA: Tesch…

TESCHIA: Urawha! What happened?

HONOR: To rescue you, she cut her wrist. I don’t know…

TESCHIA: Quick, help her sit up. I’ll tie it. [rip] Are you all right?

URAWHA: I… I don’t know… Are you?

TESCHIA: I feel fine.

URAWHA: Then so do I.

TESCHIA: Can you stand?


URAWHA: Yeah… Let’s go get that treasure.

HONOR: This is too weird.

TESCHIA: You’re telling me.

HONOR: It’s enough to make anyone go straight.


TESCHIA: Let’s go.

HONOR: We’ve got to talk about this…

There really isn’t much point to writing radio dramas considering that nobody makes radio dramas anymore. However, I’d read one that someone had posted somewhere, and was totally fascinated by the format’s ability to create a setting through nothing but dialogue and sound effects. That was really the point of this… to see if I could do it… I succeeded fairly well, I think. The only real problem is that when read aloud it’s difficult to figure out who’s who; with an actual cast of distinctive voices, I think it would work, though.

Just Ten More Minutes

…these last minutes seemed to drag by like the long years of eternity.

A young woman is unbearably impatient.

Just ten more minutes.

It was such a hot, beautiful day. Waiting was hot, but waiting was not beautiful. At least there were only ten more minutes, which was something to be able to say after the many days and hours. Still, these last minutes seemed to drag by like the long years of eternity. She drummed her fingers nervously, pressing her ear to the ground to catch the vibrations as each fingertip made contact with floor so close beside her face. Ten… more… minutes…

Araki had been so excited to go to the fair — begged and begged for days when the news of its coming had hit town. Had, in fact, begged too much.

Nobody liked her now.

She was so impatient to get going, she almost screamed. Seven minutes left.

And what a fair! The guards were out in force, naturally, so there was no loitering. Everyone who was not buying and selling was just staring. Araki had been so eager to see it all.

She wanted to be the one staring. She would be staring soon. Five more minutes. Bubbling with joy at the thought, she grinned and looked around impatiently, ceasing her nervous drumming for just a bit. Then she sighed.

The endless begging really had been too much, hadn’t it?

She had crossed the line from aggravating to being seriously in the wrong. Still, there was no reason to feel this guilty, right? Everyone had wanted to kill Araki after about an hour’s complaining that chores too look long and they should leave for the fair now.

Everyone had wanted to kill Araki. Some of them, their patience worn out with the endless talk, talk, talk about the fair, had even threatened to.

What reason could they have to wish her dead?

Maybe they felt differently now, she reflected as she lay, silent and impatient. Two minutes.

She turned to gaze up at the ceiling. She couldn’t help the increasing pace of her heart as she counted down the last seconds. The huge clock, out there in the town square where the fair was taking place, began the lesser chimes. Her ears strained as the last seconds ding-donged away, strained and hungered for the eventual twelve notes — she couldn’t remember whether the strike of the hour was the highest or the lowest tone the clock possessed. Twelve, eleven, ten — ah, it was the lowest! — six, five, four — ah, high noon! The reverberations of the deep tolling faded. Finally! Finally! Finally!

The hooded guards arrived on cue. “Any last words?” one of them asked.

She shrugged. “It was Araki’s fault,” she said, briskly stepping out between them. “If he hadn’t begged and complained so much, I wouldn’t have killed him.”

I’ve rated this story . What do you think of it?

The Harpist and her Dragon

I took the egg, which was a great deal heavier than it looked. “Wow, this thing’s going to be big.”

Tixi Pax was a very normal rancher until a dragon entered her life; now she’s hopping worlds, getting herself kidnapped, playing magical harps, and possibly falling in love.

There was a storm outside, and it made me nervous. I hated thunder, and the constant applause of the rain was just annoying. After I’d gone through my accounts, which had taken twice as long as usual with the distraction of the summer shower all around me, I lay down on my bed and closed my eyes. There was no chance of sleep with that noise outside, but it was good to rest. Eventually, though, I became sick of inactivity and rose again. Taking my harp from the wall, I sat by the window, with my back to the storm, and played something softly. It was, I believe, the ballad of Sorril and Mai. As I watched the harpstrings ripple under my touch, I began to feel a familiar light-headedness creeping over me, like a thread of silver in my thoughts. I did not resist, only let the flashback take me.

“I raise horses, Sati, not dragons.” I was leaning against the shaft of my pitchfork, its prongs buried in the fragrant hay under my feet, returning her placid, violet-eyed gaze with a slightly exasperated look. Clad in soiled trousers and a tunic, my hair tied into a sloppy bun at my neck, I was sweating from the effort I’d been making before my neighbor arrived. “Where’d you get a Shoer-blasted dragon from anyway?”

“I told you,” she replied patiently. “The parents are from Sharaani and can’t get back; they have a nest but no clan to raise the hatchlings, and I’m trying to find homes for all the eggs.”

I shook my head at the name, inadvertently loosing several clumps of hair into my face. “Sati, the wizards at Chul don’t understand Sharaani. I certainly don’t want any part of it.”

“But Tix,” she pleaded, her eyes getting larger as she gazed up at me, “these babies won’t grow up right without individual attention!”

“I can’t afford a dragon,” I said, but of course it was a lie: I’d been planning for some time to add two Schic’qer geldings to my stock and build add-ons for them. If I could afford that, I could certainly keep a dragon. She knew all about my plans, and merely gave me a crooked-mouthed look. “Besides,” I said, weakening, “I wouldn’t know what to feed it.”

She grinned. “Come down here and I’ll tell you.”

With a sigh I slid down the haystack and stood beside her. A gust of early fall wind into her face blew her orchid-colored hair dramatically back behind her and undid the rest of my pathetic bun. “First tell me all about these parents. I mean, are you sure they’re from Sharaani?”

“Of course I’m sure; they told me.”

“Since when do you speak dragon?”

“They’re telepathic.”

“Oh.” I was one of the few who knew about Sati’s mental talents. “So what’s the story?”

“I thought Arran could tell you better,” she said cautiously.

“Arran…” There was suspicion in my voice. “Who’s… Sati, you didn’t bring a dragon here, did you?” She was looking past me. I swiveled and slapped a hand to my face. “Shades of Roneraat, girl! One whiff of him and my whole stable’ll be antsy all night!”

“Arran says hello,” said Sati.

The dragon was about four and a half feet tall and shaped structurally like a cat, except for his long neck and angular head. He sat before me on crouched hind legs, a lizard-like tail curled around him. His front claws were more hand-like that I would have expected, and his wings looked a bit small to hold his weight, but, then, what do I know? One of these was tied up in a sling of sorts. His pointed scales were green, and his huge eyes were bright and yellow. As creatures went he wasn’t particularly ugly, nor was he very attractive. “Hello,” I said, giving myself up to fate. There was something about my odd neighbor that did not let me argue with her for long, even in a friendly way. “Let’s hear this story.”

“Arran says: my mate’s name is Gwen, and we lived until recently in Sharaani, in the human kingdom of Flosho. We were headed skyborn for the nesting-grounds of my people in order for her to lay her eggs when a rift in space opened before us and we came through to your world. When we landed in a forest” — Sati extrapolated that he meant the Roshwood — “my wing was broken and Gwen and I were forced to remain where we were. She laid her eggs there. Now, knowing that the only dragons here are far away and not friendly with humans, we have no way to raise our babies, since to do so requires a clan. Thus Sati has taken it upon herself to find homes for all our hatchlings.” She smiled as she spoke of herself in third person, translating the dragon’s thought-speech for me. “And you really should take one, Tixi. Once it gets older, it’ll be a great watcher for you.”

“I have dogs,” I said in a last-ditch effort to keep a dragon out of my home. We both knew it was futile.

“I know how friendly your dogs are. They’ll welcome another pet.”

“Very well,” I said at last with a long breath. “I’ll take one.”

“Great!” she said. “I’ll bring the egg over today!”

And that was how I got my dragon. It was strange even to think about having a dragon. Of course the dragons of Raharsaa are huge, bigger than buildings even, and live in the Drashier Mountains in the south where they feed on people’s flocks and burn down towns just for fun. There aren’t very many of them. But in Sharaani, our parallel world, dragons are smaller and much more common, like birds almost. I suppose I should explain Sharaani as well, since I’ve come this far. I was going to make this a nice dramatic account and follow all the rules I learned in school for grabbing the reader’s attention and not dumping all the information on them at once, but I guess that’s just not going to happen. You’ll just have to get used to the Tixi Pax style.

Sharaani is also called the Exchange because that’s what it does with us. Every now and then some stranger will appear in a tavern somewhere completely lost and ask for the way to Rholsat or Aanris or some other town no one’s ever heard of. They’ll ask him some questions and eventually figure out that he’s from Sharaani and got here when he saw what looked like a giant black rip in the air and accidentally stepped into it. Then one of our people will disappear, and the next person who comes from Sharaani will bring news of him or her. Nobody knew at the time I got my dragon why these random rips in space occurred, and the wizards had found no way to duplicate them. Thus, rather needless to say, the chances of someone seeing two in a lifetime were fairly small, and those who were carried off to Sharaani, or brought here to Raharsaa, never got back home again. So you can see why I was slightly worried about taking in a dragon from Sharaani. You never knew what might suddenly trigger a rift and pull me away, forever, from everything I knew.

She did come back later that day. Sati, I mean. I could always tell when she was coming, for she was one of the few people I knew for whom my dogs would give their happy-bark, and the only person I knew who had brilliant white skin and black-streaked purple hair. She looked ethereal, almost. I opened the door and called my dogs away, beating my flour-covered hands on my apron as I did. I’d just recently given my cook the bag since I’d caught her in my wine cellar less-than-lucid, and so was stuck with the extra chore of cooking dinner for the hired men. I was so overworked it wasn’t even funny. And here I was adopting a dragon, for Shoer’s sake! Shoer is the capital of the kingdom, by the way, and if you wonder why I swear by it, don’t ask because I don’t know. The kingdom’s name is Kopier.

Anyway, Sati was coming up the walk to the front door of Thesar carrying a large brown egg, spotted with off-white. I sighed and smiled at her. “So this is my baby dragon,” I called, then shouted at the dogs again. They were excited by the smell of the egg, I guessed, and thought Sati was bringing them food.

“Actually, this is an egg,” said Sati with a laugh, which is just what I had expected. “It won’t hatch until tomorrow.”

“And what will I feed this small thing?” I asked, worrying momentarily what I’d gotten myself into: having forgotten to inquire farther about a dragon’s eating habits earlier, I had never discovered whether or not the thing would need special food or something.

“Give it whatever you feed your dogs until it can fly,” said Sati as I prohibited the entrance of those particular animals with my foot and shut the door behind her. “Then it’ll find its own food. Wild rabbits and such,” she added as she saw the worried look on my face. I have a pig and a few chickens.

“Did you find homes for all the other eggs?” I asked, wondering: what effect would a set of baby dragons have on her trade?

“All but two.”

“How many were there?”


“Mailiw’s ghost! How did you find that many people?”

“I’ve been looking for a few weeks,” she said. “You were the last.”

I gave her a mock-accusatory look. “Sati, your own neighbor!”

“Well, I knew you’d be the easiest to convince, so I saved you.”

“Unh!” I put my hands on my hips and gazed around the cluttered room. I hadn’t tidied up in a while, with all the extra things I’d been doing lately.

“I don’t suppose you need any help around here, do you?” she asked as she followed my indifferent gaze around the room.

“Not really,” I said affably. “I complain ’bout the extra stuff, but I’m going to hire another housekeeper as soon as I can. Thanks, though.”

“Cause if you need help, I can always come over. Gwen and Arran can take care of two babies just fine.”

I waved her inquiry away. “No, thanks,” I said, and meant it. She had things to do just as much as I did.

“Well, here’s your egg. Put it on some cloth by a fire. You’re going to hate this, but it’ll have to be turned once an hour.”

I swore with an oath slightly more serious than naming the capital or calling on the dead king Roneraat or queen Mailiw. “Every hour?” She smiled innocently, eyes glowing. “All right.” I took the egg, which was a great deal heavier than it looked. “Wow, this thing’s going to be big.”

“Thanks, Tix,” she said sincerely. “I really appreciate this. So do Arran and Gwen.”

“Well, you know how I love surprises,” I said dryly. “I’ll take good care of… it. When it hatches. Is it likely to stay with me forever, or run off once it’s full grown?”

“I’m not sure about that,” she said, brow furrowing. “I’ll have to ask Arran.”

Suddenly I remembered my quiche in the kitchen and balked. “Oh, my idiotic meal,” I gasped. “I hate cooking.”

“I’ll leave now,” she said with another smile. She smiled a lot.

“Sorry to be rude,” I apologized. Though Sati and I had never been best friends, I liked her all the same and didn’t want to offend her. Though I never had heard of Sati being offended by anything.

“‘S all right,” she said, and walked to the door. “Remember, if you need any help or anything, I’m just down the lane.”

I nodded. “I will.”

“Thanks again,” she said.

“Ma’am! Mistress Pax!” I shook myself, realizing the memory had receded. Standing shakily, I reeled towards the bedroom door.

“What is it, Luiti?”

“Ma’am, Isolia won’t come when I call her.”

“I’ll get her,” I said. Luiti was always a bit too passive when it came to bellowing pet-names into the rain. I headed for the front door, smoothing my wrinkled tunic as I went and untwisting the chain around my neck to right the silver and green amulet. I opened the door and got a gust of wet air in my face. I stepped outside to avoid soaking the front hall. “Isolia!” I called at the top of my lungs. “Come inside! Isolia!” There was no response, and I could not see three feet through the rain. With a snort of annoyance I went back in. “Get my cloak,” I told the worried housekeeper as I pulled my boots on.

Stepping into that mess of swirling rain took a bit of courage, but once I was there it was not so bad. Not so bad as some things I’d done, anyway, but it was up with them on the list. So I picked my way along the muddy path to where it turned into the stable yards, thinking Isolia might have hidden from the storm with the horses. Not good for the horses. Suddenly the rain began to weave together into one silver sheet of confusion, and the fence post before me became very real. Why in the name of Roneraat did I bring this Shoer-slighted harp? I wondered as I clutched at it. I struggled to remain standing while the dizziness swept over me and I had another flashback.

Standing upright, I added the newest honeysuckle to my bouquet. I didn’t know why I was in such a flowery mood, but wasn’t about to argue with silly urges when my only witnesses were horses and a dragon. All I needed now was a flowing dress and long wavy hair to billow and spread behind me in the wind. But ranchers don’t wear dresses and my hair is straight as a board. I looked around, smiling: it was a beautiful day, and the horses were certainly enjoying their romp around the flower-filled meadow. It was near the center of the Roshwood and quite a trek

After the egg had hatched — a singularly unpleasant experience for my callow self — the dogs had wanted first to baby and then to play with the little lizard-like creature, blue-eyed, with which I now had to deal. After I’d had Sati confirm the dragonette’s sex, I named her Isolia and tried to hire another housekeeper. It had not been particularly easy to find one who was willing to work in a house with a dragon from Sharaani, but you know what people will do for money.

Then for the next half year Isolia had grown, and grown, and grown, until she was almost fully grown. The dogs loved her, the horses withstood their terror in her presence with much coaxing. I liked her, I must admit. She followed me everywhere.

It was this that made me wonder what was going on when she suddenly disappeared into the trees, looking almost wild with excitement. Perhaps she saw a deer, I thought. Tucking my bouquet into my belt, I followed her leisurely, though with a certain amount of caution: the Roshwood has around it a number of odd legends which I’d never believed until I found myself in possession of a dragon from Sharaani. Not to say that I really believed them now; but I did feel more ready to admit them the causes of the undeniably strange things that periodically occurred in the area.

I followed the crunchy sounds of Isolia’s passage into deeper and deeper brush, the forest growing twilight-dim around me with the thickening trees. Annoyed, I called out my dragon’s name and ordered her to come back; but she seemed always to run faster. After several more minutes of this, I stopped. Let the little weasel come back in her own good time, I thought. The crashing noises before me also stopped. As a matter of fact, all sound in front of me had ceased entirely. Behind, faintly, I heard the rustling of leaves in the wind and the chirping of birds and crickets. But ahead all was silent, unless it was for, perhaps, a hint of voices as if from far off. I also became conscious at that moment of the light that bathed the forest around — a strange purple tint that seemed to glow from some point ahead, turning the enforced dusk into eerie, artificial day. I pushed forward through the dense trees and came into the light, if you will. Sharaani, was my only thought.

A novelist once write a book about Sharaani called The Rip in the World, and she was right. It was this black tear shining purple at the edges, looking for all the worlds like a place where reality had just been torn away. It seemed to suck sound into it as well, though now standing before it I thought I could hear from its depths forest sounds, soft, similar to those that should have surrounded me. I also heard voices, far-off and nearly inaudible, so indistinct that I could make out no words.

I had no doubt — no doubt whatsoever — that Isolia had gone straight through this doorway into whatever lay beyond.

I stood there glumly for a while. I really was going to miss my stupid dragon, though Sharanni was where she belonged. After several moments the thought hit me that someone should be told about this portal; perhaps something could be done. I looked around, realizing I had no idea in which part of the Roshwood I was. Suddenly, a shout issued from the rip and startled me half to death. Of course, it didn’t even reach normal speaking level on my side, but the pained surprise in the woman’s voice left little room for debate as to its volume over there.

I think it must have been the surrealism of my situation combined with the vague familiarity of the voice and my nerves already on end that drove me in; but whyever in Mailiw’s name I did it, it was done: the moment I head that pleading voice I darted forward, hands outstretched, and plunged into the unknown.

I was in a forest, very like the one I’d just left. Stumbling into a tree before I caught myself — I’d expected more resistance in the portal, but it had really been like walking through a doorway — I looked around after a moment for the rift. It was not there, but the voices were much closer now. Shouts and grunts met my ears as if a fight were going on nearby. That voice was there, too — it had to be… whoever she was — and I was determined to help. My heart still beating rapidly from the excitement of this entire business, I moved towards the sounds.

Now, I’ve had my share of fistfights. Being the youngest of six, all brothers except me, taught me early to defend myself from what was for them good-natured play-fighting but which was for me somewhat dangerous. Then, too, I’ve had to deal with the occasional highwayman seeking a couple of nice horses and thinking I was an easy target. This is not to say I’m the be-all-end-all in a slugfest, but I certainly can hold my own; every good rancher can fight, my father used to say.

This situation didn’t look too bad: two thin, scruffy men against a very nicely-dressed, quick-moving woman with dark hair. She was the voice, I knew — a rich traveler, perhaps, set upon by these bandits — but there was something familiar about her. I tried to catch a glimpse of her face as she dodged and ducked her way around the other two, but she was moving too quickly. I darted out and knocked one of her dirty attackers soundly on the back of the head, sucking in my breath at the pain of fist meeting skull. The man turned in surprise and took a swing at me, which I barely managed to dodge. I aimed a blow at his shoulder and got a kick in the knee before I hit him, losing all the force from my arm.

Stumbling backwards, I regained my balance in time to meet the bandit’s charge with a heavy punch to his chest. I sidestepped his flying fist and watched as he stumbled just as I had. My next hit was better aimed. Before I connected with his face, though, I caught a glimpse of Isolia behind him and smiled. She whipped her tail forward, even as my balled hand met the man’s cheekbone with a crack, and rapped the man’s ankles out from under him. He fell with a look of pain and surprise as Isolia darted out of the way, and I looked around for the woman I was defending. My eyes met her back, but then my left knee gave way. The bandit Isolia and I had knocked over was on me in an instant, wrenching my arm up behind me as far as it would go (which was, incidentally, pretty far; I’m rather flexible) and punching me repeatedly in the back. I struggled to get up, but soon his blows found the more sensitive areas at the base of my skull, and my struggles stopped.

The rain awakened me… …no, that was just the storm. The flashback had ended, and I was on my knees beside a fencepost holding a harp to my bosom as if it were the most priceless thing in existence. Climbing to my feet, the rainwater and mud running down my already-soaked leggings, I attempted once more to pierce the rain with my not-so-superior night vision. Clambering carefully over the rain-streaked slats of the fence, I headed for my original destination, the stable, fervently hoping no more flashbacks would take me before I found Isolia.

“Isohhhhhlia!” I called into the horse-smelling darkness, squelching the urge to calm my frightened animals. Stepping fully into the building I closed the door behind me, desiring peace for just a moment. The rain’s irritating drum on the roof and walls was certainly provoking still, but at least for the moment it was not drumming on me. Isolia was obviously not in here; rain and thunder would alarm horses this much, a dragon much more. With a sigh, I shook the rainwater off my harp — a futile gesture, I know — and stepped back into the storm. Running the length of the stableyard, and luckily only slipping two or three times in the rain-churned mud, I found the fence at the other side that separates the yard from a cropped-grassy embankment sloping down to the lane. As I switched the harp from one hand to another, I accidentally drew my fingers across the strings, rippling a wave of storm-drowned sound inaudibly into the chaotic night. I swore loudly, though my voice was nearly lost in the after-rumblings of a thunderclap. If the previous events of this evening were any indication, I was particularly susceptible to flashbacks tonight. Strumming the harp would only bring on more. I determined to wait it out here rather than risk going out into the lane and possibly collapsing under someone’s carriage wheels. But I stood against the fence for so long, enduring the uncomfortable torrents as best I could, I began to think I was done with flashbacks for now at any rate. Slowly I pulled myself up onto the fence, and then of course it came. Frantically I tried to climb down before I was gone completely, but my body was falling too fast. I felt my hands’ grip relax and then the memory took me.

I lay on my back securely bound, bare wrists already chafing in the tight ropes. The light to which I opened my eyes gave me a sudden, pounding headache, and a pang of hunger twisted my stomach. “Roneraat and Mailiw,” I groaned, regardless of who might hear, squeezing my eyes shut and attempting to hold still.

“What did you say?” she gasped from behind me. It was the voice, the rich stranger to whom I’d been so useless. Pain or not, I had to see her face. She was only just behind me, to judge from the sound, so I struggled into a sitting position and scrabbled myself around to look at her. My next oath is not repeatable, for my fellow prisoner, stripped of her rich clothing and clad now in rough, dirty linen; bruised, broken, bound as tightly as I; the woman I’d left my world, come to Sharaani, to protect — the woman beside me was none other than Haering of Chul, crown princess and heir to the throne of Kopier.

I choked out, “Your hiiieee!” and ended in a shriek as she kicked my ankle sharply.

“Quiet!” came a savage command from nearby, and turning I saw a bandit, apparently our guard, reclining against a tree with a knife at his side. I glared at the princess.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered harshly, “but you realize what they’ll do if you call me that?”

Still annoyed with her for my stinging ankle, I responded, somewhat surly. “All right. Haering.” She nodded her pretty head with its mussed dark auburn hair, and I looked away; she had a black eye. I took the time, rather than speak again in anger, to look around at what was apparently a camp. We lay a little way off from the large fire pit in the center of an oblong clearing. Around the edges were perhaps twelve tents, square, many with their front flaps rolled up to revealed raised wooden slat platforms holding a couple of padded cots and often a chest or two. At one end of the clearing, near where our anything-but-alert-looking guard rested, stood a wooden shed-like hut, weather-worn and sturdy. Gazing upward, I guessed it must be about noon, for the sun was directly overhead. Above to either side were the impossibly steep, tree-covered sides of the narrow ravine in which these brigands obviously felt themselves perfectly safe. Turning back to the princess, I whispered, “You are the last person I thought to meet here.”

“I didn’t exactly expect to find myself here,” she responded. “Who are you?”

“Tixina Pax, from Lottingdell-Roshwood. I’m a horse rancher.”

“Pax? I know your brother, then.”

I nodded briefly; Saquell, the second oldest, was at Chul studying to be a wizard. Though the Wizards’ Academy and Kopier University are technically two different institutes, they are in the same set of buildings; so it was no surprise that the school-going princess should be acquainted with my wizard initiate brother. “So what do we do now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she responded glumly. “These fellows are slave traders and bandits of the worst kind.”

“How do you know?” I asked, shocked.

“They failed to knock me out,” she replied. “I kept fighting after you were struck down, until more of them arrived and subdued me. I’ve had to listen to their vulgar jaw since last night. Most of them are gone off now, to do whatever they do during the day; they’ll be back tonight, no doubt.”

I sighed. “So how do we get away?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said again. “I’ve no idea.”

“Does the guard ever change?” I asked.

“He has not moved more than twice all morning,” Haering said.

“Well, do they go to sleep at night?” I asked.

“They leave a guard out at night as well,” she responded.

“Well, don’t you have any ideas?” I asked, frustrated.

“About what exactly should I have an idea?” she demanded. She was apparently very frightened, more than was I, and I determined not to ask her anything more.

“Don’t worry, I’ll think of something,” I said. However, long monotonous hours passed and not an idea had come to my mind. The day dragged on, darkening immediately a few hours after noon when the sun fell beyond the lip of the ravine, with the occasional brigand coming and going, and I began to rethink the opinion of our guard. Though he remained fairly lazy-looking throughout the day, there was a wariness to him I had not observed at first, and he never went to sleep or left the camp. No hope there, then. I would have to see what the night guard was like.

Haering didn’t speak much, and I became more and more convinced that she was terribly frightened. I suppose the thought of being a slave was even more repulsive to a rather pampered royal university student than it was to me. I decided to try to lighten the mood a bit. Looking around, I commented on the first thing I saw — whispering, of course. “This ravine’s pretty, isn’t it?” As soon as the words were out of my mouth I wished I could take them back: I doubted the princess would be able to see the beauty in the area of her captivity. But she surprised me by saying immediately,

“Yes. The way the shadows fall into it and make the trees on the sides seem, by their shadows, to be double — that is lovely.”

I lowered my brows. I certainly hadn’t observed the tree-shadows, at least not like that, and admitted as much.

She sighed. “I enjoy painting,” she said. “I notice things like that.”

“Do they let you study such things at KU?” I asked curiously.

“Yes, we have art instructors there. Saquell paints better than I do, however. Sometimes I suspect him of using magic for it.”

I laughed softly. “Of course. He probably just wants to show you up. He couldn’t care less about art.”

“And you?”

I shrugged. “I like music. I’ve never really tried my hand at painting.” We fell silent, but I thought the tension had been loosened.

When the darkness became serious, our guard lit the fire. Brigands began returning to the camp in earnest, one at a time mostly, occasionally bearing chests or backpacks. One set up a large pot by the fire, not throwing us a glance like the rest of them, and began to cook something that smelled sickeningly good. I was becoming frustrated with the entire situation: no one so much as looked at us, and my back was tired from sitting up with my legs to the side. The princess had not said a word all day, and I guessed she was still frightened out of her wits. That’s what came from being a college girl, and a royal one at that: never fought a man before yesterday in her life, probably, and certainly had never had to deal with wolves or coyotes trying to get at her horses or chickens. She was beautiful, though.

A man came striding through the camp then, clad in mail unlike his patchworked group. The sword hanging at his belt was longer than the short blades of the rest of his people, and the sheath appeared actually to match the weapon. He stopped just in front of us and looked down. “Somebody come feed these,” he ordered. “Kelvin do it.” That was all. No greeting for us, no insults. Better than it could have been, and worse. With that level of disinterest, I didn’t think I was in danger of rape any time soon, but if they would talk to us we might find some weakness we could use to escape. But nobody spoke a word to us. At least, not until Kelvin arrived.

“Hello,” he said, crouching. “I’ll bet you’re hungry.” Looking over his shoulder he shouted. “Tiner! Vasey! Get over here and help me!” He addressed us again. “Now, I’ll untie your hands so you can eat, as long as you don’t try to escape. If you do, Tiner and Vasey’ll stick you.” He had a gentle voice, and his face in the firelight looked more refined than that of anyone we’d seen so far, especially the two great men that appeared at his back. Without a word they took their places at either side of us, short swords drawn. Kelvin knelt behind me and I felt practiced fingers loosing the ropes that bound my poor wrists. Shaking my hands out in front of me at last, I tried to rid them of the odd tingling that came from bad circulation, then rubbed my sore arms that had been pulled behind me all day.

“Thank you,” I said inadvertently, realizing the next moment that being polite to my captors might not be the best idea in the world.

“You’re welcome,” Kelvin said as he untied the princess. I looked at him more closely. He had high cheekbones and wispy blonde hair, and his face was bruised multiple times as if he were often struck. I wondered what his status among the brigands was. “I’ll get you some stew and bread — we don’t starve prisoners who are destined to be slaves, after all.” I imagined that as he spoke the word ‘slaves,’ his lip curled up into an expression of disdain. At what this emotion was directed I could not tell, but I stored the gesture away for future reference.

Haering sat up, rubbing her wrists and glancing apprehensively at Tiner and Vasey. “Still alive, Tixina?” she asked, somewhat less despondently than I might have expected.

I grimaced. “Tixi,” I said firmly. “Looks like we get to eat after all.”

“Shut up,” said one of out watchers — whether Tiner or Vasey, I could not tell — and kicked me. I almost fell over, hip smarting, and took a deep breath before sitting up fully again. No use mouthing off to someone who could so easily kill me.

Kelvin came back with a large bowl of stew and a small loaf of hard bread. It smelled so good I thought I’d die if he didn’t hurry. “Here you go,” he said, “and don’t fight over it.”

There were two wooden spoons in the bowl, and the bread was easily broken in slightly uneven halves. I gave the princess the large portion, and set to on the stew with a vengeance. It took me a moment to realize that her highness was not eating, but was staring at the food with a blank, slightly dismayed expression.

“You’re not going to do yourself any good if you don’t eat,” I hissed at her. She nodded, and with a look of distaste at the bowl joined me in my efforts at emptying it. So that’s her problem, I thought: the food’s not good enough for her. Well, at least she’s not complaining. She rose a great deal in my esteem, just for that.

When we had finished eating, Kelvin returned to take our dishes. “I’m sorry,” he said jovially, “but I’ll have to retie you.”

I grimaced, but forced myself to say, “Don’t worry about it,” in a tone that suggested I knew it was not his fault. He was probably just another brigand, but since he seemed so friendly I felt it would not hurt to try and make a friend of him. Haering just snorted.

Our guards had wandered off, and the camp had settled down a great deal with the brigands eating their supper. A cry arose for a song, and I was surprised to see Kelvin step forward, unslinging a harp from the strap around his back. I frowned. So he was a bard, which was for some reason considered lower-class among brigands. That made no sense. But I paused reflection to listen to his song, which was of middling length and rather bawdy. He had a nice voice, though, and the melody was endurable.

Strange, though, what happened to him as he began singing: his face went blank, his eyes closed, and he seemed not to notice anything around him. I swear, if that fire had leapt up and burned his trousers I don’t think he would have felt it. Only at the very end of the song did he come out of his odd trance, and then staggered a bit as the brigands laughed and clapped. By that time the fire had burned low, and the men were starting to roll their tent flaps down as if to go to bed. The cook pot was taken down and washed, the area was tidied up, and things generally began to quiet. A guard was set. The door of the chief’s hut (for that it must have been) closed with a bang. After a little while everything was still.

I was going to watch that guard all night if it killed me. There was no way I was going to be sold as a slave on Sharaani when I had a ranch, three servants, and a dozen friends back on Raharsaa. But I’d just eaten, after being hurt and sore all day; my headache was somewhat subsided, and despite my valiant efforts I was asleep before an hour was up.

The first thing I saw the next morning when I awoke was Isolia peeking out at me from between two tents. She gave one of her hawk-like dragon calls, and I sat up in fear. Glancing quickly around to see if anyone was about, I called her softly. I held out my hands as far as I could and ordered, “Bite.”

She knew this command — because she was so naturally gentle, I’d trained her to bite when I told her to, in case I was ever in trouble or needed something broken. She advanced and looked at me confusedly, obviously puzzled as to why she should bite my hands. I strained the latter and managed to tap the rope between my wrists with one finger, repeating the mandate. But at that moment I heard the rustling of a tent flap, and hissed at Isolia with no real reason other than wishing her to get out of sight. She did that on her own, hopping off between the tents again and disappearing. No doubt she was hiding in the trees beyond.

“Good morning,” came the cheerful voice of Kelvin from behind us, and I cursed him mentally. Still, I resolved to be friendly.

“Hello,” I said. Struggling to face him, I smiled weakly. “I liked your song last night.”

He frowned. “Did you? I’m sorry.”

He did not appear eager to speak further, and had turned his attention to getting some food from what appeared to be the supply tent. I felt now was as good as any to speak. “My father was a harpist.”

“Was he?” asked Kelvin absently, as if he had not heard. In the light I could see how gaunt and tall he was.

“Yes; he taught me a song.”

Kelvin glanced at me, now mildly interested it seemed. “Oh, really? What song?” There was not much hope in his voice.

“The balled of Sorril and Mai.”

He turned to face me, brows flickering downward. “I never heard of that. Is it a high ballad?”

I had what might be called, if I were a dramaticist, a plan at this point, so I feigned ignorance. “I dunno,” I shrugged. “It’s pretty. ‘T’s long.”

“I’d like to hear it,” he said; I’d caught him now. At least, I hoped I had.

I forced a sigh. “When my father died he left his harp to my brother, whom I haven’t seen in four years. And now –” It wasn’t much work to make my voice bitter — “I’ll probably never play again.”

“Well,” he said slowly, coming over to me, “I’ll let you play mine.”

“Are you allowed to do that?” I questioned doubtfully.

He shrugged. “As long as you don’t escape, I can do anything I want.”

The uncomfortable double meaning of this was not lost on anyone present, and Kelvin looked somewhat abashed. Haering, whom I had not known to be awake, said fiercely, “Watch what you say to her.”

Kelvin frowned and replied, “I didn’t mean anything by it.” Looking at me — I made sure to smile — he continued, “I don’t think your sweetheart took it that way either.”

Now I was blushing. Kelvin untied my hands as I studiously avoided looking at Haering. It wasn’t the first time someone had made that kind of insinuation about me.

“Here you go,” he said, unslinging his harp and handing it to me. My heart was beating rapidly; this would be my only chance at escape, as far as I knew, and it was not likely to work. I wasn’t the worst aim in the world, but I wasn’t the best either… maybe if I played and sang very quietly I could get him to come close enough. It was a shame to use such a nice instrument for such a sad purpose, though.

“Thishud be fun,” said someone, and I saw a brigand who hadn’t been there before.

“So you’re finally up, are you?” Kelvin asked. “Sondor’s not going to be happy you slept so late when you were supposed to be guarding the prisoners.”

“Who cares? You were up.”

“I haven’t been for long. Anyway, she’s going to play me a song, so be quiet.”

My hopes of escape vanished. Where had he come from, anyway? Trying my hardest not to look annoyed or disappointed, I ran my hands along the strings to get a feel for the instrument — I really hadn’t touched a harp in four years — and began to sing.

The balled of Sorril and Mai is a pretty song, a high ballad as they call them and very poetic. It tells a story of two lovers divided by war and reunited under miraculous circumstances, and it’s always been my favorite song. However, I do not remember singing a single word of it that day, for as I stroked the harp the world took on a silver shine and I was suddenly not there anymore. Abruptly I was reliving a scene from months earlier when Isolia, a hatchling yet, had frightened my big Contiu mare so badly the horse had jumped three fences and bolted across the lane to Katzi Leik’s field and out thence into the Roshwood. It’d taken half a day to find her, and as I supposedly played that song I retraced every step in acute detail as if for the first time.

And then it was over, the last notes of the song still hovering in the air as the last words faded from my lips. I felt dizzy, and the world took several moments to come back into focus. Then suddenly I felt violently ill and shoved the harp back into Kelvin’s hands, combating nausea as I leaned forward to the ground. The laughter of the late-sleeping brigand filled my ears. When I was finally able to sit up without seeing three spinning copies of the camp I demanded angrily, “What in Shoer’s name was that?”

Even Kelvin seemed mildly amused. “This harp brings flashbacks to whoever plays it. I suppose I should have warned you.”

“I suppose so!” I said.

“Are you all right?” asked Haering quietly.

“Fine,” I responded.

“It was a lovely song,” said Kelvin. “Thank you for playing it for me; now I have to tie your hands again.”

I felt weak and hopeless as he again bound my wrists. Don’t despair, I told myself, there’s still Isolia.

“Goodbye,” the bard then bade me, and left without words farther.

“What were you planning?” whispered Haering once Kelvin was gone.

“I was going to throw the harp at him,” I said, “or something.”

“A good plan,” Haering sighed.

“Don’t worry — I’ll still think of something. I mean, all it takes is for one of us to have our hands free when they’re not watching. I think you and I together could take them, right?”

“I don’t know. I have been trained in self-defense, but it was little use before, as you saw.”

“Hey, but there’s only two of them now.” She did not say anything. I had to get her to talk. “So, would you paint this valley from your current position, or would you stand up?” I asked, aiming at humor.

I think I caught a weak, brief laugh from her before she answered. “This vantage is pleasing, but I think I would sit up if I could.”

“Do you always use paints, or ever other things? Like pencils or something, I mean?”

“I have occasionally used pencils. They are not as versatile as paints, though.”

I nodded. This almost made sense, but I didn’t want to puzzle through it. “What kinds of things do you usually paint?”

“Landscapes. City streets. The occasional portrait.”

“Hmm.” I had run out of things to ask her, knowing nothing of this branch of art. I tried to think of something else to talk about. “So what’s it like living in the royal palace?”

“It is home. We are not so privileged as many believe us to be, and there is work to be done for everyone. I do not ‘live’ there now, of course, but in Chul. Sometimes I think I would rather be there.” She did not say whether ‘there’ meant Chul or Shoer, but I didn’t ask.

“What does the palace look like?” I’d been to Shoer a few times, but had never gone so far as the palace.

She sighed, and seemed reluctant to continue speaking. But at last she began slowly to describe her home, after which I told her about Thesar and what it was like to live on a ranch. Our whispered conversation continued for a good long while. If the guard ever noticed we were talking, he didn’t react.

I noticed that throughout the day Isolia peeked her head into the camp once or twice, but seeing our guard quickly ducked out. By suppertime my stomach was growling, and I swore that if I ever got home again I’d be glad to do my own cooking — yes, and cook for the hired hands, too — forever more.

This night Kelvin fed us again, and for a second time I watched in interest as he went into his flashback trance while singing. Halfway through his song, however, the chief — whose name I believed to be Sondor — approached him and struck him, not gently, across the face. Kelvin stopped singing, reeling, clutching the harp to his chest like a highly precious thing. He shook his head and looked around.

“Is there a problem?” I now understood all the bruises on his face, if that was what it took to get him out of the flashback.

“Have the wench sing for us,” he said. I wondered who’d told him.

“Yes, sir,” said Kelvin, not seeming to notice he’d been struck. He came over to me and quickly untied me, giving me brief instructions as he did. “Play well and you may escape slavery. Don’t look anyone in the eye when you start the song.”

For the first time in two days I was able to stand, and my legs almost gave way. My left knee was still hurting from where I’d been kicked, and I was afraid I’d be limping for some time. But the glorious feeling of finally being able to stretch my legs overrode all the pain, and I gladly stood and took the harp from him. Standing before the fire as I’d seen him do, I looked at nowhere in particular and began to sing the ballad of Sorril and Mai for the second time that day.

This time the waking memory was that of my father teaching me to ride — an event that had occurred almost fifteen years ago now, and in as vivid detail as if it had happened yesterday. I was jarred back suddenly, to the dark, spinning camp, where I fell to my knees squeezing the harp convulsively to my chest, tears running down my face. Sondor was walking away from me, and I barely realized he was speaking to Kelvin. “That song’s too long. Does she know any others?”

“I don’t think so,” he answered, unsure.

“Teach her some. Maybe I’ll let you keep her.” Hope sprung up again in my heart, hope of escape and freedom — freedom at least from the slavers if not from this world. But depression filled me again at the thought of Haering — I couldn’t just leave the princess here! — and at Sondor’s next words. “Tie her up again, for now.”

I returned the harp to Kelvin and took my place beside her highness once more so the bard could tie me. Haering whispered to me, “Did you know that monster just struck you?”

I frowned. “I guess he must have,” I said. “I didn’t finish the song.” I felt no pain.

“It’s better than the alternative,” Kelvin murmured, giving the knot on my ankles an extra tug. “I’ll talk to you later.” With that he stood and walked off, and the camp began to quiet once more for the night.

This night I was able to stay awake, but to little avail. The crescent moon became visible and then disappeared again, and the guard never stirred. Yet I did not think he was asleep. I grumbled a little to myself, almost silently. And then there was a bustling from the other end of the clearing, and twisting around I saw a figure emerge from one of the tents. He made his way across to the guard, and then I knew who it was. “I can’t sleep, Notsly. D’you like me to watch them for you?”

“You’re a pal, Kelv,” Notsly replied, yawning. “I’ll take yours sometime.” The seated guard stood and headed for his tent. “Night.”

“Good night,” said Kelvin softly. All was quiet for several moments, the only sounds those of Notsly arranging himself in his tent. When the noises of the night forest were the only things audible, Kelvin came silently over to me. “I’ll help you escape, if you’ll help me,” he said in a whisper. Our further conversation continued at the same level.

“Help you with what?” I said with sudden excitement.

“I’ve seen the dragon that comes to you sometimes. Is it yours?”


“Can it bite through metal?”


“Sondor stole my real harp and has it locked in a metal strongbox in his hut. It’s the only reason I stay with these bastards. If you can get your dragon to break open Sondor’s box and get my harp for me, I’ll get you and your friend out of here. There’s only one way out of the ravine. It’s a little opening in the rocks that always has a guard at it. I can take care of him. The only thing I can’t do is get my harp.”

“I’ll do anything to get out of here,” I assured him nervously, “but I don’t know if I’ll be able to find Isolia, my dragon, in time.”

“Can you walk quietly?”

“I think so,” I said very doubtfully.

“Well, your dragon’s usually watching from nearby. It shouldn’t be too hard to find. Please try.”

“Why don’t you just break open the box yourself?”

“It’s enchanted against all humans but Sondor. It would kill me.”

“Ohhh,” I nodded exaggeratedly. “I’ll try it.”

With a swift motion he cut the ropes, then helped me quietly to my feet. “Please hurry,” he said. I started to tiptoe off. “Wait!” he said, a little too loudly. I froze. “One more thing — put these in your ears when you come out with the harp.” He handed me a pair of carved, cloth-padded woodchips that fit perfectly into my ears. I looked at him in confusion, forgetting he could not see my face in the pitch-black night.

“Why?” I asked.

“Trust me,” he said. I shrugged and continued towards the wood.

After I was a good way in — or so I thought, for the camp was to the forest what night was to oblivion — I began whispering Isolia’s name. Silence was my echo, and I found no sign of my dragon. I started to feel panicky, fearing that Kelvin would heartlessly tie me up again if I did not retrieve his lost harp for him. “Isolia!” I whispered again, and this time was answered by a rustling in the leaves and a glint of nonexistent light off two very blue eyes. A moment later Isolia thrust her scaly head under my hand and nuzzled me, exceptionally happy. “Come,” I commanded, and began feeling my way backwards, not daring to turn lest I lose track of my path, towards the camp.

I knew I was there by Kelvin’s slight hiss. Turning to face him, I saw he’d aroused Haering and the two were crouching near the fire pit watching me. Haering’s eyes were wide as she saw me leading my dragon: she had apparently not been as acutely observant as Kelvin. I turned and headed for Sondor’s hut, Isolia still following obediently. “Hey,” whispered Kelvin, coming to my side, “did I mention that Sondor is not in there?”

“No!” I protested. “Now it’s going to be easy!”

“Not necessarily. He and several of the others are away on a very tricky raid. Depending on their success, they could be back any minute.”

I sighed far too loudly, afraid again. “Then we’d better get going,” I said.

“Don’t forget the earplugs when you come out. You’ll have to watch me carefully, but the earplugs are very, very important.”

Nodding sharply, I told Isolia to heel and went forward quietly into Sondor’s hut.

I couldn’t see a single Shoer-blasted thing in there. I stumbled around in the total absence of light for a while, making a bit too much noise, until my hands alighted on what must have been the strongbox. It was nothing more than a large chest of metal bearing a metal padlock, but I drew my arms away in fear of what Kelvin had said about it. Seeing, however, that I was not instantly incinerated or whatever, I figured he must have meant it was enchanted against other humans trying to break it open. I hoped. I took the padlock in my hand and commanded Isolia, “Bite.”

She made short work of it. The lock fell into my cupped hands dented and bent out of shape, and the chest opened relatively easily. Reaching hesitantly inside, my other arm already shaking from holding the thick, heavy lid open, I felt what must be Kelvin’s harp.

At that moment I heard voices outside, and from under the door I caught the glimmer of tiny lights entering the clearing. “Kelvin, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” That was Sondor. In fear I seized the harp and let the lid fall. That proved to be a mistake, as the chest closed with a wrenching clackudd that must have been heard through the whole camp. “What was that?” shouted Sondor. “Who do you have in there, you sorry shit? Well, you little games are over. Kill them both!” I knew he must mean Kelvin and Haering; I had to do something quickly. Throwing the door open I sprang out, harp under my arm, and remembered the earplugs at the last moment. Still wondering why they were so important I fumbled them into my ears, cutting off Sondor’s shout. “She’s got a dra-”

The brigands rushed forward to attack us. But Kelvin stood calmly in the center, holding his harp, and began to play.

I don’t know what song it was, but even with the earplugs on I felt dizzy, and the world took on that silver tinge I now associated with flashbacks. However, no memories came, and I suspected that was due to the earplugs. I felt like I was being swept up in silver wind and carried far, far away, blown in endless musical eddies forever. I shook my head, pulled the sliding harp up under my armpit, and ran forward. All the brigands had stopped moving, and stood where they were, rapt, dazed in the flashback. I took the torch from one of them and looked to Kelvin for instructions. His face was stone in concentration, but he began walking forward and it appeared we were to follow. Haering and I, tailed by Isolia, fell into step behind the harpist and left the slavers’ camp.

The harp under my arm was heavy, much too large to be played standing like the one Kelvin held now. I could barely hold my torch and keep it from falling, so presently Haering relieved me of the flickering light. We made our way through the forest, Kelvin playing at every step, and soon were moving upwards as the ravine sloped, tapering, to its end.

The guard at the opening was charmed by the song before we reached him, and Kelvin was forced to stop playing as we clambered through the narrow crevice leading to the brigands’ hideout. Once out, the weary-looking Kelvin tapped his ears, and I removed my earplugs. Handing the torch to me, Haering did the same. “Now we ride,” said Kelvin. “We must make it to the gates of Landington before they find us.” Shouts already echoed up the canyon walls behind, and I did not hesitate to follow the bard when, after one longing look at the harp under my arm, he broke into a run.

In a carefully-hidden cave nearby we found several horses, and paused long enough for Kelvin to catch his breath before we mounted. He looked pale and grim, his strength apparently having been taxed by whatever song he’d been playing to get us out of there. The angry cries of the slavers not too far away drove us to our mounts, though, and we broke out of the cave almost on top of our pursuers. Swords flashed and hands clutched at us, and I nearly dropped Kelvin’s precious harp before we were free of them and galloping down a rocky slope towards what looked like a road in the now-visible moonlight. I guessed the brigands would not be far behind once they found their own horses.

On the road we pushed for higher speeds, the annoyed whinnying of hard-pressed beasts following us on the chilly night air. Giddy, I focused on holding the harp and holding the horse, letting Kelvin lead the way. Haering was beside me on her own mount. Even in all the excitement I managed to see that these were no plough horses — probably stolen from rich travelers just as they’d taken Haering to be, these were top-breed stallions.

The wind of our speed swept my hair out behind me, carrying my panic, perhaps, to our pursuers, for they seemed to be gaining. Urging our steeds onward we made for the lights ahead, the salvation that disappeared in each dell and reappeared all the closer at the top of each hill. It was a desperate chase, but in the end we made it. Shouting at the top of his lungs, Kelvin managed to arouse whatever porter was there, and the gates were open when we arrived. They closed on the faces of the bandits, hard on our heels and irate at our escape.

It was not long before the men of the town, clued by our gasped-out story, were up in arms and marching from their gates against the now-exposed brigands only a mile from their doors.

Kelvin bought us rooms at the inn.

Haering and I sat in a small upstairs parlor at The Ball and Racquet while the bard was downstairs getting us drinks. Sitting on opposite sides of a round table, we seemed both to be in a kind of exhausted, relieved stupor. Finally I shook my head and asked, mostly from a desire to break the silence, “So, how did you get here?”

Haering, who could not take her half-glazed eyes off the dragon whose head was on my knee, answered, “I was on my way back to Shoer to visit my parents. They did not know I came, for I had left University secretly. I wanted to travel on my own, understand, not with an escort. I was walking when a portal appeared in front of me, and I stupidly walked into it.” She looked at me strangely. “Though I do not think I mind so much now.” I was sure I must be blushing, so I looked down at Isolia and scratched her head. She rolled her eye up to look at me, happy to have me back. I couldn’t say I disagreed.

“This silly dragon led me to a portal,” I said, “and I heard you yelling.”

She smiled. “You came to help me?”

“I didn’t know it was you, but yes.”

“You were brilliant in the camp.” This was unexpected, and I looked at her curiously, knowing my cheeks were red again. She explained. “I was frightened out of my wits, but you kept your head the whole time.”

“Thanks,” I said. What else could I say?

Kelvin, entering and setting three drinks down on the table, remarked, “I’ll sell those horses tomorrow,” settling himself into the vacant chair to my right. He was cradling his harp lovingly, and I could now see the intricate gold threadwork that spiraled up and down the black wood of the instrument. His eyes never strayed from it, and he continually stroked soft chords across its strings with his delicate hands. “You won’t need them,” he continued, “now that I have my harp.”

Haering looked up, fixing her gaze on the object in Kelvin’s arms. “Why?” she asked.

“This harp of mine, that your friend so kindly retrieved for me, is magical, like the other; with it I can send you anywhere you want to go.”

We both sat bolt upright and stared at him, all trace of weariness gone and our eyes alert. “Anywhere?” we echoed with one voice.

He narrowed his eyes, brows lowering. “Why? Where are you from?”

“Raharsaa,” I said.

“D’sh…” I think he was cursing rather vigorously, but I could be wrong. “You are joking me, I swear it.” He looked almost frightened.


Both of you?” We nodded. “Who are you?”

“I am Haering, daughter of Hebald, crown princess of Kopier,” said her highness. Her tone was so casual, it was terribly regal.

Kelvin stared at me. “And you are…?”

“Just a rancher,” I laughed. “Tixi Pax, from the lowlands at Lottingdell-Roshwood.”

Kelvin shook his head, and downed his drink in one gulp. I had only sipped mine; it was not too bad. “I can’t thank you enough for getting my harp back,” the bard said, “but you must understand I’m not at all comfortable with people from Raharsaa.”

“I understand,” I said. “Perfectly. Just send us back and we’ll be fine.”

“First I want to give you this,” he said, gesturing to his old harp in the middle of the table. “It’s not much, but, hey, I don’t have anything else.”

“Um, thanks,” I said. “But won’t it give me flashbacks every time I play it?”

“Yes. And you can only come out of a flashback, before it’s over, if someone hits you or takes the harp away. That one makes you very sick. And only one song will never give you a flashback.”

“The one you played to stop the brigands,” Haering guessed.

“Most songs you play are very likely to give you a flashback. Only your True Song will give others a flashback instead of you. To find your True Song you must clear your mind of all other thoughts and look into your heart until your hands just play the right music. It is a great gift to know your True Song, but with this harp it can also be a great weapon.”

“Thank you,” I said, now more seriously. “That’s really great. So that was your True Song you played earlier.” I took the harp in my hands with a new respect for it. “I heard it somehow, even with these.” I handed the earplugs back to him.

“If you ever see me again, perhaps I’ll play it for you on this harp. I call it the Wind Ballad. One more thing — the True Song charm works only on human ears. Don’t forget that and try to use it on some wild animal that’s attacking you.”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever use it,” I said.

“Is it all right if I send you home now?”

Haering and I both laughed in spite of ourselves. Taking a draft of whatever drink I had in my cup, I nodded, smiling. “Good luck in your new life,” I said.

“New life?” Kelvin looked confused.

“Not being a brigand anymore,” I explained.

He smiled, the warmest and most personable smile I’d seen from him. “You gave me that. Thank you. Take hands, and hold that dragon somewhere. I’m not sure if this will work.”

Blushing mightily, I took Haering’s hand, and put my other on Isolia’s back. “Goodbye, Kelvin,” Haering said. “I owe you my life.”

Kelvin gestured, whether at me or Isolia I couldn’t tell. “You owe her your life. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” I said as he started to play.

Music swirled around us, black and gold and warm, and we were falling, falling through the depths of gilded darkness, comfortable and happy, knowing that we were headed home.

We landed — it seemed like landing, anyway, gently and with no jarring — in the middle of a street that I recognized as being about ten miles from my ranch. And about thirty-five miles from Shoer.

I laughed out loud with pure joy at being home. “Looks like you’ve got your walk cut out for you,” I said to the princess, releasing her hand with a grin.

“Tixi, please don’t mention this Sharaani affair to anyone,” she said worriedly. Her face looked so serious! “Or at least, don’t mention me. I don’t know what the wizards would do to me if they discovered I’ve been to Sharaani and back; I don’t want my life ruined.”

I shook my head, brows lowered; I hadn’t thought of that. “All right,” I said, slightly downcast. Looking around for Isolia, I felt my legs telling me to walk towards home; there were still several hours before dusk, apparently, and I could make some progress before finding a place to sleep. But my mind and — yes, I’ll admit — my heart would not let me move. I just stood there like an idiot staring at Haering as if expecting something.

“Thank you for rescuing me,” she said.

“Kelvin did it, really,” I replied.

“Then thank you for helping Kelvin.”

“I was rescuing myself too, you know.” Why was I so stupid?

“Well, take this… as my royal thanks.” She held out a green and silver amulet on a thin chain, letting it dangle from the hand which was about as far from her body as it could be. How had she hidden this from the brigands…? Oh, Kelvin must have given it back to her before we left. I took it, thinking, Royal thanks? I’d rather have your personal thanks.

“Thank you,” I said.

“I suppose I will see you again sometime.”

“I hope so,” I couldn’t help but say.

“Well, goodbye.”

“Um… goodbye.”

Then she just turned and walked away. Just like that! I mean, it was, goodbye, goodbye, and then she was gone! Down the hill and out of my sight in an instant. Well, there is normalcy and there are conditions, I supposed glumly.

Feeling empty and alone and terribly depressed, I turned for home, curtly bidding Isolia follow.

I was lying on my back in the pouring rain, deafening thunder filling my ears and drowning out the rhythmic sound of my footsteps as the flashback faded. The harp held tightly in my arms, I sat up. I was literally soaked, covered in slimy mud from head to toe and shivering convulsively. I’d better find Isolia fast or these flashbacks were going to kill me. But why so many tonight?

I hadn’t played the harp much, though I knew it worked differently here than it had in Sharaani. I wished I could find my True Song and just stick to playing that. But that might cause trouble with the hired help. As if I didn’t have enough trouble with them threatening to quit if I ever disappeared like that again. For Shoer’s sake, it had only been a few days!

I climbed the fence, making it all the way over this time, and ran down the slope into the road. “Isohhhhhlia!” I called into the torrents that practically washed the syllables away from me, as if the roar of the storm did not already drown me out.

“Tixiiiii?” came a call through the rain. My heart fluttered — why did that voice sound so familiar? I pressed forward past all semblance of visibility and kept walking until I ran into a tree and realized I’d reached the other side of the lane.

“I’m here!” I called, clutching fiercely at my harp as another gust threatened to tear it from my hand.

“Where?” bellowed the faint voice. Instead of answering I made my way towards it, through the trees, over a fence, and into someone else’s pasture. Katzi Leiks’s, no doubt.

I almost ran into her arms, which would not have been the worst way to meet up with her. “Haering?” I gasped, totally inaudibly. I raised my voice. “What are you doing here?” I wondered how much she heard.

Her hair blew into my face as she leaned close to answer, but I only caught half the words. “I wanted… …see you again. But… …saw Isolia… …that way… …follow.” She raised an arm, which wavered in the wind. I seized the hand at the end of it and pulled her in the direction she’d indicated. We ran together, stumbling and swaying as errant gusts altered our course for us. Was it just me, or was that a light up ahead?

And here was Isolia before us, standing straight and unmoving through the storm. “Isolia!” I shrieked, barely able to be heard over the din that kept growing louder. As soon as the little wretch saw me, she turned and vanished into the storm. We took off after her again, I still holding Haering’s hand and trying to keep my harp at the same time.

It was a light. A purple light. Springing from the violet edges of a black rift in the pattern of space. All the noise and cry of the storm was sucked into it, and as we stood before it we could for a moment hear each other, arriving just in time to catch a view of Isolia’s tailparts disappearing into it.

“Wha–she’s gone in there!” cried Haering.

“Isolia, come back!” I called, but it was to no avail.

We looked at each other.

“Well?” queried the princess with a smile. The strains of the Wind Ballad seemed to echo around us.

I squeezed her hand, returning her smile, and with her stepped forward into a new adventure.

Somebody I knew rather casually online (Sati) had started a dragon-adoption site… you know, where you get a little .jpg dragon and it hatches and grows and stuff and everyone does a lot of free linking back and forth? Yeah. The premise of this site was that Gwen and Arran were far from home and needed help raising their young; from that I wrote this story, and it endures as something I really enjoy even years later, which is unusual for an original piece. There has been a sequel in the works for quite a long time, about Tixi’s equally-gay brother Saquell, but that will probably never see the light of day.