Monday, November 23, 2015

Preview of Wards

“Don’t put too much energy into the ward or else it will injure anyone who touches it,” Ace warned.  “Sometimes that’s done deliberately, when people want to weaponize their wards, but we won’t be doing in class.”
      Cinthi’s interest piqued at this idea—wards that could keep people out were exciting. Wards that could keep people out permanently were even better.     Ace handed each of them a rectangular wooden frame which they could set a ward over, and demonstrated how to do so. Cinthi stared at her frame, seeing it as an unguarded doorway, as every vulnerable place she had ever been unable to defend. She summoned up her energy and thrust it over the frame with all her will. The ward flared into existence.
She sat back and looked at it with satisfaction. It was invisible to the eye, but she was by now used to feeling magic and could feel the protective strength of the thing. Following Ace’s instruction, she had kept the ward merely obstructive rather than allow it to blast away any intruders who dared pass through it, but even so, she was quite pleased with the thing.
      After class, Cinthi went directly to her room. As soon as she was inside and had shut the door behind her, she put the most powerful ward she could muster over it. She was no longer in class, so she no longer held herself to Ace’s restriction, and continued to summon power and pour it into the ward until it tingled with radiated energy, ready to pounce on the next invader to cross through it. Cinthi smiled, and sat down on her bed to read.
      Sometime later, Cinthi was interrupted when she felt in the core of her magic her ward being torn from the door. She jumped up in outrage and slammed the door open. “Hey! What the hell are you doing?”
      Ace stood in front of the door, shirtsleeved in a crimson waistcoat, his expression stony. “What the hell are you doing, Cinthi?” Cinthi had never heard Ace yell before, or swear. “You could have killed someone!”
      “Only if they tried to get in,” said Cinthi in irritation. It wasn’t as though she was throwing dangerous magic around everywhere; she’d put up a ward to protect herself. That was the point of wards. “It was on my door. Anyone who got hurt by it would have deserved it—why else would they be coming into my room?”
      “To see you? Okay, maybe that’s not likely, considering that you’ve alienated everyone here. By accident? To tell you something? To get you if there was a fire? To nose around—not the nicest thing, but not deserving of the death penalty. That’s just off the top of my head.”
      Cinthi glared. “They could knock. And anyone here would sense the ward, anyway.” But she had a sudden, terrible image of Hae, bad at magic and perhaps too shy to knock, walking through the ward and being burnt to a crisp.
      “That’s not something you should be counting on. People can be absentminded, or what if it was one of the servants? What if a guest thought it was the door to the washroom?”
      “Fine,” Cinthi muttered. She knew he was right, and it irritated her. “Still, you didn’t have to just tear it down like that—how did you even do that?”
      “You’ll learn that next year—if you can convince me to let you stay here, after a careless, dangerous stunt like this.”
      At his words, Cinthi felt as though her breath had been knocked out of her. She knew she should say something, should apologize or beg him to let her stay or explain why this really wasn’t such a big deal, but the words would not come. She stared at Ace blankly.
      “Can I come in—no, why don’t we go downstairs? Standing in your doorway isn’t really the best place to talk.”
      Cinthi nodded slowly. She followed Ace downstairs and into the kitchen. The room was empty; Ace went over to the stove and put the kettle on, then sat down at the table. Cinthi sat down across from him, her eyes tracing the patterns of the lace tablecloth to avoid meeting his gaze.
      “You’re not used to being safe,” Ace said softly. It was not a question.
Cinthi shrugged, still staring at the tablecloth. How stupid would someone have to be, to become used to being safe? It would be asking for trouble, to let down your guard like that. She wondered how Ace could be used to being safe, whether that was something that came from being a powerful magician or being wealthy or if it was just because of who he was.
      “The poorhouse must have been a terrible place to grow up.”
      “They gave us food and an education. What more could I want?”
      “Safety?” Ace suggested.
      Cinthi crossed her arms. “They locked the doors at night.”
      Ace looked at her and said nothing; Cinthi continued to stare at the tablecloth. After a long moment, Ace asked thoughtfully, “Who had the keys?”
      Cinthi froze, and tried not to think about that. Too many people had had the keys, and used them. She was well accustomed to the clink of keys in the door, the sound of heavy footsteps walking across the bare wooden floor, her stomach knotting, the sudden presence of a stranger in her bed.  There seemed to be a haze between her and the tablecloth; she would not look up at Ace. She saw her hands trembling but could not feel it. She squeezed them into fists. She dimly heard Ace’s voice, but could not make out the words. She unclenched her fists. She gathered magical energy into her fingertips. That allowed her to come out of her daze; she glanced up at Ace. Concern was written into his face. She looked away again.

For more information, see my NaNoWriMo page (It's not really a NaNoWriMo novel since I've been working on it since January, but I gave it a page there anyway since I've been working on it through November.)

Monday, August 23, 2010


Nothing interesting had happened in at least several days, as mortals measure time, and that was an unacceptable state of affairs. I was quite bored. I was just trying to decide on a guise to wear while I went out to stir up trouble when I noticed the woman trying to get into my labyrinth.

Well, that was always good for some amusement, so I settled back into my preferred shape, that of a human woman, sat on the floor in front of my looking-tile, and watched the show.

The woman currently walking around the border of my maze had a stern appearance and a matter-of-fact manner. She carefully inspected every inch of the outside hedge, periodically stopping to jot something down in the notebook she carried. She did not look like an amusing person, but then, that sort usually is anyway, if despite themselves.

When she’d circled the labyrinth twice and found no entrance—I don’t want to make it easy for them, after all—she tied up the hem of her skirt, grabbed the hedge, and began to climb. Now of course, I can’t just allow people to climb over the hedges. That is cheating, and while I of course have nothing against cheating, the point of a labyrinth is to have to make your way through it, and there is nothing interesting about treating it as a mere obstacle course.

But there does have to be some way in, so, except for the thorns, there’s no barrier to climbing the outer wall. So she scrabbled over, tearing her clothes a bit and picking up a few scratches. That didn’t faze her.

She looked around and scribbled in her notebook a bit. She was standing in a long passage of the labyrinth and could go either right or left. Of course, having entered the maze as she had, she thought she’d discovered a shortcut. I grinned and leaned forward to watch more closely. This part was always fun.

She again climbed up to the top of the hedge. Or tried to. Because somehow, though it was only about ten feet tall, she just couldn’t seem to reach the top. She was about five feet up, and her head should just have been peeking over the edge, when she realized she was not as far up as she should be. There were several feet of hedge above her. She looked puzzled for a moment, but continued climbing. Maybe she assumed she hadn’t climbed as high as she’d thought.

After another few minutes, she looked up again. There were still several feet of hedge above her. Then, she looked down.

She was way, way up high, far higher than she possibly could have climbed, hundreds and hundreds of feet up. She went pale and her jaw dropped, but even in her shock she kept a firm grip on the hedge and didn’t fall. People have, before. I don’t let them die when they hit the ground. Some might say I’m soft hearted, but really, what is interesting about cleaning up dead people splattered in your walkway, even if you can do it by magic? I make them bounce. They hit the ground screaming and bounce off, then land gently on the ground outside of the maze. They don’t come back.

But this woman took a deep breath and began to climb down, and after three steps she was back on the ground. She didn’t try to cheat again.

She was trying to find her way by mapping the maze in her notebook, so I changed it around a few times. It annoyed her to no end, but didn’t deter her, and nine hours later she stood in front of my door, slightly worse for wear but still entirely composed.

My door is a mirror, from the outside, and some people find it confusing, as they are supposed to. This woman did not even seem surprised. She knocked, not hard but loud enough to be heard, then waited. I got the feeling she would wait and wait until I opened the door. Watching someone wait is boring, so I answered the door.

“Lady Kimlkal? My name is—”

I cut her off. “The title is both unnecessary and incorrect. I do not appreciate its use.”

She was unruffled. “I beg your pardon, Kimlkal. As I was saying, my name is Mercuria Frisson and I’m a reporter, currently freelance. I was wondering if you will consent to an interview.”

That was unexpected, and I had to be impressed at the audacity of it. “You want to interview a god?” I asked her.

“Actually, I’m planning to do a series of articles, on various gods. I’m starting with you because you’re the most interesting, and it would be a good hook.”

Right. Because interviews with gods weren’t enough of a draw as it was. Mercuria was probably starting with me because she’d had a better idea of where to find me than some of the others, who live in such inaccessible places as on clouds, or under the ocean.

Of course, just because I knew it wasn’t true doesn’t mean I wasn’t flattered. And this would certainly be entertaining. So I let her in and served her some tea—perfectly good tea, though she looked at it as dubiously as if it was some strange potion designed to change her into something interesting—which it wasn’t, I swear. She sniffed it, took a small sip, and, at finding herself still human and not seeing anything that hadn’t been there before, drank the rest.

“Are you ready to start?” she asked me.

“Of course.”

“So a little background. You’re the Trickster god, that means you… do tricks?” From her voice, and the awkward phrasing of the question, I realized she hadn’t really thought out what she’d ask; hadn’t expected to actually get this far.

“Do I look like a trained seal? I don’t do tricks, or turn tricks, I play tricks. On other people.”

“Right, so as the Trickster god you play tricks on people. So, um, who worships you?”

“Anyone who is at all interesting.”

“Such as…?”

“Well, criminals, of course, and rebels, and children if they can get away with it. The desperate, the mischievous, and anyone who needs any kind of luck. People who want to turn the world inside out and aren’t afraid of the consequences. I take a special interest in those who see the humor in life, and,” I smiled a small, slightly evil smile, “an even specialer interest in those who don’t.”

“And what do you do for your worshippers? What do they pray for, and do you grant their prayers?”

“If I want to. Luck’s a pretty common wish; the smart ones specify good luck. Bad things happening to their enemies, good things to happen to themselves. To change their lives, or the world.” I smiled at the memory of the last time I’d answered that particular prayer. “Those tend to be good ones.”

“To change the world for the better?”

“That’s probably what they want, most of the time, or for the better to them, at least. I just try to make it… more interesting.”

Mercuria looked a bit uneasy at that. “Do you have any sense of, well, morality?”

I laughed. “Morals are for mortals. But I’m not evil, just… not bound by that sort of thing. If it’s any comfort, if you’d fallen trying to climb over the labyrinth, you wouldn’t have died.”

“Just been seriously injured?” she asked dubiously.

I gave her a look. “That’s not any fun at all.”

“So what would have happened?”

“Why should I give it away? You can always find out when you’re leaving. Which will be soon, I’m beginning to lose interest.”

“Just one more question then. Could you demonstrate your powers?”

I smiled and snapped my fingers, and a parrot perched on Mercuria’s hand where her notebook had been. The reporter looked astonished, and not overly pleased. “Don’t worry,” I told her, then said to the parrot, “Repeat the first thing I said to Mercuria.”

“The title is both unnecessary and incorrect,” squawked the parrot. “I do not appreciate its use.”

Mercuria gawked at the bird.

“See? Much better than a notebook. Keep him on your shoulder and you won’t even have to bother writing things down.”

“Thank you!” she said with feeling. “For the interview, and for the bird. Um, I’ll make sure you get a copy of my article.”

I laughed. “That won’t be necessary. I assure you, I’ll see it.”

“Um, right. Well, thank you.” She turned towards the door.

I watched her through my tile as she left. It’s not usually as interesting as watching people on their way in, but I didn’t have anything better to do. And Mercuria surprised me. Rather than making her way back through the labyrinth, she closed her eyes and began to climb up the hedge. As it had before, it grew as she climbed it, and by the time she stopped she was so far up that had there been people below her, they would have looked like ants. She gently touched the parrot on her shoulder, took a deep breath, and jumped.

And of course, she bounced right out of the labyrinth. She landed less than gracefully, but got up, checked to be sure the parrot was alright, brushed herself off, and continued on her way.

I was so impressed that I made a note to keep an eye on Mercuria Frisson, and send her some luck—good luck, I will emphasize—when she needs it.

And the article about me was excellent.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


“They are upon us.” There is no drama in her voice. It’s hardly needed. We all know that the siege is ending, that they will break through our walls any time now. Sanisia didn’t call us here just to give us the news that our world is about to be destroyed, because it’s not news.

Everyone is here. Thousands and thousands of people, everyone I’ve ever known or seen or walked past in the street without noticing, watching Sanisia. A few look terrified or desperate, but too many have that horrible blank you get when you’re past even despair. They’ve given up, we’ve given up. There’s nothing we can do anymore, even I know that, but somehow I feel they should at least be hoping for a miracle. There’s no point to it; they’re being realistic and I’m not, but maybe, just maybe… Sanisia could have a plan. She doesn’t need to tell us what we already know, but maybe there’s something we don’t know. Even as the thought begins to flash through my mind, I see that her face is blank as anyone’s.

“Any time now, they will bring down our walls. The lucky among us will be killed. I don’t need to say what will happen to the survivors.” So of course, we’re all imagining the worst things we can think of. Surely it can’t happen, it just can’t. Miracles happen, right? Or, well, one could happen, anyway. It has to. This just can’t happen.

“So there must not be any survivors,” Sanisia continues. I don’t understand her, at first. We don’t want survivors? But that means we want to die, and we don’t! I know we can’t fight the invading army, but shouldn’t we at least try? Or try yet again to surrender? Or, I don’t know, just not die yet?

“My people,” Sanisia says, and a tear rolls down her face. “I’ve let you down. The only thing left I can do is give you a choice. A choice between a fate worse than death, and death, a quick painless death. We can watch our children hacked to pieces before your eyes, or we can give them a few sips of liquid and let them go softly into eternal sleep. We can live in torment as captives, or we can die peacefully and go onto a better world. I know which I chose.” She gestures towards a row of enormous vats. “There’s enough for all of us. It only takes a few drops. I’m sorry this is all I can give you.” Tears stream down her face as she takes a cup from a pile next to the vats, fills it with liquid, and pours it down her throat.

She dies quickly, and quietly. One moment she’s standing before us, and the next she’s dead on the ground.

The crowd rushes towards her. No, not towards her, I realize in horror, but towards the vats. Those at the front of the crowd are already following Sanisia’s example, and everyone I can see seems to be merely waiting their turn.

There’s not going to be a miracle. Everyone’s going to die, me included. Better to make it easy on myself and drink the poison. I know that. The flow of people pushes me towards the vats. It’s not like I have a choice, do I? Everyone, everyone around me is drinking from the vats. The cups are mismatched, as if Sanisia told someone to bring as many cups as they could get, and they brought whatever they could get. Somehow that makes me laugh. It’s not funny, but I laugh and laugh and suddenly stop laughing and don’t understand why I ever had been.

I see Iha, whose children I watch for her sometimes, give them each a sip of liquid from a mug with a broken handle, then swallow the rest herself. They all drop dead. The mug falls to the ground and breaks in two. The ground around me is littered with dead people and broken cups, more of each joining every minute. The cups that manage to survive the fall are snatched up by people eager to die.

“Piromee,” I hear my name, and look around. It’s Halica, my best friend. She’s holding a silver goblet and a wineglass. “Let’s drink together.”

“I don’t think I want to,” I say, unsure.

“Look, I’m scared too, but think how much worse it would be if we were surrounded by swords about to slash through us. At least this way is easier, and among our own people, and by choice. And we can do it together.”

I don’t know if I am scared. I should be. My people are dying, and I’m about to die, and the enemy is going to break through the wall and slaughter whoever’s left any time now. I was scared, when I came out here earlier, but now I don’t even remember how to be. It’s not that I hope for a miracle anymore. It’s too late for that now. And Halica’s right. We’ll die together. That’s how it should be.

“Okay,” I say. My voice shakes, so I think maybe I am scared. Halica offers me a cup. I take the wineglass, and we fill them with the poison. It’s clear, and it smells sweet.

“On three,” says Halica. I nod, and we count together. “One. Two. Three.” We both lift the cups to our lips.

Halica’s faster than me, more sure of her decision, maybe, and she’s swallowed the liquid before my glass is even level with my mouth. I mean to drink it, I meant to drink it, but I just can’t. Halica crumbles to the ground. I stare at the poison, willing myself to down it, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I pour it out over Halica’s body.

All around me, the ground is piled thick with bodies. The only people still standing are crowded around the vats, waiting for the chance to drink.

I walk away. I don’t want to watch anyone else die. I walk through empty streets until I have to stop because of the wall. I haven’t been here for a while. We’re told to stay away, in case we’re crushed when it falls. Like that matters now. The cracks from the enemy’s battering rams are huge now. I’m surprised it’s still standing. It won’t be for long.

I throw the empty wineglass against it. It’s not like the one more little impact would do anything to the wall. I don’t want to be here, either, so I turn around and walk back.

Everyone’s dead. Where there’d been a crowd of people, there’s only bodies. I tell myself that it can’t be everyone, that some people must have decided to take their chances with the army. Maybe they went home. Maybe some people never even came at all, never heard Sanisia speak, don’t even know what’s happened. I run through the streets, screaming for anyone to come out. I bang on doors and open the ones that aren’t locked and shout and yell. I think I do this for hours, until my hands are bloody from banging on doors and my voice is nearly gone. There’s no one else left. Just me.

I hear the battering ram at the wall again. I don’t know how long it’s been going on for. It’s loud, but I’m used to blocking it out by now. Why doesn’t the wall collapse yet? There’s nothing to protect anymore, and I don’t want to just wait, alone in a city of corpses. Anything would be better than that.

There’s still poison left. I could change my mind, and the idea is tempting. But I don’t want to, and I don’t want to think about it. Why can’t they just invade and get it over with already? Then at least I’d know I’m not the only person alive in the world.

I go to the city gates. They’re strong and thick and barred firmly. It takes all my strength to pull down the bars. I feel traitorous doing this, but there’s no one to betray anymore.

Finally the gate is unbarred and I pull it open.

The invading army is camped outside, of course. I knew that. They’re not expecting much to happen, except maybe for their battering ram to finally break through the wall, and that’s on the other side of the city. They don’t seem to be doing much at all. The group nearest the gate is playing cards. Everyone within eyesight slowly turns towards me. They seem too surprised to do anything, but I they’ll get over it fast, and I’ll be dead any minute now.

“It’s over,” I say.
Some of the soldiers come over. I expect them to kill me, or at least grab me, but they don’t. “What do you mean?”

“Everyone’s dead,” I say, and to my chagrin, burst into tears.

The soldiers look awkward. They’re young, only a few years older than me, and they have no idea what’s going on or what to do about it. I’m the enemy, obviously, but I’m just a single, unarmed, crying girl. One of them has the presence of mind to go off to get a superior. The rest of them just stand around looking confused. “There, there, it’s all right,” one of them tries to comfort me, and this is so ridiculous that my sobs change to hysterical laughter.

I’ve come to my senses by the time the superior officer arrives a few minutes later. He’s older and less confused, or else he hides his confusion better. He questions me, with particular emphasis on whether I’m sure I’m the only one left. Eventually, when I’ve gone over what happened countless times and answered every possible question, he tells me not to go anywhere. “Where would I go?” I ask. The officer just nods, and leaves. A few minutes later, several platoons march into the city.

I don’t have anything to do. I just stand there for a while, until the awkward soldiers invite me to play cards with them. I accept. Sure, they’re the enemy, but, well, they’re the enemy because they were attacking my people and that’s a moot point now. It all seems stupid to me, and I just can’t make myself hate them. So we play cards.

A few hours later, the platoons that went into the city come out. They confirm my story, of course. I guess there’re all kinds of meetings for the army to decide what to do now. I don’t know anything about them. Nobody seems to be sure about what my position is. I doubt they’ll kill me. They could, but it just doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind. If they’d invaded the city they would have taken captives, but there’s not much point in having just one prisoner. They all seem rather embarrassed about the whole thing anyway. I eat with the soldiers, and at night someone sets up a spare tent for me. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep, after everything. It was only this morning that I was standing wondering what Sanisia would say, hoping for a miracle. Now I wonder if maybe I got one, and then feel guilty for thinking it. But I’m not dead.

Everyone else is, though. I cry myself to sleep.

I’m woken up by loud noises early the next morning. Everyone’s packing, bags and tents and weapons. “We’re leaving,” says Jarth. He was the soldier who tried to tell me it was alright. “They’re keeping some troops in the city to get it cleaned up and figure out what to do with it, but the rest of us are going home.”

“What about me?” I say.

He shrugs. “I think everyone pretty much figures you’re coming with us.”

“I don’t have anywhere better to go,” I agree.

I go back into the city, to pack a bag and just to see it one last time. There’re soldiers burying the bodies. I don’t go to say goodbye to anyone. They’re dead now, and I don’t want to see the bodies again. I take a few things from home, but feel no connection to the place itself. It’s dead now.

I try to avert my gaze as I walk back past the soldiers burying corpses, but I don’t want to trip over a body, either, so I have to look. My eyes fall on Halica’s body. I could be next to her, but I’m not. I could have died with them, but I didn’t.

I don’t regret it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Leap

“They thought they were finished….” Quaos said dramatically. She was telling the story to Kayli and Edjica, the only children currently in the Magiary, but Aniya and Devrin were listening just as intently. “But then, a miracle happened. Hundreds of seahorses came up and surrounded them to protect them from--” The story was interrupted by a thunderous pounding at the door.
“No, don’t stop!” Kayli protested.
“I’ll get it,” said Devrin, already on his feet. “If you get interrupted they probably won’t get to bed till midnight. You or Aniya can tell me what happened, later.” He strode down the corridor to the front door. It was storming too hard for him to be able to see anything through the peephole, so he opened the door.
The man on the doorstep was not dressed for the weather, and his clothes were soaked and ragged; his face was dirty and sporting ragged stubble, his hair unkempt. Devrin thought he must be a beggar, until he spoke. “Is there a woman named Quaos here?” he asked. His voice had a hint of Sarcish accent, under the desperation.
“Possibly,” said Devrin with caution. “Who’s asking?”
“My name is Iaedan. Quaos is a friend of mine, and she’s in danger, though she probably doesn’t know it.”
Devrin studied the man carefully, then nodded. “All right, come in.” He led Iaedan inside.
Quaos was just finishing the story. “And she married the prince and they lived happily ever after.”
“And then she killed him,” added Iaedan.
Quaos gave a bark of a laugh that was cut off when she recognized Iaedan. She stared at him in shock. The children were not amused. “No!” cried Edjica, and Kayli also looked stricken.
“Don’t worry, he’s joking,” Aniya assured them. “They loved each other very much and lived happy and peaceful lives, and never had to kill anyone again. Now go to bed.” With only a few token protests, they went.
“Iaedan, what have you been…? what are you…? What happened to you?” Quaos asked.
“They’re after us,” he told her.
“And that explains it all!” said Devrin
“It does, actually,” Quaos told him sharply. “How close are they, how many are there, and who’s behind it?”
“Close. Lots. King Evrich, who eventually emerged as the demon’s heir.”
“Since this is you talking, by ‘lots’ and ‘close’ I assume you mean armies that are about to descend on us at any moment.”
“That’s about right,” Iaedan admitted.
“We have to go tell Malexandra.” Quaos led Iaedan toward the stairs, but stopped at their foot. “Can you wait down here… just in case?” she asked Aniya and Devrin. They’d never heard her sound scared before, and they agreed anxiously.
“Who exactly is coming?” Devrin asked.
“Armies, apparently, from Sarca, to arrest Quaos for regicide.”
“Right, of course. Well, while we wait to fight off armies by ourselves, what did I miss in the story? I don’t want to die without knowing.”
“Fine, it’s not like there’s anything better for us to do. Basically, there was an epic battle, with the girl and the seahorses and all the creatures of good on one side, and all the creatures of evil on the other side. Quaos went into great detail on the descriptions, but I don’t really remember exactly. Anyway, they were losing and then the prince rode in with an army behind him and joined the fight, and they defeated their enemies and got married and lived happily ever after. Until she killed him, if you believe Quaos’s friend,” she added with a smile.
“You have to admit, in real life it would be more likely than a happy ending.”
“Come on, Devrin, even you’re not that cynical.”
“I’m not saying that people killing each other is always more likely than them getting along, but royal marriages don’t tend to work out, if one of the people wasn’t born royal and it’s a love match rather than being political.”
“They do sometimes!” snapped Aniya.
Devrin was about to continue the debate, until he saw her expression. “I thought you and Skyler were just friends.”
“We were! And then we were practically enemies, and now that we’re friends again, well, I don’t think we are just friends.”
“I don’t even want to think about giving romantic advice, but you do need to remember that 98% of the country hates you.”
“I know! I know! I didn’t say there was any way it could possibly work out--” She froze. “He said ‘armies,’ didn’t he?”
“Yes… what’s your point?”
“Armies aren’t going to march through the capital of Majardea, right under Skyler’s nose, and knock on the front door. They’ll come across open country and arrive around back.”
They rushed through the house. Aniya reached the back door an instant before Devrin, and flung it open.
Iaedan had not been exaggerating. A full army stood facing the building. The rain and wind didn’t seem to faze them in the slightest. A single, armored man rode forward, holding up a scrap of white cloth that was nearly blown out of his grasp.
“Turn over the criminal, Quaos of Sarca, and we will leave you in peace!”
Devrin thought of trying to stall, pretending not to know who they were talking about or saying they didn’t have the authority. He glanced at Aniya. She gave the slightest shake of her head, turned to the soldier, and said, “Hell no!”
The man rode back to join the other men in front of the house. He said something, and they rushed towards the Magiary.
Before they could reach it, a shimmery, transparent wall sprung up around the building. The army hesitated. One of the soldiers touched it, tentatively, then tried to ride through it. It stopped him as surely as if it were made of stone.
“Let’s go see what the plan is,” Devrin said, and they closed the door and went upstairs.
A strong wind blew through the room when Devrin opened the door to the top of Malexandra’s tower, and he saw to his surprise that despite the weather, one of the large windows was flung open. Malexandra faced it, concentrating intently on something, and Quaos stood on the window ledge, facing outwards. Drops of rain battered her and flew past her into the room, but no one seemed to notice. Iaedan was asleep in an armchair in the corner, and they could sense the sleeping spell laid over him.
“…can’t let innocent people take the blame for what I did!” Quaos was screaming into the storm.
“No!” cried Aniya, and before Devrin even realized what was happening, Quaos leapt.
They rushed to the window. They could barely see Quaos’s crumpled figure through the storm, but it was clear that she wasn’t moving. The shimmering wall disappeared as Malexandra joined them at the window, but the army stayed where it was.
“How could you let her…?” Aniya demanded.
Oddly, Malexandra smiled. “Surely you can’t think I would have let her kill herself.”
“But… she jumped.”
“Breaking a fall is one of the easiest things to do, magically, you know that. And Quaos is a good enough actor to play dead quite convincingly. We just need to take her inside before they decide they want her drawn and quartered, or some such thing.”
Devrin began to laugh rather hysterically, and a tear rolled down his face, and he rushed to the stairs. Aniya and Malexandra hurried after them.
Malexandra stopped them at the back door. “Wait here. If either of you go outside, you might give it away.”
Devrin would have protested, if he hadn’t known she was right. Aniya took a tentative step to follow Malexandra outside, but Devrin grabbed her arm. “Do you really want to risk her life on your ability to act as though she’s dead?” His voice was not his usual sarcastic tone but something darker, and Aniya stayed inside.
They waited tensely, both aware that Malexandra was facing down an army who would quite possibly insist on taking Quaos’s “body.” She wasn’t dead, but that could only mean she wasn’t dead yet.
Finally, the door opened. A gust of wind and a shower of rain flew in their faces, and then Malexandra came in, Quaos floating at her side, looking dead.
As soon as the door closed, she popped up and jumped down to the ground. Relief flooded over Devrin and Aniya. “We thought you were dead!” Aniya said.
“I’m sor-” Quaos began, but before she could finish her sentence Devrin embraced her fiercely, and kissed her. It might not have been best of kisses, since Quaos was drenched and shivering, and her near death was on both their minds, but it lasted a long time. Aniya stared at them, then fled. Malexandra had already slipped away.
“I thought I’d lost you,” Devrin said finally. “I didn’t even know there was anything to lose, not like that.”
“That makes me even more glad that I’m not really dead.”
“Was it horrible? They could have killed you.”
Quaos nodded. “I would have jumped for real, if I’d had to. I’m just glad I didn’t.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Radachia Searveeth was the last person in the world you’d expect to have fuzzy yellow pajamas with pink roses on them. She was more the sort of person who’d as soon kill you as look at you, and even when she did just look at you, you weren’t completely sure you weren’t better off dead. It’s not that she was a bad person or anything, but seeing her running down the street in the middle of the night, strands of hair flying loose from a long braid, feet bare, clad in aforementioned pajamas, well, something was going on. Especially since she was holding her bow, and her quiver was slung over her pajamas.
Running outside to see what was going on probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do, but my curiosity tends to overrule my common sense. If I’d been woken up by the commotion, at that hour, I probably would have rolled over and went back to sleep, but since I hadn’t been able to get to sleep at all, hadn‘t even tried, I welcomed the distraction.
I was already dressed, so I grabbed my knife and ran after Radachia. “What’s going on?” I called.
“Nothing,” she snapped. “This doesn’t concern you, Kimithy.”
“So whatever’s not going on doesn’t concern me,” I said, running alongside Radachia.
She turned her full glare on me. “That’s right. Go home.”
At any other time, I would have turned tail and fled, curiosity be damned. Radachia was that intimidating. But the prospect of going home, sitting sleepless and trying to avoid thoughts that could not be avoided, was far worse than anything Radachia could do or say to me. “No.”
I’d expected her to yell or scold or glare more, but she didn’t. She stopped abruptly and scrutinized me. It was dark, and we were standing in the darkest of shadows, so I don’t know how well she could actually see me, but I felt as though she was peering into my very soul. “You’re too young to get involved in this. You’re, what, sixteen?”
I was fifteen, but I was hardly going to say so. “I’m old enough that….” I didn’t go on. My nightmares were my own. I wondered for an instant why I was volunteering for more, but didn’t rethink myself. Whatever it was couldn’t be worse than staring at the bloodstain on my floor and seeing ghosts. But I didn’t want to talk about that. “I have a knife.”
I think Radachia would have said more, but she must have heard something, for she froze, then whispered, “Run!” and we ran.
We took a crooked path, turning down side streets and between houses, and when we stopped again, it was in the darkest of alleys. “Fine,” said Radachia. “Listen, Kimi. There are… things, who will kill everyone if we don’t stop them.”
“That makes everything perfectly clear,” I said.
“This is no time for sarcasm.”
Personally, I thought it was always time for sarcasm, and never more so than then, but I swallowed my reply and asked instead, “What do you mean, things? What are they? Why will they kill everyone, what can we do, and why is it up to us to do it?”
Before Radachia could speak, at least one of my questions was answered. A group of men appeared out of the darkness and descended on us. I say men, but they weren’t, at least not completely. They had the heads of spiders. I screamed.
I could feel Radachia’s irritation, and cut off my scream abruptly. I clutched my knife in a sweaty hand. The things were advancing, making ominous noises and brandishing weapons. I raised my knife, prepared to strike. The nearest fell down dead, one of Radachia’s arrows in it’s heart. Then another was down, and then they were upon us, and all I knew was hacking and stabbing at them in fear and horror, and trying to avoid being hacked at or stabbed myself.
We were outnumbered. And they had the heads of spiders. At least maybe I’d die a hero, I thought, but it was small comfort, because I didn’t really want to die.
I’d probably killed some, though in the confusion I didn’t really know. Then a blade was coming at my face, and I was going to die. I squeezed my eyes shut and was surprised to find, several seconds later, that I was still alive. The one who’d been about to kill me was lying dead at my feet, several arrows embedded in his back.

I looked around. There were only four of the things left alive, and they were all fighting Radachia. One grabbed her bow and snapped it in half. She’d gotten one of their swords and was fighting desperately, but one against four is long odds even for Radachia. It took everything I had to run into the fray rather than away from it, but I did, knife ready. It was dripping blood, and I took a huge gasping breath and told myself to hold it together for just a few more minutes. I took them by surprise, and stabbed one of the things in the back. The others turned on me, and it was all I could do not to be killed. And then they were the ones who were dead. Radachia isn’t the best person to have behind you, if she’s your enemy.
I looked around at the bodies scattered on the ground and the puddles of blood they lay in and realized that I too was covered in blood, and not all of it was the enemy’s. I’d been stabbed in the arm, my side had been grazed, and a long but shallow cut ran along my face. I began to cry.
Radachia ignored my tears and looked at the wound on my arm. “It didn’t hit anything serious,” she said. “And it’s the worst. You’ll be fine.”
I couldn’t stop crying. I hated it, the hot tears running down my face and making my cut sting even more, the runny nose and beginnings of a headache, the embarrassment of having hysterics in front of Radachia. She bandaged my arm with a strip of cloth she’d gotten from somewhere as I sobbed on. She glanced at me side, but it had already stopped bleeding, and gave me another piece of cloth to hold to the cut on my face.
I used it to wipe my eyes first, then pressed it hard to my cheek. I took a deep, shuddering breath, and looked at the battle scene around us, and tried to decide if it was worse that what awaited me at home.
“We should go now,” said Radachia.
It was dark, and I hadn’t been paying much attention to where we’d been running earlier, but Radachia walked me home. I was glad, until I arrived. There were guards in front of my house. Were they really here already? I didn’t want anyone, especially Radachia, to see this. “I’ll be fine from here,” I said, a few doors down from my house.
“It’s on my way. You did well, Kimi. I’m sorry you had to, but you did.”
“You too.” I had to say something.
Radachia grinned. “Of course.”
With each step I took towards my home, my dread grew. I was almost to the front steps when the guards grabbed me.
“You’re under arrest, you murderous bitch,” one of them said.
“He tried to kill me,” I said feebly. I knew it was useless to protest. He’d been a guard, and if a guard tried to kill you, you were supposed to let them, or at least that’s what the guards seem to think. And in my heart I felt guilty. He’d only been one man; couldn’t I have gotten away without killing him? Or maybe I should have just let him kill me. Why should I think my life was more valuable? The guards clearly didn’t. I didn’t feel the same way about the spider-headed things. They’d had the heads of spiders, and I still couldn’t quite associate that with them being in any way human. But the man I’d killed earlier, in my own home, had been.
“What is going on?” demanded Radachia.
“This doesn’t concern you.” I echoed her words from earlier.
“Like hell it doesn’t. That didn’t even work on you, and I’m twenty times nosier than you are.” She turned to the guard. “What is going on?”
“Exactly what it looks like, ma’am. We’re arresting this girl for murder. Now, you just run along out of here before we decide to take you in as well. You’re just as covered in blood as she is.”
“You could try. We were wounded in battle against men with the head of spiders, Garry. Do you know what that means?”
“That I have my choice of sending you to jail or the madhouse?”
“Gods, doesn’t anyone know anything anymore? It means war, but I’ll deal with that later, and with more important people than you. Now, let this girl go.”
“She murdered someone.”
“Oh, well. The two of us also personally killed seventeen men this evening. They happened to have the heads of spiders, but that doesn’t make any difference in the fact that they were alive, and then we put arrows and knives through them, and then they weren’t alive anymore. They would have killed us, and the rest of the town and probably most of the rest of the country as well, and it’s quite possible that their comrades still will. They would have killed everyone. They would have killed you, Gary. You too,” she added to the other guard. “And if the man Kimithy killed was still alive, they would have killed him too. That makes it about even don’t you think?” Radachia glared at them fiercely. They seemed to wilt.
“Erm,” Gary began, “Well, that is to say, it’s not really up to us.”
Radachia raised the sword she’d taken off our foes. She smiled sweetly in a way that was somehow even more intimidating than her glares. “How about we just agree that it’s not up to you, it’s up to me. All right? Now let Kimi go. I’ll see to it that your superiors authorize the decision.”
“Can you really do that?” Garry’s partner asked.
“Yes,” Radachia said firmly
The guards looked at each other. “We’ll release her into your custody,” Gary told Radachia.
“That will be suitable.” And the guards left.
“You have to get out of here, quickly,” Radachia told me. “I lied about being able to deal with their superiors.”
“Oh.” I was surprised, and grateful, and it took a lot of effort to keep myself from crying again. “Are there really going to be more of those things?”
“I’m afraid so. And worse. I think it’s likely that once it’s widely learned that you helped fight off the first ones so that we’ll at least have a little warning, you’ll be pardoned. So all you’ll have to do is hide out for a few days. I’d offer to let you stay with me, but after that little discussion it would be obvious. Is there anywhere you can go?”
“Yes.” There was a tree I knew of, with branches that wove into a kind of basket. When I was younger, I’d slept in it just for fun, now I could sleep in it for a few nights. I’d manage. “What about you? What are you going to do now?”
“I’ll have to tell everyone what’s happening and convince them of what it means. And I’ll be sure to lobby for your pardon, as well.” Radachia smiled. “But first, I’m going to go home and change out of my pajamas.”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Phantom Snakes

These were dangerous times, so we closely guarded the cave that was the only entrance to our valley. I happened to be on guard that day. I had an arrow notched and was prepared to send it through the eye of any who approached. They came more often these days, strange men who wanted to find the valley and conquer it for their own.
So I was not unduly surprised when I saw a man, dressed in armor that glittered in the sunlight, ascending the path. “Halt!” I called down.
He looked around, saw me standing on a ledge a little above the cave, and deliberately took a large step forward. “Surrender, savage!” he demanded, “And our armies will be merciful.”
I released my arrow, and the man fell down dead. But he had said “armies”; this wasn’t the end. I blew my horn and waited for our warriors to come rushing out through the cave. But before they could, a surge of men in armor swarmed up the road. My heart nearly stopped when I saw their numbers. This was no small raid but a full-scale invasion. I shot several more of the men before one managed to sneak up behind me. I heard a footfall and began to turn, and then there was blackness.
I woke up again. I was rather surprised. Everyone knows the Denzorians don’t let nonhumans live, even as captives. And yet, I was alive, my hands bound and tied to a tree. It was very dark out, so I’d been unconscious for hours, at least, and I recognized my surroundings as the base of the mountain with the cave. Around me, the army was camped. I didn’t see any other prisoners. That filled me with dread, but not surprise. I wanted to hope that we’d won, or that some of my people--my family, my friends, even strangers who were still my people--had survived, gotten away somehow, even been captured. But I was no fool. If we’d won, the men around me would be dead or far gone. So they’d won, and that meant there were no survivors.
Except me. I still didn’t understand that. I look human enough, besides for my hair, but even with my hood on, my snakes would wriggle, and they would notice. And at that thought, my blood ran cold. For I had been woozy and shocked, enough so that until that moment, I hadn’t noticed the lack of weight hanging from my head, the lack of smooth, scaly bodies moving about my shoulders, or that the pain in my head was not from being knocked out but from having my snakes cut off.
I wanted to scream and kill and gouge out eyes. This was worse than the loss of my family and friends and everyone I’d ever known, far worse than my capture. My snakes were part of me, there with me always, yet individual beings, and I loved them. Keythi, who grew from above my forehead on the far right and reached just past my chin and loved to curl around my ear and stroke her head against my cheek; Elth, the largest, who’d wound up and sat on my head and swayed with my emotion; Jinsha, who loved music; Meiltho, who was shy and hid in my clothing; Saols, who would reach out and touch anyone near me; Pli and Yithey and Srey, who would knot and braid themselves into intricate patterns around my head, and Shiiki, who liked to play tricks like covering my eyes or wrapping around trees or furniture as I walked past them. They were gone, dead, all of them. What is a gorgon without her snakes? Nothing.
I was crying, and against my will I let out a loud sob. The soldier sleeping closest to me woke. “Shush,” he said gently, coming over to me. “It will be alright. You must pretend to be human, and when you are questioned in the morning swear your loyalty to the Denzorian Empire.”
“Did you do this to me? Kill my snakes?”
“They would have killed you, otherwise. I saw your face and just couldn’t help bring about the death of such a beautiful woman. No one needs ever know you’re not human. You can wear a hat or a wig, and I will marry you and cherish you forever and never tell anyone your secret.”
“You killed my snakes!”
“Don’t you understand? I had to!”
“You’re the one who doesn’t understand. It would have been kinder to kill me.” I looked in his eyes, trying to make him see what it meant. He didn’t, but maybe he got an inkling or at least knew my words were true without quite knowing why, and I could see in his eyes that he meant what he’d said. He was fool, of course, and a selfish one, and a member of an evil people, but he was not, himself, evil. So I said, “You can take me to your home and marry me, and I will live with you in misery, and someday when I get the chance stab you in your sleep. You can tell your companions what I really am and have me killed. I don’t know if you’d be punished for hiding it in the first place; you could probably pretend not to have known. That would probably be best for me; to have the chance to rejoin my people and my snakes. Mine wouldn’t be the only blood you have on your hands, I’m sure. Or you could untie my hands and let me walk away from here, alone.”
He thought about it for a long time, then, wordlessly, drew a knife and cut the rope binding me. I was stiff and my head still swam, but I managed to lurch to my feet.
“Wait,” the soldier said softly. “At least tell me, what’s your name?”
“Anemone.” I didn’t ask him his name, and I didn’t look back. I felt nothing but sorrow, not even the thirst for vengeance.
I don’t know for how long I wandered aimlessly, foraging for food and sleeping wherever I dropped when I could walk no longer. I could feel always the absence of my snakes, and sometimes their presence as well. I would feel Elth swaying on my head, or Keythi touching my ear, or most often, Shiiki reaching out to grab a tree. I felt them as strongly as though they were really there, and I died anew inside each time I remembered they weren’t. I often cried while I walked, and while I slept.
The stumps of my snakes had healed into smooth scars by the time I found a destination to wander towards. I had lately been remembering everyone I’d once known but would never see again, and I thought of Heia, a woman who’d lived across the road from me, and was one of the best warriors I knew. We hadn’t been quite friends, but we’d enjoyed each others company, and the image of her lying dead, her sword fallen at her side, renewed my tears. Until I remembered that she hadn’t been in the valley when we’d been attacked. She’d left several months before to fight the Denzorians. “There’s a camp, where the Rondal Forest meets the Meolian Sea, and all kinds of free people who wish to remain so make their base there,” she’d told me. “I mean to go out and fight the Denzorians before they come here.”
So at least one of my people might still be alive, and in a place where I could give myself a purpose again, stop what had happened to me and mine from happening to others, where I maybe could even get some measure of revenge.
So I made my way to the Meolian Sea. It was to the west, I knew that much, and I eventually came across a road leading west, so I followed it until it ended in a small town at the edge of the sea. I was wary of people, but I at least could tell the town was not yet under the yoke of the Denzorian Empire, for while the people I saw were mostly human, I also came across a woman with the head of a blue ox and a family of Starthans. They were having a picnic on the beach, and seemed happy and carefree and innocent. The two children were playing inside a shell the size of my fist, and their parents were sitting on a small blanket nearby, watching them. At seeing them, even I could only feel nostalgia, not real sadness.
“Excuse me,” I called down to them. “Do you happen to know which way it is to the Rondal Forest?”
The woman smiled at me. “Going to fight the Denzorians, are you? My cousin’s there. It’s north of here, far north. You’d do better to catch a ship.” She turned to her husband. “Has Efril left yet?”
“I don’t think so. He lives up there,” he told me, “But comes down to trade for supplies, and he takes passengers. His ship’s the Dishonorable Confidant; it’s anchored down at the docks, you can’t miss it.”
“It’s bright pink,” his wife added. “And he won’t even charge you, if you’re against the Denzorians.”
I thanked them, and went to find the Dishonorable Confidant. It was a brigantine, and it was indeed bright pink, from the hull to the deck to the sails. “You’re just in time,” Efril told me when I asked about passage. “We’re leaving tonight.” He looked curiously at the scars from my snakes, but said nothing. During the voyage, I could often sense that he wanted to ask, but he never did. He mostly bragged about voyages and exploits, his own and others. I expected most of them were tall tales, but they were entertaining, and I was less miserable than I had been since my snakes had been killed.
The weather was fair, and the voyage lasted just over two weeks. Finally, we dropped the anchor and rowed up to the dock in a dinghy.
There were several other ships around. None was as flamboyant as the Dishonorable Confidant, but none was exactly ordinary, either. Several flew Jolly Rogers, and one seemed to be made of glass. I noticed merpeople in the water as well, and an enormous sea serpent that reminded me of how Jinsha had swam as I bathed. A human woman and a woman with rainbow skin tanned on the beach, and a group of children of several different species were racing around and giggling. A man with nine arms stood at the end of the dock, holding four fishing rods, and a griffin soared in circles overhead.
“The main camp is right up the cliff; there’s a path there,” Efril said, pointing. “I have to unload the ship, but I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
“I’ll help,” I offered, partly out of kindness and to repay him for my passage, but mainly because I didn’t want to enter the camp alone.
“No, no, you go in, my crew and I will be fine,” he insisted. “And so will you; the camp’s a little hectic but you’ll get used to it.”
“A little hectic” did not begin to cover it, I discovered when I reached the top of the cliff. It was a jumble every type of person or animal imaginable, and many that weren’t, until you saw them. I walked around in amazement, to shy to approach anyone. I saw a few other gorgons, from a distance, but I couldn’t bring myself to go nearer to any of them. Any gorgon would know what it meant, that my snakes were gone, and I couldn’t bear the pity right then, especially from people with snakes happily swinging from their heads.
I wanted to go back down to the beach and wait for Efril, but I wanted to be braver than that. So I gathered my courage and deliberately approached a group of friendly looking women about my age.
“Excuse me, I’m new here….” I began.
One of the women, a sphinx, smiled and said, “Hi, I’m Mirthidia, people call me Mirth because, you know, I’m mirthful. Are you a gorgon? I’m usually good at telling what people are. What happened to your snakes? Ouch! Elizabeth, what was that for?” The woman next to her, a human, had kicked her. “Oh, was I being rude? Sorry, I didn’t mean to be. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. You don’t have to do anything here if you don’t want to. Isn’t this place just amazing? Are you going to fight the Denzorians? Lazulia does,” she gestured towards the third woman, “but I don’t usually, I just help her with strategy, I‘m smarter than I sound, and I watch the kids during battle, I‘m good with kids. And Elizabeth is a healer, or she‘s learning to be and her boyfriend is. She‘s even newer here than me, I came from Senthoria a few months ago.”
“Um….” I had no idea what to respond to.
“You must be overwhelmed,” said Lazulia. “I think everyone is, when they first get here.”
“I can see why.”
“I didn’t even know there were people other than humans, when I came here,” said Lazulia. “I was Denzorian, originally. Elizabeth too.”
I tried to figure out how I felt about that. “Nobody minds?”
“If anyone does, that’s their problem. Most people don’t. It’s not my fault where I was born, and I hate them as much as anyone.”
“They killed all my people,” I found myself saying. I hesitated before adding, “And they cut off my snakes.”
All three of them were horrified; they knew other gorgons and had at least some understanding of what that meant.
We talked for a while, and they showed me around the camp and helped me set up a tent. A little before sundown, a Starthan man riding a large dog pulled Lazulia away for what she said was something urgent.
Her face was grim when she returned a few hours later. “An army is approaching the camp,” she said, pulling on leather armor as she spoke. “We have to ride out at once and meet them as far from here as we can.” Horns of every tone began to trumpet.
“I want to come,” I said.
Lazulia nodded. “What weapon do you use?”
“A bow, mostly.”
“Hold on.” She rummaged around her tent and pulled out a bow and quiver of arrows. “Will this do for now? There isn’t time to find one better suited to you, now.”
I examined the bow; it was a little longer than I was used to, but it would do. I had no armor, but I wasn’t alone in that. Lazulia directed me towards a group of archers, and I joined them as we marched out.
It was night by the time we reached the Denzorian army, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. They were in their formation, rows and rows of soldiers, as neat as cross-stitch. Our army wasn’t quite as haphazard as it seemed, but it could not by any stretch of the imagination be called organized. I couldn’t see how the fighting began, but soon someone yelled to us, “Draw…and FIRE!” and I did so, and was in the thick of it.
Each time I drew my bow I could feel Shiiki wrapped around the arrow. It renewed my anger and hatred, and though my arrows flew farther than anyone else’s and buried themselves deep in my enemies' flesh, I had to wipe the tears from my eyes to be able to see my targets.
The battle ended, eventually, and we’d won, or at least, we hadn’t lost. The Denzorians had retreated; they hadn’t pushed past us to devastate the camp. We hadn’t lost, but I didn't feel victoorious.
“We just haven’t lost yet, here,” I said quietly to Lazulia as we worked to bury the dead.
“That’s how I always feel too,” she admitted, “But we’ve been not losing yet, here, for five years since I’ve been here, and a lot longer than that.”
I could feel Elth raise up to his full height on my head. I put my hand to the scar where he’d been, and knew that Lazulia was right. I’d lost once, and even if we could never win, I would always keep fighting to not lose again.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


He should have gotten lost. That is the point of a labyrinth, after all. I didn’t chose to live in the center of one so people could just walk straight up to my door. Oh, sure, it’s not quite impossible to find me, and the smart or desperate or those who are simply good at mazes do find me, sometimes. But they have to look, and they get lost. This man walked through the maze as if it was any old road, never taking a wrong turn or running into a dead end. I wondered if he had a map, but as far as I knew there were no maps of my labyrinth, and even if there was one, he’d have to look at it sometimes. It’s not an easy maze. There’s no possible way he could have memorized it.
It took him less than twenty minutes from entering the maze to reach my door. I watched him through a tile on my floor, which functions as a magic mirror but is less expected. I would hardly enchant something so usual as a mirror, and the tile has the added bonus that I can stomp on it when I see something I don’t like.
I didn’t like how easily this man was navigating my maze. I stomped on him several times, and set up a few more barriers just in case he did have a map, but they didn’t stop him any. I briefly considered adding a couple extra walls so he was completely surrounded, but as annoyed as I was, my curiosity stopped me. I wanted to know how he did it.
He paused at my door. I was glad of that. My door was a mirror, and had no handle or knocker on the outside. From inside, the mirror was a window, and I turned away from the tile and watched the man through the door. He knocked, but I didn’t go to open it. I’m not in the business of making things easy for people.
He knocked again, and again, then went around the house to look for another door or perhaps a window. He found nothing. I have windows, of course. They simply can’t be seen from the outside. The man returned to the front and knocked again, harder. I began to think he’d break down the door. He stood scowling at it, until suddenly his face lit up and he reached into a pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper and some charcoal and scribbled something and held it up to the window.
It read, Please let me in.
So I did.
“You’re Kimlkal?”
“No, I’m just some peasant who happens to live in the center of a labyrinth.”
“Sorry, I just wasn’t expecting you to be a woman.”
“And I wasn’t expecting you to be an idiot.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s only, the person who told me about you referred to you as he.”
“I can take whatever shape I want, of course, but yes, I’m a woman. I didn’t call you an idiot because I was offended, but really, what kind of fool goes looking for me with excpectations?”
“You’re right. And I probably am an idiot.”
“Not really, considering how well you managed to get here. How exactly did you manage it? And who are you?”
“Sorry. My name is Steaquild, and I am a desperate man. As for the maze, I poured a puddle of paint at the entrance last night. You must not have noticed it in the dark.”
“And you followed my footprints in.” It was clever, so I decided to hear him out. “Why are you here?”
“I’m in love. She loves me as well, but... it’s rather a stupid story. The woman I love happens to be a princess. And her father happens to be an ass. So he set three tasks that must be accomplished before he will allow anyone to marry his daughter. They’re impossible tasks, of course.”

“Of course,” I agreed. “What are they?”
“The first is to untie an impossible knot.” He took out of his pocket an intricate knot nearly the size of his fist. “It has no ends. I don’t just mean they’re inside it, there aren’t any at all.”
“Then how was it tied?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why should I help you?”
He looked at me, and I could see the desperation in his eyes, but he answered, “It might be amusing.”
He was right, but I almost refused anyway. People can’t expect me to solve their problems for them, especially not when they come to me and ask. But the knot was impossible! How could I resist?
“Is there a deadline?”
“Midnight tonight.”
“Come back at eleven,” I told him.
I spent the rest of the day working at the knot. It was fascinating. It was also futile. At ten thirty, a few of the coils were a little looser, but it was nowhere near being untied. So, I found a ball of string, played around with it a little to make it look, at least superficially, like the knot, and put a little magic on it to fool anyone who looked closely. I hid the real knot in my pocket; I wasn’t done with it yet.
When Steaquild returned, I showed him the ball of string. I didn’t tell him it was a ball of string. “See, you just pull this coil here,” I touched what was actually the loose end of the string, “and the whole thing will unravel. You should wait to untie it in front of the king.”
“How can I trust you? What if I pull the string and nothing happens?”
“You can’t trust me, of course, but surely you knew that when you came to me for help.”
So Steaquild took what he thought was the knot, and left, and the next day he returned. He looked grim. “I untied the knot. Thank you. But the second task really is impossible.”
“To travel backwards through time.”
“He specified backwards?”
“He said travel through time, so I waited a few seconds and said I had. He wasn’t amused, and added that it had to be backwards.”
“Do you know what to do when something’s impossible?”
“Go to you?”
“But… I can’t cheat. It wouldn’t be honorable!”
I forbore from telling him that he already had. “Steaquild, are you the only one competing for the princess’s hand?”
“No…. But I’m the only one she loves!”
As if that mattered, though I sensed it was true. “And do you really think all your rivals will act so honorably?”
“Perhaps not.”
“You came to me. If you wanted to win honestly, you should have asked someone else. Of course, anyone you asked would tell you it's impossible. How much do you love this woman?”
“How do I cheat?”
“How are you supposed to prove you’ve traveled backwards through time?”
“He didn’t specify. He knows it’s impossible. I’d have to have serious proof, for him to believe me. For anyone to believe it, really.”
I thought for a few minutes. “Did I mention I can take whatever form I want?”
“You’re thinking of pretending to be some historical figure I brought back from the past.”
“Not a historical figure, you could have just gotten an impersonator.” I led Steaquild outside, and turned into a brontosaurus.
Steaquild gaped at me. “That should do it.”

He led me back to the castle. In my dinosaur form, I was to big to get inside, but of course, everyone rushed out.
“I have traveled back through time,” Steaquild announced. “I was not able to stay long, but I brought this creature as proof. It will most likely not be able to remain in this time for long, but you can see that I have been in the distant past.”
Everyone gawked at me, of course. I let them, until I got bored. Then I disappeared, and was back at home.
Steaquild returned the next day. He was grinning. “It worked, of course. And I don’t even need to cheat on the next task.”
“So you don’t need my help?”
“Only as proof. The task is to talk to a god.”
He had accomplished that, all right, but I almost refused to give proof, just because it would be funny if the task he’d actually accomplished was the only one he couldn’t prove. But I decided it would be even more amusing to go along with it. So I went back to the castle with Steaquild, in my own guise this time, or at least the one I was currently using. I put a little glow around myself, just to be obvious.
The king received us in his great hall. “I am honored to present Kimlkal, the Trickster god.”
The king’s jaw dropped, and a great cry of excitement came up from behind me. I glanced over; it was the princess. I turned her into an okapi, and her father into a donkey, and Steaquild into a platypus, and the rest of the audience into crows, because I like crows. Well, I had to prove I was a god, didn’t I? And it was only temporary, they’d regain their normal shapes in a few hours.
I went home and fiddled with the impossible knot.