Category Archives: Let’s slay some dragons

Now The Spammers And Scammers Come Calling

Since I started this pitiful blog, I have received attention. Thanks for that. It probably happens to everyone who goes a little bit public on the internet – the predators pop out of the slime and drool over the prospect of new meat while they set their tired traps. I’ve been tracked and hassled by phishers, by “nice” folks wanting to offer me their services such as software that will write articles for me – because I must spend a lot of time writing, why not make my life easier??? Why not, indeedie!

Thanks for the threatening phone calls from “Unavailable”. You idiots! I was getting nasty phone calls before people were allowed to own their phones, from people who would actually try to corner me in the locker room and beat me up. Fuck you all, you morons. Like an IT department for Microsoft would tolerate such awful phone systems or incompetent employees? Like I believe you’re stuck in another country and a friend of a friend had sent you $500 and suggested I might be able to wire you the other $500 so you could get your passport and other belongings back so you could come home? Like I WANT followers on Twitter who just want me to buy stuff from them??? UNFOLLOW ME NOW, because no, I’m not interested in your stupid offers, and I bet very few people are. I’m tired of you, and a lot of other people are, too.

AND –

No, I’m not paying $50 for any amount of followers. No, I’m also not reviewing a book unless I can truthfully say something good about it. Stop asking. Grow up.

Yeah, I’ll probably get hassled more. I’m polite. I pretend I don’t understand. And I don’t, not really. I don’t understand why anyone would think I would fall for this stuff.

I HAVE AN OFFER OF MY OWN! I charge money to critique manuscripts. You’ll find my advice helpful. Get in touch for specifics. Hard copies only, no exceptions, that’s why they make printers – communication thru email, etc.

When All The Sky Is Darkened – half a tale is told

“Do you think they ever missed me?”
The fuzzy-faced sprite looked down at his toes. “Yes, my liege. Surely they did.” His tiny voice quavered, and he hoped the Queen didn’t notice. She was depending on him to be strong, but the field of neatly-kept stone sentinels distressed him. How awful, to secret an ancestor’s bones from the life-giving sun! At any moment the angry ghosts would appear and demand sacrifice.
And who is the practical choice, Petty Tom?
He clutched the fur over his pit-pattering heart. Purrdrowl! Ancient ones save me…
The Queen had no such concerns, and she wandered like a sleepwalker through the stones, her mayfly-wing cloak dancing on the timid breath of new summer. Petty Tom felt a pang of pride-tinged misery as he watched her. The mayfly wings he’d gathered himself, stitched them on a webwork of black widow silk, reinforced the whole with soft sighs of true love. But it was a garment not meant for this world, with its noise and stink and ignorant eyes. Even the sacred ground they stood on now was not protected from the profane! Again, he shuddered. The unnaturally thick grass reeked of chemicals. And just beyond the secreting hedge of hemlock and yew, gartered ’round by the high iron fence, hundreds of hard-carapaced vehicles droned by, spewing their corrosive death-breath.
Maybe that is why the ancestors here are put beneath the dirt, so they will not see and smell what this world truly is… Damn depressing. Now how much longer are we scheduled?
He reached inside his mooncalf-skin breeches, fished around. Needles. Waxwings. Pots’n’pans. Emergency fire. Purrhum! Time!
The time-keeper was all cut crystal and gold, although a little smeared from riding under his waterworks. It was as big as his palm, as small as it could get without compromising functions. Three horizontal dials and one vertical, another one on Sun’s Axis. He polished away the smudges, peered closely. There was only time left on the Fleet-As-Sparrow dial. He looked up for the Queen, to warn her, only three sparrows till Nevermorn, three sparrows, Majesty – but the words never left his throat. Only a silver cry of horror.
This unmagical world had a slinking magic of its own, one his senses were not accustomed to, and it had slunk right up and affronted the Queen. In what other place would so regal and lovely a girl be so brutally considered? For surrounding his Queen were a half-dozen common scoundrels, their thoughts ill with lust. One of them lifted her gossamer cloak, the others made rude, appreciative sounds. The cloak was, after all, the only thing Her Majesty wore.
Petty Tom cursed himself and the silly fear that had allowed his Queen to walk alone, out of the protection of his magic. Now the beasts were pawing her, starting sport that could only end one way.
Purrdrowl! And they weren’t even princes! That would at least have been acceptable. Commoners, mere commoners, raping a Queen! In his world there were laws, dreadful laws, to prevent such depravity. Magic to make any fiend cower content with fantasy. Even a rapist prince would awake to find his genitals in knots and spend small fortunes on counter-spells to make himself right.
Purrdrowl! What could he do? There were laws in this world too, and the Queen, being of this world, was subject to them. Her magic was forbidden here, had been left in her keep, locked in a unicorn ivory box guarded by a basilisk of her own design. Of necessity, he had brought his magic, which was formidable by spritely standards. He possessed Hanging Death and Stropped-By-Tree-Limbs, Hawthorn Impalement and Briar Garrote, but there were no trees or briars close enough. And there were the Rules of Braggory and Display. “Dare not thy crow-black magic do, in ignorant worlds or without fair forewarning, ‘lest the darkest power strike at you, and mark you out for vengeful harming…” Something like that, anyway. Half in panic, he sifted through his other magic. All sprites have lots of petty trouble-magic. Candle-In-The-Pants, Stone Shoes, Hair-of-Gold (most troublesome, as other, less alchemisticly talented folks were constantly creeping up on the victim from behind, with cudgel and scissors), Bed-Be-Wet, Gorgon-In-Mirror, Tail Mange…
Use of those magics would probably go unnoticed by Braggory and Display, but what good would they do the Queen? Purrdrowl! One of the ruffians was already on top of her, flashing his bare buttocks shamelessly to the sun. If she called out, cried or screamed, Petty Tom reasoned, he would find a way to do something, even if it meant his life. His appearance alone might cause them to flee. But the awful buttocks rose and fell, rose and fell, and the Queen didn’t fight, remained silent. Could it be that she wanted the hoodlum? If not, why didn’t she scream? Perhaps this was an assignation she had planned? Maybe she was waiting for him to save her, testing his loyalty! Or maybe she was doing this to test his ability to obey the Rules! His mind spun with possibilities, and he remembered something else. He checked the time-keeper.
Oh Ancient Ones! Less than one sparrow!
“MAJESTY!”
The ruffians looked up from their prize, all but the one who moaned over her. A large cat-kind-of-thing in stiff, spotted hide breeches ran toward them on its hind legs, waving a glittering orb and yowling. The stupid lust drained from their faces, replaced by confusion, apprehension.
One of them pulled a shiny 9mm from the top of his pants, aimed, but didn’t fire. Instead, he looked at the ground. Hands had sprouted through the thick, too-green grass, hands and arms diaphanous as Her Majesty’s cloak, grasping for the living with angry strength. Two of the villains went down, spasmed on the sod as their necks were heartily snapped. A third managed a few steps before the hands tripped him, pulled him face first into the smothering earth. The last two ran, screaming high as infants, and disappeared through the hedge. But Petty Tom ignored these things. Trivial, insignificant! Nevermorn was coming! Nevermorn was almost on them! He leapt over the twitching bodies half-sunk in the chemical-fed ground, over the ghostly hands extracting bloody revenge, squeezing flesh and blood and marrow-bone to shapeless pulp. No time to think where that magic had come from, or why. He leapt, feeling the shield of his innate magic billow around him, spinning the spell to call him home.
Nevermorn! Let it dawn and you never go home.
The last sparrow struck.
Nevermorn! Wake there and…
Petty Tom landed on the rapist’s back, dug in with all his claws. He saw the Queen smiling up at him over her defiler’s shoulder, her hair like a pool of blood beneath her head. And then the magic worked.
***
“Her Glory could have procured a toy in the usual way. This… this… situation” Archchancellor Vem Vaddoc paused for emphasis as he regarded the formal assembly, “will only cause trouble.”
Some of the younger chancellors and knights rolled their eyes, all dug impatient fingernails into their carved armrests. Old Vem was such a dotard! The young human man locked in the tower of Queen’s Second Keep was hardly a toy. It did not amuse the Queen to keep him. She took no pleasure from his captivity. He was just there. They doubted she ever even looked at him. If she toyed with anyone, they would have known. They had long been in line to be toys themselves.
“Her Majesty’s otherworld visit to her ancestral tombs was ill-advised, as was her choice of… companions.” the Acrhchancellor’s lip curled back from the last word, as if he found it particularly vile. “Everyone knows how cowardly sprites are!”
Under the long, burled-holly table, Petty Tom watched Vem’s fancy pointy boots pace and bristled at the insult, but he dared do no more. Queen’s Favorite he may be, but he was still just Petty Tom, Bastard son of Petty Po Small the Dairymaid. But wouldn’t it pique all those highborn sprite-snubbers to know just what went on in the Queen’s Private Chamber?
Someone rapped the table thrice for attention.
“A word, Grace, if I may.” Osander ne Willow, Knight of Dim River and of the Queen’s Keeps, Champion to Her Majesty. The perfect melange of diplomat and warrior, he often begged pardon for his superior skills before running his enemies through, and they always pardoned him. “Sprite or no, I believe our little Tom displayed untenable courage and good sense in the face of terrible circumstance. I would be proud to have him at my side in similar situation. So, might I suggest that we refrain from insults and move on to the long-ignored business at hand?”
Long-ignored, indeed! Petty Tom smiled smugly and consulted his time-keeper. The Confluence of Unassignable Magicks was a serious topic, and Vem Vaddoc had avoided it for a full turn of the Crow.
“It has long been considered fact that the Queen found her Otherworld existence intolerable and called for Removal, even as a child. We have performed such services before, where there has been mutual benefit. Humans are easily bewitched, and make excellent slaves.” Vem was taking a circuitous route they’d all heard before. Not-so-well stifled groans rose from the assembly, magnified in the high, echoey chamber, along with some blatant expressions of “You’re joking!” and “Well, I never imagined that!”
Vem ignored them. “Some humans prove more useful. Our Beloved and Estimable Queen is one such person. Her wisdom led us out of thrall to the discordant Western Alliance, and enabled us to live free for the first time in the close thousand years. Who assembled here does not remember the Dark Times? Who here did not witness a relative impaled on the Thorn Road?”
Black Lily Pike, the Lady Knight sitting just above Petty Tom, elbowed the chancellor next to her and whispered theatrically “Who here has not almost pissed themselves waiting for Vaddoc to get to the damn point?” The chancellor, Brig Tawny of Swanfeather Loch, snorted laughter, had to cover by pretending a fit of coughing. He and Lily had both watched their mothers die on Thorn Road, and didn’t want to think about it ever again.
Vem heard the insult, turned on an emerald-studded heel. “Woe the disrespectful!” he wailed. “Woe their misguided, ignorant laughter!”
“Whoa his stumbling war-nag, so that the ill-seated rider might fall off!” Black Lily shouted, and with a clang of scabbard to fine plate-mail, stood so suddenly her massive carved chair overturned behind her. “I mean ALL disrespect to YOU, Vem Vaddoc! I do NOT NEED child’s tutelage in history!”
As fists pounded, and shouts rounded the table, a bevy of spritish servants scurried in with trays of lavender mead and sugared wine. Osander ne Willow’s doing, Petty Tom thought excitedly, picking a louse from his ankle and flicking it away. This was turning fun. He could hardly wait to tell the Queen. How she’d laugh when he imitated Vem and Lily! She delighted in tales of how the others behaved out of her presence…
The clank of tankards and wine-cups being set on the table reminded him of something else, a duty he had promised.
The Queen’s Rapist must be fed.
***

Petty Tom laid on the cool flagstones, peeping under the iron door. The human man crouched on his pile of sleeping straw, eating the last of the black-speckled frog-egg pie. Devil’s marks were tattooed on his arms and chest, a crucified dragon of sorts covered his back, along with twelve triangular claw-holes. His skin was of a swarthy hue, not unknown in the Realm, but he seemed dirty somehow. No. Not dirty or sooty or grimy or slimy, Petty Tom thought. His hair needs washing, but that isn’t the problem. Crying, he’s been, eyes swollen like that. But… it’s as if a storm-cloud sticks to his skin. A dulling. A tarnish…
Every now and then, the man snuffled and sneezed, rubbed his nose. Then he looked right at the place where Petty Tom crouched, as if he could see more than a shadow, and tossed a bit of crust under the door.
“For you, gato. I am glad you come. This place got nothing familiar. Maybe I got sent upstate?”
Petty Tom said nothing. The tarnished man (a half-grown boy, really) didn’t expect him to. It was kind of disappointing, the way this man stayed fairly calm. As if he’d seen it all before. As if a stone and iron cell with a bucket for shit and frog-egg pie to eat and straw to sleep on was normal where he came from.
Petty Tom knew it wasn’t. He’d seen human people go crazy from less. The man had wept, but had kept the tears private.
Maybe I should talk to him, open the speak-easy, let him see my face. Maybe I should give him Candle-In-The-Pants… Deliberating, he sniffed the crust, all buttery-flaky, gobbled it down. No. The Queen, for private reason, did not want the man tormented on her behalf.
“I want him strong, my Tom-sweet, not bewitched,” she’d said when they’d come home. “There is breaking to do, and it will come by my hand. But for now, I want all his wits about him. He must accept what is happening. Time enough there’ll be to test his nerve.” What her full meaning was, he didn’t know, but he would do as she asked. Candle-In-The-Pants would be more fun on Jack Solemn-Robin. Petty Tom giggled out loud thinking of Jack’s long, pouty beak clacking as his wing-arms flapped smoke signals from the butt of his oversized teasel-fluff drawers. Hmmm. Time wastes! Other things need doing! He stood to go.
“Hey! Wait!” There was a sound of hands and knees on stone as the tarnished man scuffled to the door. “Stay with me, gato, I… I… ACHOO!” he sneezed, snuffled back the snot. “I don’t understand this place. No one comes but you and whoever puts pies under the door. No one comes to ask me questions, so I ask myself.
Why? That pretty girl. I keep thinking. Why did I do that? I don’t know why. I done many bad things, gato, but never… that.” the man snuffled again, and when he spoke, his voice bled with tears. “It was like… I got possessed. Like… a devil was pushing through my skin. I got a sister, gato. A mother, too. I keep seeing their faces on her…”
Purrhrrmm! Regret won’t stop the arrow, will it? Petty Tom dug in his pants for the time-keeper. He’d listened to foolery quite long enough. Six sparrows until the Queen expected him. He had to run.
***

“How fares our captive, my pretty Tom?”
Petty Tom laid on the Queen’s couch, his head on her lap. Her fingers tweedled the curl of hair behind his ear in a way that made his eyes go cross. He smacked his nose to set his senses straight.
Prrum. The prisoner eats and sleeps, Majesty, but attempts no escape. Captivity he questions not. He stews with inner torment for his crimes.” Petty Tom rolled over and gazed up upon his Queen. “What execution have you planned? If I may offer a suggestion, a good Drawing on Spire Rock followed by the Long-Gnaw Pixie Death would do much to re-establish relations with the Grimghast Redcaps. The general populace would also be pleased.” He flexed a fist of claws as he looked to the bruises on her tender arms, marks made by the otherworld devil himself. “I should like to see his spirit be forced to stay inside his grisled corpse in a cage outside the castle gate. I should like to taste his life for what he did, for what I allowed!”
The Queen just giggled and tickled Petty Tom’s furry belly so he squirmed with squint-eyed delight. “Oh, no, my little love, I did not take all that trouble merely to leak out his life! I care naught for the politics of Grimghasts. My brave little Tom, you were most perfect that day. You allowed nothing that I did not sanction.”
Petty Tom stopped squirming. His eyes went full round. “Sanctioned, my Queen? You… he… your… purrhumph! deflowering sanctioned?”
“There was only one way to bring him back unannounced, Tom. Only one way your magic would carry him.” Garnet-red hair slid to hide her bruised shoulder. “He had to be joined to one of us, and I preferred that one to be me.” She smiled at him, merriment lively on her lovely lips. “It was crude and cheap, but far easier to accomplish than any spell that would have coupled you and him.”
Petty Tom gulped. Ug! And oh! So many implications! What had the Queen done? And why? Was Vem Vaddoc right? Was the otherworld man merely a Queen’s Toy, procured at great price to the stability of the Magick Writ of the Realm?
“Your Majesty speaks of spells that were done,” he squeaked. “But your magic was left behind, locked in the Keep! Your magic cannot go with you to your original world!”
“The spell rode on my cloak, Petty Tom, tied to the sighs of True Love. When he lifted my cloak, the magic possessed him. I am glad he lasted long enough to be the one we carried back. He was the one I truely sought, and had he finished sooner, another would be here in his stead. And that would be tragic, for in the others I sensed an inate… stupidity. This one, had he been born here, would be a Knight to rival ne Willow or Pike. But had he been born here, he would not be able to accomplish what it is I must ask.” She yawned against the back of her hand, ending the discourse. “Time for bed, Tom-sweet. Shall I summon the sweetgrass nymph for you again? You cause her to sigh so prettily…”
***

A night spent in the arms and lips of a nymph can spin a magic of its own, and Petty Tom hummed as he smoothed out the fur on his stump of a tail. He’d smell of sweetgrass all day, and all he passed, from Knight to chambermaid, would wonder. Bastard Petty Tom, wetting his works with the prettiest nymphs! Ugly sprite! Queen’s Favorite!
Hoodie-hoo to all of them. Soon there’d be fuzzy nymphs born in Moonwash Glade, and no denying he’d do for them, not like his father. Proud he’d be, and Queen’s Favorites all of them!
The Queen! He consulted his time-piece. A seventh part of the Crow to go. On with the mooncalf pants and out the door!
The Queen requested he meet her in the Second Keep tower, and he sauntered to the appointment, passing as many people as he could, giving them time to smell the sweetgrass. Purrhurrum! He turned heads this bright newmorn, indeed! Jealous glares, stares of wonder.
“Vex not yourself, Jimmie Birchwood!” He smugged to the gape-gobbed pewter-smith. “There are plenty of toadies in Burklemuck Pond wanting kissed! I’ve a Waxwing that can fetch you one!”
Outside the Keep, Black Lily Pike bent down to sniff his head. “One from the Glade, Petty Tom?” She winked. “Be a good man by her. She comes of fine stock.”
His chest puffed with pride as he climbed the tower stairs. Good Man. Fine Stock. Queen’s Favorite’s, all!
Her Majesty appeared just as he stopped at the prison door, come her own secret way by Mist and Rose-Dew. She wore an amethyst and gossamer chiton under the Mayfly-wing cloak this time, he was glad to see. The tarnished rogue could certianly not harm her, but the thought of even his stained black eyes upon her tender body! GrrrPurrdrowl!
“Fine newmorn, sweet Tom,” she greeted, her words far more cheerful than her countenance. She gave him not a chance to ask what was wrong, but turned to the stout door, and with a wave of her hand and some small lip gesture, the iron disappeared. Across the cell, the man seemed to sleep, his tarnished, dragon-etched back to them. But as he watched, Petty Tom could see the man trembled, could hear stifled sobs.
The Queen had no fear, entered boldly. Petty Tom scurried to follow. “We are not visible to him, Tom-dearest,” she said, “not yet. Sleep failed me last night, so I took to my courtyard. New developments I saw there in the tea-leaves and stars that necessitated aggression on my part. I sent him a special present, and now he wallows even more deeply in distress for his perceived crime. I tell you, Tom, discomfort I feel at the darkness of my deeds, but he must always believe his actions were his own. He must feel such unmercied regret he will willingly do the task I must set.”
“Task, Majesty? But you have Knights and Chancellors a-plenty, and a full realm of subjects that will do or die upon your word! What can this unmagicked otherworlder possibly do?”
The Queen bent over her captive, traced soft fingers over his devil-marked arm as if it were treasure. “He can steal without magic, Tom,” she whispered. “He can burgle by wit alone. He carries no tinge of power to alert those he must take from. He is the Realm’s Perfect Champion in this Cause.”
What news was this? “A Cause, my Queen? Has ne Willow been alerted? Vaddoc consulted?” An ass Vaddoc may be, but he was a wise package to have once the Queen properly clipped his pompous strings.
Before she could answer, an unsettling wail of misery leaked from the man, trailed by an odd-sounding litany. Petty Tom growled. Was this some otherworld magic?
“His forgotten faith, my sweet Tom, that is all,” the Queen soothed. “He calls to its martyrs and virgins to ease his torment. But they will not. He begs forgiveness from his mother and sister, but they only know he is dead, and weep for his wasted life.”
A funny feeling left a sudden sting in Petty Tom’s chest, a sting he would not have noticed before last night, when Frondlark had whispered to him of the four fuzzy egglings. Theirs. His and hers. What would it be like if one of those egglings hatched dead? What if one of his tenderlets turned to Devil’s-Work, disappeared into dread Nevermorn? How would that sit on his Frondlark’s heart?
“Is his world lost to him, Majesty? Family too? Can he not go back?”
“All lost. He cannot ever go back. And soon, he will not want to. He will find me a kinder Master than Remorse and Regret, the rewards I offer far more fulfilling than any of his world. Now watch. I will allow him to see us.” She stood back from the man, spat onto her palm, clapped her hands twice.
The man jerked around. Straw stuck in his longish black hair and to his skin. His face seemed pale and sickly despite his swarthy hue. A small, gilt-edged looking glass was stuck to his right hand, and it angled automatically to give him best view of himself. He gave a little cry and stuck the offending hand down his pants.
Then he saw Petty Tom and the Queen. His mouth worked as he stared at them, but not too well.
“Dios…” was all he could manage. “Oh, Dios…” And then he could not look at them, or more specifically, at the Queen.
“Foolish man thou art,” the Queen frowned, wiping her hands on the chiton. “If it pleased me, I would gut you right here, leave you flop like a damselfish on this flagstone. Or perhaps use a spell that creeps hedgehogs into your stomach whenever you sleep. Or I could let my Knights have sport with you.”
Purrdurrum!” Petty Tom exclaimed in surprise. The last victim of Knightish sport had been kept breathing to suffer forty-five newmorns before being hided alive. Black Lily’s favorite bustier was made of that hide, and sometimes still screamed. But the Queen had need of this miscreant to Champion a mysterious and unnamed Cause. There would be no sporting spectacle.
“The sparrow is fleet in this world, and my patience with fools fleeter. I have a task for you. Complete it, and I grant you full pardon. Fail, and if you are not killed in failing, you shall be bound for a thousand-thousand years in this prison, with only the Mirror of Remorse and Regret for company.”
If the prisoner understood, he gave no sign. His red-rimmed eyes met Petty Tom’s great green ones and clung there, horrified. “Gato, gato, now I see her! She is just a… a little girl! How could I do that thing? Maybe this is Hell and I am already dead… Oh Dios! A fucking little girl!” he collapsed into a quivering heap, forgot about the Mirror and pressed his hands to his face. Whatever he saw so close up in the flat silver surface made him scream and pound his head on the stones.
“Little girl?” The Queen had truly lost patience. A dark orange haze hovered over her head. “Little girl! Little girl!” She spat out the words like poison as a wind whipped ‘round her, made red snakes of her tresses. A flick of her wrist, a stomp of her foot, and the weeping prisoner was thrown backwards, chained tight to the wall. She stalked toward him, kicking straw out of her way.
“I will come back nextmorn,” she glowered, “And next-next morn, and everymorn after until you can behave like less of a wet-diapered babe! Little girl! Little girl! Paahh!
Petty Tom followed quick as the Queen left the cell. She spelled back the door so hard dust puffed from the mortar. Purrdrowl! Something rings wrong! His heart drummed double-time as she stumbled, fell hard to her knees.
“Majesty! Oh!” Petty Tom caught the Queen as she swooned, caught her and held her strong. The anger-haze was gone, and she was so pale, so cold. He brushed back her red tangle of hair, and cried out in dismay. Blood streamed from her nose, her ears, the corners of her slackened mouth. “Oh, Majesty!” He couldn’t think what to do, his magic dried in his mouth, blew away on his breath. “What is wrong! What has happened! Please!” He finally thought to summon the Queen’s Guard when her eyes fluttered open. She smiled weakly.
“I shall be fine, precious Tom, fine in a while. It’s just that I forgot his ignorance, I gave not fair forewarning. Even the Queen cannot disregard Braggory and Display.”
***

Braggory and Display! The words rang in Petty Tom’s ears like the Death-Bells over Thorn Road. Braggory and Display! The rules had been breached and the Queen paid the price in her own blood! She’d dismissed the Royal Physicians, the Knights and Chancellors, ordered them sternly away. Only Tom she allowed. Queen’s Favorite. The proud designation now felt more a millstone of responsibility. She depends on me now, I dare not fail! Oh my poor Queen!
He carried a tray to her Private Chamber, set it softly on her bed. Carrot broth, violet wine, a tiny nettle-seed cake. All she had asked for. All she would take.
Gently, he fed her, one silver spoonful at a time. Then Petty Tom stroked the Queen’s hand, pale as milk against the white counterpane, and waited. Finally she opened her eyes.
“Tom-dearest, I fear I must ask you to act in my stead, and more, for the Cause will not wait.” She held to his furry hand with remarkable strength. “I told you that he is a thief most clever and accomplished, untinged by magical ability. In the West, beyond our Realm, the Magi concoct spells to undo us, to bring the Dark Times again to our land and return the Thrall.” She laid back exhausted, panting for breath. “To live by Crow-Black magic alone is to be hollow of heart, to have emptiness that can only be filled by foul measure. ‘Some of each,’ the True Law reads, ‘Find thee a balance between the extremes, and your world will be well. Too much Dark or Light is the most frequent cause of indigestion of Spirit…’ The Magi choose only the Dark, and suffer for it. We are their cure…”
Petty Tom nodded fiercely. So the prisoner must steal a cauldron or crystal from the filthy Magi, or some manner of magic implement, prehaps a Vengence-Staff or the dragon-bone chalice from which they once drank the Life of our Land…
“No, my dear! You don’t quite understand. Listen close, Tom, my weariness grows. The Magi are old and need to drink our Life again. I could send Knights and Warriors against them, but so many would be lost, and the foretellings favor us not…”
“What must he then spirit away, my Queen? What thing needs taking from that loathsome place?”
“What thing…” Her wan smile warmed his heart, for a moment. “Oh Tom, sweet Tom, the Tongue of the Magi, their own daughter must he take! In trances she speaks the spells that will be our undoing! But her black-hearted fathers keep her in pieces, to prevent her from running, for wild and lovely as the spotted hind she is, and as timid, with no understanding!”
“The Tongue of the Magi is real?” Petty Tom gulped. “Oh my. Oh Ancient Ones! Ohhhpurrdrowl dear!”
“Oh yes, my Tom. Terribly real. Her head they keep on a table in their library, with ink-pots in the eye-sockets and spare quills in the mouth. Her eyes one keeps in a pouch on his doublet. Her tongue one wears on a Harpy-hair ‘round his neck. Her arms and legs are strung on a garland over their thrones. Her limbless body they… pass between beds.” She shuddered, took up the wine-glass and sipped the last purple draught. “He must procure all the pieces, our thief, bring them back each wrapped separate in crowskin, lest they flee. Then…” the Queen shuddered again, her milky hands flew to her face and she began to weep. “Oh Tom, these are such Dark things as needs be done! Not to my liking, but no choice have I!”
No choice but to do, or a bloody war, and Darkness and Thrall and the wailing that would line Thorn Road. And four fuzzy egglings in Moonwash Glade…
***

“I say it was not the Queen’s use of The Mirror of Remorse and Regret alone that caused Braggory and Display to take action.” Fiffit frowned as she stirred the mandrake down in her cauldron for the hundreth time. The tiny, mannish root only scurried panting up the side again, so she knocked his wee poll soundly with her stout briarwood spoon. He splashed face-down in the simmering, mud-colored, venomously peppery brew. She grabbed quick for her mandrake knife, sliced him stem to stern as he floated. “Where did Frondlark come upon these impossible beasties? Half Pixie they are, and near twice as vexing!”
Petty Tom squatted patiently by his dear Frondlark’s auntie, trying not to sneeze. Fiffit was renouned among the countryfolk for her poultices and potions, and her great store of wisdom. Age had not bent her back and never would, for even half-nymphs wear beauty ‘til death. But she kept to herself and her cauldrons, inside the hollow old cypress, stirring and muttering spells, straining and bottling her products. (“Same old stuff,” she often complained. “Folks are so boring. Love philters! Fertility enhancers! A little something to help the old pickle gone soft! What most of ‘em need is a good dose of Wise-Up!”)
“What is the reason then?” Petty Tom asked, wiping his watery eyes. The fumes were most distressing. He’d not told Fiffit the details, or of the Queen’s Cause, and wondered if he should before he fainted. No, best wait and see what advice I can get with as small an expenditure as needed…
Fiffit saw his discomfort, threw a hickory twig at her ventilation fans. “I don’t pay you to dawdle! Get busy!” she snapped, “Or back to larvae you’ll turn!” The three giant luna moths sighed, unrolled their probosci in lewd gesture, but all flapped faster. Fiffit grumbled about the lack of conscientious help, then turned to her visitor. “The reason, I’d guess, is the original enchantment on her cloak. If she gave no fair forewarning, such as ‘touch me not, brigand’ or ‘most sorry you’ll be, scoundrel’, and you said she gave not even a cry, the use of her Crow-Black on an ignorant lad was raised to the worst of crimes. I fear, Tom-dear, our Queen will most likely pay with her youth and health for her rashness, if not her whole life. For by the Law, he was the one suffered rape and torment…”
***

Though the Mirror was removed and the captive released from his chains, the Queen fared no better the next day, or next.
“But at least she is no worse,” Petty Tom whispered to Black Lily Pike outside the Queen’s Chamber door. “The inhalant from Fiffit eases her pain.”
Lily nodded. She’d no use for Physicians and their Chemical spells. Many of Fiffit’s best potions she carried in her saddlebags – one for arrow-piercings and sword-gash, another for bad bruising. Several she had for depression and soul-weariness, for those things can trouble even the most pureblooded elf. It was one such potion she sipped upon now, lest a tear betray her.
“Walk with me, Petty Tom,” Lily said, and they followed the early-eve shadows down the empty courtyard. Lily stopped by the fountain, lively with water-noise. “She is my Queen too, Tom, and helpless I feel. Secrets she shares with you, I know, and I would not ask you to break Queen’s confidence in normal matters.” Lily swigged again from her indigo flask, then stoppered it, resolute. “But Tom, I beg you, allow me to help. If my help would mean naught, I’ll forget what you tell me, on all my Honor. I think maybe the Queen fears Knightly foray, all bravado and blood. But I have seen the Thorn Road run with innocent blood, lives spent there for evil sport, and there, as a girl, I vowed to protect this Realm with my life. So Tom, please…”
“Sir Lily, this is a delicate matter…” Petty Tom was embarrassed. A Knight begging him ‘please’! But he was just a sprite, and so much now on his heart and shoulders.
“Delicate? Yes, that had occurred to me. And I am not the delicate type.” She sighed, tucked her long braid into her gambeson, knelt to splash her face with cool water. “Fiffit tells me that Frondlark tends four fuzzy egglings.” She wiped cuff ‘cross her brow. “Fiffit knows you are heartsick with worry over much more than the Queen. For the sake of those precious egglings, let me help! Let not another generation keen and wail on Thorn Road to the death-throes of their dearest-loved! For the sake of the Realm, Tom! Tell me only enough so that by sword or by brains I may help in some way!”
All the potions in Fiffit’s power could not stop the Knight’s tears. Petty Tom made bold and embraced Lily Pike, tears of his own dripped into her ear. Black Lily had given word on her Honor. True, ne Willow she was not, but Honor and Valor came in no better a Knight…
“Oh, noble Lily!” Tom bowed, then lowered his voice so the words scarce heard themselves formed. “The Magi…” he began.

***

“Awake, Otherworlder!” Black Lily knew she needn’t have shouted. The bucket of water she’d thrown was icy enough to put an ache in her fingers, and her victim cried out and scrambled to his feet in the now-sodden straw. He blinked in the meager dawn light and shook himself like a dog, muttering strange curses. Then he blinked again.
“Dios…” She was the most unusually striking woman he’d ever seen, coal-black hair pulled into a braid, a long, narrow nose, huge slanted eyes glittering blue and green under high-arched brows. “Good morning. Nice shower. Are you an attorney?”
“An tourney? Befuddled you be, lad. A tourney is an event. I am a Knight.” She tossed him a shirt, heavy hose, boots, gambeson and brigandine. “Attire yourself,” she prompted as he studied the hose. “and be glad we no longer use points.”
“Can’t I wear my own pants?” One leg was green, the other black, like loose carnival costume tights with a drawstring, and made of some kind of wool.
“Your otherworld clothes reek of otherworld stink. They’ll be burned.” Black Lily’s sword hand flexed. “Now take off and put on!”
Seeing she meant business, he took off his pants, (and when Lily half-drew her sword, his underwear too) hopped clumsily into the hose, quick as he could. Truth be told, he was glad for fresh clothes, would have liked a hot, soapy shower, but Lily’s demeanor was not one of a person much concerned with the comfort of others.
The door eased open, and Petty Tom peeked inside. “The ponies are ready, Sir Lily. Three from the high moors where they’ll not be missed. Good newmorn, man. The hose fit, I trust?”
The man had stopped dressing, one boot half-pulled on. “The gato can… talk…” He stared in wonder, as if Petty Tom were a marble cherub come to life. “Curado!”
“Get thee dressed, man!” Lily seethed. “We haven’t much time. Rude be it to gawk at others! Hast thou never seen a sprite?”
Still staring, the man finished booting. “Sprite? Like an elf?”
“Imbecile! I am an Elf! BrightMorn and ShiningRide! Daoine Sidhe and Sith by my sire, Rusalky and Seligen by my dam!” Lily stormed. “Petty Tom is of spritish stock, distinct from elven races as korsk from a zogga! He is of a most noble line. Queen’s Favorite is he, and master to you in this Realm!”
Mention of the Queen cowed his spirit. “Right. Sorry, Senorita Knight, Senior Tom.” He slid into the brigandine. “I thought you were a cat. You got fur like one. Makes my eyes itchy.”
Petty Tom considered his fur, touched his ears. No one had ever compared him to a cat! But then, the man had been driven almost insane. Purrhumph! Let him see a cat in pants if he wants…

***
“I never considered he could not ride!” Black Lily dug through her saddlebag for a suitable unguent. “He held to the horse with all the art of a drunken cockle-burr! Champion? Paugh! What Champion can not ride?”
They’d traveled all day along back trails and deserted tracks roughly parallel to Thorn Road. Now, as the sun set, they camped in a nymph-free glade. Even though they were still well within the Realm, Lily had cast an anonymous Surround spell for protection, Eyes To The Dark, a Knightly bit of work. The hobbled ponies cropped grass and drank from the sweet stream. Petty Tom tended fat sausages sizzling over a fire. Stripped down to long shirt and hose, the man groaned in a ball on the soft grass.
“Babe is he!” Lily scoffed, tossed aside a packet of Carbuncle Cure. “Let him try with lance or sword and find what ache is!”
“He’s been nearly a fortnight confined to the cell,” Petty Tom diplomatically observed. “No wonder he aches.”
“The Magi will take pity, I’m sure!” Lily unstoppered a black bottle and sniffed. “Ug! This is it! Reeks of helichrysum and clary sage and salamander slime. Fiffit’s Seat-Mender. Bare thy buttocks lad, and take thy cure!”
Petty Tom gawphed. The Champion grinned up from his misery. “So nice of you, Seniorita Knight.” He began to untie his hose.
Lily threw the bottle at him. “Put it on yourself! I’m not game to your fancies!” This time she turned her back with the pretense of washing up in the stream.
“Maybe – Ow! – one of you could tell me where – shit! – we’re going,” the man asked as he rubbed on the salve. “Maybe you could – fuck that stings! – tell me why I’m here.”
“You are here -” Lily flipped back her wet hair, “to help right the wrong you did to the Queen.”
“The wrong I did. Raping a little girl. You take me to my death, then.” He hitched up his hose. “Good. This must be Purgatory. It’s too nice to be Hell. Whatever you do to me, make it hurt.”
Lily had removed her brigandine, chainmail and gambeson, and looked surprisingly smaller as she fluffed her hair by the fire. “Self-pity does not impress me, lad. There is a thing you must do. The Queen, who is older than I, and no ‘little girl‘, says you are an excellent thief.”
Sudden anger darkened the man’s face. “How does she know anything about me? You people know nothing about me! Who are you? Where am I? Until this morning I could believe I was in some weird prison with new rules. They got all those private-run places now. But then you dress me up, make me ride a damn horse all day? I am beginning to think you played with my mind. Some drugs or something. You, Seniorita Knight! Knights have honor, right? So if I raped your Queen, little girl or no, you should take that ugly sword at your side and make my death right here!” Winded from his vehement speech, the man glowered at Lily across the fire. The sausages were done and the smoke smelled delicious, an incongruous detail in the tense evening air.
Petty Tom said, rather small, “We must each know our purrhem, purpose, Sir Lily. Into our confidence he must be let. After all, it is he on whom so much rests.” He could sense somehow that the Queen had been wrong to fool this one. The perceived crime had changed his spirit, made him sick at heart, sick of life. All his faculties he’ll need in the Magi’s Palace, and we need all his loyalty, for he may be tempted there… He reached into his pants for three forks and pewter plates. “Eat before it’s overcooked, and I will tell you why you are here. Then you may ask any questions you want of me, and I will answer as best I am able.”
The man looked from Petty Tom’s breeches to the plates of sausage, his expression an odd mixture of hunger, anger, amazement and disgust. “Alright, gato Tom, tell me your story. But please don’t pull nothing more out of your pants.”

***

“Well.” The man looked from Lily to Petty Tom and back. “You could have just asked me for help.”
“Not so simple as that,” Petty Tom said as he gathered the plates. “The Queen had to bring you back without anyone knowing why!”
“And besides, would you have said yes?” Lily arched an eyebrow even more.
“How will we ever know what I’d have said?” The man eased to the ground, laid out by the fire. “I always wanted adventure. But where I come from, life gets in the way. You got an accent, some people look at you funny, think you’re stupid. So you learn to talk like them, but it isn’t enough. Your skin is different. Your family is poor. My world’s full of morons that think because you look different or you come from a certain barrio you aren’t as good as them.”
Petty Tom nodded. He understood. If it weren’t for the Queen, he’d still be slopping privies for Johnny-Towne Pit Muckers. They were all quiet for a while, watching the stars wink, and thinking.
“You explained the magic,” the man said. “I don’t understand your kind of magic. Crow-Black and what else?”
“Crow-Black causes true harm, intentional or not,” Lily blurted, as Petty Tom started to answer. “Swan-White is used purely for good, and always with good intent. Boring stuff. Most magic lies between the two, from Dove to Darkling Owl. Laws we have in this Realm to prohibit surreptitious Crow-Black. ‘Too much of midnight leads to the Magi’, we were taught. Life needs balance.”
“So the Queen didn’t mean to cause me harm, but she did,” the man pondered. “And now she is dying because she wanted to do something good? That is a fucked-up system.”
Petty Tom caught the look that crossed Lily’s face. Knights didn’t take well to their Realm’s Law being disparaged. “The Magic Writ of the Realm works well most of the time. All laws have flaws, as I’m sure you can attest.”
The man snorted. “Where I come from, that’s because rich men decide the law. You got money and connections, you can do about whatever you want, no matter what the law says on paper.”
“The Queen is rich,” Petty Tom observed. “And she is the sovereign of this land. Connections all lead up to her. Yet she is not above the Law.”
“Well, the Law should be able to make case-by-case distinctions. Crow-Black, Swan-White, damn magic by the birds…” He sat up suddenly, causing the others to jump. “No!”
Lily’s sword was out, and Petty Tom’s dirk, but the man wasn’t alarmed by an intruder. He peeled out of his shirt.
“Look at my back!” he pointed over his left shoulder. “See it? Don’t you see?”
“The… dragon?” Lily asked, thinking him relapsed into crazy.
“Dragon? That is no dragon, Seniorita Knight. Don’t you recognize it? I forget that it’s there, I’ve had it so long and who looks at their own back all the time? But this is why,” he thumped a finger over the tattoo, “Why I am here! Don’t you get it?” He craned around to see their faces, hoping for some sign they understood. There was none. “Oh Dios mio. Look past the color of it and see what it is! In the world where I come from, there is a great and beautiful bird, the swan, like your swan, and they can be white, or they can be black. There are black swans. This is a black swan, no dragon! Swan-Black, don’t you see? I brought Swan-Black to this place!”

***

All the next day, the companions traveled quietly, each brooding over the implications of the previous night’s events. Conversation was accomplished by taciturn exchange. The squeak of leather tack, snort of ponies and the soft thud of their careful hooves blended hypnotically with birdsong and leafrustle. Black thorn-trees were more prevalent than the day before, and once in a while the riders glimpsed long silver spikes among the shorter natural thorns, a sign of a tree born of a tree that had fed on blood. A sign they drew closer to the Borderland.
They encountered no one, and for that, Black Lily Pike was glad. She had chosen this route for its lack of inhabitants. Not many cared to live among the awful trees.
She halted her mount where the trail entered a dense, thorny thicket, the beginning of the trees that lined Thorn Road to the North. I remember what happened here, how many were killed just the hour before the Queen came into her magic. She was not Queen then, merely an Otherworld girl brought here to serve. And serve she has. The entire Realm owes her, for what price she paid for the magic. And now a new one has come, with strange ideas. A twisting of Black and White that does not blend to Grey…
“Wait, Otherworlder!” Petty Tom cautioned from behind. Lily turned to see the man dismount and duck into the thorn-trees, where a horse could not go. “Some of the thorns carry poison!”
They thought at first he merely meant to relieve himself, having ridden many turns of the Crow without stopping. But Lily jumped off of her horse when he began to climb one of the trees, a thick-boled oldster whose close-set branches formed a sinister, thorny grotto. A cusp of fat silver spines, as long as his forearm, shone where the trunk split in three. A true place of impaling, that tree was…
“Stop where thou are!” Lily warned, rushing in, her sword flashing gold as she severed a path through the hated thorns.
But of course, the man did not stop until he had hold of a silver spine in each hand. He wrenched with all his might, and the spines cracked loose, and he tumbled to the dank, sun-starved ground.
“Fool! Knowest thou these foul trees have fed upon blood? The lives of our countrymen have been leaked out on those thorns!” Lily wrenched him off the ground, drug him roughly out of the thicket. “You risk poisoning! You risk awakening the thorn-tree’s memory!”
No sooner had she spoken, than a whisp of a moan shivered out of the thicket. Lily’s face went white, and all three of them looked to the source of the sound. There, sure enough, on the cusp of silver spines, a ghostly figure writhed.
Not one, Petty Tom realized in horror, Purrdrowl! There are many! Everyone the tree slew!
And true, ghosts juxtaposed upon ghosts hung impaled on the spines, how many they could not tell. And where the two spines had been ripped out, thick sap poured down, dark red and stinking of death.
With a growl of anger, the man pulled from Lily’s grasp, ran back to the tree. Before his companions could react, he leapt up and plunged the sharp ends of the spines deep into the heartwood.
There was a great CRACK! as if lightning had struck, and the man was thrown backwards. The tree shuddered, the ghosts disappeared. And then white fire rose up from the ground ‘round its roots, white fire winding through the black branches, Black wood feeding White flame.
As he scrambled back from the fire, Petty Tom and Lily were quick to his side.
“Have you been harmed?” Lily questioned, kneeling beside him, seeing no wounds but fearing internal harm.
“The thorn-tree, Sir Lily!” Petty Tom gasped in wonder. The branches bent, seemed to twist in the fire, until there was nothing but a swirling conflagration of Black and White.
Then the great fire simply winked out.
The gnarled old thorn-tree was gone. Not a twig of it remained, not a bit of ash, just a deep black pit where the main root had anchored. Even the small roots had been burned to black tunnels. But aside from a thin layer of scorched earth, only the tree itself had been touched by the flames. Moss that had grown around the roots was still grey-green and living. Worms and beetles tumbled and crawled in the bared dirt. The companions circled the hole where the awful tree had been, open-mouthed, but not a word between them.
“There!” the man suddenly exclaimed, laid down and reached deep into the blackened hole, so far he almost slid in. Would have, but Petty Tom grabbed his ankles.
“What did you find?” Lily leaned down as he hefted out of the hole.
In the long-shadowed evening light, dozens of long silver spines gleamed in his fists.
“This is Swan-Black,” he said.
They were staring not at the spines, so bright-sparkling silver, but at the man, whose dark skin and eyes shone wonderfully pure, as if some inner fire had burned the tarnish away.
***
As power goes, the power contained in the spines of one Thorn tree was no great thing. But the man was not content with the demise of one tree. Over and over again he repeated the deed upon every murderous Thorn tree they came across. Bundles of long silver spines he soon had, tied to his saddle, many more and the horse would be given in to them entirely, and he forced to walk, but still he killed the trees and gathered their shining death-spears. And with each spine came a small sip of power, burning like sparks through his spirit, converging, collecting inside of him. At night, he would wake from tangled dreams, heart pounding so loud he would mistake it for foot-falls down an echoy hall. He would wake to the star-dark night, steeped in cricket song and the snorts of sleepy horses and the shimmer of Black Lily’s Surround, and he would watch for a while his sleeping companions. He would try to remember his name, but could not, Swan Black was all he could think. Ghosts would whisper ‘Avenge me, avenge me!’ and the spines would wink from their bundles, silent silver laughter.
You are too weak, otherworld man, no match are thee for the Magi! Flay you forever, they will, without end your death will be! the spines taunted. You are no more than the ghosts whose blood we drained!
Swan Black. He thought of the ghosts that gathered around him, crying for vengeance.
“You shall have your revenge,” he pledged to the wraiths. “And I will use evil against evil for good. I am the mirror who reflects blinding darkness back into the eyes of those who cast darkness…”
Awake with her back to him, Black Lily listened, and knew not whether to love him, or fear him with all her heart.
***

“Look, Zaiauthug, what the mists reveal!” the Shellman cackled, clacking his mandibles. Beneath him, drenched with moat water and slimed with fine, long algae-hair, a crystal-waif’s flesh slowly dissolved, filling the damp stone chamber with the miasmic ruin of her stolen soul. Long had she been kept drowning in the Waters of Nodding, twined about with Death’s loving fingers while Life mocked her. Now nothing was she, but swamp-mist to a third-rate necromancer, all her soul a passing canvas for his third-rate spells. But this time, Luck had kissed him. The mist swirled with Showing and Telling.
“Mother Trees murdered. How came this?” The Leach Zaiauthug fingered his garland of skulls, picked a snail from an eye socket and tucked it beneath one of his tongues. “Three ride from the Cursed Lands, fools, that is plain-” (here the snail screamed as he sucked it) “but in their wake, dead Ancients, stripped of their Thorns! Show me more, crab!”
But the mist was fading. One crystal-waif’s soul could write only so much. The Shellman grumped and shook her bones, but she was spent, and rattled to pieces. He considered her brothers and sisters, still chained in the murk. Expensive, they were, and forays to the Cursed Lands to capture replacements grew ever more dangerous. “Cost there is, Zaiauthug, cost in what you ask.”
The Leach grinned, a terrible expression. A snail husk swung on bloody drool from his fourth lip. “Really?”
Into the murk slid the Shellman, mandibles sensibly shut tight lest any protest leak out. Oh, would that Luck might kiss him again! Zaiauthug was some minor Foist to the Magi, a grasper and toe-kisser of the farthest periphery always hoping to gain greater favor. Plain it was how hoped he to use what was Shown and Told by crystal-waif mists! The Shellman hoped that the Leach got his desire. Few ever returned from the Magi’s palace…
By hand and claw the Shellman made way through the waterweed, to where the Water of Nodding flowed cold around a row of drowning waifs. Some were yet so fresh algae had just begun to dim their shining hair and skin. Their eyes met his, their frantic pleading filled his mind.
He snatched the oldest, snapped her chains with one claw. With his small legs, he bundled her tight to his body, scampered back to his chamber. What pleasure it was to feel her cling, gasp first air, believing he was her savior, only to sink his claws into her belly as his spell began.
Quick he found her trembling crystal, sorting through viscera as she writhed, and smashed the brittle thing in her pale blood.
Mist sang from her mouth. The Shellman whispered into her melting flesh, kneading his legs in her guts.
Miracle above miracles, Luck kissed him again. The mist became the Thorne Road, the Queen’s Keep, and in the Queen’s Keep…
“Oh!” the Leach gasped. “My fortune, indeed! The Very Bitch dies! See the henchmen!”
As if I am as blind as you are slimy! Shellman thought, the waif under him fast fading. Plain as Newmorn before him, Crow-Black itself perched on the Queen’s canopy, Braggory and Display danced dark footprints over her counterpane, drinking her blood!
“What tidings I have for my Lords!” the Leach slobbered. His twenty eyes goggled and jigged on their stalks like bog melons half taken with rot. “Rich the rewards for those who serve well!”
He would have capered if capering could be done on one leg. As it was, the Shellman scurried to get out of his way, mandibles pulled to a frown. The mist might have shown more, but Zaiauthug had ruined the delicate substance with his blobbing about.
Yes, clear it was that the Queen had used Crow-Black without Fair Forewarning, almost sure death to one of her pretentious, high-perfumed ilk. But to what purpose? That’s the important bit, the part Leach won’t know. And the Magi reward knowledge, not the lack thereof…
“Off now I go!” Zaiauthug proclaimed, and slid through the mudroom door. He hadn’t offered to pay.
The Shellman looked around his disheveled chamber. Slime dripped from the walls. Waif remains littered the floor.
“The crow flies slow for those of us satisfied with our lot!” he said aloud to no one who might be anywhere and listening, as he fetched a scrubbery bucket from the scullery cupboard. Third-rate necromancers were their own housekeeps and cooks, but stupid they were not. So as the Shellman scuttled about cleaning his chamber, cursing the tenacity of Leach-slime and his own inability to afford a gimpy Asrai or Glashan to help with the chores, his thoughts followed quite another path indeed.

***

The three down-trodden nags carried no riders, but plodded the road heavy-burdened, led by three peddlers of questionable character. Their leathern saddlebags were strapped tight, contents hidden from sight – except for a few copper pots, strings of tiny carved pixie skulls (their chattering jaws wired shut), and bundles of fat pickled mandrakes and koboldes and waxed porcupine hides, all things common and welcomed in low sorcery circles.
The three peddlers spoke but little, plain it was they were but one step above common cut-throats in their scabby patched coats and cracked boots. When they stopped for the night by a small orchidy bog, even the Portunes doused their musty frog-roasting fires and took supper inside, a-feared the peddlers might catch and string them along with the pucker-mouthed mandrakes.
Purrdrowl, lady, our bug-eyed watchers be gone!” Petty Tom whispered, scratching himself. Wearing the mooncalf pants inside-out may have provided disguise, but the out-side was itchy, his magic rattled uneasy and the waxwings complained.
“Dare I a Surround, itchy Tom?” Lily looked haggard, a hard thing for her, so normally jewel-eyed and luminescent.
“No, fair lady.”
Lily and Petty Tom both turned, startled. The man had been silent all day. Now a smile glittered on his rough-stubbled face. In his hands were four spines, gleaming in the day’s lastlight.
“Your Surrounds are foreign here, Lady. A strange taste on the wind. And I’ve seen how the magic wears you. Tonight, I do the first turning of Black on Black.”
He paced out a circular space, once, twice; the third time he stopped by instinct at the first cardinal point and drove a spine deep.
The air in the circle stirred and moaned. Mist formed, twisting ‘round them, weaving sickly cold that clung to their bones. Tom slunk closer to Lily, and she took his hand.

 

Waking up in another world…

Ever wonder what it’s like to wake up in a totally new reality? A place where you must fight for survival, use your wits and skills to survive? A land that challenges you with harsh and hostile terrain, where strange creatures lurk under every rock, and inside every cloud there’s not a silver lining but a vat of acid? Do you watch ‘Game of Thrones’ and think “Oh sweet Jesus, I wish that was me!”? Well, if you want to live it, you’ll be overjoyed to learn it’s as easy as commenting on a friend’s Facebook post. Yeah, Facebook, which you joined to “keep in touch” and “catch up” with old friends, family members, co-workers and fellow gamers in a fuzzy-wuzzy kitty-cat baby pic Farmville kinda utopia where everything is rainbow hugs and unicorn giggles and videos of dogs doing omglols? Oh wonderful cuddly heartwarming send prayers for Aunt Judy happy graduation social media! Luv, luv, smiley huggles!
And then someone you like/love/care about goes and posts a politically/racially/socially charged half-assed piece of propaganda meme that they obviously think everyone should agree with. “What is that supposed to mean?” you wonder, trying to figure out why anyone you ‘FRIENDED’ would be ignorant enough to ‘SHARE’ such crap. You sit there, looking at that chunk of half-digested vomit disguised as righteous indignation, or common sense, or Christian values, or patriotism – and you know you could ignore it.  “Scroll On!” your inner Miss Manners Angel of Etiquette warns, pointing down the screen to a video of a German Shepherd eating a couch. But your inner Troll of Justice grumbles “You ain’t gonna let that go, are you? Know what that makes you, ya damn spineless sack of mud? A spineless sack of shitty mud, that’s what you are!” and the Troll of Justice spits at your feet, crosses its tattooed Longshoreman’s arms and glares down its thrice-broken nose at you. Fluffy-bunny-saving, lol-ing don’t-rock-the-rowboat-ing YOU. Wringing your hands, you look from the Angel to the Troll; they’re both getting impatient with your hesitation. You have to decide, right then and there, what kind of a person you really are. Turning away is easy. You can ignore the meme and go on – but that just feels wrong, akin to telling yourself “Separate but equal is ok, why, they’re just making sausage at that work camp up the road, we brought Christianity to those pagans, why shouldn’t Jews wear a yellow star on their sleeve?” AND SO YOU ENTER YOUR COMMENT. After all, the post has a place for comments, so whoever posted it must be expecting a comment.
Dear God/dess. You have just found your portal to another Reality, and man, you open the wrong door in that dragon city and the angry birds will peck your eyes out.
You will lose “FRIENDS”. You will make relatives mad at you. You will hurt feelings. You will cause arguments. You might even win the grand prize of having family members never speak to you again! You will be misunderstood, “BLOCKED”, and ignored.
And you will be hurt. Oh, most assuredly, you will be hurt. But all who would adventure must face adversity. All who Try To Be The Change they Wish To See In The World will be knocked down by some of the very people who post the same sentiment on their Facebook page.
The “COMMENT” click-on awaits.
But be aware, Beyond here be ugly dragons.
Go slay them.