A Midterm Wargame

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“I don’t think she should be allowed to participate at all! She’s too young.”

“I agree, but that decision was taken out of our hands when Scota enrolled her in the Academy. Every ambassador has to participate in the midterm war game, no exceptions.”

“But Chroniclus, she’s just a child!”

Railix scowled as Chroniclus and his wife, Aoife, continued to argue within hearing range. Since he had been enrolled in the Academy’s ambassador program, he’d lost valuable time. Any time he had to spare he spent on his work, supervising and safe guarding the young changeling, Cassandra Moon. It was difficult to concentrate on this task with the elves distracting him.

He knew what they were arguing about, of course, but since he didn’t care about the subject, it annoyed him to keep hearing about it. The Head Seeress, Scota, had enrolled her eight year old daughter, Drax, into Mid-Realm Academy’s intense military training program. Ordinarily, no one would ever dream of putting a child through the kind of physical torture the program included, but Drax was a special case. She had been living in the Academy since her father died and had grown up surrounded by the powerful warriors of Mid-Realm. She was no stranger to death and violence, even at such a tender age. And she was half-dragon.

Railix tapped his book with his pen and checked the monitor on his desk. The monitor was tuned to Cassandra’s location on Earth; she was currently camping in the mountains with her human family, climbing over rocks in her Powhatan costume. She was in no danger, so Railix closed his book, sheathed his pen, and went to check the nearby shelves. If he could hear the elf couple arguing, Drax was no doubt nearby, also listening.

He found the little girl sitting on the floor, one shelf over from the arguing couple. Drax was a frail thing, tiny for a half-dragon, and shockingly white. She was currently in her selarthin form, which made up the other half of her blood. Her long ears were quivering, and tears were dripping from her violet eyes. He nudged her with his foot and gestured for her to come with him.

Railix took her back to his apartment and handed her a glass of water. “Stop crying,” he commanded. “You’re an ambassador now. You can’t cry just because your feelings are hurt.”

“They don’t think I can do it,” Drax pouted.

“Of course they don’t. You’re young, small, and inexperienced.” Railix retrieved his orb and set it on the table so he could keep an eye on Cassandra.

“I’m a good fighter!”

“Your ability to fight isn’t in question.”

“You said I was inexperienced.”

“You are. You’ve only ever fought in controlled environments and at most two-on-one scenarios. The midterm will be vastly different.”

“Oh.” Drax pulled her knees up to her chin and stared at her feet. “Railix, am I going to die?”

“Yes.”

“Will it hurt?”

“That depends on how they kill you, but it’s more than likely.” He frowned when Cassandra tripped. Where were her parents? They should not be letting her roam the woods alone. He retrieved his book and began making notations. Then he heard a soft whimper and looked back at Drax. She was crying again.

“Railix, I’m scared,” she confessed.

He rolled his eyes. “Once you die, you’ll regenerate back in the Academy. Aoife will probably bake brownies and fawn all over you.” He turned back to his work.

“Are you going to die?”

“No.”

Drax was blissfully quiet for two minutes, then she spoke again. “Can I be on your team?”

Railix shook his head. “I don’t see any benefit in that.”

“Too bad,” Aoife said from the doorway. “You’re going to let her join your army.”

Railix scowled at the red-haired elf. “A child in battle is a handicap.”

She folded her arms. “I’m confident that you’ll find a way to win. This is Drax’s first war game, and she will need someone she trusts to look after her.”

Railix gestured to the monitor. “I already have a child to look after.”

Aoife didn’t even blink. “Chroniclus will look after Cassie.”

“I don’t think you understand the situation here.”

“Railix, Drax will be in your army, you will look after her, or I will make sure that Chroniclus assigns a different chronicler to Cassie’s case.”

Railix considered calling her bluff. There was no one else Chroniclus would dare entrust Cassandra to, but the more he argued, the more his attention was taken away from her. “Fine. I’ll take her.”

Drax jumped off her chair and hugged him. “Thank you, Railix! Thank you! I promise, I’ll be a good fighter! You’ll see!”

“Get off of me and let me work!” Railix shoved her onto the floor and turned his attention back to the monitor.

“It’s okay, Drax,” Aoife soothed the little dragon. “Your brother will look after you. Don’t worry.”

“We’re not even the same species,” Railix snarled.

 

The midterm war games began the next week. Chroniclus had appointed Railix as the general for his army, and the Seeress had chosen a tenth-year warrior by the name of Spasta to be the general for her army. Railix had done extensive research on Spasta, studying not only his strategical tendencies and battle habits, but also his species and homeworld. Spasta was a gargoyle from Anior, a barren world that was hostile to cold-blooded races. His army consisted mainly of the sturdier peoples, giants, trolls, orcs, and the like. He didn’t doubt that Spasta would choose the mountain fortress, Belimal, as his base.

Railix examined his options. There was Throrfing, the cliff fortress, Oceurus, the island fortress, Wennyo, the forest fortress, Metzalotl, the plains fortress, Caronur, the desert fortress, and Fifka, the cavern fortress. Each fortress was built with its landscape in mind, so that each had a distinct defensive advantage, but Railix wanted to be on the offensive. He chose Honin, the fortress hidden deep in the distant volcano. It would be an uncomfortable base for many members of his army, but he was confident he could defend it with a skeleton garrison.

“You’ll stay here,” he instructed Drax. “Brojimarie will watch you.”

“Why do I have to babysit?” Brojimarie protested.

“I don’t need a babysitter!” Drax whined. “I want to fight!”

“I don’t care. You’re staying here.” He walked away before she could argue anymore.

Once Railix had arranged his troops to his liking, he led his fighting army out of the mountain. His terrakinetics and pyrokinetics were tunneling under Belimal, working together to move rock and magma while a team of psionics kept watch overhead for Spasta’s troops.

It took five days of tunneling to reach the mountain fortress, and once they arrived, Railix divided his forces into three. Two thirds of the army would be in charge of attacking the fortress from the outside at opposite points, while Railix would lead the remaining third directly into the heart of the fortress from beneath. He doubted Spasta would have the foresight to prepare for such a strategy, and it almost worked.

Spasta had his giants patrolling outside the wall, and as soon as Railix’s troops attacked, the giants sounded the alarm. Then they began stomping and kicking the intruders. The orcs, goblins, unseelie, and other gargoyles swarmed to meet the two attacks, leaving Railix’s division with an almost empty fortress to conquer. Before Railix could reach the center and claim victory, however, Spasta realized the plan and sent his speedsters to cut them off. Railix’s army was forced to fight.

Spasta himself flew inside and landed in front of Railix, sword drawn. Spasta was a fearsome swordsman, but a staff was all the trallorp needed. Before he could attack, a little white person darted out in front of him. Drax raised both hands and created a powerful gust of wind that knocked Spasta and several of his lieutenants back. The little dragon child grinned proudly at Railix, but then a speedster darted behind her and grabbed her. Drax shrieked and squirmed, then decided to bite the man holding her. The speedster screamed in pain, and he dropped her. Drax started to run back to Railix, but Spasta pulled a gun from his dimen and fired. Railix leapt forward, grabbed the bullet, and threw it back at the gargoyle. The bullet ripped through Spasta’s skull, ending the game. Lights flashed, a siren wailed, and everyone was pulled back to the Academy’s ceremonial hall.

Railix turned on Drax. “I told you to stay in the fortress.”

“I decided that was stupid.” Drax folded her arms and scowled up at him.

Railix had to quell several impulses to kill her before he could speak again. “I am not going to save your life next time. And you.” He turned on Brojimarie. “If you can’t keep track of a single child, you’re a shame to your race.”

Brojimarie rubbed the back of his neck shamefully. “She actually overpowered me. She’s a fierce little thing.”

Railix believed him, but he wasn’t going to let Drax get away with the smug look on her face. “She’s an idiot. Someone will kill her in the finals. It might even be me.”

Chroniclus, Aoife, and the Seeress appeared in the center of the fortress, wearing the official robes of their offices.

“Chroniclus!” Drax ran to the elf and hugged him. “Did you see me? I fought in the big battle, and I didn’t die!”

The Seeress looked mortified. “You had her on the front lines?”

Railix folded his arms. “If she can’t handle being on the front lines, she shouldn’t be at the Academy.” He turned to Chroniclus. “I’m going back to work.”

“But you won,” Chroniclus protested. “Aren’t you going to enjoy your victory?”

“No.” Railix went to the nearest doorway and punched in the code for his apartment.

Aoife caught his eye before he left and mouthed, “Thank you.”

Railix paused just long enough to acknowledge her gratitude with an imperceptible nod. Then he was back at his desk with his notebook and pen, turning on his orb to check on Cassandra. Cassandra was back at home, sitting with her siblings as their mother read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Railix checked the yard, the road, and the neighborhood before sighing with relief. Cassandra’s real father still hadn’t found her, and he never would if Railix could stop him.

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First Blush

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“Chroniclus!”

Chroniclus XXXII turned at his father’s voice, automatically shelving the leather-bound book as he did. “I’m here.”

His father, Chroniclus XXXI (or Ron, as his mother called him), rounded the shelves and smiled. “Hard at work as always, I see.”

Chroniclus straightened proudly. “Of course, sir. There was a fault in the computer’s codex, and I wanted to make sure that none of our recent resources had been misfiled.”

“And had they?”

“Some of them. The Fildor Legacy had been placed in the Zalanaen division, and the Weavershire Almanac had been put in the Westhaven section.”

His father examined the shelves and nodded. “You’re doing a good job. I’ll assign a few of the chroniclers to finish sorting out the mess. In the meantime, I would like to talk to you about a message I received from Anrachel.”

Chroniclus’s ears perked up. “Not another dragon war!?”

“Thankfully not, but it is related to the subject in a way.” Ron led his son away from the shelves and toward their little home in the center of the Böchard. “A centaur by the name of Atleus wants to establish a school on the Vermifiut[i] continent as a way to foster peace between the peoples of Anrachel. He is sending invitations to leading factions across the planet, hoping to lure a healthy number of each peoples to this school, training them together in each other’s cultures and histories. He is convinced that this close proximity to each other will breed understanding and tolerance, and I agree with him.”

Chroniclus nodded as his father opened the door, moving to sit around their dining room table. His mother, Daennyn, joined them there, sitting silently on the floor cushions as her husband and son talked.

“Vermifiut is an excellent location for such a school,” Chroniclus commented. “It has a strong reputation as a neutral continent. I think if the leading kings were to show their support, it could succeed.”

“I agree,” Ron said. “That is why when Atleus asked for wisdom on this experiment, I offered to support him by sending my own son to his school as a show of good faith.”

Chroniclus stiffened. “You’re sending me away?”

“It’s not like that,” Daennyn said gently. “You know that.”

“Your status as Second Chronicler of Mid-Realm carries a lot of power,” Ron added. “And since you were raised on Mid-Realm, you know how to work with people of many different backgrounds and races. Those two traits make you essential to the creation and establishment of Atleus’s school.”

“And,” Daennyn continued, “it would also give you the opportunity to get to know your future wife.”

Chroniclus rolled his eyes.

Ron shot his wife a reproving look then carefully backed her up. “Aoife will wait a few years while you get established in the school. I don’t want to burden you with too many responsibilities at once. Focus on the school and the peace making. Once Atleus has the place under control, we’ll allow Aoife to join you.”

“With all due respect, I have no intention of marrying anyone I haven’t chosen for myself.”

“Then get to know Aoife,” Daennyn said. “Choose her, or at least give her a chance.”

“But most importantly,” Ron said, “give Atleus’s school a chance.”

Chroniclus leaned back and nodded. “All right. When do I leave?”

He left the next day with a small team of builders, and a large donation of books from the Böchard. Atleus welcomed all three, giving them a home on his plantation while the school and its dormitories were built. It only took a month for the entire school to be finished and more fortified than a military compound. The building team went back to Mid-Realm, and Chroniclus stayed, walking the brand-new halls of Vermifiut Academy.

Atleus stroked the walls and sighed happily. “I feel hope,” he said. “Hope for a naschit[ii]-free future, and of peace across the continents.”

Chroniclus smiled, but shook his head as he reminded the centaur, “This is only a building. The true challenge will be finding teachers that believe in your dream, and building a curriculum that fosters peace alongside knowledge. Lady Daennyn has been going through files and resumes of potentials, and she should have a list of worthy candidates by tomorrow.”

“Wonderful! You will pass on my deepest gratitude to your mother and father, won’t you? The Böchard has been supportive beyond my expectations, and I greatly appreciate it.”

“Our business is peace.” Chroniclus turned the corner and opened the door to a vast room filled with empty shelves. The sight made him both homesick and sad. He looked back at the centaur. “With your permission, I’d like to begin working on your library. I have a new shelving system that I’ve been aching to use, and I see no better time than now.”

“Are you sure that you want to? You’ve already spent so much time working on this academy; I wanted you to have a chance to rest before school starts.”

“Trust me, Head Master, organizing books is quite relaxing for someone like me.”

Atleus eyed the empty shelves skeptically. “If that is your wish, I won’t discourage you. I shall have my servants bring the books from the Böchard, and I shall leave both at your disposal.”

“Thank you, Atleus. I’ll begin immediately.”

Atleus sighed, nodded, and trotted out of the empty room. Chroniclus roamed around the space, counting shelves, and calculating the available space. He thought of the shelving and organization of the Böchard, eager to experiment with new methods here on this blank slate. He rubbed his hands and began labeling the shelves.

Atleus relied heavily on the background checks and intense vetting of the Böchard, and had the new Vermifiut Academy fully staffed within the month. Soon, Chroniclus was pestered with another librarian that wanted to organize the books his way, and they were constantly going behind each other and enforcing their own systems on the academy’s library. After two months of constant bickering and battle, Atleus was forced to step in and enforce Chroniclus’s filing system. In a passive-aggressive protest, the Academy librarian, a cherry dryad by the name of Chelan, avoided Chroniclus as best he could, working on the opposite side of the library of the Böchard elf. Chroniclus didn’t mind being avoided; he the preferred peace and quiet that came with solitude.

“Excuse me,” a voice said one morning, “I’m looking for a book.”

The voice startled Chroniclus, and he nearly dropped the book he had been skimming. He braced himself against the ladder and looked down, blinking at the sight of a pretty red-head standing on the floor beneath him. It took him a moment to identify her species since Anrachelan dragons were a unique breed. The dragons of Anrachel had two forms, one dragon, and one human, but since the Second Dragon War, the four elements of dragon had rarely used their secondary forms. Yet here stood what seemed to be a Fias, a fire dragon, fully human, and staring up at him expectantly. It was a good sign she was in human form; it meant that she was willing to work with what the dragons considered “lesser beings.” He just didn’t know why she was in the library.

“Did you have a particular book in mind?” He asked.

She thought for a moment, her vibrant blue eyes scanning the nearby spines, and then she shook her head. “Something not boring.”

“Well, boring depends wholly on your tastes.” He slid down the ladder, joining her on the floor. “There are people who prefer non-fiction, people who prefer historical fiction, and people who prefer mystery, and all may find books in another genre boring.”

She frowned. “I know that, but right now, anything would be more interesting than walking these stupid halls all day. So, hit me up, book elf.”

Chroniclus frowned back at her and leaned against the ladder, folding his arms. “Who are you?”

“Why? Are you planning on reporting me to the Head Master already?”

“Depends on how much longer you’re going to give me this attitude.”

“Forever. This is the only attitude I have.”

They stared at each other tensely, then Chroniclus took a deep breath. “Are you student or faculty?”

“I’m bored. And you are?”

“Chroniclus XXXII of Mid-Realm.”

Her eyes widened as her mouth formed a small “o.” She grinned and mimicked his closed posture. “That explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“You. You’re young for an elf, but you act like you’re an important member of the High Fil-Gambor Council. I was expecting a young, cute library boy like yourself to be more patient and helpful, and less prig.”

He scowled. “I’m not a prig. And you’re one to talk! Your attitude stinks!”

She snorted and covered her mouth. “It stinks? Really? That’s the best you’ve got? What were you reading?” She snatched the book from his hand and looked at the cover, then opened it to the first page. “Gahag’s Journey: The Chronicles of the Elfin Hero.” She raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

He snatched the book back. “It’s a classic.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s interesting. If you like elves thinking highly of themselves, I would read Rharyn’s Plague. He loved talking about how clever he was in the First Dragon War.”

Chroniclus actually smiled. “You know, Rharyn made up that entire account.”

“Oh yes, I know. It was actually the Miaki dragon Lown that found the cure for sagne.”

“You’ve read Secrets of Miakadia?”

“And Shadows of Fil-Gambor and Plagues of War, both of which provide Lown’s version of the story, which is later backed up by that period’s Chroniclus.”

“I’m impressed. Those books are hard to come by. How did you manage to get your claws on them?”

She grinned and held out her hand. “I’m Agrona, Last Princess of Charfias. Access to forbidden libraries comes with that title.”

“Last Princess?” Chroniclus raised an eyebrow as he processed the title. “Your mother had three nests, correct? Five draclings each?”

Agrona nodded and shrugged. “And I was the last one to hatch, therefore I am the Last Princess, and I am the most expendable. But you’re not. You’re the only heir to the triple vast library of Mid-Realm, right? How did you end up in this abandoned place?”

“I’m a gesture of goodwill.”

“Goodwill and extreme trust. You realize that this academy could prove to be ground zero for Dragon War Three, right?”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Can you really? So if I were to suddenly blow a fireball at you, you’d be able to dodge, repel, or reflect it?”

Chroniclus felt his throat go dry and his heart lurch. Agrona started laughing, and he scowled. “It’s not funny! Fire and books don’t mix, and this collection is priceless!”

She coughed and nodded, but there were tears forming in the corner of her eyes. “You’re right; burning books is the exact opposite of funny. Your expression, however, was hilarious. But don’t worry, your library is safe from me.”

Chroniclus stared at Agrona. The sincerity in her voice had been oddly passionate. She raised an eyebrow at him, and he looked down at the book in his hand. “You said I was cute.”

“I did. And I will stand by that judgment even under torture.”

He glanced at her, and she was smiling. He smiled back. “You wanted a book?”

“Tired of talking with me already?”

He blushed. “No! But I thought of a book you might like.” He climbed up on his ladder and pulled it across three shelves, scanning the labeled spines before selecting a book with a red cover. He dropped down and handed it to her. “It’s a work of fiction, but very well written.”

Agrona looked at the cover and laughed. “It’s a romance.”

“You don’t like romance?”

“Honestly? I prefer a little adventure. But if you recommend it, then I’ll give it a chance.” She tucked the book under her arm and looked at the half-empty shelves. “How long is this going to take you?”

Chroniclus looked at his work and sighed. “Probably the rest of the month. I’m hoping it will be fully operational by the time the students start arriving.”

“It looks like two months of work. That maraschino is delusional if he thinks he can finish it before the rest of the students show up.”

“Chelan isn’t a maraschino, and he’s not in charge. I am. And I’ve worked in the Böchard for my entire life. I’ll have every book categorized, filed, and shelved by the time the first student walks through those doors.”

“You’ve already failed, book boy.” She raised a hand and waved. “The first student is already at your doorstep.”

He stared at her then rested his head on the ladder in defeat. “I was hoping you were the gym teacher.”

“I’m not sure what to make of that, other than you have terrible deduction skills. But if it makes you feel any better, I’m super early.” She set her book on the shelf and cracked her knuckles. “And I’m quite familiar with the library filing system.”

He blinked in surprise. “Are you offering to help?”

“May I?”

Chroniclus scanned the near-empty library, a little overwhelmed by all the work he had left to complete, and he looked back down at the dragon. “I’m not using the traditional filing system. I’m experimenting a bit, so it might be a bit confusing.”

“In other words, we’ll have to work close together so you can make sure I’m doing it right? I think I’d like that, but in exchange, you’ll have to keep me company whenever I go out flying.”

He smiled. “It’s a deal.”

Agrona caught on to his organization methods quickly. Despite her innate knack with filing, neither of them suggested that they work on their own. Instead, they continued to work side by side, discussing everything from books to their homelife. Over the course of the month, the dragon and the elf were rarely apart. If they weren’t in the library, they were flying, and if they weren’t flying, they were in the student lounge hall, reading to each other.

“Want me to share all my woes about being the youngest of fifteen?” Aoife joked, watching as Chroniclus filled the final shelf.

“Only if I get to tell you about all the pressures of being the only heir to an ancient tradition,” Chroniclus replied, grinning down at her. He tucked the last book from his stack into its proper place then slid down, staring up at their work.

Agrona propped her elbow on his shoulder, admiring the filled shelves. “I think you can handle it. I mean, just look at what you can do in two weeks—and without that useless marichino’s help!”

“I’m not a marichino!” Chelan shrieked from the next shelf over.

“He’s got some good hearing for a tree,” Agrona commented.

Chroniclus put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “Try to be considerate of his feelings. You wouldn’t want to be consistently called a Miaki, would you?”

“No, but dragons are more distinct than dryads.”

He frowned.

She sighed and twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Chelan!”

The dryad appeared in their aisle and scowled at the pair. “Dragons are non-descript. You’re all just lizards with wings.”

“Chelan,” Chroniclus warned, tightening his grip on Agrona. “She apologized. She’s trying. Remember, we’re here to foster peace.”

“Peace is impractical in this age,” Chelan huffed. “The most you can hope for is a general tolerance.” He stalked further into the library, his limbs creaking with impatience.

Agrona made a face at his back. “Is ‘stick in the mud’ too obvious an insult?”

“Please stop.” Chroniclus massaged his temple and turned back to his shelves.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to start things with him.”

“No, you just don’t stop to think.” He ran a hand through his hair and faced her.

She met his gaze contritely, hands clasped behind her back. She was beautiful, and she didn’t flinch at his harsh words. “No, I don’t. It’s a serious character flaw, and it’s one I need to get over. I’m sure dryads are particularly sensitive around fire dragons, and I don’t blame them. I’ll do better. I’ll be better.”

He let his shoulders slump. “I know, and I know it’s hard not to fall back into old habits. I just wish everyone could be like you: actually trying.”

Agrona leaned against the shelves and let her eyes drift upwards. “Do you need some time alone?”

“Why would you ask that?”

She shrugged. “You sounded stressed, and I know that I am annoying. The obvious answer is for your to be alone so you can recover.”

He stared at her. “You’re not annoying.”

“Really?” She sounded skeptical.

He took her hand. “Really. You’re smart, you’re funny, you’re beautiful. You make me happy.”

Agrona blinked, then she surged forward and kissed him. Chroniclus stepped back, shocked, and she covered her mouth, eyes wide. She moved her hand and started to apologize, but Chroniclus leaned over and kissed her.

Agrona pulled away. “I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have started this.”

“I don’t care.” Chroniclus moved to kiss her again, but she jumped back.

“There hasn’t been a mixed couple since the Drakynspulung[iii],” she said, combing her fingers through her hair. “I shouldn’t have kissed you. I messed everything up!” She moaned and covered her face, leaning against the books.

Chroniclus hesitated, then he tried a nickname he’d been wanting to use. “Aggie.” She turned her head to give him a look, and he held his hand out to her. “I don’t care,” he repeated. “That’s what this school is about, isn’t it? Peace between races? This is one way to bring peace.”

“It’s not an acceptable way,” Atleus said from the end of the aisle. He walked up to the pair, frowning down at them. “Chroniclus, I’m all for peace, but I don’t think Anrachel is ready for such a leap. And what of your fiancé?”

Chroniclus winced and glanced at Agrona. She was staring at him, eyes wide, lips pressed into a thin line. He took a deep breath to buy a few seconds, then said firmly, “Aoife wasn’t my choice, and I’ve expressed my intentions to my parents on multiple occasions. I have no intention of marrying her, and I never have.” He peaked at Agrona, and her arms were folded, one eyebrow raised. He cleared his throat and continued, “Furthermore, I don’t need your permission, or my parents, to choose who I want to spend my life with. It’s my life, my choice.”

Atleus pawed at the ground, his black tail flicking at invisible flies. Chroniclus crossed his arms and met the centaur’s gaze bravely. Chelan’s head emerged around the bookshelf, green eyes watching the situation with morbid interest.

Atleus snorted and shook his mane. “If you pursue this relationship, you will be inviting hatred and persecution into your lives. Can you survive that?”

“Yes sir.”

“Can she?”

They both looked at Agrona. She didn’t give any indication of an answer. Chroniclus swallowed nervously and looked back at Atleus.

The centaur huffed and shook his mane again. “It is your choice, but I shall be informing your parents. Then it will be their choice whether or not to recall you to Mid-Realm.” Atleus turned carefully in the aisle and went to make his report.

Chroniclus felt his gut clench, but whether that was from the prospect of going home, or from explaining himself to Agrona, he didn’t know. He turned slowly and waited.

Agrona let him wait for several minutes before finally saying, “You have a fiancé?”

Chroniclus ran a hand through his hair awkwardly. “The Chroniclus line is traditionally ‘pure.’ My parents selected an elf from the Fil-Gambor courts, and I’ve told them repeatedly that I want nothing to do with her. I’ve never even met her. And it’s not fair that I’m held accountable for my parents’ choice!”

She examined her nails. “You’re right. It’s not fair. But Atleus is right, too.”

He put his hand over hers, obstructing her view. When she looked up at him, he asked, “Are you scared?”

“A little,” she admitted. “But it may be worth it.”

He straightened indignantly. “Thanks.”

She laughed and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Kiss me again, and I’ll give you a definite answer.”

Chroniclus felt his stomach settle, and he smiled. “As you wish.”

[i] Vermifiut – Pronounced Ver-me-fe-oot

[ii] Naschitt – Pronounced nah-shit; Someone who is prejudiced against members of other races

[iii] Drakynspulung – A dragon-led purge of all mixed races

[1] Vermifiut – Pronounced Ver-me-fe-oot

[1] Naschitt – Pronounced nah-shit; Someone who is prejudiced against members of other races

[1] Drakynspulung – A dragon-led purge of all mixed races

A Kind Stone Heart

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There were no skeletal remains of old prisoners left hanging in the cells. Trallorps keep their dungeons clean so that not even the dried blood of former prisoners blunted the razor blades built into the walls and floor. There were four living prisoners currently chained against the wall, their bodies scarred from multiple interrogation sessions, the bones of their ribs pressed against their skin, and their hair tangled and matted with blood. One was a human man, caught breaking into the trallorp capitol for reasons not even the most vicious of tortures could pry from him. The second was a dwarf who had defied the direct demands of a trallorp overlord; his wrists bled from the manacles that kept his stout frame dangling above the floor. The third was an elf, her naturally thin frame holding up surprisingly well against the trallorps’ cruelty. The fourth and final prisoner was a fairy, her delicate, willowy frame weak and shaky. Neither the fairy nor the elf had committed any crime, but were imprisoned simply for the Trallorps to experiment on.

The heavy metal doors of the prison hissed open. A small trallorp boy stepped across the threshold, his amber eyes taking in the scene calmly. He wore the traditional robes of the trallorpian people, but they were as black as the shadows that filled the room. His skin was gold, marking him as one of the nobles of the keep, and stretched tightly across his bones, giving him an almost skeletal appearance. His short black hair was tucked under his black hood so it could do nothing to soften the sneer that settled naturally on the boy’s face. Only his bony hands were unclothed as he approached the prisoners, meeting each gaze as they feebly focused on him.

The boy stopped at the human and held up an orange spinel, no larger than a cherry.

The human looked at him through swollen eyes. “What is this new torture?”

The boy ignored him and pressed the gem to the metal chains. The gem glowed, and the link it touched dissipated. The man fell forward in surprise, and the only thing that saved him from falling face-first onto the sharp floor was the boy.

“If you fall, you’ll be useless,” the boy snarled, pushing the man back onto his feet.

The man nodded, still obviously struggling with the shock of the trallorp’s actions, and he limped after the boy as he freed the other prisoners one by one. The dwarf was the steadiest on his feet, the fairy was the weakest. She could not support herself on the sharp floor and couldn’t even squeak her pain. The human attempted to carry her, but he could barely support himself. The elf tried to help, but even at full strength she would have struggled. The dwarf, despite his stoutness, carried the fairy easily if she tucked her willowy arms into herself. The boy waited impatiently for them to sort themselves out, glaring at all four for taking so long.

“Are you rescuing us?” The elf asked as the boy opened the cell door.

“Of course not,” the fairy sighed. “He’s a trallorp. He’s just attempting to give us hope before crushing it and us.”

“If you would prefer to remain here,” the boy snapped, “feel free to chain yourself back to the wall. If you would like to leave this place, come with me.”

“Why?” The human asked. “Why rescue us? You’re a trallorp!”

“I cannot control my species,” the boy snapped. “But rest assured, I am more than willing to stab every single one of them in the back.” He spun on his heel and opened the cell door, slipping out into the hallway beyond.

“Are you expecting to be rewarded?” The dwarf asked suspiciously as he and the others followed him.

“Your treasures do not interest me. You have something more valuable than gold to offer.”

“You want access to our archives,” the elf guessed. “The only thing Trallorps care about is knowledge.”

“Which is exactly why trallorps rule this plane while elves prune trees.”

“Watch your tone, boy,” the human growled in the elf’s defense.

“I’ll watch my tone when I am pulled out of an elfin dungeon. Until then, bear my disdain or get back in your chains.” He poked his head around the corner, looking for guards. Seeing the empty corridors, he turned to them, leading the captives quietly to freedom.

“What’s your name?” The elf asked, her voice not carrying past the boy’s ear.

The boy hesitated, his scowl deepening in consideration. “Railix.”

“Thank you for rescuing us, Railix,” she said, her voice kind. “How far can you take us?”

“I plan to guide you to outside the castle walls. After that, I will leave you to make your way back to your own planes.”

“Why don’t you come with us?”

“Why should I do that?” Railix snarled suspiciously.

“Because you hate it here.”

“I’m a trallorp. I’ll hate anywhere you take me just as much.”

“No you won’t. Because you’re not like any other trallorp on this plane. You know who I am, don’t you?”

Railix snorted. “I know who all of you are, and I know how you fell afoul of trallorp justice.”

“Then you know what my people are likely to do if I am returned to them in this condition.”

“They’ll declare war and burn the trallorpian citadel to the ground.”

The boy’s plan dawned on the other three captives. The dwarf and the human regarded the young boy in shock, and even the fairy picked up her head to stare at him. Railix ignored them pointedly and focused on unlocking a thick metal door that was barring their way.

The elf knelt beside the boy, her large green eyes studying his young face compassionately. “How old are you?”

“We don’t have time for this!”

“Ten?”

“Eight. Now shut up and let me concentrate.” He removed the keypad panel and rerouted a few wires, forcing the doors to hiss open.

“No trallorp hates his own kind enough to plan their annihilation,” the dwarf said in a gruff whisper.

“Much less one who is only a child,” the human agreed as they passed through the door.

“You could come with us,” the elf said again, touching the boy’s shoulder, even though he flinched and pulled away. “You don’t have to stay here. My father would take you in and protect you. I wouldn’t let anyone hurt you ever again.”

“You can’t even protect yourself,” Railix replied bitterly. “Thinking with your heart only gets you killed. If I left with you, it’d be your people that would face genocide. The Trallorps would never let me go.” He began working on the next door.

“Oh yeah?” The human challenged. “What makes you so special?”

“Like you said,” the locks clicked and the door slid open. Railix looked back at the human grimly. “There’s not another trallorp like me.” He led them through the opening, the four captives wondering what their rescuer was.

Railix guided them through the labyrinthine halls of the trallorpian citadel, successfully ducking guards, motion sensors, and wired alarms. The prisoners were exhausted before they began, their feet cut and burned, their mouths parched and their stomachs empty, but they followed the trallorp faithfully, fueled by hope. At each door, the four would slip into the shadows to wait while the child hacked the doors. The boy was exceptionally handy with the electronics, using various devices to trick the many sensors littering the trallorpian keep. The escape got increasingly more excruciating for the prisoners, the pain of moving their torn and burned bodies across the unforgiving floors throbbing with each movement. They began to shake from the sheer exertion of moving, and the only sounds that passed their cracked and bleeding lips was that of ragged breathing. Railix never said, but he admired their unwavering determination. Even the fairy managed to crawl on her own when the dwarf could no longer carry her.

Railix’s hands shook when they reached the final door. It was the only emotion other than anger the prisoners had seen him express. They inched closer, eagerly watching as the child’s fingers tested each button. The whir and hiss of the doors sliding open blended with the warm light that burst through the widening cracks, momentarily blinding them.

They closed their eyes and inhaled the crisp cinnamon air of Trizac. Their eyes adjusted slowly, the white light turning the green and brown of the grass and trees. An animal roared in the distance, disturbing the sweet whistling of the closer birds. The only thing that marred the blessed landscape of freedom were the dark blue robes of the Trallorpian Head Practitioner, Nazpith. Suddenly the light became cold, the air sharp, and the birdsong mocking. The elf groaned, the fairy began to cry, and even the dwarf’s strong shoulders slumped in dejection. The human’s large hands clenched in a weak fist, the muscles in his jaw tightening as he readied for a fight. Only Railix showed no reaction to the trallorp waiting for them.

“Ah, Railix,” Nazpith said lightly, his golden skin cracking into a sinister smile, “there you are! I had wondered where you had hidden yourself. I see you’ve found some friends to play with. How nice.” His voice took on a darker tone as he added, “You really are becoming quite a troublesome little brat.”

The elf grabbed Railix and pulled him into their midst, stepping in front of him protectively. “Leave him alone, Nazpith.”

“Speaking of troublesome,” Nazpith muttered, waving his hand dismissively.

A short bolt of blue light struck the elf between her shoulder blades. She gasped as the cold spread across her body, then collapsed in a dead heap. The fairy wailed, her voice, though weak, reached the high keen of mourning. The dwarf and the human were both stunned, staring down at the brave elf.

“Stop that infernal noise!” Nazpith snapped at the fairy impatiently.

Another blue bolt raced down and struck the fairy’s throat. The fairy didn’t even gasp as the cold claimed her. She joined the elf in death, the little strength she had utterly abandoning her. The fairy’s death took an exceptionally brutal toll on the dwarf, who had carried her so far through the tunnels, only to watch her die at the brink of freedom. He screamed in rage and charged the Trallorp, only to be claimed by a third blue bolt.

The human quickly took the hint and pulled Railix back into the tunnel, out of the deadly bolt’s range. Nazpith didn’t move; he just watched them through slitted lids, a smile growing on his narrow lips.

“This always happens,” Railix muttered, his voice tinged with bitterness.

The human looked at him. There was anger in his face, as well as regret and despair. For the first time in his life, the human pitied a Trallorp. “This has happened before?”

The boy nodded once. “Each time I get a little closer to saving them, but he is always one step ahead!”

The human looked at the three bodies between them and the Head Practitioner. Nazpith stood at the forest’s edge, watching them with amused curiosity. He was obviously waiting for the human to make a break for freedom, but the human had no doubt that no matter what he tried, he would die. His eyes turned to the elf, remembering how she had wanted to take the boy with her, to keep him safe. The human realized that he didn’t want freedom for himself, but for the little boy who kept trying to save others.

“We’re going to run to the forest,” the human told the boy quietly.

“I told you, I’m not leaving.”

“Yes you are. I won’t make it out alive, but you can still beat Nazpith if you escape.” He stepped in front of Railix, preparing himself for his final burst of life. “On my mark, we run. When they shoot me, keep running. Run until Nazpith can’t reach you.”

“There is no such place.”

“Then you haven’t run far enough. Let’s go.” The human ran, practically pulling Railix behind him.

Nazpith cocked his head curiously at the human’s decisions but moved to block his path anyway. Several things happened at once then. A golden circle formed in the air between them, and a beautiful elf woman wearing a red shirt and black split skirt stepped out from it. A blue bolt shot down from the trallorpian battlements and struck the human’s back. The human used his dying momentum to push Railix into the elf’s arms and to say, “Save the boy.”

The woman looked down at the boy in her arms in shock, then at the dead human at her feet. Railix turned to regard the human as well, ignoring this new elf who had her arms wrapped around his bony shoulders. There was something akin to sorrow stirring on his face, but no tears came. The woman quickly took in the other three bodies, and, keeping her arms on the boy at all times, turned to confront the Head Practitioner.

“If this is the welcome Trizac gives, we shall take our knowledge elsewhere,” she growled.

“I would suggest that Mid-Realm Academy schedules their portals at a more convenient time,” Nazpith responded testily, one eye fastened on Railix. “We will not allow prisoners to escape our walls, no matter what dignitary decides to visit.”

“These were prisoners?”

“Of course. They were attempting to escape, and had to be made an example of.”

“And the boy?”

“The boy was attempting to help them. He failed miserably, but that makes him an accomplice, and he must be dealt with as such.” Nazpith moved to pull Railix from her, but she tightened her grip, one fierce glare warning the Practitioner that any attempt to take the boy would bring trouble. Nazpith glared at her. “It is not Mid-Realm’s business to interfere with trallorpian affairs. Surrender the boy. He is ours, and he will remain ours.”

The elf regarded him suspiciously. “Why are you so possessive over this child?”

“I am his guardian. He is my responsibility.”

The elf looked down at the boy. “Is this true?”

Railix nodded once, keeping his gaze on the dead prisoners around him instead of on his furious guardian or on the elf who was currently protecting him.

“Hand him over.”

The elf hesitated again, but then reluctantly released the boy. Railix walked over to Nazpith on his own, keeping his eyes down, though his mind was already planning his next escape. Nazpith’s bony fingers dug into Railix’s shoulders, a minor punishment compared to what he knew would come.

“I appreciate your coming so quickly at our request, Lady Aoife,” Nazpith said smoothly. “This break out was unforeseen, and though I hate to impose upon you further, you were right to say that this is not an appropriate welcome for a Mid-Realm Ambassador. Especially one of your standing. I must ask that, in order to correct this unfortunate incident, you return again tomorrow.”

The elf woman’s green eyes flicked from Railix to Nazpith consideringly. Then she nodded and smiled agreeably. “Mid-Realm understands and agrees. I will return tomorrow with our negotiation limits.”

“Actually, I think it might be best for a different, unbiased ambassador to come. I fear that we have already made an unfortunate impression on you, and I would like to start fresh tomorrow.”

Aoife stiffened with obvious anger and annoyance, but again she forced a smile and nodded in agreement. “Of course.” The golden portal swirled open, and the woman glanced once at Railix before she stepped through it and disappeared.

As soon as she was gone, Nazpith grabbed Railix by the throat and threw him back into the castle. Railix didn’t make a sound when his bony body struck the wall. Several bones cracked, but they healed almost immediately. He sat up and waited for Nazpith, not struggling as his guardian picked him up again and hauled him back into the torture chambers.

 

Railix stood beside his guardian in the royal halls the next day, his black hood overshadowing his skeletal face as another golden portal opened. An elf walked through, a man with silver hair that didn’t come from age. He had bright, intelligent silver eyes that cast around the room, taking in the potential threat of the gathered trallorps. A gentle smile creased the elf’s face when he saw Railix, but then he turned his attention to the king, Chyonogeth. Chyonogeth straightened at the elf’s appearance, as did everyone else in the hall. Railix guessed they were all impressed by the elf’s identity, though Railix himself did not know his importance.

“It is an honor to have the Head Chronicler attend our requests,” Chyonogeth said, the pride in his voice casting a vain overtone to the proceedings. “Have you brought us proof of this vast knowledge Mid-Realm claims to have?”

The Head Chronicler bowed respectfully. “I have. And I believe my proof will disprove any doubts you may have.” He reached into the dimen of his black pants and pulled out a thick tome, bound and locked with gold. The trallorps leaned forward eagerly, their metallic eyes straining to catch a glimpse of the tome. The elf opened the book and showed it around, allowing each trallorp to catch a glimpse of the words printed on the sturdy pages. “I have here a detailed history of the fae prince, Xasi, that includes a thorough account of how he and the dragoness Agrona defeated the fae king’s men not once, but three times. I believe, as residents of Trizac, such an account would be incredibly valuable?”

Even Railix knew what such knowledge could do. The fae ruled the upper plane of Trizac, and their powers and rules constantly rippled through the other planes. They didn’t care who they trampled to have their fun, or who got killed because of their frivolities. None of the nine peoples of Trizac had the power to stop them or stand up to them, but this elf was now offering them a way to do exactly that. Railix tried to picture what Trizac would be like if the trallorps ruled all three planes, but he couldn’t say he preferred it.

Chyonogeth sat back in his chair, a scowl settling on his face. “Incredibly. It makes me wonder why the Academy would surrender it to us.”

“As I’m sure you know,” the Chronicler said smoothly, “there was a little incident yesterday when my wife, Aoife, came to tend to your requests. To be honest, we weren’t going to negotiate until she saw the lengths that were taken to secure one of your prisoners.”

Chyonogeth’s head snapped over to glare at Nazpith, but the glare was vanished as the trallorpian king turned to address the Chronicler. “We have no prisoners in our dungeons. Your wife must be mistaken.”

“Mistakes aren’t in Aoife’s nature. And I don’t think this is the type of prisoner that is kept in a dungeon. Once I heard of him, I knew the only way to free him was an even exchange. As Head Chronicler, you know I have the power to surrender such powerful knowledge into your hands, and I am willing to give it to you. In exchange for this book, I ask that you release the child Railix into the custody of the Böchard of Mid-Realm.”

An angry hiss issued from the crowd. Nazpith’s fingers dug into Railix’s shoulders so sharply that the boy felt his skin breaking beneath his robes.

“Do you know what you are asking, elf?” Chyonogeth demanded, dropping all semblance of respect for anyone but himself. “Do you know what that boy is?”

“I know that four peoples died trying to free him from the keep. That is enough for me.”

Railix stiffened indignantly at the elf’s interpretation of the situation.

Chyonogeth signaled for Nazpith to bring Railix forward. Railix stayed silent, his head high with pride. The Head Chronicler watched passively as the boy was marched to the dais. Chyonogeth seized Railix’s chin and studied his face consideringly. Finally, he tossed him aside, casting the child at the Chronicler’s feet. “Take him,” the king sneered. “The boy is more trouble than he’s worth.”

The Chronicler acquiesced his head in understanding and surrendered the book to Nazpith before picking Railix off the floor. He put one hand around the boy’s shoulders, watching as Nazpith delivered the book to Chyonogeth.

Chyonogeth flipped through the pages, studying it for accuracy. He nodded his satisfaction and waved to dismiss the Chronicler. “Our business is concluded. But know this, Chroniclus of Mid-Realm, if the boy ever enters our domain again, he will be ours once more. And no force Mid-Realm can muster will be able to get him back.”

Chroniclus nodded again. “Have no fear, Chyonogeth. He will be kept far away from you.” The elf twisted a ring on his finger, opening a golden portal. The elf guided him through it, and relaxed visibly as the golden light faded to a gentler yellow that caressed shelves and shelves of books.

Railix inhaled sharply in wonder as he gazed in awe at the trillions of leather bound spines that greeted him. They were tucked in soft wooden shelves, all nestled safely and visibly well-cared for. The shelves surrounded a small area that was filled with writing desks. The desks stood atop a wooden floor designed to be an accurate map of Trizac’s middle plane, the plane of the trallorps. They all had chairs tucked under their surface, grand wooden ones that looked more comfortable than Railix had ever seen. Ink bottles armed with quills sat atop them, ready to be used on the blank books below. It was the most beautiful place Railix could have ever imagined.

“What do you think of your new home, Railix?” Chroniclus asked.

Railix sneered. “Books are always appealing to trallorps. You staged this to make it desirable to me, to make me stay.”

Chroniclus laughed. “This is how it’s always been. There are forty-one more levels of the Böchard, though the dryads have arranged and styled the furniture a bit differently for every section. But if you want to leave, you can. I’ll find you a place where you can be happy and free. It’s up to you. If you do decide to stay, you can help me maintain the Academy Böchard. I already have a small army of chroniclers at my disposal to help me maintain our collection, but I never say ‘no’ to more help. Once you are old enough, you may join the Academy properly, go through the training period and explore worlds for yourself. What do you say?”

Railix went to the nearest shelf and selected a book at random. He turned through the pages thoughtfully, nodded once with satisfaction, and looked back at the elf. “Your offer is acceptable. I will begin familiarizing myself with the work at once.”

“Wonderful! But you don’t have to go straight to work. Take a break. Read a book. I’ll have Aoife bring you a set of official Böchard robes, and you can join us for dinner this evening.” Chroniclus plucked a book from the top shelves and handed it to him. “Welcome home.”

Legends of the Dragon Girl

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I found my chapel seat quickly and sat down, not bothering to take advantage of my extra five minutes to socialize.

Julia turned around in her seat so that she could talk to me. “Miss Murphy was talking about you in assembly again today.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? Which story was it this time?”

“It was your demonstration.” Julia cleared her throat to mimic my old teacher, “She drew the dragon head beautifully, she was like whoosh, whoosh done! But make sure when you choose your subject for your demonstration, it’s something you can actually use later in life.”

“She said that?” I snorted derisively. “‘How to Draw Dragons’ is the only speech I actually use outside of college.”

The boy beside Julia turned around to look at me. “Wait, you’re the dragon girl?” His eyes flicked to the dragon necklace I was wearing, and suddenly all doubts were gone. He grinned. “Did you really read that verse about dragons in class?”

“Job 30:28, ‘I am a brother to the dragons and a companion to the owls,’” I quoted. “Yep. That was me.”

The boy’s grin grew larger. “You’re my hero!”

I smiled back at him; I was getting pretty used to that reaction.

I went to a Christian liberal arts college, and everyone was required to take two semesters of speech. Their speech program required two sessions a week in a classroom with an instructor, and then an assembly with all the speech classes once a week. I had fulfilled my speech requirements my freshman year and had gotten a solid “A” in both classes. Over the next two years, however, I had been hearing stories of my “exploits” being told in the assembly from the younger students. Despite the fact that I had never received lower than a B+, my speech teacher, Miss Murphy, had been using me as an example of what not to do.

Her first use of me was always the Bible reading assignment. It was one of our first speeches in the classroom, and we had to pick a passage in the Bible to read in front of our classmates. It needed to be seven or eight verses that conveyed an entire thought, and I decided to read my favorite passage from the book of Job. I got up in front of my class, read my passage with the proper pronunciation and inflection, and walked away with an A-. The next year, I overheard a friend talking about a student that had read verses about dragons.

“That was me!” I told him, quoting the verse to prove it.

“I wish I could use that passage for my reading,” my friend sighed.

“Why can’t you?”

“Miss Murphy said that we had to pick verses that were relevant and actually meant something.”

I frowned. “I didn’t realize there were verses in the Bible that weren’t relevant.”

Later in the semester, I heard my friend talking about assembly again, and once again, I was the subject.

“Miss Murphy said one of your classmates came up to her after class and asked to be moved,” my friend said. “Apparently you were ‘too weird’ for him to handle, so Miss Murphy told everyone to be considerate of others and not be weird.” He cocked his head at me. “What were you doing, anyway?”

I thought back to the class. “I was just doodling ninja turtles and dragons.”

The next semester, I heard the “don’t draw dragons for your demonstration” story for the first time. Then Miss Murphy told the assembly how my performance as Gollum in “Riddles in the Dark” was too scary for a live audience, and that anyone doing the approved excerpt from The Hobbit needed to make sure that they dialed down the creep factor a lot.

My senior roommate freaked when I told her about Miss Murphy’s stories. “She’s talking about you like that while you’re still at the college?” She stormed over to her desk. “I’m going to write a letter to the administration. That’s just wrong!”

I laughed. “I find it funny.”

I knew Miss Murphy had never liked me. After my first speech, she called out my minor lisp and told me that I needed to get over that speech impediment. She marked it on my paper and gave me an A-. Every speech I gave received the same remark, and it was often the only thing she marked down. It was more than a little frustrating that she’d be so harsh on a Creative Writing major, but her using me as an example in her lectures was the best kind of revenge.

Miss Murphy may think that being used as a “what not to do” example isn’t something to be proud of, but I am proud of it. I behaved in her class, fulfilled all my assignments, performed to the best of my ability, and she’ll never forget me. Miss Murphy spread my legend through the years, and though there will be people who agree that I was a freak, there will be other people that will get real joy from my “antics.”

Love me or hate me, you’re still thinking about me.

A Frivolous Thing

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Railix hurried to his office in the Böchard, and turned on his monitors, grabbing his book to keep notes. He primed his tablet to alert him when it was time for his next class, and adjusted the angles on the monitors. The screens were, of course, automatically queued to his assignment who was now five years old. She had large eyes that changed color, long black hair that she wouldn’t let her mother comb, dimpled cheeks, and a wild imagination that seemed to be beyond that of a standard five-year-old. Mid-Realm Academy, the inter-dimensional society Railix worked for, didn’t typically spend its time keeping track of one child, but this child was special. There were ten prophecies surrounding her, and they all foretold that the girl would be unbelievably powerful.

The only name the child knew was Cassandra “Cassie” Lynn Moon, but it wasn’t her real name. She had been placed under the care of Thomas and Elyssa Moon the day she had been born, and neither she nor her adopted parents knew that she was adopted. The real Cassandra Moon had died that same night, and Chroniclus, Railix’s mentor, had swapped the dead child for the thriving child who now bore her name. Chroniclus had then assigned Railix to watch over the child, keep track of her health, growth, and mental progress.

Railix had been assigned to Cassie’s case when he was eight years old. They had essentially grown up together even though they were worlds apart, and she had no idea who or what Railix was. Railix was a trallorp from the world Trizac. His body was near skeletal and covered with gold skin. His eyes were amber, his hair was black, and there was never a pleasant expression on his bony face. Trallorps didn’t feel pleasant emotions such as happiness or even mild fondness or amusement–at least, they weren’t supposed to.

The Moon family was at a greasy fast food joint—there were so many on Earth, Railix didn’t bother to memorize their names—and Cassie had her face pressed against the toy display. Her older brother, Hector, and her younger brother, Troy, were with her, picking out the toys they wanted with their meals. The eldest Moon child, Helen, was at the counter with her parents, clutching a fistful of money. Thomas ordered their food, Helen ordered a specific toy and paid the cashier. The cashier retrieved a larger plastic wrapped package and handed it to her. Helen grinned like she won the lottery and hurried over to show her prize to her siblings.

“Look what I got,” she bragged, opening the package to reveal a doll in a purple gypsy dress. She held it up and inserted her fingers in the puffy sleeves to move the doll’s arms. Helen had her doll bow proudly, and her siblings were sufficiently impressed. Her brothers told her it was cool and admired it for a minute before turning back to the “boy toys” in the display. Cassie, however, stared at the doll jealously.

Railix took a closer look at the doll and sighed in resignation when he recognized the character it was representing. It was the latest book-based heroine in a long line of cartoons Cassie was obsessed with. It annoyed Railix that his assignment was so easily addicted to pop culture. She hadn’t read the book, was ignorant of the history behind it, or of the true lifestyle of the gypsy people, yet ever since she had seen the movie, all she wanted to do was be a gypsy. She had been trying to collect various items relating to this character: dolls, costumes, pencil bags, coloring books, and the like. It was quite tiresome. Railix rubbed his temples as he prepared himself for what was doubtlessly coming next.

“Can I hold her?” Cassie asked her sister, reaching out to touch the purple skirt.

Helen pulled the toy away, not wanting its newness to be sullied by her little sister’s fingers. “Not yet. I want to play with her for a bit first. I did just get her.”

Cassie’s face fell in disappointment, but then she ran to her parents who were still waiting at the counter for their food. “Mommy, can I get a doll, too, please?”

Elyssa looked at her husband, Thomas, as she fondly stroked Cassie’s long dark hair. “Ask your father.”

Cassie turned her large brown eyes on her father. “May I, Daddy? Please?”

Thomas raised a black eyebrow questioningly. “Do you have the money to pay for it?”

Railix nodded approvingly. He appreciated how the Moons didn’t spoil their children by buying them any cheap toy they wanted. There were rare occasions that Thomas and Elyssa bought their children toys outside of their birthdays and Christmas, but the standard procedure was to have the children pay for it themselves. It helped the children prioritize what they really wanted, as well as taught them that nothing came free in life. If Cassie really wanted that doll, she’d have to work for it.

The little girl frowned. “How much is it?”

Helen appeared at Thomas’s elbow, clutching her doll smugly. “Twelve dollars. It was tip money from Mrs. Peterson on my paper route.”

Cassie’s brow furrowed. Railix recognized the expression. She was trying to calculate which chores she could do to pay for the doll. “I’ll sweep and mop the kitchen floor.”

“That’s only ten dollars, if you do a good job.”

“I’ll do a good job! Please?”

“You’re still two dollars short,” Helen sang, taking Thomas’s hand and squeezing it.

“I’ll clean and sweep the furnace room, too,” Cassandra wheedled. “Please, Daddy?

Thomas smiled and tugged Cassie’s lovingly. “Do the work first, then we can bring you back to get your doll.”

Cassie sighed, her shoulders drooping dejectedly. “Okay.”

Their order arrived on the counter and her parents carried the trays back to the table Hector had saved for the family. The children dug into their bagged meals for their toys and traded around until everyone was happy. Even Cassie was temporarily satisfied playing with her fifty-cent toy, but Railix could see her eyes turn occasionally to her sister’s doll.

“How’s she doing?” Chroniclus’s quiet, musical voice pulled Railix from his work.

Railix frowned in irritation, but indulged his mentor with an update of Cassandra Moon’s day. The elf listened intently, smiling in amusement as the trallorp recounted the child’s desire for this new toy. “Just a few months ago, she was so obsessed with the Powhatan character that she would play in the woods in her costume. Now it’s gypsies. She chases after whatever new frivolity is in front of her.” He scowled at the child in the screens resentfully.

Chroniclus laughed. “Of course she does. She’s five years old. Everything is still new and exciting, and she wants to be a part of it all. She has time to settle down and figure out what she wants to be.” His eyes turned to the laughing child in the orb. “I’m glad to hear that she isn’t being spoiled. I would have gotten her that doll the second she asked for it.”

“Why? She’ll lose interest in it as soon as the next heroine comes along, if not before.”

“I know. But I also know what horror life has in store for her. With that knowledge, I would want to fill her childhood with as much frivolous innocence as possible. It’ll give her something to cling to later.” Chroniclus clapped the teenager on the shoulder. “Keep me updated.”

Railix scowled as he eyed the monitors. Helen was dancing her new doll across the table; Cassie’s eyes followed it as she munched her fries. Then Elyssa told her children to put their toys away and eat their food. They obeyed, and as soon as their fries were gone they wanted ice cream. The trallorp shook his head despairingly. “Frivolous.”

***

Railix assumed his position in the Böchard the next day, arranging his tools of the trade around him in the most productive order. He prepped his pen and book and turned on his monitors. Cassie was in the room she shared with her sister, playing with a pile of dolls. She seemed content enough; she must have forgotten about Helen’s new doll. But no. A shriek came from downstairs, catching Cassie’s attention. Helen’s voice loudly announced that she was going over Dawn’s house and would be back for dinner. Cassie hurried to the window to check to make sure Helen was actually leaving before going into the toy box to retrieve the new doll. The child immediately began sending her toys on a wild adventure, utilizing every doll car and bathtub at her disposal. Railix closed his eyes and massaged his temples.

Cassie’s life continued in a similar pattern for the next few days. Helen would disappear to play with friends or participate in extracurricular activities, and Cassie would take advantage of her sister’s absence to play with her doll. She was impressively clever, putting the doll back in the exact spot she found it and keeping one ear tuned to the stairs while she played. But it only took one mistake for her to get caught.

Helen had gone out shopping with Dawn, but she had forgotten her wallet and had to come back for it. Railix had spotted the aquamarine wallet sitting on the desk, and, knowing it was pointless to vocalize any warning to the oblivious child, shook his head helplessly as the bedroom door opened. Helen stopped when she saw Cassie playing with her doll, and the five-year-old froze guiltily.

Helen folded her arms, her blue eyes narrowing angrily. “Why are you playing with my doll?”

“I wasn’t going to break it,” Cassie grumped even as she cringed.

“You didn’t ask to play with it, either.”

“I wasn’t going to break it! I just wanted to play with it. And you left with Dawn.”

Helen suddenly remembered why she’d come back and grabbed her wallet, shoving it into her butterfly purse. She hadn’t forgotten about her sister’s trespass, however, and she turned back on the little girl. “I’m telling Mom. Give it to me.”

“No! Don’t tell Mommy!” Cassie glanced at the doll fearfully, as if the it was going to deliver the punishment. She quickly gave her sister the doll. “Don’t tell Mommy. I only wanted to play with it.”

Helen pulled the doll away and placed it on the highest shelf of the room, safely out of her little sister’s reach. “You are not allowed to touch my things. I hate sharing a room with you! I’m telling Mom.” She stormed out of the room, ignoring the scared wails of little Cassie.

Cassie sobbed for a minute before chasing after her sister, desperately hoping to dissuade her from telling their mother. The monitors followed the little girl, racing down the steep wooden steps, through the yellow and brown living room, and into the small kitchen where their mother was washing pots.

“Mom, Cassie stole my doll!” Helen declared, her voice both indignant and self-righteous.

“No I didn’t!” Cassie cried, bursting into the kitchen a second later, her plump face red from crying.

“Yes you did! Don’t lie!”

Elyssa turned around and gave her little daughter a severe glance. “Cassie. Did you take Helen’s doll?”

Cassie flinched and began to cry again. “I wasn’t hurting it! I just wanted to play with it. I was going to put it right back, I promise! I just wanted to play with it. I don’t have one.”

“Get your own,” Helen snapped.

“You were going to mop the kitchen and laundry room to earn yours,” Elyssa reminded her. “Why haven’t you done that yet?”

Cassandra glared at the floor balefully and shrugged. “I forgot.”

“I bought mine with my own money,” Helen reminded them. “You’re not allowed to play with it without asking. Mom, I hate sharing a room with her! She gets her toys and clothes all over the floor. Make her clean it up.”

Cassie opened her mouth to protest, but Elyssa silenced her with another warning look.

Elyssa pushed Helen toward the front door where Dawn was waiting patiently for her. “Go to the mall and have fun,” she said, kissing the pre-teen’s forehead lovingly. “Cassie, go clean up your bedroom. Then if you want to earn money to buy your own doll, you can come back down and clean the floors.”

Cassie hung her head, her face an open book of despair and sorrow, but she obeyed with only a few whimpered protests. Once again, the monitors followed her, allowing Railix to follow the action back to her room. The little girl sniffled as she tried to distinguish between Helen’s dirty and clean clothes that covered the floor. She picked up all of Helen’s candy wrappers, cleaned up the toys that she had been playing with, and then put both hers and Helen’s stuffed animals on the proper beds. That finished, the tired little girl threw herself dramatically onto her bed, buried her face in her stuffed tiger and cried, no doubt dwelling on the injustice of life and her own personal sufferings.

Railix turned away from the monitors, disgusted by the emotional display as memories of his own childhood tried to push themselves to the forefront of his mind. He struggled to suppress them, hating himself for allowing them to come to the surface. He remembered the nails that had been driven into his arms, then removed with a scalpel. He remembered the off-handed slaps, the choking, the verbal abuse. Old scars flared with the remembered pain. He gripped the edge of the desk, gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, and tried to think of something else.

Then he heard giggling. He looked back to the screens in surprise, his pain and memories fading as curiosity rose. Cassie had turned on her show tunes and had her stuffed animals dancing to the bright music. She grabbed her favorite teddy bear and danced around the room, spinning and twirling through various ballet positions she’d learned earlier that week. Her attempts were pathetic but amusing. Railix saw the innocence Chroniclus had talked about. In Cassie’s mind, she was a brilliant ballerina, and all her moves were perfect. There was no shame, just the pure joy of acting out her own imaginary tales. If Railix was human, he would have called the performance “cute,” but all he could see were the flaws.

“What is she doing?” Chroniclus asked, his voice tinged with amusement as he peered over the teenager’s shoulder.

“Dancing.” Railix tried to suppress his annoyance at the elf for interrupting his work. He both understood and resented the elf’s desire to be a part of the little girl’s life. The trallorp felt that the elf’s inquiries to the child’s well-being and emotional state were intrusive and taking away from his own work.

Chroniclus grinned. “She looks happy.”

“A minute ago she was crying.”

“Crying? Why? What happened?”

Railix rolled his eyes. “Helen caught her playing with that gypsy doll. The toy was confiscated, Elyssa was informed, and Cassie was instructed to clean the room.”

“She missed a few pieces.”

“She shoved most of the mess under the bed.”

Almost as if she had heard them, Cassie wriggled under her bed to retrieve the dolls she had been playing with. The elf laughed at the child’s timing. Railix massaged his temple and counted to ten. The child began playing again, but her eyes strayed to the doll on the top shelf. She put her toys down and stood, straining to reach it, but she was only three feet tall. She humphed at her lack of height and grabbed her sister’s desk chair. Bracing the chair against the wall, she scrambled up to grab the doll, but the chair didn’t add enough to her reach. She jumped down and sulked, staring up at the coveted doll woefully.

Chroniclus sighed. “She really wants that doll, doesn’t she?”

“Not enough to work for it. Elyssa reminded her about the chores she promised to do in exchange for it just today. But there she is, trying to get the doll Helen earned.” Railix steepled his fingers as he watched the girl pout for another minute before returning to her game. “She doesn’t deserve it.”

Chroniclus glanced at the trallorp. “You know the life she’s bound to lead. You don’t think she should at least have a happy childhood?”

“Happiness doesn’t depend on getting every single toy companies throw into the marketplace. Cassie is well-fed, well-loved, and well-cared for. She doesn’t need to be spoiled as well.”

Chroniclus considered the playing child, a fond smile hovering at his lips. “I’m glad to see that she’s happy, ‘deprived’ as she is. I’ll be going over your records at the end of the week; make sure they’re complete.”

Railix nodded as the elf left him to his work. The trallorp turned his amber eyes back to the monitor, watching as Cassie had her dolls play out a romantic scene. Unfortunately, in her feeble plot, Jack had just lost his girlfriend to the plague. The dolls were all attending a funeral now in Helen’s doll’s honor, and there was a lot of dramatic crying. It was so pathetic, Railix could barely stand it. He didn’t know if he could last if the child dwelt much longer on that stupid doll.

An idea occurred to him then, and he doubted that it was a good idea. First, his idea was illegal. Earth was supposed to be inaccessible to all but the highest ranks of the Mid-Realm Academy oligarchy. Railix had figured out how to hack that system three years ago, so it was possible, but still illegal. Second, if he acted on his idea, Cassie wouldn’t learn to work for what she wanted—or at the very least, the lesson would be hindered. Third, it was stupid to waste money on such a frivolous item. It was true that Cassie would be excited and delighted at first, but once she got a new toy, the coveted doll would fall to the bottom of the toy box and be forgotten. It wasn’t worth it.

Cassie looked up at the doll, letting her toys slump into her lap. “I’m sorry I’m not playing with you, but Helen won’t let me. I know you want to be down here and play with Jack and Cookie and Rose, but you have to stay there. Maybe when Helen comes back from the mall, we can all play together. You too! But Helen will probably be playing with you, not me. I’m not allowed. Just close your eyes and ears, that way you won’t feel bad because you’re not being played with.” Then she had Cookie and Jack jump into the pink doll car and drive around the room, making motorcycle noises as she “drove.”

Railix stared at her, completely confounded. Then he stood up from his chair, turned off the monitors, and left the room.

The next day, Railix set up his work space and activated the monitors. Cassie was back in her room, lying flat on her stomach as she kicked her feet in the air. She was drawing a horribly disfigured goat with a ribbon, but she seemed to think it was some sort of Van Gogh masterpiece. There was a knock on the door. She sprang up and let her mother into the room, running back to the floor to show Elyssa her drawing.

Elyssa made a show of critically examining the sloppy drawing. “Your goat has five legs.”

“That’s his tail!” Cassie giggled.

Elyssa feigned surprise. “Oh, is it? And are those his ears? They’re really big.”

“No, no, no! Those are his horns, see? And that’s his goatee. He’s a goat, so he has a goatee.”

“Of course he does.”

“I drew it for Daddy. Do you think he’ll like it?”

“I think he’ll love it. Now why don’t you go outside and play a bit?”

Cassandra folded her arms and shook her head stubbornly. “I don’t want to go outside. I want to stay inside and play.”

Elyssa pursed her lips seriously. “Cassie, you need to go outside. Hector and Troy are already out there. Give me a few minutes to move the laundry, and I’ll come outside and play kick-the-can with you.”

“Where’s Helen?”

“Helen is at Dawn’s house. She’ll be home for dinner.”

Cassie nodded in resignation and scuffled her way outside. She wandered around to the wooden play set at the side of the house. Something caught her eye. Her curiosity piqued, she hurried to the play set and retrieved the gypsy doll off the platform. She frowned in confusion as she tried to remember where Helen’s gypsy doll had been left. She was obviously certain that doll was still in the room, because she looked all around the play set for any sign that someone had dropped the doll.

Seeing no one around, Cassie ran back inside, clutching the doll. “Mommy! Mommy!”

Elyssa looked up from the laundry basket, frowning at Cassie’s disobedience. “Cassie, I thought I told you to play outside.”

“I was! Look what I found!” She held up the doll for Elyssa to see. “It’s just like Helen’s! Can I keep it?”

“Are you sure it isn’t Helen’s?”

“It’s not. Helen’s doll is still on the shelf where I can’t get it. Come see, I’ll show you!” Cassie grabbed Elyssa’s hand and pulled her up the stairs. Cassandra pointed at the gypsy doll in the room, still on the shelf like she had said. “See? That’s Helen’s doll. Can this one be mine?”

Elyssa looked at the doll in Cassie’s hands. “Where did you find it?”

“On the play set by the swings. No one was there. I looked. Can I keep it?”

Elyssa considered the question for a minute, but then smiled and nodded. “Yes you may. Now put it away and go outside. You can play with it later.”

Cassie skipped to her bed and placed the doll on the pillow. “We can play later,” she told it, making her comfortable on the bed. “Just wait until you meet Jack! You’ll love it here, I know it.” She raced back outside, eager to get the assigned fresh air over with so she could come back in and play with her new toy.

“Did she finally do her chores?” Chroniclus asked.

Railix glanced back at the elf, not feeling any guilt for breaking the rules. “No. She found it on her play set outside.”

The elf frowned curiously. “That’s odd. That’s the doll she’s been wanting, right?”

“Yes. And now that she has it, she can get over it and move on with her life.”

“Did you have anything to do with that?”

Railix shot the elf a scathing look. “You have more motive and opportunity than I.”

Chroniclus considered him suspiciously. “You didn’t see anything or anyone place that doll where Cassie could find it?”

“My job is to watch the child, not the yard. She doesn’t particularly care for the outdoors, so no, I did not see anything.”

There were two minutes of heavy silence. Chroniclus’s eyes were narrowed as they studied the trallorp’s harsh face for any sign of guilt. He met the elf’s eyes evenly, his only movement coming from the impatient tapping of his finger that informed the elf he was waiting to resume his work. Chroniclus released him from his gaze and suspicion. Railix turned back to the orb, only half his attention focused on the playing child. Elyssa had come out as she had promised, and was now chasing her children around the yard in a vigorous game of kick-the-can.

Chroniclus watched the scene over Railix’s shoulder. “I want you to keep an extra watch over the house from now on. It could be coincidence that that doll was left there, but I don’t want to take the chance that it wasn’t. I’m also going to give you access to Earth so that if something does come up, you can take care of it immediately.”

Railix nodded in understanding.

Chroniclus spent a minute more watching the child before he disappeared into the Böchard to attend to his own duties.

Railix smirked once before turning back to his work. Hopefully now he wouldn’t have to suffer through any more toy funerals.

 

May I

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There was a tapping at Drax’s window. She spun her knife in her hand absently as she went to investigate. Her pure white skin and hair looked ghostly in the window’s transparent reflection, but it was only there for a moment, vanishing like a true phantom as she pushed the glass open. There was no one hovering outside, and no one lingering below, but there was a bouquet of orchids resting on a newly extended ledge. Drax stared at the flowers dumbly for a moment, then created a little wind to blow them to the ground.

She closed her window and shook her head. “What am I supposed to do with flowers?”

Drax went to visit her father’s shrine in the morning, a habit she’d formed when she was a toddler, and she was surprised to find another bouquet of flowers sitting on the steps of his mausoleum. She picked them up, examining the zinnias and yarrow for a sign that her mother had left them, and found a note tucked in the center of the arrangement. The handwriting was crude and large, but it was clearly legible. It read: For Drax, with admiration, Kryptin. Drax lowered the flowers with a frown. It took her a moment to remember that Kryptin was Cassie’s enormous brother from Parafaxilia. Why was he sending her flowers? She shrugged, crumpled the tag, and placed the flowers at the foot of her father’s statue inside the mausoleum.

Drax wandered back to the Academy, trying to puzzle out the meaning of the flowers. She kicked the nearest wall in frustration and activated the door portal, plugging in the code for the Böchard. Chroniclus would know.

Chroniclus was busy, as was his wife, Aoife. Their little house stood dark and empty in the middle of the massive library. Drax glared at the closed door and began searching the aisles for Railix, Bertram, or another chronicler she could get answers from. After several minutes of searching, she heard familiar voices discussing the mysterious bouquets.

“You can’t just leave flowers in random places where you know she goes,” Faye was saying. “That just makes you look like a creepy stalker. You need to actually talk to her.”

“And besides,” Cassie added, “I don’t think Drax even knows what to do with flowers.”

“What do you do with them?” Kryptin asked curiously. Then he added, “I only sent flowers because Aselma suggested it.”

Drax peeked at the trio over the books. Faye was sitting on a desk, her arms propped thoughtfully on her knees, while Cassie leaned on the desk beside her, arms crossed over her chest, her head cocked to one side. They were both facing a young man their age, though he was a foot taller, and easily more muscle than man. And he wasn’t wearing a shirt. It was definitely Kryptin. Drax ducked behind the books and listened.

“You don’t lavish the girl with flowers and gifts until after the girl has decided she wants them,” Faye lectured. “You need to talk to Drax, tell her how you feel, and ask permission to date her. Or court her. Or whatever dragons do.”

“Don’t look at me!” Cassie protested. “I only found out I was a dragon last year.”

There was a moment of silence, then Kryptin said, “I want to do this right. I want Drax to like me, but I don’t know how to tell her that. How do you put those feelings into words?”

They were quiet for too long, so Drax peeked back over the books to see what was going on. Faye was fiddling with the ends of her hoodie strings, and Cassie was picking at the red jewel at the end of her necklace. Kryptin was staring at the floor. Drax ducked down and crawled back to Chroniclus’s house to think.

She sat at his door and pulled out one of her knives, tossing it lightly in the air as she tried to process her own thoughts and feelings. Parafaxilia had been a mess, and she hadn’t really thought about any of the dragons they had rescued from that awful place. Drax knew Kryptin, and she knew his story. He had been sold into slavery and had been forced to fight for entertainment until Cassie rescued him and destroyed the gladitorial arena. His owner had “trained” him to believe that he was allergic to shirts–no doubt to use his excellent physique to draw in the crowds–but even now that he was free, he couldn’t bring himself to wear more than a sash over his broad chest. Drax didn’t know how Kryptin had managed to become such a sweet and gentle man with that kind of upbringing.

Drax knew she hadn’t managed to grow to be any kind of sweet or gentle. She had been trained to fight and kill since she was eight, and her mother hadn’t even tried to instill any form of lady-likeness in her. Drax was all business, all pain. So how had Kryptin develop any kind of fondness for her?

She heard footsteps approaching and stood, then decided it would look better if she were casually leaning against the house.

Kryptin, Cassie, and Faye appeared from behind the bookshelves, and they stopped when they saw Drax.

“Speak of the she-devil, and she shall appear,” Cassie quipped.

Faye elbowed her and coughed pointedly. “Cassie, I think it’s about time for us to meet up with Fia for training. Come on, let’s go.”

Faye grabbed Cassie’s arm and started to pull, but Cassie stayed put. She jerked her finger at Drax and said, “Don’t you dare kill him.”

Drax flicked her knife so it was ready to throw. “But you’re still fair game?” She threw the knife, aiming for Cassie’s shoulder.

Cassie caught it with her left hand, transferred the blade to her right, and threw it back.

The knife buried itself into the wall three feet to Drax’s left. Drax raised an eyebrow. “You suck.”

Cassie was about to retort—or possibly start a fight—but Faye got behind her and pushed. This time, Cassie took the hint and began walking away, but she gave Drax a very severe warning look.

“Look at that,” Drax laughed as Faye continued to pushed Cassie out of the room, “she thinks she can actually take me.”

“I wanted to talk to you,” Kryptin blurted out. Then he blushed and looked at the floor. “I-I mean, may I talk to you?”

Drax pulled her knife from Chroniclus’s house, examined the blade for nicks, then sheathed it. “I already know what you want to say.” She smiled a little when he looked up in alarm. “I was eavesdropping, and trust me, don’t waste your time throwing dead plants at me. They’re useless and dumb. Got it?”

He looked down and nodded silently.

“What were you trying to accomplish?”

He shrugged. “I was just kind of hoping that you’d, y’know… fall in love with me.” He met her gaze. “I’m already in love with you.”

She stared at him. “Why?

Kryptin grinned. “Because you’re amazing! You’re a fierce warrior, you protect your people, and you never back down. And…” He looked away and mumbled something.

Drax’s ears quivered. “Excuse me?”

“You’re adorable.”

Drax stamped her foot indignantly. “No, you’re adorable. You’re a giant, massive beast with the attitude of a teddy bear.”

“And you’re a tiny little mouse with the attitude of a lion.”

“I am not a mouse, I’m a dragon, and I will rip those tree trunks you call arms right from your shoulders!”

He laughed. “I’d rather you didn’t. I like my arms right where they are.”

Drax folded her arms and turned away from him. “Well, you’re in luck. I like your arms where they are, too.” She glanced over her shoulder and saw him grinning at her. “Stop that.”

“Sorry.”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t apologize. I just—I don’t know what I’m supposed to do right now.”

“Neither do I.” He looked down at his hands and took a deep breath. “Draxia, would it be all right if I–? I mean, may I date you? Or at the very least, may I get to know you better as a friend?”

Drax put her hands on her hips and turned back to examine him. “See what I mean? You’re adorable. Yes, you may get to know me better as a friend—while we’re dating.”

“Yes!” Cassie cheered from three shelves over.

“Cassie, go away, or I swear I will pin you to the wall!” Drax shrieked. Her hand went automatically to her knives, but Kryptin reached out and put his hand over hers, stopping the motion. Then their eyes met, he blushed, and pulled away.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Stop apologizing,” Drax sighed. She reached out and put her hand back in his, staring at the way his fingers dwarfed hers. She looked up at him. “You’re huge.”

He grinned down at her. “You’re tiny.”

Welcome to Mid-Realm

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Mid-Realm is the home of the Academy and the Böchard. It is a small world, that is only the size of Pluto. It is set between the dimensions of the worlds, and thus has access to all of them. The ambassadors of the Academy protect the worlds, while the chroniclers of the Böchard keep the records and legends. The ambassadors and the chroniclers work in harmony with each other, fulfilling their duties under the banner of Mid-Realm Academy (MRA). Their life isn’t easy, but they welcome all people from all walks of life and species to join them in their mission. This is my world.

Some of my recent short stories, namely “Fairy Hunters” and “Reunion,” start on or mention Mid-Realm, and a few of my followers might recognize it from earlier stories like “Where the Heart Is,” and “What I Wrote for NaNoWriMo.” I created MRA as a home base for my dragon girl character, Cassie, but it evolved. I absorbed ideas from other books and mediums, and over time, the Academy grew.

Mid-Realm Academy achieved original conception after I read The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. In it, Digory and Polly are sent to another world by Digory’s uncle, and they find themselves in is a forest filled with large puddles. Each puddle is a portal to another world, and Digory and Polly try out two of them, one leading to Charn and one leading to the newborn Narnia. I loved the idea of a world that acted as a gateway to every other world, so I made one for myself. My portals wouldn’t be puddles though; my portals would be stars. They would twinkle in a large, dark room, and in the middle of the room would be a podium. The podium would be the control panel, able to pull any star down within reach so that you could enter them easily. But that is only one room in the Academy; what about the rest of it?

Like most early millennials, I was greatly inspired by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. My parents were a part of that bandwagon that was dead set against the series, so my first exposure was at my best friend’s house, watching the movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Near the beginning of the film, Harry, Ron, and Hermione get into a rowboat with Hagrid and row across the lake, and they get their first look at the magnificent and magical Hogwarts. The sight of that castle perched above the lake, windows glowing in the evening sky, set my imagination ablaze. Mid-Realm Academy would also be a castle, a home for gifted and powerful individuals—though the inhabitants of MRA would be super beings and mythical creatures rather than witches and wizards.

Another contributing inspiration to the appearance of Mid-Realm Academy would be Redwall Abbey, of the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. Redwall was built by peaceful woodland critters to keep back the horde of rodents that covet the great walls. In my mind (and in the cartoon TV series based off the books), Redwall Abbey has a castle-like appearance, and it is surrounded by a large wall with four gates. It is also red. Red is my favorite color. Mid-Realm Academy would be red, too, but with spiraling black roofs and towers, and its outer doors would be guarded by statues of the past rulers.

The Böchard, though attached to the Academy, is almost a separate entity. The majority of the inspiration for the Böchard came from the first three seasons Buffy the Vampire. The school’s library had every book that Buffy and the Scooby-Gang needed to deal with whatever monster they were dealing with that week, and Giles was right there to help them find that book. Since Mid-Realm was going to have dealings with other worlds, and those worlds would have new and strange creatures, MRA would need something very similar to provide that important information. The Böchard would be a massive library, and it would hold every book ever published on every world. But since it is so massive (equal to the size of Texas), it would be impractical to travel by foot. Cars, bikes, and horses would be too noisy and take too long to get from one section to the next, so I devised an inter-Böchard portal system for the warriors of Mid-Realm (called ambassadors) to pass from one end of the Böchard to the other instantaneously. The Böchard also comes with its own librarians, called “chroniclers,” so that the ambassadors can have someone to turn to for answers.

History and the “chosen one” trope filled in the rest of the blanks. Ancient Greek history was always a favorite of mine, and I took a special liking to Sparta in college. The Spartan life was all about being a fearsome warrior, and no matter how toxic a life like that actually is, it’s great story fodder. And Sparta was an oligarchy, a city-state run by two “kings.” I took both of these concepts for my Academy, cursing the Spartan life on my ambassadors, and placing two monarchs over them. That’s where the “chosen one” trope comes in. Books like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson have seers and oracles that give prophecies our heroes are destined to fulfill. One of the monarchs of Mid-Realm would be a seer, that person who can see into the future and know where the ambassadors will be most needed. The other monarch would be one of the chroniclers, someone who can use the wisdom of the past to guide the path of the future. In this way, future and path will rule the present.

There is nothing new under the sun, and Mid-Realm is no exception. I borrowed elements, styles, and ideas from other works, throwing them in a melting pot until my Mid-Realm was fully cooked. I tell you this now because other characters have joined Cassie at the Academy, and though they lurked in the background of her story, they had histories and futures of their own. I want to let them into the spotlight, and I see no better place for that than here on Blotted Ink. Hopefully from now on, you’ll be seeing more of Mid-Realm, as well as the ambassadors and chroniclers that dwell within its walls. I have a few planned already, and I look forward to sharing them with you.

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Fairy Hunters

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“Cassie!”

I poked my head out of my nest and looked down the shelf. Faye was standing there, eyes wide, and panting heavily. She waved me down, trying to catch her breath enough to say, “Jag and Crag need you. Now.”

I slid down the ladder, my boots hitting the floor without question.

“She hasn’t been debriefed,” Railix informed Faye irately.

“There’s no time for that. They’re leaving now, and Cassie needs to go with them.” Faye took my hand and began running back through the Böchard.

“Where are they going?” I asked. “And why do they need me? Jag and Crag have always been able to take care of themselves.”

“Not this time. They’re going to Laragan. A flock of fairies has gone rabid and has already massacred two villages.”

“Fairies? Then they definitely don’t need me. Jag and Crag are fairy hunting pros.”

“These fairies are different from the ones they fough on Agril-Gael. These fairies are—are,” Faye screwed up her face and finished, “they’re not nice.”

I rolled my eyes. “You don’t say.”

“Shut up and trust me.”

We reached the portal room just as Bertram activated the opening to Laragan. Jag and Crag stood in front of it, ready to leave, but all three men turned when Faye and I burst in.

Jag grinned. “Hey, Cass. Come to see us off?”

“She’s going with you,” Faye corrected, pushing me at them.

“She can’t go with them,” Bertram protested. “She hasn’t been properly debriefed!”

“Shut up, Bertram. She’s going with them.”

I looked at the two men and shrugged. “Mind if I tag along?”

They both looked amused by Bertram’s indignancy and Faye’s determination. Crag stepped aside and waved at the portal. “The more the merrier. Got your sword?”

I patted my pocket. “Duh.”

“Let’s go then.” Jag hopped through the portal, and Crag followed.

I hesitated at the edge and glanced back. Faye’s lips tightened as her eyes widened, and she made a shooing gesture with her hands. I rolled my eyes and stepped through after the two large, super powered men.

“Did Faye actually tell you anything about our mission before shoving you on us?” Jag asked good naturedly as I appeared beside him on Laragan.

“Apparently there’s a fairy problem you two can’t handle.”

“I’m offended,” Crag cried dramatically. “No offense, Cassie, but I don’t think we’ll really need help with a few fairies, no matter how fast the little demons are.”

“You want to argue with a seeress? Be my guest.” I reached into my pocket and wrapped my fingers around the narrow hilt of my sword, pulling it from the dimensional fold. My sword was a buster chuekaibin, meaning that it had been forged from the black diamonds of Arieh, and it could slice through a granite statue like butter. It would have no problem cutting through fairies that weren’t “nice.”

We were assaulted by screams and pleas for mercy coming from the bottom of the hill. Jag, Crag, and I jogged to the edge and looked down. A little village of beehive houses was nestled in the valley, but all the doors and windows had been boarded over. The wood hadn’t kept out the monsters. Lights flashed between the cracks, accompanied by screams like thunder. We ran to the nearest house, Jag breaking down the door without hesitation.

Inside had been a family of five, but only two children remained whole. The children, one a teenager, the other a toddler, were clawing at the boarded windows with bloodied fingers. They collapsed at the edge of the wall, hoarse from crying. The teenager took his brother in his arms and held him, shielding him with his own body while they waited for the end. Behind them, feasting on the skin and entrails of their family, were the fairies. It was one thing to hear that the fairies weren’t nice; it was another to see them strip the flesh from a grown man’s bones. Their wings were like dragonflies, their skin was either pink or green, and their eyes were black. They hissed at Jag’s entrance, baring their needle-like teeth, and flicking their narrow, purple tongues. They abandoned their half-eaten meals, black nails digging into floor as they crawled toward us.

Jag drew his sword from his pocket. It was an iron sabre from his days on Agril-Gael, specifically forged to kill fairies. Crag erected an electric field around them and drew his own knives. I left them to deal with the pests and ran to protect the kids.

A fairy leapt at me, teeth and claws bared, but Jag grabbed it mid-air and threw it into its four companions. The two men threw themselves at the fairies, hacking and slashing at wings and limbs with expert precision. Despite Faye’s warnings, I wasn’t too worried about them.

“Hey,” I told the older boy, gently touching his shoulder.

He flinched, eyes wide as his head whirled around to look at me. I held up my hands, showing him that they were empty, that I meant him no harm. His eyes flicked to my chuekaibin on the floor, then to the battle between Jag, Crag, and the fairies. He whimpered and buried his face in his little brother’s hair. “We’re going to die,” he wailed. “They’re going to eat us!”

“No, they’re not,” I promised. “Jag and Crag can kill any fairy that crosses their path.”

The boy shook his head and grabbed my arm. “They can’t be killed!”

I gave him a skeptical look, but glanced over my shoulder to confirm that there were dead fairies already on the floor. Instead, I saw Jag and Crag chopping off heads and appendages, and the fairies growing them right back with barely a second’s delay. They weren’t affected by iron, and they weren’t affected by Crag’s electricity. The two men were barely fending the creatures off.

Crag caught my eye. “I think I know why Faye sent you now.”

“Don’t bother with your sword,” Jag advised, dodging a deadly swipe. He sliced the attacking fairy in half, then complained when each half spawned a whole fairy.

I sighed and pocketed my sword before joining the men. One of the fairies saw me coming and flew at me. I caught its face with my hand, calmly avoiding its flailing claws, and turned the creature to stone. The other fairies turned, gawping as their companion dropped to the ground with a very solid thunk. I kicked the statue, and it crumpled to dust. It didn’t regenerate. All four remaining fairies turned their backs on the men and charged at me. Jag and Crag each grabbed a fairy and pinned it to the ground while I worked. I ducked the fairies, grabbing a wrist and an ankle as they flew over me. They turned to stone at my touch, and I swung them into each other, nodding in satisfaction when they shattered. The pinned fairies began writhing and shrieking in anger and terror, but Jag and Crag didn’t release them. I knelt in front of Jag’s fairy and flicked its forehead. As soon as it was completely stone, Jag smashed its head. The second fairy tried to bite me. I grabbed its nose and twisted, then let Crag destroy its stoned body.

I went back to the boys and held out my hand. They shrank back. Jag and Crag stood on either side of me, and I put a hand on their arms. They both remained flesh. I smiled at the boys and held my hand out to them again. “It’s okay. I won’t hurt you. You’re safe now.”

They looked less scared, but they still didn’t take my hand. More screams came from the village.

“Help them,” the eldest boy said, his voice hoarse.

Jag and Crag left the house, but I stopped in the doorway. “I’m going to seal you in,” I told the boy, “just in case another fairy tries to get in after we leave.”

“What if they kill you?” He asked.

I laughed. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be back within the hour.” I waved my hand over the house, letting the boys watch as thick stone grew around their home and covered them with its impenetrable protection. Satisfied that the boys would be safe, I jogged after Jag and Crag to deal with the remaining fairies.

“Wait!” I told the men, stopping them outside the next house. “This is going to take too long. I want to take them out all in one go.”

Jag cocked his head at me. “You do realize that this was our mission?”

I created a table from the sandy ground, recreating the town on its surface. I waved my hand over the houses, decapitating them to see the carnage inside. Adult sand figures were putting themselves between the fairies and their children, but even their bodies weren’t much of a shield.  I gestured to the macabre scene. “Do you have a better idea?”

Jag’s jaw clenched. “Do it.”

I held my hand over the table and clenched my fist. In response, all the human sand figures disappeared into the ground. A collective shriek of rage split through the air as the fairy figures clawed at the ground that ate their prey. I snapped my fingers. The ground burst into flames beneath them, and they jumped into the air, still screaming.

“Give me space,” I told the men, waving for them to step back.

The enraged fairies erupted from the houses, circling in the air as they looked for new meals. Jag and Crag leaned against the house, watching as they swarmed. I walked to the edge of the town, easily drawing their attention. They screamed and dived, claws outstretched, ready to rip me to shreds. I spread my arms and blinked. The transformation was instantaneous. I stood head and shoulders above the houses, red bat-wings spreading, black tail flicking, horns glinting, and mouth ready to rage. The fairies panicked at the sudden appearance of a black dragon and began colliding with each other in midair, trying to get away from me. I opened my mouth and let out a roar, sending them into a greater panic, before launching myself into their midst.

They scattered, but then they all turned on me. I let them. I tucked my wings close to my body, then set myself on fire. The fairies that had already grabbed me disintegrated almost immediately, sending the rest of the pack back into retreat. I opened my wings and spiraled out of the freefall, springing back into the air and chasing down the remnant. It rained ash over that little town, and when I landed, everything was as black as I.

I shook the dust from my scales and transformed back into a human girl.

Jag shook his head. “And here I thought you were going to turn them all into statues.”

“I thought about it,” I replied, “but I didn’t want to create a meteor shower.”

“Where did you put the people?” Crag asked, standing at my now-ashen table.

“I created a series of catacombs beneath the town,” I said, joining him at the table. “They had plenty of air, and they were safe.” I looked around at the ruined village then at the table. I snapped my fingers, fixing the damage the fairies had caused, and restoring the buildings to their original, pristine condition.

Jag shook his head. “I don’t know why the Seeress just doesn’t give you all the missions. You’re the rescue and the cleanup crew all rolled into one.”

I snorted. “I do not want all the missions. I’d be overkill for more than half of them, and I need a break sometimes. Saving planets is exhausting, you know?”

I looked at the table, analyzing the town I had restored, and I decided to make a few improvements. I created a few wells, a sturdy wall around the village, and erected a watchtower—equipped with catapult. Satisfied, I pulled the villagers out of the catacombs and set them back in their houses. At first, there were shouts of relief, but those were quickly replaced with mourning. I turned away from the table, letting it collapse back into the sand. I could incinerate a horde of fairies and rebuild an entire village in a second, but I couldn’t bring back the dead.

Crag put a hand on my shoulder. “Are you ready to go home?”

I nodded, wiping moisture from my lashes. “More than. I was almost finished that book.”

Jag opened the portal back to Mid-Realm, and he and Crag stepped through. I started to follow, but then stopped to look back at the two boys I had saved. They were staring out the window, watching me. I waved good-bye, and I smiled when they waved back. They would be okay, and they would tell the others what had happened. I stepped through the portal and watched as Laragan vanished in the bright red light.

Laragan Fairy (Colored)

The Buried City

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Nadina could hear the nervous fluttering of Kage’s wings behind her and knew the little bat was trying his hardest not to freak out. Her brother, Felan, padded toward the gaping hole, pausing to sniff the edge. He looked back at her, his ears flicking forward as he gauged the size of her large, brown body. Nadina examined her own paws, then looked back at the hole. She already knew what Felan was going to say.

“You might want to change into your skin,” he suggested.

Not for the first time, Nadina wished she had been born into a smaller form. Being a bear could be so troublesome! Felan was lucky to be a wolf. Nadina grumbled bitterly and shed her bear fur, shrinking to fit the skin of her human body. She adjusted her three belts across her middle and tied back her brown hair before giving her brother a thumbs up. Felan nodded approvingly and plunged into the dark hole. Nadina jogged to follow him, pausing at the edge to look back at Kage. “Are you coming or not?”

Kage peeked out from between his leathery wings and sighed. “Of course I’m coming. You two morons will probably need me to save your life in five minutes or less.”

Nadina laughed and dived into the hole, satisfied to hear the heavy beats of the bat’s wings behind her. It only took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Though she couldn’t see color, Nadina could see the distinct forms of ancient houses half buried in the tunnel around them. Kage landed on her shoulder, getting his foot tangled in her hair. She gave the bat a dark look and untangled him. “Why don’t you walk on your own?”

Kage scowled. “Because as soon as I change into my skin, you’re going to need my wings.”

“Just change.”

“Fine.” Kage shed his fur and stood on two legs beside her. In his human skin, Kage was taller than Nadina, but everyone knew that Nadina would win in a fight. Kage tied his black hair in a knot behind his head and looked around. “Where’s Felan?”

“Here.”

Kage jumped when Felan’s snout appeared through the broken glass of a window. His wolf eyes caught the reflected light, and he laughed. Kage kicked the wall of the house. “Go gnaw a bone.”

“I could actually,” Felan said. “There’s a whole pile in here.”

Kage shuddered and looked around. “I don’t know why you guys like places like this.”

Nadina wandered to another house, breaking the rest of the window so she could climb through. “What’s not to like?” She asked, running her fingers over a molding desk. “It’s charming.”

“It’s haunted, and we’re all going to die.”

“Scaredy-bat,” Felan teased.

Nadina rolled her eyes and wandered deeper into the house. It was like so many she and Felan had found before; rotting doors hung half-off their hinges, mounds of dirt filled whole rooms, and paper peeled off the walls. Many people like Kage were disturbed by these buried cities, but Nadina could see the ghost of their beauty through the decay.

Something clinked at her touch, and she scooped up the object to examine it. Little metal blades clacked against plastic decorations as they dangled from a metal ring. Nadina grinned and pried the blades from the ring, tossing them to Kage through the window. She kept the plastic decorations, hooking them through the loops in her belt with the rest of her “dangler” collections before continuing her exploration of the house.

A circular frame hung on one of the surviving walls, the ghost of a picture lurking behind shards of glass. The floor creaked as Nadina walked over to it. She picked it up to examine it further, but it slipped from her fingers and crashed to the ground. It was too much for the weakened floorboards. They broke beneath her, and Nadina shrieked involuntarily as she plunged into the new hole.

Nadina plunged into the lower level of the house, a table sacrificing itself to break her fall. She let out another scream when her leg cracked beneath her with the table, instinctively reaching for the pained limb, then recoiling as the movement made it worse. She laid back and gritted her teeth, determined not to scream again.

“Nadina!”

Nadina groaned a response, and she heard the floorboards creaking above her. Something scuttled on the floor nearby. Nadina sniffed the air and narrowed her eyes. She was surrounded by large rats. She could see their bodies moving across the floor, beady eyes glowing with the prospect of fresh meat. Nadina couldn’t tell how big this new room was, but she put her bear fur back on anyway to roar a warning. The rats scattered with frightened squeaks. Nadina took her fur off and laid back with a low moan of pain. Shapeshifting with a broken leg just made everything worse.

Wings fluttered down into the room, and she felt a hand on her arm. Nadina glanced at Kage and grinned ruefully. “Did we last longer than five minutes?”

“No, because you’re a moron.”

“I was smart enough to bring you.”

She could hear him smiling. “You’re always nicer when you’re in pain. How bad is it?”

“I broke my leg.”

“And a table, apparently.” Kage picked up two of the table legs and laid them on either side of Nadina’s leg. “At least you did something right. Felan’s going to get a rope; he should only be a minute. Try not to move.” He took two of the belts from around her waist, pried her decorative dangles from the holes, and strapped the belts around her leg.

Nadina retrieved her dangles and hooked them onto her remaining belt, ignoring Kage’s warnings to stay still.

“Why do you even bother collecting those things?” Kage asked. “They’re useless, and they make a lot of noise when you walk.”

Nadina shrugged. “Even scavengers are allowed to have hobbies. And it’s not like anyone else has any need of them.”

“Fine. I guess I should be glad you keep the dumb things. Why else would anyone wear three belts?” He reached over and squeezed her hand. “Now will you promise you and Felan stop doing these stupid things?”

She returned the squeeze. “Nope.”

Reunion

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Faye wasn’t one hundred percent sure how long it had been since she’d last been on Earth. It had been at least several months, if not a whole year. After being on Mid-Realm, walking amidst trolls, giants, fairies, elves, and even befriending a dragon, being back on Earth felt alien.

Faye glanced at the tall figures on either side of her. Maybe Earth wouldn’t feel so strange if Scota hadn’t sent her selarthin guards, Nirra and Kenrien, to babysit her. Selarthins were similar to elves, but where an elf’s general build could be termed as ‘lithe,’ a Selarthin’s build would be more ‘twiggy.’ Selarthins were also taller than elves, easily averaging seven feet, and though their ears were pointy like elves, their ears stuck out horizontally, making their heads seem nearly as wide as their shoulders.

“I don’t know how Scota expects you guys to blend in,” Faye commented. “You can’t exactly cover those ears with a hat.”

Nirra rolled her eyes. “Humans are infamous for creating ulterior explanations that fit in their narrow views.”

Kenrien scanned the streets. “The Seeress said we would find your protector in a street fair that spins sugar and air.”

“Did she specify which one?”

Nirra pointed to a sign on the other side of the road. “That one, perhaps?”

Faye hit the crosswalk button and jogged across to investigate the sign. “I know this carnival! My friends and I would hit it up whenever it was in town. It’s within walking distance from here.” She began to jog down the sidewalks, expertly weaving through the vehicle traffic. Kenrien and Nirra stayed just behind her, barely moving faster than a walk.

They heard the sounds of the carnival before they saw the top of the ferris wheel. Faye was expecting the selarthins to freak at the bright colors and screeching noises, but they didn’t bat an eye. They walked calmly at her heels, ignoring the strange looks the fair-goers gave them.

“Hey dude!” One teenager called. “The Renaissance Faire isn’t for two more weeks!”

“Go back to Narnia, you freak!” Another teen hooted.

Faye gave the selarthins a look. “If the Seeress says one of those morons is my body guard, I’m going to jump from the nearest bridge.”

Nirra shrugged. “The Seeress said you would know him when you saw him.”

“Nessie?”

Faye stiffened then slowly turned to locate the speaker. She knew who it was; there was only one person who ever called her “Nessie.” David Jones was standing a few feet away, staring at her, mouth open, broom and dustpan falling to the ground. He hadn’t changed. His eyes were still that haunting blue, his brown hair was still slicked forward, and he was still built like a quarterback. He stared at her dumbly, then he staggered forward and grabbed her arms. Faye stayed still, avoiding looking at him at all. She still didn’t know what had happened in the actual crash, or how she had been saved, so how could she explain her disappearance to him? Then David started crying.

“You’re alive. You’re alive!” His arms crept up her arms and wrapped around her shoulders, pulling her into a tight and protective hug. “You died.”

Faye hesitantly wrapped her arms around him. “It didn’t stick.”

“I’m so sorry, Nessie.”

“For what, Davy?”

David pulled back and looked away. “It was me. I killed you.”

“What do you mean?”

“That day—the day you died, it was my car. My Jeep was in the shop, so I borrowed my dad’s camry to take Sheila to the beach. I suddenly lost control, and the car careened into oncoming traffic.” His voice cracked, and he suddenly surged forward to hug her again. “I thought I was the only survivor.”

“Only survivor?” Faye echoed. Her eyes widened. “Sheila?”

David didn’t answer with words, but Faye knew. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. They held each other silently for a long moment, but then Faye released him and stepped back. “You lost control?” She asked. “Davy Jones, what happened that day?”

His eyes flickered at his nickname. “I still don’t know. CSI examined the car, and they found something weird. They said it looked like a bug, a literal bug, but it was mechanical. It was plugged into the steering, and preliminary examination said it hijacked the car and drove it into traffic. Before they could figure out its purpose and origin, it self-destructed. But it was enough for the court to decide that it was sabotage, and that I was innocent of manslaughter.”

Faye frowned. “It was a bug, you say? Did it look like a Hercules beetle?”

“I’m not sure. I only got to see a picture of the thing. Why? Is it important?”

“It raises some questions.”

“Lady Faye!”

Faye jumped and ducked behind a funnel cake stand. David hesitated, looking around in confusion, then he joined her.

“Who were the people with you?” David asked.

She shushed him. “Those ears aren’t just for show.”

“No, they’re not,” Nirra agreed. Her arm lashed out and seized Faye’s collar, dragging her backward.

Faye screamed, at first with rage, and then for attention. The funnel cake attendant’s head turned, and he stared at them in shock. David reacted quickly though. He lunged at Nirra, tackling her to the ground. As soon as she was released, Faye sprang to her feet and grabbed David’s hand.

“Run!” She shouted.

“Security!” The funnel cake attendant shouted, grabbing his pan of batter and throwing it at Nirra. “We need security over here!”

Nirra leapt out of the way of the burning oil and snarled at the young attendant. Then she charged after the fleeing teens. Kenrien appeared behind her, his long strides catching up easily.

“Who are they?” David asked, grabbing a trash can and throwing it down behind them.

“They’re my body guards,” Faye explained. “Don’t bother trying to slow them down, just run!” She burst passed a group of concerned citizens and shouted, “Call 9-1-1! They’re trying to kidnap us!”

The people frowned in disbelief, but when they saw the selarthins closing the distance, they all whipped out their cell phones and began dialing. Three security guards appeared from behind some rides, and they gave chase, shouting for the selarthins to stop. Nirra and Kenrien ignored them. Faye and David made it to the parking lot and dived behind some parked cars. Once out of the selarthins’ visual range, they began to crawl. David found a rusted pipe and grabbed it as they hid behind tires. He opened his mouth to ask more questions, but Faye quickly and quietly silenced him. They sat there, barely daring to breathe, and waited.

They heard the security guards catch up to the selarthins, but the little humans didn’t stand a chance. One of the guards was thrown into the hood of a nearby Ford, while another crumpled where he stood. The third tried to call for help, but he was slammed into the nearest car. David threw Faye an alarmed look and tightened his grip on his pole. Then Kenrien appeared beside Faye.

Before Faye could yelp, David rushed over and cracked his pole into the side of Kenrien’s face. Kenrien fell back in surprise, then he laughed when Nirra leapt over the car and landed on the teen. Faye knocked Nirra off him, but the selarthin just grabbed her instead and pinned her down. Kenrien grabbed David’s pole before he could strike again, and he yanked it from the boy’s hands. David adopted a fighting stance, first kicking Kenrien’s stomach, and crouching low to kick out his legs. From the ground, Kenrien grabbed David’s ankles and pulled, then flipped the boy onto his stomach and pinned his arms behind him. David struggled, and Faye screamed.

“Take her back to the Academy,” Kenrien instructed as Nirra covered Faye’s mouth. “I’ll bind this one and bring him along in a minute.”

Faye bit Nirra’s hand and shouted, “No! Leave him alone! You can’t take him!”

“Take me where?” David demanded.

“Mid-Realm Academy,” Kenrien explained, pulling rope from his pocket. “It’s a place where we train warriors like you. You have a great destiny ahead of you, my friend.”

“I’m not your friend,” David snarled, desperately trying to throw him off.

“Leave him alone!” Faye begged, squirming as Nirra tried to activate her portal ring. “He’s not the one. He’s not!”

“The Seeress’s prophecy says differently,” Nirra said, finally managed to twist her ring. “Now calm down. Your friend will join you soon.”

“No!” Faye shrieked.

David managed to free one hand as Nirra dragged her back into the swirling portal. “Faye!”

Cheering Up Brittany

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Alli scowled as she watched Jake and Alice flirt across the food court. Her sister, Brittany, poked at her ketchup miserably, her fry getting colder between her fingers. Ellie, Alli’s partner in crime, was sharpening her plastic knife against the table.

“Are you sure I can’t punch him in the face?” Alli asked Brittany.

She didn’t even look up from her ketchup. “Yes.”

“What if I just break his nose a little?”

A smile pulled at the edge of Brittany’s cheek, but she still shook her head.

Ellie plunged her knife into her flat burger. The violent motion made Brittany jump, and she looked at the younger girl warily. Ellie smiled. “What? It’s a great way to vent. The burger’s already dead.”

Brittany gave Alli a strained look. “Why are your friends so weird?”

Alli scrunched her nose. “At least they’re better than your friends.”

Brittany stayed silent and went back to poking her ketchup.

“Look what you did!” Ellie hissed, punching Alli’s arm in punishment.

Alli yelped and inched away, rubbing her arm and throwing her friend an injured look. “I know,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Well, now you’re going to have to do it.”

“I don’t want to.”

“That doesn’t matter. It’s your duty as little sister. You have to.”

Alli slumped in her seat and dug her cell from her pocket. Hey Mom, can I have $500 to cheer up your daughter?

Her mother responded with surprising speed. Are Jake and Alice back from their honeymoon already?

Yup.

It’s very nice for you to offer to cheer up your sister, but you can’t have $500. Dad will only let me give you $150.

That’ll work. Thanks Mom.

Ellie leaned over her shoulder to read the correspondence. “Wow. Your dad is nicer than mine.”

“Your dad let you have a ranch.”

“Fair point.”

Alli shoved her phone back in her pocket and knocked on the table in front of Brittany. “Hey. Would a new outfit make you feel better?”

Brittany stopped poking her ketchup and eyed her sister. “What’s our budget?”

“One-fifty.”

She put her fry down. “Yes. That would absolutely make me feel better. Let’s go.”

Alli and Ellie grabbed the trash and dumped it as Brittany made a beeline for her favorite store.

“We’re going to be here for another five hours,” Alli muttered as they jogged to catch up.

“You do what you gotta do for your sister.”

“I’d really rather just smash Jake’s face in. Alice’s, too.”

Ellie patted Alli’s shoulder sympathetically. “I know, but getting ourselves thrown in jail won’t make Brittany feel better.”

“I hate when you’re right.”

“Then you must hate me all the time.”

“I really do.”

Ellie and Alli followed Brittany into the store, then ducked behind a rack when they saw that Jake had followed them. He looked around, spotted Brittany, then approached her. Brittany had just pulled a cute floral blouse from the rack, but her shopping smile faded when she saw Jake. She tucked the blouse back amongst the other shirts and flipped through the other hangers, ignoring her ex-boyfriend’s presence.

“Brittany,” Jake said gently, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a while.”

“We have nothing to talk about,” Brittany replied. “Now excuse me, I think it’s time for me to go.”

Jake blocked her escape. “We have a lot to talk about. I need to explain myself.”

“I don’t want to hear about it.” She pushed him to the side, but he grabbed her arm and pulled her back. “Let go of me!”

Alli and Ellie darted from around the rack and ran to Brittany. Alli kicked Jake’s shin while Ellie grabbed his arm and twisted it. Jake cried out and knocked the two younger girls away before grabbing Brittany again.

“Please!” He cried. “I need to explain! Alice has–!”

Brittany stomped on his foot and pulled away, keeping her arms close to her chest. “That doesn’t make it right! You both should have come to me, talked to me before eloping! You didn’t even break up with me before you married her! Now it’s too late to talk. Go away, and leave me alone!”

“But I still love you!”

Brittany slapped him. “Don’t you dare. You don’t ever get to say those words to me again.”

An associate came up to Jake and cleared his throat. “Um, excuse me, sir, you need to leave.”

“I’m not finished here!” Jake snapped.

“Leave, or I’m going to call the cops.”

Jake glared at the man, then at Alli and Ellie. Then he looked at Brittany. “I mean it, Bree. I love you.”

The associate grabbed Jake’s arm and dragged him out of the store. Then he came back and helped Alli and Ellie stand. “I’m so sorry, ladies,” he said. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t bother you again. Please, take as long as you want.”

Brittany thanked him and turned her attention back to the rack.

“Are you going to be okay?” Alli asked, putting a hand on her sister’s shoulder.

“More importantly,” Ellie said, “do you think he’ll give you a discount?”

Brittany smiled slightly. “I’ll be okay. It was quite therapeutic to scream at him and to reject him. I’ll be even better with a new outfit! What do you think of this shirt?”

 

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When the Ink Blots

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I started blogging for the wrong reason. Writing had always been my thing, the only thing I could do with confidence, but then my older sister started a blog. My sister, who could sing beautifully, was a soloist trombonist in our home school band, who could read faster, dress nicer, and basically do everything better than I could, started blogging. At first, I wasn’t threatened, but then people started praising her blog, and talking it up all over our church. I felt like I had lost the only thing that made people interested in talking to me. My book was taking too long to finish for me to hold any kind of attention, so I had to do something else.

I needed to start a blog, but what would I blog about? I could blog my book, chapter by chapter! No; I would inevitably end up changing something in the later chapters that made things earlier in the chapter pointless. Plus, having a book on a blog wasn’t quite the same (to me) as holding a hard copy of your book in your hands. But my book was all I had! What else could I blog about? Then I remembered that many mothers had asked me for book recommendations for their children. They knew I was an avid reader, and they trusted me to pick books that they would approve for their children. I decided to make a book blog where I would summarize and recommend books for these and other mothers.

I called my blog “The Bookwyrm’s Bookshelf,” and at first it went really well. I reviewed books like Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda, The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, and Now You See It by Vivian Van Velde. I even had guest bloggers! But it sadly, and quickly, died. I couldn’t keep up with the schedule I set for myself, not while I was working full-time and trying to finish my book. “The Bookwyrm’s Bookshelf” barely lasted a month, and it didn’t have any followers to disappoint with its sudden disappearance.

Two years passed. My sister’s blog lost its shiny, new appeal, and things went back to normal. I found my old college diaries and made the mistake of flipping through them. Despite how mortified I was of their content, I realized that I missed exploring my thoughts. I tried to start journaling again, but there were many days when I was either too tired to write, or time had gotten away from me. I knew I didn’t want a daily activity; I just wanted an outlet where I could unleash my thoughts about events and ideas that bothered me. I don’t know why I thought the internet would be a good place to do that, but I suddenly found myself on WordPress creating an account.

This new blog wasn’t supposed to be anything special, or even nice. I didn’t plan on it getting any attention. The writing was going to be messy, unedited. I was so stressed about editing my book that I didn’t want to worry about editing my thoughts. Plus, the upload schedule was going to be inconsistent, and the content was going to be random. That’s why I called the blog “Blotted Ink.” “Blotted Ink” meant unfiltered mistakes, while playing off the idea of an ink blot. It was supposed to help me figure out my own mind, and it was supposed to be just for me. But nothing on the internet is secret for long.

I was shocked when I got my first five followers. You mean people actually liked the junk I was putting out? Then someone actually commented. Readers liked my stories, liked my essays, liked my unfiltered mind pouring onto the web. My numbers weren’t very high (I consider it an accomplishment to get into double digits), but they were higher than the “1” I thought I was going to have. I started taking my content a little more seriously, trying to share my better short stories, and my more important thoughts on the things going on around me.

Then I got in trouble. Several people got upset at me for “trashing them,” even though I made sure never to mention any names. I was surprised any of them even read my blogs, and I tried to assure them that my posts were harmless. These were my thoughts, my experiences, my opinions I was putting out. It had nothing to do with them, and it was helping others. My apologies only made things worse, so I gave up trying. Even though I didn’t like being in trouble, I realized that I would have to get used to it.

I hit my one year anniversary in May. I had forgotten the day I had joined WordPress, so I hadn’t planned anything special to mark the occasion. Then WordPress sent me an email marking the occasion, and I realized I had missed my opportunity. I wish I had celebrated it, because I didn’t think Blotted Ink would last this long. But not only has Blotted Ink survived, it has gained 36x as many followers as I ever thought it would, and I am grateful for every single one of them.

I want to honor my followers by improving my blog. I will be continuing my specialty blogs, like #WriteAwayJune and Reading Month posts, but I plan to adjust my “normal” posts to something I hope my readers will enjoy. I will continue to post personal essays, but I think my readers would prefer if I post more short stories (since they’ve gotten the higher response). So I will try to increase my short story output, posting them at least every other week. This month I will be uploading the short stories I wrote for #WriteAwayJune, therefor, this new schedule will start in August. If there is anything else you, the reader, would like to see, let me know in the comments below!

And to celebrate (albeit belatedly) my one-year anniversary, I have designed a new logo for Blotted Ink. I look forward to another year with my current readers, and I hope some more friends join in for the ride.

In the meantime, comment your suggestions, like what you like, and share the blog post just to annoy people. Bonus points to anyone who does all three.

Happy reading!

blotted ink logo