Exciting Stuff

Blah blah blah. Whine whine whine.

More filler so I can keep pretending that I’ve actually written something today. Five minutes a day, right? Holding the pattern. Never said it had to be anything good. But it still feels like cheating. I still feel crappy for not doing something creative, which was the whole point. I’ll still feel disappointed when I look back at this later and see yet another whiny filler post.

I don’t even have anything insightful to expound on. No new concepts of why storytelling is hard for me, or different approaches I might take, or analysis of my emotional state. I’m exhausted, I’m angry at myself and the world, I’m constantly stressed, I’m bored, and I can’t focus on anything. That’s it. That’s the entirety of my existence. I’ve had brief periods of happiness over the last few months, but it always drifts back to this.

I know some of the causes. I just don’t have enough energy or willpower to deal with any of them. It’s too stressful to think about. Everything’s too stressful to think about. Work most of all. I’m pretty sure I’m trapped and there are no good decisions. So why bother making any? Just drift until it falls apart, just like my last job.

Well, that’s five minutes. Exciting stuff, eh?

Exploring the Cave

Isabella’s cave theory had panned out. Though she had lost track of how long she’d been moving, the cold, stone ground had met up with ragged walls some time back. She had continued along the left wall, following various side passages both small and large. Not one had given her a hint of light. There was no way she was close to the surface.

Though she had no sense of time, her hunger and thirst were catching up to her. If her captors had any intention of keeping her alive, they’d have to be back soon. Presumably they’d bring some light with them. Of course, that was assuming they needed light to see at all. This whole ‘other world’ thing was messing with her intuition.

Isabella paused for a few minutes, leaning up against the wall. She’d lost the blanket a while ago and didn’t want to flail around looking for it. The moving had helped her keep her mind of her situation, but she was wearing out. It was getting to the point she almost hoped they’d just find her and take her back just so she knew where she stood.

And with that though, a light flickered at some indecipherable distance. Isabella’s eyes were so sensitive at that point it might have just been a reflection of a reflection. But at least it gave her something to focus on, something to move toward. There also seemed to be a sound, perhaps footsteps. The first thing she’d heard beside herself since she showed up here.

Sliding slowly forward. Trying to be quiet. There were definitely sounds of movement now, just up around a bend in a tunnel she hadn’t yet tried. Also something new, something familiar, almost like rippling water. As she got closer, whispered voices resolved themselves. Unfortunately, no language she could understand. How did Aurora keep all these languages straight, anyway?

As she turned around the last corner, Isabella pulled herself tight against the wall. She could make out three figures in total, now, with a dim lantern creating their silhouettes. With the dark stone and her pale skin, it would only take a glance her way to spot her. Fortunately the figures seemed intent on their discussion, crowded around some device between them.

Isabella winced as another figure came from a side-tunnel, carrying a brighter lantern. Its like scattered across the cave, more than she would have expected. It was reflecting from the rippling, mirror-like surface suspended in a familiar archway, covered in runes. She saw one like it every time Aurora left, and again when they had traveled to Galavaria.

They had a waygate.

Anger

As fine ash drifted into her hair, Aurora felt very, very glad that this area was largely untraveled this late in the evening. Even so, the Council was going to have an awful lot of explaining to do. She cringed at the thought. At leas there wasn’t a crater this time. Hell, the radius was even down to… well, maybe a thousand feet on the outside? Maybe she was learning.

That being said, the forest would never be the same. She could only hope the scraps of cloth and fragments of wire proved her initial assumption that the ‘figure’ in the woods was merely a remote decoy. Well, sort of hope anyway. There would have been satisfaction in blasting away whoever the hell was behind this.

And so her thoughts came back into focus. Isabella. They had Isabella. No clues where. No real clues as to what they even wanted. Crap, she was bad at this job. It wouldn’t be long before the echo signature hit Dawning and Tass would… no, she could not pay attention to the side effects of this. She had to find Isabella. Everything else could wait.

But where to start? From the apartment, maybe? That’s what the cops would do, right? Look for evidence. Okay, at least it’s somewhere to start. Maybe Isabella managed to leave a clue or message or something. Or maybe the kidnappers had.

A buzzing sound emerged from behind her, getting closer. Jauleth? Already? It would take hours to get her from Dawning, though. How would Raeth have sent him? Aurora squinted in the fading light. No, it was some sort of quadcopter drone.

“Damn,” a familiar voice said from its speaker. “Now I see why everyone keeps their distance from you, Councilor.” It laughed. “Changes nothing, though. We still have your girl. You know mean business. And you also know we’re smart enough not to come anywhere near striking distance. So what do you say? Shall we talk?”

Aurora knelt down, squeezing her hand tight around a ball of ash that had, moments ago, been grass. The heat was already building again. She breathed deeply and squeezed hard.

“I’m listening.”

Girl Scout Training

Isabella’s eyes opened to darkness. Complete darkness. The air had a chill, muggy quality to it. If she was still anywhere near where the apartment had been, she couldn’t be anywhere connected to the outdoors. Even the buildings weren’t kept this cold. That’s assuming she was still on Galavaria. Of course, if she wasn’t, she expected to be reeling from nausea like the last two world-transfers she’d suffered through. Besides, only Council-folk could transfer, and they were all on the same side.

Because it was pretty obvious at this point she’d been kidnapped. Not typically something allies do to each others’ friends. Right?

Okay, theorize later. Deep breath. Her body was still… unclad. But someone had thrown a rough blanket over her. Maybe a cloak or something. So some respect for her well-being. Or her modesty? Well, that would mean non-Galivarian for sure. Still not important.

Another deep breath. Reality was starting to set in. This wasn’t a dream. Some asshole had taken her from her apartment, somehow without waking her up, and stuck her in a cave somewhere. Nothing felt injured. There was no sound anywhere. Which was really creepy, with her heart pounding in her ears.

Standing up, she pulled the blanket around her. It wasn’t so cold she needed it, but it added a feeling of protection. The ground was solid, chill stone beneath her bare feet. That could be a problem in the long run, if camping with the Girl Scouts had taught her anything. Ground like that could pull the heat out of you.

A sudden laugh burst from her lips, sending echoes chiming back and forth for several seconds. Here she was, a violinist, a teacher, on another planet, naked, in a dark cave, presumably kidnapped. And she was thinking about her time in the Girl Scouts. God, she wondered if Aurora did the same thing. Never know when it’ll come in handy, right? She laughed again.

Another thing the scouts would have advised in this scenario, with complete darkness and an unknown surroundings, was to sit down and wait for someone to find her. There were all sorts of possibilities for injury. Given the situation, though, she wasn’t sure she would like whoever it was that came back to find her.

Slowly, deliberately, she knelt down to her hands and knees, blanket thrown over her back. She picked a random direction and started shuffling forward. If she focused on a straight line, she’d find a wall at some point.

Or a sheer drop-off. But pessimism aside for now.

Emergency Contact

“Um, Councilor?” a voice asked from outside Raeth’s chamber. It was a young voice. One of the children, perhaps, making themselves useful. Sourceformers rarely emerged that young.

“Yes, child,” Raeth replied, looking up from their newest pile of documents. “Speak.”

“We’ve received a message from… from Gala- Galavaria,” the child replied, stumbling over the exotic name. They walked into the dim light of the chamber. A girl-child. Menissa’s? There was a resemblance.

“From Councilor Aurora?” Raeth asked. “I had expected to hear from her sooner. What is-”

“I’m sorry, Councilor,” the girl interrupted. “It isn’t from… from Councilor Aurora. We don’t know where it’s from. Messenger Gaeji says we don’t know how it got here.” The girl stared at her shoes, shuffling them nervously.

Raeth smiled, hoping to put her at ease. They had never cared for the deference Councilors were given in the Dawning. “Well, then, that is a bit of a mystery. What can you tell me?”

“It’s… um… the Messenger wouldn’t let me read it, Councilor,” the girl said. “He said it was only for your eyes right now. He didn’t look happy, though.” With that, she shoved a small, folded parchment in Raeth’s direction. She shuffled awkwardly forward until it was in Raeth’s reach.

“Thank you, child,” Raeth said. “Tell Gaeji you did well.” They hid the concern from their face carefully until the girl had run off again. This was unusual protocol. It was rare that anything was hidden within these walls. Raeth unfolded the message and scanned it in an instant. Their face paled.

“Jauleth!” they shouted. Raeth’s brother of stone and metal buzzed in from the other room. “Prepare rights for a trip to Galavaria for myself and… no, just myself. And make sure Tass is aware this is of some urgency.”

Aurora was not a neophyte. That someone had trapped her in any way was worrisome, at best. Raeth only hoped that they were overestimating their position. It would be best if none of the rest of the Council was aware. It should be handled alone. Otherwise Tass would have one more piece of leverage against the girl.

Knowing Better

“You know, Councilor,” a voice said from the woods. “You really should know better.”

Aurora spun around, her nerves lashing tight around her power. It was always worst when she was startled or afraid. There was a figure standing in the dark of the trees, hidden by the deepening shadows of twilight. She could make out that it was cloaked, which already marked it as not native. At least not to this part of Galavaria.

“So you know who I am, I guess,” Aurora said. “Care to return the favor?” The cooling night air crackled around her. She smelled ozone. Time to clamp down more.

“I don’t see any reason to,” the voice said. “I do, as they say on Earth, hold the cards here.” The figure was preternaturally still. Aurora was beginning to wonder if it was alive or just a decoy.

“Out with it then,” Aurora said. “You can probably see my patience is wearing out.” This time she purposely let a small slip. A tiny void peeled open in front of her, collapsing with a roar as air rushed to fill it.

“Now, now,” the voice said with aggravating patronization. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. You haven’t heard what I’m here for.”

“Let’s see,” Aurora said. “Creepy cloaked figure in the shadows. Vaguely threatening comments. Overconfidence in the face of utter destruction. I’d say you’re about to divulge some threat or another. So, as I said, out with it.”

There was a laugh contained in the voice now. “I swear. Do they teach all Councilors to be arrogant bastards? Fine. To the point. You should have known better than to bring someone out here. Someone that couldn’t pull on entysiana to help them. Even in a paradise like this, you should know that there’s never a safe place for people like you. Or the people you care about.”

Aurora paled. The chill air of the night hit her as blood drained from her skin. She had only left the apartment for an hour. Had they gotten to Isabella? How…? Then the air around her flared into heat again. Right. It wasn’t worst when she was afraid.

It was when she was angry.

Another Night

Another night crying myself to sleep. I am such a damn whiny, useless, fragile little girl. I am 30-freaking-years-old. I should have my life together. I should own all this crap. And here I am, going on two weeks, shuttering myself up in my apartment and drifting off with more tears on my pillow.

How the hell did I get here? Everyone said I was the best, the brightest. That my whole life would be a great, shining show of specialness. Yeah, look how that turned out. In a dead-end job, barely making rent, have lost two boyfriends and a girlfriend in as many months. Nobody wants anything to do with me. Why the hell do I even keep trying?

My family might miss me, in some abstract sense. And then there’s the fear. The fear that if I give up, there really is something waiting to condemn me for it. The fear that maybe this is just the bottom, that tomorrow will be better, so maybe I should just wait one more day.

Some people might call that ‘hope’. Shows you how far down the well I’ve gone, I guess.

Every night I come home, nuke some dinner, binge watch until I can’t keep my eyes open, then fall asleep with red eyes and desperate thoughts. I don’t know how to turn this around. I guess I’m just waiting for a miracle. Those can happen, right? Oh, right, you’re supposed to have faith for those. I lost mine decades ago.

So there it is. Curled up in old, comfy pajamas on an ancient mattress. Leaving tear-stains on beautiful, violet cushions that were a present from my mom when I graduated college. Probably the only nice thing left in this place.

On the plus side, I can’t afford enough wine to get myself drunk on. That makes it way less likely I’ll go the way my uncle did. I guess that’s a plus anyway. They all say it is. I wonder how much it would take, really? It’s not like I’d have to pay off my credit card, after all…

Knock knock knock.

What the hell? It’s after 10. Probably some drunk or druggie has the wrong apartment. Again.

I throw myself out of bed, yank back the chain, and pull the door open, prepared to berate one of my many loser neighbors for being just as much a loser as I am.

It’s Cathy. She’s holding a bottle of wine. Her eyes are red. But she’s smiling.

“I hoped you’d be up,” she says. “Can we please talk?”

Lost

“We…” Charlie began.

“Are lost,” Ivonne interrupted. She put down her phone, which hadn’t been able to get signal or a GPS lock for almost an hour.

“Well, maybe a little…” Charlie admitted. He sighed and put his blinkers on, pulling over once they were past the bridge. The weird, crooked bridge that had no business being on the route they were supposed to take. They should have been in Chicago an hour ago.

“A little, dad?” Ivonne asked. Her emotions boiled inside. She hated being a typical teenager but she was so mad right then. Karen was supposed to meet up with them at Big Jim’s for dinner, and now she couldn’t even call her to say what was happening. They hadn’t seen each other forever. And her dad just had to insist that he ‘knew the way’ and didn’t ‘trust that GPS thingy anyway’. Agh!

“Okay, fine,” Charlie said. “I have no idea where we are. Happy now?” He turned off the engine and started looking through the glove-box, then unfastened his seat belt to rummage around in the massive paper storage that was the back seat.

“Why don’t we just turn back and look for the highway?” Ivonne asked. “What, you think we’re going to use a paper map and find some magical, faster way?”

“That would cost us almost two hours,” Charlie said. “There’s got to be a more direct way from here. We can’t be that far off… maybe it’s in the trunk…” He slammed open the door and went around to the back.

The sunlight was fading fast, leaving Ivonne a bit nervous about being this close to the road. Twilight was the time people forgot to turn their lights on. Out here on a country road, someone might come up too fast, not see them, not stop… just like… Ivonne bit her lip and held back tears. She was over that. That’s what she’d told herself, and that’s the way it would be. That was ten years ago.

“Found it!” Charlie shouted, waving a coffee-stained map in the air. He grabbed wildly at it when a sudden gust threatened to take it away, making Ivonne laugh despite herself.

“Get back in here, then!” Ivonne shouted. “It’s getting cold with the door open.” She looked away as he returned to the driver’s seat. No reason for him to see her reddened eyes.

Isabella in Galavaria

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” Isabella asked. She was having a hard time keeping her hands down at her sides, not covering up the taboo bits that would have gotten her arrested on Earth.

Aurora didn’t put much effort into suppressing an impish smile. The two of them were sitting on a park bench in Galavaria, a world that Aurora had come to think of as a vacation spot. Conflict – at least, conflict relevant to the Council – was pretty rare here. So she didn’t have to keep her guard up. So it seems like a perfect introduction to the Web of Worlds. It was also a nudist paradise.

So yeah, maybe she was getting a kick out of seeing Isabella flush.

“When in Rome,” Aurora said. She wriggled her toes in the sand, a fine white crystal that covered most of the park. On Earth, a beach like this would have burnt them both to crispy in a few minutes.

“So do you have to do this a lot?” Isabella asked. Her hands were just fiddling with her braid, now, though she was also steadfastly avoiding watching the pedestrian traffic.

“Do what? Sit around naked in parks?” Aurora asked. “Yeah, it’s pretty much my whole job description these days. Ow!” Isabella had poked her ribs, though not nearly enough to actually hurt.

“I mean having to adjust to different cultures, just take them in stride,” Isabella said. “I’m guessing this isn’t the strangest place you’ve ever been. In fact, knowing you, you’re actually just easing me into it.”

“There’s truth in that. Galavaria is a pretty easy-going place. The only missions here have been diplomatic or trade-related. There’s a lot of places that are stranger. And quite a few that are more dangerous than I’d ever want to take you.”

“What?” Isabella asked playfully. “You think I can’t take care of myself?”

“Heaven forbid,” Aurora said. “It’s more that only sourceformers can adapt enough. Get too far away from your native world and the rules get… different. Enough so that you’d need constant support just to survive, or even exist.”

“Oh,” Isabella said. To Aurora’s surprise, she sounded genuinely disappointed. Maybe she really had expected to go everywhere Aurora could go?

Dang, she hadn’t thought of that. There were so many things Aurora took for granted now. She wasn’t the best teacher, either. And her teachers at the Dawning… well, they probably wouldn’t look too kindly on spilling all their secrets to a random Earth-born. What should she say? She didn’t want Isabella to feel like –

“Is that ice cream?” Isabella exclaimed, jumping from the bench as a cart started rolling up. “This place is too damn hot to skip out!”

Aurora laughed and ran after her. Okay, maybe there wasn’t really a problem.

Final Duel

“This is you last chance, Mister Sebastian,” Telroy said. He flipped his wand idly, mockingly in his left hand. “Last chance ever to beat me in a duel. How does it feel, knowing you’ll lose. Knowing you’ve lost to me every time?” His annoying, nasal laugh punctuated the taunt.

I gritted my teeth, trying hard not to show my anger. And yes, my fear. I was sweating in rivers under my uniform. This bastard had been after me my whole career at the academy. He’d manage to finagle the dueling charts so, nine times out of ten, I had to face him on the field. And yes, he’d won every single time. This time would be different. The prior rounds were all just for practice. This was the final round, the one for all the marbles, as Ransom likes to say.

“Don’t count your hatchlings, Mister Jacobs,” I replied. I held up my wand into the traditional dueling salute. Telroy did the same, although he somehow managed to make it look like an insult at the same time. The crowd – all my fellow students, from all the grades – cheered and jeered. I imagine most of them weren’t expecting much.

Except, I hoped, for Lillieth. She’d been the one coaching me for weeks.

Telroy grinned. I could see his teeth gleaming across the fifty yards that separated us. “I’ve always like your spirit, S,” he said as the crowd quieted again. “That’s what makes it so fun beating you, over and over. I will miss it.”

This time I said nothing, holding my pose, waiting for the signal to start.

In the past I had never been fast enough. Telroy had an amazing sense of tactical defense. The array he could bring up in a short time was stronger than anything we trained against, anything even the teachers could do. But it still took time. He had made a mistake, making me fight him so many times. I had come to realize his habits, his patterns. And his fault was this: he was so good, had been for so long, that he never changed it up, never got better.

“Begin!” cried the duel-master. The arena immediately went still and quiet, waiting for the first move.

C’fth malor, n’ctYa fthan!” I shouted, hurling my wand at my opponent. The throw looked week, but the wand carried itself straight across the distance. Telroy paused for a beat, his physical shields still in formation. Still, the throw was just a throw. He stepped aside and the wand landed on the grass behind him.

I imagined the audience’s gasp behind the silence wall. The tactic was unheard of. I’d thrown my only instrument away. I might as well have conceded right there. What others had never noticed was that Telroy’s defenses, fast as they were, always started in the forward direction. The fastest, most direct spells always came that way. It was a strong tactic.

I finished my chant with a single word, long practiced. “mYenfth’atrel’orwenghtah!

Telroy had no chance to react. The ground beneath my wand ripped open into darkness and the tentacles came for him. Pitch black, shining with oil and alien starlight, they wrapped around his waist and pulled him into the void. It took only seconds before the portal closed again.

Panting, I dropped to my knees from the sudden exertion. But my heart was full of exhilaration. I had survived. I would graduate. And nobody would doubt me again.