legend of hero

Dinosaur Gods

"Any more questions?" I asked. "No? Let's move on." I stretched a wing out in the direction of the next room. Behind the crowd, Jim made a smooth gesture with one hand, and the lights on the side of the doorway flickered from red to green.

"Remember," I said as we walked, "for the safety of these priceless treasures we do have a few simple rules. For this next piece in particular, I really need to emphasize: No touching. Holophotography is not permitted, either, but we do have high-quality holograms of our most popular exhibits at MATT's gift shop. Standard-spectrum flash photography is allowed, and you will definitely want your cameras out for this one."

I stepped with all four feet over the red velvet rope surrounding the statue and turned back toward the group, stretching my wings upward, being careful to hold them in line with my body. The comforting subsonic hum of the exhibit's force fields buzzed at the back of my skull. I sat, raised my forelegs to my chest, curled my tail in around my feet, and thrust my chest out, head raised proudly.

A chuckle swept through the crowd, and several of the tourists raised their cameras. I grinned, baring a muzzle full of sharp fangs. Posing to match the stone shape always got a reaction.

"This piece is one of the so-called Atacama Dragons," I said, holding my pose steady, "but the first thing you should know is that it isn't actually a dragon. At least, there's good archaeological evidence that it isn't."

I paused as several flashbulbs went off; the soft hum from the force field around the statue changed tone subtly as it compensated for the bulbs' additional light and heat.

"Aaron Whitley -- who was one of our island's major financiers, after he made his fortune cofounding Raven's Head -- was certainly looking for dragons when his divinations drew him toward this," I continued. "His goal was to find evidence that the Changes 15 years ago were not unique in Earth's history. Most scientists don't think this statue is that evidence. But it is something far more rare and special."

I gestured at the large hunk of pale marble, which had an entirely smooth and featureless exterior but was unmistakeably dragon-shaped.

"It's the oldest artifact of intelligent life on Earth."

I paused for dramatic effect, and a hush settled over the group.

I glanced around them, trying to tell by their faces if there were any fellow dragons on the tour. A surprising majority of mythics from overseas seemed to shift back to human form almost as a reflex when heading inside buildings -- it took a while for them to realize that New Atlantis architecture was designed with them in mind -- and so sometimes my first clue of a visitor's real species was their reaction to the exhibits. Of course, Jim -- as a security mage -- carried a copy of the tour group's visitor logs, so my guessing game had little value beyond our amusement.

The current group was a pretty standard mix, even for the midsummer priority-visa crowd: mostly human, in a variety of skin colors, with only three visible therianthropes. (Tourists drawn in by the island's reputation inevitably complained about how theris were given priority for landing visas -- but that same priority extended to human mages and political dignitaries, as well as the human family of residents. Given the relative population sizes, theri visitors were a small fraction of even the warm-weather elite.) Aside from the usual crowd of Asian and Caucasian families, students and retirees, there were a few Middle Eastern men wearing robes and keffiyehs hanging together in a tight cluster -- probably a political delegation -- and two groups of Hispanics that had been chatting earlier about their respective homes in Buenos Aires.

None of them had quite the right stunned gaze to be a mythic in hiding. The Atacama Dragon was the Museum of Applied Thaumitechnology's biggest draw, and everyone reacted strongly to it, but dragons tended to approach the statue with a reverence above and beyond the standard amazement.

There was one gray-haired man in the back of the crowd that caught my eye, though: He was smiling.

He was dressed in a faded collared shirt and ironed dress slacks, with weatherbeaten Mediterranean skin and a clean-shaven face that defied the wrinkles of his years. I stared at him, forgetting the tour for a second. Nobody smiled at the statue. Adults went silent at its aura of ineffable importance, and kids found it a boring hunk of rock.

My attention snapped back as the tour's only gryphon -- a kid barely the size of a horse, flanked by two older humans who were presumably his parents -- flattened his eartufts. "If it's not a dragon," he said in a high voice cracking with puberty, "what is it?"

I dipped my muzzle in acknowledgement, sneaking one more glance at the smiling man and refocusing on my job. "I'll get to that, but the answer will make more sense if I tell you a little about how this was found.

"Whitley's research led him to the high interior of Chile's Atacama Desert. The site was at the base of a small mountain that many millions of years ago used to be a volcano. Now, how many of you have heard of Pompeii?"

Most of the hands around the room went up. "It's a Roman city that was buried intact by a volcanic eruption almost 2,000 years ago," I said for the benefit of the others.

The old man's smile broadened, showing teeth.

"It," I continued. "Er. Was covered by a thick layer of ash, forgotten, and rediscovered in the 1700s. Well, something very similar happened to the Atacama site, except the volcano later erupted again, sealing the area underneath lava flows -- 40 feet of solid rock -- before it went dormant.

"That's where the statue lay for millions of years. And it would still be there now if Whitley's team hadn't combed the area, using spells to peer through the stone."

One of the tourists, a loud American who had been pacing back and forth with his camera snapping photos almost continuously, shouted out a question. "How old is the statue?"

I smiled and held up a forepaw. "It's at least 65 million years old, but beyond that, we can't say exactly. Give me a minute and I'll be happy to field all your questions.

"When Dr. Agustín Garcia-Russo -- who leads our research staff, by the way, and is a dragon like me -- took an archaeological team out there to back up Whitley's mages, they found not only these statues but over 100 dinosaur fossils. Many of which are here," I added, "in our Hall of Natural History, along with a life-size recreation of the Atacama dig." I always felt compelled to plug the Natural History wing; MATT's collection was world-class despite its young age, but our visitors invariably seemed determined to ignore it in favor of the magitech exhibits and the big-name historical artifacts.

"One of the major new species discovered was the dinosaurs who made this statue. They were coined 'Ctizosaurs,' builder-lizards. They were, ah --" I glanced behind me to refresh my memory; I had built up the habit of double-checking after blowing the family name several times -- "abelosaurids, distant relatives of T. Rex. And yes, at first glance they definitely resembled us dragons."

I folded my wings and leaned in toward the statue, extending a foreleg next to one of the statue's arms. "But start looking closer and you'll see the differences. Ctizosaurs were bipedal; their tiny arms were useless for walking and had only vestigial claws. Their heads were very tall, with short, blunt muzzles, a shape found on no dragons today. They had no apparent mechanism for fire-breathing and -- of course -- no wings.

"Now the statue, as a whole, looks more like a ctizosaur than a modern dragon. Its proportions match its creators. But it does have wings. So why did they make a winged statue? That," I concluded, "is the million-dollar question. ...

"Speaking of questions, let me open up the floor."

One of the theris in the audience -- a horse-headed anthro with a modest dress and laced leather hoofwraps over dappled fur that complemented her curves -- spoke up in a British accent. "They say the Changes are cyclical. Couldn't there have been some ctizosaur equivalent to dragons at the time?"

"Most mages do think that," I said, "perhaps with some justification. But scientifically, the jury is still out. Were there dragons in the Cretaceous? All we know is that we haven't found any -- at Atacama or elsewhere -- nor any six-limbed fossils that might have served as evolutionary precursors. Considering the new era of archaeology that magical detection has opened up, and the number of people that have been looking, a lot of scientists see that as a sign that there never were any dragons for us to find. But of course, our prior experience with the fossil record means little when dealing with exceptional events like The Changes ... and 65 million years from now I wouldn't blame scientists for being skeptical about me."

"But wasn't the statue itself carved by magic?" asked the college-aged human man behind her. "Isn't that itself proof of ancient Changes?"

"It's not so clear-cut. Human history tells us that it's possible to do some pretty miraculous things with no magic at all. On the other claw, carving stone without magic would require tools, and they didn't find any at Atacama. On the third claw, we do know that the ctizosaurs had crude opposable thumbs, and other clues at the site -- like pottery and building foundations -- are in line with a conventional primitive civilization. Right now, scientific consensus favors tool use."

"But then how did they bring the rock --" the student pressed on.

I interrupted with a smile. "I see you've done some reading. Yes, it's true that the stone of the statues was not local to the dig site. There are a number of veins of marble in that region of the Andes, so that isn't necessarily compelling evidence of magic. An expedition earlier this year may have settled that question by finding the quarry site ... but that's an entirely separate topic." I gestured around at the rest of the tour group. "Let's make sure everyone gets their questions answered."

One of the Middle Eastern men began speaking in his native tongue. A voice in my ear overdubbed his words. "You stated this was 'one of' the Atacama Dragons? There are others elsewhere?"

"The question was," I repeated for the benefit of the native English speakers in the audience, "where are the other Atacama Dragons. There were four statues found, in varying degrees of completeness. This is the only one that was found in one piece. A second with minor breakage was magically restored and is on display in the Museo Histórico Nacional in Chile. The third was sold at auction and the proceeds funded our History Institute. The fourth is in Aaron Whitley's private collection."

I pointed to a man at the back who had been waiting patiently with his hand up. "Did the statue originally look like this," he asked, "or was it once more detailed?"

"It was more detailed," I said, "but we don't know how much more. You can still barely see signs --" I pointed -- "of the largest of the grooves they carved in the rock. But 65 million years isn't going to be kind to anything, even stone. When rainwater leached through the ash after the volcanic eruption, the surface of the stone chemically reacted with the acids produced, and this is what was left."

"So why not fix it with magic?" the loud American asked.

"There wasn't enough resonance for consistent reconstruction."

"Hmph," the loud American said dubiously.

"To expand knowledge of the surface in detail," my translator voice muttered as one of the Japanese tourists, a middle-aged human in a business suit, spoke up, "could they not cast one of the historical replays as visible on Life Through The Ages?"

"The question was," I repeated, "why not use time windows to figure out what we don't know. Basically, because 65 million years is a long, long time ago. Magical impressions in objects and places fade over time. Mages can go back 100 years -- or 500 -- or, in cases with excellent resonance, a millennia or two. But once you start getting into the geologic time scale, it would be like trying to teleport to another planet. It simply can't be done."

"Is that why you guys don't know the statue's age?" said a loud woman who I guessed to be the loud American's wife.

"We do," I said. "Just, without divination, not as accurately as we'd like."

"Can't you, y'know, carbon date it or something?" asked one of the students as the loud American was opening his mouth again.

"Carbon dating is based on living things inhaling carbon-14 from the atmosphere," I explained. "Anyway, it's far too old for carbon-14 to tell us anything. Radiometric dating of the rock of the statue -- which is what I suspect you're talking about -- only tells us when the marble was geologically formed, not when it was carved. Our best date range for the ash that buried the site is from 82 million to 63 million years old, and ctizosaurs weren't alive for the last 2 million years of that."

A young woman at the side of the crowd -- a thin kid wearing a backpack, with John Lennon glasses and straight blond hair -- raised her hand halfway. With some relief, I pointed a wingtip at her before the loud guy could speak up again. "Go ahead."

"W...wasn't 65 million years ago when all the dinosaurs died out?" she asked faintly.

I nodded. "That's right."

"D...do you think ... the statue. Was it related?"

I glanced over my shoulder back at the marble, and allowed myself a chuckle. "One of the things about science is that a really great discovery can raise more questions than it answers. We find a 65-million-year-old statue that looks like a dragon, and for the last two decades we've had dragons of our own. Did their own version of The Changes kill the dinosaurs? What an important question, even more so because we don't have enough data to tackle it. If it's true, what does that tell us about ourselves?"

I spread open a paw, pointing down at the smooth stone floor. "The very ground we're standing on is proof that magic can change the shape of the Earth itself. It's easy to look at that sort of power and lose perspective. History reminds us not to get carried away. And archaeology -- science -- helps us to understand what we see. What we know and what we don't know.

"Science doesn't answer questions in the same way that magic does, but it's every bit as important, and when the two team up it's the most powerful force in the world. That's why MATT is one of the island's jewels."

Which is a really roundabout way of saying we have no idea, I added to myself as the crowd nodded thoughtfully.

Unfortunately, the loud American wasn't buying it. "So let me get this straight," he said. "You're saying you guys can throw an entire new island into the middle of the ocean but you can't cast a spell to answer simple questions about this thing's age?"

I considered explaining divination and resonance again, but it was the last tour of the day and I didn't feel like a long debate. "Basically, yes."

"So how's that supposed to be powerful?"

"This statue wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for magic," I said. "And we wouldn't know anything at all about it if it weren't for science."

"It doesn't sound like you do know anything. It might be such-and-such old! It looks like this but also like that! Someone might have carved it --"

He was interrupted by a strong tap on his shoulder. The loud American turned, ready to snap at the interruption, and I realized it was the old man who had been smiling at the statue earlier. He was smiling now, too, friendly but firm.

"Life does not geeve us all deh answers," he said in thickly accented English. "Let deh drahgon do hes job."

The loud American opened his mouth to protest, but glanced around at the faces of the rest of the tour group and closed it sulkily. The old man gave me a knowing nod once the loud American's back was turned.

"So," I said, recovering, "yes, there are a lot of things we don't know about the Atacama Dragons. People have written some interesting theories to fill in the gaps, and if you want to know more about those, we carry a number of books in the gift shop. But science's job here is to separate fact from speculation. That's the only way we can reach the truth. And as a scientist -- I'm working on my doctorate in archaeology under Dr. Garcia-Russo, in fact -- the truth is important to me. Sometimes 'I don't know' is the best possible answer -- because if you can be honest and say it, then at least you know what you need to find out."

I glanced up at the wall clock. It was almost 5:50. The tour had run much longer than I had expected.

"And with that," I said, "any final questions about the Atacamas? I want to make sure you guys have time to see the lobby exhibits and gift shop before we close."

The British theri raised her hand. "Have scientists figured out what the statues were for?"

"Well, I think --" I started, then checked myself. It wouldn't do to start in on that so soon after my lecture on truth. "Heh. We have thoughts, but no, we don't know. We do have some solid evidence. For instance, these statues were in the largest building in the settlement, and the only one with a stone floor -- which suggests their importance. There are clues such as the statues' orientation within the room -- which you can see in the exhibit in Natural History -- and the remains of the ctizosaurs and items found around them. There's no scientific consensus yet among the multiple theories that take that into account, although we're working on getting that settled."

The crowd digested that in silence.

"Thank you for the tour. Can you point me toward the bathroom?" a woman asked from the edge of the group.

"Sure thing! Scientific consensus says --" I paused, breaking my straight face as the tourists laughed -- "go through the doorway here, turn right and look to your right as you enter the lobby."

 

And with that, the crowd began to drift. A few tourists shouldered their way up to the rope for some better photos of the statue; others walked by and thanked me on their way out. As one of the Middle Eastern men wordlessly gave me a 10-scruple tip, I noticed the loud American and his wife making a beeline for the exit.

The gryphon ambled up to me, foreclaws clicking on the floor. "Uh, 'scuse me," he said. "You said you were getting a degree, right? What can you tell me about your work at AIT, cause after seeing this island, being accepted at MIT doesn't seem like such a big deal any more."

"Huh?" I asked, then held up a paw. "Oh, no, no. Atlantean Institute of Thaumology. They teach magic -- the world's best, I should add -- and I'm just an archaeologist. I'm actually getting my doctorate through a special arrangement with the University of Chile."

"Oh," the gryphon said, his ears lowering. "But doesn't AIT do other kinds of degrees too? My dad wants me to go into programming like him."

I shook my head. "I don't think so. I know there's a computer science division in their magitech grad program, but for undergrads they focus like a laser on spellwork."

"But he won't pay for a magic degree, and there's no way I could get a magic scholarship."

"I don't know what to tell you, then. Good luck."

He turned away, head drooping. "Thanks anyway," he said. "And thanks for the tour. It was really nice."

"Good luck," I repeated faintly. As much as I loved New Atlantis, there were moments when it broke my heart.

I tried walking after him -- thinking maybe I could put a good word in for the lad with his father -- when a woman with a camera and a flock of three young kids intercepted me. "Excuse me," she said. "I know this is going to sound a little weird, but would you mind posing for a photo with my children? This is the closest they've ever been to a real dragon."

I glanced down at the kids. They had been well-behaved during the tour, but had spent most of it staring at me and the other theris.

"Um," I said -- watching the gryphon and his parents walk away -- "sure." I settled down to the floor, making a mental note to get the gryphon's name from Jim, and motioned the kids over with my tail. "First day on the island?"

"We flew in last night," she said. I smiled -- the eyes of the boy nearest my muzzle went wide -- and the flashbulb popped. She smiled back. "I can't believe this place! Did they really raise the entire island out of the ocean with magic?"

"Every inch," I said. I made another mental note to ask Jim how the woman had gotten her landing visa; her questions seemed out of place for the summer crowd.

"Did you help with that?"

"No, ma'am. Emigrated in '08. Been working for the museum since it opened."

"Right, you're an archaeologist. Is there much archaeology to do on the island?"

"There aren't any fossils in solidified lava. But I help Dr. Garcia-Russo with his research, and we do a lot of traveling once the mages we work with identify dig sites."

"And he's a dragon too! Are you two related?"

I suppressed a wince. "No, ma'am."

"How funny. But I guess the odds are pretty good you'd find each other here!"

"Well, as far as I know we're Earth's only draconic archaeologists, but as you can imagine, living here had a lot of appeal for both of us." I tried to change the subject. "Have you guys been to the gift shop yet? You really ought to get some souvenirs before we close. The reproductions of the Atacamas are popular."

"Yeah!" her other son chimed in, as if on cue. "I want a dragon statue, mom!"

That started a round of pleading, and I used the excuse to slip away. Jim must have seen my pained expression, because he gave me a sympathetic grin.

I let out a long breath, thankful it was the last group of the day.

"Sometimes," a voice said from behind my shoulder, "tooreests are joost like dat."

I glanced back. It was the old man who had smiled at the Atacama.

"Thanks," I said, then automatically: "You don't have to speak English to me, you know. I've got a translator spell up."

"Ees better to know de language where you veesit," he said, waving a dismissive hand. "Magic ees not -- how you say ..."

I looked over at Jim, pointed a claw at my muzzle, and flicked it toward the old man. Jim nodded, consulted his clipboard, and traced his fingers through several arcs in the air. I felt my tongue, and the back of my brain, tingle.

"Not perfect," I thought in English, and I listened to myself speak in smooth Italian. "But it does make things much easier."

The old man laughed and gave in, speaking back in Italian as the voice in my ear overdubbed him. "Yes. I lived for most of my existence in the world before magic. You think of me as old-fashioned, perhaps."

"It's alright," I said. "It can take some getting used to. And while the translator spell is very accurate, its grammar is sometimes awkward."

"It is. ... Thank you for the tour of yours."

"Thank you for your help with the loud man."

He grinned broadly. "Several times I have wished on my own tours that someone would cause to shut up the annoying man. Even though it was not my tour, it gave me great satisfaction."

I rumbled in a contented laugh. "Where do you work?"

"The Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Napoli." After some etiquette errors with foreign diplomats, the mages had rigged our translator spells to leave proper names alone. "I retired two years before. Now I travel, and as a tourist I am discovering, what is the word, karma."

Something clicked in my head. "Napoli. Naples. Near Vesuvius, yes? That was why you reacted when I mentioned Pompeii."

"Yes!" His face lit up. "The story of Atacama is much like the story of Pompeii. I wished to see this Atacama statue since its excavation. But last year I became father-in-law to the sister of a dragon who resides here, and for the first time this year our family achieved a visa."

"Congratulations, and welcome to New Atlantis." I held out two fingers for a handshake, and he gripped them with cheerful vigor.

"It pleases me to be here. I am named Fabrizio," he said, pronouncing the Z as a "ts."

"I'm Serebraxus, if you missed me introducing myself earlier." I pronounced the X as if I were clearing my throat.

I looked around the room; all but one or two of the tourists had cleared out, and we were speaking in Italian anyway. "Is there anything here you'd like to see in more detail? We're allowed to escort personal visitors around after hours. I'd be honored to show you around for a little while."

"Thank you," he said, walking up to the rope, "but only this. Your thaumitechnology is impressive, but there is nothing like the majesty of history."

"I agree."

We stood in silence, Fabrizio staring at the statue and me staring at the old man dwarfed by 30 tons of marble. The smile crept back onto his face -- the simple joy, perhaps, of standing face to face with a relic whose story was so familiar to him, even though its source culture was so alien. Closer up, his expression also seemed subtly wistful -- as if the statue were a joke that only he understood.

"I have to say," I interjected into the silence, "in three years here, you're the first person I've seen smiling at the Atacama."

"Yes. It does inspire a ... what is the word ... reverence, does it not?"

"It does. I'm curious -- is there something specific about it you find amusing?"

I watched his eyes scan the marble. The crowd noises in the background subsided, leaving the soft hum of the force field audible.

"So," he said after some time, "what do you think?"

"Pardon?"

"What the statues are for. You did not tell earlier."

"Um, right," I said, switching mental tracks. "It wouldn't be scientific to present guesses as fact."

"But you do have a guess, yes?"

"Of course." I chuckled self-consciously. "Actually, that's what I'm writing my thesis paper on. But the evidence is circumstantial. I don't want to put ideas in people's heads. At least until it's passed peer review."

"Still, I wish to hear your guess."

I sat, curling my tail around my hindlegs, and looked into the face of the smooth-worn stone. "Well, as I said, we haven't found any Cretaceous dragons yet. Honestly, most people keep talking like we'll find them if we keep looking, but I don't think there were any dragons before 1996. So the statues strike me as fantastic rather than representational. And based on the various symbols of importance surrounding the statues -- the building, other artifacts, and the huddled-up ctizosaurs around its base -- they must have had a profound mythological significance."

Fabrizio nodded.

"Put it all together," I said, "and I think ... these were the gods the dinosaurs worshipped."

He looked up at me, smiling again. "So perhaps you do understand."

"Huh? ... Understand what?"

"You asked what I found amusing. It is as you said. Today, gods walk the earth."

"I ... guess?" I said. "I wouldn't put it that way."

"Why not?"

"Never mind the differences between dragons and the statues. I don't believe in gods."

Fabrizio shrugged. "I always have. In this age of miracles, more than ever."

"Let's agree to disagree rather than getting sidetracked into theology," I said. "What I still don't understand is why the idea is funny."

He leaned forward, resting his hands on one of the poles holding up the rope around the statue. "How old are you, Serebrackus?"

I let the mispronunciation slide. "Twenty-seven."

"You were just a child when the Changes touched us." He chuckled. "Or was it a hatchling? Were you a dragon when Redwing stood up to America's president?"

"Child," I said, feeling a little defensive. "I first shifted at 16."

"Thank God there was never a war," Fabrizio said. "On one side, half the world's nuclear bombs. On the other side, the people who raised this island. I was six when World War II ended; I do not think our world would have survived a third."

I nodded in agreement.

"You must understand," Fabrizio said reflectively, "as a young child I prayed to the Lord God to stop the war. I have prayed through floods, famine, and bombings. Never once did it stop my countrymen from dying. You do not believe in gods ... but you are too young to have spent your life praying those prayers. Too young to understand the choice to have faith."

"So ... it's something funny about the idea that the dinosaurs prayed, too?" I guessed.

He held up a finger and stared into my eyes. "Ah, more than that. What were they praying for?"

"Considering that they were about to be wiped out by ..." I trailed off as his implication finally hit me.

He spread his arms, gesturing to me and to the Atacama. "I have had faith all my life. Faith in a god who was silent through disasters. Faith that, someday, I would understand that silence. Now, as an old man, I stand upon a tamed volcano, speaking face to face with a god who has answered the prayers of the faithful ... 65 million years late."

The look on my face must have been something, because when Jim glanced up at our conversation, he did a double-take, the literal kind with the head swiveling back and forth. I saw him trace a gesture in the air and hold two fingers up to his ear -- something I had seen him do before when he didn't fully catch a sentence I'd shouted at him from across the room. After several moments of listening, he raised both eyebrows, and the corner of his mouth quirked up.

"Uh," I said. "I can't speak for the other dragons on the island, but honestly -- I'm just a scientist." I pointed a folded wing across the room. "On the other claw, Jim is one of the miracle workers who helped raise the place."

Fabrizio looked over his shoulder and let out a helpless burst of laughter. "And he is human?"

"He is."

"So it comes full circle. I wonder -- when humanity is nothing but statues, will the future call us your gods?"

 

After Fabrizio thanked me and left, Jim wandered over with a twinkle in his eye. "You know," he said, "I'm surprised none of us on this tamed volcano ever picked up on that particular piece of irony."

"Well, a volcano started our city, and ended the ctizosaurs'. Plenty of people comment on that. I just hadn't thought of it from the god perspective."

Jim stared at the Atacama appraisingly, smile broadening.

"I know that look in your eyes, Jim. What are you thinking?"

"Oh, nothing ... nothing."

He dodged the subject for the rest of the evening. The next morning, when I flew in to work, there was a button on his lapel.

"TAMS," I read, folding my wings. "Dare I ask?"

Jim put on his best innocent look. "Mr. Chiu approved it this morning. He agreed with me that, given the full range of our job duties, the security group ought to look a little more visually distinctive."

"What's it stand for?"

"Translation And Museum Security. See, it's like MATT backwards --"

"No. What does it really stand for. I saw your face last night."

Jim smirked. "I admit it. I couldn't let your comment go to waste."

"My comment?" I thought back. "You mean when I called you a miracle worker?"

He drew himself to his full height, down at my shoulders. "Exactly! You're looking at a proud charter member of the Tardy Abelosaurid Miracle Squadron. No problem too large -- if you've got the patience."

I couldn't help but laugh. "That's horrible. And you're a horrible little man. What did the rest of your team think?"

"The name has already stuck. Lily's buying the hats."

"Hats?"

"Tam o'shanters, of course."

I raised a claw to my face. "Oh, gods."





News: It's been a while ... but there's still plenty more in store for TTU! Check out the TTU Wiki for the latest stories, background material, etc., from the setting.

At this point, if it wasn't obvious: Legend of Hero should be considered on permanent hiatus. It was a noble experiment, and it remains a story worth finishing; but my life has moved on in other directions. I'll change the setup of this blog to reflect that at some point.

- Bax
legend of hero

Change of Mind (3 of 3)

( Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 )


"You know," Randall said, "he was right."

"Jesus fucking Christ, Randall," Alethea shouted into the phone, "that is not what I need to hear right now."

"Maybe it is!" he shot back. "That's what Thoth's Mirror is about. Stripping away the mental blocks and laying bare what you need to confront to grow."

"Not for me! I'm the caster, Randall! It was a goddamned mistake!"

"Was it now."

"A stupid side effect! Like the shifting! And I'm getting so sick of that, having to call you every time --"

"Alright," Randall interrupted. "Then stop calling me."

"... What?!"

"It's harmless! You never schedule any clients the day after a Mirror, so it's not keeping you from work. I've told you, over and over, the polysynchronization is inherently fragile -- it destabilizes after 24 hours and some sleep. And yet, every damn time, I get a panicked call interrupting me from my job. Just once, can't you live with the effect until I'm done for the day?"

"I don't recall asking for a fucking lecture."

"Well," he said, "I don't recall asking to fix all your problems for you."

Alethea stared into the phone, speechless.

"Yet here we are, so I might as well try. What are you afraid of, Alethea?"

She hung up on him, then burst into tears.
 

* * * * *
 

A week later, Tamara walked into her office.

"Oh my god, Tammie," Alethea said, standing.

"Hi, Leeth."

"What are you doing here?"

Tamara closed the door behind her, not advancing. "Good to see you too."

"I mean --" Alethea started. "I'm glad you're here, but where have you been? It's been ... God, my shift to anthrocat was a month and a half ago!"

"Around," Tamara said. "Friends' couches. Campus. A hotel, for a week."

"It was like you just disappeared! Do you know what it's been like waiting to hear from you?"

"You could have found me. You've done enough freaky things with the phone. The whole time I kept wondering when you were going to call."

"Christ, Tammie, I wasn't going to magic up a call to you after the argument we had. All I could do was wait for you to come back -- or get your stuff out of the house." Alethea paused. "Is that what you're here for?"

"No, I'm back."

"Good --"

"On one condition."

Alethea instantly slumped. "I'm not stopping, Tammie."

Tamara walked forward and dropped $800 in crisp, single-folded hundreds onto the table. "Here's the deal. I'm overreacting to your magic."

"Oh," Alethea said.

"When Randall first told me, I didn't listen, but now even my friends are saying so and they're not even mages. Clearly this is my problem. And you can solve it, Leeth. Today." She leaned in. "Cast your Thoth spell on me, so I don't have to hate your work any more."

"Jesus." Alethea stared at the bills. "Jesus. Tammie, that's not a good idea."

Tamara exhaled through clenched teeth. "Alethea. You win. I'm telling you to mage me. I'm telling you I'll put up with your spells and your claws. I'm giving you what you've always wanted and I'm even paying for it with my own fucking money. What more do you want me to do? Grovel?"

"It's not that simple. For one thing, there's the psych screening, the four weeks of prep work --"

"There wasn't with Randall."

"That was before I worked out all the safety issues."

"He turned out okay."

"We were lucky. I'm not going to rely on luck --"

"Luck! When I was leaving you couldn't tell me enough about all of the extra safeguards you've put in."

Alethea felt her face redden. "Tammie --"

Tamara slammed her hand on the table, sending one of the bills skidding off the side. "Dammit, Leeth! Don't try to blow me off like this. Do you think my choice was easy?"

"Do you think Thoth's Mirror is easy? Tammie, I've done this to over 100 people. I know when the spell is a bad idea."

Tamara's tone grew icy. "Alethea. Are you going to keep giving me excuses, or do you want me back?"

Alethea opened and closed her mouth. "Fine, Tammie. Fine. ... Go sit in the circle."

She felt Tamara's eyes drilling into her during the entire ten minutes of buildup. As she started each chant, there was a palpable, silent awkwardness she had to focus and push through. When she reached the point of no return, she hesitated: a small part of her, unnerved by the pressure, screamed that there was no way she had cast the spell cleanly.

This is just going to invite trouble, the inner voice echoed.

The rest of her leaned forward and touched Tamara on the forehead.
 

* * * * *
 

Tamara let out a deep breath, head exploding with thoughts, reciting her script on autopilot. "Keep your eyes closed. Now start wiggling your fingers and toes one by one. Count backward from twenty, one for each wiggle."

As her head wrapped around the numbers, fumbling for the syllables of twenty, she felt the hazy brush of awareness of physical sensation. Her mind snapped to attention and anxiously seized on it.

Was anything wrong? There had to be -- there was. The room wasn't usually so quiet upon returning; there was usually a quiet rustling of fabric from across the circle as the motions of the target's silent countdown took place.

Tamara preempted her numeric march. "Leeth?" she asked.

Oh shit, she cast the spell wrong! Something happened to Leeth! her inner voice screamed, and terror engulfed her. She flailed around in the darkness for help and a safeword drifted past her thoughts. "Shatter!" she shouted, tugging at the energies woven into the word, and suddenly something came loose inside and her eyes -- Alethea's eyes -- snapped open to see Tamara looking at her in confusion.

Alethea glanced down, disoriented, seeing the dark slacks on her crossed legs, knee to knee with Tamara's faded blue jeans. She tried to make sense of the room, and her head started swimming amid the harsh backlash of the safeword's instant grounding.

She lunged for the bathroom, slammed open the door with her shoulder, and stared at the face in the mirror until a fit of nausea caught up with her and half-processed Caesar salad sprayed all over the sink.

Shaking uncontrollably, she hugged the square of porcelain, legs buckling underneath her, breathing hard and gagging, the stink of acid in her nose. Somewhere in the vertigo, the first glimmers of understanding sparkled. The fear was real and raw and overbearing, but it wasn't hers. It wasn't hers.

Tamara's afraid of magic, she repeated like a mantra.

A gentle hand touched her shoulder. "Not any more."

Did I say that aloud? Alethea thought, and heard herself speak.

With that, Alethea succumbed to a round of dry-heaves, and then to catharsis. Bawling, she crumpled up on the linoleum.

Tamara shuffled over to lean against the bathroom wall and slowly sank down to the floor, resting a hand on Alethea's shoulder. The touch was comforting -- real somehow -- and finally, a long, silent minute later, Alethea tamed the shakes and the sobs, sitting up to accept a paper towel and a glass of water.

"Jesus, Tammie," Alethea said. "You went through that for me?"

Tamara looked away.

"I'm sorry." Alethea started to cry again. "You were so afraid of losing me, but you loved me, you actually loved me -- everything you did. Everything. Even --"

"Leeth," Tamara quietly cut in. "I should thank you for putting up with me as long as you did. But mostly ... thank you for today. Thank you. More than I can repay, except for this."

"Oh, Jesus, no." Alethea's blood froze. "No. Tammie. Don't."

Tamara shifted her hand and gently touched Alethea on the nose. "I forgive you. Goodbye."

"No!" Alethea screamed. "Tammie! That's just the mirror screwing things up! Listen to yourself!"

Tamara stood. "No, Leeth. It's me. You showed me myself, and you showed me you, and what's best for us is clearer than it's ever been."

"Tammie, where the hell are you going, I can't handle this right now --"

"I'm leaving. But for the right reason this time." Tamara walked out, but paused at the office door, tilting her head. And her words were a twist of the knife: "Because your spell worked. That's all you ever wanted, wasn't it?"
 

* * * * *
 

Randall picked up the phone, concern in his tone. "What's wrong?"

"You should be proud of me," Alethea said weakly. "I waited until after work this time."

It took Randall a moment to place the context. Then: "Shit."

"Yeah."

"You're -- are you still at your office? I'll chalk a circle --"

"No, Randall. Don't you dare try teleporting on my account. There's nothing to fix."

"What happened?"

"I did the single stupidest thing I could have possibly done."

"... You Thothed a courtroom on live TV?"

"Worse. I Thothed Tammie."

"Oh," Randall said, "fuck."

"Yeah. So, you know how you asked me what I was afraid of? I found it."

"By the Lady, Leeth, what were you thinking --"

"Does it matter? Listen. Can I ask you the biggest favor I've ever asked?"

"Stop right there. First things first: You are done until you get your shit together. I can't keep cleaning up your messes. No more Thoth until you --"

"I spent the afternoon cancelling with everyone in my appointment book. I am done."

"... Oh."

"For good."

"Wait. What?"

"Which is why I'm calling. If I asked you, would you cast Thoth's Mirror? Just once. On me."

Randall paused only long enough for the request to sink in.

"Absolutely," he said. "When do we start?"

"Hang on!" Alethea protested. "I wasn't done."

"Truth be told," he continued, "I was wondering if you were ever going to ask."

"For one thing," Alethea pressed on, "I don't meet my own criteria. I'm turning to the spell out of desperation, not to augment an existing desire for change."

"I don't know how you can say that, given your complaints of the last month and a half."

"Because I haven't been serious about fixing it. You know that, Randall. I've been too afraid of the shit I'd have to face."

"Fear is fine. Your spell accounts for that. You've got safeguards and visualizations and the caster's guidance --"

"Randall," Alethea interrupted, "wait a moment. What I asked is not trivial. My mind is such a scary place even I don't go there. I've been spending the last year and a half fixing other people's problems just so I can avoid my own. And it's not just me that thinks so. That gryphon guy saw inside my brain and I lost all of my referrals from his psychologist. Tammie saw inside my brain and she left me."

"So now you need to identify and address your self-destructive behavior. Thoth's Mirror is excellent for that."

"I'm not finished! On top of that, I picked up Tammie's fear of magic. The thought of the spell is giving me panic reactions."

"That'll go away in a day or two, just like all the other polysynchronizations."

"You'll have to face my secondary memories of all my clients' traumas."

"Do they emotionally affect you? They'll only bleed through to me if you react to them."

Alethea exhaled in frustration. "Randall, stop justifying away all the reasons not to Thoth me!"

"Leeth, thirty seconds ago you asked me to cast it."

"No, I didn't. It was a hypothetical. If you had said no, I could have retired the spell with a clear conscience."

Randall chuckled. "You know better than that. You're asking for simple. Magic is about complications."

Alethea stared into the phone, an idea dawning.

"Hello?" Randall asked.

"So," she said slowly, "what if I were to ask you to Thoth me because I didn't want to be a mage any more? Would you still do it?"

Randall paused, longer this time.

"Cute, Leeth," he said. "But you and I both know you wouldn't give up magic."

"I know. It's my whole life. But with Thoth's Mirror I could fiddle with my characteristics until I ended up with someone with no desire to cast spells any more. Someone who was genuinely happier without it."

"Hypothetically you could also Thoth yourself into a fatal delusion that your arms were wings. But in reality it only works if you have an honest desire for the consequences of that change."

"So if wingy-army guy asked you --"

"No, Leeth, I wouldn't help him either," Randall said impatiently, "Look, do you want me to cast Thoth's Mirror on you, or not?"

Alethea smiled in weary triumph. "I do. No more hypotheticals. I am asking in all seriousness -- will you Thoth the magic out of me?"
 

* * * * *
 

"I can't believe I talked you into this," Alethea said as Randall chalked symbols onto her kitchen floor.

"It's simple," he said, double-checking the designs. "I'm calling your bluff. Once you go under the spell you'll change your mind and make a more productive alteration."

"You're making a mistake," Alethea said. "You're underestimating me, and how sick I am of everything that's happened."

"If it's a mistake," Randall said, waggling the chalk at her, "then why aren't you stopping me? I am still, I must point out, doing this at your request."

"Because it's also a groundbreaking experiment that no other mage would be stupid enough to try. That appeals to my pride." Alethea looked around at the circle and her well-worn notes scattered over the counter as if she were seeing them for the first time. "Randall, this is insane! Why are you encouraging me?"

"Because now that you've got this idea in your head, you're not going to let me Thoth you any other way."

"True, but this can't end well. I'm frankly dumbfounded. You're not taking me seriously."

"Last time I made that mistake," Randall said, smiling, "it brought us Thoth's Mirror in the first place."

Alethea stared at Randall, then threw up her hands and exhaled sharply. "You know something? I was almost ready to call this quits, but now I'm going to go through with this just to spite you."

"Mwa ha ha. Give in to your anger, young Skywalker. With each passing moment you make yourself more my servant."

Alethea chuckled despite herself. "Nerd."

Their conversation stalled as Randall bent down to rechalk some of the symbols. Alethea watched his editing with growing impatience.

"You're being a lot more paranoid about your runes than usual," Alethea finally said.

Randall set down his chalk and scanned the lines once more. "It's my first time. I want to get it right."

"I think you're just trying to delay the inevitable. Having second thoughts?"

"Nope." Randall stepped into the circle and sat. "Are you ready?"

Alethea looked around, bit her lip, and joined him. "Yes."

She found it strange to sit silent through the chants -- listen to the words, feel them build up power -- rather than consciously shape them. With nothing to do but sit still, she began to wonder why Randall seemed so unconcerned. Did he think he could guide her change? Was he going to modify the spell in some way?

Randall had adapted the Mirror to his own style of magic, but she found she could still instantly identify each element of the spell by its structure and the way energy gathered. With each new chant, she sifted through it looking for evidence of changes -- but he was remaining faithful to her notes, right down to the order of the safeguards.

The final effect wound to a close, and the energy around them tensed -- poised and shimmering.

Alethea tensed, too, waiting to see if any further chants were forthcoming.

"Well, this is it," Randall said. "Ready to trigger it?"

Alethea nodded and took a long breath. The point of no return.

"Sheni kheperek dihauti mauher," Randall intoned, and Alethea felt the spell's energy surge and grip her.

"Well," Alethea said, relieved and disappointed, "it was nice working magic with you."

"... About that."

"What?" Alethea said, instantly on guard. The spell was already soaking in. Too late to cancel or change. He wouldn't dare --

"Tamara told me everything," he said.

"What?"

"Thursday. When she came over to drop off your house key."

"Randall," Alethea said, "this isn't funny. We're in the middle of a spell --"

He raised a hand. "I know. But I had to tell you that so you understand. I know why you're doing this, Leeth."

"Randall," she pleaded, growing frightened. "The spell."

"I know," he repeated, leaning toward her with his hand outstretched. "And now that I've thrown off your focus, there's just one thing left to say."

The room wavered and distorted. She listened, speechless, as the lines and colors started pooling and blurring.

"I forgive you, too," he whispered. "Now it's your turn."

She felt an almost electric tingle as his fingertip pressed against her forehead. Then the world spun away.





News: Wow. Well, that's it. I think that as much blood and sweat went into Change of Mind as I've put into the entire run of Legend of Hero so far. Glad to have that behind me.

Given the extensive revisions this story has gone through, I'd love to get your feedback in the comments section. Good, bad, unsatisfying? Clear or unclear? Did it keep up a fairly even pace? Was the ending unfair? Did any of the characters cross the line from justifiable dickery into unsympathetic assholery? Too much subtext or too much exposition? Any clever "i see whut u did thar" moments?

Anyway!

With my month of unintentional hiatus behind me, it's now time to get back to Legend of Hero. Updates will hopefully start next week, though you may have to bear with me as I attempt to build my post buffer back to acceptable levels.
legend of hero

Change of Mind (2 of 3)

Legend of Hero is on break; in the meantime, please enjoy this three-part story set in the Tomorrowlands Universe.




( Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 )


The monster came out amid a late spring rainstorm, when Alethea woke up with whiskers and a black-and-gold muzzle.

When she opened her eyes, it seemed right, at first. Then consciousness dawned.

Alethea thrashed to her feet, yowling, tangled in the covers. Tamara screamed and flailed. Alethea fell and hit her head. Tamara scrambled naked around a corner and screamed a few more times. After Alethea hid in the closet, Tamara finally stumbled back, sobbing. Bleeding.

Tamara called Randall's new work number in a blind panic.

"She did what?" he said. "I'll be right there."

Randall convinced Tamara to let him heal her claw gashes -- after an ominous discussion of how awkward it would be to explain large-cat wounds to the authorities -- and chalked a circle on the bedroom floor. When Tamara retreated to the kitchen, Randall coaxed Alethea out, and half an hour later, the cheetah's body had unfolded back into a crying and apologetic woman.

The argument didn't start until Randall left.

"I'm so, so sorry," Alethea repeated. "I didn't even realize I was a cat until it was too late."

"Why didn't you tell me you were a theri?"

"I'm not! That's why I panicked."

"Then how did you change?" Tamara challenged.

Alethea was silent.

"It's your job," Tamara asked, "isn't it?"

"That's all I can think of. Yesterday's client was a werecheetah."

"Leeth. That's it. You need to stop."

Alethea looked away. "Tamara. Please. I can't."

"Yes, you can. You've been humoring the mental cases for long enough --"

"My clients," Alethea said, raising her voice, "are normal people who want to fix a problem in their lives."

"And the guy who came to our house at 1 AM shouting about the spiders?"

"Jesus, Tammie, I never even let him into my office for the first consultation. I don't even take calls from the public since then -- I'm only taking referrals from psychologists --"

"I don't care. This is the last straw, Leeth. No more spells for money."

Alethea tried to change the subject. "Think of what you're saying. Your paycheck will barely cover the house payments --"

"Alethea, for three years I've given you so much and only ever asked you for one thing --"

"For three years I've told you I'm not giving up magic."

"For three years I've asked you to keep magic from complicating our life!"

"Tammie," Alethea said, grabbing her hands. "I swear. This will never happen again."

"You're right," Tamara said. "It won't."
 

* * * * *
 

It did.

A month and a half later, Alethea slept through her alarm clock, but not Tamara's shriek. She sat bolt upright as Tamara fell out of bed and crabwalked back to the wall.

"Tammie?" Alethea asked, looking around, vision sleep-hazy. "What's wrong?"

Tamara fumbled behind her for a bathrobe, not taking her eyes off of the bed, her eyes filling with tears. "Goodbye, Leeth," she finally choked out.

"Tamara!" Alethea said, reaching out in confusion. It was then that she noticed her human-shaped arm was covered in short, silky black and white fur.

Alethea chased her into the kitchen, endured Tamara's shouting, and begged her to reconsider.

"Shifting isn't dangerous," she said. "You're not going to get hurt unless one of us panics. Look -- if it makes you feel better, I can sleep in the guest room the night after I've worked with a theri."

"No, Leeth," Tamara said. "This isn't about theris. You promised you'd stop your mirror thing."

"No I didn't."

"Back when I told you I was willing to accept magic paying the bills. You said you'd stop and go back to finding bail jumpers."

"That wasn't a promise. I said I'd think about it."

"Well, then promise me! Right now!"

"I can't. Thoth's Mirror is too important."

"You keep saying that. Why?"

"I see its effects every time I cast the spell. It changes people's lives, Tammie."

"Like it's changed mine?"

Alethea called Randall after Tamara left, so shaken that she had to try twice to navigate his office's phone tree. Randall listened to her disjointed story and promised he would help after leaving early for lunch.

Alethea spent several restless hours pacing in her backyard, hooves clicking on the patio.
 

* * * * *
 

The third time, as Randall let himself in, he jumped and dropped the magical supplies pouch he was rummaging through.

"Holy shit, Leeth," he stammered, "what the hell are you?"

"Damned if I know. The last guy was a piece of work. Called himself a chimera, but I don't think he meant what the mythology says."

Randall looked up and down the bizarre body, a black-scaled, feathered-winged, llama-shaped quadrupedal form with exaggerated front claws and a human face. "By the Lady."

"I made lunch for you. I figured it was the least I could do while I waited."

She sat patiently on the hardwood kitchen floor while he chalked his runes around her. By the time he had figured out how to modify his spell to account for the bizarre form, the food had grown cold.

When they finished, Randall slumped back against the pantry. "Alright," he said, "seriously, Leeth. Twice in ten days."

"This one's completely my fault," she said, getting dressed. "I made a change I thought would stop the bleedthrough of their self-image into me. It backfired."

"You know better than that. You have to take time, test these things, stop casting under stress --"

"This is not about Tamara," Alethea said, raising her voice.

"I didn't say --"

"She's left before. She'll be back again, and until then, I'm coping just fine. It is not interfering with my work."

"Something is," Randall said cautiously.

"The last bleedthrough was before she even left."

"Have you considered," Randall asked, "taking a vacation while you figure it out?"

"I worked out my rate of sustainable casting before we started. There's no reason to modify that. I just need to figure out something for the damn theris. I've got a month before I Thoth the dragon. I can do it."

Randall let his head fall back against the wall. "If you say so."

Alethea finished buttoning her blouse, sat down against the cabinets facing him, and let out a long sigh. "Anyway, thanks."

"Yeah."

They stared at each other in uncomfortable silence.

"Look on the bright side," Alethea said with forced humor. "I've been an unqualified success compared to Judy."

"Who?"

"Come on! You know. 'Eyes of Thoth.' The thing on the TV that got me started --"

"Oh! Titania."

"Yeah."

Randall started repacking his supplies. "What ever happened to her after the big courtroom escape, anyway?"

"While you were taking your week in the woods figuring out the new you, some mages working with the police tracked her down. She sent Dennis Redwing to the hospital --"

"No shit!"

"-- no shit. Then flashed out, under fire, with another gryphon thing that came out of nowhere. Never seen again. The spooks confirmed a teleportation accident."

Randall bit his lip. "I guess she had it coming to her."

"I guess." Alethea shrugged. "You know, I fixed one of her victims pro bono? One of the TV cameramen. He went into a huge spiral of depression after she Thothed him. His therapist finally got desperate, somehow found out about me and called from California."

"Really? That's awesome! You never mentioned that."

"I probably still shouldn't. They made me swear to complete secrecy. The media circus around that would have been ridiculous."

"Well, good for you anyway. There's some cosmic justice in that."

"It felt less like karma and more like a loop closing." Alethea's eyes unfocused. "She shapeshifted, cast the spell and hurt people. I cast the spell, helped people and here I am shapeshifting."

"Well," Randall said, "don't you go disappearing like Titania did."

"Tamara's got that covered," Alethea deadpanned.

Neither of them laughed.

Alethea looked away. "She'll be back."
 

* * * * *
 

"Welcome back, Mark," Alethea said, not smiling.

"Hello again. Today's the day, right?" asked her latest client, a nervous young brown-haired man in a bland shirt and slacks who looked like he hadn't shaved that morning. "That you're actually casting Thoth's Mirror?"

"Maybe. First, there's one thing we need to discuss."

"Oh?"

"Why doesn't your registration form say that you're a gryphon?"

He squirmed in his seat. "H-how did you --"

"It's not important how. Answer my question."

"It shouldn't matter what race I am," Mark evaded. "That's not why I'm here."

Alethea leaned forward. "I'm only going to give you one chance, Mark. The spell opens up your whole mind, with me along for the ride. I need to know exactly what we're getting into. I cannot cast it unless you are completely honest with me about everything I ask."

Mark looked away. "I'm sorry. You're right, I lied. I was afraid you were going to turn me down because of my race. My health insurance has given me no end of shit, and the only psychiatrist they'll cover insisted that I would have to enter one of those ex-theri programs in order to make progress. This is all out of pocket and you're my last hope."

Alethea stared at him, then threw his registration packet onto the desk. "Did you lie about anything else in your registration?"

"No. I swear to God."

"Did you lie at any point during our conversation the last two office visits?"

"Only about my therianthropy. Nothing else."

"Did you omit any relevant information on the form?"

"I answered everything else you asked as honestly and completely as I could."

Alethea stared into space for several seconds. "Well, you're not lying now. Thank you for that."

"But?" Mark asked, bracing himself.

"I will help, but I need to warn you," Alethea answered. "The spell's got some -- side effects -- with theris. For one, you might have trouble shifting for up to 48 hours afterward."

Mark's face fell into an uneasy mixture of relief and frustration. "Thank you. I really do appreciate your help."

"... But?"

"But I flew here today. I don't know how I'm going to get home."

Alethea sighed. "I'll call you a cab if anything happens. Do you need help with cab fare?"

"It's okay. I brought this on myself. I'll call my housemates." He looked out the window at the distant shrouded cap of Mount Rainier. "What do you mean 'might'?"

"It's happened to four theris I've worked with. They were stuck in human form until they fully reoriented from the spell, but they did recover their abilities on their own. And if worse comes to worse, I do know an excellent transformation mage."

That's four times now I owe Randall, she thought.

Mark chewed his lip. "So this is a side effect of the -- the --"

"The link, yes."

He nodded. "I'm curious. Does the spell have that effect on you too?"

Alethea picked Mark's paperwork up again and made a show of scanning it, her cheeks reddening. "Don't worry about me. The better you stay focused on your problem, the easier it will be to solve it."

"Alright."

"Ready? Good. Sit there, on the line of the inner circle."

As usual, the ten minutes of chanting felt like forever, but the spell itself seemed to fly by.

Alethea let out a deep breath, head exploding with thoughts, reciting her script on autopilot. "Keep your eyes closed. Now start wiggling your fingers and toes one by one. Count backward from twenty, one for each wiggle." She did so herself, and felt awareness of her form return.

Alethea sorted through the overlapping sensations in her head. Thirst: "There's a bottle of water on the table behind you." Fatigue: "The tiredness is normal; grab a chair, or lie down on the floor if you need to." Itchy nose: She grabbed a tissue. Need to urinate: "The bathroom's on your left."

"Yeah," Mark said. "Suddenly I feel like I need to pee."

Suddenly? Alethea thought. She had been aware of it since before the ritual. She refocused and cracked open her eyes, looking down at her body. "Never mind, that's me. I'll be right back. Your sensation should pass."

In the bathroom, she cursed under her breath. Confusion of physical sensations -- warning sign #1. She ran through the checklist again. She was fairly certain that the fatigue she felt had been his, but she was definitely tired too -- warning sign #2. Well, it was too late to do anything about it now.
 

* * * * *
 

Mark was lying on the floor when she returned. He sat up. "Hey. Um. Before we say anything else, I have to apologize --"

Alethea gently interrupted him. "That fantasy about me? Don't worry."

"Yeah," he said, not meeting her eyes. "It was completely inappropriate --"

"And that's why you kept it inside your head, where it belonged," Alethea said. "You're hardly the first --"

"And it was also silly of me to think," he continued, raising his voice, "about asking you to dinner afterward. I'm at peace now with ... you know. Not being your type."

She felt her face flush. That went beyond warning sign. She had screwed up the spell. The mirror had exposed her too -- reflected them both to each other.

There was no denying it: she was going to wake up the next morning as a gryphon.

Mark misinterpreted her embarrassment. He cringed. "So I really am sorry. I came in because I did need help. The other stuff was just stupid wishful thinking --"

Alethea cut him off firmly. "Mark. Please listen for a moment. One, you're far from the first person with thoughts like that. The brain drifts through a thousand embarrassing ideas every day. Two, I will take it as a compliment that you find me a worthy object of fantasy. Three, it is a sign of your respect for me that you did not let your fantasies interfere with our professional relationship. Thank you for that. You don't need to apologize for your thoughts."

"Oh," Mark said. "Alright."

"Now let's please get back to the remainder of your session. I want to confirm that you're satisfied with the spell's outcome, and help you unpack what you encountered so you and your psychologist can more easily return to any insights that need clarification."

Mark considered.

"What?" Alethea asked.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I just have to say one more thing first."

She sighed. "Speak."

"Maybe it's none of my business. You're right, we're here for my problems. Still, as long as we're clearing the air ... you're right, she was an idiot to leave you, but it really is for the best."

Alethea stood speechless.

"It has nothing to do with my feelings!" he quickly protested. "It's just -- what I saw --"

She pointed at the door. "Get out."


>>>
legend of hero

Change of Mind (1 of 3)

And now for something completely different!

I know I disappeared off the face of the earth for a few weeks after BayCon. (I have more to say about that in my own journal.) I do apologize if my silence has been a letdown. But the important thing is that I've returned from the e-wilderness back to e-civilization with a story!

The "real world" of Legend of Hero is an alternate Earth known as The Tomorrowlands Universe, where a dragon was caught on a live news broadcast in late 1996. Since then, a number of people have transformed into creatures of legend and magic is a very real force. Today's story skips into the new millennium, where magic is easier to take for granted and creative wizards have started to push the boundaries of applied willpower ...

"Change of Mind" -- which blossomed from quick filler into sprawling epic -- will run today, Monday, and Thursday, after which normal Legend of Hero goodness will resume. Enjoy the change of pace.




( Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 )


"What do I think?" Randall repeated in disbelief. "It's a horrible idea!"

"Oh, come on," Alethea said. "Give me one reason why."

"Where do I start?" He pointed to the television, where the chaos was still unfolding amid general media panic. "Even assuming she caused no permanent damage, she's sending dozens of people to the hospital and might touch off sympathetic symptoms in millions more. Millions!"

"The spell has potential," Alethea said, twirling a pale finger through her straight brown hair. "Her execution was the problem."

"I don't care how much potential the 'Eyes of Thoth' have, the mere mention of them is a ticking time bomb."

"Give me some credit, Randall. I wouldn't use the same name, and I wouldn't cast it on the public, only on people ready to face the effect. Instead of a misguided act of hostility --"

"Misguided!"

"-- it would be a therapeutic tool." Alethea spread her arms. "Strip away your mental blocks and get a look at the real you. Thoth's Mirror."

"By the Lady, Leeth." Randall sighed. "I can't believe you. Some nutbar commits magical assault on an entire courtroom full of people and the only thought in your head is how to recreate her effect."

In the distance, the front door opened and shut.

"There was more to it than assault. If her goal had been damage --" Alethea stopped mid-sentence, cocked her head at the door, and flicked her fingers at the television. The screen changed to the disaster movie playing on HBO, the soundtrack merging smoothly with the earlier news report.

"I'm back!" Tamara said, walking into the living room with a smile on her olive-tanned face, the snow-dusted arms of her overcoat wrapped around a large bag from the liquor store. "Our party tonight is gonna -- oh, hi, Randall."

"Hey."

"I thought I heard chatting when I came in. What were you guys talking about?"

"Mage stuff," Alethea said before Randall could answer.

Tamara's lips pursed in disapproval. "C'mon, Leeth. You know how I feel about that."

"I do, Tammie."

When Tamara went to the kitchen to unload the liquor, Randall leaned in. "In all seriousness, let the idea go. It's just going to invite trouble."

Alethea cupped her chin in her hand, then a mischievous smile spread across her face. "Not if you help me with it," she murmured.

"What?!" Randall whispered, restraining his voice with an effort.

"You're the most level-headed, cautious mage I know. Help me design the spell. If we can't make it safe enough for you, I'll give it up. If it doesn't help you, I'll give it up."

"Leeth, whether I help out or not --" Randall began. Then the full implications hit him. "You want to cast it on me?!"
 

* * * * *
 

"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," Randall grumbled as he chalked symbols onto the cement floor of the garage. "I swear, if I didn't hate my job so much ..."

Alethea flipped through their eight pages of notes. "Admit it. It's not about that. You're curious."

"It is about that. Completely. I loathe software QA and I could probably double my income by quitting and doing freelance mage work, but I still drag myself to the office every day. Why am I torturing myself?"

"And yet, even realizing that, you're trusting your answer to a reworked magical assault spell. Face it, you're curious."

The phone in Randall's kitchen rang. He wiped his forehead, leaving a streak of chalk dust across his already-pale skin, and stared off into space. "Tamara's calling to see if you're here. She seems mildly disturbed."

"Oh, for ..." Alethea started, then sighed and muttered an incantation under her breath. Concentrating, she pointed into the kitchen, then gestured at herself, and the cordless phone rocketed through the garage to her waiting hand. "What's wrong, Tammie?"

The phone was briefly silent.

"... Leeth? What are you doing at Randall's?"

"I told you last night. Don't you remember?"

"No. I was trying to find you. I didn't expect you to answer the phone. I hate it when you freak me out like that."

"What do you want, Tammie?"

"I'm sorry. ... I just thought you were going to help me clean up the party mess."

"I am. When I get back from Randall's."

"You said we'd have the day together once the house was clean. I've only now found you and it's eleven."

Alethea walked into the house and glanced at Randall's wall clock. "I'm sorry. I'll be back as soon as we're done."

"When will that be?"

"Maybe a couple of hours."

"Leeth!"

"I'm sorry. This is important."

"More important than me?"

"Tammie. You're being passive-aggressive again --"

"I'm sorry."

The rest of the conversation passed in a spiral of criticism and placation. Alethea hung up with a sigh and returned to the garage to find Randall leafing through the notes.

"Sorry about the interruption," she said. "The usual."

Randall shook his head. "I wish I understood how you two do it. Argue so often, I mean. And yet you're still together."

"It's just disagreements. It's not like we're fighting."

"Even that time she spent the night at my place?"

Alethea shrugged. "She needs time to cool off sometimes. But we both know that we do better together than we do apart."

"... I'll take your word for it."

Alethea pursed her lips in mild disapproval. "So are you ready?"

He gestured at the notes. "One thing first. The safeguard you wrote last night basically makes you invisible to me while the Mirror's up. Why did you also add an effect to inhibit your self-perception?"

"Honestly? I'm not sure the safeguard's enough. Once I establish the mental link for monitoring, if something I do draws attention to the fact of my presence, you might see what I see -- including myself. If even I don't know I'm there, I can be sure I won't cause a distraction."

"But you'll lose your sense of self entirely for the duration of the spell!"

"That's why I added the safeword. If either of us thinks I'm stuck, it kills the spell and regrounds me immediately."

Randall flipped to the last page. "Which will prevent disasters, sure. But we already addressed the disasters. I'd be more worried about the side effects."

"It means extra reassurance of the spell working safely. I want this to work."

Randall tried again. "Do you really think you need redundant safety at the cost of big personal complications?"

"If I didn't need complications," Alethea said, "I'd give up magic."
 

* * * * *
 

Randall gradually became aware of a hand on his shoulder.

"The spell's done," a male voice said from up above him. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Randall said, but it was in Alethea's voice. Puzzled, he opened his eyes to find himself sitting cross-legged on the floor in Alethea's body, with a second Randall standing over him.

"Hold on," the sitting Randall said, realizing the situation. "The self-blinding effect is still up." With a moment's focus, he located and undid the extra effect he -- Alethea -- had layered into the spell, and his -- her -- original consciousness flooded back in.

Alethea let out a long breath and collapsed back onto the floor. "By the Lady."

"You can say that again," Randall said, sitting down alongside her.

"It's like there are two people in my brain," Alethea said. "Give me a minute. I need to remind myself that I'm Alethea again. What about you?"

"It worked," Randall said in a faraway voice.

They sat in silence for half a minute.

Alethea brought up a hand, waved it slowly in front of her face, and very deliberately curled her fingers into a fist. "I'll be grounding myself back into my body for a little while yet. Movement seems to be helping."

"You should write the grounding in," Randall suggested. "Next time, add a trigger on spell completion -- have that kill the blind and start a mantra with some self-reinforcing autohypnosis."

"Yes. Yes! That would do it."

"And include your target too. I'm not having the two-brain effect you are, but it's going to take me a while to process everything."

"I'll do that," Alethea said, sitting up. "So -- it worked. What was your epiphany?"

"... What do you mean? I saw myself -- I mean, you -- watching the whole time. Didn't you see everything I did?"

"Actually, no. Remember, I needed to keep some distance in case you hit something overwhelming."

"Ah."

"I was focusing on your emotional reactions to what you were experiencing. When you had a strong reaction, I'd get an echo of the trigger, but I get the sense I missed the big breakthrough."

"Yeah. The actual change didn't feel like that big a deal. The shock was in facing --" Randall stopped, staring at Alethea in dawning realization. "Oh god. You saw --?"

"Um," Alethea said, "yeah."

"Shit." Randall buried his face in his hands. "Leeth, I can explain --"

Alethea shifted uncomfortably. "It's alright, Randall."

"I was young," Randall said desperately. "I was stupid, really stupid --"

"Randall," Alethea interrupted, "I know. I didn't just see ... it. I also saw all the guilt you carry around about it, and what you've done to make up for it. Really, seriously? It's alright."

"Please don't tell --"

"It won't leave this room."

Randall let out a long breath. "Thank you."

"... Don't mention it."

"By the Lady," Randall said softly. "Are you sure you want to keep casting this, Leeth? You'll have to go through this with everyone you help."

"Don't take this the wrong way, but it felt sort of ... liberating? ... seeing the skeletons in your closet." Alethea smiled sheepishly. "I'm curious now to see what other people beat themselves up over. I think I can do it without judging."

Randall stood and paced around the room. "I think I know what you mean. It's also liberating knowing that you've seen the worst of me and didn't run away screaming." He laughed. "But here I am obsessing over my little fears when the spell just changed my whole damn life."

Alethea climbed up into the folding chair at his workbench. "So what happened when we got started?"

"It felt like I was being pulled out of myself," Randall said. "Then I saw ... possibilities. I saw all these different mes, like looking in a funhouse mirror at just the right angle. And I knew, when I looked at one particular version of me, what was different about it -- both the good and the bad."

"That must be what brought up all the memories."

"Yeah. Make sure your other clients are prepared for that. I finally managed to focus on my original question, but as a mage I'm used to focusing my willpower despite distractions. Someone not ready for it could easily have gotten sidetracked for the spell's duration."

"I see what you mean," Alethea said. "I can meet with my clients a few times beforehand and teach them some focusing tricks. So what was so illuminating about the multiple Randalls?"

"It wasn't magic-for-a-paycheck holding me back -- it was the self-promotion! I found the me that would truly succeed as a consultant, and it was because he was good at aggressively selling himself. That change came at the expense of reducing virtues like humility and introspection. That's when I started sifting through the other variations nearby, and I found a solution whose tradeoffs were all positive."

"Awesome! What is it?"

"Go work for a magitech firm! They're always looking for folks with the right skills, the pay is good, and all it would take is enough momentum to actually quit my current job. So I chose a Randall like the old me but more open to risks and less submissive --"

"Wait, wait," Alethea said, jaw dropping, "you chose a new you?"

"Yeah," Randall replied, staring at her as if she had questioned that they were speaking English.

"You just picked a personality from the menu, like you were ordering dinner, and boom, that's you now?"

"It wasn't quite that miraculous," Randall said. "Just nudging existing characteristics around, emphasizing or nullifying various influences. I don't think I could have ended up with anyone who wasn't essentially me. But, yes -- I became a new Randall, and I felt the difference as soon as I made my choice."

"Jesus."

Randall walked over to Alethea and knelt at her side. "Leeth. Do this. Needless to say, I'm sold."

Alethea stared down at the chalk circle and shook her head. "I figured that out when your first reaction was to tell me ways to improve the spell. But it's still weird to hear you say it."

"Granted, this comes with a big grain of salt, because it's the new less-cautious Randall's advice, but even the old me couldn't deny the power of the spell any more. I saw what drives me, and I was able to shape that consciously." He stared intently into her eyes. "Someone with the honest drive to change themselves could walk in to you and fix their lives in the span of 20 minutes. Kick a self-defeating behavior pattern. Nullify a crippling fear. Abandon an addiction. This is a spell the world needs."

"Jesus," Alethea repeated. "You -- Randall -- are begging me to go cast Thoth's Mirror on strangers."

"I am."

"I don't know whether to be glad that I won you over, or afraid that I've unleashed a monster."


>>>
legend of hero

Sneak preview: LoH book bonus story #1

Edited to Add, 5/28: I'm really sorry for my radio silence. BayCon completely ate my brain and I've been playing catch-up since I got home. 'Change of Mind' will post hopefully Friday night. -B

Hey, folks, Baxil here. This is a news post: no story segment today.

I know I said I'd have something here on Monday night. I certainly didn't fail for lack of trying. I've written 6,000 raw words (for comparison, that would be 2-3 weeks' worth of Legend of Hero) in the last three days.

My dilemma is that, having written a lovely 3,500-word short story, I promptly realized that it would make great bonus material for when I assemble a printed copy of LoH. As such, the smart thing to do was hold it back.

I immediately started work on a second story -- a Writing Requests follow-up -- and as of press time Tuesday night it's about 85% complete. Which means I can't post that here yet, either. It should be written and edited by the end of BayCon, so I'll post it next Monday (5/25) as filler. No Thursday post: I'll be spending all evening either driving or editing the convention newsletter.

I had really been hoping to post that story tonight, but it'll be worth the wait. In the meantime, enjoy this teaser of the Legend of Hero dead-tree bonus story, which offers a look into the office of Trent's contact in Trent: Act II.



"And this," Elf said, opening the door, "is the office."

Penny stepped inside. Her first impression was that the spacious room was the bastard offspring of a college dorm's living room and an insurance office. Thrift-store desks with sprawling mounds of paperwork; black leather office chairs that still smelled of the store; a garish corkscrew green floor lamp with a pair of bat wings taped on. One entire wall was papered over with letters and what looked like celebrity photos, opposite a glass outer wall with a sliding door and an enormous balcony overlooking the Tenderloin. Three muted televisions fruitlessly flashed newsroom images in a desperate bid for attention; a silver bowl of salted cashews crouched temptingly next to the shiny "Elf Warren" nameplate on the central desk; and in the chair off to her right, a wolf -- not a wolf-woman, an actual canine -- was chatting animatedly into a headset.

"Right then," the wolf said into her microphone, "the new girl's here. Cheerio." She waved a paw and the light on the phone winked off. "Good afternoon, luv."

"Wow," Penny said, not sure how else to respond. "... Uh, is Mr. Redwing in?"

"Oh, Red's off at some press conference. But do make yourself at home. We're ever so glad you're safe."

"Thanks," Penny said. "I mean it. Thank you. I can't tell you how grateful I am. I don't know what would have happened to me if I'd stayed. Things were rough enough after The Meeting, but when they found out ..." She left the rest unsaid.

Elf gestured to the glass wall. "If you want to stretch your wings, I can key you to the balcony wards. You can take a flight before you settle in. You'd be surprised how many of your new coworkers commute in by air."

"Oh," Penny said, "no, no. Not now. Maybe later. Right now I'm still just taking all this in. It doesn't seem real yet, you know?"

The wolf chuckled. "I've been told we do have that effect."

"I mean it. Working for Dennis Redwing! The dragon who started the Changes, the mage who stopped the Los Angeles riots, the leader who stared down the whole government to save us --"

Elf waved her to silence. "You'll be taking it all in stride by your third bag of mail. Cashew?"


Full story will be available in print ...

legend of hero

Crissy: Act VI

Note: Some of the conversation here references the last time Crissy met the Archon. It might be useful to read that as a refresher.




The Sunlit World

The imaginary phone number on Crissy's business card no longer died in silence.

The first time she dialed it, a tinny automated voice said reassuringly: "Please hold while your party is contacted." Then the line dropped. Crissy held the phone handset uncertainly until the grating off-hook beep began to blare in her ear.

She hung up and looked around her room, but she was still alone. Thrown, she tried dialing it a second time. This time, the standard female recording entoned: "We're sorry, but that number has been disconnected or is no longer in service. Please check the number and try your call again."

Crissy did -- repeatedly, with no further change, and got progressively more antsy with each failure. She found herself tempted to go back to Kevin's -- but no, the Archon had given her some pretty specific directions. If you're not able to travel along with your friends, go home and wait in your room, and we'll talk further.

Finally, she gave up and opened her backpack for some schoolwork. She pulled out her American Government textbook, intending to work on the essay due Friday, but ended up distracted by Mrs. Henderson's brush.

Kevin's mysterious real-life video game had somehow brought forth Rosalind. Also inside was the Dragon Knight that David had met -- what was his name? Emile -- and thus presumably Dragon Legend 3's Lord Blue. Didn't that suggest that Reimi, the game's young angsty magical sketch artist, was also waiting to be discovered?

Maybe there was some real magic in the brush she had been given. The conversation with Mrs. Henderson, so soon before her lunchtime encounter, certainly didn't feel like coincidence.

Tentatively, Crissy picked up the brush and gestured through the air with it, the same way Reimi did in the game. Crissy didn't really expect anything to happen, and so it wasn't a shock that nothing did; but even so, she couldn't help but feel a twinge of disappointment.

She stared at the brush thoughtfully, then wiggled its tip up and down again. "Well, nobody ever said magic was easy."

But none of her experiments seemed to work -- not air-painting, not tracing letters, not geometric gesturing, not subtle motion. She even fished out one of the back issues of "Nintendo Power" that David had loaned her as a Dragon Legend art reference and started waving the brush to match one of its secret codes: Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right --

"Sorry," a voice said from behind her. "Earth doesn't let you stockpile extra lives."

Crissy turned. A college-aged man in a deliberately rumpled tieless suit was sitting on the corner of her bed. She would have described him as attractive yet forgettable, with a round, clean-shaven face whose lack of distinguishing features was itself almost notable.

"It's you again ... right?" Crissy asked, inwardly marveling at the calmness with which she was handling a complete stranger appearing in the middle of her bedroom. It had been, what, less than a month since the Changes and only a day since she had heard about Rosalind, and already she was taking all this in stride?

"Well-dressed," he said. "Yes. Sorry about the delay."

"It's alright, I guess," Crissy said. "It gave me time to fiddle with my new brush."

The Archon chuckled. "It's not going to do anything for you until you spend more time fiddling with what's in here." He gestured to his chest. "There's no magic in things except for what you threads put into them."

Crissy sighed. "I should have expected there would be some 'the power was inside you all along' moral. I -- wait. 'Threads'? Didn't you say that earlier, too? What are you talking about?"

"Yes. I -- hm. We do have a deal, right? It's easier to simply show you." The Archon reached out his hand.

"Yeah, okay." Crissy tentatively reached out to take it, and as her finger brushed his palm, the world exploded into light.

It was as if the substance had been scooped out of everything, leaving only the outlines -- squiggles of pretend-existence in a featureless white void. Her own arm was -- she was -- a single line, messy and sprawling but real, stretching out behind her to Kevin's house, to school, looping back around herself, stitching together the patterns of her life, weaving through the coils and kinks of her friends, her parents, her siblings off at college --

She saw all of them, then -- Dad at the wheel, enduring commute traffic back from the city; Mom annoyed at the poor quality of the grocery store's bell peppers; Sarah studying in the university library; Tom eating an early dinner in the dormitory -- and the thrashing knots of their own lines, the connections with yet more lines buzzing through, around, within the world like an anthill out to its own horizon, and in front of her, a billion tiny writhing threads, as if she was looking at the entire tapestry in a funhouse mirror --

She flinched backward, gasping, and the lines jerked and whirled back into familiar shapes, the room around her resolidifying. "You're --" she gasped.

And then he grabbed her hand again, squeezing her fingers, and somewhere in that sharp discomfort the command Watch -- then the explosion of lines, and as she flailed in fear, she felt her armlineself shift, guided, plucking Tom's line like a guitar string; and she watched him in a moment of distraction drop his fork.

Magic, another voice responded, her own, and she saw, and she knew.

Look at me, bade the voice from the tapestry -- from outside the tapestry? -- from the mirror, the billion threads guiding her own -- and she stared into the abyss of writhing humanity and saw -- and saw -- there, in the weave, a thread dancing loose from the center, its ends curling inward to form two spirals, orienting to face her, looking back at herself -- and the spirals blinked, and that broke the spell and the spirals resolved back into the eyes of Crissy staring into her face, and then she blinked again and it was the Archon, the servant, the jailer, and she knew that, she knew things, the taste of Tom's spaghetti and who the cop behind Dad was going to pull over and the cramp in the wing of the bird soaring down the block and what the "W" stood for.

She collapsed at his feet, trembling, wanting to cry but too overwhelmed, as all of the images and facts and possibilities in her head built up to a pressure beyond her contemplation, leaving only a shapeless and infinite awe and the knowledge of what she was capable of.

"I'm sorry," the Archon gently said, from both inside and outside her, and his voice pricked through her senses from two directions, and she thought she was going to burst into tears but instead just deflated.

The Archon -- the young man standing over her curled-up body -- cocked his head. "Sort of."

I do feel regret, Crissy mouthed, and "I do feel regret," the Archon said.

"Because I know you're about to feel betrayed," the Archon continued, pacing past her, "and that could complicate things."

But not guilt, Crissy felt herself say silently.

"But not guilt," the Archon said. "Because my duty is to the whole Weave."

Crissy shook her head, reasserted herself in her own skin, struggled for strength in trembling arms and pushed herself up to her elbows. "What the hell did you do to me?" she shouted, desperately clinging to her own voice.

"I fulfilled my end of the bargain: to help you find out for yourself what happened to your friends."

"What did you do?"

The Archon crouched down and tilted her chin up with his fingers. "I taught you magic."

Crissy flinched back. "No you didn't! I mean, you did, but that's not all you did."

Look, a voice in Crissy's head whispered, and the room blurred again, not disappearing but hiding behind the overlay of terrifying lines, and in the mirror of the Archon Crissy saw a tiny reflection of herself reflecting the reflection.

"You," Crissy said, losing a little ground in the fight to remember her body, words slurring, "you left a piece of yourself in me."

"No," the Archon said. "Cut bits of thread are useless. It's just a link -- an extension so that I can keep watch. The disorientation is already passing, and then you'll be all yourself again."

"Keep watch on what?" Crissy asked.

The Archon stood, turned his back and paced over to her bedroom window. "You know," he said, "teaching you magic was against my rules."

"Yeah," Crissy said, knowing that but already no longer able to remember how she knew.

"The singer" -- and an image of the Shadow King, the black unicorn, flashed into her head -- "reminded me of that." The Archon turned to face her. "He threw my first request back in my face ... and in so doing, showed me respect by deliberately pointing out something useful I'd overlooked. I'm still not sure how to feel about that."

Vertigo returned to Crissy. She staggered to her feet and lurched over to the wall. "Keep watch ... on the Shadow King," she said.

"And your friends, if you wish," the Archon said. "But I leave that up to you. They're just threads, after all."

Cut bits of thread are useless, the voice inside Crissy's head echoed, at the faint outer edge of her hearing.

Crissy's blood ran cold. "What," she asked slowly, "did you do to me?"

"I fulfilled our deal," the Archon said. "Then I found a violation of the tampering rules. I applied the standard punishment."

Crissy stared at him, speechless. Her memory flashed back to the first vision of herself: a single line, stretching backward but not forward --

And the last bits of her self fell back into place. Suddenly, the well-dressed young man was no longer there. He didn't vanish -- he was simply not there, hadn't been there for a minute or more. She had been talking to a reflection of the reflection of herself.

In a blind panic -- knowing, but desperately hoping she was wrong -- Crissy whirled and ran for her bedroom door.

She flung it open.

A warm blast of dusty air hit her in the face.






News: This act draws the Complications arc to a close. From here on out, it's into wild, uncharted territory ... as the last major character jumps on the plot train and the analogy speeds out of the station.

As for scheduling: Having reached the end of the immediate "story" (but not by any means the end of Legend of Hero!), it's time to pause and recharge before hurtling forward into Arc 5. There will be something here on Monday night -- probably a related TTU short story.

Also note that with BayCon coming up, I will be taking a convention break for the last two updates of May. Things will really get hopping the first week of June.

legend of hero

Trent: Act III

The Sunlit World

"He's doing this?!" Trent's jaw dropped.

"That's what I think. The way magic works, it would be odd to find someone without conscious control of their power. Odd ... but not unknown. He's clearly coming to grips with surviving something that should have killed him -- and his internal battle is taking the form of a game and its characters, since that's the framework in which magic makes sense to him."

"... Wait. You're saying the Shadowlands themselves are inside Kevin's head?"

"More or less, in some metaphysical sense, yes."

"But if they're not real," Trent protested, feeling a little weird to be on the other side of the argument, "how did the fish-bull nearly kill me?"

"If it is inside Kevin's head -- and remember I could be wrong, but that explanation makes everything make sense -- then anything inside would be able to influence your brain in a virtually unlimited number of ways. Make you feel pain or fear, make you feel like you're dying, look and sound like anything he could dream up. But it would only be an illusion. Look -- remember the healing potion you mentioned?"

"Yeah ..."

"Any physical injury that took place inside this illusion wouldn't be reflected in the real world, and if you came back while hurt or dead, then waking up whole would shatter your belief in his world. That's why you found the potions -- Kevin's subconscious realized it had to justify you guys returning to normal before exiting. And admit it, clothes-healing potions don't make much sense otherwise."

"You're right," Trent said, surprised. "... And you've never heard of the Shadowlands except from me?"

"No."

"Hmmm." Trent considered. "Two things don't make sense. First, if it's in Kevin's head, how are David and I getting in?"

"If his subconscious is powerful enough to create worlds, I don't see why it wouldn't be able to share them. And if you were Kevin," Elf said, "wouldn't you be scared of this strange and powerful force appearing in your life? It only makes sense that as he tries to come to terms with it, he'd call on his best friends for help. He probably doesn't feel strong enough to explore his issues on his own."

"Alright, I'll buy that. Second, if this started with the accident and Rosalind, how come we're only seeing the portal and everything weeks later?"

"Well ..." Elf said, thinking. "His first manifestation was to save his own life, and then nothing happened until yesterday. I'd guess it only comes out in high stress. Did he have to deal with any strong emotional triggers before he called you over to use the pendant?"

"Oh my god!" Trent said, floored. "How did you know? He almost got beat up at school yesterday! And when we talked about Rosalind later, he freaked out and ran home crying."

"Well," Elf said, "there you go."

"My god," Trent repeated.

"Let me get your number, Trent," Elf said. "Just in case -- in the unlikely chance -- there is something more to this, I can keep an ear out and call you back."

"Sure thing." Trent rattled it off. "Hey -- assuming this is in Kevin's head, should I go back in?"

"If you do, you have to remember it's only dangerous to the extent that you accept it on its terms," Elf said. "And who knows? Maybe you can help Kevin find what he needs to face in order to accept himself."

"So ... yes."

"Well ... maybe. You might also learn things you'd rather not know, or have to face up to your own fears. Just because it's not physically dangerous doesn't mean it can't leave scars. But from everything you've described, it's worth your time to consider. He's let you and David in his head. If anyone in the world can help him, it's you two."

Trent pondered. "I'll tell you, the in-his-head thing makes a hell lot more sense than anything else I've heard. And I am curious to go back -- it was a pretty incredible place we saw. I just don't want anything bad to happen for the sake of a made-up world, not when there's real magic to chase now, here on Earth."

Elf chuckled. "And how is the magic in his head not real?"

Trent opened his mouth and stopped, stunned. "Huh?" He'd expected to hear that from Kevin, but ...

"Magic is about changing reality via the application of willpower," Elf explained. "The change in your lives is every bit as big as if Kevin had learned to throw fireballs or teleport. By definition, any place that can have that sort of impact is real ... whether it exists or not." He paused, and spoke a little quieter. "And keep in mind -- if his subconscious is trying to teach him magic, that's one hell of an opportunity for you, too!"

"It is?"

"It doesn't matter if that 'fantasy' world is inside someone else's head -- because magic's not in anything you get there, it's inside you. Learn how to change the Shadowlands, and those skills should have some direct application to our 'real' Earth."

Trent lowered his head. "You're right. And all this time I've been telling them it didn't matter. I think I owe Kev and Dave an apology."

"I'll leave that to you," Elf said. "Now, I do have some calls to make, so I hope you'll excuse me."

"Yeah," Trent said. "Thanks. Thank you a lot."

"No problem," Elf said. "Good luck. And let us know how it goes."

"I will." Trent listened to the phone on the other end fall dead, then thumbed off his handset and let out a long, slow breath.

In the silence, he heard muffled talking on his porch.

Curious, Trent got up. It was Kevin and David -- he recognized their voices. He tiptoed to the front door, leaned in, and put his ear against it.

"Look, just let me do all the talking," Kevin said. "We don't know if he's still mad at you."

"But you still haven't met Emile or Joix," David said. "He needs to hear about them."

"We'll take that as it comes. The important thing is to get him to realize we can take care of ourselves."

Trent stepped back and opened the door, guiltily. Kevin and David, facing each other, both glanced over at him in surprise.

"Hey," Trent said meekly. There was an awkward silence.

"Trent," David burst out, "I'm sorry! But please listen --"

Kevin turned to face Trent and elbowed David in the ribs, cutting him off. "Look, you're probably still upset," Kevin said placatingly. "You have every right to be --"

"It's okay," Trent said, raising his voice to interrupt Kevin. "Guys, really, it's okay. I'm the one who owes you an apology. For everything. I freaked out, and you didn't deserve that. I'm sorry."

The porch fell back into awkward silence.

"Um," David said. "Me too."

"Well," Trent said, smiling in an attempt to lighten the mood, "I'll accept yours if you accept mine."

"And I owe you an explanation," Kevin ventured, looking down. "I promised you one from the beginning, and every time I start we've gotten distracted."

Trent thought back over his talk with Elf. If it was in Kevin's head -- and it really did seem to be -- would it make it better or worse to bring that fact out into the open? He decided to tell them about his phone calls later, after he'd sorted everything out. "Yeah," he said. "The Shadowlands do seem pretty interesting. I'd love to hear it."

"Interesting doesn't even describe it," David blurted. "You've got to see --"

"David!" Kevin said sharply. "There will be time for that later. He deserves the whole backstory first." He turned to Trent. "We're not going to demand you do anything. But David has shown me some incredible stuff in there, and I think once you hear everything we've learned and done, you'll want to join us in there again."

"I bet I will," Trent said. He ushered his friends in and closed the door.

legend of hero

Trent: Act II

The Sunlit World

Trent dialed the fourth number, wondering just how long it was worth persisting.

The Pitt Creek news editor had referred him to the state paper. The reporter there didn't know either, but had given him the number of a friend at the New York Times. Raul Espinoza had listened to his question and tried to transfer him to the Lifestyle editor, but their phone system had dropped the line and Trent had had to call back in.

Once Trent finally got through, Julia Nussbrenner listened patiently to his flustered question.

"Talking to Dennis Redwing?" she said. "The world's first dragon. Without even counting everything he's been involved in since, that is a pretty tall request."

"Yeah, it is," he said heavily. "Sorry to waste your time."

"Hang on," she said as Trent was reaching for the hang-up button on the handset. "I didn't say you were. Can you tell me why you want to talk to him?"

"Ah," Trent stammered. "I-is this going to be in the newspaper? I don't think that's a good idea."

"No -- this can be off the record if you just need information. I meant in general terms, to give me an idea of how important this is."

"Well," Trent said cautiously, "my friends and I have a little problem, with something that it seems like he might be able to tell us something about, and I don't know who else to call."

"Magic, then? Or has someone turned into a werewolf?"

"It's weird. I'm not sure how to answer that. Let's say magic."

"Well," Julia suggested, "if you just want to talk to an expert about magic, that would make it a lot easier for you. We ran a special business section last week with listings -- I can look up one in your area. What ZIP code are you in?"

"N-no!" Trent said. "A local mage might not be a good idea. That might be the problem. It's hard to say."

The line went silent for a few seconds. "Alright then," Julia said, "I'll tell you what. I don't want to get your hopes up, but when I first tracked him down for a quote, his office manager gave me their number. He made a point of telling me that -- while they didn't want it publicized -- I should give it out to anyone that seems to need it."

"Are you serious?" Trent asked, heart pounding.

"I have no idea what counts as 'need.' I mean, what do I know about dragons? But if you've gone this far to get his number, maybe that means something to him."

"I don't know if this counts, either, but I swear to God I'll be responsible with the number."

"Let me warn you that you're probably not going to get through. They screen their calls. But it's worth a try, right?" Julia recited the number to Trent; it was in the San Francisco area code.

"Thank you," Trent said. "You don't know how much that means. Thank you."

"Good luck," Julia said before Trent hung up.

He bit down some nervous jitters and dialed the final number.

The phone rang twice. "Redwing's office. Elf speaking."

"Um," Trent said, surprised to be talking to a live person, "is he in? I had hoped I could get his help."

The high, fluid male voice shifted tone, becoming more gentle and personal. "You can tell me anything you would tell him. I'll see what we can do. Can I ask who I'm speaking with?"

"My name's Trent," the teenager responded, embarrassed. "I'm really sorry for bugging you guys. I'm just trying to understand something really weird that happened to one of my friends."

"Well," Elf said brightly, "we know from weird. I'm an elf, my boss is a dragon, I'm sitting two chairs down from a talking wolf, and our combined magical experience is probably older than you are. What's going on, Trent?"

The voice was just so trustworthy, and Trent was so tightly wound from the string of calls, that he started shaking with relief, and found his whole story spilling out. Elf listened patiently, interjecting occasional affirmations or questions.

"I don't know how you can believe me," Trent said as he wrapped up. "I'm having a hard time believing it myself."

"The one thing I can guarantee, Trent, is that I know you're sincere. Did whoever gave you this number tell you about our screening system?"

"No."

"Dennis is, I can say with some understatement, a celebrity. People find this number in a variety of ways, and there are a lot of calls not worth picking up. Autograph seekers. Death threats. Hoaxes. The mentally unhinged. Tabloid rumormongers. Product endorsements. The short of it is, we'd go insane if we had to deal with all of that, so our phones don't even ring unless the call is on the level and worth our time."

"Wow! How do you do that?"

Trent could hear the grin in Elf's voice. "Magic, obviously. We shouldn't get sidetracked with the details. But I will say this: If the venture capitalists figure out how to properly integrate magic and technology -- and they're working on it -- you could see this sort of call screening in your living room within a few years."

"That's incredible!" Trent said. "But ... um ..."

"About your problem, yes." Elf paused. "I hope you don't mind, but I took the liberty of scanning you for etheric links while we were talking. Normally, I'd ask for permission even for that, but I didn't do anything invasive, and if I'd waited for you to confirm, anyone eavesdropping might have been able to break away."

"That's fine," Trent said, not even certain what scanning for etheric links involved.

"I didn't pick anything up. So if a mage is behind this, they're either covering their tracks really well or they're doing all this without magically monitoring you. Either of those would be an absurd level of effort for the effects you described."

"So," Trent said slowly, "does that mean it is a game?"

"Well. Game in the sense of mass-market entertainment?" Elf clarified. "No. Not even possibly. The sort of technology necessary to embed magic in an object is still crude, barely functional. I don't think it's an artifact from before the Changes, either. I've talked to literally hundreds of mages by now and I haven't heard a single credible report of an item that can do anything like what the pendant did."

"Then how --"

"Whatever it was, had to have been an active effect. A mage produced what you saw in real time, using the pendant as some sort of focus ... or distraction."

"So someone is messing with Kevin!"

"Not necessarily," Elf said carefully.

"I don't get it."

"Kevin is a big video game fan, isn't he?"

"Yes. We all are."

"And aside from the pendant -- which seems like a prop -- and the portal that can only be seen by the people Kevin gives the pendant to, there's no visible effect of any of this on the real world, right?"

"... Right," Trent said cautiously. "Except perhaps Rosalind."

"Who nobody else has seen. Right. I'd urge you to consider," Elf said, "that perhaps the car crash knocked some power loose within Kevin, something he doesn't understand and can't consciously control."





News: As mentioned over at baxil, Monday's post was suspended due to a mental health break. I was freaking out over some severe digestive system misbehavior and the extra few days of reduced obligation really helped me reorient. Thank you for your patience.

There are two more Acts left in the "Complications" arc ... at which point we'll be approximately at the 65,000 word mark, and my buffer of written-but-not-posted story will be exhausted. I'm going to see if I can keep going without interruption after next week, but it would also improve the quality of the story to pause for a while and properly plot and draft the next arc or two out. For the moment, I'll play it by ear and keep y'all posted here.
legend of hero

Deliciously Dangerous Swordsman: Act II

Hall of Heroes

"Ha!" the count cried, showing off a triumphant, toothy smile as Kevin thrust in. The light in the rapier's sapphire burst forth, turning the entire weapon a blazing blue.

Kevin felt his sword get swatted to the right before he even saw the rapier move. Staggering sideways to keep his balance, he fought to control his blade as it nearly leapt out of his hands. And the body in front of him was spinning, leaving behind a blue trail as the gleaming rapier danced away, and then --

"Touché!" the count cried. Kevin barely had time to flinch before he felt the guard of the rapier slam into his chest. Pain speared through him.

As the count yanked the bloody sword free, Kevin staggered backward, lost his balance and sat down with a tooth-rattling thump. He realized numbly that the blade had gone clean through his body.

"And now you see ze full extent of my glorious skill," the count gloated, bowing with a lengthy flourish. "Surrender, and I might accept your apology."

Several other things fought for Kevin's attention. The most pressing was that it hurt to breathe. But out of the corner of his eye, he saw that David -- curled up on the floor, jacket growing a red stain -- had managed to pull a healing potion from one of his pockets. Out of the other corner, he saw a fierce blue glow from the gem mounted in his sword. And in front of him, he noticed with a flash of morbid amusement, the feather on the count's hat was still on fire.

"Kevin!" David called. "Catch!"

Kevin turned his head in time to see David throw a vial of healing potion at him. He reflexively lifted his right arm -- new pain flaring out in his chest -- before realizing that he was still holding the sword. He tried vainly to open his hand up enough to catch the vial anyway, misjudged the throw, and felt the vial hit his arm.

The glass instantly shattered, as if it were thinner than his fingernail, and fizzing liquid splashed all over his body.

"Shit!" Kevin and David cursed simultaneously. But even as Kevin was scrambling to salvage the remains of the vial, he noticed that the liquid was being absorbed into his clothing. He felt a funny tingling in his chest, and a sudden coolness where the earlier shadowling scratches had been.

Kevin looked down. Fabric was knitting itself back together.

"Oh. No way. No way," David said, open-mouthed. "We can throw potions."

Kevin took a deep breath -- pain and adrenaline receding into an elusive vertigo -- and stood up. He narrowed his eyes at the winged shadow and leveled Diune's sword -- gem still flaring a brilliant blue.

The count sighed. "You sunlit whelps and your healing magic. Be that way. You are only prolonging ze inevitable end." He raised the rapier sideways again, gem pulsing back to life.

Kevin looked down at his own sword, gem outshining the shadow's. Insight hit him between the eyes. He smiled.

"You mean the end where we kick your ass?" Kevin asked. He heard thumping and cursing in the background as David tried to activate another vial of healing potion by whacking it against his body.

"Excusez-moi?"

"You heard me, Cheesy," he said. "You want a piece of me? You think one lucky shot makes you some sort of superstar?"

"Zat does not sounds like surrendering," the count said crossly. David gave up and uncorked his potion.

"Come try that again," Kevin taunted. "I want to see which is worse -- your swordsmanship or your taste in clothes."

The count slowly brought his sword in line with Kevin. "Such appalling manners," the shadow said. "Almost as poor as your defense. You'll regret them both."

Kevin thrust his hand out, lowering his sword to a sideways line. He visualized energy flowing from his body into his sword -- as David had showed him while he was trying to figure out his special moves earlier -- and felt the gem almost grab it, devour it, coiling it up like a snake ready to strike. Kevin grinned madly, light-headed, the hilt of the sword almost seeming to pulse in his hand.

The count beat his wings, surging toward Kevin blade first, and Kevin let control of that energy go. His body flew into motion, as if it was being moved like a puppet.

He heard the clash of metal as his hand twisted and his arm whipped sideways -- Diune's blade catching the rapier and flinging it away. The world spun around him as his body twisted toward that arm, sidestepping and pulling the pommel of the sword in close to his body. The count spun back into view, trying to bring his rapier back in line, and Kevin's feet caught and shoved, launching him forward as his sword arm extended. Kevin felt his bodily control return, just in time for his hurtling form to slam fully into the count, who staggered backward with a heavy wheeze.

As he also fell back, Kevin tightened his grip on his sword, and felt it slide free of something soft and yielding.

Kevin sat down again, head spinning. He stared at the count, who was picking himself up from the floor, looking down in horror at a huge black stain on his cheery green shirt.

"Ah!" the count said, touching his wound with his left hand. "Inconceivable!"

"Kevin!" David said, grabbing him under the arms and hauling him to his feet. "Did he hit you again?"

"I don't think so," Kevin said, looking at his sword. The gem was dark once more.

"My consummate swordsmanship has failed me!" the count said. "Against such a ... rude little child!" He narrowed his eyes at Kevin and pointed an accusing finger. "You ... you ..."

"Yes?" Kevin said, settling back into a fighting stance, heart pounding exuberantly.

"You haven't seen ze last of me!" the count said, whirling and spreading his wings. "You'll regret this!"

The shadow leapt, wings beating, and circled through the air above the pool. Kevin and David watched the flaming feather on its hat spiral up, then dive toward a wall out of reach of the ramps in the upper half of the chamber. A section of the wall faded into a black square just in time for the form to fly through, and then the portal disappeared again with a quiet pop.

David raised his fist. "Alright! That was awesome!"

Kevin let out a whoop, high-fiving David and then pumping his fist in the air. "Kevin learns Counter!"

"Didn't I tell you this game kicked ass?"

legend of hero

Deliciously Dangerous Swordsman: Act I

Hall of Heroes

"So much for having killed the level boss," Kevin muttered, shifting into a defensive stance and raising his sword toward the shadow.

"Shadow King?" David asked. "Kevin, I thought you said Eversor had killed their leader?"

"Non! A mere pretender to ze throne!" the shadow scoffed, folding his wings inward and straightening his hat. "Our true king has, shall we say, an understanding with the dragon."

"So what does that make you?" David cracked, eyeing the shadow's bright yellow boots, sky-blue pantaloons, jet-black belt, and green frilly shirt. "The court jester?"

"D-- Scipius!" Kevin said, remembering just in time David's bright idea to use an alias inside the game. "Don't antagonize the boss."

"I will ignore your faux pas," the shadow said with a flourish of his hand, "because I am a gentleman of high breeding and consummate generosity. My name --" and he stood straight and clicked his heels together, rattling off a rehearsed barrage -- "is Count Ronaldo Alphonse Belacardi du Guillemet, Second Lord Saprostomous von Fromage."

Kevin, despite himself, had to stifle a giggle. David, who was also taking first-period French, burst into incredulous snickers.

The shadow narrowed his white eyes. "What?"

"You can't be serious," David said, laughing. "We're about to fight Count von Cheese?"

"Scipius!" Kevin protested, but couldn't hold back a smile.

"Impertinent whelp!" the count snapped. His hand whipped down to his belt, where he grabbed the handle of an ornate, thin rapier that had a large sapphire like Kevin's woven into the filigreed bell guard. He drew his sword with a clear shing -- and a straining of fabric as one end of his belt caught in the guard, puling taut right before the end of the sword cleared its sheath.

"Merde!" he muttered. As the shadow struggled to pull the sword free, the belt buckle came undone; with one final yank, the rapier came free and the belt end snapped back, retracting through the buckle before catching on the last hole. The count's pantaloons fell to his boots, revealing skinny black legs and white boxers dotted with delicate red hearts.

David doubled over in laughter, leaning on his staff. Kevin laughed out loud before clapping his free hand over his mouth, and stood there, stomach shaking with the effort of holding it in.

The count looked down, glared at the teenagers, then -- with as much dignity as he could salvage -- yanked his pants back up and readjusted the belt with one hand.

"Oh, man," David said, trying to steady himself. "We found the joke boss! I wish Trent were here."

"We will see who has the last laugh," the count said, swishing his rapier through the air. "The Shadow King will bring a new age of glory to ze Shadow Kingdom, and no mere rebel scum shall stand in his way. I was sent here to capture you, but first I think it is time to teach you a lesson." The sapphire on his sword gleamed, and he whipped the rapier in an arc out to his side, the blade leaving behind a brief blue afterimage. The count dipped forward stiffly in a brief bow.

"Whatever, dude," David said, whacking the base of his staff on the ground. "Fire." Flames erupted around his gem, then atop the count's hat.

"Fire?" the count asked, throwing back his head in a laugh. "Ha ha! Quel dommage. My lovely chapeau makes me immune to your pitiful flames."

Kevin stared at the burning hat. "Um ..."

The count narrowed one eye. "What?"

The flames on the hat died down, leaving only the feather ablaze. A thin wisp of black smoke curled up from it as it continued to burn. "Nothing," Kevin said.

David shrugged. "I get it. No fire. We can do beatings too."

The count grinned. "Ah, so you think to face me in a duel, then? Even though my consummate skill at ze rapier is legendary throughout four and a half continents. Perhaps there is some spirit in ze rebellion after all."

"Sure." David pointed. "Sic 'em, Rathgren."

"What?!" Kevin squeaked.

"Just roll with it. You'll be fine."

Kevin glanced back and forth between David and the shadow. "Um, Count? Could I trouble you to give us a few seconds here?"

The shadow bowed low. "I am a gentleman of honor. If we are to duel I would not wish you to face me unprepared. After all, my patented, inimitable Von Fromage Consummate Self-Defense Technique is invincible."

Kevin turned to David and lowered his voice to an agitated whisper. "Would you shut up before you get us into real trouble? It's already going to be hard enough for us to run away now that you've pissed him off! What's gotten into you?"

David let out an exaggerated sigh. "Game logic, Kev. Stay with me here. Didn't you just agree five minutes ago that this has to be an RPG?"

"Well, yes, but --"

"He's got some cheap arbitrary protection against magic," David whispered, "so this is clearly meant to be the one-on-one duel where you find your inner strength and realize you can take care of yourself."

"Or maybe this is the unwinnable boss fight where we get beat down to show how far we still have to go. Or maybe this is where we get captured so the real heroes can rescue us."

"They wouldn't do 'unwinnable' without our whole party, and it's too early in the game for a jail sequence. Besides, epic sword fight. Come on."

"I don't think I'm supposed to be the swordsman, though," Kevin whispered. "All I can do is swing this around like a doofus. I didn't even get to pick out a weapon like you two did. This is Diune's."

"You unlocked a gem setting on it. And it's the legacy of your fallen mentor. That has Plot written all over it."

"Listen. Seriously, David. We should run and get Trent."

"Kevin," David whispered, grabbing his friend's shoulders, "You. can. do. this. He's the joke boss, Kevin. Red heart underpants! And I've got healing potions, just in case. Don't back down now."

"Whenever you're ready," the count called out.

Kevin sighed. "You'd better be right." He turned and stepped forward, blade up. "Let's do this, I guess."

The count pulled the rapier tip back, holding the blade in a horizontal line in front of him. The gem in the hand guard flashed to life and held a steady blue glow. "En garde!"

Kevin felt a surge of panic at the gem activation. He was outclassed. "Are you sure?" he asked David, arm trembling.

"I'm sure" David said, exasperated. "He's completely harmless."

Kevin bit his lip. "Okay." Game logic. Game logic ...

"Harmless?" the count spat at David. "You want to see harmless, you ill-mannered brat?" And with a flurry of wings, his body was in motion.

Kevin reflexively ducked backward as the bright colors of the shadow hurtled his way. But the count swept right by him, lunging at the surprised David. There was a quiet squelch as the rapier blade punched through his jacket and into his gut. The shadow yanked the sword back out, blade red with blood, and hurtled backward in a wing-aided leap to square off against Kevin again.

"C'est bon!" the count said smugly. "Now it can be a proper duel."

"David!" Kevin cried.

David staggered backward and his legs gave out. He landed heavily on his knees. "Ow!"

"You and your joke bosses," Kevin muttered. A single-hit takedown, right through their new armor. He had called it -- they were in serious trouble. But it was too late to do anything about it now except hope for the best.

Kevin leapt forward, swinging his sword at the shadow. "Take this, Cheesy!"